To celebrate its 225th anniversary, the US Mint and Treasury last week unveiled plans to issue a 24-carat commemorative coin depicting Lady Liberty as an African-American woman. With full lips and braided hair tied back in a bun, the words “LIBERTY” above and “In God We Trust” below frame her gold-embossed profile. Elisa Basnight, the Mint’s chief of staff, said:
As we as a nation continue to evolve, so does Liberty’s representation.
Sadly, the representation is evolving far faster than the nation. The coin is worth 100 USD (5,970 Rubles. 690 Renminbi. 6,810 INR. 133 CAD. 132 AUD. 94 Euros. 81 UK Pounds); in 2010, the median net wealth for women of colour was calculated at just 5 USD (298 Rubles. 34 Renminbi. 340 INR. 6.60 CAD. 6.50 AUD. 4.70 Euros. 4 UK Pounds). Black women now earn 65 cents for every dollar made by a white man… the same gap as 20 years ago. Therefore, the Treasury produced a coin in these women’s image that most can’t afford… as the economy is producing low-wage jobs that leave them with liberty without equality.
For the past eight years, American liberals gorged themselves on symbolism. A significant section of the population, including those most likely to support Barack Obama, have felt better about their country even as they have fared worse in it. The young, good-looking, intact, scandal-free black family in the White House embodied a hopeful future for America and beyond. Photogenic, with an understated chic, here were people of colour who looked even better in black and white. With personal stories of progress without privilege, they provided Camelot without the castle… evoking a sense of possibility in a period of economic stagnation, social immobility, and political uncertainty.
As Obama passes the keys and the codes to Donald Trump at the end of this week, so many liberals mourn the passing of what has been, remain in a state of disbelief for what happened, and express deep anxiety about what is to come. It is a steep cliff… politically, rhetorically, and aesthetically… from the mocha-complexioned consensual intellectual to the permatanned, “pussy-grabbing” vulgarian. However, there’s a connection between the “new normal” and the old that one must understand if resistance in the Trump era is going to amount to more than Twitter memes driven by impotent rage and fuelled by flawed nostalgia. This transition isn’t simply a matter of sequence… one bad president following a good one…but consequence… one horrendous agenda made possible by the failure of its predecessor.
It is easy for liberals to despise Trump. He is a thin-skinned charlatan, a self-proclaimed sexual harasser, a blusterer, and a bigot. One needn’t exhaust any moral energy in making the case against his agenda. That is precisely what makes it so difficult to understand his appeal. Similarly, it’s easy for liberals to love Obama. He’s measured, thoughtful, smart, and eloquent… and did some good things despite strong opposition from Republicans. That is precisely what makes it so difficult for liberals to provide a principled and plausible critique of his presidency. One can’t blame Obama for Trump. It was the Republicans… craven to the mob within their base, which they’ve always courted but ultimately couldn’t control… that nominated and, for now, indulges him. Yet, it’d be disingenuous to claim Trump rose from a vacuum that bore no relationship to the previous eight years.
Undeniably, some of that relationship mingles with what Obama is… a black man, with a lapsed Muslim father from Kenya. That particular constellation of identities was like catnip to an increasingly strident wing of the Republican Party in a time of war, migration, and racial tumult. Trump didn’t invent racism. Indeed, race-baiting was a staple of Republican Party strategy for more than 50 years. Remember, Richard Nixon told his chief-of-staff, HR Haldeman:
You have to face the fact that the whole problem is really the blacks. The key is to devise a system that recognises that while not appearing to.
Nevertheless, as he refused to observe the electoral etiquette of the Nixon strategy, his campaign descended into a litany of brazen racist taunts. One shouldn’t underplay racism’s role, but arguably, one can overstate its impact. While Trump evidently emboldened existing racists, it isn’t obvious that he created new ones. He received the same proportion of the white vote as Mitt Romney in 2012 and George W Bush in 2004. It doesn’t follow that because Trump’s racism was central to his meaning for liberals, it was necessarily central to his appeal for Republicans. There is a deeper connection, however, between Trump’s rise and what Obama did… or rather didn’t do… economically. He entered the White House at a moment of economic crisis, with Democratic majorities in both Houses and bankers on the back foot. Faced with the choice of preserving the financial industry as it was or embracing far-reaching reforms that would’ve served the interests of those who voted for him, he chose the former.
Just a couple of months into his first term he called a meeting of banking executives. One of them told Ron Suskind in his book Confidence Men:
The president had us at a moment of real vulnerability. At that point, he could’ve ordered us to do just about anything and we would’ve rolled over, but he didn’t… he mostly wanted to help us out, to quell the mob.
People lost their homes while bankers kept their bonuses and banks kept their profits. In 2010, Damon Silvers of the independent congressional oversight panel told Treasury officials:
We can either have a rational resolution to the foreclosure crisis, or we can preserve the capital structure of the banks. We can’t do both.
They chose the latter. Not surprisingly, this wasn’t popular. Three years into Obama’s first term 58 percent of the country… including an overwhelming majority of Democrats and independents… wanted the government to help stop foreclosures. His Treasury secretary, Timothy Geithner, did the opposite, setting up a programme that would “foam the runway” for the banks. Therefore, when Hillary Clinton stood for Obama’s third term, the problem wasn’t just a lack of imagination… it was that the first two terms hadn’t lived up to their promise.
This time last year, fewer than four in 10 were happy with Obama’s economic policies. When asked last week to assess progress under Obama 56 percent of Americans said the country had lost ground or stood still on the economy, while 48 percent said it had lost ground on the gap between the rich and poor… against just 14 percent who said it gained ground. These were the Obama coalition… black and young and poor… who didn’t vote in November, making Trump’s victory possible. Those whose hopes aren’t being met… people more likely to go to the polls because they’re inspired about a better future than because they fear a worse one.
Naturally, Trump’s cabinet of billionaires will do no better and, in all likelihood, do far worse. Moreover, even as we protest about the legitimacy of the “new normal”, we shouldn’t pretend it’s replacing something popular or effective. The old normal wasn’t working. The premature nostalgia for the Obamas in the White House isn’t a yearning for Obama’s policies. As any recipient of the new coin will tell you, there’s a difference between things that look different and make you feel good, and things that make a difference and actually do good. One shouldn’t dismiss symbols as insubstantial… but one shouldn’t mistake them for substance either.
16 January 2017