The Champion of the Common Man vs. The Corrupt Political Aristocrat – A Tale of Two Elections
By Lilly Wimberly ’18
The year 2016 has already earned itself the top spot in the minds of many Americans as the worst presidential election in history – but the mudslinging battle between a so-called “champion of the common man” and a “corrupt political aristocrat” is old news. Almost 200 years ago voters faced a choice: the inexperienced, potentially tyrannical and wildly temperamental outsider, or the one with the famous last name?
It sounds eerily familiar.
Let’s go back to 1828.
In a way, it’s all about taxes. In May of 1828, President Adams (the second one) signed into law what would become known as the “Tariff of Abomination” to southern states. It was intended to protect the business of the industrial north. Imported goods are taxed highly upon entry into the United States, so Americans are incentivized to buy local and avoid the upcharge. This is bad news for the agriculture-driven south – no cheap goods from Britain flowing in means less revenue for the Brits, and therefore less cotton flowing out. The tariff rate stood at 60%. Adams also exercised what was seen as “generous” policy towards Native Americans, whose tribal lands impeded frontiersmen from pushing west. A monotone presidency, high taxes and too many Indians in their backyard? Cue dissatisfaction in the population.
The situation today in the United States has familiar echoes of discontent. The economy is broken – it seems it does not work for everyone. Our presidential selection process has been thrown into question: does it work? Is it truly representative of the people? The GOP is splintering into disarray – the establishment has lost touch with the grassroots, and the meaning of true conservatism is in many ways lost to us. Public satisfaction with our current leadership is down, and come November, voters still would rather choose ‘None of the above!’ History shows us that unhappy populaces are recipes for change, and in both 1828 and 2016, the people has called for a “champion of the common man” to step in. Those who answer the call, each in their respective elections, may be unsettlingly similar.
It is post-1824, and into the scene enters a new party mainly composed of southern and western states, the Jacksonian Democracy, a fledging version of the Democratic Party. Andrew Jackson, favorite son of Tennessee, was in no way the traditional “ideal” presidential candidate. But he answered the call. Lacking in any distinguishable governmental experience, Jackson’s supporters claimed his success in service to the military, beginning at the age of 14 and culminating in the War of 1812 and Battle of New Orleans, sufficient preparation to be president.
While no veteran, Donald Trump has spent his entire life as a businessman. The success (and integrity) of his ventures are debatable, but his record of zero governmental service is seen as appealing to today’s voters. In the minds of some Americans, it takes an outsider to muck the political stables.
Both men have a problem with the “establishment.” Jackson very nearly won the election of 1824, in fact he did win a plurality, but because no candidate won the Electoral College, the vote went to the House of Representatives. They choose John Quincy Adams instead. Jackson perceived this defeat as a corrupt, inside job in which party elites machinated against an un-favored candidate — exactly what Donald Trump accused the Democrats of doing when Sanders took a backseat to Clinton at the DNC. “It’s a rigged, disgusting, dirty system,” says Trump (and Jackson).
There is a cult of personality that surrounded Jackson then and Trump today – and the charismatic and unapologetic men at the center practically promise their supporters the moon. Their similar M.O.’s and character traits called to disenfranchised outsiders and have mobilized voters in numbers rarely seen.
Part of his appeal to his supporters, Jackson was an ardent white supremacist. He both owned slaves who worked his plantation, as well as bought, sold and relocated them. An expert from an advertisement published in the Nashville-based Tennessee Gazette, 1804, reads:
The above reward (50 dollars) will be given any person that will take him, and deliver him to me, or secure him in jail, so that I can get him. If taken out of the state, the above reward, and all reasonable expenses paid – and ten dollars extra, for every hundred lashes any person will give him, to the amount of three hundred.
It’s signed Andrew Jackson, Nashville, Tennessee.
Donald Trump promises to rid the country of Muslims, deport all Mexicans (“rapists”), build a wall on the boarder and make Mexico pay for its construction. He suggested a Gold-Star mother standing next to her husband at the DNC was “not allowed to have anything to say” due to her faith. He also suggested the violence against both a homeless Latino man by his supporters and a Black Lives Matter protester at his rally was justified. Even Trump’s adopted party’s Speaker, Paul Ryan, called his remarks “textbook racist.” The list goes on.
Something about the racist remarks struck a nasty cord with Americans, then and now. Perhaps it is the content, but more likely it is the willingness to be “politically-incorrect.” These men say whatever they want, and to hell with their critics – it is the abrasive willingness to offend people (minorities) that is seen as “strength.” Like Jackson before him, many consider Trump temperamentally unfit to be Commander-in-Chief. Jackson was called a murderer for executing several soldiers under his command for minor infractions; Trump is accused of being a bully who gets legitimate pleasure from telling people “You’re fired!” Both are hot-tempered and quick to react, and both have a propensity to duel, wisely or not (Jackson with guns, Trump with 140 characters).
The campaigns of Jackson and Trump were and have been plagued by similar problems – in 1828; it was called “mudslinging.” In 2016, it is called “mainstream media coverage.” Jackson’s wife Rachel came under fire for not being legally divorced from her first husband when she and Jackson were married. Melania Trump faced an onslaught of criticism after she lifted sections of Michelle Obama’s 2008 Democratic National Convention speech, verbatim. Jackson was not considered to have an especially strong hold on the written English language, a March study from Carnegie Mellon showed Trump’s speeches to be at the grammatical level of a 5th grader. Jackson was touted by his supporters as a “super-patriot!,” Trump’s campaign slogan is “Make America Great Again!” And throughout both men’s time campaigning, actual policy plans beyond a vague promise for “reform” have been unclear.
Make no mistake — history is cyclical. We think the election of 2016 is our political rock bottom, but in 1828 voters were faced with a shockingly similar dilemma. Jackson’s strength was strength of personality. Not strength of institution. He incited the nation’s passions. Jackson was the leader of a movement, but what is the phenomenon that is Donald Trump? Can he fairly be called the figurehead of a movement, or is he merely an opportunist, capitalizing on a perceived vacuum of leadership?
Working as an intern this summer on Capitol Hill, I often found myself staring at an original portrait of Andrew Jackson. It hangs in the office Congressman Jim Cooper, 5th district of Tennessee. I am now finding myself wondering – why are we so enthralled with this man? In him, I see disturbing parallels to the demagogue we face on today’s ticket. Tennessee is still blinded by the “lion” of Andrew Jackson in much the same way Trump’s followers are by his “hugeness.” But this is not 1828. We cannot afford a frontiersman in the White House, because the only frontier Mr. Trump could effectively conquer is straight into the ground.