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'His Ideology Is White Supremacy': Ta-Nehisi Coates On Donald Trump

Sep 7, 2017
Originally published on September 7, 2017 3:08 pm

Over the course of his presidency, many have tried to explain Donald Trump's ideology as a rejection of globalization, or the "political establishment." Political pundits on both the left and the right have talked about economic anxieties and regional values as motivating Trump's election. But for Ta-Nehisi Coates, it all comes down to race.

"[Trump's] ideology is white supremacy, in all its truculent and sanctimonious power," Coates writes in an essay for The Atlantic, adapted from his upcoming book, We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy.

Coates spoke to Rachel Martin of Morning Edition about that essay, which will be featured in the Atlantic's October issue. The conversation focuses on why Coates thinks that Trump's election was a direct response to having a black man occupy an office that was, up until Barack Obama, "reserved for white men."

The interview has been edited and condensed.

You don't buy the argument that Donald Trump's election was about the white working class in America feeling marginalized from a globalized workforce, from a globalized economy that had left them behind — and that that's what was animating that demographic.

Well, you know, it's certainly true that the white working class feels that way. But anybody who wants to make a class-based argument must explain why the black working class, the Latino working class, didn't break the same way. They are just as afflicted by forces of globalization and economic change, deindustrialization, et cetera. And yet they didn't break to Trump.

The other thing that has to be explained is why Trump was dominant across nearly every socio-economic sector of white America. It was not simply that he rose on the strength of the white working class. He rose on the strength of all of white America.

Some people look at those sectors that you just talked about and say, "Well, they weren't motivated by race in this" or "They were OK electing and supporting a presidential candidate, whom many believe was propagating racist policies." Weren't they just voting on their interests, which do not include race relations in this country?

Yeah. I would definitely agree with that. And I would argue, I think there's something behind even saying that "race relations" aren't their interest. I think that's a statement itself. Race relations are interested in them, whether they're interested in it or not.

Well, I guess that's what I'm pointing out, is that race would be something that would be more at the forefront of the people who are being marginalized by what are called "racist policies," and so maybe that's a problem. But it is the world we live in that whites don't recognize racism in this country as something that would be an animating force in their electoral decisions.

I would agree with that. I would just add that I don't think that's exonerating. For instance, I think if you say, "Well yeah, Donald Trump ran a racist campaign, but I voted for him despite that," that is to say that having somebody who runs that type of campaign is not a disqualifier to you.

You don't let anyone off the hook in this piece. You and I have talked before about how you think even President Obama, to a degree, downplayed racial divides and talked instead about economic injustices that face all Americans regardless of race. But you also in this piece call out Bernie Sanders, and to a lesser degree Hillary Clinton, for doing the same thing. You believe the political left in this country is also complicit.

I do. I think there is a long tradition in this country of evasion. I mean, David Duke, a former Klansman who was running for office in Louisiana, was very, very successful. And folks say they say the exact same thing about that, that they say today: "Oh, it's economic distress."

Clearly a lot of people here felt left behind economically. That's why folks were so moved to be represented by a Klansman.

And there's a broad agreement, I would say, across the Democratic Party from folks who are more centrist like Obama and Clinton, and folks who are further left like Bernie Sanders, that the real issue is actually economics — that there isn't some bastion of racism to be found in the white working class. And I don't think there's a particular one to be found in a white working class. I think there's a particular one to be found in white America in general.

So you've outlined a situation in which there don't seem to be any saviors. No existing party or movement that gets us out of this situation to rescue us, essentially, from the racial divides that seem to be deepening. That is a sad indictment. How do you — because it is human nature to try to look toward some kind of light — where do you see the light? Where do you see a moment, or a way out?

I don't think I do.

We have some you know some 400 years of history weighing down on us, going all the way back to colonial times when black folks first arrived here in 1619. We have not figured out a way to really pay down that debt to get that history up off of us. And so I think the expectation at some moment will happen now is, forgive me, a bit naive.

How do you raise kids in that? I mean you've written an entire book dedicated to your son addressing this very issue; but how do you — I mean when the future is that bleak when the present and the future are that bleak?

I think quite easily. Life is always a problem. The fact that I'm on the radio saying that I don't necessarily see hope does not relieve people, does not relieve my son, does not relieve children, of the responsibility to struggle. Folks struggled in much bleaker times than this. So to me, the answer to that is the same answer to how we got here in the first place. It's history. If you look at how human beings have been throughout history, during bleak times, they've struggled. Why would it be any different this time?

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Lots of people have theories about what drove Donald Trump's victory in last year's presidential election - a rejection of globalization, a rejection of the so-called political establishment. Writer Ta-Nehisi Coates thinks it was really about race.

TA-NEHISI COATES: Every president until 2008 was a white male president. And that has a particular symbolism in America. It says that the highest political offices in the country - and at this point, in the entire world - are reserved for white men. I think that when you had a black person - a black man occupying that position, that caused certain folks, a certain sector of white America, to react in a particular way that brought Donald Trump.

MARTIN: Ta-Nehisi Coates makes his case in a new piece for The Atlantic called "The First White President."

So you don't buy the argument that has been prevalent since the election - that this was about the white working class in America feeling marginalized from a globalized workforce, from a globalized economy that had left them behind - and that that's what was animating that demographic and that's what drew them to Donald Trump - as well as an antipathy towards Hillary Clinton?

COATES: Well, you know, it's certainly true that, you know, the white working class feels that way. But anybody who wants to make a class-based argument must explain why the black working class, the Latino working class didn't break the same way. Why - you know, they are just as afflicted by forces of globalization and, you know, economic change, deindustrialization, etc. And yet, they didn't break with Trump.

The other thing that has to be explained is why Trump was dominant across nearly every socioeconomic sector of white America. It was not simply that, you know, he rose on the strength of the white working class; he rose on the strength of all of white America.

MARTIN: If you look at those sectors that you just talked about and you say, well, you know, they weren't motivated by race in this or they were OK electing and supporting a presidential candidate whom many believe was propagating racist policies, weren't they just voting on their interests. And in their basket of interests, they do not include race relations in this country.

COATES: Yeah. Yeah, yeah - I would definitely agree with that. And I would argue - I think, like, there's something behind even saying that, quote, unquote, "race relations aren't their interests." I think that's a statement itself. Race relations is interested in them, whether they're interested in it or not.

MARTIN: Well, I guess that's what I'm pointing out, is that race would be something that would be more at the forefront of the people who are being marginalized by what are called racist policies. And so maybe that's a problem. But it is the world we live in that whites don't recognize racism in this country as something that would be an animating force in their electoral decisions.

COATES: I would agree with that. I would just add that I don't think that's exonerating. For instance, I think, like, if you say - well, yeah, Donald Trump ran a racist campaign, but I voted for him despite that. That is to say that having somebody who runs that type of campaign is not a disqualifier to you.

MARTIN: You don't let anyone off the hook in this piece.

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: You and I have talked before on this program about how you think even President Obama, to a degree, downplayed racial divides and talked instead about economic injustices that face all Americans, regardless of race. But you also, in this piece call, out Bernie Sanders and, to a lesser degree, Hillary Clinton for doing the same thing. You believe the political left in this country is also complicit.

COATES: I do. I do. I do. I think there is a long tradition in this country of evasion. And up until today - I mean, there's an amazing quote about David Duke, a former Klansman, you know, who, you know, is running for office in Louisiana - is very, very successful. And folks say - they say the exact same thing (laughter) that they say today. Oh, it's economic distress. Clearly, you know, a lot of people here felt - feel left behind economically. That's why, you know, folks were so moved to be represented by a Klansman.

And there's a broad agreement, I would say, across the Democratic Party - from you know, folks who are more centrist, like Obama and Clinton, to folks who are further left, you know, like Bernie Sanders - that the real issue is actually economics - that, you know, there isn't, you know, some bastion of racism to be found in the white working class. I don't think there's a particular one to be found in the white working class. I think there's a particular one to be found in white America in general.

MARTIN: So you've outlined this situation in which there don't seem to be any saviors, no existing party or movement that gets us out of this situation - to rescue us, essentially, from the racial divides that seem to be deepening. That is a sad indictment. How do you - because it is human nature to try to look towards some kind of light, where do you see the light? Where do you see a moment or a way out?

COATES: I don't think I do. I don't think I do.

We have some, you know, 400 years of history weighing down on us, going all the way back to colonial times when black folks first arrived here in 1619. We have not figured out a way to really pay down that debt, to get that history up off of us. And so I think the expectation that some moment will happen now is - forgive me - a bit naive.

MARTIN: How do you raise kids in that? I mean, you've written an entire book...

COATES: Mmm hmm.

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: ...Dedicated to your son, addressing this very issue. But how do you, I mean, when the future is that bleak - when the present and the future are that bleak?

COATES: I think quite easily. I think quite easily. Life is always a problem. The fact that I'm on the radio saying that I don't necessarily see hope does not relieve, you know, people, does not relieve my son, does not relieve, you know, children of the responsibility to struggle. Folks struggled in much bleaker times than this.

So to me, if - you know, the answer to that is the same answer to how we got here in the first place. It's the history. If you look at how human beings have been throughout history, during bleak times, they've struggled. Why would it be any different this time?

MARTIN: You talk about Donald Trump being a direct response to the election of Barack Obama. So if Trump was the consequence of Obama, what is the consequence of Donald Trump?

COATES: Well, a lot of misery right now, a lot of misery. And we'll see whether folks can get themselves together and get organized. I don't - I don't know. I just don't know.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE END OF THE OCEAN'S "ON THE LONG ROAD HOME")

MARTIN: Ta-Nehisi Coates is a writer for The Atlantic. His story for the October issue is titled "The First White President." It is online today. His new book, "We Were Eight Years In Power: An American Tragedy," is out next month.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE END OF THE OCEAN'S "ON THE LONG ROAD HOME") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.