At least three times in American history, we have elected presidents with radical, revolutionary agendas: Andrew Jackson in 1828, Franklin Roosevelt in 1932, and Donald Trump in 2016. The earlier two succeeded in changing American governance; Trump may or may not. Keeping control of Congress was, and is, essential to the success of such reforms.
All three were disliked by the self-appointed aristocrats of their day. “When Andrew Jackson ran for president in 1828, his opponents tried to label him a ‘jackass’ for his populist views and his slogan, ‘Let the people rule,’” says the Monroe County, Pennsylvania, Democratic Party website. “Jackson, however, picked up on their name calling and turned it to his own advantage by using the donkey on his campaign posters. During his presidency, the donkey was used to represent Jackson’s stubbornness when he vetoed re-chartering the National Bank.”
In “Traitor to His Class,” University of Texas Professor H.W. Brands focuses on the powerful surface tension of the older, do-little model of government the elite favored when FDR took office, and FDR’s robust response: “Throughout the nation men and women, forgotten in the political philosophy of the Government, look to us here for guidance and for more equitable opportunity to share in the distribution of national wealth,” Roosevelt said when he accepted the Democratic party’s nomination. “I pledge myself to a new deal for the American people. This is more than a political campaign. It is a call to arms.”
Jackson was thin-skinned and hot-tempered, aggressive and stubborn. He was not especially pleasant to be with, outside his family circle. FDR was graceful in his social gestures, generous and gracious in his manners. Clearly Trump has some unattractive manners and speaks impulsively, often using obnoxious language. He also seems to be very thin-skinned, and picks fights without ever having faced the direct physical combat, in duels or in war, that Jackson endured through his entire adult life.
Nevertheless, for better or worse, Trump too has a revolutionary agenda at odds with elite opinion. He is “a bull in a china shop”: aiming to upset the status quo as much as Jackson and FDR did. He is a “populist nationalist,” a description Jackson practically defined and Roosevelt followed in his earliest years as president. FDR had to take the wind out of the sails of more extreme nationalist populists to both his left and his right.
Why Mid-Revolution Midterms Matter So Much
It is close to impossible to establish a new “business model” of a government without enacting a series of new laws and appointing enough judges, government agency heads, and military officers to see the new laws carried out effectively. The prerequisite for passing new legislation and the approval of new appointees is effective continuous control of both the House and Senate for more than two years. In theory, an agenda might be achieved faster, but in practice, the electorate has to re-ratify the radical agenda before it can be completed.
So Trump needs to make the 2018 midterms his to lose or win. If he manages to wrestle China into a “better deal” on trade, if he gets his second Supreme Court nominee approved, and if he does not see the more-robust economy flatten, he has excellent prospects.
The entire future of the GOP rests on Trump’s ability to accomplish a major reform and reorganization of the government before he leaves office. This is something of a “scorched earth” approach: the bridges to the old GOP model are burned or blown up, so they can’t provide cover for a safe retreat. Either Trump succeeds, or the Republican Party, as we have known it, dies.
I think of radical revolution in government as similar to U.S. Grant moving the entire Union Army into Mississippi operating with zero lines of supply, and Vicksburg still holding control of the river access. Succeed or die. In that sense, if the more traditional Republicans don’t get behind the revolutionary transition, they are finished, whether they know it or not. All the Democrats would have to do is sit still.
At the same time, Trump is taking on his shoulders the risky job of satisfying the bulwark of the old Democrat voter base—the ones who elected FDR, Harry Truman, Lyndon B. Johnson, and Ronald Reagan. If he even halfway succeeds, the old idea of Democrats being able to count on a coalition of client minorities to add up to an effective majority goes right out the window.
So the stakes are higher, and both parties have much less margin for error than they realize. If Trump can get his timing right, hitting the electorate’s pressure points for maximum impact in mid-late October, all the polls in the world won’t matter much. He was lucky in October 2016, but by this November he needs to be seen to be on track and steady at the wheel.
Realignment Likely After a Radical Shift in Government
This year, Trump’s revolutionary agenda will face the voters for the first time since his election. It is no exaggeration to predict that the Republican Party could become extinct if it loses both houses of Congress, and will be creaking on its legs if only the House is lost.
Similarly, if Trump keeps control of both Houses, the Democratic Party is unlikely to rebuild on its old base of working-class voters, who kept voting Democratic for two decades after the party had abandoned them. Then it will be Democrats who will have to reinvent themselves.
At heart, Trump’s agenda is hostile to both parties, and to both parties’ abject sycophancy to the donor class for the past 26 years. Trump will never be a classical Republican. He tries to represent all the people, whether his reading of them is right or wrong. If he keeps his congressional majority, he will redefine “Republican” to mean “Trumpican.” No matter what happens, the old system of Dem-GOP lookalikes pretending to oppose one another will be finished.
There was only one U.S. political party in 1824, in “the era of good feeling” brought on during James Monroe’s presidency. All the presidential candidates were members of the same party. Although Jackson won the most electoral votes in 1824, it was not a majority, and in the post-election deal-making Henry Clay made John Quincy Adams president in return for being named secretary of state.
Jackson’s supporters were furious and motivated, so in 1828 there were two parties: the “Jacksonists: and the “Anti-Jacksonists.” Jackson won, and held on to a majority in both House and Senate in his first midterm elections in 1830.
By 1836, Anti-Jacksonists, former Federalists, and former outlier-party members had clustered together to form the new Whig Party. Meanwhile, the party of Jackson became the Democratic Party, as it has been ever since. This major realignment continued until the Civil War.
When FDR won in 1932, an entirely new majority was formed from labor, farm, and progressive voters. In his first midterm elections in 1934, FDR’s Democratic Party gained 9 Senate seats and 9 House seats. Democrats controlled the House for 58 out of the next 62 years, and the Senate for 52 of the 62 years until 1994.
These powerful realignments were the result of the agendas Jackson and FDR initiated when they were new presidents. Both maintained their congressional majorities in their first midterm elections, FDR resoundingly.
Atypical and Ferocious Because They Must Be
There can be no quarter given this year, no civility or softness that is not calculated to win voters’ sympathy. Republicans will fight tooth and nail because they face possible extinction. Democrats will be red in tooth and claw because they benefited hugely from the old status quo.
The upper Midwest is where Senate Democrats face their toughest challenge, where six sitting Democrat senators must run for reelection in six states Trump won in 2016, and two sitting Democrats must run for reelection in a state Trump lost by a whisker. See here for a detailed review of the odds based on Trump’s support levels in small-town and rural areas.
Minnesota and Wisconsin, in particular, should be hotly contested, with several competitive House seats and three Senate seats in play. Trump needs to put a big push in the upper Midwest. Democrats need to be much more enthusiastic and energetic to regain the trust of Midwestern working, middle-class, and farm families.
A loss of two Senate seats in the upper Midwest would be a good showing by Democrats this November. A loss of six seats might be devastating. The entire Trump Revolution can expand and flourish, or else be nipped in the bud, due to the outcome of this year’s midterms.