People often ask Sue Coe, “Did you think it was going to be this bad?” A proverbial canary in the coal mine, the artist has been “tweeting” out warnings since the 1980s. In her view, the problems that plague us— zoonotic diseases, systemic racism, inadequate healthcare, rising income inequality, global warming and countless other related ills—are the result of an undiluted form of capitalism that puts profits above individual lives. Forty years of such skewed priorities conditioned America’s grotesque bungling of the COVID crisis and have brought us to the brink of fascism. On the other hand, the Black Lives Matter protests—which are broadly supported by people of all colors—offer hope that it is not too late to take back our democracy. “The tectonic plates are shifting and colliding,” Coe says, “allowing us to see the primordial depths below. The question is whether we can rise to the occasion.”
When Coe created her linocut It Can Happen Here (Trump) in the fall of 2016, most people thought Hillary Clinton would win the presidential election. The print, which depicts Donald Trump tearing up the U.S. constitution, takes its title from Sinclair Lewis’s 1935 novel, It Can’t Happen Here. Written while the world was in the throes of the Great Depression and Hitler and Mussolini were ensconced in Europe, the novel describes the rise of a likeminded American fascist. In reality, however, Franklin Roosevelt was able to contain the proto-fascist xenophobia of the America First movement and the anti-Semitic agitation of the hugely popular radio evangelist Father Coughlin. The worst ravages of the Depression were tamed by an array of government programs that included large-scale public works projects, Social Security, the Federal Housing Administration (which provided low-interest, long-term mortgages), the Wagner Act (which established the right to collective bargaining) and the Fair Labor Standards Act (which set minimum wages and maximum hours for most types of work).
The New Deal laid the groundwork for the policies that facilitated America’s post-World-War-II economic boom. The GI Bill allowed returning soldiers to attend college for free and gave them access to low-cost mortgages. Although discriminatory practices frequently prevented Black citizens from taking advantage of these programs, Americans’ average pay and benefits increased roughly 2.5% to 3% per year in the three decades after World War II, while real median family income and worker productivity doubled. According to former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich, by 1955, roughly one third of the American workforce was unionized, enough to set competitive standards for wages and benefits even in non-union shops. Half of all families were middle class, defined in terms of average earnings. Whereas in 1928 the top 1% had earned 19% of total personal income (before taxes), by 1950 their share had dropped to 7%.
During the same period, different iterations of the welfare state—democratic governments that melded capitalist and socialist elements in varying proportions— flourished in Western Europe. In the U.K., where Sue Coe was born in 1951, the Labour Party established the National Health Service, nationalized key industries and provided free higher education for anyone who could pass the university entrance exam. Coe, whose parents were blue-collar workers, got a scholarship to attend the Chelsea College of Art in London, where she trained to be an illustrator. “I knew I had to make a living at art. No one was going to support me except myself,” she recalls. “The first year I was so shy and in awe of students who had the confidence to speak without being spoken to, and had lots of clothes and money. There were two American students, sisters, and they were so kind to everyone. They wore no makeup and had long wild hair, they were like aliens, they were so....free of men. I wanted to go to that planet where they came from.”
Coe arrived in the U.S. in 1972 with $100 in her pocket and went straight to the New York Times, which gave her an illustration job on the spot. “My intent was always to stay $100 ahead, by working for newspapers and publications,” she says. “American political artists of the printed page were the best, and I wanted to be them. I merged this influence with the British satire of [William] Hogarth and [James] Gillray, and the German Expressionists.” Coe honed her political and artistic awareness at the Workshop for People’s Art, which produced posters for community groups and whose adjunct Marxist Library housed books on artists such as Otto Dix, John Heartfield and José Clemente Orozco. Chafing at the restrictions imposed by her editorial commissions, she began to create independent works that combined firsthand observation with factual research. In order to explore complex subjects, the artist worked in series, and these, combined with her predilection for publication, naturally led to books. Her first, How to Commit Suicide in South Africa (1983), made Coe a star on the then-burgeoning East Village art scene. Critic Donald Kuspit hailed her as “the greatest living practitioner of a confrontational, revolutionary art.”
Even as she fought to expose and end South African apartheid, Coe was aware that the election of Margaret Thatcher, in 1979, and Ronald Reagan, in 1980, heralded a dangerous shift in the politics of Anglo-American capitalism. Globalization had already begun to make British and American workers vulnerable to low-wage offshore competition. Thatcher, who considered unions a menace to society, hastened this trend by passing restrictive legislation that culminated in a yearlong coal miners’ strike. The strike, which ended in 1985, effectively broke the union. Reagan sent a similar anti-union message when, in 1981, he summarily fired over 11,000 striking air traffic controllers. Deregulation, the fragmentation of once monolithic industries, automation and a significant increase in “right to work” legislation further weakened labor’s ability to bargain collectively. Today, approximately 6% of America’s private-sector work force is unionized. (1)
The evisceration of unions in the U.S. and the U.K. eliminated a powerful political advocate for the working class. Coe believes that, “Thatcher’s ruthless crushing of the miners had one simple purpose: the unions funded the Labour Party.” Sometimes referred to as “neoliberalism,” the ideology that drove Thatcher and Reagan entailed an amalgamation of fervid anticommunism and the economic theories of Ludwig von Mises, Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman. Mises, who developed his opposition to socialism in “Red Vienna” between the world wars, postulated that a planned economy could never succeed, because only free markets are capable of quickly and accurately calculating the value of goods. Hayek, a Mises acolyte who later taught alongside Friedman at the University of Chicago, took the concept further, suggesting that any form of centralized expertise is inherently totalitarian, and that to function properly, an economy must be free from all external constraints. This led to a weakening of government oversight, the defunding of public agencies and social programs, the privatization of government functions, and tax policies that favored corporations and the wealthy. By 2010, 20% of America’s national income was going to 1% of the population, a level not seen since the late 1920s.
One obstacle to dismantling the democratic welfare state was convincing people to vote against their own economic interests. Republicans found a solution by exploiting the racism that festers within much of America’s white population. Historically, Republicans were the party of Lincoln, while the Democrats had a strong base in the Jim-Crow South. This formula was reversed by Lyndon Johnson’s “Great Society,” a series of initiatives designed to combat the injustices that kept Black Americans from sharing equally in the nation’s prosperity. With the U.S. engulfed in civil rights and anti-war protests, Richard Nixon won control of the White House in 1968 by running on a “law and order” platform. Although a majority of welfare recipients were white, Reagan used the trope of the Black “welfare queen” to campaign for reduced benefits. George H.W. Bush, his vice president and successor, explicitly linked race and crime in his 1988 campaign against former Massachusetts governor Michael Dukakis. The Republican establishment used this tactic for years, notes Nobel-prize-winning economist Paul Krugman. “Racism was deployed to win elections, then was muted afterwards, partly to preserve plausible deniability, partly to focus on the real priority of enriching the one percent.” (2)
The association of crime with Black citizens became a self-fulfilling prophecy: their communities were more heavily policed than white ones, hence more Black people were arrested and subsequently convicted. Today, roughly 60% of the U.S. prison population (the largest per capita in the world) is Black or Latinx. (3) Coe recorded a typical “crime” in her 1986 painting, Traffic Violation, which shows officers beating a man for “driving while Black.” Police are supposed to be beholden to the rule of law, but they also have an often contrary mandate to forcibly maintain order. The artist experienced this arbitrary violence firsthand at an anti-apartheid demonstration in London. “The police ‘kettled’ us and charged,” she recalls, “I went back to my lodging and painted it, the canvas propped up against a wall.” Quoting Goya, who used a similar text in his Disasters of War series, Coe wrote, “I saw this on Nov. 2, 1985,” in the lower right-hand corner of her painting, Police State. It was an important affirmation of the artist’s role as witness—her need to focus on in-person investigations.
Increasingly, Coe’s mission took her to places, like prisons, AIDS wards and slaughterhouses, that the public seldom sees or wants to see. The artist wanted her work to convince through its specificity, and simultaneously to function as a metaphorical indictment of an economic system that treats living beings as expendable commodities. Racism, police brutality, worker exploitation and the slaughter of animals exist on the same continuum. In Coe’s view, the relegation of certain classes of humans to poverty and despair is as immoral as the relegation of nonhuman animals, judged inferior, to lives and deaths of unimaginable suffering. If one rightly acknowledges that animals are sentient beings, then it is just a matter of degree that determines which creatures can legally be slaughtered, which humans can be abused or even killed. Coe often cites the German philosopher Theodor Adorno: “Auschwitz begins whenever someone looks at a slaughterhouse and thinks ‘they’re only animals.’”
Since the Reagan era, the number of “expendable” Americans has increased significantly. As Anne Case and Angus Deaton document in their recent book, Deaths of Despair, middle-aged whites without a college degree are today three times as likely to die as their better-educated peers. Black Americans, who were the first to feel the economic impact of de-industrialization, have an even higher mortality rate. In times of crisis, the federal government often seems to abandon com- munities of color, as happened when Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans in 2005, and when Hurricane Maria struck Puerto Rico in 2017. As of August 5, roughly twice as many Black, Indigenous and Latinx Americans had died from COVID-19 as had whites. (4) People of color have long suffered from inferior healthcare, education and career opportunities due to systemic racism. COVID exacerbates these inequities, which create a higher incidence of co-morbidities and a greater inability to work from home or to safely isolate. Poet Mandy Coe, Sue’s sister, once wrote that, “Those who live close to the heel of the boot are the first to hear when it strikes the ground.” Ultimately, the artist says, “We are all in the same boat,” and all of us suffer if we allow an unjust economic system to relegate some to second-class status.
Alongside animals, the environment tops the list of neoliberal capitalism’s voiceless victims. The two are in fact connected, since animal agriculture is a leading cause of deforestation, habitat destruction and climate change. Meat consumption also furthers the development and spread of zoonotic pathogens, including COVID-19. (5) To control disease on crowded factory farms—which are globally ubiquitous—animals are dosed with antibiotics. This has led to the evolution of dangerous antibiotic-resistant organisms, but it has not prevented animals from getting sick. Various types of bird flu are now common on poultry farms, and occasionally these viruses mutate into forms that are transmissible to humans. In her 2004 series “Fowl Plague,” Coe documents how one such pathogen jumped from chickens to people in Vietnam. COVID-19, like AIDS and SARS, first emerged in humans who ate the meat of infected wild animals. In the case of AIDS, the initial transmission occurred in the African bush, whereas with SARS and COVID-19, the infected animals are thought to have come from Chinese wet markets. Once human transmission has occurred, the ease and frequency of global travel facilitate dissemination. Because the infectious organisms are new to our species, they can be difficult to treat.
The disdain for scientific evidence that has compromised America’s response to the present pandemic can be traced to Hayek’s denigration of experts. Hayek, who believed there is no such thing as objective facts, was to some extent the architect of our post-truth society. Truth, he said, is simply a matter of efficacy, and entrepreneurs are better equipped to decide what will work in the real world than ivory-tower scholars. Of course, entrepreneurs can make mistakes, but eventually the market will sort things out. In our current iteration of the free market, expertise is routinely suborned by the profit motive, so that, for example, companies like Exxon can hire their own teams to refute the scientific consensus on climate change. Given Trump’s faith in his entrepreneurial genius, it makes perfect sense that he would ignore his administration’s scientific advisors. It makes sense that he would fill his cabinet with former lobbyists and corporate executives, whose preexisting financial interests are at odds with those of the public agencies they run. (6)
Reagan promised a “trickle-down economy,” but what resulted was a trickle up, which over time gave extremely wealthy individuals disproportionate political influence. They funded think tanks such as the Heritage Foundation to develop policies that would enhance their riches, and they filled the courts with judges who would support such policies. Arguments about the judiciary often hinge on abortion rights, a tactic that frequently furthers right-wing appointments by mustering support from Christian conservatives. The greater danger to American democracy lies in decisions such as Citizens United and Speech Now (both 2010), which respectively allowed corporations to engage in partisan electioneering and eliminated limits on federal campaign contributions. Fewer than 400 families provided nearly half the funding for the 2016 presidential race. (7) As matters now stand, it is virtually impossible to win the presidency without relying on such donors.
It is hardly surprising that Americans on the right as well as the left believe the system is rigged against them. Both the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street were responses to economic injustices that became obvious after the 2008 financial crisis. Among the many regulatory “reforms” that engendered this split between Wall Street and Main Street, the most toxic were those that impacted the lending and housing industries. (8) In 1989, this toxicity bankrupted the Savings and Loans, spurring a $210 billion federal bailout. Banks got bailed out again in 2008, but more than 30 million Americans lost their jobs (9) and nearly 10 million lost their homes (10) in the ensuing recession. Now, with the real economy in an unprecedented tailspin, fiscal stimuli have helped the stock market reach record highs, while the federal government waffles over providing sustained relief to individuals.
Trump won the 2016 election by appealing to that large segment of the white population—undereducated, underemployed, generally remote from urban centers like New York and San Francisco—who feel they have lost the privileges once accorded their race. Although he is often accused of using dog whistles, Trump’s racist slurs, unlike those of his Republican predecessors, are entirely audible to human ears. Racism goes hand-in-hand with anti-tax and antigovernment rhetoric, playing to American individualism and suggesting that whites are being asked to pay for programs that benefit an undeserving “other.” The list of “others” is readily expandable, from Blacks to Hispanics to immigrants, and the lines between these groups can easily be blurred in order to question a person’s citizenship rights. Trump used the latter tactic on Barack Obama and, more recently, on Joe Biden’s running mate, Kamala Harris.
Is Donald Trump a fascist? Academics may quibble over definitions, but Sue Coe certainly thinks so. She created her linocut The Birth of Fascism shortly after the 2016 election, and thereafter chronicled what she saw as the nation’s descent, via Trump’s destructive tweets, misstatements and blatant lies (roughly 20,000 to date (11) ), into The Fog of Fascism. Some of her prints highlight the President’s allusions to Nazi precedents, such as the phrase “bringing into conformity” (Gleichshaltung) or the red triangle used by Hitler to designate political prisoners. Others document the current administration’s egregious disregard for humanitarian values, like the detention of immigrant children by ICE. Among many works created in response to COVID-19, Doctor MAGA depicts Trump in the guise of a Medieval plague doctor, and The Dim Reaper shows him encouraging practices that help spread the virus. Coe chose relief printing—linocut and woodcut—for her Trump and COVID work because the ancient technique, ironically, is well suited to digital reproduction. “Carving wood and lino opens up a mental puzzle of working back to front and a different language of marks,” she says. “Carving strips away what was lovely about my drawings, all those intricate tones, down to raw content. It removes my pride in clinging to technique, down to the urgency of what needs to be said. It matches my rage, slashing away at the wood or linoleum and seeing the chips fall.”
Having forced out just about every staffer who tried to thwart his more malign instincts, Trump is at this point surrounded by unquestioning loyalists. Attorney General William Barr, who lobbied for the post by saying he doesn’t believe a President can be charged with obstructing justice, subsequently had the Justice Department go after Trump’s enemies and intervene on behalf of friends like Michael Flynn and Roger Stone. After nationwide protests erupted in response to the police killing of George Floyd, Trump considered using the Insurrection Act to impose martial law, but instead signed an executive order that allowed him to dispatch Homeland Security agents on the pretext of protecting federal property. As former senator Gary Hart pointed out in a recent New York Times op-ed, the president has the authority, in a national emergency, to assume “virtually dictatorial powers without congressional or judicial checks and balances.” (12) Trump could easily concoct such an emergency from the current stew of disease, economic collapse and social protest after the election, regardless of its outcome. Meanwhile, as Americans prepare to vote in the shadow of a lethal pandemic, Trump has fraudulently attacked the legitimacy of mail-in ballots, saying they would “lead to the end of our great Republican Party.” (13)
What should we do? That’s another question Coe hears a lot. As an artist, she replies, it’s not her job to provide solutions. One thing we all can and should do, however, is to vote on or before November 3, in whatever manner seems safest and most secure. It is likely that a high volume of mail-in votes will slow down ballot receipt and counting, delaying the results in many states. We can assume that this time lag will be filled by incendiary statements from both sides, and attempts by Trump, if he loses, to invalidate the election results. This is the greatest challenge our democracy has ever faced. Vote as if your life depended on it.
(1) https://www.bls.gov/news.release/union2.nr0.htm (2) https://www.nytimes.com/2018/01/05/opinion/faust-on-the- potomac.html (3) https://harvardmagazine.com/2019/09/elizabeth-hinton (4) https://www.apmresearchlab.org/covid/deaths-by-race (5) https://www.karger.com/Article/FullText/508654 (6) https://www.citizen.org/article/corporatecabinet/ (7) https://www.nytimes.com/2015/08/02/us/small-pool-of-rich- donors-dominates-election-giving.html (8) https://www.cepr.net/documents/publications/dereg- timeline-2009-07.pdf (9) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5959048/ (10) https://www.marketplace.org/2018/12/17/what-we-learned- housing/ (11) https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/2020/07/13/ president-trump-has-made-more-than-20000-false-or- misleading-claims/ (12) https://www.nytimes.com/2020/07/23/opinion/trump- presidential-powers.html (13) https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/2020/05/29/trump- just-said-what-republicans-have-been-trying-not-say-years/
In addition to the references cited in the footnotes, these books served as sources for the exhibition essay: Anne Case and Angus Deaton, Deaths of Despair and the Future of Capitalism (Princeton, 2020); William Davies, Democracy and the Decline of Reason (New York, 2018); Robert B. Reich, Supercapitalism: The Transformation of Business, Democracy and Everyday Life (New York, 2007). The following Sue Coe books are available for purchase: Police State (1987): $30.00; Dead Meat (1996): $22.00; Cruel (2012): $20.00; The Animals’ Vegan Manifesto (2017): $17.00; Zooicide (2018): $20.00. Postage and handing charges are $10.00 for up to three books; New York residents, please add local sales tax.