While I have been wrapped up in launching The Papers of Martin Van Buren project this week, a couple of historians wondered what I thought of Steve Inskeep’s piece comparing Donald Trump to Andrew Jackson. I’ve written about this comparison previously, but Inskeep’s take prompted a different set of thoughts for me.
One of the problems that I’ve had with previous Trump/Jackson comparisons is the historical errors that marred the interpretations. Inskeep has a different perspective because he has written a good book that touches on a large portion of Jackson’s life. (Disclosure: I wrote a positive review of the book for Civil War History, with some minor quibbles that usually arise in reviews.) In his comparison of Trump and Jackson, he avoids making Old Hickory into the rough, frontier, democratic champion, and he acknowledges Jackson’s faults and contradictions. I don’t have any real issues with what Inskeep wrote, but some thoughts came to mind as I read and re-read his piece.
What makes me uncomfortable about these comparisons of modern-day politicians with those from nearly two centuries ago is the shoehorning that has to take place to find parallels. Yes, Trump is bombastic and temperamental, but he’s not quite Jackson because the latter actually got his hands dirty killing people. Yes, Trump styles himself a populist, but as Inskeep points out, the Donald didn’t quite have the same upbringing as Jackson, who, whatever you might think about how he acquired his wealth, didn’t exactly start from the same place as Trump. Most politicians style themselves champions of the people, so Trump’s populist rhetoric isn’t even new or fresh. (By the way, Bernie Sanders’ hair is just as wild, if less luxurious, than Trump’s and his rhetoric is certainly as populist, if a different flavor, as his “Republican” counterpart’s, but no one is comparing the Vermont senator to Jackson.)
What I’ve concluded is that the real question isn’t “is Trump is a modern-day Jackson”; it’s actually “what leads U.S. voters to support a (mostly) successful businessman who wants to build a wall to keep out immigrants, speaks disparagingly about women, feigns religious piety to court voters, and shows no self-awareness that he can be wrong?” That’s the real historical parallel that needs to be drawn, in my opinion. I think commentators would be better served by looking at other politicians in U.S. history who more closely resembled Trump’s true ideology and perspective and explain why people were attracted to them. Or, compare the zeitgeist of different eras, which may offer a better explanation even than personalities. Or, focus on groups, such as the Populist party, the Dixiecrats, and the Birchers, that used anger toward, and resentment of, the government in order to make sense of Trump and his supporters.
Just as an addendum, I’ll admit that doing PR for the Van Buren project these past few days has made me more aware of the constraints of modern media. Media outlets want a modern-day connection that resonates with their audiences; otherwise, why spend time on coverage? Van Buren was the architect of the Democratic party, but no media person wants me to spend ten minutes explaining how the Democratic party of today differs from that of the 1830s. Van Buren was the originator of the two-party system, but, again, no media person wants a historiographical exposition on the contentiousness of that idea among scholars and the qualifiers that go with such a statement.
I could offer other examples, but I’ve been struck several times this week that the soundbites that have been pulled from interviews are a pale imitation of my thoughts on Van Buren. I (and my university’s communications director) appreciate the PR from media coverage of the Van Buren project, but the project and the person it centers on are much richer than any of the pieces that have run about it on television or appeared in print or digital media.
I can empathize with those, like Inskeep, a journalist with a historian’s eye, who find themselves commenting on current events. It’s not an easy thing to do, and do well. I do hope, though, that my comments lead to a different narrative than the one about Trump as a modern-day Jackson.