The US writer's apocalyptic talk disempowers us at precisely the time when we need to oppose Trump, writes Des Freedman
Immediately following Trump’s inauguration in January 2017, resistance appeared to be everywhere: on the streets, in airports, on t-shirts and even on television. So what are we to make of the recent article in the Atlantic by the acclaimed journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates that effectively forecloses the possibility of resistance following the election of what Coates calls ‘the first white president’, a result that has opened up a Pandora’s box of racialized horror and led to a tragedy that ‘will not end with Trump’?
The essay has led to huge debate, not least amongst a US left that stands accused by Coates of complicity with the racism that Trump himself is furiously trying to normalize. It is a wide-ranging piece that provides a marvelous antidote to the complacent belief, perfectly expressed in Kathryn Bigelow’s movie Detroit, that racism is attributable simply to a few bad apples who refuse to accept the notion that black and white people should be treated equally in the face of the law. Few people write more elegantly and movingly about the structural role played by race in the historical development of US society and his dismissal of liberal commentators like Mark Lilla, who has argued that the left’s embracing of identity politics lost them the election, is delicious. ‘All politics is identity politics’, observes Coates, ‘except the politics of white people, the politics of the bloody heirloom.’
Coates insists that Trump is the first ‘white president’ because he followed the first black president. Other presidents may have been implicated in and benefited from racism but Trump, he argues, is the first to make this ‘awful inheritance explicit’ and to assemble a cross-class coalition that knowingly gave him the keys to the White House as payback for the sheer outrage of electing an African American before him. Coates is especially vitriolic about progressives, including Bernie Sanders, who attempt to explain (if not condone) voting for Trump on the basis of perceived economic pain and dislocation. If it was all about poverty and insecurity, reflects Coates, then how come black folks – who are amongst the poorest and most insecure in the country – didn’t fall for Trump’s fake anti-elitism?
For all the heat in Coates’ argument, however, there is simply too little light.
First, in what way is it true that Trump cultivated ‘whiteness’ more deliberately and provocatively than previous presidential candidates? Trump’s campaign borrowed from Richard Nixon’s ‘law and order’ campaign in 1968 which was designed to reassure white voters that he would not stand for the disorder visible in the riots in some African American communities. And it is hard to see how you could beat the Bush campaign’s 1988 commercial about Willie Horton for plain, old-fashioned racism. Indeed, as Manning Marable has argued in relation to how racism was repackaged in the 1980s as a simple refusal to acknowledge the realities of systemic discrimination: ‘Reagan never used blatantly racist language, because he didn’t have to.’
Second, even if Coates is correct about Trump’s novelty, what point does this prove? That Donald Trump is the most racist individual ever to occupy the White House? Surely this goes against his more profound argument about the structural role played by race in US history? Woodrow Wilson, for example, may not have campaigned on explicitly racial grounds in the 1916 election (although he did promise to put ‘America first’) but this hardly invalidates his subsequent commitment in office to segregationist policies, an approach which has led to a recent campaign demanding that his name be removed from buildings at Princeton University. Or what about Lyndon Johnson, the man who oversaw the passage of civil rights legislation at the same time as presiding over the slaughter of enormous numbers of Vietnamese civilians? Does this make him less of a demagogue than Trump? Racism is, after all, not just a discursive construct or a matter of intent but a material fact that can be evidenced in body bags and discriminatory policies.
Curiously, Coates is much less sympathetic to questions of intent when it comes to those who voted for Trump, an act that he sees as indefensible no matter the motivation – because for Coates, political motivation is always structurally intertwined with white privilege. I have no particular desire to excuse Trump voters but it seems very short-sighted to fail to distinguish between different motivations if you are trying both to dislodge Trump and to undercut the appeal of racism more generally. It matters – politically – that approximately one in four white workers who voted for Obama in 2012 then voted Trump in 2016 because it can’t just be Trump’s racialized appeals that explain this shift as if these white workers suddenly discovered their supremacist instincts because of his rampant tweeting. Given that the election, due to the inequities of the electoral college system, was decided by just 80,000 votes in key blue-collar states, these shifts were decisive.
According to Coates, however, the left just wants to find a way out of talking about race. ‘The left would much rather have a discussion about class struggles, which might entice the white working masses instead of about the racist struggles that that those same masses have historically been the agents and beneficiaries of.’ I don’t know precisely what left Coates is talking about but no socialist I know wants to avoid a conversation about race or to diminish the importance of anti-racism. They just don’t want to essentialize race as the only frame through which we understand the world; moreover their emphasis on class is not a lazy fetish of ‘noble’ labor but simply a recognition of the fact that class has a unique potential to unite marginalized communities (note, potential). CLR James famously captured this relationship in The Black Jacobins – an history of anti-colonial revolt that confounds Coates’ pessimism – when he argued that the ‘race question is subsidiary to the class question in politics, and to think of imperialism in terms of race is disastrous. But to neglect the racial factor as merely incidental is an error only less grave than to make it fundamental’.
In the end, and despite his recognition of the systemic role that race has played in the reproduction of American capitalism, Coates seems to think that Trump really is exceptional: that the ‘first white president in American history is also the most dangerous president’ despite the fantastically destructive track record of some of his predecessors. And because he fails to see Trump as the logical consequence of a long racialized history (that he himself has so articulately outlined) and of a social system that privileges greed, celebrity status and corruption, he is deeply distressed about the possibility of resistance. When pressed on National Public Radio about whether he saw any light ahead, he replied: ‘I don’t think I do. We have 400 years of history weighing down on us going all the way back to colonial times…We have not figured out a way to get that history off of us. The expectation that some moment will happen now is, forgive me, a bit naïve.’
The tragedy is that this kind of apocalyptic talk disempowers us at precisely the time when Trump is inviting opposition: to his attacks on immigrants, to his inflammatory talk of nuclear war in the Korean peninsula, to his disastrous policies on climate change and to his commitment to tax cuts. What does have Coates have to say to people who are protesting against Trump’s decision to suspend DACA or to communities faced with the prospect of white nationalist gatherings? Racism is of course a central and pernicious source of division but it is precisely through resistance around these and more issues that the horrors of racism can start to be unpicked.
Des Freedman is Professor of Media and Communications in the Department of Media and Communications at Goldsmiths, University of London. He is the author of 'The Contradictions of Media Power' (Bloomsbury 2014), co-editor of 'The Assault on Universities: A Manifesto for Resistance' (Pluto 2011), chair of the Media Reform Coalition and secretary of Goldsmiths UCU.