Throughout the 2016 presidential campaign, political pundits and supporters of Donald Trump invoked the spirit of Andrew Jackson to help define his movement as a “populist” quest to restore power to the “forgotten man” and curb corruption in government. Reportedly, campaign chief Steve Bannon encouraged Trump to fully embrace the idea. As president, Trump has placed Jackson’s portrait in the Oval Office and even visited Jackson’s home and tomb to encourage further comparisons between the two, despite the range of historians who have rebutted the historical accuracy of such claims.
But with the 2020 election already on the horizon, it just might be that Trump won’t have the best claim to Jackson’s legacy in the race. Instead, one potential opponent, Bernie Sanders, could lay a better claim to being Jackson’s political descendant. Because of the blowback following the hacking of the Democratic National Committee in 2016, Sanders might be posed to channel Jackson’s rage concerning a “corrupt bargain” that supposedly conspired to deny him the presidency.
While their politics are radically different from one another, both Jackson’s and Sanders’s supporters share a view that the political system was rigged, and both claim the mantle of populism, albeit very different flavors.
The 1824 election, which Jackson lost, set the stage for his later political success. Given his celebrity status as a war hero, Jackson entered the race for the presidency with a strong advantage over his competitors: John Quincy Adams, William H. Crawford and Henry Clay. Admired as “Old Hickory,” promoted as a man of the people (unlike the so-called privileged elites of Washington) and supported with spectacular fanfare at barbecues, rallies and parades, the Jackson machine seemed unstoppable.
But while Jackson won both the electoral college and the popular vote, neither of these was enough to secure him the presidency. With no one winning enough electoral votes to garner a majority, the House of Representatives decided the next president. To the dismay of Jackson and his supporters, the House favored John Quincy Adams.
What especially enraged Jackson was that Clay, then the speaker of the House, threw his support to Adams, and soon was appointed the next secretary of state. While there is little to no evidence that a quid-pro-quo deal was struck, Adams and Clay were accused of entering into a “corrupt bargain,” and Jacksonians never yielded in this belief. With such a cloud of doubt over his government, Adams struggled in office, and compared to his earlier accomplishments as a diplomat and later successes as a congressman, most historians view his presidency as a failure.
But while Adams writhed, Jackson rallied and thrived. In the lead-up to the next election, Jackson spent years preparing to take Washington by storm. While his most intimate friends and closest supporters doubled their efforts behind the scenes to help Jackson’s chances within the political establishment, a public backlash to the “corrupt bargain” mounted. Many American voters (at the time, predominantly white men) perceived the election of 1824 as a miscarriage of political justice. For Jacksonians, the will of the people had been denied.
At every possible moment, Jacksonians accused the Adams administration of corruption. Despite being a wealthy slaveholder and a prominent member of Tennessee’s elite himself, Jackson was presented as a humble tribune of the people, a figure akin to a strong herculean character who would “cleanse the Augean stables.”
Following their champion’s lead, Jacksonians ridiculed Adams as an out-of-touch aristocrat who had worked to undermine the people’s choice with devastating effect. In the 1828 election, Jackson won a landslide victory of 178 electoral votes, compared to Adams’s 83.
With the 2020 election brewing, the party Andrew Jackson helped launch is looking for a new leader.
For Sanders, Jackson’s tactics of fighting Washington’s “corrupt patronage” may prove a winning strategy. By losing the 2016 primary to Hillary Clinton, Sanders created a cult following and built a prominent online political machine. His Twitter followers currently come in at an imposing 9.13 million, compared to Elizabeth Warren’s 4.89 million, Cory Booker’s 4.2 million, Joe Biden’s 3.35 million and Kamala Harris’s 2.44 million. In just the first week of his bid for the 2020 presidency, Sanders raised $10 million, far exceeding any other Democratic contender. Not only this, but despite the fact that Sanders is now wealthy (particularly thanks to royalties from his books) and owns three homes, he, like Jackson, continues to claim the mantle of “the people.”
Simply put, like Jackson, Sanders has both the popular support and money to make his rivals nervous.
But even more, it is how he lost the 2016 primary that gives Sanders an opportunity to rail against a modern “corrupt bargain.” Following the email leaks from the DNC that showed the party’s preference for Clinton, legions of his supporters declared “Bernie or Bust.” Trump’s commentary about “Crooked Hillary” didn’t help people’s negative image of Clinton as the ultimate insider nominee. With a common perception that the Democratic primary was “rigged” against Sanders, like Jackson, the senator from Vermont can make righting this perceived wrong central to his campaign.
It should go without saying that Jackson’s and Sanders’s political outlooks are dramatically different. Jackson was a capitalist, while Sanders is a democratic-socialist. In comparison to Sanders’s hopes for big government programs and centralized government overall, Jackson, although a defender of the union, advocated for states’ rights and encouraged limited national involvement in what was then known as “internal improvements,” and today would fall under the label of infrastructure. Sanders’s platform of Medicare-for-all and free college would also ensure that Andrew Jackson remains the last and only president to pay off the national debt.
Donald Trump is not the new Andrew Jackson, and Bernie Sanders isn’t, either. Nor are the politics of 1828 the same as those for 2020. But Andrew Jackson revealed how potent the politics of retribution can be when combined with a populist agenda. Hillary Clinton may not be the opponent now, but Sanders can still use the “establishment” that supported her as a foil to fuel his campaign. The key will be if Sanders, like his fiery predecessor almost two centuries earlier, can channel his message into one of righteous anger at the risk of being perceived as a sore loser.