Ta-Nehisi Coates’ powerful new essay, “The First White President,” offers up an indictment of white America — and white punditry — that is more sweeping than it first appears. Coates’ argument is not just that Donald Trump’s ascent was fueled by the racism of much of his white electorate. It’s also that Trump’s candidacy, election, and presidency, coming in the first election following two terms of the nation’s first black president, represent nothing less than an effort to eradicate the very fact that America elected a black president in the first place.
Coates argues that we must forthrightly confront the wretched reality that Trump won because he framed his candidacy, overtly, as a “negation” of the first black presidency — as a promise to cancel it as a kind of historical accident. Trump launched his rise with the “birther” charge that Barack Obama’s presidency was illegitimate. and vowed to erase the Obama legacy, i.e., to obliterate all historical evidence of the first black president’s successes. Thus, Coates argues, Trump’s ascension constitutes at its core a reassertion of white supremacy as the rightful American order.
There is another claim embedded in that one that I want to try to say something about. Coates extensively challenges a noxious strain of punditry about Trump’s victory, and about how we should respond to it. And he deals it devastating blow.
However, there is an incompleteness to Coates’ treatment of that topic in particular that, I believe, risks working against our ability to make sense of the present moment, and creates an opening for a series of other bad arguments to take hold.
The weak, wrongheaded “identity politics” narrative
The pundit narrative Coates targets holds that Trump’s election was not driven by his white electorate’s racism. Instead, it was fueled by cultural and economic grievance — by a backlash against liberal elites who sneer at working class whites’ vanishing way of life, mock their anxieties about demographically evolving America as rank bigotry, and don’t sufficiently empathize with (or are actively helping bring about) their diminished opportunities in the globalizing economy. As a symptom of this, the Democratic agenda was overtaken by “identity politics,” in which Democrats advocated for the narrow interests of various minority groups, while dismissing the moral legitimacy of working class white cultural and economic angst.
This analysis is fundamentally fraudulent, as Coates demonstrates. It reduces Trump’s support to a class based phenomenon, when in fact white support for Trump extended far beyond the working class, and indeed transcended class. It submerges Trump’s use of white identity politics, thus whitewashing (as it were) away the culpability of white racism and white tribalism in Trump’s victory. It downplays the significance of the preferences of working class minorities. It dodges on the core question of whether various groups of minorities, facing deeply rooted discrimination of varying circumstances, actually do have a legitimate claim to particularized redress, in service of the very same ideal of equality that these pundits themselves insist is being violated by the “identity politics” game. (Also see Jacob Levy’s strong statement of this argument.)
As Coates neatly summarizes, for these pundits, “the white working class functions rhetorically” as a “tool to quiet the demands of those who want a more inclusive America.”
However, Coates’ analysis goes one important step further. Coates argues that pundits trafficking in this narrative aren’t simply wrongheaded; they did so because they, too, were, and remain, caught up in white tribalism. This is impeding a reckoning with what Trump’s rise says about racism’s continued centrality to American political life. As Coates puts it, “those charged with analyzing him cannot name his essential nature, because they too are implicated in it.”
It is here where the incompleteness of the analysis demands attention, I believe. Many pundits and writers throughout the campaign and since Trump’s election, white and nonwhite alike, have in fact pushed back hard against the fraudulent narrative that Coates dismantles. Josh Marshall has already done the work of making this case, so I won’t recapitulate it here. As Marshall says, there is a class of pundits and writers who
sees Trumpism as a broad, white backlash against the rising assertion of non-white or multi-racial America – a broad demographic and cultural tide that both made Barack Obama possible and which he in turn symbolized. In other words, they see Trump as primarily about racial backlash.
Coates is also too dismissive of some on the left, such as Bernie Sanders, who also criticized Hillary Clinton for playing identity politics. But, while one can quibble with that language, the Sanders/left critique was more that rhetorically attacking Trump’s racism was insufficient — that a substantially more robust social democratic economic agenda also must underpin any serious rebuttal of Trump, and any serious policy response to the systemic racism that Trump promised to further entrench. Regardless, the upshot of all this, as Marshall concludes of Coates, is that “there are a lot of voices — hardly little heard or without megaphones — he’s simply not hearing.”
But here something more must be said. The issue is not that these voices aren’t getting recognition for calling out Trump’s ascent for what it is. Rather, it’s that this omission has intellectual consequences that could complicate our ability to make sense of the response to Trump we are currently witnessing.
A broad rejection of Trump
As Coates says, Hillary Clinton “acknowledged the existence of systemic racism more explicitly than any of her modern Democratic predecessors.” But Clinton then won the national popular vote by nearly three million. This also came after she aggressively attacked Trump’s racism and (whatever the previous sins of the Clintons) defended the minority groups that Trump had openly vowed to persecute. Trump almost certainly would not have won if not for a perfect storm of Hillary Clinton mistakes and weaknesses and other external and structural factors, such as James Comey’s intervention, time-for-a-change sentiment, and increasing partisanship and polarization.
Meanwhile, since the election, polls have showed broad majority condemnation* of Trump’s mass deportations; his rescinding of protections for the “dreamers”; his Mexican wall; his pardoning of Joe Arpaio; his thinly-veiled Muslim ban; and his lending of succor to white supremacists responsible for racist violence and murder in Charlottesville. If anything, popular revulsion at the core elements of Trumpism has only grown. The pushback from civil society and from the chorus of voices (that Coates didn’t acknowledge) has intensified.
Coates would likely dismiss the deeper significance of these factors — and understandably so. Indeed, none of this is to absolve America — or white America — of its sin in electing Trump. The very fact that it was close enough for the electoral college to swing the election itself confirms the horror of Coates’ core indictment — that Trump’s bigotry and centrality of his vow to negate the first black presidency should have been dealbreakers, but weren’t. A racist and white nationalist is sitting in the White House. The deportations continue apace. The Muslim ban may survive. Jeff Sessions is gutting civil rights protections. A national crackdown on voting rights looms. The force and value of Coates’ broader case is undeniable.
Still, in accounting for what is happening in American politics right now, we should all say more about what the deep resistance to all of this means. Not to do so creates an opening for variations on the bad arguments that Coates destroyed to reenter through the back door.
Don’t concede too much ground
An argument circulating among some centrist pundits — one related to the “identity politics” claim that Coates demolished — holds that liberal Democrats have moved too far to the left on immigration and race. Intoxicated by their moral superiority and overconfidence that the culture is moving their way, liberal Dems have not reckoned with the latent desire of many Americans to organize solidarity around something other than a commitment to ideals of equality and inclusive liberal democracy. This helped create an opening for Trumpism to fill the void, goes this argument.
There is a serious component to this claim. It is true that we should redouble our efforts to make the case for these ideals. It is also true that we still do not acknowledge the degree to which those ideals have lost out to inegalitarian, ascriptive, racially hierarchical ideologies throughout U.S. history, or the pull they still exert today. Indeed, part of Coates’ great achievement is to demonstrate with great persuasive power that the election of Trump emerged directly from those traditions.
But the broad popular rejection of Trump’s presidency also matters. If we don’t accord it a place in the story, we risk conceding too much ground to those who want to blame Trump’s ascent on an alleged backlash to allegedly excessive moralizing in defense of minorities and on behalf of inclusive liberal democracy.
Yes, Trump won, and that speaks for itself in all its barbarity. But here’s something else that’s also true. If Trump is our first white president, by virtue of his determined effort to erase the historical fact of the first black presidency and the advances it wrought, then a great swath of America is responding: Whose white president? Not mine.
* Update: By “majority” here, I do not mean the white majority. I mean a trans-racial majority that is made up of nonwhites (who are largely responsible for driving opposition to Trump) and whites. This is also what I mean by the “great swath of America” in the final sentence.
I have also tweaked the post to clarify that the class of pundits I’m talking about are white and nonwhite alike. My overall point was that there is a trans-racial majority rejecting Trump’s racism, and that this is significant for the debate over what his presidency means — and the proper response to it — in the current moment.