The first rule of dog whistles is: if you can hear them, you’re the dog.
Now, I don’t think there’s much disagreement that they’re the dog, over at racist sites like VDare and StormFront.
By way of a brief summary: Trump suggested that the Civil War may not have been inevitable, and that a president like Andrew Jackson – well, to be specific, Andrew Jackson himself – might have averted the war, if he had been in office at a different time. Jackson had rough ways but a big heart, and could perhaps have reconciled the people.
Is that a simplistic postulate? Sure. Myself, I think the Civil War was, in fact, inevitable, because the moral evil of slavery was the one thing the Republic’s mechanisms for political adjustment couldn’t handle. I know the other structural issues that drove the march to war, at least as well as anyone else does, and I don’t discount their proximate impact. But ultimately, the reason there couldn’t be compromise on those issues was that the price of compromise was postponing a reckoning on slavery – and that was intolerable, if not to men, then to God.
Plenty of people would be with me right up to that last clause. Hey, I could be wrong (although that last clause is the very one I, personally, would defend to the last ditch). There’s a world of nuance and unknowables here. Sensible historians have always recognized that it’s possible to disagree on the topic, even if most of them at a given time tend one way or the other. (Some thoughtful recent treatments here and here.)
That said, you wanna talk simplism, Media Matters for America has Trump beat all to smash. To hear MMFA tell it, there’s such a thing as one conclusive opinion on how inevitable the Civil War was, and all the best people hold it, exactly and to the letter. Not only besides which, Andrew Jackson was just awful. Awful. Get in the same Zip code as Andrew Jackson, and you might as well be in a dog-whistle echo chamber. It’s that bad.
An absurd position like this is not a credible one from which to criticize Trump for reductionism.
Meanwhile, accusing him of being in league with white nationalists because of how white nationalists would interpret what Trump says is a key method of Stalinism. Stalinism was all over the dog-whistle theory of political relations. MMFA’s brief against Trump could have been written by Lavrentiy Beria during the Terror.
But there’s another aspect of MMFA’s rant that is perfectly Stalinist, and that’s the furious denunciation-by-association of Andrew Jackson. It’s a political about-face of the kind Stalin’s paranoid, homicidal regime specialized in.
As little as a decade ago, Democrats and the American left celebrated Andrew Jackson, alongside Thomas Jefferson, as one of the founding fathers of their party. Jackson, in their narrative, was a populist, a man of the people, opposed to the rich fat-cats and the special interests. Jackson has been embraced and honored by the Democrats for most of the life of this country. Jefferson-Jackson Day Dinners have been staples of Democratic fundraising for decades.
Then the Democratic Party took its hard-progressive turn in 2008, and within a few years, state parties began quietly dropping their Jefferson-Jackson dinners. In Obama’s second term, we saw vandalism of Confederate war memorials, denunciation of Confederate graves in national cemeteries, and demonstrations in the streets demanding that statues of Civil War figures be removed, along with the names of men (like Jefferson and Jackson) who owned slaves, from school buildings and other institutions.
Today, if you’re a progressive, you have to spit and snarl when you say “Andrew Jackson.” Republicans don’t have this problem, because he was never a Republican figure. But you wouldn’t know that from the MMFA screed. MMFA has gone full Stalinist, apparently unable to write about Jackson in any way other than by invoking the evil positive sentiments harbored for him by organized white nationalists, which MMFA bends over backward to link to Trump – and implicitly dissociate the Democratic left from.
For the progressive left, Jackson has gone from being a complex, watershed politician who had a profound and multifaceted impact on America (something I would say of both him and FDR, although I like neither of them) to being a cartoon figure defined by the fact that some on today’s white nationalist fringe have a thing for him.
All that remains is for Andrew Jackson to have his reputation “rehabilitated” – by the next generation of progressives, in 25 or 30 years – and then the cycle of Stalinism will be complete.
It’s foolishly reductionist to assume that Trump, by meditating on history, is trying to rewrite it. (If he had said something more conventional, according to the lights of current theory, he would be accused of banality, and of having the shallow understanding of a fourth-grader. You know he won’t be given a fair shake on this one.) But ironically, the Media Matters faithful have taken up the “Trump’s rewriting history!” theme with a vengeance, piling on for all they’re worth even in unlikely places. See, for example, the opening comments at this MMFA post on the unrelated topic of May Day demonstrations:
It all seems kind of silly and sad, but it’s well to keep in mind that this mental habit of burbling sophomoric nonsense on cue is often what passes for being “educated” these days. These seem to be a gaggle of kids who know a few names, and a lot that isn’t so, but who don’t know the most important thing: that in their razor-thin orthodox certainties, they’re being led by the nose by the methods of Stalinism – at whose knee the German Nazis, in the 1920s and early 1930s, were acolytes, still learning the ropes.