Over the course of the election and its aftermath, media outlets have made much ado about Donald Trump being the first “celebrity president,” most notably for his having presented The Apprentice in the US (not to be confused with the original UK version, the presenter of which, Lord Alan Sugar, said “Donnie” Trump is not “in my class”). In fact, however, the first celebrity president was Andrew Jackson, the 7th US president whose tenure spanned from 1829-37.
Jackson was the first president to, in Professor Chris Rojek’s words, “develop the technology and strategy of staged celebrity as a wholesale political weapon” (Chris Rojek, Celebrity (London, 2001), 122). His rags to riches American dream narrative, which Trump also pushed, was a major factor in his popularity. Like Trump after him, Jackson presented himself as a restorer of American exceptionalism, stirring up controversy only to relish the attention as a medium to sell his image. Seldom does one find a lukewarm view of Trump; he tends to evoke great respect from his followers and vitriolic hatred from his critics, so much so that James Parton’s description of Jackson might well be applied to Trump: “A democratic aristocrat. An urbane savage. An atrocious saint.”
Though Jackson won his acclaim as a military leader and Trump his as a celebrity entrepreneur, both presidents generated a cult following around themselves, not the ideas they espoused. Historians since Arthur Schlesinger have characterised Jackson as the self-appointed voice of the have-nots, ushering in the ‘Era of the Common Man.’ This is not dissimilar from Trump’s campaign mantra of “I am your voice.” Perhaps historians will, following the label of “Jacksonian America” one day come to call Trump’s presidency “Trumpian America.”
As I thought about how Trump follows Jackson in being a celebrity president, a few more comparisons came to mind – though to different degrees, in some cases. Consider:
(1) While both rode to power on a rags to riches narrative with a strong emphasis on restoring American exceptionalism, both also rode to power with a narrative of establishment forces conspiring against their election. Just as Trump attacked Hillary Clinton for allegedly trying to rig the election (especially following the DNC nomination scandal following a Wikileaks leak) in collusion with the media, Jackson said the election was rigged against him in what he called the “corrupt bargain” in 1824. According to Jackson, John Quincy Adams, Henry Clay, and others colluded to deny him the presidency, despite him winning the most popular and electoral votes. This narrative of corruption, of “draining the swamp” and letting an outsider in, was instrumental in Jackson’s successful presidential run in 1828. For both Trump and Jackson, the notion of outsiders purging the establishment was central to their campaigns.
(2) Like Trump, Jackson supported divisive tariffs, just as Trump’s promise to abandon free trade and pursue protectionist tariffs is likely to have a divisive effect. For instance, Trump has proposed a 35% tariff on Ford cars imported from Mexico. That might give short-term assistance to US car manufacturers, but it will add costs to consumers. The tariff helps one group at the expense of another. In 1828, Jackson continued a policy of protectionism, maintaining a tariff, often known as “the tariff of abominations,” to protect US industry in the North (in addition to adding another tariff in 1832). However, the tariff had a detrimental effect on the agrarian South. The divisive nature of the tariff led to the Nullification Crisis of 1832 wherein South Carolina defied the federal government. While it is highly doubtful that Trump’s tariffs will be as divisive (though, as free market libertarians know, they will be economically determinal), the comparison is interesting and fits in with the idea of restoring and protecting American exceptionalism.
(3) A disregard for human rights in war: While Trump is generally a moderate and opposes war with Russia, he has made a series of worrying comments about his potential conduct in war. For instance, Trump backs the use of torture because the US needs to “fight so viciously and violently” to overcome terrorism, and he has advocated killing the families of terrorists (even if they are not terrorists themselves). His nomination of James “Mad Dog” Mattis also suggests an overzealousness for the use of force. Similarly, General Jackson was known for having little care for human rights in war. Not only did he expel Native Americans, leading to the Trail of Tears, against the ruling of the Supreme Court, he had very few moral limits in the heat of battle. While he later expressed regret at the “dreadful” carnage, he oversaw such slaughter at the Battle of Horseshoe Bend (1824) that two US soldiers – William Bradford and Alexander McCulloch – noted that the Tallapoosa river flowed red with blood (H.W. Brands, Andrew Jackson: His Life and Times (New York, 2006), 218-19). This is not to say Trump will commit the kinds of atrocities that Jackson did, but both have expressed a blatant disregard of human rights when in combat.
As one observes Trump’s presidency unfold, perhaps one will be able to draw some further comparisons. Perhaps Trump’s criticism of the Federal Reserve and its monetary policies will evolve into something like Jackson’s Bank War from 1832. All this, of course, is not to say that Trump is a modern day Andrew Jackson. It is, however, to say that the popular perception of Trump as the first celebrity president in wrong. Likewise, there are some interesting points of comparison between the two, although I have only selected three for the sake of illustration. They both propounded similar narratives, stressed American exceptionalism, defined themselves as outsiders, supported protectionism as a preservation of American exceptionalism, and showed a worrying disregard for human rights in war. From a libertarian perspective, this perhaps highlights a need for a fresh vigilance. Jackson was among the first to radically extend executive power. Obama has continued that trend with his acquired taste for executive orders; it falls to libertarians to ensure Trump does not follow Obama in expanding government power – we must be for small government, and unless we speak out, our philosophy is in vain.
* Freedom Commentary is a libertarian opinion outlet, expressing the views of Matthew James Norris. Matthew is currently applying for MA programmes in history and philosophy. For more libertarian and political commentary from Freedom Commentary, follow it on Twitter @freedomcomment