Why must conversations about race inevitably devolve to the extreme? Why can’t we address human choices in all their individual complexity? Could it be possible that people have mixed motives, or that the actions of small minorities can’t and don’t define the whole?
These are the questions that come to mind when I encounter identity politics, especially identity politics in the age of Trump. Last week Ta-Nehisi Coates, perhaps the most influential black intellectual in the United States today, wrote an extended essay about Donald Trump — declaring that his ideology isn’t nationalism, conservatism, or even self-interest. It’s “white supremacy, in all its truculent and sanctimonious power.”
Coates is an adherent of the theory that “race is an idea, not a fact,” and that “essential to the construct of a ‘white race’ is the idea of not being a nigger.” In other words, white people — historically and presently — gain power by defining themselves against the other. Here is Coates’s central contention, that Trump is the white man’s negation of the first black president:
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.
This statement — and the entire essay — is being treated as a mic-drop moment. This is the essay that refutes Democrats who urge the party to concentrate less on identity politics. This is the essay that demonstrates the essential and unalterable racism of the Republican party. This is the essay that tells America what is really going on.
Except it’s not. Except it’s wrong. Except one wonders if Coates or the people who rapturously sing his praises know even a single Trump voter or understand what drove many millions to vote for a man who — truth be told — they didn’t much like.
First, let’s deal with a few facts that cloud the narrative. At the moment that Coates wrote his essay, the most popular recent president or presidential candidate in America was . . . Barack Obama. According to an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll, 51 percent of Americans rated Obama very or somewhat positively, and only 35 percent were very or somewhat negative. Next came George W. Bush with a 45/30 positive rating and then Bernie Sanders at 44/30. Donald Trump was as disliked as Obama is loved, with his rating an upside-down 36/52. Bringing up the rear? Hillary Clinton, the most disliked major politician in America. Only 30 percent of Americans viewed her positively. 53 percent are negative. She’s upside-down by a whopping 23 points.
Indeed, how can anyone write an extended essay about Donald Trump’s victory and not put the nomination of Hillary Clinton in a starring role? For a full quarter-century — since her “co-presidency” with Bill Clinton, through scandal after scandal, and through bald-faced lie after bald-faced lie — Republicans have fought her ascent to power. The single most common Republican retort I faced as a Never Trump conservative had little to do with Obama and everything to do with Trump’s actual opponent. “You mean, you want Hillary Clinton to be president?” (I did not. I supported neither unfit major party candidate.)
Too many Democrats have yet to fully grasp what they did. They suffer from the understandable human urge to place themselves on the side of the angels. In their narrative, they nominated the “most qualified candidate in history,” and she lost to a foaming-at-the-mouth racist and sexist, in large part because so many millions of Americans are racist and sexist themselves.
In reality, however, they nominated a liar. They nominated a person who helped run a vast pay-to-play operation concealed behind a charitable foundation. They selected a person who lived by her own rules and was so careless with classified information that she would have been stripped of her security clearance, discharged from the military, and possibly imprisoned if her title had been merely “Captain Clinton” instead of “Secretary Clinton.” None of Trump’s flaws change these realities. None of Trump’s flaws make her likable, honest, or competent.
It’s also puzzling for Coates to racialize Obama’s policies. Is he seriously suggesting that had Clinton won in 2008 that Republicans wouldn’t have ferociously opposed HillaryCare, Hillary’s climate accords, or Hillary’s justice reforms? Does he not recall the Clinton administration, when opposition to HillaryCare helped the GOP win the House? Does he not remember the Obama administration, when Republicans hooted at Hillary’s “reset button” and called for her to resign after the Benghazi disaster?
One gets the feeling that Coates sees America as essentially static. Coates’s essays always contain devastating and heartbreaking quotes and facts about America’s historic racial sins. No one can take a reader, grab them, and force them to face the past quite like Coates. Read him, for example, and then try to make the “Lost Cause” argument for the Confederacy. You can’t.
But America changes. It’s not 1861. It’s not 1961. It’s 2017; America elected a black progressive named Barack Hussein Obama to two consecutive terms in office, and he’s still one of the most popular politicians in the country.
Arguing against Coates’s central thesis, however, should not distract us from some disturbing truths. It is absolutely the case that proud racists were among Trump’s most vocal online supporters. It is absolutely the case that they targeted Trump’s critics for campaigns in malicious, organized campaigns of hate and intimidation. It is also the case that Trump himself has not only refused to distance himself from some of these vile men and women (“very fine people,” remember?), he’s retweeted them and echoed their talking points.
Moreover, it’s sad to watch Republicans minimize and excuse Trump’s sins and ignore the racism of many of his most vocal supporters. Some of my friends and neighbors have even insisted to me that the alt-right is just a collection of “Soros plants.” They are not. Others have buried their heads in the sand, live entirely in their own conservative bubbles, and are genuinely (and inexcusably) unaware of the actions and words that justifiably alarm so many black and Hispanic Americans.
There are Republicans with integrity who’ve confronted and called out the alt-right and who’ve condemned Trump’s racist statements (such as his insistence that a “Mexican judge” couldn’t hear his Trump University lawsuit). But too many have gone silent. Too many offer excuses for Trump that they’d never give for any other politician of either party. They’ve lowered the bar so much that there are no standards left.
As the saying goes, many things can be true at once. It can be true that Trump’s election wasn’t a racist backlash against Barack Obama, who is actually still popular. It can be true that Trump’s coalition was in fact less white than Mitt Romney’s. It can be true that there would be no President Trump without a Hillary Clinton nomination. But it can also be true that Trump says and does inexcusable things. It can also be true that many of his core supporters polluted the Internet with horrific, vile, and alarming racism.
America isn’t a monolith of white supremacy but rather a big, messy nation where individuals make their own choices. Vice lives beside virtue, and racism does indeed still stalk the land. Donald Trump is an ambitious, unprincipled, unpopular man who took advantage of unique circumstances to occupy the Oval Office. Barack Obama would have pounded him into the electoral dust.
Trump’s political existence doesn’t “hinge on the fact of a black president.” It depends on the fact that he wasn’t running against that black president. It hinges on Hillary Clinton and his own staggering celebrity. It hinges on the fact that Obama was more personally popular than his policies. It hinges on Trump’s single-minded ambition and his willingness to say or do anything to win. Race was a part of that mix, but it wasn’t all or even most of it.
Trump isn’t America’s “first white president.” He’s our first game-show president. He’s an amoral carnival barker. Reality is bad enough. Don’t let false narratives make it worse.
— David French is a senior writer for National Review, a senior fellow at the National Review Institute, and an attorney.