The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Reagan? Lincoln? Donald Trump instead embraces a Democratic presidential icon, Andrew Jackson.

An ice-covered statue of Andrew Jackson is seen in Washington's Lafayette Square, on March 2, 2015. (Brendan Smialowski/Agence France-Presse via Getty Images)

Andrew Jackson is such a pillar of the Democratic Party that its biggest fundraising day is called “Jefferson-Jackson Day,” with Jefferson-Jackson Dinners being held all across the country.

In recent years, though, many have questioned their lionization of the seventh president, mostly because of his treatment of Native Americans. Some have pushed to remove his name from their annual dinners; others have campaigned to have his face removed from the $20 bill. (They succeeded in having him relegated to the bill's rear, with Harriet Tubman on the front.)

And yet, as Democrats have increasingly divorced themselves from Jackson, he has become an icon — if not the icon — to our new Republican president, Donald Trump, and his top advisers.

In reaction to Trump's inaugural speech Friday, chief Trump strategist Stephen K. Bannon cited one previous president. It wasn't the conservative favorite, Ronald Reagan, or Dwight Eisenhower or even Abraham Lincoln. It was Jackson.

“I don’t think we’ve had a speech like that since Andrew Jackson came to the White House,” Bannon told The Washington Post's Robert Costa. “But you could see it was very Jacksonian. It’s got a deep, deep root of patriotism there.”

Other Trump allies and even Trump himself have made similar parallels in recent days and weeks. At a dinner Wednesday night honoring now-Vice President Pence, Trump himself said he was often told, “There hasn’t been anything like this since Andrew Jackson.”

Trump confidant Newt Gingrich told a group of New York Republicans on Thursday: “[Trump] is one-third Andrew Jackson as a disrupter; one-third Theodore Roosevelt for pure energy; and one-third P.T. Barnum for selling all day, every day.”

And former New York mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani said right after Election Day that Trump's win was “like Andrew Jackson’s victory. This is the people beating the establishment.”

The parallel makes sense, given Trump's increasingly populist rhetoric, which was on full display in his inauguration address — in a way we haven't really seen even on the campaign trail. Jackson is regarded by some as our last populist president.

In his speech, Trump painted a grim picture of “American carnage” because of gangs, crime and drugs, and he said the elites were only looking out for themselves. “While they celebrated in our nation's capital, there was little to celebrate for struggling families all across our land,” Trump said.

Trump pledged, “we are transferring power from Washington, D.C. and giving it back to you, the people.”

And Trump's take-no-prisoners, beat-the-system style recalls Jackson's own. As Jackson biographer and NPR host Steve Inskeep wrote in the Atlantic back in November, Jackson's loss in the 1824 presidential race lit a fire inside of him to fight back — and the passions surrounding his election spilled over at his inauguration:

With an eye to the next election, he set out to upend the political system, which had been running predictably for a generation. A party founded by Thomas Jefferson had installed four consecutive presidents. Most elections were not even close. Relatively few people voted, and many lacked voting rights. But the franchise was expanding to include all white men, and boisterous new political forces were sweeping the growing nation.
Jackson and his allies spent four years building a popular movement in favor of majority rule. They worked to delegitimize President Adams, promoting the “corrupt bargain” conspiracy theory and blocking his programs in Congress. In their 1828 rematch, Jackson defeated Adams in a landslide. His 1829 inauguration was recorded as a triumph of the people, who mobbed the White House in such numbers that they trashed it. It’s this moment to which Giuliani referred on election night 2016.

But the regular comparisons to Jackson also can't help but recall a mainstay of Trump's political career: controversy. And as with many of Trump's controversies, this one involves race and plenty of shades of gray.

Yes, Jackson has been hailed as a great president — great enough to be a Democratic Party hero for all these years. But a reexamination of his record is in full swing, and suddenly he's a controversial figure — especially on the political left. The question as with our slaveholding presidents (of which Jackson was also one) is how much these things color history's view of their presidencies.

Despite these questions, or more likely because of them, the provocateur Trump and his team are playing up Jackson as a parallel to Trump. In one package, they have someone who stirred up Washington but also stirs plenty of emotions — particularly on the political left.

And in that way, Jackson fits a well-established pattern for Trump of praising controversial politicians. He's spoken admiringly about the strength of Vladimir Putin and other authoritarians and dictators like Saddam Hussein and Kim Jong Un, after all. Often it's tempered praise, but the kind of praise that causes a predictable uproar. And next to those figures, Jackson wouldn't even be in the conversation for most Americans.

But as Trump's presidency progresses and the Jackson parallels continue, it's likely we'll continue to revisit the seventh president's biography. Trump, after all, seems to prefer it that way.