Can Presidents Shape An Entire Era?

tags: Andrew Jackson, Trump

Dr. Michael Landis is a scholar of United States history with a focus on the intersection of politics and slavery in the nineteenth century.  He is presently an Assistant Professor of History at Tarleton State University (Member, Texas A&M System).  His first book, entitled _Northern Men with Southern Loyalties: The Democratic Party and the Sectional Crisis_ (Cornell 2014), is a comprehensive exploration of Northern Democrats and Northern pro-slavery sentiment in the 1850s.  He is currently working on Georgia in the Civil War era.

Sometimes a president’s personality and policies shape an entire era.  Franklin Roosevelt forged a “New Deal Consensus” that persisted decades after his death.  John Kennedy appeared as “Camelot” to a new generation of optimistic voters (though he was only in office for two and a half years).  Ronald Reagan launched an age of greed, materialism, and conspicuous consumption from which Americans are still reeling.  Can the same be said for Donald Trump?  Was his rise to power the birth of a new epoch?

Trump’s potential impact on United States policy, politics, and people may be difficult to detect, but what is unmistakable is that his actions and rhetoric bare striking resemblance those of Andrew Jackson, who, like Roosevelt, Kennedy, and Reagan, shaped an entire generation of Americans.  Since Jackson had a lasting impact on the nation, it can be argued that Trump may have a similar long-term impression.

Jackson’s election to the presidency in 1828 ushered in an era of unprecedented corruption, racial hatred, partisan propaganda, and disregard for laws.  Similarly, Trump’s ascension to the White House has seemingly unleashed government ethics violations, hate crimes, “fake news,” and a rollback of civil rights and liberties.  It is not accidental that Trump considers Jackson his role model, hangs a portrait of Old Hickory in the Oval Office, and has even visited Jackson’s Tennessee forced labor camp, the Hermitage.  Much ink has been spilled over the obvious similarities between Jackson and Trump as individuals, but few observers have considered the larger implications of their actions and their overall effect on American society.  Jackson’s decisions as Chief Executive had such a profound impact on American law, politics, and social relations that later generations of admirers dubbed the 1830s-50s the “Age of Jackson.”  It is worth asking what long-term social and legal impact Trump may have on the United States, and perhaps consider that Americans may be experiencing a revived Age of Jackson.

Jackson, who failed to win the presidency in 1824 running almost entirely as a famed killer of Indigenous Americans and Hero of the Battle of New Orleans, wisely joined forces with the “Little Magician” of New York, Martin Van Buren, to concoct a new campaign strategy in 1828: “Jackson and Reform.”  Just as Trump in 2016 promised to “Drain the swamp,” Jackson in 1828 pledged to “reform” the government and combat waste and cronyism.  Despite the fact that the administration of incumbent president John Quincy Adams was scrupulously honest, the reform rhetoric succeeded and helped propel Jackson to the White House.  Once in office, however, Jackson inaugurated his “spoils system,” where qualified office holders, from cabinet members to diplomats to tax collectors to judges to postmasters, were replaced by partisan hacks loyal to the new Democratic Party (led by Jackson, but managed by Van Buren).  Called “office rotation” to cover the corruption, Jackson’s spoils system led to an era of government dysfunction.  Appointees served the interest of the Democratic Party rather than the American people as a whole.  The early days of the Trump administration have seen a similar move, where qualified non-partisan civil servants, like US Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates, have been fired in favor of Trump loyalists.  Moreover, Jackson’s infamous “Kitchen Cabinet” of unelected personal advisers is repeated by Trump with his blatant nepotism, appointing his closest family and friends to top posts in the West Wing.

The rise of the Democrats in the 1830s unleashed ferocious racial hatred and initiated a period of ethnic cleansing.  Ruled by powerful enslavers, the Democratic Party aimed to conquer more territory, spread their “peculiar institution,” and hold the loyalty of poor whites through white supremacy propaganda and politics.  In 1830, the Democratic-controlled Congress passed, and President Jackson signed, the Indian Removal Act, which aimed at the extermination of Indigenous Americans who occupied now-valuable cotton lands in the new “Deep South.”  Though ostensibly about relocation, the bill actually sought the elimination of entire minority cultures and peoples.  If tribes resisted removal, they were to be murdered by the US Army; if they agreed to relocate, no provisions or protections were provided by the federal government, making the long trek westward a true death march.  Once on “reservations,” Indigenous Americans faced starvation, exploitation, and terrible suffering.  Some tribes, like the Cherokee, agreed to the death march peacefully, but others, like the Seminoles of central Florida (who had faced General Jackson in north Florida just over a decade earlier), refused to budge.  For seven years, the US Army waged a brutal war of extermination against the Seminoles.  The few who survived fled south into the wicked Everglades, where their descendants still reside.

Though Trump has no apparent plans to embark on such massive ethnic cleansing, his policies smack of Jacksonism.  Within days of taking office, agents from the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) began arresting and relocating ethnic minorities. [1]  Instead of Indigenous Americans, it was “illegal immigrants;” instead of “reservations,” it was “detention centers.” [2]  ICE raids also bear a striking and frightful resemblance to another Jacksonian mainstay: “slave catchers.”  Emboldened by President Jackson’s aggressive pro-slavery agenda, white Southerners began raiding free states, kidnapping free Americans of color, and secreting them south to be sold as enslaved people.  Recently dramatized by the film Twelve Years a Slave (based on true events starting in 1841), the phenomenon of man-hunting, as historians have shown, was well-established by the time of Solomon Northrup’s 1841 nightmare. [3]  It took the Civil War and the might of the US federal government under the direction of President Abraham Lincoln to end decades of human trafficking.  Since Trump’s ICE raids are a federal action, perhaps states will work to prevent seizures.

To whip-up racial fury and cover their corruption, Jackson and the Democrats relied on highly orchestrated partisan propaganda.  Just as Trump has Fox News, Brietbart News, the Drudge Report, and Info Wars, to spread “fake news” about ethnic minorities, immigrants, people of color, and liberals, Jackson relied on a variety of partisan presses in every state that twisted the truth and justified Old Hickory’s every act.  Just as with Trump in 2016, lies and “fake news” played a key role in Jackson’s election in 1828.  In addition to the false claims of corruption in the Adams administration, Democrats also impugned Adams’ character and fitness for the presidency.  As Trump spread lies about President Barack Obama’s past, Jackson claimed John Quincy Adams had served as a pimp to the Czar of Russia, procuring prostitutes for the despot.  And just as Trump raised the specter of “rigged elections,” Jackson claimed his defeat in 1824 was due to a “corrupt bargain” between Adams and nefarious Congressional conspirators.  It mattered not that all the accusations against Adams and Obama were false; it only mattered that sections of the voting public believed they were true.

The stream of “fake news” coming out of the Trump White House also echoes the days of Jackson, when propaganda was employed regularly.  Corruption was relabeled “reform”; cronyism was refashioned “office rotation”; and blatantly illegal acts were justified in the name of “the people.”  When President Jackson illegally removed federal deposits from the Second Bank of the United States, he relied on partisan presses to cover his tracks.  The Bank, which was a pillar of the national economy and largely responsible for the economic boom of the 1820s-30s, was condemned by Democrats as a “monster” consolidation of power among economic elites who wielded it against “the people.”  Trump played this card in his 2016 campaign, rallying “the people” against Wall Street and the major banks.  They were defending “the people,” Jackson and Trump claimed, helping voters forget that both Jackson and Trump were powerful, monied elites who had amassed tremendous wealth through morally dubious means.  And, just as today, propaganda spilled over into popular culture.  In the “Age of Jackson,” Democratic-sponsored minstrel shows convinced white Northerners that people of color were mental imbeciles best suited for slave labor.  In 2017, Fox (owned by powerful conservative Rupert Murdoch) continues the service with its programming, such as its new show Shots Fired, where racist black cops victimize innocent whites (a complete reversal of reality).  With Trump as president, we can expect to see more shows aimed at vilifying people of color.

Trump’s election and assumption of office has resulted in a dramatic spike in hate crimes and mob violence. [4]  The white supremacy rhetoric emanating first from the campaign and now the White House has inspired acts of racial terror across the nation.  With one of their own in the presidency, white supremacists now feel emboldened to violate the rights of others and break the law.  Moreover, Trump’s blatant illegality has set an example for his followers.  Though spouting the “law and order” mantra, it is now open season on groups deemed unacceptable by conservatives: transgender Americans, gay Americans, Indigenous Americas, people of color, non-Christians, and civil rights activists.  Similarly, Jackson’s total disregard for law inspired a generation of “Jacksonians” to take matters in to their own hands.  When Jackson authorized his Postmaster General to illegally burn anti-slavery mailings, pro-slavery mobs took the cue and began attacking abolitionist meetings and rallies.  The lives of abolitionist leaders Frederick Douglass and William Lloyd Garrison were threatened on several occasions, and Illinois abolitionist Elijah Lovejoy was assassinated.  With Jackson in the White House, pro-slavery conservatives knew they could get away with murder.  Well into the 1850s, white supremacy mobs still terrorized reformers.  The wave of hate crimes that rose in 2016 may be just the beginning of Jacksonian mob violence.

Just as Jackson had a tremendous, profound impact on the United States, Trump’s rhetoric and actions have repercussions beyond policy.  Undermining people’s rights and stoking racial hatred are powerful weapons that have had terrible consequences for the nation.  In order to understand what might be coming in the years ahead, we must first look back to the precedent.  It is too early to assess Trump’s impact on American society, but if we study the “Age of Jackson” we can clearly see that such policies do have an impact.  A renewed “Age of Jackson” under Trump would be frightening indeed.

[1] Though kick-started by President Barack Obama, attacks on ethnic minorities served as a central tenet of Trump’s nativist campaign, and, once in office, Trump increased the frequency and visibility of the raids.

[2] https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2017/may/17/ice-us-immigration-arrests-trump-administration?CMP=share_btn_tw

[3] See H. Robert Baker, The Rescue of Joshua Glover: A Fugitive Slave, the Constitution, and the Coming of the Civil War (Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, 2006); Stanley Harrold, Border War: Fighting Over Slavery Before the Civil War (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2013).

[4] https://www.splcenter.org/hatewatch/2016/12/16/update-1094-bias-related-incidents-month-following-electionhttp://www.cnn.com/2016/11/10/us/post-election-hate-crimes-and-fears-trnd/http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/politics/2016/12/hate_in_america_a_list_of_racism_bigotry_and_abuse_since_the_election.html

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