Skip to content

Team Trump’s Harriet Tubman stumble was a missed opportunity for the GOP

But when your slogan is ‘Make America Great Again,’ you’re always stuck in reverse

An original photograph of Harriet Tubman, taken by H. Seymour Squyer, and estimated to have been printed in 1885, is displayed on a cabinet card before a House Administration hearing in 2015. (Al Drago/CQ Roll Call file photo)
An original photograph of Harriet Tubman, taken by H. Seymour Squyer, and estimated to have been printed in 1885, is displayed on a cabinet card before a House Administration hearing in 2015. (Al Drago/CQ Roll Call file photo)

OPINION — It would have been so easy, a way for the Trump administration to honor an American icon and reach out to some of those Americans who believe the Republican Party has no use for them. But did anyone honestly think any member of the team leading the country under the direction of Donald J. Trump was going to put Harriet Tubman on the $20 bill?

Instead Trump and company’s song-and-dance about why a plan put in place before they moved into the White House would be delayed until well after they leave just confirms that they care little for the wishes of Americans who probably did not vote for them, but who are Americans nonetheless, and that they have no knowledge of or interest in the history that has shaped this country.

The move to again force Tubman to the back was a clarion call to Trump’s base, a signal of who is important and who is not.

That the woman tossed aside as the embodiment of “pure political correctness,” as the move was described by the president, deserving of, in his view, maybe a place on the $2 bill, was a Civil War spy, scout and nurse, an abolitionist, a suffragist and a hero called “Moses” for her strength and her grit, is just more proof of how far the Republican Party’s relationship with people of color and women has fallen.

According to Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, the move on the “Tubman” would be postponed until at least 2026, with the bill not likely to be in circulation until 2028 (and it has been reported that the tactic was to head off Trump canceling the Obama administration action altogether). So much for the plan to unveil the redesigned bill in 2020 to coincide with the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment, which granted women the right to vote.

At a congressional hearing, Mnuchin’s figuratively foot-shuffling, downward-gazing performance was in response to questioning by Massachusetts Democrat Ayanna S. Pressley, an African-American House freshman. The delay is needed to focus on addressing security and counterfeiting concerns, he said, though who doubts fast-tracking would be in order if the action were more to the administration’s liking? But when your slogan is “Make America Great Again,” you are always stuck in reverse.

Besides the president’s obvious displeasure with the choice of Tubman, there is his professed admiration of the man she would replace, the seventh U.S. president, Andrew Jackson. Trump has seen Jackson as a kindred spirit, as someone who has defied the “arrogant elite,” and has laid a wreath at Jackson’s tomb at the Hermitage, his plantation in Nashville.

Who can forget the White House ceremony honoring Native American “code-talkers,”when he turned the focus from their World War II sacrifice into an offensive attack on  Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, all while a portrait of Jackson looked on?

Trump always glides past the unsavory portions of Jackson’s character, including his status and wealth built on the buying and selling of men, women and children and their labor, and his signing of the Indian Removal Act, which resulted in the deaths and forced relocation of tens of thousands of Native Americans.

Mnuchin’s misdirection did not hide a thing.

In reality, Trump should admire Tubman. She was a perfect example of a strong leader, a quality he admires, at least in dictators. After escaping her own brutal enslavement, she returned time and again, as conductor and driver of the Underground Railroad, to free others, despite the dangers, and with the law, shamefully on the side of the morally lawless, against her.

Trump professes to love the military. Tubman, Civil War hero, was buried with military honors in 1913. And as supporters of the Second Amendment, Trump and Republicans should recognize Tubman, who carried a gun on her missions, as one of their own.

Some Republicans have stepped up to support bipartisan legislation to speed up action on printing the “Tubman.” There is the Harriet Tubman Tribute Act of 2019, introduced in the Senate by New Hampshire Democrat Jeanne Shaheen, and its companion bill in the House, with New York Republican John Katko as lead sponsor. Pressley, a co-sponsor, has said, “People other than white men built this county.”

Who would think that sentiment would be controversial in 2019? But with a president whose campaign was based in part on grievance and “white identity” politics, it is where we are.

Tubman’s attributes and achievements are mind-boggling, especially considering her status as a woman born into enslavement, almost fatally injured by brutal mistreatment, illiterate, who still never let anything stop her from her life’s and the country’s work.

Perhaps Trump feels insecure when he compares that record to what he, with all his wealth and privilege, has done for his fellow man.

He is not alone, though. This latest action is, with a few exceptions, the culmination of the Republican Party’s decadeslong mere lip service to inclusiveness, since its Southern strategy of appealing to whites after civil rights laws were passed and its voter suppression tactics that have sought to nullify those gains ever since.

Increasingly, it is the party of Lincoln in name only.

Mary C. Curtis has worked at The New York Times, The Baltimore Sun, The Charlotte Observer, as national correspondent for Politics Daily, and is a senior facilitator with The OpEd Project. Follow her on Twitter @mcurtisnc3.

Recent Stories

Key results from Georgia runoff, Virginia and Oklahoma primaries

CBO: Deficits and inflation higher, but so is economic growth

Senate Democrats try maneuver to pass ban on ‘bump stocks’

Senate report piles on new allegations of Boeing safety failures

Matt Gaetz goes on offensive as House Ethics offers update on probe

Senate spectrum bill markup scrapped over partisan differences