Photo by Jamelle Bouie (https://www.flickr.com/photos/jbouie/20825230264/)

Donald Trump Is Not a Twenty-First Century Andrew Jackson

by Mark R. Cheathem

During the recent presidential campaign, numerous pundits and even some scholars drew comparisons between Republican candidate Donald Trump’s unorthodox campaign and those of Andrew Jackson in 1824 and 1828. For example, Politico’s Andrew Saunders argued that any Republican attempt to deny Trump the nomination threatened to strengthen him for a 2020 presidential run, much like Jackson successfully sought revenge in 1828 for the “stolen” election of 1824.[1] Psychologist Dan P. McAdams observed about the two candidates, “Nearly two centuries ago, President Andrew Jackson displayed many of the same psychological characteristics we see in Donald Trump—the extroversion and social dominance, the volatile temper, the shades of narcissism, the populist authoritarian appeal.”[2]

The gist of these many comparisons was that, like Jackson, Trump was a wealthy candidate using populist rhetoric to tap into an American voting populace angry with politics-as-usual. The standard argument was that the people were overthrowing “the Establishment” in order to express their will about how to make American great again.

Since the election results were announced in early November, the Trump-Jackson comparisons have continued, with Trump’s inner circle embracing them to further the argument that their candidate and Jackson were populist leaders motivated solely by their desire to help the American people. Former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani, for example, compared Trump’s November victory to that of Jackson in 1828. “This is the people beating the establishment,” he told MSNBC host Chris Matthews. “And that’s how [Donald Trump] posited right from the beginning, the people are rising up against a government they find to be dysfunctional.”[3] Trump strategist Stephen Bannon, meanwhile, promised, “Like [Andrew] Jackson’s populism, we’re going to build an entirely new political movement.”[4]

Certainly, Trump and Jackson share some similarities. As National Public Radio’s Steve Inskeep noted, both men looked to disrupt the traditional political system by styling themselves outsiders. Conspiracy thinking also undergirded both men’s mind-sets and affected their politics. Trump spent years pursuing the “truth” regarding Barack Obama’s birth certificate, while Jackson used his belief that the 1824 election had been stolen from him to propel his campaign four years later. Both Jackson and Trump understood the importance of media as well. Old Hickory used newspapers to his advantage, and no one can question Trump’s belief that his message is best spread via the more modern media platform of Twitter.[5]

Both Jackson and Trump also ran on campaigns to weed out corruption in government. On this count, the comparison produces mixed results. While Trump has yet to take office, early indications are that his promise to “drain the swamp” of Washington corruption has fallen by the wayside.[6] He has refused to divest himself of his business dealings to avoid the conflicts of interest that come with the presidency. His children, who will oversee operation of Trump’s businesses while he is running the country, are close advisers. Many of his cabinet appointees are billionaires like Trump and, also like Trump, have ties to various companies and nations that present conflicts of interest. His request for the names of Department of Energy workers who support climate change also smacks of an administration that might seek political loyalty over experience and expertise.[7] It remains to be seen if Trump’s promises to root out government corruption were genuine or simply pandering to anti-establishment sentiment among voters.

Jackson’s administration faced its own questions about corruption. He appointed an official cabinet of political supporters and one close friend, Secretary of War John H. Eaton, and also relied on the assistance of an unofficial circle of advisers, including a nephew. Henry Clay called Jackson’s official cabinet “the compound of embicility [sic], tyranny and hypocrisy,” while other critics seized on the term “Kitchen Cabinet” to emphasize the behind-the-scenes maneuvering of the president’s informal advisers.[8] Upon taking office, Jackson proceeded to replace government appointees in what he called “rotation in office” (appointments based on honesty and ability). His critics, though, called it the “spoils system” (appointees based on political loyalty). Historians, however, have generally defended Jackson on the point of corruption. During his eight years, for example, Jackson replaced a percentage of officeholders comparable to his predecessors.[9] Moreover, in one of his most important political battles, he fought the Second Bank of the United States, a national financial institution that he deemed corrupt. In these cases, Jackson more often than not placed national interests over his own.

Another comparison, grounded in inaccuracy, has also been made about those who voted for Trump and Jackson. Many commentators on the 2016 campaign proposed that Trump’s support came from angry voters, whether small-government Tea Partiers, disaffected rural voters, or disgruntled blue-collar workers, who wanted him to “drain the swamp.”[10] J. D. Vance’s book, Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis, which outlined the author’s life as a “hillbilly” from the Rust Belt town of Middletown, Ohio, received a lot of attention in the latter regard.[11] Vance’s memoir sought to understand and explain white working-class voters and their anger toward the elitist class and its government. As Joshua Rothman pointed out in his review of the book, “The name Trump never appears in the book, which was written, presumably, before his capture of the Republican Party. Still, anti-Trump conservatives have responded to its largely empathetic portrait of poor, white Americans, which they see as an alternative to the less sympathetic theories about Trump’s least affluent supporters—‘They’re all racist,’ essentially—that have become popular on the left.”[12] In reality, preliminary exit polls showed that college-educated men preferred Trump, and he did slightly better (49 percent to 47 percent) among those earning over $50,000 and fared much worse (41 percent to 52 percent) among those earning less than $50,000.[13]

Unlike Trump, who lost the popular vote to Hillary Clinton by almost 3,000,000 votes, Jackson, in 1828, won the popular vote handily and secured every region of the nation except for New England. Contrary to popular opinion, however, he did not lead the charge toward democracy; instead, he benefitted from the expansion of white male suffrage that was already under way in the 1820s. Jackson rallied these white male voters to his standard, but most of them did not appear to have been galvanized by anger about the nation’s course under President John Quincy Adams. The lack of polling data makes it difficult to suss out what motivated the average voter in that campaign, but scholars have argued that, just like in 2016, the election turned on a number of economic, ethnocultural, geographic, personal, and racial issues, not voter anger over the Adams administration.[14]

But historical comparisons can be just as misleading as they can be enlightening. Many of the similarities between the two men are superficial and collapse quickly.[15] Jackson’s background, for starters, was hardly as privileged as Trump’s. Jackson had lost all of his immediate family members by the time he reached early adolescence and struggled to create a social network that enabled him to move into the southern gentry, which he eventually did. Trump, by contrast, worked for his parents’ real estate development company while attending the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business, and he claims that he was a millionaire (in today’s dollars) by the time he graduated.[16] Jackson was a military hero; Trump hosted a reality TV show. Old Hickory possessed ideological principles that he believed would help the nation. One would be hard-pressed to say the same about Trump, the slogan (Make American Great Again) on his hats notwithstanding.

Moreover, saying that Jackson and Trump are similar causes us to dismiss the unique elements of Trump’s violent, misogynistic, and ethnocentric rhetoric. It may be tempting to look at Jackson and say, “we’ve been here before, and we survived.” But even though Jackson fought duels, was paternalistic, enslaved African Americans, and forced Native Americans off of their land, he lived two centuries ago. There were voices of dissent during his military career and two presidential terms to be sure, but the vast majority of American voters likely had little problem with Jackson’s racial views, even if some of them might have objected to his methods.

By contrast, today is not the 1820s or 1830s. Presidential candidates have become more corporate and polished. They usually construct careers and messages to position themselves for the office, and overt personal racism or the appearance of endorsing such sentiments is beyond the pale. Likewise, the United States has undergone the extinction of African-American slavery, experienced a long civil rights movement, and become more multicultural. The nation’s treatment of African Americans and immigrants still leaves much to be desired, but this is not Jackson’s America. With those substantial changes both to national cultural norms and the expectations for presidential candidates, someone such as Trump, who refused to condemn his supporters’ racism, promised to build a wall to keep out Mexicans, and failed to convincingly distance himself from white supremacy of the so-called “alt-right” stood starkly outside of the mainstream of American presidential politics.[17] Equating Jackson and Trump normalizes the latter in ways that should be offensive to us in 2017.

One important comparison exposes the main contrast between Trump and Jackson. Trump never served in the military and never held political office. He was (and still is) a businessman, sometimes successful, oftentimes not, whose main interest lies not benefitting the nation but his own bottom line. Some critics have pointed to Trump’s hypocrisy in his business dealings, castigating American companies for overseas investments and outsourcing practices in which his own companies engage.[18] Others have highlighted his many conflicts of interest, about which Trump has tweeted, “Only the media makes this a big deal!”[19]

Jackson, on the other hand, served in several capacities that showed his commitment to the nation. He held seats in both chambers of the U.S. Congress early in his career and right before being nominated as a presidential candidate for the 1824 election. His most significant contribution was leading the Tennessee state militia and the United States Army, winning fame in the War of 1812 for his victories over the Creek Indians and the British and expanding the national boundaries, albeit in controversial and, perhaps, unconstitutional ways. While scholars and laypeople alike have over exaggerated Jackson’s hatred of the British, he clearly placed the United States before the interests of other nations and, as he showed during the 1832–1833 showdown over nullification with South Carolina, the individual states themselves.[20]

Making superficial comparisons between political cultures separated by nearly two centuries leads us into the clichéd trap of the well-worn mantra “those who ignore the past are doomed to repeat it” without doing the hard work of research or acknowledging that there are no exact parallels between the past and the present. This has been apparent in the many ways in which pundits and scholars alike have sought to portray Trump as a twenty-first-century Andrew Jackson. Ultimately, the comparisons fail because the current president-elect is outside of the bounds of traditional American political culture. Whatever we think of Jackson today, he was a military hero who served his country in combat and a politician who (generally) placed the nation’s best interests over his own. Not so with Trump, who will become the nation’s first president without military or political experience and who has repeatedly demonstrated that he cares more about himself than about the American people and what is best for the nation’s future. If history has judged Jackson harshly, it will likely treat Trump with contempt.

Notes

[1] Andrew Saunders, “The First Time Party Bigwhigs Tried to Stop a Front-Runner from Becoming President, It Backfired—Big-Time,” Politico, March 13, 2016.

[2]Dan P. McAdams, “The Mind of Donald Trump,” The Atlantic (June 2016).

[3] Brent Griffiths, “Giuliani: 2016 Vote Has Echoes of Andrew Jackson,” Politico, Nov. 9, 2016.

[4] Michael Wolff, “Ringside With Steve Bannon at Trump Tower as the President-Elect’s Strategist Plots ‘An Entirely New Political Movement,’” Hollywood Reporter, Nov. 18, 2016.

[5] Steve Inskeep,“Donald Trump and the Legacy of Andrew Jackson,” The Atlantic, Nov. 30, 2016.

[6]John Kelly, “What’s With All Trump’s Talk About ‘Draining the Swamp?’” Slate, Oct. 26, 2016.

[7] Steven Mufson and Juliet Eilperin, “Trump Transition Team for Energy Department Seeks Names of Employees Involved in Climate Meetings,” Washington Post, Dec. 9, 2016.

[8] Henry Clay to Charles Henry Hammond, May 27, 1829, in The Papers of Henry Clay, vol. 8, Candidate, Compromiser, Whig, March 5, 1829–December 31, 1836, ed. James F. Hopkins et al. (1984), 59.

[9] Mark R. Cheathem, Andrew Jackson and the Rise of the Democrats (2015), 146.

[10] David Horsey, “What Are Donald Trump’s Angry Voters So Angry About?” Los Angeles Times, Aug. 12, 2015, ; Jeff Guo, “A New Theory for Why Trump Voters Are So Angry—That Actually Makes Sense,” Washington Post, Nov. 8, 2016.

[11]J.D. Vance, Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis (2016).

[12] Joshua Rothman, “The Lives of Poor White People,” New York Times, Sept. 12, 2016.

[13] Jon Henley,“White and Wealthy Voters Gave Victory to Donald Trump, Exit Polls Show,” The Guardian, Nov. 9, 2016; Eric Sasson,“Blame Trump’s Victory on College-Educated Whites, Not the Working Class,” The New Republic, Nov. 15, 2016.

[14]See, for example, Donald B. Cole, Vindicating Andrew Jackson: The 1828 Election and the Rise of the Two-Party System (2009), 182–200; Lynn Hudson Parsons, The Birth of Modern Politics: Andrew Jackson, John Quincy Adams, and the Election of 1828 (2009), 183–87; and Cheathem, Andrew Jackson and the Rise of the Democrats, 93–119.

[15] Joseph N. DiStefano,“Donald Trump=Andrew Jackson?” Philadelphia Inquirer, Feb. 25, 2016.

[16] Max Ehrenfreund, “A Secret to Donald Trump’s Success That You Simply Can’t Replicate,” Washington Post, July 22, 2015.

[17] Lydia O’Connor and Daniel Marans, “Here Are 15 Examples of Trump Being Racist,” Huffington Post, Dec. 13, 2016; “Here’s Donald Trump’s Presidential Announcement Speech,” Time, June 16, 2015; Bryan Logan, “There’s Something Distinctive in the Way Trump Talks About the Alt-Right,” Business Insider, Nov. 22, 2016.

[18] Stuart Anderson,“Trump the Hypocrite: Investing Overseas Fine for Him,” Forbes, Aug. 17, 2015.

[19]Jeremy Venook,“Trump Announces Plan That Does Little to Resolve His Conflicts of Interest,” The Atlantic, Jan. 11, 2017; Donald J. Trump, Twitter post, Nov. 21, 2016, 8:14 P.M.

[1] Mark R. Cheathem, “‘I Owe to Britain a Debt of Retaliatory Vengeance’: Assessing Andrew Jackson’s Hatred of the British,” in The Battle of New Orleans in History and Memory, ed. Laura Lyons McLemore (2016), 28-55.

Author

MARK R. CHEATHEM is Professor of History at Cumberland University. His books include the award-winning Andrew Jackson, Southerner (2013) and Andrew Jackson and the Rise of the Democrats (2015). He is the project director of the Papers of Martin Van Buren at Cumberland University.