The black liberal who argued for reparations and called President Donald Trump America’s “first white president” is at it again — but this time he is comparing Trump’s election to the birth of post-Civil War white supremacy. This argument can fan the flames of unrest and lead to more racial violence in America. To realize just how explosive this claim really is, and to effectively debunk it, Americans have to understand his view of white supremacy at the heart of America and his deep pessimism about life itself.
“What this country really fears is black respectability, Good Negro Government,” writes Ta-Nehisi Coates in his forthcoming book, We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy (which releases on October 3). Coates compares President Barack Obama’s eight years in power to the brief period following the Civil War in which black leaders served in government, before whites kicked them out.
While Coates gets Trump tragically wrong, he gets most of his history right. After the Civil War, the Union imposed a period of Reconstruction on the defeated Southern states, and part of that program was ensuring that black people could vote and run for office. But Reconstruction ended, and when it did, angry whites did indeed prevent blacks from voting and running for office. Following the Civil War, black people really were “eight years in power.”
But Coates draws an explosive narrative between this period of power and disenfranchisement to the connection between Obama and Trump, and this connection is entirely unwarranted.
Coates lays out his central thesis rather elegantly. He recalls the words of W.E.B. Du Bois, who wrote, “If there is one thing that South Carolina feared more than bad Negro government, it was good Negro government.”
Du Bois had witnessed the historic first black politicians, and then the utter evil of white supremacy clamping down on blacks in the South, at the end of the 1800s. He suggested that white supremacists saw blacks as inferior and could not stand being governed by them — but what really angered white supremacists was the idea that blacks would govern well. See where this is going?
“The central thread of this book is eight articles written during the eight years of the first black presidency—a period of Good Negro Government,” Coates writes. “Obama was elected amid widespread panic and, in his eight years, emerged as a caretaker and measured architect.”
“He was not a revolutionary. He steered clear of major scandal, corruption, and bribery. He was deliberate to a fault, saw himself as the keeper of his country’s sacred legacy, and if he was bothered by his country’s sins, he ultimately believed it to be a force for good in the world,” Coates claims. The author seems to believe these are plain statements of fact, not the extremely debatable assertions they really are.
Coates takes this view of Obama as a great leader and runs it into the ground. “When it becomes clear that Good Negro Government might, in any way, empower actual Negroes over actual whites, then the fear sets in, the affirmative-action charges begin, and birtherism emerges. And this is because, at its core, those American myths have never been colorless.”
“I think the old fear of Good Negro Government has much explanatory power for what might seem a shocking turn—the election of Donald Trump,” Coates argues. “It has been said that the first black presidency was mostly ‘symbolic,’ a dismissal that deeply underestimates the power of symbols.”
What was Obama’s presidency a symbol of? “The symbolic power of Barack Obama’s presidency—that whiteness was no longer strong enough to prevent peons from taking up residence in the castle—assaulted the most deeply rooted notions of white supremacy and instilled fear in its adherents and beneficiaries.” This fear “gave the symbols Donald Trump deployed—the symbols of racism—enough potency to make him president.”
Coates is explicit about his central point. “The argument made in much of this book is that Good Negro Government—personal and political—often augments the very white supremacy it seeks to combat.”
Elsewhere, the liberal darling writes that “the point of white supremacy” is “to ensure that that which all others achieve with maximal effort, white people (and particularly white men) achieve with minimal qualification.” Coates cites Trump’s multiple personal scandals, his lack of experience in government, and his allegedly fraudulent business dealings, suggesting that no black man would be able to overcome these obstacles.
Furthermore, Coates cites exit polls pointing out that Trump won among whites of every economic class, suggesting “a broad white coalition that ran the gamut from Joe the Dishwasher to Joe the Plumber to Joe the Banker.”
On its face, this argument seems compelling. But it cannot possibly be true. Yes, it is hard to imagine a black man overcoming Trump’s flaws — but it’s hard to imagine any other white man doing so, either. Indeed, Trump’s very penchant for controversy put him in the national media spotlight, allowing him to dominate a more qualified Republican field. His closest competition was a second-generation Cuban-American — talk about white supremacy!
Secondly, on Election Day 2016, President Obama was much more popular than either Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton. While Hillary Clinton may have represented Obama’s legacy, she did not motivate minorities to the polls in the same way Obama did — and that is one of the key reasons why she lost.
Finally, both Clinton and Trump were very unpopular on the eve of the election. On November 2, an ABC/Washington Post poll found that only 38 percent of Americans viewed Clinton favorably, while 60 percent viewed her unfavorably. At the same time, 39 percent of voters had a favorable impression of Trump, with 58 having an unfavorable one.
Much has been made about the impact of white evangelicals on the 2016 election, but the truth on this is far from simple. Many who voted for Trump held their nose while doing so, judging that conservatives on the Supreme Court was worth electing a moral reprobate.
Coates’ “white supremacy” narrative may seem to explain the Trump phenomenon, but it explains too much. If, as Coates suggests, the discussion of the “white working class” really is a nod to fears of “white slavery,” why did Hillary Clinton come so close to winning the presidency? If white supremacy is the ultimate force at play — rather than Clinton’s extreme unpopularity — how did the woman who represents the legacy of the first black president stand much of a chance in the first place?
Perhaps the most fascinating thing about Coates’ book is not his utterly false message, but how he reached such a conclusion. While Barack Obama was rising in the Democratic primary, Coates was a struggling writer. Under Obama’s ascendancy, this liberal journalist also rose in prominence.
“My contention is that Barack Obama is directly responsible for the rise of a crop of black writers and journalists who achieved prominence during his two terms,” the liberal journalist contends. “The fact of Barack Obama, of Michelle Obama, changed our lives. Their very existence opened a market. … It was as if I had spent my years jiggling a key into the wrong lock. The lock was changed. The doors swung open.”
Coates’ book is not just a treatise about white supremacy causing the rise of Donald Trump — it is a revealing autobiography that explains why he accepts this dogma on faith. But his faith is grounded in experience, and experience of deep tragedy.
Despite his claim that Obama represented “Good Negro Government,” Coates laments a great deal of Obama’s influence. He contends that the former president’s “words and actions were constricted by a fear of offending white innocence.” Obama’s tenure had clear limits: “A black president whose power was bracketed by the same forces that bracketed the lives of black people everywhere.”
It would be far too easy for conservatives to dismiss this claim. After all, Obama passed Obamacare. He enshrined tough new regulations at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). He expanded the surveillance state — even as he was leaving office. His Internal Revenue Service (IRS) was notorious for targeting conservative groups, a scandal denied even now by much of the media establishment. These and other scandals (Benghazi, Fast & Furious) belie the claim that Obama’s government was purely and objectively “good.”
But Obama was indeed restrained on race at the beginning, and his presidency did not help black people as much as they hoped it would. In fact, Coates tells a very moving story about Shirley Sherrod, a member of the Obama administration who was fired after a deceptively edited video suggested she took revenge on a white man.
Sherrod lost her father to racist violence, and she struggled throughout her life to help others in the sphere of agriculture. As Coates wrote, “Sherrod has hewed to the rule of ‘twice as good.’ She has preached nonviolence and integration. The very video that led to her dismissal was of a speech aimed at black people, warning them against the dangers of succumbing to rage.”
Even so, she lost her job immediately. Afterward, when Coates interviewed her, Sherrod said she didn’t “want to do anything to hurt” the president.
Coates rightly condemned Obama’s administration for firing Sherrod, and this is a telling part of his narrative. In a tragic passage, he explains why he is an atheist: “Might really did make right, and he who swung first swung best, and if swinging was not enough, you stabbed, you shot, you did anything to make this whole heathen world understand that you were not the one.”
This black liberal denies the existence of God, denies the justice of the world, and identifies with a tradition of black literature premised on struggle with no hope of success. “If freedom has ever meant anything to me personally, it is this defiance,” he writes.
Worse, he sets his defiance not just against white supremacy but against America itself. “America is literally unimaginable without plundered labor shackled to plundered land, without the organizing principle of whiteness as citizenship, without the culture crafted by the plundered, and without that culture itself being plundered.” At one point, Coates declares with Jeremiah Wright, “God damn America, indeed.”
This railing against America — a nation whose “very chaos … allowed me to prosper” — is particularly troubling. Coupled with the atheistic rejection of hope and Coates’ placing his identity in resistance, it is a recipe for angry tribalism, exacerbating the struggle for power which Social Justice Warriors incite by boiling all truth down to power-focused narratives.
In this context, Coates call for reparations, his utter rejection of any good in Trump, and his persistent fear of the bogeyman of white supremacy make sense.
Coates is a force for anger and division, without the great hope of success that helped make Martin Luther King, Jr. such a ray of light to the world. His book backs up fears that there are secret racists and “haters” behind every corner in America — fears stoked by groups like the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), a group that has caused a terror attack by branding mainstream groups “hate groups.”
Yet for all this, Coates has a few shining lights in his book. One chapter explains why African-Americans should take the history of the Civil War as their own, and why the “Lost Cause” theory of that war is dangerously wrong. Another chapter presents a compelling vision of what it felt like to be black under Obama.
Coates’ book is wrong and his conclusion is dangerous, but his voice is compelling and moving. As a conservative who seeks always to break out of his bubble, I thoroughly enjoyed reading his book, even as I found a great deal of it utterly false and frustrating. While I must condemn his conclusions, I heartily recommend Coates’ book for any conservative up for the challenge of trying to see the world through these eyes.