Long before Trump was even a thought, we had presidents who leveraged their whiteness to inflict great amounts of pain upon black lives. From George Washington and the 317 slaves that under-girded his white wealth, to Andrew Johnson who stood in the path of 100 years of black civil rights advancement in 1866, continuing with Richard Nixon and the modern Republican strategy of winning the presidency with the white vote. Donald Trump, with his threats of cuts to Medicaid, proposed pullbacks on education spending, and cuts to housing for the poor, is one person in a long line he hardly started, and definitely will not end. To now repaint this billionaire opportunist as the face of white oppression is wading into dangerous historical water.
It’s tempting to conclude, given the weight of the evidence against his claim, that Ta-Nehisi Coates went with the “First White President” line because it's clever. It calls back to Bill Clinton's dubious title coined by Toni Morrison of the “First Black President,” which we can now look back on and question with much more in-depth analysis. Yet, to call President Donald Trump first anything is to give him power he has not earned, and a place in history that etches his name far too high on the Mount Rushmore of America’s racial failures. In fact it is a slap in the face to a centuries-old civil rights movement that has ebbed and flowed but has always known that the face it was battling was not based on a single man. But rather the power that emits from being able to claim whiteness, at the cost of all those who must be deemed black for that white privilege to exist.
Trump is not the face of whiteness; rather, he is its reflection, a glimmer of what happens when capital runs amuck. No more than a callback to when wealth was borne out of black bodies. The call by some to use the tragedy of black history to sensationalize his rise in the light of times past is seeing this problem through the wrong lens.
Coates does just that in his new piece for The Atlantic, titled “The First White President”. He asserts Trump to be someone who moves past where prior white presidents had gone with white privilege. Coates piece puts forth a patently absurd argument, writing,
“To Trump, whiteness is neither notional nor symbolic but is the very core of his power. In this, Trump is not singular. But whereas his forebears carried whiteness like an ancestral talisman, Trump cracked the glowing amulet open, releasing its eldritch energies.”.
Donald J. Trump is far from the first manifestation of whiteness in the Oval Office. Trump’s ascension did not occur by happenstance, nor magic no matter how many amulets Coates presents to prove the case. We now live in a country where half of black homes, or 7.5 million black families are worth less than $1,700 without depreciating assets like the family car -- while over 8 million white families are worth more than 1.4 million dollars each. Whiteness is not a magic power for an individual; it is a communal asset, which requires the failures of blackness to exist. Trump can not be used to escape the reality of our country's deep-seated historical inequity. The asset of whiteness is one that millions of white Americans access and make use of daily, like a fraternal marking granting passage into a better America.
No matter how many ways you spin it, Trump’s rise is the result of the White politics Republicans have been running since at least 1968. This is a difficult counterpoint for Coates to grapple with, as it undermines so much of how we deal both with Trump’s rise -- and how it fits next to the Obama presidency.
Coates analysis sets forth a critique of Trump that both sets him apart from preceding presidents, and as a contrasts to President Barack Obama, when neither could be more untrue. No different than George Washington that came before him, Trump’s wealth is an inherited privilege borne of black oppression. The former being in slaves owned by his stepfather, and the latter being in housing discrimination done by he and his father. There is no elegant detachment for Washington, nor many of the other former presidents that serves as an eraser for the infliction of oppression on black bodies, and black lives that rooted their social stature. So what we really have before us in president number 45 is quite simply a continuation of more of the same.
After running through a litany of white subgroups that Trump dominated among -- whites with college degrees, whites without degrees, whites making under $50,000, etc. -- Coates acknowledges:
“Part of Trump’s dominance among whites resulted from his running as a Republican, the party that has long cultivated white voters. Trump’s share of the white vote was similar to Mitt Romney’s in 2012.”
But if white America voted largely as a bloc for Mitt Romney, and then four years later did the same for Trump, how are we to set Trump apart from the others, as Coates wants us to do? He tries it this way: “But unlike Romney, Trump secured this support by running against his party’s leadership, against accepted campaign orthodoxy, and against all notions of decency.”
In fact, we don’t know what precisely “secured” Trump’s support. Indeed, Romney ran a superficially decent campaign based on the accepted orthodoxies. But do we know how he secured his support? If decency worked roughly as well as indecency, neither can be said to be the cause. Instead, it’s simpler: they both ran on whiteness. Coates said so himself: the GOP is “the party that has long cultivated white voters.”
He’s right. The entire Republican Party has been running on white identity policies since Nixon’s southern strategy. Voters who moved from Obama-to-Trump are more properly thought of as Obama-to-Republican voters. Trump ran as a Republican, and running as a Republican, he won white people.
This, as Coates rightly points out, is a meaningful thing. It means the racist limits of what white people will vote for when delivered to them explicitly are further out than conventional wisdom had allowed. But it does not make Trump the first white president. And by pretending that Coates is sending a number of wrong messages. For one, it suggests that if Trump is defeated, then white privilege is beaten. Yet Coates would never believe such a thing. And it says that if we interrogate the rise of Trump close enough, we’ll discover the roots of white supremacy’s dominance in our politics. Yet the closer you look at Trump, the less there is.
Coates, for his own part, famously shies away from offering answers to the problems he often so deftly identifies. But he has no problem ruling some answers out. He rules out class-based, left wing politics:
“The triumph of Trump’s campaign of bigotry presented the problematic spectacle of an American president succeeding at best in spite of his racism and possibly because of it. Trump moved racism from the euphemistic and plausibly deniable to the overt and freely claimed. This presented the country’s thinking class with a dilemma. Hillary Clinton simply could not be correct when she asserted that a large group of Americans was endorsing a candidate because of bigotry. The implications—that systemic bigotry is still central to our politics; that the country is susceptible to such bigotry; that the salt-of-the-earth Americans whom we lionize in our culture and politics are not so different from those same Americans who grin back at us in lynching photos; that Calhoun’s aim of a pan-Caucasian embrace between workers and capitalists still endures—were just too dark. Leftists would have to cope with the failure, yet again, of class unity in the face of racism. Incorporating all of this into an analysis of America and the path forward proved too much to ask. Instead, the response has largely been an argument aimed at emotion—the summoning of the white working class, emblem of America’s hardscrabble roots, inheritor of its pioneer spirit, as a shield against the horrific and empirical evidence of trenchant bigotry.”
One wonders what campaign Coates is talking about. Is he misremembering the result of the 2016 Democratic primary? Bernie Sanders the candidate arguing for a class-based approach to countering Trump and the GOP lost to Hillary Clinton. As Michelle Alexander, author of the acclaimed book the New Jim Crow, put it in her scathing review of the Hillary Clinton campaign for The Nation, “Why Hillary Clinton Doesn’t Deserve the Black Vote”
But what about a larger agenda that would not just reverse some of the policies adopted during the Clinton era, but would rebuild the communities decimated by them? If you listen closely here, you’ll notice that Hillary Clinton is still singing the same old tune in a slightly different key. She is arguing that we ought not be seduced by Bernie’s rhetoric because we must be “pragmatic,” “face political realities,” and not get tempted to believe that we can fight for economic justice and win. When politicians start telling you that it is “unrealistic” to support candidates who want to build a movement for greater equality, fair wages, universal healthcare, and an end to corporate control of our political system, it’s probably best to leave the room.
The strategy that Coates says was discredited by Trump’s victory was never put into practice. Now, perhaps it would have failed, but suggesting that Hillary Clinton marched forward on a platform of class unity in the face of racism is a farce.
Coates also grounds his argument by asserting Barack Obama’s legacy is now being attacked.
“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.”
Yet, no black pen can repaint a white lie about what happened during President Obama’s eight years on 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Under Obama Black America suffered some of the worst years, it had seen since the Civil Rights movement. Fanfare about Barack Obama as a individual distorts many like Coates from clearly admitting to the impact Obama’s administration had on African American families across the country. Under Obama the amount of Small Business loans given to African Americans reached a low of 1.8%, while under Bush black recipients were over 8% of the program. Under the Bush Administration the unemployment rate for African-Americans was 10%, while under President Obama it jumped to well over 14%. African-American homeownership even dropped to nearly a 50-year low over the last 8 years. In total the wealth gap between white America and black America grew substantially under President Obama.
While in this mixed up place called America we are all bastards of some sort, to be half Kenyan, and half white is a different kind of mix. It is the kind of mix that allows you to create what Coates called so brazenly a “nigger presidency”, without doing anything for those who bear the multi-generational historical cost of being called a nigger.
We must not fall into the trap of contrasting Barack Obama to Donald Trump based on appearance, rather we must draw them as parallels based on the energy behind their respective meteoric political rises. While Trump is Obama’s senior in age, it is Obama who had two years as the United States Senator of Illinois prior to his election. Yet, this is hardly the resume of a President. Rather, it is celebrity that boosted Obama, no different than President Trump. Pictures with Jay Z, dinners with Oprah, and an overall fervor of connecting Obama to the legacy of American slavery propelled President Obama past the requisite resume to be Commander in Chief. Much the same occurred for Trump, who was able to use the cache of notoriety, and fervor for change to run as the other option for America to Hillary Clinton’s sameness. These two men are less contrast, and more parallels.
Attempts by everyone from Coates to Jemele Hill of ESPN to vilify Trump by lining him up with the label of white nationalist, will not change the fact that as recently as 2004 he identified as a Democrat. Nor that many notable black entertainers can be found in photo ops with him throughout the internet, from Puff Daddy who calls Trump a friend, to Serena Williams who danced the night away in 2015 with Donald Trump at his New Year's Eve Party. Without this type of validation of the Trump brand by black celebrity, it's possible we don't have a Trump presidency.
There is an added historical irony to Trump's win that further undercuts Coates’ first white president claim: Trump didn't win the popular vote; he won the Electoral College. This is no mere technicality: the Electoral College was built to appease slave owners, an additional check embedded into the Constitution against the anti-slavery majority that threatened to overwhelm the South if genuine democracy were to go into practice.
Those checks -- the Electoral College, the design of the Senate, federalism more broadly -- have been employed most often in their intended manner, in the defense of whiteness. That the Electoral College performed its intended function in 2016 does not make Trump the first white president, it made him one more.
It's not clear how much attention Coates paid to the election. The assertion that Trump supporters were backing their man solely for reasons of economic anxiety was far from conventional wisdom, whatever George Packer or other liberals Coates cited may have believed. The claim was so dubious that it spawned a running joke -- whenever a Trump backer would engage in some form of overt, undeniably explicit racism, the quip would be: there goes another guy with economic anxiety.
For Coates essay be as ahistorical as it is shocks readers who've come to respect the essayist for his deep familiarity with our history. He dips into that well of knowledge when he needs to for this piece, quoting, for instance, Jefferson Davis, the first and only president of the Confederacy.
“I say that the lower race of human beings that constitute the substratum of what is termed the slave population of the South, elevates every white man in our community … It is the presence of a lower caste, those lower by their mental and physical organization, controlled by the higher intellect of the white man, that gives this superiority to the white laborer. Menial services are not there performed by the white man. We have none of our brethren sunk to the degradation of being menials. That belongs to the lower race—the descendants of Ham.”
He knows, certainly, that Davis was more than just the president of the rebel states. In 1852, Democrats vaulted the pro-slavery Franklin Pierce to the White House. An alcoholic and a charlatan, he was barely a figurehead, and turned the operation of the government over to the man who'd gotten him elected, his Secretary of War, Jefferson Davis. From that perch, Davis, among other crimes, waged war in Kansas to extend the reach of slavery, just one presidential term before the Confederacy seceded. Coates knows as well as anybody, these are the stories that riddle throughout our presidential history.
No matter how loud you say it, Donald Trump is not our first white president, he is just next in line.