Still don’t think Trump could win? We’ve elected xenophobic presidents before
Cash will probably be a novelty in the future, so imagine, then, that in the rare instance you handle some $20s, the combover etched on every crisp bill is that of former president Donald J Trump.
Absurd? Had you asked pundits during the 1824 presidential campaign whether General Andrew Jackson’s mug would ever grace America’s third-most popular greenback, they would have called you insane. The Washington political establishment believed that Jackson’s short temper, reckless disregard for political niceties and desire to insult (or shoot) his enemies meant he simply wasn’t presidential material. Yet in 1828 – four years after winning the popular vote but, through quirks of the system , losing the election, the American people — fed-up with back-room “politics as usual” — propelled Jackson to the White House for the first of two terms.
Last August, when the Trump campaign seemed like a sideshow, I compared him to the Know-Nothing Millard Fillmore . Now I realize that Trump is actually the true heir to Andrew Jackson. On Super Tuesday, the man who claimed he could “ stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and [not] lose voters ,” is poised to firmly move from the category of political theater to being the presumptive Republican nominee.
The Jackson era gives us some clues as to what might happen if Trump actually wins the White House.
Like Trump, Jackson was a mean-spirited “outsider”. As president, he destroyed America’s central banking system , and he forcibly repatriated Native Americans from Georgia to Oklahoma along the Trail of Tears , an action just short of genocide. He distrusted most politicians (he regretted not being able to murder his own vice president ), and disliked the “rich and powerful” — despite being a rich and powerful slave-owner himself — who “too often bend the acts of government to their selfish purposes”.
Jackson rose to prominence following the Battle of New Orleans in the War of 1812 and the First Seminole War in Florida. He may have been a war hero, but his public notoriety also included killing a man in duel in 1806 for insulting his wife, and he wasn’t taken seriously by his presidential competitors. Former president Thomas Jefferson told Daniel Webster :
I feel much alarmed at the prospect of seeing General Jackson President. He is one of the most unfit men I know of for such a place. He has had very little respect for laws and constitutions… [and] his passions are terrible. When I was President of the Senate, he was Senator; and he could never speak on account of the rashness of his feelings. I have seen him attempt it repeatedly, and as often choke with rage. He is a dangerous man.
But where Jefferson saw Jackson’s passions as terrible, the electorate viewed them as a virtue — much like Trump supporters are embracing his “ tell it like it is ” style. Similarly, just as our modern congress is beloved by no one , in the 1820s popular feelings toward Washington’s elite were much the same. As Jackson would later say , the point of government is that it is “administered for the good of the people, and is regulated by their will.” He railed against professional politicians, whom he considered “ demagogues ”. He would later go on to write a book titled The World is Governed Too Much, which might as well be the tagline of 2016 Republican Party.
What will the Republican establishment do this year if Trump continues to march toward the nomination? The more he’s criticized, the stronger he appears to become, and the closer we come to returning to the worst excesses of Jacksonian democracy – where populism is valued over all else and professional lawmakers are seen as enemies to be vanquished.
If Trump is our new Andrew Jackson — and if he loses this year — what does that mean for 2020? A lot can happen between now and then, but if Trump’s base feels disenfranchised by a Democrat in the Oval Office and by a Republican Party they feel has subverted the will of the people, there’s no reason not to expect a galvanized Trump campaign the next time around.
The 1824 election killed the Democratic-Republicans as a political party[LINK]; 2016 may well kill the Republican Party as we know it . Where Jackson had his Trail of Tears, Trump will have his Mexican wall ; where Jackson dismantled the Second Bank of the United States, Trump might take on the Federal Reserve . Jackson — even when he was right — bullied members of congress, and Trump will undoubtedly do the same. Some of Jackson’s racism can be explained away by the times in which he lived. But what about Trump’s?
There are plenty of reasons to be scared of a Trump presidency, and it is worth remembering that if history does indeed repeat itself first as tragedy and then as farce, someday Donald Trump will get his face on the money, too.
- Trump follows a long tradition of American politicians saying xenophobic things. Can you guess who said the following lines?