George Packer Responds to Ta-Nehisi Coates

Joshua Roberts / Reuters
Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

There’s a lot to admire in Ta-Nehisi Coates’s new essay. It’s one of those pieces that grabs you with its first paragraph and never lets go. The argument keeps gathering force, building on the striking imagery (“Trump cracked the glowing amulet open”) and the caustic scouring of the polemics (opioids are treated as a sickness, crack was punished as a crime), to the very end. At its heart is the undeniable truth that racism remains fundamental in American politics.

It’s the overwhelming, the single cause that Coates finds for the phenomenon of Donald Trump. It’s a cause no one in America should ever bet against. And it shapes every premise Coates lays down. Because he takes all white American political behavior as undifferentiated and founded on the idea of race, he faults me for writing a preelection essay in The New Yorker about the white working class. Since a majority of all categories of white people ended up voting for Trump, why single out white voters without college degrees, unless it’s to absolve them of their racism by invoking other factors, like class? Or worse, to extend them sympathy, since they’ve fallen into the lower depths where, unlike black Americans, they don’t “naturally” belong? Or, worse still, to absolve myself?

During the campaign, poll after poll showed that the two main indicators of support for Trump, in differing degrees, were varieties of bias and a sense of economic decline. I wrote about white working-class voters because their political behavior is increasingly different from that of well-educated, professional whites, in ways that paint the current map of America red. From Roosevelt to Reagan, Clinton, Obama, and Trump, they’ve become the key swing vote. The razor-thin election results in the Rust Belt bore my essay out.

At the heart of American politics there is racism. But it’s not alone—there’s also greed, and broken communities, and partisan hatred, and ignorance. Any writer who wants to understand American politics has to find a way into the minds of Trump voters. Any progressive politician who wants to gain power has to find common interests with some of them, without waiting for the day of reckoning first to scourge white Americans of their original sin. This effort is one of the essential tasks of politics.

You didn’t hear it from Coates, but in my essay I discussed the relation between race and class, arguing that bigotry is fixed and immutable in some people, while in others bias can be manipulated by a demagogue like Trump depending on circumstances. I added that anyone who supported Trump, for whatever reason, “will have tried to put a dangerous and despicable man in charge of the country.” I didn’t excuse or extend comfort to anyone. Analysis isn’t justification—unless you think, as Coates does, that the entire subject is illegitimate for scrutiny because it’s an evasion of the truth about white supremacy.

Some misreadings are so serious that they’re baffling—as when Coates accuses me of dismissing concerns about police brutality, draconian sentencing, and other wrongs, just because I quoted Lawrence Summers using the word “diversity” in describing the Democratic coalition. It’s the kind of distortion brought on by zealous pursuit of the single cause. Did I also fail to understand that there’s such a thing as white identity politics? I started reporting on it a decade ago, when Sarah Palin—Trump’s John the Baptist—first strutted onto the scene. Ignoring the black working class because its condition is supposedly the proper order of things? A central part of my most recent book, The Unwinding, is about a black factory worker and her struggling community in Youngstown, Ohio. I don’t ask Coates to read everything I’ve written, but I’ll ask him to stop thinking he can see into my soul and find the true source of my ideas in my white privilege.

When you construct an entire teleology on one cause—even a cause as powerful and abiding as white racism—you face the temptation to leave out anything that complicates the thesis. So Coates minimizes sexism—Trump’s disgusting language and the visceral hatred of many of his supporters for Hillary Clinton—as background noise. He downplays xenophobia, even though foreigners were far more often the objects of Trump’s divisive rhetoric and policy proposals than black Americans. (Of all his insults, the only one Trump felt obliged to withdraw was his original foray into birtherism.) Coates doesn’t try to explain why, at one point in the campaign, a plurality of Republicans supported Ben Carson over the other nine candidates, all white. He omits the weird statistic that slightly more black and Latino voters and slightly fewer whites went for Trump than for Mitt Romney. He doesn’t even mention the estimated 8.5 million Americans who voted for President Obama and then for Trump—even though they made the difference. No need to track the descending nihilism of the Republican Party. The urban–rural divide is a sham.

Then there’s the fact that Trump’s support among working-class whites fell from two-thirds on Election Day to 43 percent last month. Has Trump gone soft on the bigotry? Or has he failed to deliver on the rest of his package—cleaning up corruption and doing amazing deals and making America great again? Coates might need more than one cause to explain it.

That 46 percent of voters, overwhelmingly white, chose Trump—that some chose him because of bigotry and some while overlooking it—that more than a third of the country still supports him: all this is hideous enough. But we live in a time of total vindication, when complication and concession are considered weaknesses, and counter examples are proof of false consciousness. This spirit has taken over Coates’s writing. In this essay and other recent work, he’s turned away from the self-examining quality of his earlier writing to a literary style that’s oracular. He has become the most influential writer in America today; this latest Atlantic essay is already being taught in college courses. He has never written more powerfully, and the sentences sweep you along because they don’t yield for a second to anything.

But the style of no-compromise sacrifices things that are too important for readers to surrender without a second thought. It flattens out history into a single fixed truth, so that an event in 2016 is the same as an event in 1805, the most recent election erases the one before, the Obama years turn into an illusion. It brushes aside policy proposals as distractions, and politics itself as an immoral bargain. It weakens the liberal value of individual thought, and therefore individual responsibility, by subordinating thoughts and individuals to structures and groups. It begins with the essential point that race is an idea, and ends up just about making race an essence.