Is Trump like Andrew Jackson? Yeah — in all the bad ways, and none of the good ones

Jackson created a cult of personality and pandered to racists — but compared to Trump, he was a visionary

By Matthew Rozsa

Staff Writer

Published October 10, 2021 6:00AM (EDT)

U.S. President Donald Trump, beneath a portrait of populist President Andrew Jackson, speaks before the swearing-in of Rex Tillerson as 69th secretary of state in the Oval Office of the White House on February 1, 2017 in Washington, DC.  (Michael Reynolds-Pool/Getty Images)
U.S. President Donald Trump, beneath a portrait of populist President Andrew Jackson, speaks before the swearing-in of Rex Tillerson as 69th secretary of state in the Oval Office of the White House on February 1, 2017 in Washington, DC. (Michael Reynolds-Pool/Getty Images)

In a recent editorial for The Washington Post, historian J.M. Opal criticized Donald Trump by comparing him to Andrew Jackson, who Trump has said is his favorite president. Since historian Arthur Schlesinger's masterful study "The Age of Jackson" is one of my favorite books, this got my attention.

Opal opens by mentioning the most recent humiliating setback in Trump's post-presidential career: The "audit" of the presidential election in Arizona's largest county completely backfired, reaffirming Joe Biden's victory in that state. That was one more piece of damaging news in an unbroken chain that has undercut Trump's attempts to spread the malignant normality he has created for his fascist cult, one which asserts that he (and by extension they) was the real winner of the 2020 election.

Opal's reference to Jackson conjured up a peculiar memory. A few months after financier Anthony Scaramucci was hired — and almost immediately fired — as White House communications director, I interviewed him about Trump's understanding of American history—  which meant that we talked about Andrew Jackson. I referred to a passage from Jackson's 1832 message vetoing renewal of a charter for America's national bank, in which he argued that "there are no necessary evils in government. Its evils exist only in its abuses. If it would confine itself to equal protection, and, as Heaven does it rains, shower favors alike on the high and the low, the rich and poor, it would be an unqualified blessing."

Scaramucci's response was about how Trump could or could not get closer to that standard by living up to the idea that "responsible government protects minorities, whether they voted for them or didn't vote for them." I've thought about that a lot in subsequent years. Donald Trump was in a position to win a legitimate victory in 2020 had he tried to expand his base rather than appeal to its worst impulses. And Trump's abuses of power after losing the 2020 election give new weight to Scaramucci's observations.

As far as we can tell, Trump has not wavered in his choice of Jackson as a presidential beau idéal. (The photograph above this article shows Old Hickory's portrait hanging near Trump in the Oval Office.) As Opal noted, one could argue that Trump's claim to being a latter-day Jackson has strengthened since the 2020 election. Trump's Big Lie has been to insist that he was the rightful winner, and Jackson himself lost an election through what he alleged (with far more plausibility) was a "corrupt bargain." In 1824, Jackson lost to John Quincy Adams (even though Jackson probably won the popular vote, which Trump has never done) after no candidates won a majority in the Electoral College and the election was thrown into the House of Representatives, where Speaker Henry Clay was instrumental in securing Adams' victory. Adams later appointed Clay as secretary of state, making him next in line for the presidency under the rules of succession at that time.

Want more Amanda Marcotte on politics? Subscribe to her newsletter Standing Room Only.

By refusing to accept Biden's victory in 2020, was Trump behaving like Jackson? Well, not so much. 

"Honestly, there's very little to compare," historian Matthew J. Clavin told Salon by email. "When Jackson lost the election of 1824, despite winning a plurality of both the popular and Electoral College votes, he was outraged. Some would say rightfully so. But he did not challenge the election results. Nor he did question the election's integrity." Jackson argued instead that the Electoral College should be abolished and replaced with direct election by popular vote — a constitutional change that would have altered history, undoing the presidencies of Rutherford B. Hayes, Benjamin Harrison and George W. Bush, as well as Trump.

Opal makes much the same point, writing that "to be sure, Jackson seethed at the Corrupt Bargain, especially since he hated Clay as much as he hated any other person, no small thing. (He actually liked Adams for having supported his illicit war on Black, Creek and Seminole fighters in Spanish Florida in 1818.) Nonetheless, Old Hickory contained his legendary temper and accepted the outcome."

To avenge what he perceived as a terrible wrong, Opal continues, Jackson created a "loud and proud" political coalition of "slavers and sailors, farmers and workers who believed that the people were sovereign, that government was corrupt, and that the United States had suffered too long at the hands of European empires and North American 'savages.'" They ultimately formed the Democratic Party — which still exists today, although it switched sides on racial-justice issues partway through the 20th century — and Jackson was legitimately elected in 1828.

Trump and his allies in the Republican Party may well believe that winning a legitimate election is not possible for them — and they may be right. Barack Obama's election in 2008 suggested the possibility of a coalition of racial minorities and white liberals that might control government for at least the next generation. Facing that, the Trumpers have used the Big Lie to roll back voting rights, making it more difficult for Democratic constituencies to vote — and worse yet, empowering Republican state legislatures and local officials to overturn unfavorable election results.

So Andrew Jackson tried to strengthen democracy after his defeat in 1824, as execrable as some of his personal and political views were. Trump has done exactly the opposite, effectively trying to destroy or short-circuit democracy. There's a good reason for that: Jackson had at least a plausible claim that he'd been cheated. Trump did not.

Biden "decisively won the majority of both the popular and Electoral College votes" in 2020, Clavin pointed out. "With absolutely no evidence of fraud, President Donald Trump claimed, and continues to claim, that he won the election. The belief that Biden stole the election is utterly absurd, and it subverts the whole idea of democracy and republicanism."

That support for American democracy makes the differences between Jackson and Trump clear in other important ways. Jackson worked hard to prevent a civil war from tearing apart the Union; Trump actively encouraged a coup after losing a valid election. Jackson was a fierce patriot (and skilled fighter) who risked his life for his country on a number of occasions; Trump is a draft dodger who referred to soldiers who died in war as "losers" and "suckers."

"Jackson was a penniless frontier orphan who through sheer grit and determination became a lawyer, Army general, plantation owner, politician, and president," Clavin said. "Trump is a son of privilege." He concluded with an even stronger note: "Trump's efforts to overthrow an election by sending a mob into the Capitol would certainly make him one of Jackson's arch nemeses. Trump is fortunate that Jackson is not around today, for the seventh president did not tolerate traitors or treason."

Nobody should glorify Jackson, a bonafide white supremacist who committed what could reasonably be called genocidal crimes. Like Trump, he created a cult of personality that whipped up his supporters into angry mobs. Historians like Schlesinger have made the case that Jackson's populism was authentic — as Clavin wrote to Salon, Jackson was, "for his time, a champion of the common man" — but it never extended beyond the white male population. Trump's supposed populism is largely a matter of parroting whatever he absorbed from the right-wing media ecosystem. 

Like Jackson, Trump has immense sway over his followers, and in theory he could have rallied them behind causes that would have helped "the high and the low, the rich and poor." It's obvious he has no such vision, and only wanted to use  his power to amplify his tantrum over losing an election into a full-on constitutional crisis. So here's the short answer: Trump is toxic in many of the same ways Andrew Jackson was, but lacks any of his redeeming qualities.

By Matthew Rozsa

Matthew Rozsa is a staff writer at Salon. He received a Master's Degree in History from Rutgers-Newark in 2012 and was awarded a science journalism fellowship from the Metcalf Institute in 2022.

MORE FROM Matthew Rozsa

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Andrew Jackson Big Lie Deep Dive Donald Trump Elections Populism Racism U.s. History U.s. Presidents