Tennessee Lawmakers Weigh In on Trump Visit

By Sam Stockard

NASHVILLE – While state lawmakers recognized the historical significance of President Donald Trump visiting the home of President Andrew Jackson in Hermitage Wednesday, March 15, the review is mixed on comparisons between the two as well as the Jackson legacy.

About 100 members of the General Assembly attended Republican Trump’s visit to the Hermitage, where he laid a wreath at the tomb of Jackson on the 250th anniversary of his birth.

President Donald Trump speaks at a rally Wednesday, March 15, in Nashville, Tenn.

 (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)

“There was a bit of history (Wednesday), which can’t be overlooked, and we certainly want to be civil to our president,” said Democratic Rep. Craig Fitzhugh, leader of the House Minority Caucus. “I must say the comparisons he made in the short speech that he gave between him and President Andrew Jackson, I did not see those as bright-lined as he did.”

Trump was the third president to place a wreath at the gravesite of Jackson. Presidents Ronald Reagan and Lyndon Johnson did the same in 1987 and 1967.

Asked if it was odd to see the Republican president honoring the father of the modern Democratic Party, as many consider Jackson, Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris said, “President Trump’s a populist and if it’s not (odd) for him, it’s not odd for me to watch.”

Norris, a Collierville Republican, said he recognizes the “mixed” history of Jackson, who owned slaves at his Hermitage plantation and was responsible for expelling Native Americans along the Trail of Tears.

“If you’re of Indian descent, you’d think he was a genocidal maniac,” Norris said. “From (biographer) Jon Meacham’s point of view, it’s a mixed review. But it’s history, and yesterday was part of that history in the making. And sometimes it’s hard to see history in the making when you’re in the midst of making it.”

During his visit at the Hermitage, Trump pointed out Jackson was “a son of the frontier” who lost his father before birth and later lost his mother, who died while tending to wounded troops during the Revolutionary War.

“At the age of 14, Andrew Jackson was an orphan and look what he was able to do, look what he was able to build,” Trump said, gesturing toward the Hermitage mansion. “It was during the Revolution that Jackson first confronted and defied an arrogant elite. Does that sound familiar to you?”

Trump has placed a portrait of Jackson in the Oval Office and fancies himself a Jackson of sorts in support of the common man.

State Sen. Jim Tracy, a Bedford County Republican, pointed toward the similarities between Trump and Jackson, saying, “He’s unconventional. I’d say Jackson was unconventional.” He noted Jackson also warred with the ruling “elite,” many of whom said the nation would be destroyed if he became president.

Nashville Democratic Sen. Jeff Yarbro was “pleased” Trump visited the Hermitage but said he hoped the president learned something about his predecessor while he was there.

“Because for Andrew Jackson, populism wasn’t just performance art. While he was an outsider, he was also somebody who’d been a senator, a congressman, helped write the Tennessee Constitution,” Yarbro said. “And probably his two most profound acts, the reasons he’s important, are one, he stood up to his base in a way that preserved Union, and he also really expanded the number of people who got involved in politics.”

In contrast, Trump was elected without receiving a majority vote and is taking steps to make it harder for people to vote, Yarbro said.

Rep. Mike Stewart, a Nashville Democrat and chairman of the House Minority Caucus, said his eyebrows raised when Trump celebrated the fact that Jackson “fought back against entrenched power.”

Stewart pointed out Trump named a former Goldman Sachs executive as his chief economic adviser, in spite of the company’s involvement in the nation’s financial crisis nearly 10 years ago when it was “extracting” money from bankrupt insurance company AIG.

“I can’t imagine that any historian could say that is in the spirit of President Jackson. It’s diametrically opposed, and that’s what we’re seeing from President Trump over and over. He comes, he turns a good phrase,” Stewart said. “He tries to compare himself superficially to President Jackson, but behind the scenes he’s making decisions that accomplish the exact diametrically opposite ends, that make life harder for working people, that make life more difficult.”

Another Nashville Democrat, Rep. Bo Mitchell, made this point: “One of Jackson’s quotes sums it up best: It is to be regretted that the rich and powerful too often bends the acts of government to their own selfish purposes. I don’t think we saw an Ivanka Trump commercial yesterday but we have in the past, and let’s remember, President Jackson, Gen. Jackson fought two duels in the honor of women in his lifetime. I don’t know if we could say the same for this president.”

Mitchell was making a reference to Trump’s threats to Nordstrom department store when it stopped carrying a product line of Trump’s daughter.

Memphis Democratic Rep. Antonio Parkinson raised a different level of criticism, saying, “In all honesty, I have a distaste for both, Andrew Jackson and his ownership of slaves and the treatment of slaves, along with President Trump and just his actions, period. I’m not a fan of either.”

He considered going to the Hermitage but ultimately decided it wasn’t a place he should be and pointed toward the lack of diversity in the Trump cabinet, except for physician Ben Carson as secretary of Housing and Urban Development, who compared slaves to immigrants who came to America seeking more opportunity.

Sam Stockard is Nashville-based reporter covering the Legislature for the Memphis Daily News. He can be reached at sstockard44@gmail.com.