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21 November 2016

To understand Donald Trump, we should take a closer look at a President of bygone years

Trump shares Andrew Jackson’s attitudes to both elites and foreign policy, writes Ruth Dudley Edwards

Has there ever in the history of the United States been a president like Donald Trump? That’s the question people have been asking nervously since the election results sank in.

Some thoughtful commentators have been applying themselves to that question, and have agreed on the answer: Andrew Jackson.

Jackson, who was president between 1829 and 1837, was born in 1767 to Andrew and Elizabeth Hutchinson Jackson, Scots-Irish Presbyterians who had emigrated from Co Antrim two years earlier.

He had the raw courage, doggedness, ruthlessness and brusqueness that enemies and friends alike associate with the Scots-Irish tradition.

In the liberal-left Huffington Post last week, in a lengthy discussion, Chris Weigant asked if any of the following sounded familiar.

I couldn’t better the way he put it in his introduction, hence this long quote: “A presidential candidate presents himself as a ‘man of the people’ who will fight the entrenched elitists who are running the country.

“He launches a campaign the likes of which America has never seen before — a campaign which absolutely horrifies those elites.

“His opponents call him patently unfit for the job, as well as boorish, crude, violent, unsophisticated, illiterate, and downright dangerous for the future of the country.

“The candidate himself… rails against a totally rigged electoral system (direct quote: ‘there was cheating and corruption and bribery too’), and vows he will ‘clean the Augean stables of Washington’.

“He also promises a government attuned to the needs of the people rather than the elitists…

“After running a campaign closer to a cult of personality than anything previously seen in America, he wins the election.”

And what sort of president did this brash, often brutal, deeply partisan man, whose soldiers during the War of 1812 had given him the nickname Old Hickory — the toughest wood going — turn out to be?

While he has the distinction of having his name applied to an era of almost three decades dominated by an expansion of democracy inspired by his championing of the common man, there is much in his contentious time in office that has led historians to condemn aspects of his legacy, not least his resolution of the long war of settlers against Indians that led to the forcible relocation of many southern tribes.

Presidents considered great are on American banknotes: recently, the US Treasury controversially announced that Jackson’s portrait would be shunted to the back of the $20 bill to be replaced by an image of Harriet Tubman — a female anti-slavery activist.

A very distinguished scholar of American foreign policy, Professor Walter Russell Mead, was in London last week talking about the four American traditions of dealing with abroad.

The MP Michael Gove, recently Lord Chancellor, heard his talk and wrote about it in the London Times.

Hamiltonians are keen on a global economy, Wilsonians want to spread American values abroad, Jeffersonians are more concerned with safeguarding democracy at home, while Jacksonians “believe that the most important goal of the US government in both foreign and domestic policy should be the physical security and economic well-being of the American people”.

Mr Gove sees pure Jacksonianism in such aspects of President-elect Trump’s policies as tightening immigration controls to keep out terrorists and avoiding antagonising Russia or China, while focusing on eliminating Isis by whatever means necessary.

Professor Mead, says Mr Gove, sees Jacksonian populism as the “‘folk ideology’ of the ‘so-called Scotch-Irish’ who settled in what we call Appalachia, the backwards country of Kentucky, Western Virginia and Pennsylvania — and whose descendants became known as ‘hillbillies’”.

Their heirs in the Midwestern states that voted Trump represent, in Mr Gove’s view, his core constituency: they have no affection for liberalism.

“We cannot know how Mr Trump will turn out,” ended Mr Gove, “but we cannot say we don’t know what the model is. Old Hickory still takes some beating.”

The people of Doonbeg, in Co Clare, which is the home of Trump International Golf Links and the ancestral home of Mike Pence, Vice President-elect, are looking forward to a prosperous future, exploiting their links to the new American government.

It’s time for the Northern Ireland executive to take a good look at Boneybefore in Carrickfergus, home to the Andrew Jackson Centre, to see how it can market the statesman Donald Trump most resembles.

Ruth Dudley Edwards’ The Seven: The Lives And Legacies Of The Founding Fathers Of The Irish Republic, was published by Oneworld Publications on March 22.

Ruth Dudley Edwards

© Ruth Dudley Edwards