Even before Hillary Clinton had given up, Rudy Giuliani was celebrating her defeat in the name of Old Hickory. “This is like Andrew Jackson’s victory,” he proclaimed on election night. “This is the people beating the establishment.” Trump supporters often praise the seventh President (1829-37); the victor himself recently referred to Jackson’s “great history.” Something about the man who waged war against native peoples and national bankers offers a claim to a heroic past—and to the power of “the people.” Why?
The parallels start with personality. Even compared to other public men, Donald Trump is obsessed with his reputation. He cannot bear the thought of someone, anyone, making fun of his numerous failures or small hands. Getting back at those who slight him is both a point of pride and a matter of survival.
Jackson shared this radical insecurity. In the first half of 1806 alone, when he was a middle-aged merchant and planter in Tennessee, he killed one man in a duel, beat another with a cane, and threatened anyone in Nashville who had a problem with it. He never forgot, never forgave, and never apologized. Much like Trump, he was profoundly convinced of his own innocence, and therefore entitled to despise his foes.
While most politicians tried to project a higher image of themselves and of the United States, Jackson swore to embody “the people” as he saw them, warts and all. He took insults to the nation personally rather than diplomatically, enabling an all-white citizenry to feel and act like the swaggering slave-holder in the White House.
Trump, too, wears his super-sized ego on his sleeve. He invites his crowds to belittle people who are black or brown or handicapped, to heap disdain on the historically vulnerable. Yelling “Trump!” is a bit like firing a gun, a rush of blood that recalls America’s bloody past and allows a brief escape from the dull obligations of a more complicated present.
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What makes the emotional bond between such men and their partisans so strong, then, is the underlying sense that political elites have taken away the older privileges, the frontier prerogatives. For Jackson, it was all about the right to personal safety. Government treaties with native peoples, he said, prevented white militias from “avenging the blood” of dead settlers. White Americans were in grave danger because bloodless politicians enabled Cherokees and Creeks to remain on American soil. (Jackson also worried that “Indian Country” offered refuge to runaway slaves.) Trump, too, stresses the higher and prior laws of personal and national defense, forever threatened by do-gooder laws and multi-racial decorum. Hence the talk of mass deportations and Muslim registries.
For many of his supporters in the Rust Belt, of course, the sense of loss has more to do with the economic traumas of de-industrialization, which “New Democrats” like the Clintons enabled along with the union-busters of the GOP. Here again we circle back to Jackson’s time, when workers and farmers threatened by early industrialization often saw Old Hickory as their voice. To some extent they benefited from his violent removal of native peoples, at least until large slave-owners bought up the best land and used it to raise cotton for British markets.
Herein lies the most enduring—and harmful—part of the Jackson legend. Although he never mentioned it when running for President, Old Hickory had made his name and wealth as a lawyer and speculator, chasing down debtors and bringing the modern rules of the market to the far frontiers. He then merged those new and often unpopular rules with the "natural" rights of survival and revenge, rejecting any efforts to advance the public good as so many “corruptions” on free individuals. In times of peace, then, he was no nationalist. Under conditions of safety, “the people” were on their own, as free to ignore each other as they were to bully everyone else.
Trump is no different. After a few P.R. bits about protecting blue-collar jobs, he and his ultra-wealthy, far-right cabinet members will unravel the thin protections of our society and invite everyone to take advantage of its “losers.” He will enable the people—compel them, really—to be as ruthless as he is. A motley crew of fracking, insurance, and real estate companies will thrive along the commercial frontiers he opens, at least for a while. And the people will bear on, trapped by a story that makes them fearsome to enemies and helpless with each other.