Power  /  Comparison

Trump's Jacksonian Moment

A new biography of Andrew Jackson recounts a bloody history, and reveals disturbing parallels between the 1830s and the Trump era.
Jackson statue outside the White House.
Streets of Washington

So how revealing are comparisons between Andrew Jackson and Donald Trump? The answer is: symbolically, quite a bit.

Jackson was the first president to claim the mantle of democracy as the electorate expanded in the early nineteenth century to include virtually all adult white men. And he was the first to play the flip side of this coin in 1824 when he famously claimed that only a corrupt bargain of his opponents had thwarted the democratic will of the people and denied him electoral victory. Relatively few American presidents have made such claims before or since. In 2016 both the victor, Trump, and the loser, Clinton, did.

In the minds of Jackson’s admirers, Jackson’s thirst for glory and vengeance had secured a greater good. It is a rationale familiar to us today.

Jackson, too, first successfully took on the role of tribune of the people fighting the corrupt and entrenched interests. The claim might have been, as Opal believes, false, but it was still effective. That garment has since become quite worn, but it would have been a miracle if Trump, like Roosevelt, had not donned it. Jackson was the first president to recognize the gift his enemies gave him when they hated him so extravagantly. It became a means to entrench his own support. Roosevelt and Trump have rejoiced in their enemies. What Opal adds to this symbolic repertoire is Jackson’s embrace of vengeance: the president as the strong and ruthless avenging arm of the innocent republic.

Trump’s appropriation of Jackson is certainly clumsy. He fits uneasily in Jackson’s skin. I can’t help but think of Edgar the Bug, the alien villain in the film Men in Black (1997) who clumsily wears a suit of his victim’s skin, which is forever slipping grotesquely out of place. In his Jacksonian skin, Trump claims to be the voice of the people. He demands protection for the people, and vows vengeance against the people’s enemies. Like Jackson—and Edgar the Bug—he is easily outraged. Jackson was a fearsome avenger. Trump is just Edgar the Bug. But it doesn’t matter if his performance rings false to me. It is his supporters who matter, and they appear to believe it.

Victim of corrupt elites, champion of the people, and avenger of the innocent are all symbolic stances perfected by Jackson, but what do they have to do with actual governance? Here things get murkier. There are disturbing parallels between Trump’s America and Jackson’s America. This is not because Trump is a reincarnation of Jackson; it is because there have been some persistent issues in American democracy that have never been resolved.