January 27, 2017 at 1:47 PM
It's rapidly become conventional wisdom that President Trump is the modern-day incarnation of Andrew Jackson. Establishment Republicans, long unsure of how to understand Trump and his successes in any sort of historical context, have seized on the analogy. But does it actually fit? I reached out to historian and editor Jon Meacham, who wrote a seminal biography of Jackson in 2009, to get some sense of just how much Trump has in common with our seventh president. Our conversation, conducted via email and lightly edited for flow, is below.
FIX: On Thursday at the congressional Republican retreat, Mitch McConnell expressly compared Trump to Andrew Jackson. Do you have any sense on when Jackson became the preferred historical antecedent for Trump?
Meacham: This is pure Stephen K. Bannon, who drew the analogy in November. Others had made the point, of course, but Jackson as the official go-to came then. I talked to Trump in May about history and role models, and Jackson never came up. In the long view, Jackson has been a source of inspiration for very different presidents. Franklin D. Roosevelt saw himself as a latter-day Old Hickory battling Wall Street during the New Deal — so much so that the 1937 inaugural stand on Pennsylvania Avenue was a replica of the Hermitage, Jackson's Tennessee house. Harry S. Truman adored Jackson, kept a bronze of him in the Oval Office, and once drove from Missouri to Nashville to measure Jackson's old clothes to make sure a statue of Old Hickory was historically accurate. And Truman once wrote this: "Jackson looked after the little guy who had no pull, and that's what a president is supposed to do." (Which is, by the way, one of the best definitions of the American presidency I've ever encountered.) Ronald Reagan liked Jackson's theatrical flair and hung a portrait of Jackson in the Oval Office, just as Trump has now done.
FIX: Where are Trump and Jackson similar? And are the similarities on big things or small ones? Differences?
Meacham: The biggest distinction is experience. Jackson came to the presidency as a former judge, general, senator and presidential candidate. Despite his rabble-rousing image — opponents worried Jackson would become an "American Bonaparte" — Jackson was in fact at home in the precincts of power because he'd been around the capital a good deal before becoming president. The other key difference is that Jackson knew how to manage his own weaknesses. He wasn't always successful at it, but a Jacksonian temper tantrum or threat was often calculated, not unhinged. We don't yet know whether Trump can pull off the same feat of compensating for — and even leveraging — his hypersensitivity, for instance, and his weakness for hyperbole and chaos. I hope he can do what Jackson did and turn these vices into means for virtuous ends. To me, that's perhaps the greatest question about Trump and temperament.
FIX: You've studied — and written about — lots and lots of presidents. Is Jackson the right historical analog for Trump? Or is there a more apt one that we are all missing?
Meachem: Jackson, I suppose, is the closest thing we have — populist outsider, fervent supporters and equally fervent foes. Presidents often come to Washington promising to restore the government to the people; such rhetoric is a staple of American politics stretching back to the turn of the 18th into the 19th century, when Thomas Jefferson referred to his victory over John Adams in the 1800 election as a "revolution" akin to that of 1776. The key thing is to judge by actions more than words. And as I mentioned above, the big Jacksonian lesson for Trump is the management of his temper and the regulation of his rashness, which Jackson largely accomplished.
FIX: Finish this sentence: "If Andrew Jackson met Donald Trump, he would think _____________. "
Meacham: "Good hair. Not as good as mine, but okay."