History does not repeat itself, but it does rhyme.
The remark above is attributed to Mark Twain without any evidence. Who said it remains a mystery, but we are living it in the 2016 elections.
The first time we saw this movie was in the election of 1824. Playing the part of the modern Indian fighter Donald Trump was the second most famous Indian fighter in history after Custer, Andrew Jackson.
Jackson was the Donald Trump of his time, considered by establishment politicians to be uncouth and ignorant, and what happened to Jackson in the 1824 U.S. Presidential election is precisely what the elders of the Republican Party propose to do to Trump.
The Electoral College split with 99 votes for Jackson, 84 for Secretary of State John Quincy Adams, 41 for Secretary of the Treasury William Crawford, and 37 for Speaker of the House Henry Clay. The 12th Amendment provides that in the absence of a majority in the Electoral College, the top three candidates are in front of the House of Representatives for a decision. This somewhat mitigated the conflict of interest in Clay presiding, since Clay was out of it by coming in fourth.
Clay threw his support to Adams, who subsequently appointed Clay Secretary of State; a result Jackson claimed was a “corrupt bargain.” “Corrupt bargain” became the battle cry of the 1828 election, which Jackson won going away.
Fast-forward to 2016, and the Republican establishment is reacting to the electoral success of Donald Trump in the same way the Democrat-Republicans reacted to Jackson. The “donor class” of the GOP has been having dump Trump meetings ever since Super Tuesday and an anti-Trump super-PAC advertising campaign has gone up, with no discernable impact.
When Jackson became president in the face of a similar propaganda offensive by the establishment, he focused on the project of moving all Indians who maintained tribal relations west of the Mississippi. In pursuit of that project, the semi-literate Jackson became an indirect author of two of the three legs of the stool on which federal Indian law was built, Cherokee Nation v. Georgia and Worcester v. Georgia.
The indirect implication of the Worcester case was that the Cherokee removal—which would turn into the Trail of Tears—was unlawful. The case was such a dead letter to the Jackson administration that even the named party did not benefit from victory. Samuel Worcester, a Baptist missionary prosecuted for living in the Cherokee Nation contrary to a Georgia law, didn’t even get out of jail.
Jackson is reputed to have said of Federalist Chief Justice, author of the Worcester opinion, “John Marshall has made his decision—now let him enforce it.” The evidence for Jackson having uttered those words is nonexistent, but the fact on the ground was that Jackson ignored the Supreme Court.
It’s possible Jackson in fact delivered that remark just as it’s possible Mark Twain said history rhymes, but it’s beyond dispute that Andrew Jackson created the first stanza of the historical rhyme we are living when he captured a political party from a horrified establishment by appealing directly to the party’s base.
Peggy Noonan, head speechwriter for Ronald Reagan, wrote in The Wall Street Journal that we are watching the GOP “shatter.” More to the point, she warned, “Party leaders and thinkers should take note: It’s easier for a base to hire or develop a flashy new establishment than it is for an establishment to find itself a new base.”
George Will eviscerated The Donald in The Washington Post and went on to speak to his fellow Republicans: “Trump’s collaborators . . . will find that nothing will redeem the reputations they will ruin by placing their opportunism in the service of his demagogic cynicism and anti-constitutional authoritarianism.”
David Brooks, the conservative anchor on The New York Times editorial page, called Trump “an affront to basic standards of honesty, virtue, and citizenship….He is precisely the kind of scapegoating, promise-making, fear-driving and deceiving demagogue . . . (the founders) feared.”
John Kasich cannot win the Republican nomination before the convention, but his plan is to win it at the convention after nobody gets a majority on the first ballot.
Rafael “Ted” Cruz is running behind but it’s as possible Cruz could win on delegate count as it is that Bernie Sanders could do the same on the Democratic Party side—and about as likely. So the Cruz campaign is paying scrupulous attention to the rules committee and strategizing a floor fight for the nomination.
Erick Erickson of RedState.com advocates a third party if Trump wins, showing that some of the dump-Trumpers would throw the election to Hillary Clinton before allowing Trump to further tarnish the Republican brand.
Trump, the object of all this activity, called the 1,237 delegates needed for nomination a “very random number” (it’s a majority of the delegates available) and told CNN that if he comes to the convention with a plurality and is not nominated, “I think you would have riots.”
This would be another chronological rhyme, since New York newspapers referred to 1834 as the “riot year,” and the mobs the establishment blamed on President Jackson in fact rioted in many major cities. The rioters were anti-Catholic and anti-Irish rather than anti-Muslim and anti-Mexican, but to people injured or having their property destroyed, a riot is a riot.
1834 looked a lot like the urban riots in the run-up to the 2016 election. Civil unrest was everywhere. The biggest New York riot was anti-abolition (of slavery)—a race riot. Jackson the populist demagogue, riding half a dozen controversies in his second term, became the first president to use federal troops against labor in a dispute with management when he put down another 1834 riot disrupting the Chesapeake and Ohio canal project.
The “riot year” had many causes but Jackson was a political lightning rod, and his enemies considered civil unrest a price of electing an unqualified and dishonest hothead to run the country. Very like the unqualified and dishonest hothead who has the GOP in such a tizzy now.
He too is unqualified and dishonest and anti-Indian, because the legal doctrine of tribal sovereignty has disrupted his casino business as much as the same doctrine disrupted Andrew Jackson’s Indian removal policy.
In our times, the metaphor among Native Americans for Indian casinos has been “new buffalo,” for the prosperity they have brought to a few tribes. Should Trump the casino magnate be elected, a new stanza to the historical rhyme will see attempts to extinguish the new buffalo for the same reason the American bison was almost extinguished in the nineteenth century: to destroy American Indians as political actors.
The shooting part of the Indian wars ended in 1890 at Wounded Knee Creek, but 125 years later U.S. politics disgorges another semi-literate, uncouth, Indian-fighting demagogue. The nation will be fortunate if all he breaks is the Republican Party.
Steve Russell, Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, is a Texas trial court judge by assignment and associate professor emeritus of criminal justice at Indiana University-Bloomington. He lives in Georgetown, Texas.