Trump’s Absurd Civil War Comment and the Limits of Deal-Making

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The 45th president thinks the seventh president could have cut a deal to prevent the Civil War. Photo: Olivier Douliery - Pool/Getty Images

Donald Trump was probably feeling pretty relaxed when he sat down for an interview with Salena Zito of the Washington Examiner, one of quite a few he granted in connection with assessments of his first 100 days in office. Zito was arguably the most influential pro-Trump pundit of the 2016 election cycle, renowned for capturing the sentiments of the heartland’s white working-class voters who took Trump “seriously but not literally.”

But while Zito’s own account of the interview focused on Trump’s work habits and perceptions of the challenges of serving as president, especially in international relations, some excerpts leaked out that showed the 45th president reflecting on his favorite predecessor, Andrew Jackson. And as always when Trump talks about history, recent or long-distant, the material is a bit hair-raising.

For one thing, Trump continues to have counterfactual opinions about his own election victory last year (Zito was one of multiple journalists treated by the president to a color-coded map of the 2016 election results):

“My campaign and win was most like Andrew Jackson, with his campaign. And I said, when was Andrew Jackson? It was 1828. That’s a long time ago,” Trump said.

It was indeed a while back. But the results weren’t much like 2016. Jackson won a popular-vote (56 percent to 44) and electoral-vote (178/83) landslide over John Quincy Adams; in perhaps the most crucial state, Pennsylvania, Jackson won two-thirds of the vote. Trump lost the popular vote and won the electoral vote with incredibly narrow wins in battleground states.

But more interesting than Trump’s mischaracterization of the comparative election returns is his expressed belief that had his hero lived longer, he could have engineered a deal to prevent perhaps the greatest calamity in American history: “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,” he said. “He was really angry that he saw what was happening with regard to the Civil War. He said: ‘There’s no reason for this.’”

This last part is more than a little odd, since Jackson died in 1845, well before the Compromise of 1850, the Kansas-Nebraska Act, the formation of the Republican Party, and many other events leading up to the election of Lincoln, the secession wave, and the firing on Fort Sumter. Presumably Trump’s reference to Jackson’s “anger” is a reference to Old Hickory’s threats of military action against South Carolina if it persisted in resisting federal law or in pressing a right to secession.

The actual Jacksonian strategy, however, for dealing with the slavery issue before and after Jackson’s death was to keep it out of national politics entirely; Jacksonians were among the biggest supporters of the “gag rule” preventing consideration of anti-slavery resolutions by the U.S. House of Representatives. Since the Civil War was touched off by Abraham Lincoln’s decision to stop Southern secession by military force, it is unclear how someone like Jackson could have acted with greater strength. And in fact, the Jacksonian in the White House when the secession crisis arose, James Buchanan, proposed maintaining the Union by Northern surrender to Southern demands for expansion of slavery into the territories.

Putting aside these factual quibbles about Jackson, the bigger problem may be that Trump thinks of the Civil War as something that could have been prevented by the Art of the Deal:

“People don’t realize, you know, the Civil War, if you think about it, why?”…. “People don’t ask that question, but why was there the Civil War? Why could that one not have been worked out?”

As a matter of fact, the entire prehistory of the Civil War involved endless efforts to “work out” sectional differences over slavery, mostly by maintaining national parties that sought (via methods like the “gag rule”) to exclude the issue from politics and maintain a political balance (sometimes by extending slavery into the territories) between slave and free states. The recognition that slavery represented what Republican William Seward in 1858 called “an irrepressible conflict” was by 1860 shared broadly by people in both regions. It is hard to imagine a “deal” that could have put off the conflict much longer, and if it had been brokered by a slave-owner like Andrew Jackson, it would have been a deal that sacrificed the freedom of slaves for another generation.

So if you “think about it,” the Civil War is precisely the event in American history that shows not only the limitations of the Art of the Deal, but the immorality of deal-making when fundamental rights and the courage to fight for them are at stake. Being “strong” in the defense of injustice is not a tradition that can make America great again.

Trump’s Civil War Comment and the Limits of Deal-Making