To commemorate the 250th birthday of Andrew Jackson, President Donald J. Trump, never a subtle man, arranged to travel to Tennessee to lay a wreath on Old Hickory’s grave in Nashville, Tennessee. Applauded by history for having broadened the scope of the electorate and the politically engaged to include the ordinary white men who had heretofore been locked out of the democratic process, Jackson is often seen as the great leveler, a hero in the myth of American meritocracy. He is also the president who signed the 1830 Indian Removal Act, which led to the Trail of Tears march of Choctaw Indians off their land in the Southeastern states, on foot and often in chains, to Oklahoma. Thousands died along the way. During his presidency, a host of tribes were decimated in similar ways.
Even before he was president, Jackson was an eager participant in the “removal” of Native Americans from their land. “As an Army general, he had spent years leading brutal campaigns against the Creeks in Georgia and Alabama and the Seminoles in Florida—campaigns that resulted in the transfer of hundreds of thousands of acres of land from Indian nations to white farmers,” according to History.com.
Historians often give Jackson something of a pass for being a slaveholder; he was a man of his times, they say, simply following in the footsteps of most of the presidents who came before him. But unlike his predecessors, Jackson never deigned to express guilt about it, according to Jackson biographer H.W. Brands. The seventh president, Brands writes in The Tennessean, “never admitted feeling guilty about anything.” Sound familiar?
Speaking to Ari Rabin-Havt in 2014, historian Harry Watson, professor of Southern culture at the University of North Carolina and author of Liberty and Power: The Politics of Jacksonian America, said that Jackson always insisted that he didn’t hate the Indians; “he just felt the presence of Indians on land that ought to be white people’s was a barrier to the development of the white country.”
“By securing all this extra land from the Indians,” Watson told Rabin-Havt, Jackson “could make it available to white yeoman farmers and that was a way to protect their interests.”
Jackson is regarded as the first populist president; his purported connection to the ordinary people from which he sprang is the stuff of legend. Hailed as an economic populist for having opposed the creation of a centralized bank, it wasn’t quite that simple, according to New York magazine’s Jonathan Chait, who notes that Jackson’s “opposition to a National Bank served the interests of the local banks that competed against it”—local banks that backed Jackson and his friends, who also reaped rewards from the Indian removal policy. Relating a point from Steve Inskeep’s book, Jacksonland, Chait wrote in 2016 that “Jackson and his cronies personally grew rich from the policy of land expropriation that formed the core of his agenda.”
Trump’s affection for Jackson, of whom he keeps a portrait in the Oval Office, apparently did not spring from his own appreciation of history but rather that of his strategist and consigliere, Stephen K. Bannon, the former chief executive of Breitbart News and a guy whose view of history seems to be telling him that it’s time for a violent, cataclysmic shift in American politics and policy—and one likely to serve the interests of Trump and his billionaire cronies.
"Like Jackson's populism, we're going to build an entirely new political movement,” Bannon told The Hollywood Reporter’s Michael Wolff in November. “It’s everything related to jobs. The conservatives are going to go crazy. I’m the guy pushing a trillion-dollar infrastructure plan. With negative interest rates throughout the world, it’s the greatest opportunity to rebuild everything. Shipyards, ironworks, get them all jacked up. We’re just going to throw it up against the wall and see if it sticks. It will be as exciting as the 1930s, greater than the Reagan revolution—conservatives, plus populists, in an economic nationalist movement.”
AS TRUMP PLANNED his Wednesday pilgrimage to Andrew Jackson’s grave, Native Americans pulled up the stakes on the tents where they had camped for four days at the base of the Washington Monument and marched on March 10 to the White House to protest the construction of an oil pipeline through the native lands of the Standing Rock Sioux. The project had ground to a halt under the Obama administration, as protesters gathered for a months-long encampment at the construction site. The Army Corps of Engineers temporarily stopped the construction as courts heard cases against the location of pipeline’s path, which protesters deemed a threat to the water of surrounding Indian lands, as well as to relics of the culture, including human remains. As soon as Trump won re-election, the project was back on.
Trump is surrounded in his cabinet and circle of advisers by people whose wealth stems from privately held corporations, ranging from the pyramid scheme that is the Amway household product racket (Education Secretary Betsy DeVos) to hedge funds (donor and adviser Robert Mercer). Many hedge funds make construction loans. Charles and David Koch, the billionaire instigators of the right-wing takeover of Congress, preside over a global business for which the movement of goods and commodities is critical. Don’t get me wrong—the nation’s infrastructure decay is a problem for all of us and urgently needs fixing. But under the present administration, it would be foolish not to wonder if the president’s friends won’t get even richer off any Trump plan for such an overhaul—a plan that will no doubt be sold to underemployed white, working-class men as a jobs plan designed expressly for them.
Meanwhile, Andrew Jackson’s little-discussed contempt for African Americans is borne out by the fact that he wasn’t simply a slaveholder, but a slavery enthusiast who distributed anti-abolitionist literature in the South before he was elected.
The contempt of Bannon and Trump for virtually every marginalized group in the United States is well documented: Bannon’s as the editorial chief of Breitbart, known for the bigotry of such writers as Milo Yiannopoulos, and Trump’s as, well, Trump on the trail.
Bannon knows that Trump’s wreath-laying is a giant f***-you to Native Americans and black people. That’s kind of the point, a plan to keep Trump’s white base with him as he sets out to gut any chance most of them ever had for getting health care with a display of Trump’s scorn for the “political correctness” of inclusion and historical truth-telling. That base, write Sean McElwee and Jason McDaniel at The Nation, found its primary motivation for voting Trump in its own anxiety about the growing racial and ethnic diversity of the U.S. population.
And so the Age of Trump has so far yielded a ban on travelers entering the United States from six Muslim-majority nations, the capricious detentions of undocumented immigrants by agents of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), more than 100 documented bomb threats to Jewish community centers, the burning of two mosques, and the slaying of Srinivas Kuchibhotla, a man from India, in a Kansas City bar for the crime of being perceived by his attacker to be from the Middle East. For added flourish, there are Trump’s systemic attacks on women’s health care and transgender schoolchildren.
On Monday, students at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., were greeted with posters from an apparent neo-Nazi group scattered across campus that declared: “America is a White Nation.”
On Wednesday, the president will lay a wreath on the grave of a predecessor who sought to ensure that such an ideology was set into practice, placating the white workmen and “yeoman farmers” so long exploited by the wealthy with the notion that, once brown-skinned natives were removed and so long as blacks remained enslaved, they could now join their rich ethnic brethren in the wealth-creating project of democracy. In short, Andrew Jackson was just looking to make America great again—for himself and his friends. No wonder Trump finds a role model in his ugly story.