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How Original Is Donald Trump?

Donald Trump

Trump and his Predecessors

One frequent question I have gotten during the presidential campaign goes like this: “Donald Trump is so awful - have we ever had a presidential candidate as bad as him?”

Although often pictured as unprecedented, it turns out that for those acquainted with United States political history; there is something familiar about Mr. Trump. Thus, while uncommon in many ways, he is not original. In an article entitled “The Mind of Donald Trump” appearing in the June 2016 issue of Atlantic magazine, author Dan P. McAdams places Trump in both a historical and psychological context. He shows us we have been here before.

McAdams describes Trump as an angry, restless, narcissistic person driven to socially dominate every situation in which he finds himself. In terms of recent occupants of the White House, this gives him some traits in common with Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush.

For instance: 

Like Richard Nixon, Donald Trump is a self-centered and disagreeable fellow. That is, in most circumstances, his default position is one of insensitivity, immodesty and a pushy, bullying attitude. 

Like Ronald Reagan, Donald Trump the narcissist is always on stage, seeking to be the center of attention, an actor playing the starring role. 

Like George W. Bush, Donald Trump plays that role in a frenetic, dynamic fashion. He is always on the go. He gives the impression that if he ever did stop and think about himself objectively he would fall apart. Thus, he has to keep moving. 

However, Trump is only superficially like these recent presidents. If you want to know which past president really should remind us of Donald Trump, you would have to go back to 1820s and the political life of Andrew Jackson. Most Americans know Jackson, at least by sight, because he graces the U.S. twenty-dollar bill. 

Donald Trump and Andrew Jackson

Jackson and Trump are alike in remarkable detail. McAdams tells us that “President Andrew Jackson displayed many of the same psychological characteristics we see in Donald Trump — the extroversion and social dominance, the volatile temper, the shades of narcissism, the populist authoritarian appeal.” Both men are/were Washington outsiders who are/were adored by an often under-educated and frustrated segment of the population who identified with their hot-headed temperament, crude language and potential for violence. Moreover, Washington insiders of that era “reviled Jackson” much as they now do Trump.

...Trump also offers the crowd American Muslims, whether legally resident or not. All of them represent an un-American “contagion,” helping to prevent the reawakening of American greatness.
Soon after Jackson won the presidency (with his second attempt in 1828), in a highly symbolic act, he invited “everyday folk to the inaugural reception. To the horror of the political elite, throngs tracked mud through the White House and broke dishes and decorative objects.” It is easy to imagine Trump doing the same thing. By the way, Jackson always claimed that he lost his first attempt at the White House in the election of 1824 because his opponents cheated. Trump is already preparing a similar storyline.

McAdams goes on to tell us that “the similarities between Andrew Jackson and Donald Trump … extend to the dynamic created by these dominant social actors and their adoring audiences.” 

We can draw out this comparison even further. Perhaps Trump’s most public image is that of the angry orator telling large attentive crowds that the U.S. is in deep trouble. “Something very bad is happening,” he tells them, and the crowd waits with great anticipation for the simple solutions Mr. Trump will offer. The crowd knows that Trump’s fears are accurate. Their own lives stand as proof to that fact. They are poor, alienated and with no prospects. He is their strong leader who will destroy their competitors (the “immigrants”) - who, in any case, aren’t real Americans at all. 

Just as it is with Trump, so was it with Jackson. Jackson was deemed “King Mob” by his opponents because of his ability to speak the language and direct the passions of the crowds that flocked to hear him lay out the country’s problems. The enemy Jackson offered up for sacrifice to his mob was the American Indian. And, when he did become president, Jackson pushed through Congress the American Indian Removal Act. He then forced the relocation of 45,000 Native Americans.

In the case of the Cherokees, at least 4,000 died in the process. The enemy Trump offers up to his listeners is Latin Americans residing in the U.S. without documentation. He wants to deport perhaps as many as a million of them and then build a wall along the southern border to keep others out. Trump also offers the crowd American Muslims, whether legally resident or not. All of them represent an un-American “contagion,” helping to prevent the reawakening of American greatness. Those who would prevent this act of purification are, of course, enemies not only of Trump/Jackson, but of the nation and its destiny. Trump says again and again that Hillary Clinton must be put in jail. “On the last day of his presidency,” Jackson said his only regret was that he was never able to definitively deal with all of his political opponents. He fantasized shooting and hanging them

Differing on the Down Side

The U.S. survived the presidency of Andrew Jackson, although thousands of Native Americans did not. It is said that his victory opened the office of the presidency to men who were not of the elite, the so-called “aristocrats” of the founding generation. But Jackson himself, though self-made, was a man of wealth, and his election helped confirm the fact that only those of wealth could afford to run for high office. On the other hand, as Trump reminds us, wealth need not get in the way of a politician appearing as “one of the boys.” All you need to do is “talk the talk” - a disdainful, arrogant and belligerent talk. Both Trump and Jackson were able to do just that.

If the United States experienced the political career of Andrew Jackson with acceptable levels of internal tumult, at least among its voting classes, one can ask if the country will as readily weather the political odyssey of Donald Trump.

In 1824 Jackson lost his first bid for the White House. It had been a three-party race and Jackson had gotten the most Electoral College votes, but not the number of them needed to win. The election was therefore decided by the House of Representatives. Here a deal was made by his two opponents, John Quincy Adams and Henry Clay, to throw the election to Adams, who then appointed Clay Secretary of State. 

Jackson’s supporters were very upset, with some obvious justification. However, Jackson kept them under control even while keeping their resentment alive. He used that unsettled state of feeling to win in 1828. It does not look as if Mr. Trump is willing, or perhaps capable, of handling loss in the same creative way. 

Sensing defeat, Trump has already declared his belief in a grand conspiracy involving the Clintons, bankers, feminists and the media, who have conspired to cheat him out of the presidency. That he could be the source of his own troubles seems not an allowable possibility to him, given the extreme narcissistic nature of his character. This being the case, if he is defeated, what message will he send his followers - people who already are convinced that U.S. political system is corrupt?

My guess is that, unlike Jackson, Trump will have no coherent message beyond his present complaints. In the end he might just be too immature to handle this kind of very personal and public defeat. He may rant for a while and then go into seclusion, leaving his followers to fend for themselves. What they might then do with their own anger and disappointment is still an unknown. 

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