In very broad terms one can easily find similarities between Jackson and Trump. Both exhibited a populist sensibility fed by voting blocs located in the white South and white, working-class northerners. Both employed a nationalistic rhetoric with accompanying racism. Jackson’s appointment of party loyalists under the banner of “rotation of office” may be likened to Trump’s campaign slogan (and indeed, it was a slogan, largely without merit) to “drain the swamp.” Personality traits loomed large in the careers of both men. Both men had a short fuse and seemed bent on revenge. Both men ran as “outsiders” against an entrenched “elite.”
Yet closer examination reveals that these surface-level similarities are not all that helpful. Let’s remember that it was Steve Bannon and Brian Kilmeade who propagated a lot of the Trump-Jackson comparisons. They’re not scholars. They’re commentators, and discreditable ones at that. What does it mean to be working class? Elite? A populist? These words have always been contested and imprecise. Typical Trumpian discourse would suggest that the owner of a plumbing business who makes $100,000 per year in Ohio is a “real” American while the adjunct English professor in L.A. struggling to earn $35,000 per year is an “arrogant coastal elite.” White evangelical Christians tended to fiercely oppose Jackson but are among Trump’s most fervent supporters. One of the greatest differences lies in their political and military experience prior to becoming president – Trump had none but Jackson’s was extensive. Jackson came from humble origins in the Waxhaws region of the Carolina backcountry, but Trump was born into wealth. If you look at the types of characters that each person appointed, and this is something I discuss in The Bank War and the Partisan Press, for all of their faults, Jackson’s appointees were often struggling artisans and individuals from the middling ranks of society. Trump’s appointees included Steve Mnuchin, Gary Cohn, Scott Pruitt, and Rex Tillerson, all of whom worked feverishly on behalf of their corporate benefactors.
The differences do not end there. Jackson amassed substantial victories in the electoral college and popular vote while calling for an end to the anti-majoritarian electoral college. Trump lost the popular vote by 2.87 million votes and only narrowly won the electoral college. Jackson, with Biddle’s help, successfully paid off the national debt in 1835 while Trump recklessly exploded it with plutocrat-pleasing tax cuts and more spending on the military. The Jacksonian Democrats were associated with more people voting (even if the white male electorate was still very limited by today’s standards) while Trump and the Republicans are constantly chasing this largely fictitious specter of voter fraud while erecting numerous barriers to voting. While Jackson certainly extended and reinforced the political economy of slavery and cotton, favoring the interests of imperialism and white supremacy, in some ways Jackson sought national unity. Just look at the nullification crisis. Jackson’s nationalism brings us to another crucial difference in how the two interacted with hostile foreign adversaries. Trump’s 2016 campaign welcomed help from Russian state and oligarchic actors while Jackson served in two wars against the British.
The better historical analogs to the disgraced, twice-impeached Trump are Andrew Johnson, James Buchanan, Richard Nixon, and Joseph McCarthy, but the best historical assessment of Trump, I think, is to say that he is sui generis among American presidents; truly without any historical parallel. Trump told over 30,000 lies in just one term. He’s really a scam artist. That commentators and scholars can find numerous points of critique for Jackson and Trump does not mean that these critiques are the same, and nor does it mean that the two men are similar in any substantive way. Scholars as varied as Mark Cheathem, Manisha Sinha, Daniel Feller, and James Roger Sharp share with me the general view that the Trump-Jackson comparisons may do much more to obscure than illuminate.