Though he is perfectly obvious as a man, and utterly disgraceful as a public figure, Donald Trump as phenomenon remains enigmatic. The question of how anyone, much less a plurality of Americans, could look at the same ugly, boorish liar we all see and think "yes, there stands the next President of the United States of America"—has been addressed a zillion times, by a zillion writers, pundits, and civilians, with results that vary between intriguing and appalling. But never definitive.
Then, this morning, The Atlantic published "The First White President," an excerpt from the forthcoming book We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy (published October 3) by Ta-Nehisi Coates. Like everything he writes, it's required reading. (It's also a good argument for letting a few months pass before offering a "take" on world events.) But the brilliance of the piece runs deeper.
It's the bluntest and bleakest analysis yet of the America that slit its own throat last November to punish itself for having allowed a black man to become president. It's also the first one that has rung all-the-way true—true like something you've always known but never fully realized—about the nasty petulance that resides deep in the American psyche.
Like many other useful elements in the evolving lexicon of contemporary awareness, the term "white supremacy," gets tossed around a LOT these days, a fact that threatens to undermine its rhetorical value and dilute the potency of the very real truth it captures. Coates slices through the gauzy race and class speculations ("white working class," etc.) that attend the typical "Why He Won" narrative, and untangles the centrality of white supremacy to every component of Trump's ascendancy, political and otherwise, and to the entire history of the American experiment:
The focus on one subsector of Trump voters—the white working class—is puzzling, given the breadth of his white coalition. Indeed, there is a kind of theater at work in which Trump’s presidency is pawned off as a product of the white working class as opposed to a product of an entire whiteness that includes the very authors doing the pawning. The motive is clear: escapism. To accept that the bloody heirloom remains potent even now, some five decades after Martin Luther King Jr. was gunned down on a Memphis balcony—even after a black president; indeed, strengthened by the fact of that black president—is to accept that racism remains, as it has since 1776, at the heart of this country’s political life. The idea of acceptance frustrates the left. 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 those same masses have historically been the agents and beneficiaries of. Moreover, to accept that whiteness brought us Donald Trump is to accept whiteness as an existential danger to the country and the world. But if the broad and remarkable white support for Donald Trump can be reduced to the righteous anger of a noble class of smallville firefighters and evangelicals, mocked by Brooklyn hipsters and womanist professors into voting against their interests, then the threat of racism and whiteness, the threat of the heirloom, can be dismissed. Consciences can be eased; no deeper existential reckoning is required.
This transfiguration is not novel. It is a return to form.
The piece is so goddamn good. Every sentence. Please go read it. (Bonus points for his minting of the word "orcish," not the first time a writer has invoked Tolkein in discussing Trump and his followers....)
Future historians will look back on the clarity and style of Coates's writing with deep gratitude. Here's hoping there are a few of them left to do so once this wretched period is over.