“We are living in an unprecedented time in politics” has become a bastardised phrase in the post-2016 zeitgeist. Overused by pundits since Trump’s inauguration to feed an already-weary public, it is false because it is not informed by history. One populist president, Andrew Jackson, ruled from Washington in the nation’s infancy with both longevity and a coherent programme for government. It is his legacy that should provide a touchstone for how we judge the future machinations of the Trump administration.
On a warm spring morning in 1829, under the East Portico of the Capitol building gleaming in brilliant white marble, Jackson was inaugurated as the 7th President of the United States. It was an event which marked the crest of the populist wave that carried the white-maned statesman to office. Promising to stand up for ‘the people’, Jackson campaigned with vigour to rid Washington of the ‘bargain and corruption’ politics that had put the interests of the Virginian elite above those of the honest, hardworking Americans living in the new territories. In effect, to “make America great again”.
Allies of the 45th President allude to the spirit of Jackson’s presidency because it is politically and symbolically useful.
The inauguration itself attracted supporters and devotees numbering up to 10,000, who were visibly stirred by the following presidential address. In some cases, individuals were overcome with euphoria and rushed to clamber over the cable fastened to block off the stairway. Certain congressmen did not share in the jubilation, instead looking on sober and ashen-faced. One remarked that the crowd’s descent onto Washington resembled the “inundation of the northern barbarians into Rome”.
Nearly 200 years later, Trump strode the same Capitol steps with his shock of orange hair (or lack of), revelling in the cheers of from supporters.
“January 20th 2017 will be remembered as the day the people became the rulers of this nation again. The forgotten men and women of our country will be forgotten no longer,” he proclaimed.
Allies of the 45th President allude to the spirit of Jackson’s presidency because it is politically and symbolically useful. Rudi Giuliani, to appeal to Republicans wary of Trump following his shock win, told the press: “this is like Andrew Jackson’s victory. This is the people beating the establishment. And that’s how he [Trump] posited right from the beginning, the people are rising up against a government they find to be dysfunctional. And yes, it’s a defeat for the Democrats, but this is a defeat for some Republicans too.”
Defending against so many detractors has been difficult, and claims of Trump’s unfitness for office has been echoed by the Hill’s most respected statesman. Most recently, Sen. John McCain has claimed that the 45th President demonstrates a “growing inability, and even unwillingness, to separate truth from lies”. Henry Clay was even more candid, describing Old Hickory as “ignorant, passionate, hypocritical, corrupt and easily swayed by the basest men who surround him”. One wonders if this assessment is echoed by critics of Steve Bannon and Kellyanne Conway as well.
In the face of such attacks, both men would always respond with vitriolic attacks, albeit using different methods. Jackson was a serial duellist, killing men over trivial disputes ranging from defending the integrity of his wife to a horse race bet in 1806. Trump, however, replaces a flintlock pistol with his two thumbs and gunpowder with Twitter to defeat his enemies. Tweets have taken aim at Jeb Bush, Mika Brzezinski, Glenn Beck, Robert Gates and literally hundreds of other figures and entire countries, all usually broken up with ‘FAKE NEWS’ blasts.
This Plutarch-esque comparison of the moral quality of these two statesmen is tempered by matters of policy. In this regard the Jackson legacy is troubling. To allow new settlers to expand the American frontier to Alabama, Jackson signed into law measures to forcibly remove thousands of Cherokee natives from their ancestral home. Upon these virgin lands, new plantations could be built, allowing Americans to own slaves just as Jackson did. Joined to this, however, was a commitment to curtail the centralisation of the economy embodied in the Second Bank of the United States, so that the rich no longer had a stranglehold on the nation.
everything has precedent and the wheels of power and democracy are always turning.
Policies of expulsion and xenophobia have and will characterise the Trump presidency in the years to come, especially with the signing of two memorandums which further crack down on illegal immigration and “facilitate the detection, apprehension, detention and removal of aliens who have no lawful basis to enter or remain in the United States”. Since the GOP has control over all the legislative tentacles in Washington, it is doubtful that similar actions are diluted or killed in the committee rooms.
In politics, leaders are comforted by following the actions of their forebears. It provides a certain degree of continuity even when they are seeking radical change. Despite our limited perspective, we should not allow hot-takes on Trump-related farce to deceive us from one very simple fact – everything has precedent and the wheels of power and democracy are always turning.