Originally published in the Huffington Post, July 1, 2016, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/paul-j-croce/trump-in-the-tall-shadow_b_10777918.html
The Trump Phenom—how’d that happen? Take a look at history…. “Indian Fighter,” general, and slaveholder President Andrew Jackson has been bumped to the back of the $20 bill, but his leadership style and outlook on the world lives. His contemporary is Donald J. Trump.
Businessman-turned-politician Trump thrives despite the type of comments that have ended many campaigns. Trump’s style on the stump, and his call to “make America great again,” have roots in the American tradition represented by Jackson. Both “Old Hickory” and “The Donald” have inspired deep commitment among their followers for being tough and for saying out what they believe with ideas that have defied the conventional wisdom of their time.
Jackson was a popular member of the Tennessee militia when the War of 1812 broke out. Although he did not attend West Point, his peers elected him general. His leadership in battle against the British invasion at New Orleans in 1815 made him a national hero, and he continued his exploits in attacks against Native Americans on the southeast frontier. He literally crossed the international border into Spanish Florida to subdue members of the Creek and Seminole nations, and groups of African Americans who had escaped from slavery. As president, he championed removal of thousands of Native Americans in the tragic Trail of Tears.
Institutional structures? Playing by the rules? Jackson lived the 19th century equivalent of “fuggedaboutit.”
Trump did not serve in the military, and in fact received student deferments during the Vietnam War, but he gained a reputation for toughness from his business exploits. Trump inherited wealth, but has greatly expanded on his family nest egg. While the general was orphaned at 14 and largely self-made, Trump now proudly and loudly displays his name on a vast empire of hotels, golf courses, personal success books, and even a line of fragrances, with one called “Success,” designed to “create a powerful presence throughout wear.”
Jackson needed no fragrance to make his own powerful presence. He was infamous for his fiery temper, which neither friends nor foes could predict or understand; many observers suspected he used his moods and his reputation to orchestrate the people around him. Trump has also been a performer, most famously as the commanding presence on the popular TV show The Apprentice, where he culls contestants for their lack of business savvy. And he happily leaves commentators guessing about what his outrageous comments actually mean.
Both Trump and Jackson have effectively brought their earlier success and blunt talk into politics. As presidential candidates they are bookends of a long arc of American growth. Jackson spoke deeply to white Americans itching for Western expansion over European empires and Native American settlements. Trump resonates with Americans who worry that the world dominance that the United States has achieved might be slipping away.
Both Jackson and Trump present themselves as the true representatives of the people, but their appeal is to particular segments of the whole population. The general-turned-politician was an ardent democrat vilifying those who sought special privilege: Jackson championed reductions in the property requirements for voting which had restricted suffrage to the rich; he favored decentralized political and economic power in his fight against a national bank; and he even objected to licensing laws that limited professional practice to the highly educated.
Jackson’s expansion of democracy by social class was matched by a firm and ruthless insistence on white racial superiority. His version of American First was for boosting the station of white working-class Americans. For all his shortcomings, Jackson achieved that democratic goal. On his inauguration to the presidency, he bowed low, as one observer noted, “to the majesty of the people.” Those people that he championed had found their voice and their leader, but all others would feel the force of his command or the fire of his wrath.
In advocating a wall to limit Mexican immigration, calling for a temporary ban on Muslim migration, and hesitating to repudiate support from white supremacists, Trump also commands strong loyalty among white working-class Americans, who not only feel U.S. power slipping in the world, but also feel their own influence waning. These changes have bred resentments aimed in different political directions, with impatience for liberal support of multicultural diversity, and resentment of corporations for displacing working-class jobs. Like Jackson, Trump taps a populist spirit of anger in his constituents that cuts across ideological categories.
Trump’s appeal runs deep in the American grain. It will keep his supporters voting for him until his opponents can notice the democratic heritage in his appeal beneath all the implicit racism, anger, and boosterism. Keep the democratic uplift; drop the impulse to put others down.