Trump, Jackson, and Historical Symbolism

As is the case with virtually every aspect of his presidency, Donald Trump's professed admiration for Andrew Jackson has been a source of controversy. His trip this week to Jackson's home, The Hermitage, provided an opportunity to re-examine Trump's adoption of Jackson and, not surprisingly, the conclusions from critics and historians have been wide-ranging and conflicting. I'd like to take a look at a few examples as they offer a fascinating chance to see how presidential history can be brought to bear on our current moment. 

President Trump salutes after placing a wreath at Jackson's tomb. 

President Trump salutes after placing a wreath at Jackson's tomb. 

Nicole Hemmer published a piece in U.S. News and World Report connecting Trump's affinity for Jackson to a larger movement in the Republican Party. Her essay, "Jacksonian Republicans," uses the visit to the Hermitage to argue that the appeal of Jackson is directly related to the GOP's shift towards white nationalism. While recognizing Jackson's populist appeal, Hemmer points out that it's the limitations of that appeal that connect with the Trump administration. She writes, "Jackson's belief that democracy and race were inextricably bound together, that whiteness was a prerequisite for self-governance fits neatly with Trump's own worldview..." In a larger sense, Hemmer suggests, the Jackson usage is more about Steve Bannon's influence than a genuine historical awareness on Trump's part. "As someone steeped in white nationalism, Bannon understands well Jackson's vision of a white democracy that purges or subjugates nonwhite people. The Muslim ban, the draconian deportations, the wall." 

Having read a great deal of Hemmer's work, including her terrific book on the rise of conservative media, Messengers of the Right: Conservative Media and the Transformation of American Politics, I respect her understanding of the far-right. That said, I found myself wondering if she may have been taking this too far. Perhaps I'm giving them too much credit, but I can't help thinking that the Trump administration is drawn to the populist image and simply don't care about the problematic racial issues that come with it. Then again, it may be a fine line between not caring and welcoming those connections. Reading this from my perspective on the political left, my sympathies are certainly more in Hemmer's corner. 

Jarrett Stepman offers a far-different take in his piece in The Daily Signal, "Why Trump's Visit to Andrew Jackson's Grave Matters." Aside from his writing for the Signal, the publication of the conservative Heritage Foundation, Stepman has studied Jackson and his times. As he sees it, Trump's visit is symbolically important and a much-needed response to Jackson's fall from grace over the last 20+ years. Stepman writes, "Far too often, we are quick to point out the faults of our own history, mock the 'hypocrisy' of our forefathers, and abandon old heroes. Jackson has become a prime target of attack, a faded legend into whom we pour all of our nation's early sins." As I read his piece, I kept thinking that Stepman was responding directly to historians like Hemmer and their critique of Jackson's legacy. Stepman believes it "is a disservice to the country the Founders created and that we enjoy today to simply wipe from memory those who made it what it is." While he has a point, I'd argue that to point out Jackson's very real flaws is not the same as wiping him from memory. 

Where Hemmer highlights Jackson's deeply troubling involvement with slavery and the removal of Native Americans, Stepman focuses on Old Hickory as the classic man of the people. "He proved that an outsider and self-made man could rise to the highest station in the country...Jackson's election proved to Americans that We the People truly controlled the nation's destiny, not an elite in a far-off powerful city." This is an appealing depiction and certainly relates to the Trump administration's employment of the Jacksonian symbol, but this is a problematic reading in the way it overlooks the obvious limitations of the "We" Jackson had in mind. 

What I find most compelling about Stepman's piece is his claim that Trump is honoring Jackson's legacy in a way that we should keep in mind as people interested in presidential history (and American history, in a larger sense.) By placing a wreath on Jackson's tomb, Trump is making a powerful statement. "We will not abandon our past; we will not neglect who we are as a nation. We will recognize what it was and is to be an American, warts and all." I agree wholeheartedly with this sentiment and hope to apply it to my own study of the presidency. But it seems only fair to point out that, in his ardent defense of Jackson, Stepman doesn't mention any warts in this piece. (Although he has done so in a number of his other pieces.)

Ultimately, I think Hemmer and Stepman both raise important points. Presidents often look to their predecessors as symbolic tools to back up their current policies. It's our job as critics, historians, and readers to point out the problems beneath the surface of those symbols and the very real history contained within. At the same time, we have to place these justified critiques within a larger context--a warts-and-all context. To focus exclusively on the warts is to lose sight of the positive achievements of a president like Jackson. To avoid the warts is to turn our presidents into empty symbols and Great Men that are ultimately of little use. As difficult as it may be, I believe we have to grapple with our history as we celebrate it. Otherwise, how do we actually learn from the past?