Apparently Steve Bannon recently gave Donald Trump a biography of Andrew Jackson because he sees Jackson as a prototype of Trump. Trump misread or misremembered or couldn’t quite get the book. Be that as it may, I thought I’d read the same biography, but I wasn’t the only library member in Chapel Hill who had the same idea, so I ended up with a short volume by military historian Robert V. Remini called, unsurprisingly, Andrew Jackson, focusing on his military career but framed within his pre- and post-military experience (childhood and the presidency.)
It’s a good book. Some of the writing is stiff, but Remini is a master of explaining and analyzing military operations. The fundamental Jackson comes through loud and clear.
Jackson was an ambitious, iron-willed, self-disciplined and, by his lights, highly moral man. He had no formal military training and made mistakes, but he learned from them. Contrary to popular belief, he did not win the battle of New Orleans after peace was concluded; the treaty had been signed but not ratified. The battle itself, which made him a national hero, did more than stop the British attempt to control the Mississippi. It sent the world a message that the U.S. could match the world’s greatest military power in a head-on collision of forces, outfighting and outthinking the British. It also, because Jackson commanded troops from many states, did a great deal to nurture the idea that the United States was more than a federation of states, each proud and sovereign. In the early 19th century, that wasn’t a commonplace concept. (Of course it was Lincoln who saw the U.S. through to the ultimate meaning of “one nation.”)
Given that Trump went to a military prep school and never served in the military, there is no comparison between the two men. Jackson’s generalship entailed victories in major campaigns. His physical sacrifices and education in the brutality of war, as well as in leadership, made him the towering figure of his day.
Jackson’s obsession as a military leader was securing the U.S. from indigenous peoples and foreign powers. His thought was that the south could only be safe if the indigenous peoples were confined to smaller spaces–where they would become agriculturalists as opposed to hunter/gatherers–preferably across the Mississippi. He fought and defeated the Creeks and Seminoles in pursuit of this goal, rationalizing these wars as good for the indigenous people because they would be safer somewhere else, far from white settlers. Here we have a species of nationalism that is somewhat Trump-like, although Trump’s anti-immigrant stance completely flips the coin Jackson first pried off the table, meaning Trump wants to make America safe for immigrants (most of us) against anyone else who wants to live in the U.S. whereas Jackson was obsessed with displacing people already in the U.S. so that immigrants (most of us) could take over. Eventually, Jackson pushed the indigenous peoples across the Mississippi, following the “Trail of Tears,” when he was president. Trump’s idea is a kind of metal Mississippi, his border wall.
One of the things that irks Trump the most is how far short he falls of true popularity. Jackson was a feted hero; his armies loved, respected, and feared him. He put his life on the line repeatedly. So he had a charisma the billionaire Trump could never attain, much as he wants to be loved for having won the presidency with 3 million votes fewer than his opponent.
The issue of populism extends far beyond popularity, of course. Generally speaking, populism entails empowering the little guy, disentangling him from a too-powerful central authority. Here we see a colossal misfit of Trump in the Jacksonian mold. Skipping over his authoritarian, me-me-me concept of rule, one huge issue stands out. Jackson is the only president to have eliminated the national debt. At no other time did the U.S. owe zero to creditors. His reasoning was commonsensical but far reaching: it’s better not to have a central government that imposes itself on the nation with financial burdens that stretch endlessly into the future. Trump has styled himself “the King of Debt” and his budget and tax proposals follow the precedents he set for himself as a businessman: borrow a lot, push the debt onto someone else, and then take off with the profits and glory.
We know that most economists believe debt is a necessary evil, helping the nation deal with downturns and wars and strengthening the nation with wise investments. We also know that we will never retire our national debt and probably will never again “balance the budget” as Bill Clinton did. But if we look at the personal values and political priorities of Jackson and Trump, we see opposites.
The idea that Trump is some kind of populist because he channels the little guy’s anger into his pocket is absurd. Jackson deservedly fell in stature during the Civil Rights period in the ’60s, but as misguided and cruel as he was, he was attempting to secure and build the nation, a man of his times. If Trump, too, is a man of his times, that speaks ill of us all and has nothing to do with Andrew Jackson.