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Harriet Tubman statue in Boston, MA, USA or 2/19/2017 © Heidi Besen / Shutterstock

Trump’s Defense of Jacksonian Democracy

A black woman was supposed to replace a flawed white American hero and early president, but Donald Trump has found a way to prevent that from happening in the foreseeable future.

Donald Trump’s presidency has appeared at times to resemble a wrestling match pitting him against his predecessor. He has been on a mission to overturn every innovation attributable to Barack Obama. In 2017, The Washington Post listed 130 Trump initiatives designed to remove Obama’s legacy from the history books in Trump’s effort to restore the greatness that preceded American society’s contamination by a black president.

Now, Trump’s latest initiative is to delay until 2028 the replacement of President Andrew Jackson’s portrait on the $20 bill by that of a black woman, Harriet Tubman, which was initially planned for 2020.

President Trump isn’t the only one to feel uncomfortable with the idea of having Tubman replace Jackson. In 2016, the website Coinweek called the Treasury’s proposed change a “pandering response” to a grassroots movement called “Women on 20s.”

Here is today’s 3D definition:

Pandering:

Like lobbying, one of the standard practices of all politicians who take initiatives designed to honor the tastes, biases or requests of specific demographic segments of their electorate or individuals, interest groups and corporations that contribute to their campaign

Contextual note

Tubman combined in her history and person many of the things that Trump dislikes and disapproves. She was a black woman, two obvious strokes against her. She was an anti-white establishment political activist. She was a thief, an abolitionist who actively “stole” property (slaves) from their rightful owners. And long before Elon Musk’s Boring Company, she illegally promoted an Underground Railroad.

She purportedly said, “Every great dream begins with a dreamer,” launching the concept of “dreamer,” now routinely applied by Democrats to Mexican children illegally smuggled by their parents into the United States where they were subsequently raised and educated within American culture. Though the quote is probably apocryphal, Trump must certainly hate the sound of it.

Although Coinweek, a website dedicated to US currency, initially called the gesture of replacing Jackson with Tubman “pandering,” its current reporting avoids any polemical stance. What may have appeared to its editors as a politically-motivated gesture toward the Democratic voting base that emphasizes diversity and inclusion has now taken on a new political dimension, thanks to Trump’s ostentatious affection for a presidential paragon of white supremacy. Slaveholder Andrew Jackson did more than any president to uproot Native American tribes and promote what would become known as the “manifest destiny” of a young white regime initially confined to a narrow band of land on the East Coast.

Coinweek summarizes what it earlier referred to as pandering. It began when “the not-for-profit campaign Women on 20s gained traction on social media,” leading to an online vote in favor of Harriet Tubman, with 609,090 people participating. “The social media campaign and subsequent news coverage convinced the Obama Administration to take action.” Trump called it “pure political correctness,” though PC generally refers to suppressing what one is not allowed to say rather than putting forward a new idea. And the decision was deeply democratic in that, instead of being top-down, it was a true grassroots initiative. That would obviously please the black Democratic president’s base in future elections. Which of course means it could only — and profoundly — displease Donald Trump.

Historical note

By highlighting the PC dimension of the debate, Trump correctly identified the value of the Obama administration’s decision for the Democratic Party as a whole. The Republican Party has always apotheosized strong, white male leaders, of which President Jackson, though considered the founder of the Democratic Party, has for generations been the emblem. Trump’s worship of Jackson illustrates the shift in US politics toward a cultural combat between historical white dominance and the growing diversity of the population.

The New Democrats, a movement that emerged in the early 1990s and coalesced around Bill Clinton, aimed at capitalizing on demographic trends. It turned the party away from the social democratic heritage of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal. Instead it chose to focus on its appeal to minorities, considered to be its own captive electoral base once the Republicans had secured the racist, formerly Democratic white southern electorate.

The Democrats also saw an opening at the center of the political spectrum, among traditionally middle-class moderate Republicans and independents repelled by overt racism. This middle class had an allergy to anything that resembled New Deal “socialism” but was willing to embrace a certain amount of diversity, which was objectively good for the economy.

In the ensuing years, the Democrats refined their strategy, accepting if not embracing the traditionally Republican idea of trickle-down economics and adopting policies favorable to monied interests — the corporate clans and the military-industrial complex — while at the same time making as many appropriate gestures toward its demographically expanding minority base, as might be necessary to reassure those minorities that it represented their interests. This led to the surprise in 2008 of an apparently peace-loving black president being elected to replace a bellicose white Texan.

The Democratic primary of that year pitted a white woman against a black man. The Democratic diversity strategy had paid off and could only improve with time. But the reality of expensive wars that the peace-loving black president chose not to end but to persevere in, and the shock of the economic crisis he inherited from George W. Bush radically changed the perspective of what, to Democrats, seemed an uninterrupted progress of American democracy toward diversity. The rich kept getting richer, the middle class stagnated and minorities became poorer and more marginalized. At the same time, the Middle East kept getting more dangerous and the world no longer seemed enamored of the US model.

When the Republicans and Democrats proposed a seemingly inevitable dynastic battle between Jeb Bush and Hillary Clinton, Trump saw an opportunity to return not to the Dwight Eisenhower years, as many have assumed, but to Andrew Jackson’s America, in which the land could be cleared of dark-skinned people, while nevertheless maintaining the darkest as slaves, and where a truly audacious, narcissistic leader could impose his will.

There’s no way Trump would allow Jackson to be dethroned from his place on the $20 bill. After all, Jackson was a hero even to Kennedy Democrats. John F. Kennedy’s special assistant, Arthur Schlesinger, had published a dithyrambic biography of Jackson, The Age of Jackson, painting him as the model of a decisive, determined, progressive president, neglecting to notice anything reprehensible in Jackson’s role in the genocide of Native Americans and his commitment to slavery.

Against those who pointed to Jackson’s obvious sins against humanity and democracy, Schlesinger countered: “Self-righteousness in retrospect is easy — also cheap.” Much later, in 1989, he admitted that in his account of Jackson, he may have been influenced by the prevailing racial biases of 1946. “When I wrote The Age of Jackson, the predicament of women, of blacks, of Indians was shamefully out of mind.”

Recent biographies have sought to correct the account, notably Andrew Burstein’s The Passions of Andrew Jackson. Burstein calls Jackson “‘a man of platitudes, a mediocre intellect with a glamorous surface appeal’ and a democrat for white men only.”

In other words, a man after Trump’s own heart and mind.

*[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce, produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news.] 

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.