President Donald J. Trump – A Historical Comparison

President-Elect Donald J. Trump

Like Donald Trump, Andrew Jackson was seen by many of his contemporaries as a true outsider to the Washington establishment and a danger to the country

On November 8, 2016, America did something truly unprecedented: it nominated a president and commander-in-chief that has neither served in any government office or military post. The electoral college reaffirmed this result on December 19. With business dealings all over the world, President-elect Donald J. Trump, a seventy-year-old billionaire, is both the wealthiest and oldest man ever elected President. He comes into power with his party in control of both houses of Congress and with executive power at an all time high in the wake of terrorist attacks and wars of the prior decade. He won the presidency despite the fact that a whopping 61% of voters believed that he is not qualified to serve as president.


But it isn’t just Donald Trump’s resume that defied conventional norms. His personality and temperament, as displayed on the campaign trail, were in stark contrast to the decades of generally stoic, cerebral, and mild-mannered major-party-candidates that came before him. Trump was also not shy about going after his opponents with harsh language, repeatedly using a boxing reference to proclaim himself “a counterpuncher.” He derided his primary opponents with disparaging nicknames  (“Lyin’ Ted,” “Little Marco” and “Low-Energy Jeb”).  He told a crowd at a Las Vegas rally that he would like to “punch [a protester] in the face,”  and he repeatedly referred to the Democratic nominee, Hillary Clinton, as “crooked.”
During the second general election debate, Donald Trump threatened to hire a special prosecutor to investigate Clinton and joked that if he were in charge of the laws of the United States Clinton would be in Jail. When voters were asked in exit polls whether Donald Trump had the temperament to serve effectively as president, 63% said no.donald_trump_25218642186

Finding historical comparisons for Donald Trump’s rise to the presidency is not easy. Other than Trump, there have only been five U.S. presidents that had never served in elected office before being elected to the presidency. Three of those men (Zachary Taylor, Ulysses S. Grant, and Dwight D. Eisenhower) had significant military experience before running. The other two, William Howard Taft and Herbert Hoover, both had extensive experience in cabinet-level positions for other presidential administrations. There was, however, one president who, despite experience in the United States Senate and U.S. House of Representatives, was seen as a true outsider to the Washington establishment and viewed with disdain and contempt by his contemporaries: Andrew Jackson. Andrew Jackson is not by any means a perfect mirror of Donald Trump. How could he be? The two men were elected to the presidency nearly two centuries apart. However, the similarities between the two men’s temperament and public image is striking.

“Mortifying and sickening to the hearts of the real lovers of free government.” –  Secretary of State Henry Clay’s thoughts after Andrew Jackson was elected president in 1828

Andrew Jackson, a country lawyer on the frontier, rose to the ranks of government to become a House member and later a U.S. Senator from the State of Tennessee. Although he was admired for his heroism in war, he was simultaneously feared and belittled by the Washington establishment. In 1824, Jackson ran for President against three establishment candidates: Speaker of the House Henry Clay of Kentucky; William H. Crawford, Secretary of the Treasury and a former U.S. Senator from Georgia; and John Quincy Adams, the socially-awkward Secretary of State and son of a former president.andrew_jackson_hand_tinted

Much like Trump, Jackson was not at all a typical candidate. Also like Trump, Jackson was notorious for his temper in the face of what he saw as slanderous attacks. As biographer H.W. Brands noted,  “[Jackson’s] audacity on behalf of the people earned him enemies who slandered him and defamed even his wife, Rachel. He dueled in her defense and his own, suffering grievous wounds that left him with bullet fragments lodged about his body.” “Duel” was meant literally. Years before he ran for president, Jackson shot and killed a man in a  duel after the man had insulted Rachel. Jackson was a slaveowner at a time when disputes over the issue of slavery was becoming more commonplace. Thomas Jefferson, who had then been retired from the presidency for ten years, called Jackson a dangerous man, unfit for the presidency. Henry Clay feared that a man of Jackson’s temperament might turn the presidency into a dictatorship.

Despite his notorious temper and the disdain of many in Washington, Jackson was seen as the voice of the common man. White non-land-owning men were increasingly gaining the right to vote in the early 19th Century. In the 1824 election, Jackson won a plurality of the popular vote and electoral college. However, because no candidate received over 50% of electoral college delegates, the race was sent to the House of Representatives. There, Clay supported Adams, who had come in second in the vote count, despite Jacksons popular vote lead. Clay urged House members not to vote for Jackson, who Clay saw as unfit. Clay instead threw his weight behind the Secretary of State. Several months later, John Quincy Adams was elected by the House of Representatives. A short time after that election, Adams appointed Clay to be his Secretary of State, fueling allegations by Jackson that the two had reached a corrupt bargain. Jackson was furious.

electoralcollege1828-largeJackson, enraged by what he saw as the corruption of the Washington Establishment, saw himself as the true interpreter of the will of the people. He resolved to run against Adams again in 1828. At a time when farmers felt that they had diminished standing in American life, and tensions over slavery were at a near historic high, Jackson campaigned as the strong executive that would restore order.  He believed that the of the power of the many required a powerful head of state.  Jackson saw the Washington establishment that Adams embodied as contemptuous of the common people. Adams, the well-educated northeastern Secretary of State from America’s first dynastic family was defeated in 1828. After the election, Henry Clay told his friend and long-time colleague, Daniel Webster, that the fact that election would even be close was “mortifying and sickening to the hearts of the real lovers of free government.”

The success of Andrew Jackson’s presidency is now left for history’s judgment. He is abhorred by many for his human rights record,  which includes his signature of the Act that forcibly removed Native American Tribes to a federal territory west of the Mississippi River, commonly known as the trail of tears.  Despite his human rights record, the image of Jackson as the defender of the common person against the wealthy bankers and Washington establishment has consistently earned him a high ranking and regard by presidential historians. He argued against the electoral college, stating in his very fist message to Congress that “[t]o the people belongs the right of electing their [President]; it was never designed that their choice should in any case be defeated, either by the intervention of electoral colleges.”donald-trump

Of course, however, the differences Donald Trump and Andrew Jackson are numerous. Not least among them, Jackson was a war hero and served in a number of elected positions before becoming President. Jackson was not born in to a distinguished family with wealth and was never privileged enough to receive any formal education. But the similarities between Trump and Jackson are also readily apparent. Like Jackson, Trump tried to reach out directly to the common people during his presidential campaign. Like Jackson, Trump ran against a powerful political family that he lambasted as corrupt and out of touch with the average American. Somewhat ironically, Trump and Jackson both also called for the abolition of the electoral college (Trump lost the popular vote by 2 million people, despite his significant electoral college victory). Years from now, historians will assess President-elect Trump’s record and relative success as President. For now, a study of Jackson’s rise to power should provide some historical context.

The Presidential Resumé Red Flag: “U.S. Senator”

Written By: Bradford J. Ham

With the 2014 midterm elections finally over, many potential 2016 presidential candidates are just weeks away from announcing their plans to run. The group of candidates will most likely include several current and former governors, senators, lawyers, Ivy League graduates, medical doctors, military officers, and diplomats. This is a very remarkable group to say the least. But what past experiences on a presidential candidate’s resumé, if any, are the best predictors for success or failure in the White House?  A look back at the resumés of the forty-three men who have served as president provides us with some insight.

Percentage of US Presidents that Have Served in Various Roles
Percentage of US Presidents that Have Served in Various Roles

Although the forty-three men who have served as President are different from each other in many ways, there are many impressive commonalities that they share as a group. Over one-third have been Ivy League graduates, and almost two-thirds have served in the military in at least some capacity. Over forty percent have served as governor, over sixty percent have been lawyers, and over twenty percent have served as either secretary of state or U.S. foreign minister. Some past titles do not tell us much about how successful a person will be in the Oval Office. Others are more indicative.

Some of the best and worst presidents have been lawyers. John Adams and Abraham Lincoln are good examples of the former. Adams’ experience as a defense lawyer strengthened his belief in the right to counsel for criminal prosecutions. Abraham Lincoln and his cabinet of lawyers fought for legal equality for former slaves. However, Richard Nixon found himself using the law for self preservation, rather than national unity. Nixon, who graduated third in his class from Duke Law, employed shaky legal arguments to stall the Watergate investigation that eventually led to his resignation from office, and to justify executive overreach and political espionage.

The same is true for military service. Dwight Eisenhower‘s leadership as the Supreme Allied Commander during World War II provided him with the skills necessary to project strength abroad and, at the same time, create an era of peace and prosperity domestically. On the other hand, President Ulysses S. Grant, considered one of the best commanding generals of all time for his service during the American Civil War, is considered a lousy president because of his economic mismanagement and failure to end corruption in the federal government.

Similarly, service as governor, service as vice president, and service as foreign minister do not serve as great predictors for presidential success. There have been a roughly equal number of successful and unsuccessful presidents that have served in these roles. However, there is at least one past title on a presidential candidate’s rusumé that history tells us to be wary of: United States Senator.

There is a lot of evidence to suggest that former senators do not make the best presidents. Four of the five men that are consistently ranked as the worst Presidents of all time have been U.S. senators: Franklin Pierce, James Buchanan, Andrew Johnson, and Warren G. Harding (Millard Fillmore is the only president that is consistently ranked within the worst five who did not first serve as a senator). Additionally, none of the five men who are consistently ranked as the best five presidents have ever served in the US Senate: George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, or Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

In addition to historical performance, there is also recent evidence to suggest that former senators are not as well-liked by their constituents as  non-senator presidents. Gallup started keeping track of the presidential approval ratings when Harry Truman became president in 1945. Since Gallup began tracking, more Americans, on average, have approved of the job of non-senator presidents (average approval of 54%), than they have of the Presidents who served as senator (average approval of 49%) (Note: these numbers exclude John F. Kennedy and Gerald R. Ford because neither of them served a full term in office).

There are many theories as to why senators do not make the best presidents. One possible explanation is that that senators are often able to gain national name recognition and fame without having any legislative accomplishments or leadership experience. Senators can avoid controversial issues by refusing to take tough votes and by leaving the most controversial decisions to party leadership.

Perhaps the best example of a senator’s failure as president is Warren G. Harding. Before becoming president, Harding served as a United States senator from 1915 through 1921. During his tenure in the Senate, Harding essentially took no tough stances on any of the most important issues facing the country. When he first ran for the senate, he avoided talking about World War I out of fear that doing so would isolate German-Americans (a large voting block in his home state of Ohio). Once in office, Harding did not take a strong stance on most other major issues of the day: labor, women’s suffrage, or prohibition.

Warren G. Harding campaigning for President in 1920.
Warren G. Harding campaigning for President in 1920.

Despite Harding’s weak legislative record, he was able to gain national attention because of his great speaking skills, and his vocal opposition to then-President Woodrow Wilson. Harding adamantly spoke out against Wilson’s proposed “League of Nations”, calling Wilson a “partial dictator.” Harding’s harsh stance against the Democratic President helped him win the spot of Keynote Speaker during the 1916 Republican National Convention. Harding decided to run for President himself in 1920, promising a “return to normalcy” in America, after what he saw as the failed progressive policies that marked Wilson’s years in the White House. Voters did not seem to mind the fact that Harding himself did not serve as a leader on any piece of legislation or that Harding  had a spotty attendance record in the senate during votes. Harding’s great oratory  and opposition for the president were enough to get him into the Oval Office in 1921.

However, once in the Oval Office, Harding’s lack of leadership soon became evident for all to see and the country suffered greatly as a result. Harding, who never took a strong stance on Prohibition himself, drank socially in the White House during the time alcohol was banned throughout the country.  In 1922 Harding was unable to quell tensions between railroad companies and workers, leading to a strike of 400,000 workers and violence between the union members and company guards. Eleven people were killed during that strike. Harding later lost control of his own administration officials, who were found guilty of taking bribes from oil companies seeking to receive low rates from government leased oil reserves, without competitive bidding. Harding is consistently ranked by Democratic and Republican scholars as one of the worst presidents in U.S. History.

The path that Harding took from the Senate to the White House is not uncommon in modern times. It is also not unique to one party or the other. President Obama, who had only been in the U.S. Senate for two years before launching his Presidential campaign and did not have many major legislative accomplishments, won the presidency partially because of his opposition to George W. Bush and his tremendous speaking skills. The same is true for many senate Republicans seeking the presidential nomination in 2016. Rand Paul, Ted Cruz, and Marco Rubio are seen as major contenders in the Republican nominating contest despite any major accomplishments or leadership experience in the Senate.

Does all of this mean that Hillary Clinton, Rand Paul, Elizabeth Warren, or Ted Cruz, all of whom have served in the senate, could never make a good president? Not at all. The forty three men that have been president do not provide us with a significant enough sample size to draw unalterable conclusions and there have been outliers.  Andrew Jackson, America’s seventh president and former senator from Tennessee, is considered to be among the best President’s of all time and a strong leader. The same is true for Harry Truman, who had low approval ratings while in the White House, but who historians now consider among the top tier of past presidents. However, as people begin announcing their intentions to run in 2016, voters may want to think carefully before picking candidates with “U.S. Senator” as the only past experience on their resumé.

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