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Saturday, March 18, 2017

March 18-19, 2017: Andrew Jackson and Donald Trump

[March 15th marked the 250th anniversary of Andrew Jackson’s birth. So this week I’ve AmericanStudied five sides to this controversial, influential figure and president, leading up to this special weekend post on Jackson and Trump!]
On what links the two polarizing presidents, and what separates them.
Ever since the start of his surprising and unnerving (to put both adjectives mildly) successful campaign for the presidency, Donald Trump has drawn an ever-evolving series of historical comparisons, both American and international, all seeking to better understand the man and candidacy (and now presidency). My own Talking Points Memo piece linking Trump to Benjamin Franklin (in one very particular way) became part of a larger NPR article on many of those different American historical comparisons. In the last few months, of course, the bulk of the comparisons have been to various dictators and authoritarian leaders, from the Hitlers and Silvio Berlusconi’s of the distant and recent past (respectively) to the Putins and Kim Jong-un’s of the present, among many others. None of these parallels lines up perfectly, of course, but I believe that each has had a good deal to tell us about just what we’re dealing with in this unprecedented/unpresidented and potentially catastrophic administration. And that’s definitely true for the American president to whom Trump has most frequently been compared (including it seems by Trump himself), Andrew Jackson.
Trump’s self-made comparison is likely due to the idea of a shared interest in the “common man,” but as I’ll note in a moment I don’t agree with that parallel at all. Instead, I would argue that the links between Jackson and Trump are all much more revealing of Trump’s flaws and failings. Both men have thin skins and violent tempers that are easily provoked by the slightest perceived slight, with Trump using Twitter insults and belittling nicknames in a manner quite similar to Jackson’s recourse to dueling challenges. Both have pursued policies that use the power of the federal government to disrupt the lives and communities of their fellow Americans, seeking to displace and remove entire such communities from our shared national landscape. And both have demonstrated an easy willingness to oppose the judiciary and our democratic system of checks and balances, in favor of a self-centered and authoritarian desire to see their will done and done as fully and quickly as possible. (I’m not sure there’s ever been a more Andrew Jackson-esque moment from a fellow president than Trump Tweeting “See you in court!” to the federal court/judges who had just ruled against his immigration/refugee ban.) All of which is to say, Andrew Jackson wedded bigoted policies to a thin-skinned, violent, destructive, and authoritarian temperament and governing perspective, and unfortunately Donald Trump seems well on his way to exceeding Jackson on all those levels.
At least some of the policies that Jackson pursued in those ways were aimed at democratizing American politics and society, at providing better opportunities for the “common man” (even an idea as ill-fated as the spoils system did have that side as well, since it ensured that political offices could not be passed down to multiple generations of the same family or otherwise preserved as legacies). Trump has repeatedly claimed that he has similar goals when it comes to the “swamp” of Washington and our system, but in every possible way the first months of his presidency-elect and now administration have revealed that he intends to do precisely the opposite: to use the office and our government to further enrich himself and his family, his friends and business partners, and the most elite of our society’s elites. And while any person from any background can pursue any potential policies, it seems clear that this policy distinction between Jackson and Trump could be connected to their very distinct origin points: as I noted in my first post this week, Jackson’s beginnings were truly as humble as any president’s have been; Trump is of course far from the first president who was born into extreme wealth and privilege, but whereas folks like Franklin Roosevelt and George W. Bush had held other elected offices and worked in public service prior to the presidency, Trump had literally only ever “worked” in the gilded towers he inherited from his father. In this way, at least, a comparison to Andrew Jackson makes Old Hickory look like a pretty darn ideal alternative.
Next series starts Monday,
PS. What do you think? Other ways you’d link or contrast Jackson and Trump?

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