Another Jacksonian Age, For Better or Worse

President Andrew Jackson is back in the news again, despite being dead the past 172 years, this time around because of President Donald Trump. Jackson’s portrait has been given a prominent place in Trump’s Oval Office, Trump took the opportunity of a trip to Nashville this week to lay a wreath at Jackson’s home, and the current president frequently makes a point of comparing himself to his rough-hewn and populist predecessor.
The last time Jackson was in the news was when he was demoted from his place on the $20 bill in favor of the anti-slavery and civil rights heroine Harriet Tubman. Originally the idea was to demote former Revolutionary War hero and first Treasury Secretary and all around Founding Father Alexander Hamilton from his spot on the ten-spot, probably because Jackson was the founding father of the Democratic Party and Hamilton had views that sounded suspiciously like what the later Republican Party would espouse, but Hamilton’s reputation was somehow rescued by a big hip-hop Broadway musical that noted his illegitimate birth and immigrant status and his life-long impeccable anti-slavery credentials and a vision of an urbanized America where a meritocratic elite was allowed to flourish, and all that budget-balancing small government stuff and red-in-tooth-and-claw capitalism that Hamilton espoused was forgotten. Around the same time even the Democrats were admitting that Jackson was an enthusiastic slave-holder who had waged avowedly genocidal wars against various Indian tribes and forced a mass relocation of other tribes that left at least 4,000 Cherokees dead along the infamous Trail of Tears, and that his crackpot economic theories which so closely resemble the most Democratic Party’s didn’t exactly work out for him, and thus Jackson wound up with the currency demotion.
All of which makes Jackson an odd choice for a modern Republican president to tout as his favorite, but then again Trump is an odd sort of modern Republican president. and one can easily see the reasons for his Jacksonian affinity. Jackson was an undeniably colorful character, and even Trump’s most strident critics will acknowledge that he is as well, and he ran as a pugnacious and proudly crude outsider who would defend his fellow common men from the nefarious machinations of a nebulous elite, which is pretty much the same storyline that Trump is peddling, and he was so beloved by the poorly educated of his time that his picture wound up on money, which is probably what Trump is aiming for.
There was other comparisons, too. Jackson was the first president who had not been born to the colonial aristocracy that had fomented the War of Independence and crafted the Constitution and tended the already-globalized economy, just as the self-proclaimed billionaire Trump proudly wears a chip on his shoulder that he had to make big campaign contributions to get the Clintons to come to his third wedding and is still hated by the older-money smart set. Jackson followed the mixed-results administration of John Quincy Adams, the son of a previous president who had been educated at the best schools and spoke several languages been involved in high-level diplomacy from a young and whose intellectual credentials were impressive by any standards, and had won the presidency with what Jackson called a “corrupt bargain,” just as Trump defeated a previous president’s son in the primaries and then succeeded President Barack Obama, who pretended to have Adams’ intellectual credentials and whose legitimacy Trump had challenged with a similarly fact-free conspiracy theory. Both men were mean old score-settling scorched-earth types, too, which in both cases endeared them to their many ardent admirers.
Such eerie similarities do little to comfort our old-fashioned Republican souls, though, and we can’t imagine they will make any self-respecting Democrat any more favorably inclined to either Trump or their own party’s founder. It might not matter much to Trump’s most ardent fans, but Jackson’s unapologetic-to-the-end pro-slavery stand and all that entirely unnecessary slaughter of peaceable and culturally integrated American Indians still rankles our Lincolnian sensibilities, and we’re sure that by now most Democrats would even agree, and anyone who bothers to read up on it will find that Jackson’s populist economics didn’t work out. The friend of the common man’s distrust of financial elites was such that he provoked the Panic of 1837, the nation’s worst financial crisis until the Great Depression, and Jackson’s dealings with the central banks of his time is eerily similar to the confrontation that’s brewing between Trump and the Federal Reserve Board, and although Trump is closer to self-described socialist and thorough Democrat Sen. Bernie Sanders on the issue we suppose that this time around the Republicans will take all the blame.
At least Jackson fought, as his admirers said, just as Trump’s admirers say, but the comparison isn’t friendly to Trump. Jackson literally fought, first as a pre-teen soldier in the Continental Army, when he was captured by British troops and took a permanent facial scar by defying his captors’ orders, later in numerous battles with his state militia in the Creek campaign, most famously as the commander of the pirates and escaped slaves and swamp Indian and backwoods brawlers who won the Battle of New Orleans, followed by numerous pistol duels and sword fights and slaps across the cheek over matters of honor, and in his lattermost years he was known to strike out at any insult with the cane he was forced to use. Say what you want about his outdated racial sensibilities or cockamamie economic ideas, “Old Hickory” was undeniably a badass even by the most up-to-date hip-hop standards.
Trump, on the other hand, insists on being taken seriously but not literally, and that’s how he fights. He dismissed such heroic American prisoners of war as Jackson and Sen. John McCain by saying “I prefer a guy who didn’t get caught,” but a series of educational deferments and some bone spurs a family doctor attested to kept Trump out of the Vietnam War, and except for that time he body-slammed Vince Mcmahon and shaved his head in one of World Wrestling Entertainment’s “Wrestlemania” extravaganzas his fighting has been limited to lawsuits and press conference taunts and insulting “tweets.” Despite those momentarily pesky bone spurs Trump was apparently an above-average high school athlete, and apparently remains a competitive golfer with the help of a notoriously enterprising caddy, but we doubt he’d be dissing the looks of a political opponent’s wife so freely if that sort of thing were still being settled by pistol or sword duel.
Our man Hamilton died in such a duel, at the hand of the famously self-interested demagogue Aaron Burr, and we guess that makes him a loser in Trump’s book. In the history books and the latest Broadway shows Hamilton still looms large, though, and we’d like to think that his sound notions about small government and balanced budgets and letting the meritocracy rise and not unnecessarily slaughtering the darker folks will persist. We’re glad Hamilton will at least continue to smile at from our ten dollar bills, and wryly enjoy his current status as a hip-hop star, and although we don’t like this Taliban-like tendency of the modern left to blast away at the relics of history at least it’s a gun-toting and Bible-believing Republican and badass-in-her-own-right black woman such as Harriet Tubman who’s forcing Jackson into the corner of twenty. For now Jackson’s ghost can enjoy his moment back in the presidential sun, but the comparisons won’t do his reputation any good over the long run.

— Bud Norman

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