In a recent Minnesota Star Tribune editorial, Stephen B. Young, global executive director of the Caux Round Table, calls Donald Trump a modern-day Andrew Jackson. His argument centers on an understanding of both men as populist tribal leaders defending the middle class against “the effete elite.”
Some of Young’s analysis rings true, but he repeats some of the pervasive mythology about Jackson and misses the larger point. In terms of mythology, he describes Jackson as “always ready to fight,” which taps into the falsehood that Old Hickory fought frequent duels (he didn’t) and that he possessed an uncontrollable temper (he actually used his alleged temper deliberately on many occasions). Young also mentions Jackson’s inauguration of the spoils system, “a populist mechanism of tribal loot-sharing.” The seventh president actually didn’t replace nearly as many officeholders as he was accused of, and his reasons were often more complex than putting into place “his own choices.”
Where Young goes especially wrong, and where I think he misses his chance to make an apt comparison between Trump and Jackson, is when he calls Jackson a “frontier populist” fighting for the middle class. Much like Trump, Jackson was an elite member of society, one of the richest men in Tennessee in the years immediately prior to his death in 1845. Yet, he presented himself, and allowed his supporters to present him, as the defender of the common man. As the work of Donald Ratcliffe and others has shown, Jackson was more the beneficiary than the cause of the democratic upsurge of the 1820s.
Donald Trump may wind up as the Republican party’s nominee, and he may even become president. Comparing Jackson to him is inaccurate, though. Whatever Jackson’s faults, and like all of us, there were several, he demonstrated his love for the Union. Can we say the same for Trump?