In “The First White President,” Ta-Nehisi Coates argued that, “to Trump, whiteness is neither notional nor symbolic but is the very core of his power.” White supremacy, Coates wrote, was the main catalyst for Trump’s white voters. The piece was sweeping in the ground it covered and breathtaking in its storytelling; it also completely failed to validate Coates’s argument.
I read the essay more than once, took scores of notes, researched polling data that matched statistics he listed, and highlighted several parts that piqued my curiosity. This was no small undertaking, as Coates is as elegant in his writing as he is comprehensive in his research. His essay, an excerpt from his new book We Were Eight Years in Power, covered everything from the racially disparaging comments of Donald Trump to the historical relationship between the white working class and black slaves in the South, to the flaws found in progressive arguments that the reason for Trump’s rise can be found primarily in grievances felt by the white working class.
Coates cites the fact that Trump was elected to office despite making sexually suggestive comments about his daughter and justifying sexual assault in general while a black president, say, Barack Obama, would have never been able to do so and get elected. He also points to the fact that Trump challenged almost all of Obama’s major policies, making Trump “the negation of Obama’s legacy [and] the foundation of his own,” as well as the fact that the majority of white people who voted, voted for Trump.
Yet none of these points actually demonstrate that the dominating force behind the success of Trump’s campaign was white supremacy. The answer to Coates’s rhetorical question of whether Barack Obama could have gotten into office after a record of sexual assault is obviously no. But Coates does not contemplate the possibility that what made people willing to excuse Trump’s boorish behavior was not his whiteness, but his status as a celebrity entertainer in which his vulgarity was a widely accepted aspect of his persona. So when Coates asks whether we can “imagine a black felon running in a primary against an incumbent white president doing so well,” the proper parallel would be imagining a well-known entertainer whose social capital has accrued in the past few decades of television and digital media. Kanye 2020 anyone?
But the broader issue with the essay is that in the world that Coates has constructed for his reader, it is impossible for the source of the problem to be anything but whiteness, “that bloody heirloom which cannot ensure mastery of all events but can conjure a tailwind for most of them.” Maybe the majority of Trump’s white supporters wanted to repeal the former president’s legislation because of actual policy disagreements; or, maybe they, like others, harbored deep dislike for Hillary Clinton. After all, Clinton lost critical states like Michigan and, as Omri Ben-Shahar wrote in Forbes, Clinton did so less because Trump gained new voters in these states than because registered Democrats did not show up on Election Day, possibly due to voter-ID laws and other factors. “Wisconsin tells the same numbers story,” he wrote. “Trump got no new votes. He received exactly the same number of votes in America’s dairyland as Romney did in 2012 … But Clinton again could not spark many Obama voters to turn out for her: she tallied 230,000 votes less than Obama did in 2012. This is how a 200,000-vote margin for Obama in the Badger State became a 30,000-vote defeat for Clinton.”
The distribution of minority votes tells a similar story. National Public Radio’s Domenico Montanaro points out that although Latinos made up a greater share of the electorate than in previous elections, “a significant share … went third party.” Indeed, that 6 percent may have made a significant difference. In North Carolina, black voters made up 20 percent of the electorate in 2016, a 3 percent decline from their share in 2012. Charles Ellison of the Philadelphia Tribune notes that between 2012 and 2016 there was “an alarming 11.4 percent reduction in Black votes.”
At the very least, this demonstrates that decreased democratic turnout had as much if not more of an impact in the election than Trump’s ability to rally supporters. Of course, none of this is to absolve Trump supporters for making unwise voting decisions, but if Coates wants to prove that white supremacy was the dominating force fueling the rise of Trump, he must demonstrate that all other possible motives are implausible—which he doesn’t.
In assessing whether income was the determining factor, Coates listed the following statistics: “Trump won whites making less than $50,000 by 20 points, whites making $50,000 to $99,999 by 28 points, and whites making $100,000 or more by 14 points. This shows that Trump assembled a broad white coalition that ran the gamut from Joe the Dishwasher to Joe the Plumber to Joe the Banker.”
He concludes that, “Trump’s white support was not determined by income.” But actually this shows that his white support was not determined only by income, even though it varied widely by economic status.
Coates writes that since among working-class Americans, 61 percent of whites—but only 24 percent of Hispanics and 11 percent of blacks—supported Trump, only “whiteness” can be the culprit. But why did any percentage of working class blacks and Hispanics vote for Trump? Do they also secretly harbor white-supremacist viewpoints? Did they too inherit the all-powerful white heirloom? Or is it possible that all of these groups were motivated by a variety of factors, not least among them a visceral and uncompromising dislike of Hillary Clinton?
Beware the deceptive allure of binary choices that masquerade as arguments. Coates’s failure to imagine complexity in human motives yields the assumption that such complexity cannot possibly exist.
Coates is at his best when he confronts the shortcomings of his progressives peers like Mark Lilla and George Packer who do not consider the possibility of intricate motives fueling voting blocs. Packer “offers no opinion polls to weigh white workers’ views on ‘elites,’ much less their views on racism,” Coates writes, critiquing his reductionist impulse to say Trump’s rise is only or mostly due to economic grievance. But Coates himself is equally reductive in concluding that it is due to white supremacy.
His essay contributes to a politically toxic environment in which challenging the orthodoxies of the left and the right becomes heresy. Echo chambers are fortified. An us vs. them mentality becomes the only possible explanation for what’s going on.
The danger of proceeding in this way is not simply the acceptance of logical fallacies. Using a single factor to explain the election forfeits a golden opportunity to grapple with the layered motives that are always in play in human affairs. And a popular discourse that assumes the worst about Americans has a chilling affect on the rest of the country, tears at the fabric of our institutions, and accelerates the disintegration of our social and civic bonds.