NASHVILLE – Others may think of history as a lens. Donald Trump regards it as a mirror.
On Wednesday, he traveled to Tennessee to commemorate the 250th birthday of the seventh president, Andrew Jackson, and toured Jackson’s plantation, which is known as the Hermitage.
“Inspirational visit, I have to tell you. I’m a fan,” Trump said outside Old Hickory’s Greek Revival-style mansion.
What apparently has struck the president most about his illustrious predecessor is how much he and Old Hickory have in common.
“They say my election was most similar to his,” Trump said during an appearance in Detroit, where he stopped before heading here for the Hermitage visit and an evening political rally in Nashville. “1828 – that’s a long time ago. Usually, they go back like to this one or that one, 12 years ago, 16. I mean, 1828, that’s a long way, that’s a long time ago.”
Although Jackson is regarded as the founder of the Democratic Party and won the popular vote, there are more than a few resemblances between the forces that elected the seventh president and the 45th.
Jackson, like Trump, was a wealthy man who gave voice to the frustrations and anger of working-class whites against moneyed interests.
A departure from the mannered elite who had been elected before him, the frontiersman son of Scots-Irish immigrants was known as “the people’s president.”
He upended the established order in Washington. As Trump has sought to do, Jackson wielded his executive powers boldly. An 1832 cartoon, captioned “King Andrew I,” depicted him in a crown and ermine robe. His was an appeal that the establishment of his day had difficulty understanding or accepting.
But unlike the current president, Jackson served in the military – becoming a national hero when he commanded a defeat of the British at the 1815 Battle of New Orleans – and spent time in government before assuming the nation’s highest office.
After Trump’s surprising victory last November, chief strategist Stephen Bannon predicted to the Hollywood Reporter that “like [Andrew] Jackson’s populism, we’re going to build an entirely new political movement. The conservatives are going to go crazy.”
More recent interpretations of Jackson’s time in office have taken some of the sheen off his reputation. He supported slavery and forced Native Americans off their lands with the Indian Removal Act of 1830, leading to the “Trail of Tears” forced march that cost the lives of thousands.
The Obama administration called for Jackson to be bumped from the $20 bill in favor of abolitionist leader Harriet Tubman, a decision that Trump at the time called “pure political correctness.”
In a recent survey of 91 historians conducted by the cable network C-SPAN, Jackson ranked 18th among U.S. presidents on 10 qualities of leadership. He slipped six places since the poll was last conducted, in 2009, which was the sharpest decline of any former president.
Jackson was “the original populist, not the inventor, but maybe the shrewdest practitioner of the politics of us versus them,” said presidential historian Richard Norton Smith. “American politics is all about winning the allegiance of the forgotten man. Franklin D. Roosevelt did it in the 1930s. Richard Nixon did it in the 1960s. But before them, there was Andrew Jackson.”
Although Trump has hung a portrait of Jackson in the Oval Office, his stated reasons for doing so are vague.
During a town hall event in April, Trump said that “Andrew Jackson had a great history.”
While giving the hosts of “Fox & Friends” a tour of the Oval Office late last month, Trump explained why he selected the portrait of Jackson: “They say that his campaign and his whole thing was most like mine. That was interesting. . . . That’s the great Andrew Jackson, who actually was a great general, and he was a great president – but a controversial president.”
The White House’s top Jackson history buff is Bannon, who invoked him in describing Trump’s dark inaugural address – memorable for its reference to “American carnage.”
“I don’t think we’ve had a speech like that since Andrew Jackson came to the White House,” Bannon said. “But you could see it was very Jacksonian. It’s got a deep, deep root of patriotism there.”
But Jackson himself might bristle at comparisons between his election and that of Trump, who lost the popular vote but prevailed in the electoral college.
The first time Jackson ran, in a four-way race in 1924, he had won a plurality of both the popular vote and the electoral college, only to see the House of Representatives vote to give the presidency to John Quincy Adams.
Voter turnout quadrupled in the next election and Jackson handily ousted Adams from the White House. In his annual message to Congress, Jackson proposed abolishing the electoral college.
Trump is not the first president to claim a piece of Jackson’s legacy.
So dominant a figure was Old Hickory in 19th-century politics that James K. Polk styled himself “Young Hickory” in the election of 1844. Franklin Pierce diluted the brand again in 1852, running as “Young Hickory of the Granite Hills.”
Abraham Lincoln invoked Jackson’s name when mobs in Baltimore blocked the movement of federal troops in 1861: “There is no Washington in that – no Jackson in that – no manhood nor honor in that.”
Nor is Trump the only one of Jackson’s successors to make a pilgrimage to the Hermitage. Franklin D. Roosevelt did it in the depths of the Great Depression, and declared: “The more I learn about old Andy Jackson, the more I love him.”
But presidents need not leave the White House to be reminded of him. The North Portico – added to the building by Jackson – looks out over Lafayette Square, where there is a bronze statue of the seventh president on horseback.
(c) 2017, The Washington Post · Jenna Johnson