“The First White President” by Ta-Nehisi Coates is the most provocative and compelling article I have read to date about the phenomena of the Trump presidency. You may not like and it may make you feel uncomfortable, but it should be read. Coates argues that the single, underlying factor that defines Trump’s election is race, plain and simple, and that liberal pundits and politicians who push the “working white class” narrative are either in denial or complicit in the racism.
Trump is the first president to have served in no public capacity before ascending to his perch. But more telling, Trump is also the first president to have publicly affirmed that his daughter is a “piece of ass.” The mind seizes trying to imagine a black man extolling the virtues of sexual assault on tape (“When you’re a star, they let you do it”), fending off multiple accusations of such assaults, immersed in multiple lawsuits for allegedly fraudulent business dealings, exhorting his followers to violence, and then strolling into the White House. But that is the point of white supremacy—to ensure that that which all others achieve with maximal effort, white people (particularly white men) achieve with minimal qualification. Barack Obama delivered to black people the hoary message that if they work twice as hard as white people, anything is possible. But Trump’s counter is persuasive: Work half as hard as black people, and even more is possible.
. . . The scope of Trump’s commitment to whiteness is matched only by the depth of popular disbelief in the power of whiteness. We are now being told that support for Trump’s “Muslim ban,” his scapegoating of immigrants, his defenses of police brutality are somehow the natural outgrowth of the cultural and economic gap between Lena Dunham’s America and Jeff Foxworthy’s. The collective verdict holds that the Democratic Party lost its way when it abandoned everyday economic issues like job creation for the softer fare of social justice. The indictment continues: To their neoliberal economics, Democrats and liberals have married a condescending elitist affect that sneers at blue-collar culture and mocks the white man as history’s greatest monster and prime-time television’s biggest doofus. In this rendition, Donald Trump is not the product of white supremacy so much as the product of a backlash against contempt for white working-class people.
Yes, as Coates explains, Trump won every single demographic of white voters, regardless of whether they were working-class:
Trump’s dominance among whites across class lines is of a piece with his larger dominance across nearly every white demographic. Trump won white women (+9) and white men (+31). He won white people with college degrees (+3) and white people without them (+37). He won whites ages 18–29 (+4), 30–44 (+17), 45–64 (+28), and 65 and older (+19). Trump won whites in midwestern Illinois (+11), whites in mid-Atlantic New Jersey (+12), and whites in the Sun Belt’s New Mexico (+5). In no state that Edison polled did Trump’s white support dip below 40 percent. Hillary Clinton’s did, in states as disparate as Florida, Utah, Indiana, and Kentucky. From the beer track to the wine track, from soccer moms to nascar dads, Trump’s performance among whites was dominant. According to Mother Jones, based on preelection polling data, if you tallied the popular vote of only white America to derive 2016 electoral votes, Trump would have defeated Clinton 389 to 81, with the remaining 68 votes either a toss-up or unknown.
. . . 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 unlike Romney, Trump secured this support by running against his party’s leadership, against accepted campaign orthodoxy, and against all notions of decency. By his sixth month in office, embroiled in scandal after scandal, a Pew Research Center poll found Trump’s approval rating underwater with every single demographic group. Every demographic group, that is, except one: people who identified as white.
Coates is brutal in his criticism of Democratic politicians such as Bill and Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders and of liberal pundits like Nicolas Kristof for playing into white identity politics, pushing the disaffected work-class white voter narrative.
My only question to Coates and what I still cannot figure out is why Obama continues to be the most popular political figure in America?
Ultimately, though, Coates’ parting words are indisputable, similar to my own sentiments:
And so the most powerful country in the world has handed over all its affairs—the prosperity of its entire economy; the security of its 300 million citizens; the purity of its water, the viability of its air, the safety of its food; the future of its vast system of education; the soundness of its national highways, airways, and railways; the apocalyptic potential of its nuclear arsenal—to a carnival barker who introduced the phrase grab ’em by the pussy into the national lexicon. It is as if the white tribe united in demonstration to say, “If a black man can be president, then any white man—no matter how fallen—can be president.” And in that perverse way, the democratic dreams of Jefferson and Jackson were fulfilled.
UPDATED 8 SEPTEMBER 2017
A colleague I discussed this article with noted that Coates did not focus enough of gender, specifically that Hillary-hatred, in large part due to her gender, was a decisive factor in Trump’s victory. I have read some criticism of Coates in the the past that he focuses almost exclusively on race at the expense of gender. I would argue that Coates’ statements about white supremacy and Trump could be easily extended to white, male supremacy.
Trump ran a shockingly overt misogynistic campaign. He was relentless in his attack of female journalists and politicians who disagreed with him, always focusing on their physical attributes. But what was particularly disturbing, revealing, and utterly offensive was his insistence that Bill Clinton’s extramarital behavior was a sign of Hillary’s shortcomings. That all of America witnessed this (in combination with his “grab’em” statement) and still a majority of white Americans voted for Trump speaks volumes about gender equality in this country.