Donald Trump Sees Himself in Andrew Jackson

The president deserves the Jackson legacy, but not for the reasons he’d like.

U.S. President Donald Trump
President Donald Trump, beneath a portrait of President Andrew Jackson, speaks in the Oval Office of the White House on Feb. 1.

Michael Reynolds-Pool/Getty Images

On Wednesday, President Trump paid a visit to Andrew Jackson’s grave in Nashville, Tennessee, to lay a wreath and pay his respects. Trump isn’t the first president to visit Jackson’s Hermitage estate: He joins Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt, Lyndon Johnson, and Ronald Reagan on the list of chief executives who made the trek to the Hermitage. But Trump’s visit—coming as it does to the spiritual home of a president whose racial ideology formed the backbone of his populism—arrives with a certain resonance.

Trump, who hung a portrait of Jackson in the Oval Office, sees himself in the seventh president of the United States. A populist crusader against entrenched elites; a democratizer who will bring government back to the people. “The forgotten men and women of our country will be forgotten no longer,” said Trump in his inaugural address, in language that his chief strategist, Stephen Bannon, praised as “very Jacksonian.” This is the most familiar vision of Jackson, heavily indebted to the mythmaking of the Democratic Party, which claims him as its founder next to Thomas Jefferson. In this popular narrative of the party, Jefferson embodied equality, autonomy, and economic opportunity, whereas Jackson stood for democracy and its expansion. Under his presidency, the United States renounced its property requirements for voting, opening the franchise to all white men. Defenders of Jackson acknowledge his racial exclusivity but see it as separate from a broader embrace of the principle of democratic participation.

That’s one view of Jackson. There is another. That perspective sees Jackson in a different tradition. Not of democracy, but of white supremacy. This Jackson was a planter who built his wealth and influence with the stolen labor of more than 200 enslaved Africans. He forced Native Americans off their land in a campaign of removal that claimed thousands of lives in service of white expansion and white hegemony.

Jacksonian democracy, in other words, was a racial democracy built on a foundation of ethnic cleansing, committed to race hierarchy and enslavement. And while Jackson rejected the nullification theories of his vice president, John C. Calhoun, he all but embraced the South Carolinian’s view that slavery—and racial caste more broadly—was “the best guarantee to equality among the whites.” Along with that racial ideology, he brought ceaseless condemnation of elite corruption and a profoundly anti-government philosophy that contributed to the panic of 1837, a crushing depression that lasted more than a half-decade.

If Donald Trump channels any vision of Andrew Jackson, it’s the latter one, from his anti-immigration message rooted in the explicit view that undocumented immigrants lack legitimate claims on national belonging, to his administration’s campaign of harassment against Muslims and suspected “illegals,” orchestrated by advisers who see immigration and Islam as threats to their vision of a white “Judeo-Christian” America. Trump even seems to mimic parts of Jackson’s personality. Not his rigid religiosity or military demeanor, but his domineering, authoritarian temperament and his barely suppressed aggression.

During the campaign, this view sat in real tension with a Republican Party that still traced its lineage to Abraham Lincoln and still held a commitment—however nominal and contingent—to equal opportunity. Since the election, however, this vision has come to dominate the GOP, both because of Trump’s victory, and because of its roots in long-standing trends. Facing demographic shifts and rising demands from nonwhites and other marginalized groups, millions of white Americans have turned sharply toward a new politics of racial reaction. In more concrete terms, this is the difference between a Republican Party where a figure like Iowa Rep. Steve King was a rhetorical outlier—albeit one who still garnered praise and support from other Republicans—to one who’s simpatico with high-ranking administration officials and whose racist rhetoric—“We can’t restore our civilization with somebody else’s babies”—is echoed by White House figures like Bannon.

In recent years, Democrats have pulled back from Andrew Jackson. His vision of democracy, of a white politics for a white country, is at odds with the modern Democratic Party and its pluralist commitments. His populism, likewise, is too exclusive. And Democrats don’t lack for alternatives in the search for a usable past to inspire a new future. Jesse Jackson, indeed, works much better for Democrats who want a model for left-wing populism from a figure who represents the roots of the party as it exists.

Excised from the Democratic Party, the spirit of Andrew Jackson—conjured by Donald Trump and his allies—now occupies the GOP. Every president makes a mark on his party. The question is now, channeling Jackson, how will Trump affect Republican ideology?

At just two months into the Trump administration, it is too early to tell. But it’s worth considering Jackson’s impact on the nascent Democratic Party of the early 19th century. “The party proclaimed itself the tribune of the common white man, as against all other groups in the society, whether of class, race, or gender,” writes historian Daniel Walker Howe in his study of the early American republic, What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848.

The question is this: Are we living through the last gasp of white reaction? Or does Trump herald a neo-Jacksonian democracy where, once again, the “common white man” stands as the locus of politics and government against all others?