What Ta-Nehisi Coates gets wrong about leftists
Ta-Nehisi Coates argues that leftists fail to appreciate the racist roots of Trump's support. He's wrong.
Since President Trump's upset election victory, perhaps no political writer has been more missed than Ta-Nehisi Coates, who has quit daily blogging. And so it ought to be no surprise that liberal readers eagerly devoured Coates' new article, "Donald Trump Is the First White President."
Coates' main argument — right there in the provocative title — is undeniably correct. In his combination of utter incapacity to be president and utter confidence that he deserves to be there, not to mention his utter political dependence on racist policies and rhetoric, Donald Trump is surely the most purely white president there has ever been. Without race, he is nothing.
But Coates wants to show not only that Trump's "entire political existence hinges on the fact of a black president" — the 45th president being a racist backlash to America's 44th — but also that this white backlash is the only factor behind Trump's success. This argument fails — as does Coates' argument that leftists are not appreciating the roots of Trump's support.
For the last couple years, centrist Democrats have been putting forth an utterly preposterous version of recent history in which centrists have been the longstanding defenders of social justice, counter-posed against an imagined group of leftists who favor class policy only.
This is clearly incorrect. The actual program of the left is policies to address specific social injustice and economic policy to address broader social injustice expressed through class. Black Americans, for example, are both victims of particular discrimination (like police brutality and school segregation) and are clustered at the bottom of the economic ladder. They require both forms of redress. Leftists have attacked Trump's bigotry just as strongly as liberals have, if not more so.
Coates has unfortunately been partially taken in by this revisionist history, as can be seen by the selection of people he puts up as refusing to understand the racist nature of President Trump. For one, he attacks Bernie Sanders, the leftist mascot, for lacking "any recognition that there is something systemic and particular in the relationship between black people and their country that might require specific policy solutions," as evidenced by how Sanders lamented Democratic losses among the white working class, and chided a Latina questioner that simply being a woman wasn't enough to be a political success.
On one level, this is rather unfair. Coates does not mention that Sanders' racial justice platform was virtually identical to Hillary Clinton's, nor does he mention that Sanders' response to the Latina questioner also argued that increased representation for women and minorities was critically important. Sanders' was the basic leftist formula: identity politics and class politics. Still, Sanders is sometimes clumsy with his rhetoric, tends toward a laser focus on economic issues, and does have the politician's instinct to never insult huge swathes of voters, no matter how justified it might be. And he is, after all, an old white guy.
But more importantly, Coates implicitly, and wrongly, lumps Sanders in with three other writers who really have argued against identity politics recently. Mark Lilla, George Packer, and Nicholas Kristof are definitively not part of the leftist tradition — not by any stretch of the imagination. It's fair to whack Sanders for being insensitive or glib about identity politics. But it's simply incorrect to suggest he shares a political home with these three men.
Lilla, Packer, and Kristof are among the few remaining centrists who haven't gotten the memo about the new party line. The trail they propose following is the exact same one blazed by centrist liberals back in the 1990s. As Coates rightly notes, this basic agenda is actually identity politics for white people: Stop being "elitist," cater to their imagined cultural preferences, and stop kowtowing to notions of political correctness. This was exactly Bill Clinton's strategy in executing a brain-damaged black man and personally insulting a leftist black woman.
Since the election, centrists, liberals, and leftists have been arguing about what caused Democrats to lose to Trump. Centrists and liberals, for obvious reasons, tended to emphasize Russian meddling, FBI Director James Comey's shockingly irresponsible last-minute intervention, and racism. Meanwhile, leftists, while not ruling out those factors, also pointed to Hillary Clinton's inadequate economic policies — especially how she barely mentioned her own platform in her advertising, and how her long history of triangulation, buckraking secret speeches to Wall Street banks, and decades of living in hyper-elite circles made her a non-credible messenger for that platform in any case.
If the leftist analysis is right, it suggests Trump might have been beaten with a better economic program and a better candidate to sell it — without backing down a single millimeter on social justice policy. Coates argues that Trump had no real working-class appeal, because his support was strong up and down the white wealth ladder, and because the black and Latino working class mostly did not vote for him. This latter argument fails to account for the multiple axes by which people judge political platforms. Black people could see Trump's racism easily enough; they wouldn't vote for him regardless of his platform.
But white people have the luxury — and often the willful blindness — to be able to ignore racism and look at the rest of someone's platform. Many of them voted for Trump because of his economic promises. At a minimum, these people had to look past some truly gruesome bigotry. But it does not follow that there was no economic component to Trump's appeal.
It is also true that Trump posted his highest margins among middle- and upper-middle-class whites. But he also improved on Mitt Romney's margin among people making less than $30,000 by 16 points. Racism was no doubt part of that appeal. But Trump really did manage to get to Clinton's left on the economy, constantly repeating a vague but effective message that he would rebuild the country and bring back high-paying manufacturing jobs. (No Democratic slogan has ever been more limp, more false, or helped the other party more than "America Is Already Great.")
Coates argues that "leftists would have to cope with the failure, yet again, of class unity in the face of racism." But the leftist strategy was not tried in 2016. The Democratic Party ran the more conservative primary candidate, tried to win more upper-class votes (and succeeded to some degree), and lost.
Leftists have often darkly joked that Sanders would have beaten Trump, but the really strong counter to Coates' dour pessimism is imagining if Obama had been able to run for a third term. His job approval rating on election day was 56-42, compared to Trump's 40-57 approval rating, and Hillary Clinton's 42-55 rating. It is a virtual certainty that not only would Obama have won, he would have buried Trump by 10 to 15 points. And he would have put away that white business magnate just like he did the last one — by constantly hammering Trump's egregious personal abuses of working people.
Coates is wrong that Trump's victory is singularly about racism, just as he is wrong to write off the possibility of a cross-racial class alliance. After all, if all you have to do to win white votes is be racist, the Democrats are doomed for decades at least.