For liberals and progressives trying to make sense of President Trump’s victory last November, the role of race has posed something of a dilemma. On the one hand, Trump’s racist rhetoric clearly played into pre-existing resentments on the populist right, thus boosting turnout among his more deplorable (to coin a phrase) supporters. On the other hand, if an African-American could be elected president twice, how could a white woman have lost because of racial animosity?
The answer, according to Ta-Nehisi Coates, is that Trump — unlike all previous presidential candidates — campaigned specifically as the candidate of white identity politics. Unlike Barack Obama’s opponents, John McCain in 2008 and Mitt Romney in 2012, Trump rallied supporters who believed that white people comprised an oppressed group under siege. Thus it was Hillary Clinton rather than Obama who reaped the whirlwind of white backlash. As Coates puts it: “It is often said that Trump has no real ideology, which is not true — his ideology is white supremacy, in all its truculent and sanctimonious power.”
Coates carefully builds his case in an 8,200-word essay in The Atlantic titled “The First White President.” It is, in some respects, a companion piece to his 2012 article “Fear of a Black President,” in which he argued that Obama was not as effective on issues of race as he could have been because he dared not show any real emotion lest he frighten White America. Even so, Coates wrote, simply having a black president served to racialize virtually everything that Obama touched, including his embrace of a health-care plan that had previously been associated with Republicans. Glenn Beck went so far as to castigate Obamacare as “reparations” for slavery.
For a white liberal like myself who wants to believe that racism, though ever-present, is in long-term decline, Coates’ new essay makes for painful reading. Littered with the N-word and informed by historical fears about white slavery (too complex to get into here), the article makes a thorough and devastating case that Trump won because he was supported by an overwhelming majority of white people — and not just the white working class, but whites across the educational and economic spectrum. “Trump,” Coates writes, “assembled a broad white coalition that ran the gamut from Joe the Dishwasher to Joe the Plumber to Joe the Banker.” Citing the magazine Mother Jones, Coates points out that if only white voters had been allowed to cast ballots, Trump would have won the Electoral College by a margin of 389 to 81.
Although Coates reserves his real outrage for Trump, he is not especially kind to Clinton or her Democratic rival, Bernie Sanders. Coates criticizes Sanders for his naive view that economics are more important than race, answering Sanders’ assertion that not all Trump supporters are racist or homophobic with this: “Certainly not every Trump voter is a white supremacist, just as not every white person in the Jim Crow South was a white supremacist. But every Trump voter felt it acceptable to hand the fate of the country over to one.” As for Clinton, Coates credits her for acknowledging “the existence of systemic racism more explicitly than any of her modern Democratic predecessors.” But he attributes that mainly to her need to atone for her own and her husband’s rhetoric and policies, which, among other things, led to an increase in the incarceration rate.
With his long, deeply researched essays on race, politics, and history, as well as a well-regarded series of books (his Trump article is excerpted from his forthcoming “We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy”), Coates has established himself as a leading intellectual on American social culture. He is not admired in all circles, of course. Ben Shapiro, an anti-Trump conservative, wrote several years ago in Breitbart News (then in its pre-Trumpist phase) that Coates espouses a “nihilistic and counterfactual viewpoint” that “demonstrates the media’s obsession with racism as a point of American conflict — a conflict that must be kept fresh, an open wound, so as to maximize the power of the government.”
Far more sympathetic is the liberal journalist Josh Marshall of Talking Points Memo. But even he has reservations. Though Marshall agrees with the thrust of Coates’ argument regarding the continued centrality of race in politics and culture, he finds something tonally off about “The First White President” — namely, the conceit that Coates, and Coates alone, has identified race as the true reason that Trump prevailed in the 2016 election. “Coates’ piece is a great essay that brings together a wealth of data and characteristically penetrating analysis. I recommend it highly,” Marshall writes. “But I could not read it without thinking there are a lot of voices — hardly little heard or without megaphones — he’s simply not hearing.”
“The First White President” is an important piece of work that Democrats should examine carefully as they look ahead. White resentment is a powerful force. It’s been present in Republican politics for a long time, from Richard Nixon’s “Silent Majority” to Ronald Reagan’s denunciation of “welfare queens” and “strapping young bucks” to George H.W. Bush's infamous exploitation of a black criminal named Willie Horton. Now Trump has upped the ante considerably. How effectively Democrats will respond remains to be seen. But as Coates shows, anyone who thinks that the problem can be solved merely through efforts to win over the white working class is sadly mistaken.