Last night over dinner with fellow historian and pal John McKee Barr (who’s book on Lincoln you should have already read, what are you waiting for?) we spent a few minutes expressing our amusement at the fairly glib media analogies between Trump and Andrew Jackson that have become so pervasive since the inauguration that our students have been soliciting our thoughts this past week or two as well.
If, like I, you’re looking to keep the string of think pieces straight or find them all in one place to read this weekend, then here’s what I think of as the most interesting, thoughtful, and useful. Lots to think about, argue about, reflect on…..
Back in November I suppose Steve Inskeep’s piece kicked a lot of this conversation off in The Atlantic. Inskeep, for those who have not included him in their media diet, is the NPR Morning Edition host who’s popular non-fiction book Jacksonland came out early in 2015 and revisits for a broad audience the relationship of Jackson to the Cherokee and the politics and consequences of Cherokee removal. I’ll say this—Inskeep is intelligent and the book is fine, but it is certainly more likely to be a piece of conversation with American readers than better books on the same topic by professional historians. Take that for what it’s worth—read it, it’s worth it, but don’t let it be the only thing you read on Cherokee removal. Here’s his November piece on Trump/Jackson “Donald Trump and the Legacy of Andrew Jackson”
Inaugurated on January 20, 2017, it was widely reported that one of Trump’s earliest redecorating moves was to install a portrait of Jackson in the White House. Apparently, Trump finds Jackson’s populism (and perhaps total disregard for the Constitution?) inspirational. One wonders to what degree pieces like Inskeep’s might have provided Trump with the inspiration. Surely Trump has glazed lovingly at Jackson’s portrait on the $20 bill at some point in his life, but I doubt he could explain in any intelligent way anything about the lives or careers or passions of any of the men on our currency. So, anyway, Jackson is now Trump’s wall and I would be surprised if the Obama era Treasury plans to update our currency to more reflect an inclusive past might be as dead as environmental stewardship, refugee admissions, or the protection of voting rights. “A Homebody Finds the Ultimate Home Office”
In response to the Inauguration, the New York Times ran a truly broad and wonderful set of reflections by a number of literary and academic intellectuals approaching Trump from every angle. Recommended generally, but pieces by Jennifer Wiener, Curtis Sittenfeld, Timothy Egan, and Sarah Jaffe are very good. Princeton’s Sean Wilentz—author of a brief Jackson bio, a massive but important history of 19th century politics, as well as the truly remarkable study of Jackson era working class political movements—has long defended Jackson on similar ground to Brands as an agent of the progressive expansion of democracy, while acknowledging the blemishes. Wilentz has also made a lengthy public career advocating in places like the American Propsect for the modern Democratic party against its detractors left and right, as well as providing what he surely hopes is a firm intellectual narrative that supports the history of the party of Jackson, FDR, JFK, and Hillary as the central force for progress in our nation’s history. This assertion is easily satirized, but I confess I admire his scholarship and tenacity if not necessarily all of his partisan boosterism. I will go to my grave with his Chants Democratic among my top twenty American history books of all time, and I still think his work is generally worth our time to read and consider, especially since it, too, will always be a part of the conversation. Here’s his quick take on Trump as a successor to the legacy of Calhoun rather than Wilentz’s cherished Jackson. “More John Calhoun Than Old Hickory”
Inauguration day, Foreign Affairs ran Walter Russell Mead’s “The Jacksonian Revolt: American Populism and the Liberal Order.” Mead is a centrist foreign policy opinion machine, and frankly someone I find fairly glib, unoriginal, and yet still omnipresent as a centrist critic of the right nonetheless so frequently criticized by the left. His support for the Iraq War will likely devalue all of his contributions to serious discussions of foreign affairs for the rest of his life, yet one can’t fault him for not trying to make up for. While operating a think tank and issuing scores of think pieces, Mead has also undertaken a multi-volume continuing examination of foreign policy, including a close look at the Jackson era in Special Providence Here in the Foreign Affairs piece Mead makes an early contribution to this hopefully ephemeral Trump/Jackson genre, but notes that Trump is so intellectually vapid and inconsistent that it is impossible to place him in any particular school of realism or idealism with regard to the analysis of foreign policy and yet the vibrant base of enthusiastic support for him, nonetheless, among certain voters (nearly entirely white middle class people who think they are economically suffering despite all evidence to the contrary) at least gives Trump some patina of Jackson’s mantle.
By January 29, historian and biographer H.W. Brands weighed in with his thoughts on Trump as Jackson in Politico. For Brands, Jackson was an avatar of democracy, even if that democracy in the 1820s was limited to white male egalitarianism rather than human equality, Brands upholds a generally traditional view—largely the reason Jackson is venerated enough to get a coveted spot on our currency—for breaking open elite governance and letting in “the people.” For Brands, Trump’s rise to power on voter repression, without a majority win in the popular contest, and with chicanery from outside the election makes his entrance into the White House just the opposite of Jackson’s. “Trump as the New Andrew Jackson? Not on Old Hickory’s Life” (h/t to John Barr, I missed this one in the barrage until he mentioned it last night)
On January 30, History News Network (subscribe already, why haven’t you?) ran Tarleton State’s Michael Landis’s blog post which you can almost always count on to express a contrarian position from the position of a passionate but also responsibly informed, academic reflection. Later to the conversation than the pieces that charted Trump’s populism, reliance on white male egalitarianism at the expense of everyone else, or his reckless foreign policy, Landis notes the latest Jacksonian precedent for Trump: Despite social media chatter immediately comparing Trump’s decision to fire acting Attorney General Sally Yates Monday to the more recent Nixon era “Saturday Night Massacre,” Landis reminds us all that Jackson relied on propagandistic disinformation as he also serially dismissed Treasury secretaries concerned about the illegality of Jackson’s determination to remove federal deposits from the National Bank despite Congress’s legislative directives. Neither incident in the Jackson or Trump administrations will sustain your faith in our Constitutional checks and balances as it is so clear that a strong willed executive combined with an abdicating legislature and utterly disparage press could do anything in response to unconstitutional executive action. I hear constantly that norms and policies and bureaucracy and Congress and the Courts will check Trump’s impulses, but that remains to be seen. I am not optimistic. For what it’s worth, I strongly urge you to read Landis’s Northern Men with Southern Loyalties, an examination of the northern wing of the Democratic Party before the American Civil War but until then, start here with his “Another Way in Which Trump is Proving to Be Like Andrew Jackson”
I am sure that once this relationship between Trump and Jackson becomes familiar and shorthand that we will see many more of these pieces, and if there are any interesting ones that I have missed I’d love to hear about it. Tweet them my way @npcox