America lived through a Trump-like presidency before, with lasting consequences

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The old adage that one is doomed to repeat history if ignorant of it should be a current siren call for Democrats. America lived through a Trump-like presidency almost 200 years ago with Andrew Jackson, and Jackson’s ideology outlived his presidency by some 20 years. Donald Trump’s could, too, if history repeats itself.

One grew up an orphan and impoverished; the other was gifted with generational wealth by his father. One became a war hero, and the other dodged service. Yet America’s seventh president, Jackson, approached governing in a manner that mirrors Trump’s in many ways.

{mosads}Jackson ran for president against a former president’s son, the political establishment and corporate elites, and won by making himself a champion of the common man. He lost his first race against John Quincy Adams when he received the most Electoral College votes, but not a majority of the Electoral College vote, which kicked the election to the Congress, who selected Adams. Jackson dubbed it a “stolen election” and coined the phrase “The Corrupt Bargain.” He spent the following four years claiming he was robbed, and voters ultimately joined him in anger.  

He began his second campaign solidifying his political base in the South and rural areas by throwing gasoline on the fire of their resentment and belief that East Coast elites were living off the taxes and labor of hard-working, decent, regular folks.  

Indeed, Jackson was a folk hero. With little education, and considered uncouth, Jackson connected with people — he was a war hero lionized for winning the Battle of New Orleans.

He was known to be easily angered, held grudges, said what he was thinking, and thought himself an infallible judge of others.  

“What Jackson had in his favor was the first authorized campaign biography, John Henry Eaton’s ‘The Life of Andrew Jackson,’ which created public fascination with the private man and flowered into a cult of personality,” Nancy Isenberg and Andrew Burstein wrote for the journal Democracy. For the flattering portrayal, Jackson named Eaton secretary of war and then the territorial governor of Florida.

The book and numerous southern newspapers helped grow the man’s reputation, and Jackson played into the role of a swashbuckling, swaggering strongman.  

For the 20 previous years, American government was dominated by the Democratic-Republican Party created by Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. Jackson’s views were so out of the political mainstream that he and Martin Van Buren created what was known solely as the Democratic Party. Adams ran as a National Republican, which soon evolved into the Whig Party.

{mossecondads}The rematch in 1828 was brutal even by today’s standards. Jackson weathered the first sex scandal in a presidential race when it was revealed his wife was not fully divorced when they wed. Subsequently, they were forced into a second ceremony. Federalists newspapers called Jackson a murderer, drunk, cockfighting, slave-trading cannibal.

Jackson’s campaign countered that Adams was an aristocrat, kingly and pompous. When he put a billiards table in the White House, critics accused him of installing gaming tables and gambling furniture. They attacked him for breaking the sabbath by traveling on Sunday and, in an interesting twist, claimed he was pimping for the Russian Tsar.

Jackson won the grudge match, 178 electoral votes to 83, in an election cast solely by whites.  His wife died before the inauguration, which he attributed to the negative attacks. “May God Almighty forgive her murderers, as I know she forgave them. I never can.”

He took office determined to rub the establishment’s noses in their loss and immediately began publicly rewarding his supporters with jobs. He was the first president to create a spoils, or patronage, system by giving federal jobs to his people.  

To make room, he fired some 900 government officials, spinning it as reform and constructive turnover to provide jobs to his people. Almost half of these patronage jobs were with the Postal Service. He believed these “common men” deserved a shot at power that had been held closely by eastern elites. Jackson supporter New York Sen. William L. Macy coined the phrase: “To the victor belong the spoils of the enemy.”

Jackson then placated his agrarian supporters and kept his base close by continuing to stir resentment toward those who were not of white European descent in pushing through and signing the Indian Removal Act in June of 1830. This act called for moving all Native Americans West of the Mississippi River, which led to the “Trail of Tears” and provided land-hungry white farmers with some 25 million additional acres in the East.  

With a reelection looming, Jackson threw more meat to his base by vetoing the application to recharter the Second Bank of the United States that was supported by a majority of Congress. Jackson opposed the national bank from his first day in office; he felt the bank helped the elites at the expense of southern and western farmers.  

Shortly after killing the bank, he pulled federal money from it, despite it being of questionable legal ground. He was forced to fire two Treasury secretaries before appointing one who would heed his demand to withdraw all federal money. He feared one central bank would expose the nation to influence from foreign governments and began putting federal money in state banks.

In 1834, Congress censured Jackson for his actions in what they called the “Bank War.” Jackson shrugged it off. Indeed, in his eight years of presidency he became increasingly autocratic and ignored some laws passed by Congress. He vetoed more legislation than all previous presidents combined, and when the Supreme Court sided with the Cherokee Nation against the state of Georgia, Jackson allowed Georgians to ignore the ruling.

Given the similarities in their style, it’s no surprise that Trump visited Jackson’s grave within months of being inaugurated, to mark Jackson’s 250th birthday, and has hung Jackson’s portrait in a place of honor in the Oval Office.

Jackson’s disruption, dismantling and realignment reverberated for two decades in what is known as the “Jacksonian era.” Will there be an ensuing “Trumpian era”?  The stakes are that high for both sides in 2020.

Dane Strother, a partner in Strother Nuckels Strategies, is a veteran Democratic strategist and communications consultant.

Tags Andrew Jackson Dane Strother Donald Trump Jacksonian democracy Presidency of Donald Trump Spoils system

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