Is President Trump — his title as of today, Jan. 20 — a populist hero elected to root out corruption and rebuke coastal elites? Or is he a dangerously inexperienced demagogue who flaunts the time-tested norms of American democracy and caters to a toxic tradition of racism, xenophobia and bigotry?
Different people, of course, will give you wildly different answers to that question. But both descriptions invite a comparison between Trump and the only other president whose time in office offers some parallel to this utterly surreal moment in American history: Andrew Jackson. As we’ll see, this comparison should give pause to anyone who expects the present cataclysm to end with Trump’s electoral defeat four years from now.
Andrew Jackson was not a good president. His signature accomplishments proved disastrous — they directly led to the deaths and dislocation of thousands of Native Americans and contributed to the Panic of 1837, which preceded a four-year economic depression. That being said, Andrew Jackson was an extremely successful president. He was largely effective at enacting his agenda. He was elected to two terms and succeeded in office by his chosen political heir, Martin Van Buren. For decades, he was viewed as one of our greatest presidents. It has taken nearly two centuries for people to begin seeing his presidency for the stain on American history it was — even now, his face still adorns the $20 bill.
The quality of a president does not always determine their political success. We need not go as far back as Jackson to prove this. George W. Bush was elected to two terms, during which he initiated the War in Iraq, botched the federal response to Hurricane Katrina and failed to prevent the financial crisis. His mistakes eroded public trust in government, compounding a trend that arguably helped elect Donald Trump — who quite literally ran against the Bush legacy — to the highest office in the land.
Bad presidents can be politically successful ones. That’s a lesson we can learn from Jackson and Bush, and it could someday be a lesson we learn from Donald Trump. Yes, he will almost certainly be a terrible president. True, he’s entering office with the lowest approval rating of any incoming president in recent history. And four years from now, he’ll have an actual record of political accomplishment, or lack thereof, to run on — one that should be fraught with broken promises.
But four years from now, he’ll still enjoy all of the advantages that contributed to his rise in the first place: the spread of misinformation, the rigidity of party identification, the Rust Belt’s rightward lurch and the rising tides of racism and sexism that poisoned last year’s presidential campaign. In addition, he’ll enjoy the advantages of an incumbent. The 2020 election will be no more of a shoe-in for Democrats than 2016 turned out to be. They’ll have to avoid complacency, hold Trump to his campaign promises and find a way to win back white working class voters without appealing to the same racial and cultural resentment that drew many of them to Trump.
Groves is a government sophomore from Dallas. He is a senior columnist. Follow him on Twitter @samgroves.