When presidents play historian, it almost always says more about them than it does with history. In this respect, Donald Trump is just like his predecessors.
In an interview with Salena Zito for Sirius XM radio, Trump discussed the nastiness of the 2016 campaign. (Sirius released a clip; the full interview is to air Monday afternoon.) He was told that the 1828 race between John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson was the most similar, he said.
“I said, ‘When was Andrew Jackson?’ It was 1828, that’s a long time ago, that was Andrew Jackson,” Trump said, a sign that the history to follow would be somewhat shaky. Reminiscing about a visit to Tennessee in March, Trump continued:
I mean had Andrew Jackson been a little later you wouldn’t have had the Civil War. He was a very tough person, but he had a big heart. He was really angry that he saw what was happening with regard to the Civil War, he said, “There’s no reason for this.” People don’t realize, you know, the Civil War, if you think about it, why? People don’t ask that question, but why was there a Civil War? Why could that one not have been worked out?
As with so many things Trump says, the quotation is simultaneously deeply confusing, and yet also deeply revealing.
On an historical level, Trump’s remarks are full of problems. It is difficult to know what the president means when he says that Jackson “was really angry that he saw what was happening with regard to the Civil War.” Jackson died in 1845, 16 years before the war began, though the challenge to national unity posed by slavery was clear by then. It’s possible Trump is referring to the Nullification Crisis, a conflict between the federal government and the state of South Carolina. The Palmetto State, outraged at high tariffs imposed by the federal government that aided industry but harmed slave states, announced it was “nullifying” the tariff—refusing to pay it. (The idea that states can nullify federal law has been rejected by courts, but keeps popping up throughout American history.)