Donald Trump has decided to summon the spirit of Andrew Jackson as support for his neo-populist approach to politics; he recently chose a portrait of Jackson to grace the Oval Office, and his chief strategist Steve Bannon called his inaugural address “very Jacksonian.” Presumably the new president doesn’t mean to claim for himself—at least not openly—the attitudes and policies for which Jackson is often excoriated today: his unquestioning acceptance of slavery and the racism on which it was based, and his harsh treatment of Indian tribes. Rather, it is Jackson’s connection to the ordinary people of America that makes the seventh president appealing to the 45th. What Jackson was to America in the 19th century, Trump proposes to be in the 21st.
As a historian who has studied Jackson at length, I say: Fat chance.
In truth, the two have little in common besides the distrust they have inspired in certain elements of the political elites of their day. Trump, whose approval rating on entering the White House was the lowest in history, enjoys nothing like the great positive sentiment Jackson evoked in the average Americans of his time. And what they loved most about him was that he really was one of them. Trump’s penthouse populism is a sham; Jackson’s was the real thing. Jackson’s father died before he was born; his mother died in his teens. Everything he achieved in life came through his own efforts. From Jackson dates the American belief that any boy could grow up to be president, for if Andy Jackson, the poor kid from the Carolina border country, could reach the White House, it must indeed be the case that talent, grit and honor could make up for the humblest beginnings.
Honor was crucial. Trump’s treatment of women would have earned him the disdain of Jackson, who dueled and killed a man for insulting his wife. Jackson was a thorough gentleman in all dealings with women; he considered his deceased mother a saint and his wife, Rachel, an angel. He defended the honor of Peggy Eaton, the spouse of his friend and war secretary, John Eaton, against the aspersions of many in Washington. Peg Eaton might not have deserved Jackson’s defense in the so-called Petticoat Affair, and the effort cost him politically. But he stood by her nonetheless. Had Trump been part of Jackson’s circle and been heard making the boasts Trump made to Billy Bush, Jackson would have run him out of town, possibly after a thorough caning.
Had Jackson heard Trump’s boasts to Billy Bush, Jackson would have run him out of town, possibly after a thorough caning.
Before becoming president, Trump held no public office and did nothing to demonstrate a commitment to public service. Jackson, before becoming president, spent much of his adult life in the service of Tennessee, his adopted state, and of the United States. He helped write the Tennessee Constitution and was a Tennessee circuit judge. He served in the U.S. House and Senate. He was the governor of Florida when it was a federal territory. Most conspicuously, he commanded the Tennessee militia and then U.S. Army troops in the War of 1812. Jackson’s victory over the British at New Orleans was the signal triumph for American arms between the Revolutionary War and the Civil War. Jackson was broadly acclaimed as second only to George Washington in the pantheon of American military heroes; generations of parents named sons after Jackson, often placing both his names before their own surname. Some people questioned Jackson’s politics, but no one questioned his courage or patriotism.
When Jackson was elected to the presidency in 1828, he won 56 percent of the popular vote, 12 points more than his opponent, John Quincy Adams. Trump in 2016 won a mere 46 percent of the vote, almost 3 points less than Hillary Clinton. At Jackson’s inauguration, the crowd that came to celebrate really was the largest such gathering in American history until then. His inaugural address was becomingly modest. “I shall keep steadily in view the limitations as well as the extent of the executive power,” he declared at the Capitol. Then he rode the wave of their excitement to the White House, where he threw a reception for all who chose to join him
Trump has cast himself as the indispensable man. In his acceptance speech at the Republican convention, he described a broken political system and declared, “I alone can fix it.” Yet little in Trump’s career gives confidence that he knows enough about the system to make even a start on fixing it. No corporate head—and probably not Trump himself, for his own firm—would think of hiring someone with as little job-relevant experience as Trump brought to the presidency.
Jackson, by contrast, was the indispensable man. At a moment when South Carolina threatened to secede from the Union over a tariff, Jackson made clear that secession meant war. He ordered his secretary of war to ready the troops, and he prepared to deal personally with the leaders of any secessionist movement. “Please give my compliments to my friends in your state,” he told a visiting South Carolina legislator,“ and say to them that if a single drop of blood shall be shed there in opposition to the laws of the United States, I will hang the first man I can lay my hand on engaged in such treasonable conduct, upon the first tree I can reach.” Jackson’s steely response kept other states from joining South Carolina, and after a face-saving compromise on the tariff, the crisis passed.
One shudders to envision how Trump would handle a similar crisis, these days more likely in foreign affairs than domestic. Jackson’s threat was believable because he had led armies in battle and had faced enemy fire; nothing in the Trump record provides even a smidgen of such credibility.
In the name of the people, Jackson took on the Bank of the United States, the dominant force in American finance. Perhaps Trump will go after Wall Street with similar vigor, though the billion-dollar Cabinet he has put together would suggest the opposite. Jackson’s example in this area might be one to avoid: His defeat of the bank triggered a financial panic that wound up hurting the very people he hoped to help.
The most outrageous aspect of the Trump-Jackson analogy is the most basic. Jackson was the president who, more than any other, secured the future of democracy in America. The pre-Jackson era was the Augustan age of presidents, with George Washington being the model but his successors wearing the same mantle of aristocratic preferment. For the quarter-century before Jackson, presidents essentially anointed their successors: Thomas Jefferson chose James Madison, Madison chose James Monroe, Monroe chose John Quincy Adams. By frustrating Adams’ bid for reelection, Jackson broke the mold. He became president at a time when states had abandoned their property requirements for voting and stopped insisting on long residency. Jacksonian democracy fell short of today’s model; few women or African-Americans could vote. But by enfranchising nearly all adult white males and not just those who owned property, it represented a huge step forward from the unabashed elitism of the 18th century.
Trump, far from championing democracy, has dealt democracy grievous blows—apart from taking office after not coming close to winning the popular vote. Before the election he prepared for defeat by predicting that the results would be rigged. Even since winning the Electoral College vote—and being sworn into office—he has continued to insist the election was rigged. On no evidence, he alleges massive voter fraud. Further, by waging war on the media, Trump fosters a culture common in authoritarian systems in which ruling regimes assert a monopoly on truth. He appears to think that if he repeats even the most thoroughly debunked allegation often enough, it will be accepted as fact. And why shouldn’t he believe this? His obdurate denial that Barack Obama was born in the United States launched his political career. It is hardly out of the question, given what we have seen of Trump, that should he lose the 2020 election, he will blame it on voter fraud. What then? Refuse to vacate the White House? This is the kind of thing dictators do, not presidents of the United States.
If Trump has the slightest political conscience or historical sensibility, he should begin at once to show that he deserves to share an office with Jackson. Instead of undermining Americans’ faith in democracy, he should do whatever he can to bolster it. As long as he doesn’t, he seems more likely to be the bizarro-Jackson than the real thing—not the vindicator of democracy, but the agent of its demise.