White House

Mr. President, I'd Like to Introduce You to Andrew Jackson

Populism produced these two presidents. That's the main thing they have in common.


Source: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

I've never met Steve Bannon and find most of his reported views repugnant. But I owe him: He caused me to reread Jon Meacham's biography of Andrew Jackson, “American Lion.”

Bannon, President Donald Trump’s provocative adviser and theorist, has promoted the notion that Trump is a modern version of Jackson, a populist who ran roughshod over the ruling class and ushered in a new political order. Others like former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, always quick to claim historical antecedents for conservative theories, embrace this.

There are some legitimate parallels. Both men triumphed over and rattled established political elites with support from people of ordinary means. Trump did it in the 2016 elections, Jackson in 1828. Both vowed to clean up corruption in Washington and both had racial ignominies. Jackson was a slaveholder and, as president, mistreated Indians. Trump has insulted blacks, Muslims and Hispanics. After taking office, both suffered from self-inflicted chaos; Trump over flagrant misstatements and managerial turbulence, Jackson over his stubborn defense of the dubious morals of his Secretary of War's wife.

The differences are more profound, as Meacham's compelling work clarifies, starting with their backgrounds. Jackson had been Tennessee's attorney general, a judge, a congressman, a senator and America's greatest war hero after George Washington. He was renowned for physical courage and had intellectual curiosity.

Trump has no political or governmental experience. His greatest success was as a reality television impresario. He received five draft deferments, the last for bone spurs, which kept him out of the Vietnam War. (He later said that these were "minor" and "temporary.”)

Jackson won the popular vote in three elections, each time by double digits. (In 1824, he was denied the presidency by the House of Representatives.) Trump lost the popular vote.

The biggest difference: Jackson’s populism was authentic, reflecting his life. Trump, born to means and heir to wealth, is a situational populist.

"The moment is Jacksonian but Trump is not Jackson," Meacham said.

Trump did ride a populist wave to upset Hillary Clinton on Nov. 8. Polls show that he dominated among voters who say they feel culturally and economically alienated, notably whites who lack a college education. Iowa, which had been reliably Democratic in most recent presidential contests, went solidly for the Republican Trump; its electorate has the second-highest percentage of non-college-educated whites, trailing only West Virginia, which went Republican in a landslide.

Trump stoked resentment among many of these voters by arguing that coastal elites and minorities get privileged treatment at their expense, that the economic recovery has left many of them behind and that urban liberals don’t respect their views on religion, guns and abortion.

As a candidate and president, Trump's nationalism -- he’s denounced international trade deals, questioned global alliances, denigrated immigration and extolled the strength of authoritarian leaders like President Vladimir Putin of Russia -- resonates with his admirers.

Trump’s brand of populism will deliver most economic benefits to the more affluent. To prevail it needs villains like the blacks, Mexicans and Muslims he portrays as criminal and terrorist threats so menacing that they justify police crackdowns and an immigration ban. Judges and politicians who oppose him are accused of putting the nation at risk.

"The Trump agenda has developed its own internal logic," the political journalist Tom Edsall wrote recently in one of the best takes on Trump’s style of populism. "The more wreckage, the more publicity. The more publicity, the more success." This brand of fear-mongering authoritarianism is spreading in Eastern Europe, the Philippines and even France and Germany.

That’s not the legacy of Jackson’s populism. A century after the Jackson era, Harry Truman became the latest of great presidents to cite him as an inspiration.

"He wanted sincerely to look after the little fellow who had no pull, and that’s what a president is supposed to do," Truman said.

I doubt that Trump will succeed. Jackson became an historic president, in part, because he was authentic.

Last year Meacham, a renowned journalist and historian, had a long interview with Trump about history. The candidate never mentioned Jackson.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

    To contact the author of this story:
    Albert R. Hunt at ahunt1@bloomberg.net

    To contact the editor responsible for this story:
    Jonathan Landman at jlandman4@bloomberg.net

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