Ta-Nehisi Coates calls Donald Trump “the first white President” and suggests that his election must be attributed to white supremacy. Coates has become the most influential writer in America today; this latest Atlantic essay is already being taught in college courses. So it becomes urgent for me, with help from other white commentators, to whitesplain why he is wrong.
Coates is not without talent and can certainly turn a phrase. Reading him makes it almost impossible to “make the “Lost Cause” argument for the Confederacy, which is unfortunate when you really want to do just that. Coates is perhaps the most influential black intellectual. In other words, he is pretty intellectual for a black man, but he is also unfortunately pretty black for an intellectual, and thus necessarily biased. (The problem with folk like Coates is that they cannot overcome their identity politics driven worldview position. As opposed to me, whose position is unfettered by identity.)
Coates wants to show that white backlash is the only factor behind Trump’s success, the single cause. (OK, what he really says is that “the politics of race are, themselves, never attributable ’just to the politics of race.′” But I am sure that is what he means, and so I will treat it as though it was what he said.) Coates takes all white American political behavior as undifferentiated and founded on the idea of race. I object: all factors matter, not just black lives. You see, America isn’t a monolith of white supremacy but rather a big, messy nation where individuals make their own choices. And if sometimes those choices happen to bring to power a man who espouses white supremacy, that really does not mean that much, does it? People are complicated. Coates cannot know that; one wonders if Coates knows even a single Trump voter or understands what drove many millions to vote for a man who — truth be told — they didn’t much like. How could he? He is black! And I really wish he showed more sympathy for these poor white voters who had to hold their noses when they voted for Trump; it must have been so hard for them. (Not me ― I supported neither unfit major party candidate, which is my privilege and clearly means I cannot be blamed if either of them wins.)
You know how I know that racism is not what brought Trump to power? Because the most popular recent president or presidential candidate in America was ... Barack Obama. Trump’s political existence depends on the fact that he wasn’t running against that black president. Obama would have buried Trump by 10 to 15 points; he would have pounded him into the electoral dust. (Yes, I do drool a little over Obama’s raw muscularity.) That shows that we are not a racist country anymore. America changes. It’s not 1861. It’s not 1961. It’s 2017. Coates may claim that the most recent election erases the one before. But really, the opposite is the case: We have been so good for so long, we deserve a break and should be allowed to elect a white supremacist once in a while.
No, what really got Trump elected was the fact that Hillary Clinton was the most disliked major politician in America. She is a liar, which really sets her apart from Trump, who is basically honest. (At least about racism.) And so, you see, the poor white people were practically forced to vote for the man who boasted about grabbing women by their genitals. Because, while none of Trump’s flaws make her likable, honest, or competent, her flaws clearly make him electable. Hillary never gave people a direct reason to vote for her. Trump, by contrast, did give them such a reason. Just please let us not call that reason racism. Trump won not because of racism but because of his single-minded ambition and his willingness to say or do anything to win. It just so happened that what he had to say and do was to describe Mexicans as rapists and Muslims as enemies.
The most unfair thing is for Coates to criticize Bernie Sanders. Sanders’ was the basic leftist formula: identity politics and class politics. It is therefore really unfair to quote Sanders arguing that class is more important than identity, merely on the basis that he did say that. Coates can provide all the statistics about racism as the real cause of Trump’s election he wants; deep in my heart I know the problem was alienation of the working classes. And Trump really did manage to get to Clinton’s left on the economy, constantly repeating a vague but effective message that he would rebuild the country and bring back high-paying manufacturing jobs. Because that is what it means to be “really” on the left these days: talking a lot. (About the economy I mean. Just not about race.)
There is a lot of actual argument and evidence in Coates’s article. Let me just ignore all of that because what matters is really something else. Identity politics is not a winning electoral strategy. Sanders, unlike Coates, does have the politician’s instinct to never insult huge swathes of voters by downplaying matters of race; surely appeals to racist votes have nothing to do with racism. These voters are our fellow citizens and have the right to vote. Denouncing them all as racists is as unhelpful as it is inaccurate. Any progressive politician who wants to gain power has to find common interests with some of them, without waiting for the day of reckoning first to scourge white Americans of their original sin. After all, if all you have to do to win white votes is be racist, the Democrats are doomed for decades at least. (Unless, of course, Democrats are allowed to be just a little bit racist themselves.) And that is why it is really so irresponsible for a black intellectual to keep talking about race all the time as though it were a problem, when for so many of us it is really so much more advantageous not to talk about it.
Or was that actually Coates’s point?
Quotes in this article from fellow whitesplainers: