Donald Trump, an American Original?

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by Prof. Hugh Rockoff, Rutgers University

Ever since the American election, historians, economists and other assorted pundits have been searching for a precedent to help us understand how Donald Trump became president, and hopefully, to predict what will come next. It has not been easy. A number of observers have reached outside the United States for models. Silvio Berlusconi has been brought up many times. At Project Syndicate, Barry Eichengreen compared Trump to Enoch Powell. Eichengreen concluded that the rejection of Powell tells us something about the potential superiority of Parliamentary democracy. At BloombergView Tyler Cowen compared Trump to Robert Muldoon, prime minister of New Zealand from 1975 to 1984. One of Cowen’s conclusions is that Muldoon’s style helped him remain popular with his supporters despite obvious policy failures; perhaps a harbinger of what is to come. Michael Siegel, in a piece in the Wall Street Journal (February 17, p. A13) even compared Trump to the biblical King David. King David, as Siegel noted, like Trump, had a less than exemplary record for marital fidelity.

Who are the Americans with whom we can compare Trump? For understanding how Trump became president, two governors, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jesse “the Body” Ventura, provide the best analogies. Schwarzenegger will be the more familiar figure to Europeans. Champion bodybuilder, successful movie actor, Schwarzenegger was attracted to the libertarian ideas of Milton Friedman. He provided the introduction to one episode of Friedman’s TV series “Free to Choose” in which Friedman celebrated the contribution of America’s relatively free immigration policy during the nineteenth century. Schwarzenegger had no experience in government when in 2003 he announced his candidacy for Governor of California on comedian Jay Leno’s Television show. In his campaign to replace Gray Davis, who was facing a recall, Schwarzenegger made effective use of one-liners that played on famous lines from his movies. He won a plurality of the votes, decisively beating the conventional candidates that opposed him. Schwarzenegger remained popular for a time, sometimes siding with Republicans and at other times with the Democrats. In 2006 he was reelected. Toward the close of his time in office, however, budget woes and related problems caught up with him and his approval ratings plummeted. At one time Schwarzenegger was friends with Trump, but he did not support Trump in the presidential election. Schwarzenegger replaced Trump on the television show, “the Apprentice,” but subsequently was let go.

Schwarzenegger proved that a celebrity with an outsized personality and no prior experience in government could win an important election. California is the most populous state, with nearly 40 million residents. But for understanding Trump’s remarkable legislative triumph, an even better analogy is the professional wrestler Jesse “the Body” Ventura who became governor of Minnesota in 1998. In a three way race Ventura won with 37 percent of the vote defeating a Republican Norm Coleman (previously a Democrat) and state Attorney General Hubert Humphrey III, son of the legendary Minnesota liberal Democrat Hubert Humphrey who had served as Senator and as Lyndon Johnson’s vice president.

Ventura served as mayor of a town in Minnesota and then ran successfully for governor of Minnesota in 1998 on a Reform party ticket. Minnesota wouldn’t seem a very promising stage for a Reform party candidate. But in debates Ventura used many of the tactics that Donald Trump would later use successfully. He avoided some debates, but proved effective when he took part. He let the candidates of the major parties stake out their positions and then used his unfamiliarity with policy details to highlight his position as an outsider. He used the language of the common man or woman (or at least some of them), and was not above aiming insults at ethnic minorities. He treated the press as the enemy: reporters were “official jackals.” By portraying the press as the enemy, he undermined the effectiveness of their criticism. The experts predicted that that Ventura would lose, but he won a surprising victory. In 2000 Trump campaigned for the Reform party Presidential nomination in 2000, and held a joint news conference with Ventura, although he later pulled out of the race. Trump had found his issue, and a successful model.

The examples of Schwarzenegger and Ventura help us understand how Trump won, but for predicting what will happen next we need to turn to Presidents. Again, many names have been suggested, including Dwight Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy, and Ronald Reagan. Newt Gingrich, the ubiquitous American politician, who has a Ph.D. in history, said that Trump was one third Andrew Jackson, one third Theodore Roosevelt, and one third P.T. Barnum. There is a great deal, I believe, to the comparison with Jackson (President 1829-1837), a comparison that has occurred to a number of writers. It has also occurred to Trump who has attempted to don Jackson’s mantle. Shortly after his election Trump hung a picture of Jackson in the Oval Office. And on March 15, the 250th anniversary of Jackson’s birth, Trump toured Jackson’s Tennessee plantation and laid a wreath on his tomb.

Jackson, like Trump, appealed to poor white Americans. But Jackson was an experienced politician and more importantly a war hero, having defeated the British at New Orleans and led successful campaigns against Native Americans. Jackson’s road to the White House was the one followed by William Henry Harrison, Zachary Taylor, Ulysses Grant, Dwight Eisenhower, among others, and of course, George Washington. But the Jackson comparison helps a good deal in understanding what the long run effects of a Trump Presidency might be. At one time Jackson was a liberal icon; but now that status is gone. His picture, which long adorned the $20 bill, is about to be replaced. What attracted earlier generations of historians to Jackson was his willingness to challenge the Eastern elite on behalf of poor whites and his willingness to aggressively wield the inherent power of the presidency.

Jackson’s antipathy for people who did not share his background is probably the main basis for the comparisons between Jackson and Trump. There is also Jackson’s personality. Prone to take offense, Jackson was the last American president to fight a duel. Indeed, in 1806 Jackson fought a duel that ended in the death of his opponent Charles Dickinson. Dickinson fired first lodging a shot in Jackson’s chest that troubled Jackson for the rest of his life. Jackson then fired killing Dickinson. While it hard to imagine Donald Trump risking his life on the field of honor, we can say that both Jackson and Trump were both overly sensitive to personal slights.

One thing that hasn’t changed since Jackson’s day is the importance of a President’s appointments to the Supreme Court. In 1836 Jackson appointed his close adviser Roger Taney to the position of chief justice of the Supreme Court. In 1857 the Court, under Taney, issued the famous Dred Scott Decision, which held that persons of African descent could not be citizens of the United States, and that Congress had no authority to prohibit slavery in any territory of the United States. Attacked by Lincoln and other opponents of the spread of slavery, the decision was a major milestone on the road to the Civil War. The Supreme Court is now evenly split between liberals and conservatives. Trump has nominated Neil Gorsuch to fill the ninth position on the court. The Jackson analogy does suggest that this may turn out to be one of the major events in the Trump Presidency.

It is tempting to blame all of America’s economic ills during the 1830s on Jackson’s attack on the Bank. But we have now learned that this is a mistake. Thanks to the work of George Macesich (1960) and Peter Temin (1969) we now know that the inflation was due to an increase in the stock of silver, ultimately the result of changes in the balance of payments. (I provided a summary of this literature in Rockoff 1971). On the other hand, Jackson’s “Specie Circular” which ordered government land offices to sell government land only in exchange for gold or silver (specie) probably helped bring on the subsequent financial panic (Rousseau 2002). The Specie Circular still sounds like a worthwhile measure, but it helped drain reserves from a vulnerable New York banking system and spark a financial panic. There is a lesson here: we should be wary of making direct connections between the economy and Trump’s economic policies, as tempting as it might be, because the economy is subject to many forces besides those emanating from the White House.

What about foreign policy? One aspect of Jackson’s foreign policy that does have some parallels with Trump’s issues is Jackson’s concern with the border between the United States and Mexico. Jackson was determined to purchase Texas, but his diplomatic efforts failed. He was saved from frustration on this score, however, when his old friend Sam Houston led a successful campaign for Texas Independence. In foreign affairs, the Jackson comparison provides little guidance. Jackson, fought many wars, but he never had access to a nuclear bomb.

Ultimately, the large crop of precedents that have been brought forward to try to understand Donald Trump – from Silvio Berlusconi, to Arnold Schwarzenegger, to Jesse “the Body” Ventura, to Andrew Jackson, to King David – attests to the difficulty of understanding how Donald Trump became president of the United States and predicting what the future will bring. But they all suggest that we have a lot to worry about.

 

The author would like to thank Hope Corman, Eva Marikova Leeds, and Eugene White for their comments on an earlier draft

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