Part I -- Trump and his Predecessors
One frequent question I have gotten during the presidential campaign goes like this: "Donald Trump is so awful - have we ever had a presidential candidate as bad as him?"
Although often pictured as unprecedented, it turns out that for those acquainted with United States political history, there is something familiar about Mr. Trump. Thus, while uncommon in many ways, he is not original. In an article entitled "The Mind of Donald Trump" appearing in the June 2016 issue of Atlantic magazine, author Dan P. McAdams places Trump in both an historical and psychological context. He shows us we have been here before.
McAdams describes Trump as an angry, restless, narcissistic person driven to socially dominate every situation in which he finds himself. In terms of recent occupants of the White House, this gives him some traits in common with Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush.
Like Richard Nixon, Donald Trump is a self-centered and disagreeable fellow. That is, in most circumstances, his default position is one of insensitivity, immodesty and a pushy, bullying attitude.
Like Ronald Reagan, Donald Trump the narcissist is always on stage, seeking to be the center of attention, an actor playing the starring role.
Like George W. Bush, Donald Trump plays that role in a frenetic, dynamic fashion. He is always on the go. He gives the impression that if he ever did stop and think about himself objectively he would fall apart. Thus, he has to keep moving.
However, Trump is only superficially like these recent presidents. If you want to know which past president really should remind us of Donald Trump, you would have to go back to 1820s and the political life of Andrew Jackson. Most Americans know Jackson, at least by sight, because he graces the U.S. twenty-dollar bill.
Part II -- Donald Trump and Andrew Jackson
Jackson and Trump are alike in remarkable detail. McAdams tells us that "President Andrew Jackson displayed many of the same psychological characteristics we see in Donald Trump -- the extroversion and social dominance, the volatile temper, the shades of narcissism, the populist authoritarian appeal." Both men are/were Washington outsiders who are/were adored by an often under-educated and frustrated segment of the population who identified with their hot-headed temperament, crude language and potential for violence.
Moreover, Washington insiders of that era "reviled Jackson" much as they now do Trump. Soon after Jackson won the presidency (with his second attempt in 1828), in a highly symbolic act, he invited "everyday folk to the inaugural reception. To the horror of the political elite, throngs tracked mud through the White House and broke dishes and decorative objects." It is easy to imagine Trump doing the same thing. By the way, Jackson always claimed that he lost his first attempt at the White House in the election of 1824 because his opponents cheated. Trump is already preparing a similar story line.
McAdams goes on to tell us that "the similarities between Andrew Jackson and Donald Trump ... extend to the dynamic created by these dominant social actors and their adoring audiences."
We can draw out this comparison even further. Perhaps Trump's most public image is that of the angry orator telling large attentive crowds that the U.S. is in deep trouble. "Something very bad is happening," he tells them, and the crowd waits with great anticipation for the simple solutions Mr. Trump will offer. The crowd knows that Trump's fears are accurate. Their own lives stand as proof to that fact. They are poor, alienated and with no prospects. He is their strong leader who will destroy their competitors (the "immigrants") -- who, in any case, aren't real Americans at all.