Once, nearly two centuries ago, the United States had a president who rode the crest of populist fervor, and a campaign of ignominious lies and calculated, self-serving half-truths, all the way to the White House. He promised to sweep away the governing elite, whose wealth and arrogance the commoners distrusted and disliked. Before becoming president, he had made a fortune in shady real estate dealing, much of it in a foreign country. (At the time, Florida belonged to Spain.) He had suffered through a sex scandal, and showed his tendency to authoritarianism when he conquered an American city (New Orleans), declaring himself the supreme commander there even though the war had ended. Without due process, he jailed a legislator who challenged him, and then a judge who signed a writ of habeas corpus demanding that man’s release; six militiamen were executed on his orders for opposing him.
He ran a nasty campaign for president against a career political insider. Upon losing, he declared that election had been rigged by the establishment, that his loss was due not to his own failings (for in his mind he had very few of those) but to a Corrupt Bargain among the aristocrats of the East, who had stolen the election from him, the man of the people. He accused his opponent (whose father had been president previously) of nepotism, incompetence, and corruption.
Four years later, against the same opponent, he fought the nastiest campaign the country had ever seen. (This is saying a lot. In 1800 John Adams’ campaign claimed that if Jefferson won, “we would see our wives and daughters the victims of legal prostitution.” Jefferson described Adams of having “a hideous hermaphroditical character.”) His zealous followers branded their opponent as a corrupt aristocrat and libertine, including the accusation that, while serving in the State Department, he had pimped American girls for the Tsar of Russia. He was himself attacked for his inexperience, impetuosity and temper. He was branded a bigamist, and the scurrilous attacks on the virtue of his wife were so relentless that she had a heart attack and died before his inauguration.
When he successfully achieved the presidency, he demanded that as victor it was his prerogative to distribute the spoils; he dismissed a slew of federal career appointees, down to the level of local postmasters, often replacing them with inexperienced men whom he could control, thus rewarding them for their personal fealty to him. His “parlor” cabinet, appointed with the advice and consent of the Senate but intended mainly as window dressing, was made impotent by infighting and factional disputes, as many thought he had planned from the beginning. He turned instead to an unofficial “kitchen” cabinet composed of family and cronies, whose counsel, without congressional approval or oversight, was more closely heeded.
He demolished the federal banking system that had been initiated by Alexander Hamilton, leaving finance in wealthy, private hands, unfettered by regulation. This contributed to a storm of rash speculation by banks and financiers that eventually led to the worst depression the country had ever seen. He rounded up over 125,000 people, based solely on their race, and expelled them from the country; thousands died on the forced march he ordered (The Trail of Tears) to the semi-barren settlements he reserved for them in the arid west. He opposed any federal involvement in scientific research and exploration.
He came to office with no experience in international statesmanship. He based his foreign policy on his prowess, gained during his years in real estate, as a dealmaker. His state department successfully made trade agreements with Russia, Spain, Turkey, Great Britain, and Siam. Under the treaty of Great Britain, American trade was reopened in the West Indies. As a result, American exports increased 75% while imports increased 250%.
He railed against the Electoral College as an elitist obstacle to popular governance, and pushed term limits for elected office to forestall the development of a persistent governing class. Without the support of Congress, he never got the constitutional amendments required to make these changes happen, so he railed against congress as well.
He was a fantastic egoist. His fiery temper was well known, and he often used it to his personal or political advantage. He could be petulant and childish. A contemporary wrote of him:
…the President belongs to the party which is desirous of limiting that power to the clear and precise letter of the Constitution, and which never puts a construction upon that act favorable to the government of the Union; far from standing forth as the champion of centralization, [he] is the agent of the state jealousies; and he was placed in his lofty station by the passions that are most opposed to the central government. It is by perpetually flattering these passions that he maintains his station and his popularity. [He] is the slave of the majority: he yields to its wishes, its propensities, and its demands–say, rather, anticipates and forestalls them. (…)
[He] stoops to gain the favor of the majority; but when he feels that his popularity is secure, he overthrows all obstacles in the pursuit of the objects which the community approves or of those which it does not regard with jealousy. Supported by a power that his predecessors never had, he tramples on his personal enemies, whenever they cross his path, with a facility without example; he takes upon himself the responsibility of measures that no one before him would have ventured to attempt. He even treats the national representatives with a disdain approaching to insult; he puts his veto on the laws of Congress and frequently neglects even to reply to that powerful body. He is a favorite who sometimes treats his master roughly. (Alexis deTocqueville-Democracy in America,1835)
In other words, federal power should be curtailed in order to expand individual power—specifically his own individual power.
The changes wrought (some would say the damage done) during Andrew Jackson’s eight years in power have never been fully undone. One thing is clear: had Jackson never been elected president, the United States would be a quite different country than it is today. We probably would have arrived at plutocracy sooner. The genocide of aboriginal peoples may have been a bit less cruel (if such a thing is possible). The Great Emancipation might have come later. Since that time the jealousy and animus between the executive and legislative branches that so divides America today have waxed and waned, but not ever gone away. Some would call this a force for good, helping to contain the overall power of the federal government.
Other presidents who have consolidated executive power (Lincoln and both Roosevelts come to mind) have done so in times of crisis for the sake of the republic, and realized little personal gain. Jackson was different. He was his own crisis, and seemed to relish power for its own sake.
Donald Trump is different, too. Fasten your seat belt. If history is any guide at all, we are in for a rough ride ahead. And this time there are nuclear arsenals involved.
DISCLAIMER: In this age of fungible history and designer facts. I feel compelled to confess that. while I have not made anything up, I have selected and ordered (spun) the facts here in a manner that emphasizes the ways, as I see them, that Andrew Jackson and Donald Trump are similar. The result is a somewhat Orwellian take on both of them. In many ways they were quite different men. While Jackson was a hero of the War of 1812, Donald Trump avoided military service in Viet Nam through a series of student and medical draft deferments. While Jackson was a wealthy man, in those days before the full bloom of the Industrial Revolution there was nothing even analogous to a tycoon or a billionaire, especially in agrarian Tennessee where Jackson lived. Still, both men were blustery and ego-driven. They both had the political insight to see the power that could be marshaled by arousing the passions of common classes to which they did not themselves belong. Protean as a thunderhead and unpredictable as a volcano, each man was the spit and image of the other, and his polar opposite as well.