A guest post contributed by Dr. Lacy K. Ford, Jr., senior vice provost and dean of graduate studies and professor of southern history at U of SC
Political observers are prone to search the historical landscape far and wide for analogues to the most striking phenomena of each campaign season. This year is no exception.
In a typical campaign year, the search for a counterpart of an avowed socialist challenging an experienced party veteran at the risk of harming his party’s ultimate chance for success (think Henry Wallace 1948) would provide enough fodder to occupy the punditry. But this year the pundits are preoccupied if not obsessed with fathoming the unexpected success of billionaire real estate mogul and political novice Donald Trump in the Republican primaries.
Historical comparisons to Trump have hatched like mosquitoes in the Congaree flood plain. The irreverent, iconoclastic Trump and his insurgency have been compared to Barry Goldwater’s takeover of your grandfather’s Republican Party in 1964 or the maverick John McCain’s failed challenge to “W” in 2000. Trump has even been compared to third party movements like those of Ross Perot, George Wallace, and, most aptly, Huey Long. Each historical analogy may yield some insight into the Trump movement, but to find the most telling (and perhaps troubling) comparison, commentators might have to forage a century further back than Long, to the rise of General Andrew Jackson, the “Old Hero,” to the presidency during the 1820s.
Unlike Trump, Jackson was not a political newcomer, having served in the US House of Representatives and largely inconsequential periods in the US Senate from Tennessee, but, like Trump, his notoriety and fame emanated chiefly from outside the world of politics.
Jackson exploded onto the national political scene based on his popularity as a successful military leader. Jackson was not only the hero of the Battle of New Orleans, the decisive, face-saving American victory during the War of 1812 (actually achieved after the peace had been negotiated in Europe) and his exploits in a variety of campaigns in “Indian wars” (military engagements against Native American tribes) which had pushed the tribes further west and cleared valuable land for the expansion of slavery and the cotton kingdom across the deep South. If Jackson earned fame as a military leader (or “chieftain” as his critics referred to him), Trump earned his as a rich (if publicity-hungry) business tycoon known for mastery of the “Art of the Deal,” and more importantly as reality TV celebrity known for delivering the lines “You’re fired” at the end of each episode of the “The Apprentice.”
The appeal of Jackson and Trump parallel. They voiced both the fears and aspirations of frustrated and even angry citizens who are neither comfortable nor fluent with the language of complexity and nuance or with the give-and-take compromise of politics in our republic. They both flashed tempers and did not shy from vitriolic denunciation of their targets and opponents. Neither won kudos for tolerance or moderation. They both have won support by vowing to let nothing stand in the way of getting their way—perhaps including legal and constitutional restrictions. Their urgent calls for the unrestrained pursuit of greatness resonates with impatient portions of the population, but spawn fears of authoritarian excess and a rogue presidency among others.
As Jackson rose to power, James Madison, John Quincy Adams and John C. Calhoun, men who disagreed on many issues of their day, all expressed concern that as his popularity grew Jackson might prove an American Napoleon or Cromwell. At the very least they knew that, if elected, Jackson would be the first American president not born to that “aristocracy of talent” that Thomas Jefferson thought should lead governments. The early national elite’s skepticism regarding Jackson proved warranted. As a commander, he had summarily executed soldiers who deserted during battle and invaded Florida without formal approval of the Monroe administration. As president, he refused to enforce a U.S. Supreme Court decision which favored the tribal rights of Native Americans in Georgia; he threatened to invade S.C. during the nullification crisis, and he destroyed the Second Bank of the United States, the controversial pillar of the national financial system, with fiery rhetoric.
None of Jackson’s excesses troubled the majorities that elected him. Whether the people, like Shakespeare’s spirits, will come in sufficient number for Trump when he calls them (as they did for Jackson) remains an open question. But the appeal of the powerful outsider playing to fear and promising a return to past greatness (no matter how irrational the fear or improbable the restored glory) should never be underestimated.