In the Jackson-Tubman $20 Face-off, Follow the Money to Trump’s Triumph

The GOP frontrunner might gain from skirmishes over the move to replace a racist white president with a female African-American abolitionist.

This image provided by the Library of Congress shows Harriet Tubman, between 1860 and 1875.
H.B. Lindsley / AP

When the U.S. Treasury decided in 1928 that his face should grace the $20 bill, Andrew Jackson was mostly a war hero and a popular populist leader. In recent years, he’s lost his luster: The seventh president is portrayed nowadays as a slave owner and trader responsible for ethnic cleansing of the South of Native Americans. When Secretary of the Treasury Jack Lew announced this week that Jackson’s portrait would be minimized and moved to the $20 bill’s posterior, many people cheered. The fact that Jackson will now be a subtenant on a legal tender that will belong to African-American abolitionist Harriet Tubman was an added benefit, icing on the cake.

Jackson wasn’t the original candidate for removal: The intended victim was Founding Father Alexander Hamilton, the first secretary of the treasury who was killed in 1804 by Vice President Aaron Burr in America’s most infamous duel. The New York Times reported on Thursday that Hamilton headed the kill list not through any fault of his own but because the $10 bill which hosts his mug was deemed by experts to be most susceptible to forgery. His salvation came in response to calls to get rid of Jackson first but mainly as a result of the phenomenal popularity of the Broadway hip-hop musical Hamilton, for which some tickets go for thousands of dollars. The more the musical playing at the Richard Rodgers Theater at New York’s Times Square rekindled interest in Hamilton and made him into a 21st century cultural icon, the more Lew was inclined to keep him in his place and make do with Jackson’s head instead.

The replacement of Jackson’s image with that of an African-American woman, together with the designation of other female fighters for minority and women’s rights who would concurrently adorn the flip side of Hamilton’s 10$ and Abraham Lincoln’s $5 bills, cannot but inflame the perennially smoldering conservative-liberal culture war, which many consider to be the main narrative of 21st-century America. It would have sparked debate even in normal days, let alone in the midst of such a politically charged presidential campaign. Donald Trump quickly derided the move as “unnecessary” and “politically correct.” He said Jackson should be kept in his place but offered to put Tubman on the largely unused $2 bill instead, thus successfully insulting both women and African-Americans in one fell swoop.

But Trump’s interest in Jackson’s removal from the $20 bill - the third most widespread, after the hundred and one dollar bills - isn’t limited to using it as campaign ammunition against the liberal powers that be. As Walter Russell Mead noted in January, Trump in many ways is now the standard bearer for voters that Mead himself defined in a watershed article published 15 years ago as “Jacksonites”. Trump is the vessel, Mead wrote, into which Jacksonites are pouring their frustration and bitterness over their own predicament and what they perceive as America’s. 

Andrew Jackson in 1824, painting by Thomas Sully
Wikicommons

Trump, the anti-establishment, no-holds-barred non-conformist, expresses many of the Jacksonites’ core convictions: worship of the common man, mistrust of minorities and immigrants, disdain for political correctness, antipathy to liberals and intellectuals, abhorrence of Wall Street and big banks, complete lack of confidence in the federal government, strong support for a forceful yet basically isolationist military posture and a pervasive sense that America has lost its bearings. Jacksonians, Mead noted, are the adversaries of everything that Barak Obama stands for.

Many of them will undoubtedly view the proposed changing of the guard on America’s bills as a dark Federal conspiracy aimed at tarring their historic hero Jackson and abusing their current hope Trump. Clinton actually supplied incontrovertible evidence of this plot a few weeks ago, when she revealed that she had lobbied Lew to dump Jackson in favor of Tubman. It’s no coincidence, the conspiracy theorists will surely believe, that this dream team of radical female suffragettes and minority activists is being trotted out just as the first woman in history is possibly making her way to the White House. Instead of the all-white, all-male Founding Fathers that are currently in control, loony liberals are seeking to occupy America’s currency with a motley crew of colors and genders that will reflect and fortify the Obama coalition, which Democrats hope will morph into a victorious Clinton coalition as well.

The debate, certain to grab headlines in coming days, provides a stimulating and entertaining link between American history, popular culture and current events. But it might also serve as a note of caution to anyone assuming that a Clinton-Trump November face-off, which became ever more probable after their victories in New York this week, is a done deal. In politics, especially in such a wild and crazy election year, one should never say never, as almost anyone of note has noted, from Charles Dickens to Justin Bieber.

We’re not there yet, of course. The internet gambling giant Betfair now gives Bernie Sanders only 20-1 odds of securing the Democratic candidacy, but the umpteenth Super Tuesday is upon us on April 26 and the Vermont senator is looking to win enough states to keep his candidacy alive. On the GOP side, things are even more complex, with Betfair putting Trump as a 1.5-1 favorite but giving Ted Cruz considerable 4-1 odds of taking the candidacy away from him. After his New York triumph some Republicans may be reconciling themselves to Trump as their candidate, but anti-Trump resentment in the GOP is still going strong, plots to deny him the candidacy if he falls short of the 1,237 delegate majority are still being hatched and the search for a third-party conservative spoiler who would take away crucial votes from Trump continues unabated.

And if the widely accepted scenario of a Trump vs. Clinton matchup does materialize, everyone assumes the Democratic candidate has an inbuilt and perhaps insurmountable advantage over the New York tycoon. His unfavorable ratings, consistently over 60 percent, are unprecedented (though Clinton consistently comes close behind). The more the campaign progresses after the party conventions over the summer, the more Clinton’s proven experience, self-discipline and knowledge of policies and details will be positively compared with Trump’s mercurial, shoot from the hip superficiality. Most importantly, perhaps, Trump has caused irreparable damage to his ties with minorities, without which he seems to have no chance of winning battleground states such as Nevada, Ohio, Florida and many more.

But then there are the known contingencies and potential interruptions that could detract from Clinton’s supposedly certain election, including developments in the private emails affair, revelations of impropriety in the problematic interface between Bill Clinton’s Foundation at the time when she was secretary of state as well as, God forbid, a large scale ISIS terrorist attack that could change everything. Also, people have incredibly short memories, and many might be taken in by a premeditated pivot in Trump’s public persona from reckless demagogue to a cool, calculated and even caring candidate. And let’s not forget Trump’s proven ability to identify his opponents’ weaknesses and to then devise a killer attack that ruthlessly dispatches them to oblivion, as he did with Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio and others. And that he always manages to surprise everyone.

The focus on Andrew Jackson and the $20 bill should serve a reminder that Trump isn’t just a capricious billionaire who enthralls Americans desperate for entertainment: He represents, even if he doesn’t know it, a deep-rooted American social and political movement which can, if sufficiently inflamed and enthused, bring him closer to victory. These are the same angry white men who have carried him to victory so far all by themselves, until his 60 percent share of the vote in New York this week proved that Trump is capable of spreading his wings much wider.

If Trump succeeds in casting the elections as a do-or-die end-of-days battle between Jackson’s good, old, largely white America, land of the free and home of the brave, and a feeble, mongrelized, decadent, knee-jerk liberal America of Obama and Clinton, perhaps he could stoke sufficient rage to bring many thousands of hitherto passive voters to the polls. In 2012, African-American voter participation was greater than whites' for the first time in history, with 66 percent to 64. Mitt Romney garnered 59 percent of that white vote. The closer that Trump succeeds in driving both statistics - white participation and white support - to 70 percent, the closer he will be to taking over from Jackson in the White House in January 2017. His first decision, of course, will be to tell the Treasury to cease and desist so that the face of Old Hickory, as Jackson was known, will forever remind people of Trump’s victory, whenever they withdraw cash from their favorite ATM.