Ta-Nehisi Coates: Trump is America’s ‘first white president’

Several pundits have theorized that Donald Trump ran for president out of revenge for President Obama deftly mocking him and humiliating him at the White House Correspondents Dinner over “The Donald’s” birtherism conspiracy mongering. “The Donald” does not like to be laughed at, as he has frequently emphasized.

But it goes much deeper than this. Donald Trump wants to negate Barack Obama’s presidency and his legacy as an accident of history, according to Ta-Nehisi Coates in the cover story of The Atlantic. The First White President (excerpt):

His political career began in advocacy of birtherism, that modern recasting of the old American precept that black people are not fit to be citizens of the country they built. But long before birtherism, Trump had made his worldview clear. He fought to keep blacks out of his buildings, according to the U.S. government; called for the death penalty for the eventually exonerated Central Park Five; and railed against “lazy” black employees. “Black guys counting my money! I hate it,” Trump was once quoted as saying. “The only kind of people I want counting my money are short guys that wear yarmulkes every day.” After his cabal of conspiracy theorists forced Barack Obama to present his birth certificate, Trump demanded the president’s college grades (offering $5 million in exchange for them), insisting that Obama was not intelligent enough to have gone to an Ivy League school, and that his acclaimed memoir, Dreams From My Father, had been ghostwritten by a white man, Bill Ayers.

* * *

For Trump, it almost seems that the fact of Obama, the fact of a black president, insulted him personally. The insult intensified when Obama and Seth Meyers publicly humiliated him at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner in 2011. But the bloody heirloom ensures the last laugh. Replacing Obama is not enough—Trump has made the negation of Obama’s legacy the foundation of his own. And this too is whiteness. “Race is an idea, not a fact,” the historian Nell Irvin Painter has written, and essential to the construct of a “white race” is the idea of not being a nigger. Before Barack Obama, niggers could be manufactured out of Sister Souljahs, Willie Hortons, and Dusky Sallys. But Donald Trump arrived in the wake of something more potent—an entire nigger presidency with nigger health care, nigger climate accords, and nigger justice reform, all of which could be targeted for destruction or redemption, thus reifying the idea of being white. Trump truly is something new—the first president whose entire political existence hinges on the fact of a black president. And so it will not suffice to say that Trump is a white man like all the others who rose to become president. He must be called by his rightful honorific—America’s first white president.

You really should read Coates’ entire essay.

Greg Sargent at the Washington Post offers a critique and additional analysis to Coates’ essay. Whose white president?

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.

16 Responses to Ta-Nehisi Coates: Trump is America’s ‘first white president’

  1. ”Greg Sargent [believes] 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.”

    And with a single wave of the hand, Sargent rejects the numerous people who do not agree with Coates and him and declares them racist because they don’t agree. I guess that is one of the benefits of preaching to the choir and talking in an echo chamber. You can dismiss them as racists and everyone agrees with you.

    ”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.”

    Oh good! A passing, and grudging, acknowledgement that there were other factors that got Trump elected…BUT we all know the REAL reason he was elected, right?

    ”The pushback from civil society and from the chorus of voices (that Coates didn’t acknowledge) has intensified.”

    Of course, Coates wouldn’t acknowledge these factors, he can’t see these factors. As I said in another post, Coates sees the world through a black prism and he can only see and acknowledge black issues.

    ”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 force and value of Coates’ broader case is undeniable.”

    Of course, now Sargent needs to back up a little and cuddle up to Coates by agreeing with him about the “white sin of electing Tump” lest Coates declare him a racist. Such a declaration can kill your chances at liberal journalism and punditry. Of course, it is necessary to ignore the “inauthentic minorities” who voted for Trump, but what the heck, if the facts don’t fit the narrative, then ignore them! No one will dare call you out on it. And if they do, well, they’re just a lying racist…

    ”But the broad popular rejection of Trump’s presidency also matters.”

    A “broad popular rejection of Trump’s Presidency”? He is rejected by a predictable groupof people that hate conservatives under any circumstances. Whether they are a majority of Americans doesn’t matter. If they aren’t a majority of Americans, then ignore it and redefine it until IS a majority

    ”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…”

    Translation: There are a large number of people that didn’t vote for Trump that are now REALLY angry and want to oppose him vigorously over EVERYTHING he does. They may not be a majority of Americans, but there are a lot of them and they are MAD!

  2. I would like to comment on TNC’s article which I printed a couple of days ago so that I could read it very slowly multiple times. Yes, I think TNC is that good.

    And I’m really glad that AZBM has a post about it and is encouraging others to read it.

    However, my comments are trolled by this “Steve” person, and quite frankly, I’m beginning to think it is wasted effort to write comments and have them trolled.

    • I might add that I am not particularly thin-skinned, but when “Steve” tries to trash the work of people like Ta-nehisi Coates and Bryan Stevenson, I have to admit that I get mad. And that, of course, feeds the troll.

      He’s been trolling on this blog for three years that I am aware of, and longer according to him.

      So I’m guessing he’s kind of a pet troll and doesn’t bother anyone except me.

      • I will not bother you, Liza, post to your hearts content about Coates. But as you can see, I also post when AzBM posts about him. He is a very learned and skilled writer. He is also a black racist who takes full advantage of the fact that many whites are afraid to contradict him.

        And, no, I am not a “pet troll”. I think of myself as more of a greek chorus, reminding the audience of a larger story than that which is happening on stage at the moment.

        • “I will not bother you, Liza, post to your hearts content about Coates.”

          Good.

          And even better if you extend that to all my comments. Thank you in advance.

      • For Sure Not Tom

        Keep posting, Liza, you, Edward, Francis, wileybud, and some others are sharp and bring clear viewpoints, just ignore the troll.

    • One last thing, Liza…it is a little paranoid of you to think I single you out for comment. You post A LOT on this site; more than anyone else. It is silly to think that since you post so many comments that I would not respond to more comments with you than others. It is just a matter of quantity.

      If I may offer some advice: Relax and enjoy the site…do not take it all personally. Just because someone disagrees with you does not mean they dislike you. Nor does it mean they are a monster. It just means they disagree with you.

      • Hopeless.

        • “Hopeless.”

          Liza, you shouldn’t dismiss my gentle and worthy advice so easily. After all, I have been posting here for a while and I can assure you that I have not been a particularly welcomed person many times. You feel put upon because I just reply to your posts with an opposing point of view, but you haveno idea what it is to be opposed by people who truly hate you and you have never experienced the truly nasty invective that can be hurled at you by people like our friend Tom.

          Yet, I am still here because I don’t take it personally and I don’t demonize them. No matter what they have to say, I listen to them and I remain as cheerful and friendly as I can be. I do that because very little is ever gained by rancor and anger.

          Whether you accept it or not, I extend my sugestions to you with an open heart and genuine goodwill. If you do take my advice, I think you will find yourself much happier when blogging. ;o)

  3. “Several pundits have theorized that Donald Trump ran for president out of revenge for President Obama deftly mocking him and humiliating him…”

    If I recall correctly, Trump has run for President before in 2000 and it had nothing to do with any comments Obama made. He just wanted to run for President.

    “Donald Trump wants to negate Barack Obama’s presidency and his legacy as an accident of history, according to Ta-Nehisi Coates in the cover story of The Atlantic.”

    I don’t think so. I know this is a popular theme among those that like to paint Trump as racist, but I don’t think that is even close to being the case. I think it is an accident of history that Trump followed Obama, but I think Trump would have done the same things to any President he had followed. He is fighting the legacy of a predecessor, not the legacy of a black man.

    ”His political career began in advocacy of birtherism, that modern recasting of the old American precept that black people are not fit to be citizens of the country they built.”

    This quoted comment shows that Ta-Nehisi Coates interprets everything through a “black prism” that tends to blind him. First, the birth requirement had nothing to do with blacks whatsoever…it was a requirement placed on everyone that they be born in this country to run for President. Second, Blacks did NOT build this country…they helped build the country, but it was the work of many different races, religions, and both genders. I recognize that in the last few years we have spent inordinate amounts of time looking for black characters in our history to tell their story, and it can appear sometimes that only blacks have places in history, but building America was a team effort.

    ”Trump truly is something new—the first president whose entire political existence hinges on the fact of a black president.”

    BS!!! Trumps political existence is due to Hillary Clinton and the extreme leftist ideas that she and her supporters carried with them. Liza, Coates and others have this strange belief that blacks (and, in particular, Obama) had a lot to do with Trump being elected. It is a sad little thing they believe, but they can believe it until hell freezes over and it is still a minimal issue in getting Trump elected, IF it is an issue at all.

    ” You really should read Coates’ entire essay.”

    Why?!? So I can visualize him using the “N” word over and over and over again? He uses the word in order to make whites feel guilty and uncomfortable. He requires that you choose a side…you are either with him or you are a racist. It is a false choice, of course, but that is what he offers. Coates is a black militant and in being such, he sees no other way to view our Nation except as a racist monolith which needs to be brought down. Taking his writing as a whole, he does not see any way that the races can really coexist as equals, nor can there be any reconciliation.

    • “Coates is a black militant…”

      No, he is not. And, since I’ve been reading TNC since before he was hired by The Atlantic, since he was blogging on his own website, I should actually know. If you actually read his work you would know that he does not favor “extreme, violent, or confrontational methods”. He believes quite strongly in policy solutions. He voted for Bernie Sanders another big time “militant”.

      I wish you would stop pulling this bullshit out of your redneck ass and writing it as though you are the final authority on every damn subject in the universe.

      mil·i·tant
      ˈmiləd(ə)nt/Submit
      adjective
      1. combative and aggressive in support of a political or social cause, and typically favoring extreme, violent, or confrontational methods.

      noun
      1. a militant person.

      • Not a criticism, Liza, just an acceptance that Coates is NOT a “militant” Black. I misused the word. I should have said he held extreme views (in my opinion) on the subject of race. Mea culpa!

  4. donald trump was elected president. he didn’t buy it. (clinton tried to buy it but failed.) republican control of house. senate. state legislatures occurred in 2010 long before trump. coates dismissal of sanders movement is telling. this is the usual liberal elitism fauning all over an african-american diatribe that black is beautiful and white people suck because their racists. white people who voted twice for obama and then voted for trump were not voting against a n***a presidency. rust belt democrats who decided the election voted trump out of desperation when the democratic establishment didn’t allow them to vote for bernie sanders not racism. many frustrated democrats would not vote for trump and voted for jill stein as her margins in rust belt were higher then what hillary lost to trump by. coates may have a point about clinton’s latent racism for not wanting to put a blackman (corey booker) on the ticket with her. racists voted for trump but they didn’t decide the 2016 election.

  5. I just read Coates’ piece last night. There were places I could quibble with his analysis, but on balance I thought the case he made was compelling. More on this in my own post, to come.

    • “More on this in my own post, to come.”

      I look forward to reading your post on this subject, Bob. It is sure to be thoughful and compelling in it’s own right. I also suspect I won’t agree wth you 100%, but I always enjoy reading what you think about things. ;o)