Ta-Nehisi Coates is wrong about Trump voters

Ta-Nehisi Coates has an excerpt in the Atlantic from his new book, We Were Eight Years in Power, that ran under the title “The First White President.”  It is characteristically forceful and thought-provoking but, unusually, I think he’s wrong in some of his basic premises. He notes, as I have previously, the gross disparity in response to the crack epidemic, which was seen as mostly black and urban and condemned as a failure of personal responsibility, and the opioid epidemic, which is seen as white and rural and a sign of an economic system that has failed them, as one of many examples proving that really race is the irreducible factor in American politics. Certainly, this is part of it. But what is proven, I think, is that liberals are just a lot more compassionate and inclusive than conservatives: the disparity in judgment reflects the difference in the political group doing the judging. This is true across his other examples too. Coates breaks out the election results to show that Trump won whites in every age cohort and income level to argue that the focus on the white working class is misplaced. But that excessive focus is in the nature of elections won at the margin: Trump became president by keeping the historic Republican voter onsides and pulling over white working-class voters in a few key states who either rarely voted or had once been Democrats. The focus on the legitimate — i.e., non-racist — grievances of the white working class doesn’t necessarily illustrate the bonds of white supremacy, as Coates has it, but that they were the swing vote and won’t be won back by ridiculing them. Presumably, Coates understands that this is how political speeches work, yet he quotes from prominent white politicians as if their words represent an exclusive blindness rather than an attempt to make a pivotal constituency feel included in the Democratic vision:

Joe Biden, then the vice president, last year:

“They’re all the people I grew up with … And they’re not racist. They’re not sexist.”

Bernie Sanders, senator and former candidate for president, last year:

“I come from the white working class, and I am deeply humiliated that the Democratic Party cannot talk to the people where I came from.”

Nicholas Kristof, the New York Times columnist, in February of this year:

My hometown, Yamhill, Ore., a farming community, is Trump country, and I have many friends who voted for Trump. I think they’re profoundly wrong, but please don’t dismiss them as hateful bigots.

To this, Coates writes, “These claims of origin and fidelity are not merely elite defenses of an aggrieved class but also a sweeping dismissal of the concerns of those who don’t share kinship with white men.” But I’m not sure that’s the case. There’s no doubt that Coates is right that race, and racism, defined this campaign but he is wrong to believe that stating that fact bluntly is the only way to see ourselves clear from the results.

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