contested election

Why Trump Thinks ‘Stop the Steal’ Could Help Him Win in 2024

Behind the villain stands the example of The Hero. Photo: Pool/Getty Images

Among the Republicans who are quietly urging Donald Trump to stop his futile and divisive effort to contest his 2020 loss are those who believe it compromises his future prospects at winning the White House again. Take, for example, Washington Post columnist Marc Thiessen, who said Trump may be “creating a narrative that the presidency was stolen and setting up a campaign to ‘reclaim’ it in four years.” As other commentators have noted, there’s a pretty clear historical precedent for this sort of vengeful campaign, and as it happens, it was waged by Trump’s own favorite predecessor, Andrew Jackson.

Historian Jasmim Bath presented the parallels starkly soon after the election:

In 1824, before the antebellum two-party system was established, none of the four presidential candidates with significant support in the Electoral College had a majority, and the election was thrown into the House of Representatives. Under the scheme laid out in the Twelfth Amendment, the House was required to choose among the top three candidates, which meant the fourth, Henry Clay, was eliminated. Andrew Jackson and his supporters expected Clay to support his fellow westerner, who won a popular and electoral vote plurality, in the House. But he instead helped engineer the election of New England patrician and presidential scion John Quincy Adams. When Adams later made Clay his Secretary of State (then considered the second most important office in the land), Jacksonians concluded a “corrupt bargain” had robbed their candidate of victory.

The analogy has almost certainly occurred to Trump himself. No, he’s not a literate man in terms of either current events or political history, but his interest in Old Hickory (one observer called it a “bromance across the centuries”) is a well-established exception to his general indifference to anything he didn’t learn from watching television or conducting real-estate deals. He drew particular attention to his self-identification with Jackson when he told friendly reporter Salena Zito that this “very tough person” with a “big heart” would have prevented the Civil War had he been in office at the time. Jackson’s truculent nationalism — and perhaps even his racism — appeals to Trump, along with his self-proclaimed championship of the interests of the heartland white working class of his day in their battles with coastal elites.

So it would be natural if Trump identified himself (either sincerely or cynically) with Jackson’s grievances in 1824 and his grievance-driven comeback four years later, even if his prime motivation for behaving as he does is his own flawed character and zest for spite.

Pro-Trump pundit John Feehery agrees with Bath that the truth of these grievances doesn’t matter as much as their intensity: “To Trump partisans, there doesn’t have to be overwhelming evidence of voter fraud. After all, what Henry Clay did for John Quincy Adam[s] was fully legal. It just didn’t smell right.”

The analogy is imperfect, of course. Jackson’s comeback victory in 1828 was attributable to developments other than the righteous indignation of backwoodsmen angered by “the Establishment.” Most important was the emergence of a two-party system in which a powerful new Democratic Party forged by Martin Van Buren united behind Jackson. Trump, moreover, was not robbed by elites of a chance to serve as president; if anything, his elevation to the Oval Office in 2016 was made possible by an arguably corrupt Electoral College system. But if you wonder why the 45th president seems willing to risk his chances of becoming the 47th by his irresponsible refusal to concede defeat today, the example of the seventh president may help provide an answer.

Why Trump Thinks ‘Stop the Steal’ Could Help Him Win in 2024