Jackson was a rabble-rousing egalitarian, a war hero, an early American nationalist and ruthless persecutor of indigenous peoples. His legacy matters a great deal to Trump — or, we should say, to a coterie of his close advisers, who styled Trump's unlikely rise in the vein of Jackson's populist insurgency. "Like Jackson's populism, we're going to build an entirely new political movement," said Stephen K. Bannon, now the White House's chief strategist, in an interview last November.
Within days of Trump's inauguration, a portrait of Jackson was placed in the Oval Office. Trump ostentatiously showed visiting journalists a biography of Jackson sitting on his desk (it was less clear whether he had read it). Trump's predecessor, former President Barack Obama, had ordered that Jackson, a slaveholder, be removed from the face of the $20 bill and replaced by an image of black abolitionist leader Harriet Tubman. Trump, by contrast, will journey to Jackson's home, the Hermitage, and grandstand over Old Hickory's grave.
For Trump, this is almost certainly a bit of opportunistic theater. It's quite likely the 45th president never really considered the seventh his model before advisers started pushing the idea as the election drew nearer, hailing Trump as the same tribune of the "forgotten man" that Jackson proved to be. "I talked to Trump in May about history and role models, and Jackson never came up," said Jon Meacham, an American journalist and historian, in a recent interview with The Washington Post.
Jackson, unlike Trump, was born in poverty and made his own fame and career. Jackson, unlike Trump, brought to the office a track record of political experience, including stints in the House and Senate as well as a brief governorship of Florida. Jackson, unlike Trump, actually won the popular vote in each of his three runs for the presidency (including his initial defeat in 1824).
"In truth, the two have little in common besides the distrust they have inspired in certain elements of the political elites of their day," notes University of Texas historian H.W. Brands in an article in Politico. "Trump’s penthouse populism is a sham; Jackson’s was the real thing."
There are, of course, some interesting echoes. Jackson was a sophisticated manipulator of the press and cozied up to loyal media men — not unlike Bannon, who once ran far-right website Breitbart.
Jackson "did not clear out Washington elites so much as bring a new coalition of elites to power. . . . He also used political patronage to stuff the government with Jackson loyalists," said Steve Inskeep, an NPR radio host and author of a Jackson biography. "There is something Jacksonian both in Trump’s promise to 'drain the swamp' of Washington and his early moves to refill the swamp with wealthy friends, loyal supporters, and family members."
Other scholars invoke Jackson to explain a long-running strain of American political thought that was resurfaced by Trump and crystallized by Bannon's own rhetoric. Jacksonians are hostile both to big business and big government and embrace a deep-rooted, almost folkish idea of patriotism and national identity.
"Jacksonians are skeptical about the United States’ policy of global engagement and liberal order building — but more from a lack of trust in the people shaping foreign policy than from a desire for a specific alternative vision," wrote centrist American scholar Walter Russell Mead this year. "They oppose recent trade agreements not because they understand the details and consequences of those extremely complex agreements’ terms but because they have come to believe that the negotiators of those agreements did not necessarily have the United States’ interests at heart."
Emotive issues of "trust" and "prestige" have indeed dominated the White House's messaging, particularly when it comes to foreign affairs. Right-wing commentators exult in what they perceive to be Trump and Jackson's shared zeal to crush, rather than equivocate with, America's enemies.
"It is important for Americans to know that the president is on their side and will defend American interests," wrote former Breitbart journalist Jarrett Stepman this week, championing a Jacksonian approach in the White House and celebrating Trump's intent to destroy the "lawless savages" of the Islamic State.
"While it remains to be seen whether he will follow through, Trump, like Jackson, has committed to wiping out those who violate the rights of Americans and harm our nation’s interests, instead of trying to fundamentally change them or bring them democracy," wrote Stepman.
This somewhat facile observation, of course, glosses over the hideous dark side of Jackson's legacy: The displacement, slaughter and removal of a huge population of Native Americans who lived east of the Mississippi River.
Jackson "was as ferocious in inflicting harm on a people as he often was in defending the rights of those he thought of as the people," wrote Meacham in his Pulitzer Prize-winning Jackson biography, "American Lion." "To Jackson the interests of whites were paramount in the removal question."
In that sense, Trump, whose populism is rooted in deeply divisive politics, is indeed walking in Jackson's footsteps.
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