This March, President Trump paid a visit to the Hermitage, the Tennessee home of his favorite predecessor, Andrew Jackson. Trump was uncharacteristically modest. He stood at the grave of Old Hickory, saluting for the cameras. Then he sent this beyond-the-grave message: “We thank you for your service. We honor your memory. We build on your legacy and we thank God for the USA!”
What to make of this? What legacy does Trump want to build on? What, exactly, does the forty-fifth President find so relevant about the seventh?
Many previous residents of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue have shown an interest in presidential history. President Obama, for instance, clearly studied President Lincoln, crafting his messages and even choosing his advisors in the image of the Great Emancipator. By contrast, it is hard to imagine President Trump scrutinizing the Papers of Andrew Jackson, the superb project based at the University of Tennessee and directed by Daniel Feller.
But this illustrates how our most powerful legends operate. Much like gender norms and class proprieties, they are absorbed rather than studied, consumed rather than considered. They do not require formal transmission. They are the things we “just know,” the unspoken norms that colonize our sense of what has happened and, by extension, what can happen.
In American history, one of those narratives traces back to Andrew Jackson. His raucous inauguration in 1829 captures the decline of the Founders’ more elitist ideal of republican government, in which above-it-all statesmen ran things for the small-minded masses. Instead, Jackson swore to obey the people’s will, indeed to inflict it on those in the way. To this end he led a large, well-organized political party that proudly called itself the Democratic Party, or simply “the Democracy.” Until recently, the current party of that name recognized Jackson as one of their founders.
A long line of history books insists that Jackson deserves this reputation as the champion of the common (white) man. Did he not invite them to take a more active role in public life, indeed to rule the nation as they had not previously? Another list of books, now nearly as long, also establishes that Jackson was no friend to non-white people.
In practice the pro- and anti-Jackson camps play off each other, with disastrous consequences. For by conceding that he was good for white people, critics of Old Hickory reluctantly suggest that democracy can grow for some at the expense of others. This gives away one of the key principles of any democratic society: that everyone who lives under its laws and shares its resources is equally a member, not just officially but also emotionally.
As for Jackson’s fans, they can make a gesture of sorrow for the sad fate of native peoples while insisting that he was still “a Helluva guy,” a real man of the real people. “Andrew Jackson was a military hero and a genius and a beloved president,” Trump declared during his March visit, “but he was also a flawed and imperfect man, a product of his time.”
Part of Trump’s appeal comes from the sense that (white) Americans have been saying sorry too long and too often. Others have made the argument—Mitt Romney published a book called No Apology—but Trump embodies it. He takes in the fury and resentment of his fans and makes it is own. Here, at least, he is entirely sincere, and more like Jackson than he knows.
Upon taking office, Trump swore that 20 January, 2017 would be remembered as the day “the people became the rulers of this nation again,” a replay of Jackson’s boisterous entry into the halls of power. He means every word of this—but only in a narrow sense of “the people” and an even narrower sense of “rulers” and “nation.” After all, the people in Donald Trump’s America are not allowed to enforce the national welfare over private interests. They are not permitted to secure good health care or clean drinking water for their fellow citizens. They have no right to protect themselves against businesses who pay them low wages or even from employers who sexually harass them. Instead they are “free” to act like those businesses and those employers.
This is the cruelest irony of them all: the people are named sovereign and powerful during fleeting moments of democratic spectacle, but when they go back to their lives they find themselves weaker and more isolated than ever. Here, too, the long shadow of Old Hickory hangs over us.
Featured image credit: President Trump speaks at the Hermitage, home of former president Andrew Jackson by Tennessee National Guard Public Affairs Office. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.