Donald Trump, the man who would not be Jackson

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Historians seeking to make sense of the Trumpian moment have looked back into the past to see what parallels might be found. 

Numerous comparisons have been offered, from Zachery Taylor to John C. Calhoun as well as Richard Nixon. But the most enduring historical counterpart since 2015 to the present with Donald Trump has been the seventh president, Andrew Jackson. 

For those who love Trump, the Jackson connection serves to enforce their understanding of him as a man of the common people, a threat to the elites of Washington and as the champion of the rural working class. For those who despise Trump, the Jackson correlation also works, because it confirms their view of Trump as a phony populist, a paranoid racist and the figurehead of white grievance politics. Many scholars (myself included) have been quick to criticize the Trump-Jackson analogues but this has not slowed down critics and fans of the 45th president from utilizing it.  

Despite the efforts of some, Trump’s defeat should effectively banish any kind of Jacksonian connection.

The fundamental problem with the Trump-Jacksonian connection has been the lack of Trump’s popularity. Jackson’s rise to fame was built off his near universal acclaim following his victory at New Orleans in 1815. His celebrity status was well established that Jackson was often simply referred to as “the hero.” Winning the popular vote in 1824 but being overpassed for the presidency only strengthened his resolve and deepened his democratic appeal, striking back in 1828 in a popular and electoral college landslide.

Trump’s reputation of course was incredibly well established thanks to decades of being in the public spot and a stable of American pop-culture. From bestselling “The Art of the Deal” (1987) to cameos in films and TV shows, guest appearances on talk shows, as well 14 years hosting NBC’s “The Apprentice,” Trump had established himself as one of the famous men in America. But famous is not the same thing as popular. 

Losing the popular vote in 2016 and only narrowly winning the electoral college, Trump has presided over one of the most unpopular administrations ever in American history. Given Trump’s defeat to Joe Biden, the soul searching and infighting of the GOP has been on full display. Despite parroting the policy platforms of “Reformer Cons” and adopting the preferred nominee list for the Supreme Court offered by the Federalist Society, Trump has never cared for the direction of the Republican Party and the future of conservatism. Trumpism has always been ideologically hollow and impossible for its proponents to define.

Unlike Jackson, Trump has never been able to transform his movement into a party, to take his ideas and present a philosophy. Why? Because it has always been about the man, not the many, and about impulses, not belief. 

Around Jackson massed a tenable albeit fragile coalition which became a coherent political party. The Democratic Party may have been sown in Jackson’s celebrity, but it was defined and strengthened by his and his allies’ philosophy concerning American empire, freedom and democracy. Jackson’s political creed was made clear in his first annual message: “the first principle of our system — that the majority is to govern”. Continuing, Jackson argued “a President elected by a minority can not enjoy the confidence necessary to the successful discharge of his duties.” If anything, Trump has demonstrated this point made by Jackson. To be sure, Jackson’s vision of egalitarianism and majoritarianism was for white men only. But for a man who claims to speak for the American people, time and time again, Trump has proven himself to be the president only for the monitory of the population that elected him.

Plenty of failed incumbents and presidential hopes have displayed bitterness to their opponents. For example, like his father before him at the victory of Thomas Jefferson, John Quincy Adams refused to attend Jackson’s inauguration. But sourness is not the same as subversion. Trump’s continued attempts to subvert the will of the majority of the American people, in addition to the electoral college (an institution Jackson was no fan of) only cements the undemocratic and anti-Jacksonian character of Trumpism.

All of this should give us pause, practically with the recent attempts by Republican representatives to alter the outcome of the election. As David Frum recently warned, “When highly committed parties strongly believe [in] things that they cannot achieve democratically, they don’t give up on their beliefs — they give up on democracy.”

Trump never has been the heir to Jackson and Trumpism has never been the successor to Jacksonian Democracy.

Daniel Gullotta is the host of the Age of Jackson Podcast and has written for the Washington Post, the Bulwark and National Review. He is a Ph.D. candidate (ABD) in American religious history at Stanford University. Follow him on Twitter @danielgullotta.

Tags 2020 presidential elections Andrew Jackson David Frum Donald Trump Jacksonian democracy Joe Biden John Quincy Adams popular vote Trump supporters trumpism unpopular administration

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