Donald Trump Vs. Andrew Jackson: Populists in Power, People in Peril
President Elect Donald Trump, among many other disparaging jibes, has been branded with the populist tag, a word that has assumed slanderous connotations through association with this man. By pinning this label upon a candidate, the media suggests that said populist appeals only to the under-educated rabble, as if the masses of working class Americans are incapable of making decisions, and require the assistance of an enlightened elite to keep them from hurting themselves. But is there substance behind the slander?
An unexpected grass roots movement in all the right places snuck Donald Trump into the White House through the electoral college back door. SinceTrump is the ultimate x-factor President-elect in American history, there is no way to accurately predict what is going to take place after inauguration day. I did not vote for him, but if he annuls free trade agreements and helps bring manufacturing jobs back to America, as promised, I am willing to give credit where credit is due. If, on the other hand, his presidency results in violent attacks and economic upheaval for certain classes of immigrants, fueled by his xenophobic, jingoistic rhetoric, then let this serve as my smug disclaimer against culpability.
The reason why I am writing this is that the Trump victory hearkens me back to another time in American History, when in 1828 a hugely popular "celebrity" candidate was swept into office by playing on fears of cultural annihilation or assimilation. In that election, the exclusively white electorate was vehemently opposed to sharing land with Native Americans, and felt the necessity to move these people to a place far enough away that their European Christian sensibilities would not be troubled by ugly brown blots upon the landscape. As a result, the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, and other nations were earmarked for relocation west of the Mississippi. Not surprisingly, those tribes were also sitting on prime cotton cultivation country.
The man responsible for this massive forced relocation was Andrew Jackson, sometimes known as Old Hickory. I see parallels between Donald Trump and Andrew Jackson, and I will do my best to articulate those here. The similarities are not perfect, the differences are glaring, and the comparison itself may just be a pointless academic exercise. In American and world history in general, populist candidates such as these two have been known to be dangerously honest about their plans, and dangerously stubborn. Because of this, I fear the outcome of the Trump victory may be equally tumultuous for certain groups of people who stand to lose.
When analyzing these Populists Presidents side by side, convention requires that we first answer the question of what a populist is. Writing in Introduction to Twenty-first Century Populism, Daniele Albertazzi and Duncan McDonnell define populism as an ideology that "...pits a virtuous and homogeneous people against a set of elites and dangerous 'others' who are together depicted as depriving (or attempting to deprive) the sovereign people of their rights, values, prosperity, identity, and voice."
Even these supposedly neutral academics seem to be implying, in this definition, that populist supporters are nothing more than ignorant hucksters, puffed up by an exaggerated sense of self-importance, circling the wagons and tilting ridiculously at the windmills of these so called dangerous others. Whether or not Donald Trump is, or Andrew Jackson was the cure to what ails these virtuous and homogeneous people is another question, but in the light of economic displacement, insurmountable debt, massive income disparity, and the erosion of quality of life in recent decades, can we blame the people for believing that dangerous others do exist, and is it fair to label these populist movements as merely a knee-jerk response to imagined wrongdoings?
On the other hand, populist candidates typically engage in fear mongering tactics by placing blame for the woes of their own tribe on racial groups, often immigrants, sometimes citizens, who have a different skin color or a different culture than those of the homogeneous sovereigns. This is where populism can degenerate into a tyrannical, authoritarian system that suppresses free speech, ignores individual rights, and leads to violence against those labeled outsiders. Andrew Jackson's Presidential populist campaign eventually led to the death and displacement of thousands of people that were born within the boundaries of this nation, people whose cultures predated the arrival of Europeans by thousands of years. Will the election of Donald Trump signal a similar tragedy on a mass scale for a race already populating the western portion of the continent before Manifest Destiny swelled the boundaries of the United States?
Populist Politicians Under Fire - Then And Now
It is difficult to conceptualize now, but there was a time when the territory that these contiguous United States occupy was still largely unconquered and untamed. In the present era, when there are no more unexplored frontiers to civilize, no more heathen, barbaric tribes to subdue, potential politicians rise to fame by building glittery high-rise casinos, force feeding their abrasive personalities on the public through reality TV, and making outrageous proclamations via the new frontier of social media.
The populist Presidential candidate Andrew Jackson could not avail himself of such niceties. He could not tweet his victory in the battle of New Orleans out to mankind. He could not instantly transmit a nationally televised rant about how difficult and stubborn his Seminole and Creek adversaries were being, via dozens of scoop starved media outlets. Not only was there no TV or telephone, he couldn't even avail himself of the dots and dashes of the telegraph, this communications system not coming into commercial viability until the 1840s. Reporting of events was agonizingly sluggish at that time, and the instant gratification, yesterday's-news attitude that is normal today simply did not exist. News was so slow, in fact, that when Old Hickory's US troops fought the "bloody" British in the town of New Orleans, neither of the belligerents realized that a peace treaty had already been signed.
Andrew Jackson came from a farming family of modest means. Like Populist Donald Trump, his forebears were recent immigrants, Jackson's family arriving from Ireland just two years before his birth, Trump's grandfather sneaking in as an illegal immigrant from Kallstadt, Germany. Although Donald Trump attended a military academy, Jackson went beyond the dashing, chick-magnet uniform by actually serving as a soldier from the time he was still a child, beginning with action as a courier in the American Revolution.
Even without formal military training, Jackson's career as a soldier was storied and prolific, his fighting being conducted principally against the people he would later evict from their homelands. During the War of 1812, before he fought the bloody British at New Orleans he gave the Creek tribe a beat down which deprived them of land. In 1817 he engaged the Seminoles in Florida, then belonging to Spain, an invasion deep into the swamps that pressured Spain to cede the peninsula to the United States. Both of these actions against the civilized tribes of the Southeast made enormous tracks of prime agricultural land, a commodity that Andrew Jackson speculated in, available to white settlers. Will Donald Trump also exploit his presidency to turn a profit? Has he already?
Also in stark contrast to Donald Trump, who certainly has a long history of running his mouth but had never seriously run for any office, Andrew Jackson entered politics early. When he was 30 he served as Congressman from Tennessee, and later as Senator. Call it an exaggerated view of masculinity, call it devotion to higher ideals, but in that era, unlike now, it was not uncommon for politicians to accompany troops into battle. Rather than staying home and denigrating the service of those who risk their lives, as we witnessed when Trump recently ridiculed John McCain for being taken prisoner by the North Vietnamese, at least Jackson the politician joined his men at the front of the wars he stirred up.
Even so, when Jackson later ran for President, his experience in public office was considered too scanty and limited for Chief Executive. He was widely criticized for his undistinguished record as a Congressman, and even for his poor command of written English. In the 2016 campaign, Hillary Clinton's advocates likewise contrasted her tenure in the highest halls of power with the lack of experience of her opponent, Donald Trump.
19th Century "Swamp Drainer?"
It is only when examining Andrew Jackson's Presidential campaign and subsequent deeds in office that disturbing parallels between these two Presidents, almost two hundred years apart, begin to be noted.
In 1824, the popular war hero Jackson failed to gain the White House in spite of winning the greatest percentage of the popular vote and the highest electoral count, though not a majority. Per the constitution, the selection of President went to the House of Representatives, where it was awarded to John Quincy Adams. This "corrupt bargain" backdoor victory for Adams could be seen as a precursor to what Donald Trump vociferously whined about prior to the 2016 election, that the instruments of government would be organized against him to secure the election for Hillary Clinton, that the "political insiders" would be manipulated into power in opposition to the voice of the people. As it turned out, there was no corrupt bargain victory for Hillary, but a repeat of '24 was widely feared by the Trumpsters.
Much as Donald Trump was considered more of a circus sideshow than a legitimate candidate in the early stages of the 2016 campaign, Henry Clay and other giants among early 19th century statesmen did not take Andrew Jackson seriously. He was considered quick tempered, his very Trump-like sensitivity to insult even leading him to fight duels over his offended honor. As has been similarly noted with Trump, Jackson's hot-headed temperament was thought unfit for the Presidency. Fortunately for mankind, there was no nuclear button at that time for him to get his easily offended fingers onto.
After being denied the Presidency in 1824 by what he considered corrupt methods, Jackson launched his 1828 campaign as a crusade to clean out corruption and restore "purity and economy" to government, his version of draining the swamp, as Trump is fond of quoting. Jackson's opponents had no choice but to attempt sully the reputation of the wildly popular candidate by attacks on his personal character. Nobody accused him of being a misogynistic "p-grabber," but the questionable virtue of his divorcee wife Rachel was thrown before a largely Puritan-minded public.
Perhaps the most disturbing parallel with Donald Trump, however, was Jackson's support for the Indian Removal Act, the intention of which was to move the "civilized tribes" of the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Muscogee Creeks, and Seminoles to reservations west of the Mississippi. Land-hungry white men viewed Native American competition as an obstacle to prosperity and improved status in the social order. The Mississippi River was the "wall" that would buffer the white race from competition over land with Native Americans. In an era when agriculture was the primary means of livelihood, land was the way to make a living. Trump promises jobs through the elimination of Latin American competition, Jackson promised land via the removal of the Native Americans.
The mud puddle of the trickling Rio Grande not being a sufficient barrier to protect American culture and material prosperity from Mexican and Central American immigrants, Trump cannot merely sweep these vilified competitors across a river, as Jackson did. Instead, he has proposed building an actual physical barrier across the entirety of the United State's southern border. Unfortunately, populism seems to require a scapegoat for the economic misery its supporters find themselves mired in. Therefore, Donald Trump has pulled a page from the Jackson playbook and has demonized the inhabitants of nations to our immediate south.
True to his campaign promises, Andrew Jackson pushed his Indian Removal Act easily through Congress. This law authorized the President to negotiate with Southern tribes for their removal west of the Mississippi. It also vindicated state laws that promoted and legalized this removal. In Worcester v. Georgia, the Supreme Court under Chief Justice John Marshall shot down the portion of the Act that allowed the separate states to deal with the tribes individually, but President Jackson refused to comply with this legal ruling of the higher court, and the forced migration of the Southern Tribes was implemented apace.
The result was the Trail of Tears, the brutal process through which thousands of members of the Cherokee, Muscogee, Seminole, Chickasaw, and Choctaw nations, as much as one third of their populations, died of starvation, exposure, disease and outright murder on a death march across the Midwest to Indian Territory in the present state of Oklahoma.
All I want in this creation
Is a pretty little wife and a big plantation
Way up north in the Cherokee nation— -Pro Jackson jingle, circa 1830s
Will Donald Trump keep his campaign promise? Do you think he can?
Trump Trail of Tears?
As witnessed in the large scale genocide brought about by Andrew Jackson's Indian Removal Act and the resulting Trail of Tears, populists have a disturbing tendency to keep their campaign promises. Current scoffers laugh at Trump's proposals to build a wall across the southern border and to deport millions of immigrants as ideas that are untenable, prohibitively expensive, pipe-dream castles in the sky. Because these are the same naysayers who said that Trump would never be the Republican candidate, then would never be President, the accuracy of their prophecies and predictions is somewhat questionable.
If history has taught us one thing about populists, it is that we must believe their bombastic proclamations, or suffer the consequences for acting too late. At the risk of invoking Godwin's law, the maxim stating that if an online discussion goes on long enough sooner or later a comparison with Hitler will be made, I will now nonetheless draw a disquieting parallel with the Nazi Fuhrer, another populist who rose to power by blaming racial groups for his nation's woes.
In 1925,years before he took power, Adolf Hitler published Mein Kampf, a book in which he described precisely what his plans were for Europe and how he would go about purifying the German race. In Mein Kampf the future Fuhrer advocated the extermination of the Jews and the concept of Lebensraum, whereby the German nation would gain room for its expanding population at the expense of Russia and its vassal nations to the east.
Adolf Hitler was also scoffed at in the beginning of his political career. Like Trump and Jackson, he was considered an uncouth outsider who appealed only to the basest, most uneducated elements in society. European heads of state did not take him seriously when he launched upon his campaign to dominate the continent, even though Mein Kampf had been there for them to read and draw conclusions from for several years. In spite of brazenly outlining his alarming plans right there in print, politicians believed he could be appeased, that he would be happy with retaking the Rhineland, that he would be content with the Sudentenland, that Austria would satiate his territorial ambitions. For the failure of European leaders to take Hitler seriously, the most devastating conflict in world history resulted.
In light of these parallels with past populists, should we expect Donald Trump to do anything other than what he says? Will the human misery of a Trump Trail of Tears of back to Mexico then affect our collective conscience, especially if it includes the children of immigrants who have never lived anywhere else but America? On a purely practical level, will we be willing to pay higher prices at the grocery store, hotels, and restaurants when the cheap labor and high productivity of undocumented workers is replaced by surly, pricey, unmotivated, sun-sensitive teenagers who have never lifted a shovel, scrubbed a pot, picked a tomato, or cleaned a toilet in their hitherto pampered lives? There will be economic consequences to such a human upheaval, so we, the American people, better tighten our belts and get ready to deal with them.
Am I saying that Trump is a dangerous tyrant on par with Adolf Hitler - probably not. Am I saying that he intends to lead us into global conflict to restore America's damaged pride and prestige - I don't know. What I am saying is that without the backing of the political elite to manipulate the levers of the machine that pick Presidents, Donald Trump depends solely on the support of the people to secure his reelection in 2020. Therefore, he will have to fulfill his political promises. If he says he will build a wall on the Mexican border - get ready. If he says he will deport millions of undocumented workers - get ready.
Will Donald Trump pursue his agenda at all costs? Like Andrew Jackson, will he go so far as to defy the Constitution of the United States?
All of these considerations are as yet unknown variables in an equation that threatens a momentous cataclysm for the inhabitants of this continent. I cannot pretend to prognosticate what will happen in the next four years, all I am saying is that when populists speak, history says we better listen.