For Trump, Tubman on $20 bill illustrates broader American problem

Perry Bacon Jr.

Donald Trump's take on the decision to put Harriet Tubman on the front of the $20 bill as "pure political correctness" is symbolic of a style of politics he's displayed throughout this campaign: at times wary of changes to long-standing American customs and institutions and showing a willingness to take controversial stands on issues that affect women and minorities.

"I think Harriet Tubman is fantastic," Trump said in an interview on NBC's Today Show on Thursday. "I would love to — I would love to leave Andrew Jackson and see if we can maybe come up with another denomination. Maybe we do the $2 bill or we do another bill."

His remarks illustrate the divide between the political approach of Trump and the man he could succeed, Barack Obama.

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump
Darren Hauck | Getty Images

The decision by the Obama administration to honor Tubman was a celebration of a historic figure admired by Americans of all political beliefs.

But it was also a clear political act.

"This whole thing is symbolic politics," said Andra Gillespie, an associate professor of political science at Emory University. "Putting women on currency is not going to change the gender pay gap and not going to change the fact that the pay gap is worse for black women and women of color."

Obama and his administration have put the inclusion and promotion of women, people who are gay and transgender, African-Americans, and Latinos at the center of their political agenda, seeking to make up for past discrimination and promote diversity of gender, race and sexual identity whenever possible. Obama has appointed the first Latino Supreme Court justice, first two black U.S. attorney generals, the first openly transgender White House staffer making his administration one of the most demographically diverse in history.

Replacing Andrew Jackson — who forced tens of thousands of Native Americans to relocate from the South to Oklahoma in what is known as the "Trail of Tears"— with Tubman was a natural step for Obama's team.

"The decision to put Tubman on the twenty is a powerful sign of Americans' changing relationship with their own history. At the same time, it's also the gesture of liberals who have been fairly impotent lately in their efforts to correct the deep socioeconomic sources of racial inequality," said Molly Worthen, a history professor at the University of North Carolina who has written extensively about how views of identity shape each party.

The decision split conservatives along predictable lines.

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Ohio Gov. John Kasich, who has made unifying the country a central theme of his presidential campaign and last year created a task force to deal with tensions between minorities in his state and the police, applauded the honoring of Tubman.

In contrast, Ben Carson, several Fox News personalities and Trump said that the decision was the latest example of an administration bent on what conservatives cast as "politically correct" moves. They praised Jackson, who was one of the key figures in the founding of what is the modern Democratic Party.

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While Trump complimented Tubman he said he didn't agree with replacing Jackson on the denomination.

He added, "I don't like seeing it. Yes, I think it's pure political correctness. Been on the bill [Jackson] for many, many years. And, you know, really represented somebody that really was very important to this country. I would love to see another denomination, and that could take place. I think — I think it would be more appropriate."

Trump has made comments suggesting that the Mexican government is intentionally sending criminals across the border, Muslims should be barred from entering the United States and that the U.S. needs to build a large border wall to keep out Mexican immigrants.

The comments about the replacement of Tubman with Jackson, like those other controversial Trump stances, has clear racial implications, Gillespie said. The issue also highlights that the real estate mogul has campaigned as something of a traditionalist, willing to defend people and customs that other Americans want to alter radically.

"Donald Trump knows that when he makes certain types of comments that he is going to tap into certain types of resentment in the American economy... jobs disappearing and a certain trepidation about the country changing demographically," Gillespie said. "Those are sentiments he's tapped into to cultivate his base of support in this primary season."

Trump complained of the push by the NFL to make changes to the rules that might reduce concussions, telling a crowd in January, "football has become soft like our country has become soft."

Early this month, campaigning in Pennsylvania, Trump called for the return of a statute honoring the late Joe Paterno, the Penn State football coach who was fired by the university amid allegations he had covered up allegations against assistant coach Jerry Sandusky, who molested young boys while he worked at the university. Trump has repeatedly praised police officers and suggested that the Black Lives Matter movement is overly critical of them.

And throughout his run, Trump has argued he will not conform to "political correctness," which to the real estate mogul seems to link issues from football to Tubman.

"The real rise of the phrase [political correctness] can be traced to the early 1990's, when people started to use it to critique or just lament the policing of ideas that are out of step with the hegemony of liberalism in American society, post civil rights and post women's liberation. In doing so they also effectively signaled themselves as 'free thinking," said Carole Bell, a professor of communication at Northeastern University in Boston.

But in case of some conservatives backing Trump, Bell argued, "it's an expression of the racial resentment that political scientists have long known were animating much of our political discourse around identity. But it's masked as a concern for free speech."

Greta Van Susteren, a Fox News host, said this week the Obama administration was in effect the offender, not conservatives, arguing the Obama administration, in replacing Jackson with Tubman instead of leaving his face in place and putting her on another bill, was "gratuitously stirring up the nation."

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On gay rights, Trump has been more open to following the liberal drift in American culture.

He has not railed against same-sex marriage, as other Republicans have, and said in the "Today" interview that North Carolina should have not passed a law regulating which bathrooms transgender Americans use.

Obama, in contrast, has suggested that if he had a son, he would be reluctant see him play football, and has defended Black Lives Matter activists.

Hillary Clinton, in a tweet, wrote, "A woman, a leader, and a freedom fighter. I can't think of a better choice for the $20 bill than Harriet Tubman."

Tweet 1

Politically, Trump's remarks suggest he will continue to appeal to voters, particularly whites, who feel left out of Obama's vision of America, Gillespie said adding that he will have to pivot for the general election.

Trump's approach may be resonating.

A recent Pew Research Center poll found that 46 percent of Republicans said the country's increased diversity makes the U.S. a "better place," compared to 13 percent said who that diversity makes it a "worse place," and 39 percent who said "no difference." The majority of Americans (59 percent) indicated "better place."

In the poll, Trump supporters, compared to those backing the other four presidential candidates, were the least likely to say "better" (39 percent) and most likely to say "worse" (17 percent).

Ultimately, the rhetoric over placing Tubman on the $20 is about a different kind of political currency, one of identity, political experts say.

"That's going to symbolize for them a kind of change they are not necessarily comfortable with," Gillespie said.