I want to share a few thoughts about Ta-Nehisi Coates now much discussed new article on President Trump and white supremacy: “The First White President.”
First, the central premise contained in the title is exactly right. If you haven’t read the piece, it’s essentially this: While it is of course true that every American President before Barack Obama was a white man, Donald Trump is the first President for whom his whiteness is an explicit part, really the central part of the why and how and what of his presidency. The critique of ‘identity politics’ is that ‘whiteness’ is just as much an expression of ‘identity politics’ as black or hispanic or other forms of ethnic or group expression and activism. But in America, whiteness has always been treated as the baseline, the norm, the default. The group identity of white people has always been so pervasive and dominant that it’s seldom needed to be explicit. In a sense it’s barely even conscious of itself. But what people on both sides of the Trump divide noted last year was that the 2016 campaign was a watershed in which many whites started thinking of themselves as a threatened ethnic group, another ‘identity group’ if you will.
With the rapid changes in American demography and the Presidency of Barack Obama it was no longer totally obvious or assumed that the President would of course be a white man or that whites would be in charge of the country. True, likely, but not so overwhelmingly certain as to remain unquestioned. In this sense, Trump is the first white President, a white identity candidate and president, much as Italians or Jews became big city mayors early in the 20th century and thus signaled that they’d arrived as holders of political power in American cities
But of course this is a different and much darker picture since whites aren’t new arrivals to power. They’ve always had the power and they mostly still have it. Trolls and racists sometimes ask what’s wrong with having National Association for the Advancement of White People if there’s a NAACP and no one thinks there’s anything wrong with that. But most people, even if it’s more intuitive than reasoned, realize that it’s fundamentally different. The ethnic consciousness and demands of the powerful and dominant are intrinsically aggressive and threatening in a way that those of the powerless or marginalized are simply not.
On another level, though, I found Coates essay what I can only call baffling.
Coates seems to be reacting to a consensus both among white pundits and ‘the left’ that Trumpism is driven by the economic privation of the white working class or a backlash against cultural condescension against the white working class. Since Coates is able to assemble a broad assortment of statistical, public opinion and historical data pointing to race as the central and overriding force behind Trumpism, he further argues that the focus on economic hardship of the white working class is a form of denial, an unwillingness to grapple with the centrality of race in American politics and the catastrophic damage (in the form of Trump’s election as just the most recent and cataclysmic example) of white supremacy and white backlash.
I should say that I basically agree with all of this. Race and class are never really separate in American or any other society. But virtually all the arguments about Trumpism as driven by economic insecurity or as a product of the white working class generally fall apart on even cursory inspection. Anyone who’s looked at the public opinion data, the electoral data knows that race and particularly perceptions of threat to the power or cultural dominance of white people and more generally white Christians is the overwhelming determinant of who supported and supports Trump.
What I was confused about is that this is hardly the first statement against a consensus to the contrary. There’s lots of this thinking. We see it all over. But it’s also the focus of a huge public debate. Indeed, pundits and political writers left of the 50 yard line of American politics have an on-going and protracted argument about precisely this point. It’s actually become the stalest joke mocking what Coates sees as a largely uncontested consensus when people chime in that it must be ‘economic anxiety’ when we see just the latest example of Trump supporters revealed as espousing the most transparent and aggressive racist views.
We seem to have one big camp that 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. On the other side, you have a faction that agrees in some broad sense about Trump but sees ‘identity politics’ as largely a diversion from the real issue of populist economics or class politics. For these people, ‘identity politics’ is often actually a bit more sinister inasmuch as it’s a de facto bargain between economic elites (“neoliberals”) and black and brown activists to keep the big class and inequality questions out of the political dialog.
I should note here that is a very broad description that omits various shades of grey between the warring factions. But I think it captures the broad outlines out of very real and loud argument. It’s a difference both of analysis and agendas. The two are umbilically connected.
If you read what I write, you’ll know that I’m pretty much in the first group. But my point here isn’t to re-litigate that debate. My point is only to focus on its existence. Perhaps I have my own myopia on this front because this debate or controversy or raging argument is metaphorically where I live. I’m certainly not central to it. But I’m in the center of it in terms of hearing it raging back and forth pretty much everyday. Not recognizing its existence seems both incomplete and misleading.
What struck me though is the three voices Coates chose as the focus of his critique: Nick Kristof, George Packer and Mark Lilla. Lilla strikes me as somewhat set apart, a voice not so much of critical analysis or any sort of reportage but a sort of opportunistic and ahistorical preening wrapped up in a fancy package. Kristof and Packer are wildly more interesting and thoughtful. But each is part of a highly elite and even literary kind of public dialog. We might call it David Brooksism, even if Brooks’ politics are a bit different.
Each are parts of an extremely rarefied elite culture who make a fetish of those they see as outside that culture and manage to create a caricature of the one they present themselves as a part of. It’s a funny thing to present oneself as the critic of elite cosmopolitan culture when one is so totally part of it. But this posture is a big part of the beautiful writing set, a view in which the main dynamic of American political life is the cultural condescension of the ‘elites’ which in some sense includes the entirety of the culture of the blue states against people in ‘fly over country.’ This has always struck me as a particularly shallow and shabby view of American culture and public life, a pose as much as it is an analysis. There is certainly plenty of cultural condescension from liberals in the big coastal cities toward rural conservatives in the midwest. But you have to be wildly out of touch not to see the the antipathy and condescension is mutual. Just flip on Fox News to see stereotypical Democrats and coastal ‘elites’ lampooned as lazy, deviant, precious, or generally offensive and worthless.
In any case, Coates’ piece is a great essay that brings together a wealth of data and characteristically penetrating analysis. I recommend it highly. 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.