The 19th century populist president on the wall of The Donald’s Oval Office

The 19th century populist president on the wall of The Donald’s Oval Office
Photo: Portrait of Andrew Jackson, the seventh president of the United States (1829-1837)

Donald Trump has frequently expressed his admiration for the country’s seventh president, Andrew Jackson. Jackson was a genuine war hero and fighter of Native Americans, including pursuing the policies that led to ‘The Trail of Tears’. He also defied Supreme Court decisions.

Prominent as part of Donald Trump’s Oval Office decor at the White House is a portrait of a dour, scowling Andrew Jackson, the man often described as the country’s first truly populist president, back in the 1820s and ‘30s. Jackson is remembered by generations of American high school students who learned of him as the man who opened the raucous celebrations of his 1829 inauguration as president to the hoi polloi of Washington – and to everyone else who had come to the still-small city for the party.

He invited them all to drop by the executive mansion for a drink or two or three, as well as a chance to carve off some chunks from a giant wheel of cheese set up in one of the White House’s formal reception rooms for their refreshment (and they returned the favour by grinding that cheese into the fancy imported carpets on the floor).

You could look it up,” as the famous baseball player and manager Yogi Berra loved to tell interviewers who expressed incredulity whenever he offered one of his more unusual views on baseball.

Jackson had earlier become a genuine national hero by defeating the invading British army at the Battle of New Orleans, in the final fighting of the famously inconclusive War of 1812 that had continued on until the end of 1814. Well, actually, Jackson and his forces had won that battle at the beginning of 1815 – after the peace treaty between the two nations had already been signed. No one had known that particular fact yet in the Western Hemisphere, because the news only reached America a month after Jackson’s success. As a result, his victory had no impact on the peace treaty, but it made him a national hero anyway after having beaten the same powerful British Empire that had vanquished Napoleon’s France.

Following his military career fighting the British, and then Native American tribes, Jackson became a national force from the then-western state of Tennessee. Along the way, he had become a well-to-do plantation (and slave) owner, and he was the West’s most visible politician when he lost the 1824 presidential election. That election had ultimately been decided in the House of Representatives in favour of John Quincy Adams, even though Jackson had gained the largest share of popular and electoral votes from among the various candidates, but not a majority. The decision was widely derided as a “corrupt bargain” – and it led to a massive victory for him to become president four years later.

In the rearview mirror of history and myth-making, Jackson has become the predecessor most lauded by the incumbent president, as he has publicly modelled himself as a similar populist game changer who had taken on his “betters”, to the acclaim of the crowds.

In the midst of Jackson’s first term, the Supreme Court had been asked to decide in the matter of a dispute between the Cherokee Indian tribe and the State of Georgia in the matter of that state’s dispossession of those Native Americans’ ancestral lands. The court had ruled that the treaty they had signed with the US trumped any state law and that they should be able to hold on to their traditional land.

But, here, let Associate Justice Stephen Breyer tell what happened next. In a commencement address at the University of Pennsylvania (the place that just happens to be Donald Trump’s alma mater) in 2003, Breyer had said:

Every day in my job I see how this Nation over time has gradually made real the Constitution’s promise of a rule of law. Let me illustrate. In 1832 the Cherokee Indian tribe lived on land guaranteed them by treaty. They found gold on that land. Georgia tried to seize the land. The Cherokees sued. And eventually the Supreme Court, in Worcester v. Georgia, held in favor of the Cherokees. Georgia then refused to obey the Court. President Andrew Jackson reportedly said, ‘John Marshall [the chief justice] has made his decision; now let him enforce it.’ And Jackson sent troops to evict the Cherokees, who travelled the Trail of Tears to Oklahoma, thousands dying along the way.”

Now, let all that history sink in for a moment.

In the days after Donald Trump’s most recent State of the Union speech and his reluctant signing into law of the budget bill passed by Congress that failed to provide all the funds he had insisted upon to build his big, beautiful border wall, Trump had made good on his threat to declare a national emergency on grounds of national security. (This has been in response to continued migrations of thousands of Central Americans, desperate to gain access to the US to apply for asylum and hunt for jobs.)

This declaration was issued by the president to provide a legal fig leaf to raid other government budgets – such as military construction budgets set for the construction of schools and other facilities on military bases – to pay for that wall. The budget, as passed and signed into law, had provided for funds for border security upgrades, but, crucially, not the Trumpian wall.

Ironically, almost immediately after this declaration of a grave security threat to the republic, the president elected not to stay in Washington to cope with this emergency – nor the fact that various NGO and advocacy groups had already filed suit in federal district courts to stop the impact of this state of emergency, and the suit by the attorneys general of 16 states as well in the Federal District Court of Northern California. This is, just by the way, one of the courts that has repeatedly stymied Trump executive orders on migration issues.

Meanwhile, the Democratic Party-controlled House of Representatives is moving forward with a resolution “to terminate this emergency declaration using the termination mechanism within the National Emergencies Act”. As things stand now, the plan is to introduce the resolution on Friday, report it out of committee within 15 days, and put it on the House floor within three days following that. It seems likely to pass in the House easily (including with some Republican members’ support), even if, in a separate action, gaining approval in the Senate, with its Republican majority, would be much harder.

Instead, this president had elected to fly off to Florida for a few rounds of golf, and perhaps a chance to commune with the shade of Andrew Jackson for some guidance in ignoring court orders (Jackson had actually been the military governor of Florida for a time after the Battle of New Orleans). In fact, maybe he has already had a chat with the seventh president about how best to ignore the courts.

Shortly before running off to Mar-a-lago, Trump told reporters that, yes, he understood his declaration of an emergency would be challenged in a federal district court, then, perhaps, in a circuit court of appeals, and then likely in the Supreme Court, and that, meh, we would see what happens then.

While precedents such as the courts’ declaring President Harry Truman’s emergency nationalisation of the steel industry was unconstitutional, even in the midst of the Korean War, the courts traditionally are also rather reluctant to overturn presidential national security actions. Still, all of the outrage over so many of Trump’s decisions and actions is now generating an actual legislative reaction, consistent with its constitutional role of carrying out executive policy oversight – and as the branch of government where federal spending is actually determined, rather than from the imaginary national crises of Trumpland. DM


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