Donald Trump has often been likened to Andrew Jackson; this is welcomed and encouraged by Trump himself. President Trump has hung a portrait of Jackson prominently in the Oval Office and visited Jackson’s plantation home in Tennessee to honor his 250th birthday on March 15. He draws on the memory of President Jackson to give legitimacy to his own presidency in a number of ways, and Jackson’s brand of nationalism is all the more relevant today since it was directed, in part, against Mexico—Jackson hoped to take Texas from Mexico and annex it to the United States, a policy that eventually culminated in the war waged against Mexico by Jackson’s protégé, James Knox Polk. Jacksonian nationalism was also racial: a white man’s Americanism, excluding Mexicans, Indians, blacks, and on occasion even women.
Trump’s evocation of Andrew Jackson is intended to underscore the populist appeal of both leaders. Jackson, who served from 1829-1837, mobilized the white working class of his time—small farmers—much as Trump has sought to mobilize the white working class of our day. Nevertheless, their populist nationalisms are not identical, as historian Sean Wilentz has pointed out. Jackson firmly defended the federal government’s power over the states when South Carolina challenged it over the issue of an import tariff that, while protecting Northern industries, made certain goods in the South more expensive, particularly the cheap textiles used to make slaves’ clothing. Trump wants the federal government to shrink back from many of its activities, leaving education, science, healthcare, and the regulation of business largely to the states. Jackson was eager to reduce the federal deficit and succeeded in briefly eliminating the national debt entirely. What effect Trump’s budget will have on the deficit is far from clear (though in order to balance the budget it requires growth rates that are more than a percentage point higher than what the Congressional Budget Office estimates).
The most important parallel between Trump and Jackson lies in their rallying the white working class against ethnic minorities: Jackson against American Indians and blacks, Trump against Mexican immigrants and Muslims. Jackson’s project of “Indian Removal” was the first substantive issue his administration pursued after his inauguration in 1829. The avowed goal was to force Native Americans out of the lands east of the Mississippi that they had been guaranteed by treaties and send them, under military escort, west of the Mississippi to reservations in what is now Oklahoma and Kansas. The formerly tribal lands would then be available for white settlement. Ironically, there was little actual need at the time for new lands open to white settlers. When the Cherokee Tribe were evicted from their homeland in Georgia, in the devastating forced migration known as the Trail of Tears, that state recognized that there was no commercial market for the Cherokees’ abandoned farmlands, even with all the Indians’ improvements, and simply raffled them off.
Read more at The New York Review of Books.