What Trump Gets Right—and Progressives Get Wrong—About Andrew Jackson

In the 19th century, Jackson broadened the electorate, but the self-righteousness of some Democrats impedes their efforts to do the same.

Alex Brandon / AP

In an interview excerpt that ricocheted around the internet Monday morning, Trump implied that the Civil War didn’t have to happen, and had Andrew Jackson been the president, it might not have happened because he would have talked some sense into the parties. Or something.

In this same interview, the president also sang the praises of the people of Tennessee who, he assured us, love Andrew Jackson. Let me fact-check this segment: We Tennesseans are indeed “amazing,” though I’m not sure we all love Andrew Jackson. Going off demographics alone, the small number of Native Americans who remain in Tennessee despite the Trail of Tears certainly do not love Andrew Jackson. The roughly 17 percent of Tennesseans who are African Americans likely do not as well. And my fellow Chattanoogan, Jon Meacham, wrote a Pulitzer-winning political biography of the man that was fair but certainly critical.

And then there are contemporary progressives, in Tennessee and elsewhere. Many who swooned over a young senator’s speech at Iowa’s 2007 Jefferson-Jackson dinner are appalled that the current president embraces Jackson and see racist dog whistles in his recent visit to Jackson’s grave and estate outside Nashville.

But it says a lot—and not all of it good—that progressives have so completely sworn off the political legacy of Andrew Jackson. As Steve Inskeep—whose own book pulls no punches on how Jackson stole the American South away from its native peoples—argued in these pages, “Jackson’s greatest political achievement was the widening of democratic space. He brought new groups of voters into the political system.”

Inskeep was making that argument to demonstrate a key difference between Jackson and Trump, who largely failed to widen the electorate in 2016. Jackson, Inskeep noted, brought new voters into the American democratic experiment and gave a political voice to those who had previously been voiceless. But if Trump failed to do the same, he seems to have understood lessons about Jackson’s success that progressives, to their detriment, have largely forgotten.

As Meacham argued, the great political tragedy of Jackson was that “a man dedicated to freedom failed to see liberty as a universal … gift.” He did not, in other words, see fit to extend political liberties to those other classes of people—women, African Americans, native peoples—who were denied a voice in the early days of the Republic. But Meacham was also quick to remind his reader that Jackson’s triumph was that he “held together a country whose experiment in liberty ultimately extended its protections and promises to all.”

This is why Trump is not wholly wrong, albeit in his rambling way, when he speaks of Jackson saving the Union—not during the Civil War, of course, but three decades earlier. That was no small achievement. It was, indeed, the ultimate achievement of the founding fathers and the generation that followed them. Contemporary progressives, however, apparently see little to celebrate in such achievements. And if Jackson has fallen out of popular favor among the elites, well, the University of Virginia among others should be growing uneasy, because it’s only a matter of time before Jefferson, Madison, and many others also fall from grace.

At the same time Democrats have abandoned Jackson politically, they have embraced a new hero, Alexander Hamilton. Hamilton—who kept his place on the $10 bill thanks in part to a hit musical bearing his name—may be the founding father contemporary progressives are most likely to admire. Hamilton, unlike Jackson, was on the right side of the key issues—most notably abolition—from the start. Unlike his arch-nemesis, Jefferson, he also understood that a strong federal government might be the best guarantor of civil liberties in a country whose history goes on to teach us that state and local governments can be just as tyrannical as the federal government.

(And it is here, for the sake of a neat argument, that I will note but quickly skip past Hamilton’s championing of the Alien and Sedition Acts. Or the fact that we would likely classify Hamilton—unlike that godless heathen, Jefferson—as an evangelical Christian were he alive today.)

I have two small children and cannot afford to drop hundreds of dollars on theater tickets these days, but I read the Ron Chernow biography on which the musical was loosely based, and toward the end of the book, Chernow offers this warning for any would-be imitators of the first Secretary of the Treasury:

The stress placed upon the Adams-Hamilton feud pointed up a deeper problem in the Federalist party, one that may explain its ultimate failure to survive: the elitist nature of its politics. James McHenry complained to Oliver Wolcott, Jr., of their adherents, “They write private letters to each other, but do nothing to give a proper direction to the public mind.” The Federalists issued appeals to the electorate but did not try to mobilize a broad-based popular movement. Hamilton wanted to lead the electorate and provide expert opinion instead of consulting popular opinion. He took tough, uncompromising stands and gloried in abstruse ideas in a political culture that pined for greater simplicity. Alexander Hamilton triumphed as a doer and thinker, not as a leader of the average voter.

A recent poll found that, for all its domination of the educated classes, two thirds (two thirds!) of respondents think the Democratic Party is out of touch with the concerns of Americans. Democrats—who dominate the jokes on late-night television, have all the best podcasts, and had all the best policy papers in the 2016 president election—currently control not a single branch of the federal government and just 16 governorships. If you want to win arguments on principle, Hamilton is your guy. If you want to win elections, however … well, maybe not so much.

Last weekend, I happened to be back in Jackson’s Tennessee, and my wife and I used the opportunity to go to a church we have long admired. New City Fellowship in Chattanooga was founded by a young interracial couple who grew up in housing projects in Newark, New Jersey, and started a ministry focused on racial reconciliation in my hometown in the 1970s. Today, it is a vibrant cross-cultural ministry and was one of the few places I remember growing up (that wasn’t a sporting event) where black and white Tennesseans would regularly gather together. I cannot imagine the courage it must have taken for a young white pastor and his black wife to have started that church just a few years after Martin Luther King Jr. was gunned down on the other end of the state.

Like most Protestant churches still thriving in the United States, New City follows a pretty orthodox—in this case, Presbyterian—theology. Most of the men and women with whom my wife and I were worshipping would also probably identify as evangelicals, that same group of people who have been Trump’s most committed supporters.

Now, may the Lord have mercy on me for this, but perhaps because I have lived in Washington, D.C., for the past several years, as I worshipped last weekend, I also saw something else in the pews: voters. These people—God-fearing Christians committed to racial reconciliation and social justice—should be among the voters for whom a multicultural Democratic Party is competing.

But one thing that shines through among many evangelical voters—as well as other, non-evangelical Trump supporters with whom I have spoken back home—is how turned off they are by the smug self-righteousness of contemporary progressive discourse.

Don’t support abortion rights? Well, obviously you hate women (even if you happen to yourself be a woman), and the late-night comedians are going to be merciless with what is left of your reputation.

Still believe marriage is a Biblical institution between a man and woman for the purposes of procreation? Be prepared to be mocked relentlessly on social media and shunned by peers and employers.

Last week, the Democratic Party debated whether it was even still possible to be pro-life and a Democrat before Nancy Pelosi—that arch-pragmatist who, so unlike her GOP successors, put a string of wins on the board for her party while speaker of the House—put an end to the debate by affirming that the answer remained yes.

These debates over doctrine and policy positions are exactly what the party should be doing in the aftermath of its 2016 debacle. But when paired with the self-righteous tone so characteristic of contemporary progressive discourse, it is potentially toxic to attempts to broaden the electorate for which the Democratic Party is competing. It replicates the mistakes of Alexander Hamilton’s own political writings before his own party collapsed.

I remember once cheering on Jon Stewart as he skewered CNN’s “Crossfire” for the corrosive effect it was having on political debates, but surely Stewart deserves some blame himself for the way he encouraged an entire generation of progressives to greet conservative values and policies less with well-reasoned policy evangelism than with self-assured mockery that preaches to the converted. No wonder Trump’s voters feel condescended to: They’re not in on the joke; they’re the butt of the joke.

And for some progressives, reaching out to voters who might otherwise share progressive values even as they cling to what might be perceived to be archaic religious doctrines or other traditions might be hard to stomach. It’s easier to stay in bubbles of their own design, reassuring their friends. But building a bigger tent is better, I would argue, than losing elections and watching other progressive achievements rolled back.

Trump, it seems clear, strongly identifies with, but actually knows little about, Jackson. But what little he knows helped get him elected president of the United States of America. What the Democrats forgot about Jackson, meanwhile, is partly why they’re in the wilderness.