In recent posts, I’ve written about President Trump’s admiration of Andrew Jackson and how there isn’t any debate over the cause of the Civil War. In an interview with the Washington Examiner ‘s Salena Zito, Trump highlights his shocking level of arrogance and ignorance over both issues.
TRUMP: [Jackson] was a swashbuckler. But when his wife died, did you know he visited her grave everyday? I visited her grave actually because I was in Tennessee.
ZITO: That’s right. You were in Tennessee.
TRUMP: And it was amazing. The people of Tennessee are amazing people. They love Andrew Jackson. They love Andrew Jackson in Tennessee.
ZITO: He’s fascinating.
TRUMP: I mean, had Andrew Jackson been a little later, you wouldn’t have had the Civil War. He was a very tough person, but he had a big heart. He was really angry that he saw what was happening with regard to the Civil War. He said, “There’s no reason for this.” People don’t realize, you know, the Civil War — if you think about it, why? People don’t ask that question, but why was there a Civil War? Why could that one not have been worked out?
First, Trump shows that he knows little about Andrew Jackson. He described Jackson as a “swashbuckler,” a term used to describe brave and noble men (they’re always men) defending some higher principle or ideal. What did ideals did Jackson strive to protect? He committed genocide against Native Americans, held African-Americans in bondage, imprisoned government officials who opposed him, and ignored the judiciary when it suited him. Trump further praised Jackson’s character by claiming that “He was a very tough person, but had a big heart.” Jackson’s heart bore shrapnel from an 1806 duel in which he murdered a man who accused him of reneging on a bet and insulting his wife, Rachel. Historians have not reached a conclusion on the number of duels that Jackson engaged in, but estimates range from five to over one hundred. So, yes, let’s admire the “swashbuckler” who organized a genocide of Native Americans and shot a man over horse racing.
While Trump claims that Jackson was “angry that he saw what was happening with regard to the Civil War”, Jackson devoted his life and presidency to protecting and perpetuating slavery. I’m also going to be generous and assume that Trump did not mean that Jackson literally witnessed the Civil War since he had been dead for sixteen years at that point, but rather the political environment that led to the war. Jackson’s wars and forced deportations of Native Americans opened up vast new lands for the expansion of slavery. During his presidency, Jackson allowed Southern postmasters to suppress or destroy abolitionist literature in the South. Jackson himself owned one hundred fifty enslaved African-Americans at his death. While his slaves provided his wealth, Jackson’s “big heart” did not extend to granting them freedom or allowing them the fruits of their labor. Jackson would no doubt have been upset at the betrayal of Hannah, his wife’s “personal companion” who fled to freedom once the Civil War broke out.
Then we get to the crux of Trump’s argument which demonstrates both his profound arrogance and ignorance. Whenever Trump says “people don’t realize” or “a lot of people don’t know,” he’s putting his own obliviousness on full display. We’ve seen it time and time again with his comments on health care, North Korea, NAFTA, and NATO. Trump does not understand that the world exists outside of his own personal experience. As one of the hosts of the Pod Save America podcast recently put it, he’s our first president without object permanence. He never asked the question why was there a Civil War, so no one has ever asked that question. The instructors of every middle, high school, and college level American history survey would beg to differ. Nearly every student wonders why America had a Civil War.
Even more arrogantly, Trump implied that Jackson or some other strong leader, like himself, could have avoided the Civil War. As he put it, “There was no reason” for Americans to go to war and he wondered “why could that one not have been worked out?” Not every issue can be resolved through negotiation, especially not one as morally, economically, and politically complicated as the enslavement of nearly four million African-Americans by 1860. The moral stain of slavery, perpetuated by those who claimed to uphold the principle of “All men are created equal” while holding other human beings in bondage, was not as simple as a real estate transaction. Or allegations of systemic racism in housing developments. Or a lawsuit settling fraud claims against a bogus university. Or resolving four corporate bankruptcies. Money and a team of lawyers couldn’t undo the past. Generations of enslavement and the denial of basic human rights can’t be bargained over a round of golf and some posturing on television.
It’s the height of historical arrogance and ignorance to suggest otherwise.