What Trump could learn from Andrew Jackson

Trump: My election most similar to Jackson's
Trump: My election most similar to Jackson's

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  • David Reynolds: Trump should add dose of Lincoln to his love of Andrew Jackson
  • He says people admired Jackson's fighting spirit, as many do Trump's pugnacious side

David S. Reynolds is a Distinguished Professor at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. He is the author or editor of 15 books, including "Waking Giant: America in the Age of Jackson." The views expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN)When President Donald Trump laid a wreath Wednesday at Andrew Jackson's grave in Nashville, he paid homage to a president whose mantle as a populist hero he is trying to wear. Does he deserve the honor?

There are, to be sure, similarities between Jackson and Trump.
    David S. Reynolds
    Trump succeeding Barack Obama resembles Jackson taking over from John Quincy Adams. In both cases, a populist president followed a cerebral one. Adams, like Obama, enjoyed reading books. Adams graduated second in his class at Harvard and read widely on all kinds of subjects, from science to history. He engaged in careful discussion of political issues, as does Obama.
    Jackson, by contrast, had little time for books -- so little, according to contemporary biographer James Parton, that the only book besides the Bible that Jackson read all the way through was "The Vicar of Wakefield," a novel by Oliver Goldsmith. Trump, likewise, prefers bullet points to books and tweets to discussion.
    They also shared a near-obsession with the media. A curator at the Hermitage, Jackson's home, explained to Trump during his visit that Jackson subscribed to over a dozen newspapers and made notes on what he liked and what he disagreed with. One one editorial he found particularly irksome, Jackson drew a big black X, the curator said. "We know that feeling, we know that feeling," Trump responded.
    Jackson anticipated today's anti-intellectualism, epitomized by Trump, who has -- among other things -- rejected the science behind climate change. His science denial was matched by Jackson, who, according to his private secretary Nicholas Trist, reportedly told a family member that he didn't believe the Earth was round.
    But, like Trump, Jackson spoke the language of everyday Americans, who went delirious in his presence. When Jackson was elected to a second term in 1832 by a tremendous margin, a politician of the time said, "My opinion is that he may be President for life if he chooses."
    People admired Jackson's fighting spirit, much as many today respond to the pugnacious side of Trump. A campaign slogan went, "John Quincy Adams who can write, Andrew Jackson who can fight."
    Fight Jackson did. Not only was he a military hero, but he fought three duels. He went to his grave with a bullet lodged near his heart from a duel he had with someone who insulted his wife. His opponent shot first, inflicting the chest wound. Although Jackson was bleeding profusely under his coat, he fired back, killing his opponent. "I should have hit him," Jackson later boasted, "if he had shot me through the brain."
    Another bullet, from a shootout in a Nashville tavern, was removed from Jackson's shoulder during his presidency. Jackson, when challenged, never backed down, like Trump, who told a reporter, "I always loved to fight ... all types of fights. ... Any kind of fight, I loved it, including physical."
    Both Trump and Jackson traded on popular prejudices. If Trump's Muslim ban and crackdown on illegal immigration are extreme versions of previous conservative views, so Jackson's forced removal of the Southeastern Indians to the West took to an extreme the Indian program of former presidents.
    Trump's goal of destroying the administrative state resembles Jackson's all-out assault on the institutions of his day, particularly the Bank of the United States, the Alexander Hamilton-founded central bank that held federal funds. Jackson removed funds from the central bank and distributed them to banks in the states, anticipating Trump's aim of stripping down the federal government.
    Is Trump creating "an entirely new political movement" like "Jackson's populism," as Steve Bannon told The Hollywood Reporter?
    For that to happen, Trump must have measurable policy successes that benefit many Americans, as Jackson did. Jackson managed to push through funding for massive internal improvements (the era's term for infrastructure) that modernized the nation. Just as importantly, Jackson put his firmness to good use when in 1832 he prevented South Carolina from seceding from the nation over a tariff dispute.
    After visiting Jackson's home, however, Trump may also want to reflect on the fact that it was once the seat of a 1,000-acre cotton plantation worked by enslaved blacks. Jackson owned some 150 slaves at his death. The fact that Jackson was just one of 12 American presidents who owned slaves doesn't diminish the horror of the South's peculiar institution -- and the rancid racism that dominated America during the long period of Jim Crow. Jackson-type populism, which did not extend to African-Americans, should therefore stand as a stern warning for today's would-be populists not to retreat an inch on civil rights.
    In Jackson's view, America was a union before the idea of states' rights ever arose. The Constitution's chief aim, he declared, was "to form a more perfect Union" -- an assertion that proved inspirational to someone later confronted with an even worse secession crisis: Abraham Lincoln, another president that Trump likes to mention.
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    Lincoln combined Jackson's blunt directness with a principled pursuit of justice that produced what was often called Lincoln's highest trait: honesty.
    And that is how Trump can best keep alive the spirit of our finest presidents: by adding a dose of Lincoln to his love of Jackson. Fostering unity, not division; working for the interests of all Americans, not just one's political base; being honest, not inventing truth at will.
    These qualities are what make for a true people's president.