WASHINGTONN (CNN) — After puzzling comments about 19th Century abolitionist Frederick Douglass and marveling that no one knew Abraham Lincoln was a Republican, President Donald Trump has just unloaded another historical non sequitur.
In the latest strange aside, Trump said that Andrew Jackson, the populist rabble-rousing President with whom he has begun to claim political kinship, had strong thoughts about the Civil War — even though he died 16 years before the conflict broke out.
“He was really angry that — he saw what was happening with regard to the Civil War,” Trump said in an interview with Salena Zito, a Washington Examiner reporter and CNN contributor, on Sirius XM radio. “He said, ‘There’s no reason for this.’ “
Trump’s comment makes little sense because Jackson died in 1845 and therefore could have had limited knowledge about events leading up to the conflagration pitting his native South against Northern states.
It was not clear whether Trump might have been trying to suggest that Jackson had extreme foresight and believed that a clash between the North and the South was inevitable sooner or later over the issue of slavery.
But considering the fact that Jackson was a slave owner himself, it seems unlikely that he held any views that would not have focused on preserving an institution that has come to be viewed as a stain in US history.
The comments focused fresh attention on the President’s sometimes sketchy relationship with the facts of history — and underlined yet again just how different he is from many of his predecessors in the Oval Office.
Most Presidents spend a lifetime studying their political heroes and take solace in accounts of their administrations and trials when they are under pressure. Rarely a week went by without President Barack Obama referencing Lincoln, and George W. Bush was a voracious reader who powered through presidential biographies in a marathon reading contest with Karl Rove.
But Trump gives no sense that he is widely read or has deeply researched the men who had his job before him — a fact that chills critics who argue he has little understanding of the crucial position to which he was elected. Trump’s recent comments about how hard it is to enact laws in Congress and apparent unfamiliarity with details of his own health care reform plan have also raised doubts about the depth of his understanding of Washington and the presidency.
When he’s talking about history, Trump often leaves the impression that he is discovering facts and events for the first time, marveling at them like a newcomer.
That may be one reason why his historical analogies often come across as off key or at odds with the facts.
Does it matter?
But Trump’s historical missteps also raise another question. Does it matter that the President of the United States seems to lack knowledge and understanding of the key events of his nation’s past and the principles that underpin them?
On the one hand, it’s doesn’t seem too much of a stretch to believe that the US President should know, or might benefit from, the insights and stories of the presidencies that unfolded before he became commander-in-chief.
But on the other, no one voted for Trump because they thought he was professorial — in fact his spontaneous, simplistic way of speaking may have come as a relief to some voters who grew tired of Obama’s discursive, intellectual style.
In what became a cliche of the 2016 election, Trump’s voters often said that the reason they flocked to the reality star and real estate magnate is that he was prepared to say things, free of the constraints of political correctness, that they had long yearned for a presidential candidate to say.
Those voters seem unlikely to reject Trump just because of a few strange remarks about Andrew Jackson and probably care little that he eschews the intellectualism of many of his predecessors. In fact, anti-intellectualism and excoriating political elites in the US was at the center of his upstart political project.
And while he might not be book smart when it comes to history, Trump did manage to build a business empire and personality cult around himself that offered him notoriety and a life in the public eye that he seemed to crave.
He had the political intelligence as well — more than any professional politician in last year’s election — to understand and give voice to the frustrations and complaints of a group of heartland voters who felt disenfranchised and ignored by a modern economy built by Washington elites.
He’s also not the only President to face questions about his intellectual heft or basic knowledge. Ronald Reagan was often mocked as dumb and unseasoned, yet had one of the most successful presidencies of the 20th century.
Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. is said by most historians to have been referring to Franklin Roosevelt when he diagnosed the Democratic president as having a second-class intellect but a first-class temperament.
‘Why was there a Civil War?’
But Trump’s interpretation of history, which is often rudimentary and not anchored in fact, takes the debate about presidential knowledge and understanding to a new level.
Critics say that it is a sign of a worrying lack of intellectual curiosity, preparation and an unwillingness to submit to accepted truths that contradict his own version of reality.
Trump’s interview with Zito was also revealing because it went on to cover the idea of leadership, and the President appeared to be drawing a parallel between him and Jackson.
“Why was there the Civil War? Why could that one not have been worked out?” Trump told Zito.
“I mean, had Andrew Jackson been a little bit later, you wouldn’t have had the Civil War. He was a very tough person, but he had a big heart.”
The fact that Trump admires Jackson because he was tough and had a big heart appears to equate with Trump’s view of himself and the idea that a President of sufficient personality and muscle could have averted the epochal events — like the Civil War. Jackson was a revered general, was outspoken and aggressive and was the first President elected from west of the Alleghenies, giving him a heartland heritage with which Trump, who has repeatedly shown his admiration of great military men, may identify.
The President visited Jackson’s home in Tennessee, the Hermitage, in March to lay a wreath on the former President’s 250th birthday and also drew links between their visions on trade.
“He imposed tariffs on foreign countries to protect American workers. That sounds very familiar. Wait ’til you see what’s going to be happening pretty soon, folks,” Trump joked.
Trump also brought a portrait of Jackson into the Oval Office after he was inaugurated, and It’s not surprising he should identify with someone who is a hero of his political guru, Steve Bannon.
Bannon told The Washington Post in January, that Trump’s inaugural address put him in mind of the 7th President.
“I don’t think we’ve had a speech like that since Andrew Jackson came to the White House,” Bannon told the paper. “But you could see it was very Jacksonian. It’s got a deep, deep root of patriotism there.”
Toughness as virtue
Trump has made clear during his first 102 days in office that he sees toughness as a virtue, but he has also argued — in the case of his strikes against Syria for its use of chemical weapons for instance — that he has humanitarian impulses.
Trump has also courted tough, strong leaders around the world, like Filipino President Rodrigo Duterte, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi even if their behavior and treatment of their people and democracy offends those who believe that promoting human rights should be put at the center of US foreign policy.
Trump’s Jacksonian stumble is not the first time that he has brought ridicule upon himself by mangling the facts of history. Earlier this year, the President seemed to imply that Douglass, who died in 1895, was still alive.
“Frederick Douglass is an example of somebody who’s done an amazing job and is being recognized more and more, I notice,” Trump said at the White House in February at an event recognizing African American history month.
Trump also seemed impressed that Lincoln, who is often judged by historians as the greatest president, was a Republican — even though it is one of the most familiar historical facts that he was the first Republican Party president.
“Great president. Most people don’t even know he was a Republican,” Trump said back in in March. “Does anyone know? Lot of people don’t know that.”
“We have to build that up a little bit more let’s take an ad, let’s use one of the those PACs,” he said.
As always with Trump, it was difficult to know whether the President was being genuine or was talking with his tongue in his cheek.
But given the President’s off-the-cuff speaking style and willingness to hold forth on subjects in which he seems to lack a deep grounding, it’s unlikely he has committed his last historical gaffe.