Van Ens: Is Army veteran President Andrew Jackson a positive role model? (column)
November 11, 2017
Racehorses wear blinders to focus on the track ahead. Just as blinders limit a horse's range of vision, biases blur our sight of presidents' weaknesses.
Supporters commend President Donald Trump for his "straight talk." It reminds them of President Andrew Jackson, another "outsider" who vowed to drain the swamp of Washington's bureaucratic "insiders."
Most critics condemn Trump for belittling adversaries. Is his trash-talk against foreign dignitaries brave? Brash? Sound presidential?
Populist Trump's political idol is Andrew Jackson, an army general who became our seventh president. Trump is frequently photographed sitting at his desk in the Oval Office near Jackson's portrait, which hangs on a nearby wall.
Are Jackson and Trump political twins? The president flew to Nashville on Jackson's 250th birthday to lay a wreath at his tomb, heightening comparisons between the two.
"Trump's ally Newt Gingrich, the former House speaker, has written that Trump, like Jackson, is an 'outsider and a disruptive force chosen to break up existing Washington power structures,'" reports Hillel Italie, of The Associated Press.
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Using Jackson as a presidential role model, however, may cut Trump down to size, slicing his ego like a biblical "two-edged sword" (Hebrews 4:12). Reporter Hillel notes, "… Thomas Jefferson, in sentiments critics have echoed about Trump, worried that Jackson 'had very little respect for laws and constitutions' and added that 'his passions are terrible'" (The Denver Post, "Ideals in focus near the Fourth," July 2, 2107, p. A1).
Dinesh D'Souza, a strong Trump supporter, blasted Jackson's political legacy for its bigotry against Native Americans. In his latest book, "The Big Lie," D'Souza excoriates Trump's hero. "He (Jackson) mastered the art of stealing land from Indians and then selling it at giveaway prices to white settlers," D'Souza writes.
"Jackson's expectation was that those people would support him politically, as indeed they did. Jackson was indeed a 'man of the people,' but his popularity was that of a gang leader who distributes his spoils in exchange for loyalty on the part of those who benefit from his crimes" (Denver Post, "Jackson switch tricky in D.C.," August 6, 2017, p. A19).
Populists such as presidents Trump and Jackson appeal to listeners' emotions. They make an enemies' list of "Washington elites and uppity Ivy Leaguers" who snub common people. A populist such as Trump speaks simply, directly and with fervor. Facts don't count as much as getting a rise from listeners. Populists promise quick action to right wrongs.
During his two-term presidency (1829-1837), Jackson sounded as if he alone had correct answers. If anyone questioned his convictions, then he lambasted their insubordination. Army Gen. Jackson surrounded himself with military brass. He exercised strong power that was dismissive of critics and punched the lights out of enemies. Jackson didn't care which way his armed frigates sailed if they sunk enemy ships.
Biographer Andrew Burstein describes how Jackson's political critics "characterized him as an inelegant, self-infatuated and politically inexperienced militarist. But Jackson could counter (and in his own mind, no doubt did) that they were smug in their own way, too accustomed to power to claim to represent the honest voice of an idealized 'people'" ("The Passions of Andrew Jackson," Alfred A. Knopf, p.154, 2003).
Don't lose perspective when sizing up a president. Remove blinders that narrow focus to idolizing him. Step back from any politician who wins over gullible supporters by habitually claiming to be the greatest.
The Rev. Dr. Jack R. Van Ens is a Presbyterian minister who heads the nonprofit, tax-exempt Creative Growth Ministries (www.thelivinghistory.com), which enhances Christian worship through dynamic storytelling and dramatic presentations aimed to make God's history come alive.