Newt Gingrich, when asked last month whether Donald Trump is mentally suited for the presidency, replied “sure” and followed up by likening Trump to Andrew Jackson. While Gingrich likely intended to praise Trump, his apt comparison should cause voters to be concerned.
For the 2016 election, it is imperative to remember Jackson, the president associated with the birth of populist campaigning. Until relatively recently, he has been heralded as the champion of the “common man.” But that legacy is now controversial. His presidency is becoming increasingly recognized by historians as having done more harm to the nation than good. Voters should be cognizant of the similarities between Jackson and Trump before making their fateful decision at the ballot box.
Perhaps we can understand the potential danger of a Trump presidency through considering the uncanny parallels between Jackson and Trump — for example, their explosive temperaments and determination to fight to preserve personal honor in the pursuit of power. Jackson started a war, with populist rhetoric as ammunition, against the Bank of the United States in order to defeat his nemesis Henry Clay in the re-election campaign of 1832. His long-standing personal grudge against Clay dictated his policies to the economic detriment of the American people. Politics was intensely personal for Jackson.
But his similarities to the current Republican nominee begin earlier. Following his defeat after the House of Representatives decided the 1824 election, Jackson clamored against a supposed “corrupt bargain” that had elected John Quincy Adams and made Henry Clay the Secretary of State. Trump, meanwhile, has already called the 2016 election “rigged,” following Jackson’s example of fueling conspiracy theories to gain political clout.
Historians David S. Heidler and Jeanne T. Heidler argue that Jackson, following his election in 1828 and re-election in 1832, created the foundations for the imperial presidency. He scoffed at the Supreme Court for its inability to stop him from enacting his Native American removal policy, he fired cabinet members who dared question the legality of his policies, and he established the spoils system for appointing government officials.
The parallels to Trump should already be clear. Jackson sought to battle the Washington establishment and change the nation, just like Trump. To these men, legality of policies is inconvenient at best and irrelevant at worst. Trump’s campaign promise to deport undocumented immigrants could become the Trail of Tears of the 21st century. While the target of their enmity differs, Jackson and Trump demonstrate the dangers of racial profiling, which has remained rampant throughout American history to the present.
Furthermore, Jackson’s legacy allowed for the election of his protégée James K. Polk, who declared war against Mexico in 1846. Trump’s campaign rhetoric on border security likewise paves the way for a tense relationship between the U.S. and Mexico under a Trump presidency.
It is imperative that, prior to the denouement of this year’s presidential campaign, we remember the vital lessons of America’s unique history. Both Trump and Jackson are examples of candidates who mastered the populist narrative. Jackson, the supposed champion of the “common man,” was actually a wealthy plantation owner. How could he — or Trump — honestly claim to understand anyone outside of the elite minority? Populist appeals are powerful, but the goodness of their intentions are entirely dependent upon the candidate who espouses them.
Similarities between the rhetoric and temperaments of Jackson and Trump are unmistakable. Jackson’s presidency is a lesson in the dangers of electing demagogic, power-hungry personalities to the most powerful office in the world. Gingrich’s response to the question of whether the Republican party candidate is mentally suited for the presidency is extremely illuminating. By making an explicit reference to Jackson, even Republican supporters of Trump are unable to avoid the truth evident in the comparison. It is vital that voters remember these historical truths, for those who do not remember history are doomed to repeat it.
Guest contributor Laura Smith is a doctoral student in History at the University of Mississippi. She can be reached at email@example.com.