Thursday, September 07, 2017

We Were Eight Years in Power, and Other Thoughts from Ta-Nehisi Coates

Ta-Nehisi was on NPR this morning, talking about his latest Atlantic essay, "The First White President," as well as his new book, We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy, and President Trump, and many other sundry things. It was a good interview--but the book, the epilogue for which is a version of the just published Atlantic essay, was even better. It's the best thing I've ever read from Coates, in fact, despite the fact that the bulk of the book is a collection of eight major essays by Coates written during the eight years of Obama's presidency.

What makes the book so good is not just the mostly excellent, well-sourced but always introspective journalism those pieces provide (including reflections on the achievements, limitations, and legacy of such individuals as Bill Cosby, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, and Malcolm X, as well as Barack and Michelle Obama), but also the fact that he has strung these articles together with multiple, context-and-reflections-providing mini-autobiographical essays. The book, then, is a record of a writer finding himself, struggling, through his engagement with his subjects (the endurance of black conservatism, the question of reparations, the legacy of the Civil War, the costs of mass incarceration, the cultural impact of the Obamas, and more), to interrogate and understand his own hopes, ambitions, and limitations in turn. It is a great record of a public intellectual at work, and much worth your time.

But what about the epilogue, that Atlantic essay? Coates is harsh in his judgment of both the president and the country which elected him, but that harshness is earned, backed up as it is by a strongly constructed historical argument, on that moves from immediate post-Civil war America (the title of the book--"we were eight years in power"--was taken from an 1895 speech by Thomas Miller, a bi-racial South Carolinian who identified as African-American and was able to build a brief political career for himself in the Reconstruction-era Republican Party) all the way up to the endless--and, I think, mostly, if not entirely, fruitless--arguments over the role of the white working class in the 2016 election. (I think they're mostly fruitless because what those arguments are fighting over is understanding the actions of fewer than 80,000 voters in three states, and as Jacob Levy put it, "an 80,000 vote margin in a 137 million vote election, about .05%, is susceptible of almost endless plausible explanations.") Coates sees the Obama administration has having accomplished the one thing American adherents to white supremacy (here he quotes W.E.B. Du Bois) fear even more than being subject to what they imagine to be the irresponsibility and corruption of "bad Negro government"--namely, "good Negro government." The fact that Obama conducted himself--by the admittedly corrupting standards of the office of the presidency in an era of state violence, bureaucratic overreach, and imperial economics--in a basically responsible and moderate way was, in Coates's view, unacceptable to a critical mass of white voters. That, and only that, in his view, was enough to make a ridiculous man like Trump a viable presidential candidate:

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. Trump inaugurated his campaign by casting himself as the defender of white maidenhood against Mexican “rapists,” only to be later alleged by multiple accusers, and by his own proud words, to be a sexual violator himself. White supremacy has always had a perverse sexual tint....

To Trump, whiteness is neither notional nor symbolic but is the very core of his power. In this, Trump is not singular. But whereas his forebears carried whiteness like an ancestral talisman, Trump cracked the glowing amulet open, releasing its eldritch energies. The repercussions are striking: 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....

Replacing Obama is not enough—Trump has made the negation of Obama’s legacy the foundation of his own. And this too is whiteness. “Race is an idea, not a fact,” the historian Nell Irvin Painter has written, and essential to the construct of a “white race” is the idea of not being a nigger. Before Barack Obama, niggers could be manufactured out of Sister Souljahs, Willie Hortons, and Dusky Sallys. But Donald Trump arrived in the wake of something more potent—an entire nigger presidency with nigger health care, nigger climate accords, and nigger justice reform, all of which could be targeted for destruction or redemption, thus reifying the idea of being white. Trump truly is something new--the first president whose entire political existence hinges on the fact of a black president. And so it will not suffice to say that Trump is a white man like all the others who rose to become president. He must be called by his rightful honorific--America’s first white president.


Do I think Coates's race-centric interpretation of Donald Trump's rise to power is correct? If by "correct" you mean "the entire story," then no. Obviously I don't carry with me the burden of the exploitative, oppressive, and violent racial history Coates knows and weaves into his journalism so well; there are things which I simply don't see, and whose significance I don't automatically incorporate into my judgments. Reading people like Coates is an important way of compensating for that. But similarly, anyone schooled in the history of American political parties, the construction of our political culture, and the institutional structures which politically motivated individuals both perpetuate and are shaped by in turn can recognize patterns of interest which others may not notice. The Republican party in the U.S. is, indisputably, a party, in part, of white identity politics. It is also many other things--some of which, most particular the upper-class-multiculturalism-friendly globalist capitalism which more than a few of its most powerful corporate and Wall Street donors accept as essential to modern life--are hardly friendly to the interests of white people qua white people.

And yet, that itself is part of the argument, isn't it? Regarding the mostly fruitless arguments I mentioned above--the part of them that are not fruitless is the fact that they oblige us to struggle with the way class is interpolated with race throughout American history; the way lower-income and working-class white people are the recipients of a kind of capitalist valorization, accepted as carriers of authentic labor, while lower-income and working-class people of color by and large do not receive the same sort of cultural construction. (One of the reasons Coates, despite his suspicions about and disagreements with Cosby, couldn't help but write, back in 2008, somewhat sympathetically about the man is because he understood his career as involving, at least in part, an effort to provide black people in America some portion of this myth of American capitalist authenticity.) The whole visible structure of Trump's "Make America Great Again" campaign revolved around working-class job-providing factories, businesses, and towns which had suffered from globalization, with globalization being coded as "those things which Wall Street elites do too you." There's no actual economic reason why that kind of argument couldn't have been equally persuasively embodied through campaign events in majority African-American communities and job sites. Coates is relentless on this point:

It’s worth asking why the country has not been treated to a raft of sympathetic portraits of this “forgotten” young black electorate, forsaken by a Washington bought off by Davos elites and special interests. The unemployment rate for young blacks (20.6 percent) in July 2016 was double that of young whites (9.9 percent). And since the late 1970s, William Julius Wilson and other social scientists following in his wake have noted the disproportionate effect that the decline in manufacturing jobs has had on African American communities. If anyone should be angered by the devastation wreaked by the financial sector and a government that declined to prosecute the perpetrators, it is African Americans—the housing crisis was one of the primary drivers in the past 20 years of the wealth gap between black families and the rest of the country. But the cultural condescension toward and economic anxiety of black people is not news. Toiling blacks are in their proper state; toiling whites raise the specter of white slavery.

The long and the short of it is simply this: Coates's journalistic achievements, highlights of which are organized and presented in this book as if a single argument, climaxing in a ferocious attack on President Trump and those who voted for him, are making me reflect deeper upon, and change some of my thinking about, how I put race and class together in my head and in my political preferences. Does that mean I'm taking a position on (the latest round of) arguments about identity politics on the left today? Coates definitely has his opinions--mostly very negative--about the liberals (Mark Lilla, George Packer) and leftists (Bernie Sanders) that have stirred up the most animosity in suggesting that the actions of Black Lives Matter, or the idea of transgender rights, or the defense of President Obama's DACA order, or simply a lack of rural small-town or mid-sized-city respect, have all conspired to deprive Democrats of (white) votes that they needed to win. I'm not sure his opinion are my own (and I don't know how much his opinion guides his own political actions; if you read his book, you'll see three times as many criticism of Hillary Clinton and "Clintonism" in general as you will of Sanders--who, please note, Coates voted for in the Democratic primary). This is partly because I think there is probably something to the complicated rural-urban divide in the U.S. which cannot be entirely reduced to race, and partly because--as I alluded to above--I am unconvinced that this is actually a politically meaningful fight to have anyway. And even if it is a meaningful argument, it is, I suspect, an argument that has far less to do with the evolution (or deformation!) of the liberal tradition of equality, and far more to do with the structural causes of party polarization in America today. After all, in an environment where political elites usually find rewards in sticking as close as possible to their respective ideologically (and, yes, racially, ethnically, and economically) pure electoral bases, and usually find failure when they attempt to employ a language or advance an agenda which is nominally designed to appeal across all those ideological (as well as racial, ethnic, and class) groupings, then why wouldn't we expect tall those same groupings to go all in finding argument to advance their specific identitarian interests? (What do we think the Tea Party was doing with the Constitution, anyway?)

In the end, I think that in so many ways these arguments, whatever their intellectual merit, are incidental ones, retroactive arguments over strategy and intention, which arose almost solely because of the larger phenomenon that Coates is a superb chronicler of: namely, the many social and cultural questions which the eight-year administration of President Obama over a (still, for now!) majority white country gave impetus to, and the big historical question of how much President's Trump's administration should be understood as a bitter response to those eight years. His detailing of those questions, the small ones and the big one, make me, I believe, a better thinker about class and race, about economics and culture, and for that I'm grateful. Coates himself is obviously thinking about them too, so I'm in good company. I finish with a quote from the epilogue, which didn't make it into the Atlantic version:

There can be no conflict between the naming of whiteness and the naming of the degradation brought about by an unrestrained capitalism, by the privileging of greed and by the legal encouragement to hoarding and more elegant plunder. I have never seen a contradiction between calling for reparations and calling for a living wage, on calling for legitimate law enforcement and calling for single-payer health care. They are related--but solving for one does not automatically solve for the other. I see the fight against sexism, racism, poverty, and so on finding their union not in synonymity but in their ultimate goal--a world more humane.


Me too, Mr. Coates; me too.