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Who Does Donald Trump Remind Us Of?

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump in Des Moines, Iowa, on Saturday.
Steve Pope
Getty Images
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump in Des Moines, Iowa, on Saturday.

Historians are telling us that we have seen Donald Trump before — well, parts of him anyway. In other words, the man who wants to be the American president has some American precedents.

Trump has been compared, in variegated ways, to earlier American presidents and statesmen. Catherine Allgor, a Distinguished Fellow at the University of California, Riverside, sees Trump as one in a continuum of angry American men.

After the American Revolution ended, Allgor tells NPR, "the political climate got excessively nasty — with men fighting and dueling over politics, not just in the streets but in the halls of Congress."

Some historians, Allgor says — and she includes herself — attribute this increased-intensity aggression to the "anxiety of the republican experiment."

She says, "Men were willing to fight to the death because the stakes were so high — the very existence of the nation."

As we proceed along the unknown path of the 2016 presidential nomination process, it is comforting to some — and discomfiting to others — to see familiar types of men (and women) along the way and to realize that perhaps we have passed this way before.

Trump has reminded historians of some early Americans, including:

Andrew Jackson.
/ Library of Congress
Library of Congress
Andrew Jackson.

Andrew Jackson. "The name that most readily reflects the credentials and character of Donald Trump is Andrew Jackson," writes Alfred J. Zacher in History News Network. "The seventh president was not part of the establishment of the Democratic Party that imparted the thoughtful sometimes-scholarly qualities of Jefferson, Madison and Monroe."

Like Trump, Zacher points out, Jackson was a highly recognizable and popular public figure — as the military leader who fought the bloody British in the town of New Orleans in the War of 1812. Though Jackson was known to be vulgar and hotheadish, he was held up as a notable lawyer and a judge. He had only a little political experience.

"Jackson believed the government was benefiting the wealthy and monopolies to the detriment of the average American," Zacher writes. During Jackson's two terms in office, he dismantled the centralized Bank of the United States and helped set up state banks, which resulted in a deep national depression. Disregarding an order from the Supreme Court, Jackson also forced thousands of Native Americans to move from Georgia to the Oklahoma territory.

"Andrew Jackson left office a popular president," Zacher concludes, "appearing to have fulfilled the objectives of the rising segment of the population, who were demanding an opportunity to share in the wealth of the nation. They did not blame Jackson for the depression and they were solidly behind the removal of the Native American."

Benjamin Franklin, circa 1847.
/ Library of Congress
Library of Congress
Benjamin Franklin, circa 1847.

Benjamin Franklin. "If Trump's political and cultural views locate him firmly at our society's lunatic fringe, his status as an icon of mythologized wealth connects him to a set of much more widespread and deeply rooted American narratives," opines Ben Railton in Talking Points Memo. "As with a great deal of our national mythmaking, these narratives originate with Benjamin Franklin."

As one of America's earliest rags-to-riches success stories, Railton says, Franklin helped establish the notion that material wealth was part and parcel of the American Dream. "Throughout his life, Franklin embodied a learned, literate, scientific, inventive, politically and socially engaged, civic-minded set of ideals — and he did so by consistently connecting that iconic identity to his financial success."

And on Pundit Wire, Hal Gordon writes: "What does Donald Trump have in common with Benjamin Franklin? Answer: Both of them went bonkers on the subject of immigration."

In Colonial America, Gordon notes, "thoughtful, reasonable, wise old Ben — normally so prudent in his public utterances — was denouncing the influx of German immigrants to his native Pennsylvania in terms so excessive as to make Donald Trump appear a milksop by comparison."

Quoting Franklin, Gordon writes: "Why," fulminated Franklin, "should Pennsylvania, founded by the English, become a Colony of Aliens, who will shortly be so numerous as to Germanize us instead of us Anglifying them, and will never adopt our Language or our Customs, any more than they can acquire our Complexion."

Franklin fretted that Germans and the German language might take over Pennsylvania. To combat the Teutonic takeover, he believed that all public officials should be able to speak English well and that all legal documents should be drafted in English. Franklin "didn't say with Donald Trump, 'They must go,' " Gordon writes, "but he did propose that German immigrants be 'encouraged' to settle in other colonies than Pennsylvania."

Ronald Reagan and others. Observers are looking for other comparisons — some fit, others don't. In a pro-Bernie Sanders piece, In These Times ponders whether "the Donald is the new Ronald." Larry Sabato at the University of Virginia's Center for Politics looks at similarities and differences among Trump, Ross Perot and Pat Buchanan. There is a LinkedIn discussion about whether Trump might or might not be the latest iteration of Teddy Roosevelt.

Historian Catherine Allgor tells NPR: "The trend seems to be that in uncertain times, times of change or transition, the American populace not only tolerates male anger but finds it reassuring — as proof of sincerity and authenticity. Donald Trump is just one in a long line of angry old men."

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Linton Weeks joined NPR in the summer of 2008, as its national correspondent for Digital News. He immediately hit the campaign trail, covering the Democratic and Republican National Conventions; fact-checking the debates; and exploring the candidates, the issues and the electorate.
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