As Democrats still try to find their moorings after being routed in the 2016 election, the place of identity politics is a subject of particularly intense debate. Some say the party has been too focused on specific issues of race, gender and sexual identity rather than broader economic and social concerns, leaving out white working-class voters — men in particular — and making them receptive to Donald Trump’s populism.
Columbia University Professor Mark Lilla’s recent book, “The Once and Future Liberal,” is an appeal to a liberal civic Americanism that rejects identity politics.
Now, an acclaimed essay in The Atlantic by national correspondent Ta-Nehisi Coates, one of today’s pre-eminent African-American voices, weighs in on the other side, arguing that Trump’s election demonstrates how central racism still is to American life. (It is excerpted from his new book, “We Were Eight Years in Power.”)
In a nutshell, Coates asserts that Trump is a committed white supremacist whose presidency is rooted entirely in a racist backlash against the presidency of Barack Obama, a black man he tried to cast as a usurper. Coates even argues that Trump’s debased morals and buffoonery were part of his appeal: the “white tribe” was making a statement that if a black man can be president, so can the worst of white men. To Coates, Trump represents the dangerous toxicity of “whiteness,” and proves the need for a renewed focus on race and racial injustice.
Coates is a compelling writer, and he is undoubtedly correct that racist resentments played a role in the election. But any argument that reduces a complex phenomenon to a single factor must fail. One could just as easily (and wrongly) argue that the single deciding factor in Trump’s win was a backlash against the rising power of women.
Several responses to Coates have pointed to a multitude of facts that undercut or complicate his argument. More than 8 million people who voted for Obama in past elections went for Trump this time. More than a quarter of Latinos and nearly 1 in 7 black male voters cast their votes for Trump — a larger share than Mitt Romney got in 2012.
Trump himself disavowed his “birther” crusade against Obama and tried to blame it on his rival, Hillary Clinton. His rhetoric targeted foreigners far more than blacks, whose votes he occasionally pledged to win in unprecedented numbers.
None of that gets Trump off the hook for his disgraceful flirtations with white nationalists. But, contrary to Coates’ argument, there are many indications that mainstream American society does hold racism in deep contempt. After Trump blamed “many sides” for the violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, where white supremacists clashed with counterprotesters, his business advisory council had to dissolve because of an exodus of members.
Coates believes that even white Trump voters who did not back him for specifically racist reasons were still willing to vote for a white supremacist. But many voters — apparently including quite a few who aren’t white — don’t believe he’s a white supremacist, just an egotistic blowhard and an equal-opportunity insulter. Trump seems to have an extraordinary gift for being whatever people — perhaps, including his critics — want to see in him.
Coates believes that people who reject identity politics focused on minority interests ignore the white-identity politics of the Trump phenomenon. But a far more common argument is that progressive politics that defines people by race, ethnicity and other demographic traits has contributed to the rise of white-identity politics in response. The kind of collective blame that Coates heaps on white America is likely to further that polarization.
Cathy Young is a contributing editor to Reason magazine.