Amidst all the recent commentary about the 45th President’s shaky understanding of U.S. history, an important point is going unrecognized: Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpNFL players stand in tunnel during anthem, extending protests 12 former top intel officials blast Trump's move to revoke Brennan's security clearance NYT: Omarosa believed to have as many as 200 tapes MORE sees himself as an Andrew Jackson for the 21st century — and he is not completely wrong. Trump’s presidential run was “most like” the 1828 campaign that put Jackson in the White House, he told Sirius radio host Salena Zito.

During a visit to Jackson’s home in March, he declared that the seventh president had throughout his life “confronted and defied an arrogant elite” and asked his audience, “Does that sound familiar to you?”

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In a way, Trump is right: he does resemble Jackson, but not in the way that he thinks. He is the heir to a tradition that Jackson began: that of depicting the president as a champion of a disfranchised (and implicitly white and male) people.

 

Appearances are not the same as reality, however. This self-presentation allowed both leaders to win support from voters deeply disillusioned with the political status quo, all without the hassle of trying to discover what their constituents want. It empowered Jackson to transform American politics, an ambition that Trump shares. How Trump is judged by future generations will depend largely on whether he succeeds.

Andrew Jackson rose to the presidency at a time much like our own. Between the War of 1812 and Jackson’s election, ordinary citizens and upstart politicians increasingly complained that established political elites had become unresponsive and self-serving. Numerous insurgencies appeared, demanding that political leaders learn to obey their constituents in all matters. Most of these movements disappeared as quickly as they arose. 

Jackson was hardly at the vanguard of democracy. Instead, he appealed to people’s aspirations for greater power in public life and steered those aspirations in a conservative direction. Born poor, he rose through the ranks in law and politics like most upwardly mobile men: by adopting the expensive clothes and refined habits of a gentleman. Though he believed in the civic virtue of ordinary men, he had no truck with demands that political leaders obey their constituents. As a gentleman-statesman, Jackson insisted on following his own judgment and conscience in making policy. “The people” served as a Greek chorus in his political imagination, vindicating virtuous leaders and punishing the corrupt. 

As a presidential candidate and chief executive, Jackson appealed directly to widespread discontent with elite politics. The federal government, he declared, had been taken over by a corrupt, self-serving elite whose members aimed only at perpetuating themselves in office. His presidential campaigns warned that, by allowing members of Congress to designate the Republican party’s presidential candidate, this elite was robbing “the people” of their constitutional right to choose their own president.

Once elected, he attacked as corrupt many representatives’ alliance with the Bank of the United States. Jackson did not present himself as obeying the American “people.” Instead, in attacking crooked Washington politicians and the “Monster Bank,” he acted on his own judgment and exercised his iron will on behalf of “the people.” Through a political alchemy that he never explained, he believed that in doing this, he — the only elected representative of the entire American people — was somehow, spontaneously, fulfilling popular will.

Jackson was probably sincere in believing he was doing battle with a corrupt elite on behalf of ordinary citizens. But his self-presentation does not stand up to scrutiny. The Washington elite he challenged were mostly men like himself: self-made gentleman of humble origins. Jackson’s presidential campaigns destroyed the caucus method of choosing presidential candidates, replacing it with the presidential convention, an institution that proved almost as easy to control as the caucus.

His attack on the Bank of the United States did destroy a powerful corporation with profound political influence. However, it left unaddressed widespread public concern that all banks leveraged political influence to make private profits and gain more influence with state legislatures. Indeed, by dramatically curtailing the Bank’s power, Jackson destroyed the single institution with the power to curb the more numerous state banks’ financial excesses.

Andrew Jackson was not “the people’s president,” as Trump claims. But he acted the role plausibly because of his enormous personal popularity and because a new generation of political entrepreneurs, led by Martin Van Buren, built a powerful party, run on grassroots organizing and partisan appeals, around him. This performance allowed Jackson and his lieutenants to remake American politics in important ways. Jackson’s team brought a populist appeal to the Oval Office, in which political elites claim to act in the name of a sovereign people. It also spread grass-roots, partisan politics throughout the nation. 

The parallels in the self-image and mythology of our seventh and forty-fifth presidents are numerous. Both have presented themselves as champions of a downtrodden — and implicitly white and male — “people,” doing battle with entrenched elites on their behalf. In policy matters, neither has actively sought to discern his constituents’ aims; rather, both have claimed that they speak for “the people.” And both have sought to remake politics in their own image.

Will Trump succeed in remaking politics as Jackson did? It will be four years before we know for sure, but so far the prospects don’t look good. Jackson’s popularity during his first term was both deep and broad, while Trump is popular with only a third of the electorate. Although respectable opinion depicted Jackson as incompetent in his time, he emerged as a remarkably able administrator and party leader. Trump has not yet displayed a comparable talent at leadership.

Also, Jackson had an emerging, powerful political party at his back; Trump has been weakening his party. And so far Steve Bannon hasn’t shown either the tactical brilliance or the deep bench of political acolytes that Martin Van Buren enjoyed. But he may yet prove us wrong; he did help get Trump elected, after all.

Trump’s practical legacy thus remains to be seen. But whatever his impact on policy, Trump is already proving the continuing power of a president posing as tribune of “the people.”

Reeve Huston is an associate professor of American history at Duke University. He is working on a book titled “Reforging American Democracy: Political Practice in the United States, 1812-1840."


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