Following Donald Trump’s ordered killing of Qasem Soleimani, Ross Douthat, echoing a theme championed by former presidential adviser Steve Bannon, described Trump as “Andrew Jackson in the Persian Gulf.” In the early days of the Trump presidency, Bannon asserted, “Like Jackson’s populism, we’re going to build an entirely new political movement.” Over the past four years, pundits have often linked Trump to Jackson, both in style and substance. Trump himself has often evoked the memory of Jackson and connected his image with his own. He hung Andrew Jackson’s portrait in the Oval Office just a few days after his inauguration. Early in his presidency, he paid his respects at Jackson’s Hermitage and claimed that Jackson could have averted the Civil War (despite his death in 1845). Most recently, during Trump’s post-impeachment acquittal speech, he said that: “They say Andrew Jackson was always the nastiest campaign. They actually said we topped it.”
If Bannon created the Trump/Jackson connection, Walter Russell Mead made it respectable. In an influential 2017 Foreign Affairs essay, Mead called Trump’s ascent a ‘Jacksonian Revolt.’ In his essay, Mead expanded on his 2001 book Special Providence: American Foreign Policy and How It Changed the World, which outlines four schools of American foreign policy thinking: Hamiltonian, Wilsonian, Jeffersonian, and Jacksonian. To Mead, Jacksonians are economic populists, invested in honor, distrusting of cosmopolitan elites, and skeptical of immigrants. In foreign policy, they avoid conflicts abroad, but if war becomes unavoidable, Jacksonians seek total victory and “unconditional surrender.”
Much to the frustration of historians and scholars of Jackson and his times, Mead’s “Jacksonian” construction has proved popular. Unfortunately, Mead’s characterization reflects neither the worldview of Andrew Jackson nor the policy priorities of Jacksonian Democrats. Mead is a political scientist, not a historian, and uses the term Jacksonian less as “a tribute to the personal views or the foreign policy record of the nation’s seventh president” and more as a description of a broad school of thought. Despite this, in many publications and interviews, Mead and his admirers have summoned the historical example of Jackson and the antebellum Democrats as evidence for a conceptual outline as applied to our Trumpian moment.
Yet Jacksonians were anything but isolationist, nativist, and protectionist. The actual Jacksonian Democrats in fact supported imperialism, immigration, and free trade. They were, if anything, closer to Trump’s neoconservative critics.
Jackson was an avid expansionist. He hungered for Indian land and actively sought territory claimed by other European powers and dreamed of conquering Canada. Following his victory during the Creek War (1813–1814), Jackson forced the defeated Native Americans to cede 23 million acres that today form much of central Alabama and southern Georgia. Later, Jackson invaded Spanish Florida to pursue Seminole Indians engaged in cross-border raiding. Exploiting ambiguity in his orders, Jackson directed his forces to conquer the entire region, resulting in Spain’s yielding Florida in 1819. Following this feat, Jackson boasted that he could take Cuba next.
Most infamously, with one of his first acts as president, Jackson ordered the removal of Native Americans westward, opening their lands to white settlement. Even in retirement, Jackson encouraged his followers to pursue expansionist goals, stating during the 1844 election that “the candidate for office should be an annexation man.” With these ambitions in mind, Jackson encouraged his protégée James K. Polk, the 11th president, to bring Texas into the Union. While continental expansion was popular, it was also controversial and often sparked fierce debate. Yet despite protests, the Jacksonians were firmly on the expansionist side.
Jackson was also no isolationist but supported free trade, negotiating treaties with Denmark, Naples, and Portugal, and striking new trade deals with England, Russia, and Spain. While he had supported some protectionist policies, most notably the so-called Tariff of Abominations of 1828 once it became law, Jackson came to see tariffs and internal improvements as a kind of political favoritism and therefore ripe for corruption and abuse. Thanks to Jackson’s presidency, low tariffs, fiscal austerity, and minimal government interference in the economy became dogma for the Democratic Party for most of the 19th century. The Whig Party, in contrast, campaigned for a more activist government with higher tariffs in order to protect domestic industry. Thus, Mead’s claims that Jacksonians are protectionist does not reflect the historical reality.
Mead also claims that Jacksonians typically have an anti-immigrant bent, but Jacksonian history is much more complicated. By the late 1840s, the Democrats were well and truly a pro-slavery party and actively promoted policies to ensure white supremacy. But they were not nativist. Instead, Jackson and his Democratic Party welcomed white immigration, leading the Whigs to blame their 1844 loss to Polk on “hordes” of Irish Catholic immigrants. Indeed, the Know-Nothing Party arose to oppose Democrats precisely because the latter party accommodated mass European immigration.
Thus, according to Walter Russell Mead’s framework, even Andrew Jackson wasn’t a Jacksonian. Mead’s construction of Jacksonianism may match Donald Trump, but it has little in common with its namesake. This is not to say that Trump and Jackson are completely unalike. Trump, like Jackson, has a disposition for seeking vengeance against his political enemies, isolating onetime allies, stoking conflict within his administration, and conspiracy theories. While Trump’s policies may not reflect those of Jackson, some of his populist rhetoric does. Jackson and his Democratic followers often cast themselves as patriotic victims made up of “the humbler members of society — the farmers, mechanics, and laborers,” suffering at the hands of aristocratic oppressors. Stylistically, Trump echoes Jackson’s emphasis on the common man’s place in the political order against entrenched elites. But that’s hardly unique to Donald Trump or Andrew Jackson. The more one studies the life of Jackson, the harder it becomes to compare him and Trump.
In historical terms, the rise of Trump is no Jacksonian revolt, at least not in the actual sense of the word. The most un-Jacksonian characteristic of the Trump administration is its lack of popularity. Jackson won the popular vote in 1824 but lost the presidency to John Quincy Adams thanks to the House of Representatives. Jackson, unsurprisingly, thought the Electoral College should be abolished. As Jackson put it himself, “the majority is to govern.” Striking back in 1828, Jackson won the presidency handedly in the electoral college as well as the popular vote. An Electoral College winner but popular vote loser in 2016, Trump may be the champion of his people, but even with his record of 49 percent approval in the most recent Gallup Poll, he can hardly be called “the people’s choice.”
Even with Jackson’s contentious first term as president — with South Carolina on the brink of secession during the Nullification Crisis, which also resulted in the resignation of his Vice President, John C. Calhoun; the Eaton sex scandal that rocked his cabinet; and the divisive Indian Removal Act — Jackson still commanded the popular vote and overwhelming majority of Electoral College votes in 1832 over Henry Clay. If Trump is going to be reelected, it is most likely only going to be via a narrow Electoral College victory given his unpopularity. Furthermore, Democratic candidates in the antebellum era benefited greatly from the example of Jackson and as his devoted admirers. Van Buren’s successful presidential candidacy in 1836 was promoted as a continuation of the Jackson administration and Polk was heralded as ‘Young Hickory’ to Jackson’s Old Hickory. If the 2018 midterms have shown us anything, candidates trying to mirror Trump have largely failed, and we don’t yet know how viable a post-Trump but still Trump-infused GOP might be.
So, despite what pundits have said, Trump does not stand within the political tradition of Andrew Jackson. The comparisons of Trump and Jackson by Mead, Trump, and many of the Right’s talking heads are at best superficial and at worst ahistorical. While liberal historians such as Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. and Sean Wilentz embrace Jackson as a flawed but potent symbol of American democracy, most historians have discarded Jackson as an icon of white supremacy. Undoubtedly, these conflicting visions of Jackson will continue to spark debate among academics. Given this lack of consensus, it is unsurprising that the president of the so-called deplorables has rallied behind the image of a president many consider deplorable.
Trump may be trying to make Jackson great again by connecting his presidency to that of Old Hickory’s. But he and others have done so via Mead’s bad presentation of history. While the life of Andrew Jackson is undoubtedly complex, and his legacy is complicated, Mead’s understanding of America’s past will drive us to misunderstand both the Age of Jackson and the Age of Trump.