Just finished reading Ta-Nehisi Coates’s most recent article, “The First White President”, in the Atlantic magazine. He makes a compelling case for why Donald Trump should be viewed as such when taking into account his explicit appeal to white voters across the socio-economic spectrum. He also builds on a previous article he wrote for the magazine in the wake of last November’s election, in which he argued that the presidency of Barack Obama, and the deeply felt animus it generated among many white voters, made possible the rise of a political figure such as Donald Trump. I don’t agree with all of Coates’s claims, but I do find him to be a thought-provoking writer.
Ta-Nehisi Coates “The First White President” the Atlantic October 2017
I was first introduced to Coates by a friend who recommended his examination of the red lining and predatory lending policies towards African Americans in post-World War II Chicago. His call for an open, and frank, discussion on reparations for the descendants of slaves got my attention. He dives deep into history and takes unorthodox positions. His autobiographical work , Between the World and Me, received the 2015 National Book Award. When he has something new published I generally read it.
One element of his most recent article addresses the emphasis placed on disaffected white working class voters rallying to then-candidate Donald Trump last fall. Coates is not gentle with those of his counterparts who have essentially acted as apologists for the white working class voter taking out his or her frustrations on a globalist elite by casting a vote for Donald Trump. Coates is unwilling to overlook the explicit racial appeal of the “Make America Great Again” movement which those very same voters understood all too well. In other words, the intellectual Left has had a difficult time recognizing what Coates sees as a fundamental truth about the white working class – they can be bigoted and ungenerous, and at times cruel and violent. Somehow we (and I would place myself in this category as well) have placed the lean, self-reliant working man of Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger songs , and Dorthea Lange and Ben Shahn photographs, upon a historical pedestal. And then we’re dismayed when their literal or figurative descendants vote for someone like Donald Trump. In fact, if one pays careful attention to American history one will find that this should come as little surprise. The bigoted, populist political careers of Andrew Jackson and Huey Long; as well as the widespread appeal of the 1920’s era Ku Klux Klan provide ample demonstration of this historical precedent. Not to mention the nativist riots in the 1830s-50s, the rise of the Know Nothings, the New York Draft Riots, and the multiple large-scale race riots during and immediately after World War I. The white working man has a long history of attacking those of a different race or creed alongside them on the bottom rungs of the American socio-economic ladder. Coates explicitly referenced the New York Draft Riots in his article. To be fair, he didn’t spend much much time on them, but for me it was an “ah hah!” moment of sorts. I’ve often been perplexed by the failure of Marxist historians such as Howard Zinn (someone whose work I greatly admire, and often reference) to explore this piece of history in any real depth. One suspects that if the mostly immigrant working class rioters had only focused their anger and violence at the wealthy supporters of the Union war effort, and not on the city’s black residents, the Riots would be treated as the greatest single expression of class-based revolution in U.S. history. Instead, because of the hideous things these mobs did to African Americans, this episode is given short shrift – an ugly example of a justified cause run amok, victimizing the innocent out of ignorance. But what if that’s really who they were? Those of us on the Left in the labor-capital divide, want so much to romanticize the struggle of workingmen to gain rights and their rightful piece of the American dream, that we rationalize or look away when those we romanticize act differently than we want them to. What Coates argues, in part of his piece, is that there are no free passes – or at least that there shouldn’t be. The legitimate grievances of a socio-economic group do not justify a delegitimizing act.
I have been, and will continue to be, a strong supporter of Labor. But I will never again romanticize it. I’ve wondered what Pete Seeger (a great man, in my opinion) would have thought of the 2016 Election? A lifelong champion of the working man and racial equality, what would he have said? He died in 2014.
I think in a much larger sense, that the lesson that can be learned here is not to romanticize any socio-economic, racial, religious, or political group in history. Sooner or later, if one takes the time to study history in a clear-eyed manner, they will disappoint you. That’s not to say that cynicism should be allowed to color one’s ideals, but don’t let hero worship do so either.
Getting back to Coates’s article, I highly recommend giving it a read. He’ll make you think, and in so doing force you to articulate your own thoughts on race and society, even if only to yourself.