Ta-Nehisi Coates’ cover essay for The Atlantic, “The First White President,” explores the role of race and racism in Donald Trump’s election as President of the United States. Coates’ essay, has been widely read, and drawn praise and criticism (a sign of success; the goal of nearly every writer is to elicit a reaction from readers). My personal summary of its main argument is that the attempts to explain Trump’s victory as the result of economic dislocation among the so-called “white working class” are glossing over the impact of race and racism, specifically white racism against African-Americans.
Here is the key paragraph that I think is the heart of Coates’ piece (extra paragraph breaks added for emphasis):
“The triumph of Trump’s campaign of bigotry presented the problematic spectacle of an American president succeeding at best in spite of his racism and possibly because of it. Trump moved racism from the euphemistic and plausibly deniable to the overt and freely claimed. This presented the country’s thinking class with a dilemma. Hillary Clinton simply could not be correct when she asserted that a large group of Americans was endorsing a candidate because of bigotry.
The implications—that systemic bigotry is still central to our politics; that the country is susceptible to such bigotry; that the salt-of-the-earth Americans whom we lionize in our culture and politics are not so different from those same Americans who grin back at us in lynching photos; that Calhoun’s aim of a pan-Caucasian embrace between workers and capitalists still endures—were just too dark. Leftists would have to cope with the failure, yet again, of class unity in the face of racism.
Incorporating all of this into an analysis of America and the path forward proved too much to ask. Instead, the response has largely been an argument aimed at emotion—the summoning of the white working class, emblem of America’s hardscrabble roots, inheritor of its pioneer spirit, as a shield against the horrific and empirical evidence of trenchant bigotry.“
- Trump may have succeeded because of his racism
- The United States is still subject to systemic bigotry
- Rather than deal with the bigotry, liberals have focused on the ability of economic policy to win over the “white working class”
Some of the most powerful arguments in the essay point out the underlying bias in how issues are perceived in this country. For example, why would an opioid crisis call for compassion, while a crack crisis calls for harsher prison sentences? Why are we outraged that life expectancy has declined for less-educated whites, but accept that African-Americans still have lower life expectancies?
While I agree with Coates on his second point, I’m not going to examine it deeply in this post. If the arguments in the paragraph above don’t cause you to consider the impact of systemic bigotry, my writing more isn’t likely to either. Demonstrating to those who believe otherwise that systemic racism affects minorities in this country is a challenge I don’t want to take up right now. I will note from my personal experience that even Asian-Americans, the so-called model minority, face racial discrimination on a regular basis. Being Asian is not the same thing as being white, regardless of how well Asian-Americans have done economically in this country.
Instead, I’m going to focus on the first and third points. I would argue that despite the fact that Donald Trump appears to be a racist that favors white superiority, that this is not the primary factor that led to his election. I would agree that economics alone do not explain white voting patterns, but I don’t believe that convincing racists not to be racist is the optimal path to changing those voting patterns.
In his piece, Coates cites a series of statistics that illustrate that Trump won the white vote across many different demographics. The implication is that Trump rode a wave of white racial resentment, catalyzed by Obama’s presidency, into the White House. But what he doesn’t do is to compare Trump’s performance to his GOP predecessors. It’s always dangerous to argue from a single data point, because you ignore the context.
Let’s correct that error by looking at the vote breakdowns for a variety of Republican presidential candidates over the past 35 years. All data comes from Cornell University’s Roper Center:
First, consider the 2008, 2012, and 2016 elections.
Contrary to Coates’ hypothesis, Donald Trump did not win a significantly higher proportion of the white vote than John McCain or Mitt Romney. In fact, proportionally more whites voted for Romney. In terms of percentages, Romney outperformed Trump across the board, with only two notable exceptions: Trump did better than Romney with men, and with African-American voters (!). My guess is that this can be explained by the fact that Trump was running against a white woman, rather than a black man.
Nothing about Donald Trump’s performance appears anomalous in comparison to traditional GOP candidates like McCain and Romney. His weakness among women, African-Americans, Hispanics, and the young, are simply the extension of long-term trends for the GOP.
In fact, if we look further back to two GOP electoral triumphs (George W. Bush over John Kerry in 2004 and Ronald Reagan over Walter Mondale in 1984), we can see that while Reagan and Bush did better among African-Americans, the absolute numbers are minuscule. The GOP has always been strongest with men, whites, the wealthy, and the old. But popular GOP candidates like Reagan/84 and Bush/04 were able to perform substantially better with women, minorities, the poor, and the young.
(As a side note, the GOP should be terrified by these trends, which show the party’s increasing weakness among the young and Hispanics, the two demographic groups that represent the future of this country. George W. Bush actually managed to win 44% of the Hispanic vote in 2004, exceeding even Reagan’s 84 landslide results, compared to an anemic 29% for Trump in 2016. The GOP was correct to try to pivot on immigration to win over Hispanics, but Trump’s rhetoric will likely make this more difficult in the future.)
It might be that Trump’s racism was successful at turning out some white voters, but a) whites made up 70% of the vote in 2016, 2% less than in 2012, and b) he still attracted a smaller share of white voters than Romney’s more traditional campaign. Remember, Trump did more poorly than Romney with nearly every group other than men and African-Americans.
It seems far more likely to me that Trump’s victory was due to his remarkable luck in running against Hillary Clinton, one of the few public figures in American more disliked than he. Clinton combined unpopularity with a complacent and incompetently run campaign which devoted resources to trying to flip “Red” states rather than simply winning Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania, and thus the election.
While Trump probably benefited from racism, it does not appear that he benefited any more than traditional GOP candidates like Mitt Romney, who didn’t go around making racist statements.
(It’s worth pointing out that appealing to white voters, in theory, is no more racist than appealing to African-American or Hispanic voters. When white people vote for someone with the same skin tone, it’s racism; when non-whites do the same, it is perfectly acceptable. In practice, of course, I can’t recall Barack Obama, Marco Rubio, or Ted Cruz attacking white people or supporting black or brown supremacists.)
In many ways, the lack of difference in Trump’s poll results makes Coates’ point about systemic bigotry even more relevant. The real revelation of Trump’s campaign is not that white men tend to vote Republican; it’s that you can openly espouse racist and sexist beliefs, mock the disabled, lie constantly, and still win pretty much the same share of those voters.