What Is the Trump Way of War? For an Answer, Consider Andrew Jackson
In 1831, a young French aristocrat named Alexis de Tocqueville arrived in the United States to study the only democratic republic that existed in the world at the time. After a nearly nine-month sojourn that included extensive travel throughout the young nation Tocqueville returned to France to write the most perceptive study of American character ever penned: Democracy in America.
There is little in the two-volume work that is out of date. Times come and go, but there are things about Americans that simply don’t change – and Tocqueville captured those characteristics in his book.
One of the American attributes he identified was the connection between political success and success in warfare. Writing about then-President Andrew Jackson, Tocqueville summed up the link between America’s strategic character and who the nation elects:

“The Americans have no neighbors and consequently they have no great wars, or financial crises, or inroads, or conquest, to dread; they require neither great taxes, nor large armies, nor great generals; and they have nothing to fear from a scourge which is more formidable to republics than all these evils combined: namely, military glory. It is impossible to deny the inconceivable influence that military glory exercises upon the spirit of a nation. General Jackson, whom the Americans have twice elected to be the head of their government, is a man of violent temper and very moderate talents; nothing in his whole career ever proved him qualified to govern a free people; and, indeed, the majority of the enlightened classes of the Union has always opposed him. But he was raised to the Presidency, and has been maintained there, solely by the recollection of a victory which he gained, twenty years ago, under the walls of New Orleans; a victory which was, however, a very ordinary achievement and which could only be remembered in a country where battles are rare.”
Fast forward to today and you have President Donald Trump – as well as some remarkable parallels worth considering when assessing the current president’s strategic outlook.
True, it’s the beginning of the Trump administration, and whether the president receives a second term like Jackson is an open question. Also, Trump never served in the military – in fact, he took multiple student deferments from the draft and a medical deferment to avoid fighting in the Vietnam War.
Yet, both presidents won the White House on a wave of populism. Many American historians call Jackson’s presidency “The Age of the Common Man.” Steve Bannon, Trump’s controversial adviser, not only told journalists to shut their mouths but make peace with the fact that the president was elected by “the working-class hobbits and deplorables.”
Both presidents were bad-tempered celebrities with shady pasts known for eliminating those they considered weaklings. Jackson fought more than 100 duals in this lifetime and repeatedly fired cabinet members. Trump famously uttered “You’re fired!” – the 21st Century equivalent of a kill shot – during his reality television show and has already shown the door to two members of his administration.
Jackson and Trump wrapped themselves in the mantle of manly toughness. Jackson’s nickname was Old Hickory, a reference to the iron-hard wood of the hickory tree as well as the two bullets that the president carried in his body for decades. Trump adviser Sebastian Gorka recently gushed “the era of the Pajama Boy is over January 20th, and the alpha males are back … It’s not going to be just wagging your finger, or sending Samantha Power to the U.N. to shout at Russia or Syria” – a slap in the face aimed at President Barack Obama, considered a foreign policy poltroon by many American conservatives.
Furthermore, the political elites of their respective eras loathed and despised both men as divisive figures. Thomas Jefferson, one of America’s greatest Founding Fathers, declared Jackson a barbarian after they met, and the establishment of a two-party system in the United States partly has its origins in the white-hot opposition Jackson inspired in many. As for President Trump, all you have to do is look at the Facebook or Twitter postings of liberal Democrats to experience their shock and anger.
Trump is aware of these similarities. There’s a portrait of President Jackson now hanging in the Oval Office at Trump’s request. The president called Jackson “an amazing figure in American history — very unique so many ways” because of the 19th Century president’s combination of patriotism, populism, and machismo.
Trump is no scholar of Andrew Jackson, but he understands the Jacksonian winning formula: American patriotism plus Jacksonian machismo plus victory against an enemy of epic proportions equals political success despite what Trump’s opponents say about his “very moderate talents.”
In fact, the evidence indicates that he will count on that formula when it comes to how he chooses to fight America’s wars in the Middle East:
American Patriotism – “From this day forward, it’s going to be only America first. America first,” Trump said during his inaugural address.
It’s an idea that he reiterated last week at CPAC, the influential annual gathering of conservatives in the U.S. “I will never, ever apologize for protecting the safety and security of the American people.  I won’t do it,” he said during his address to the organization. “If it means I get bad press, if it means people speak badly of me, it’s okay.  It doesn’t bother me.  The security of our people is Number One – Is Number One.”
Forget alliances. Forget the liberal post-World War II global order. There is plenty of evidence that President Trump disdains those relationships, even though his national security team is scrambling around the world to assure old friends such as NATO allies that the U.S. still considers them relevant. He’s even willing to go it alone if he believes that the U.S. is in danger. What’s more, Trump couldn’t care less about his reputation. If the rest of the world considers him a bully, so be it: America first, always and forever.
Jacksonian Machismo: Trump is surrounding himself with some of the most celebrated, heroic military figures in recent U.S. history. They include his Secretary of Defense James Mattis (a highly regarded former Marine Corps general), National Security Adviser designate Lt. Gen. Herbert Raymond “H. R.” McMaster (an Army war hero known for his valor during Desert Storm’s Battle of 73 Easting), and Homeland Security Secretary Gen. John Kelly (the former head of Southern Command and a Marine).
In addition, former military personnel and hawkish civilian deputies comprise the White House national security staff.
In short, Trump’s administration is loaded with men and women who project toughness not just with their words but with their records.
For example, when a journalist asked Gen. Kelly during Desert Storm if the size of the Iraqi Army and the fact that Saddam Hussein threatened the use of chemical weapons ever gave him concerns about defeat, he reportedly said, “Hell, these are Marines. Men like them held Guadalcanal and took Iwo Jima. Baghdad ain’t shit.” Baghdad swiftly fell to U.S. ground forces, some of whom were under Kelly’s command.
The “guardian class” is definitely in charge.
An Enemy of Epic Proportions: As far as Trump is concerned, ISIS (the term most commonly used in the West for Daesh) is Public Enemy No. 1. He considers the jihadis an existential threat to the United States worthy of the most potent military response. In fact, the Pentagon is now reviewing options that might greatly increase U.S. military presence in Syria for the purpose of wiping out Daesh in their stronghold of Raqqa.
Furthermore, fear of Islamic extremists also influenced Trump’s approach to U.S. domestic policy: his executive order suspending refugee resettlement and blocking individuals from seven majority-Muslim nations from entering the United States. The president is so convinced that some incoming Muslims pose a national security threat without what he calls “extreme vetting” he is willing to fight his opponents in court and stand firm on the policy despite a firestorm of political opposition.
Readers familiar with U.S. history might now say, “Wait a minute. Andrew Jackson didn’t face a similar foreign threat.” Well, as far as Old Hickory was concerned the U.S. did: American Indians. Legally considered to be foreign nations at the time, they became “the enemy within our midst.” President Jackson (a former Indian fighter) waged a ruthless U.S. government campaign of warfare and dispossession against the “merciless red savages” that was so fierce it was dubbed “The Trail of Tears.”
The parallels are not exact, but they are eerily close. Once again, Trump did not suddenly become a student of Andrew Jackson’s presidency – in fact, until recently the only detail he probably knew about Jackson was his face is on the $20 bill.
But Trump knows the fears and hopes of ordinary working-class Americans – the people who elected him to office. They aren’t historians, either, but they have the same Jacksonian impulses that Tocqueville identified in the 1830s, and the president will play to his crowd.
The question is whether Trump’s neo-Jacksonian approach to national security will work effectively during a national security crisis. That’s a practical question with far-reaching political implications in matters such as Trump’s odds for re-election.
Some of the most skeptical are former U.S. military personnel. One of them is Ward Carroll, a retired U.S. Navy aviator who is now president of MilitaryOneClick, a media production company.
Carroll served the United States honorably for 20 years in four different F-14 squadrons and was the operations officer for Carrier Air Wing One. His love of the United States is beyond question – but he sees the president as divisive, bombastic, and naïve about war.
“Yes, he’s assembled a fantastic team on paper,” Carroll said during an interview. “All I know is the leader matters. The real question is what does Trump bring to the table when the rubber hits the road during a crisis? Being at the top of Trump Tower is not the same as stepping off the line of departure with a regiment of Marines.”
Indeed, the leader does matter. As President Trump leads the United States and its vast military might in the fight against Daesh, he must remember that self-serving quest for military glory is not the same as the quest for victory against the enemies of peace.
Jacksonian glory might please voters and help re-elect Donald Trump four long years from now. But it won’t help America make the friends it still needs in the long run nor stop the growth of the pernicious evil called Islamic extremism.
That will take presidential leadership that understands the cost of war as well as the need to wage it. That will take presidential leadership that sees the rest of the world, not just Andrew Jackson’s America.