By Te-Nihisi Coates, The Atlantic
I’ve been thinking about Barbara Tuchman’s medieval history, A Distant Mirror, over the past couple of weeks. The book is a masterful work of anti-romance, a cold-eyed look at how generations of aristocrats and royalty waged one of the longest wars in recorded history, all while claiming the mantle of a benevolent God. The disabusing begins early. In the introduction, Tuchman examines the ideal of chivalry and finds, beneath the poetry and codes of honor, little more than myth and delusion.
Knights “were supposed, in theory, to serve as defenders of the Faith, upholders of justice, champions of the oppressed,” Tuchman writes. “In practice, they were themselves the oppressors, and by the 14th century, the violence and lawlessness of men of the sword had become a major agency of disorder.”
The chasm between professed ideal and actual practice is not surprising. No one wants to believe themselves to be the villain of history, and when you have enough power, you can hold reality at bay. Raw power transfigured an age of serfdom and warmongering into one of piety and courtly love.
This is not merely a problem of history. Twice now, Rudy Giuliani has incited a mob of authoritarians. In the interim, “America’s Mayor” was lauded locally for crime drops that manifested nationally. No matter. The image of Giuliani as a pioneering crime fighter gave cover to his more lamentable habits—arresting whistleblowers, defaming dead altar boys, and raiding homeless shelters in the dead of night. Giuliani was, by Jimmy Breslin’s lights, “blind, mean, and duplicitous,” a man prone to displays “of great nervousness if more than one black at a time entered City Hall.” And yet much chin-stroking has been dedicated to understanding how Giuliani, once the standard-bearer for moderate Republicanism, a man who was literally knighted, was reduced to inciting a riot at the U.S. Capitol. The answer is that Giuliani wasn’t reduced at all. The inability to see what was right before us—that Giuliani was always, in Breslin’s words, “a small man in search of a balcony”—is less about Giuliani and more about what people would rather not see.
And what is true of Giuliani is particularly true of his master. It was popular, at the time of Donald Trump’s ascension, to stand on the thinnest of reeds in order to avoid stating the obvious. It was said that the Trump presidency was the fruit of “economic anxiety,” of trigger warnings and the push for trans rights. We were told that it was wrong to call Trump a white supremacist, because he had merely “drawn upon their themes.”
One hopes that after four years of brown children in cages; of attempts to invalidate the will of Black voters in Philadelphia, Atlanta, and Detroit; of hearing Trump tell congresswomen of color to go back where they came from; of claims that Joe Biden would turn Minnesota into “a refugee camp”; of his constant invocations of “the Chinese virus,” we can now safely conclude that Trump believes in a world where white people are—or should be—on top. It is still deeply challenging for so many people to accept the reality of what has happened—that a country has been captured by the worst of its history, while millions of Americans cheered this on.
The temptation to look away is strong. This summer I watched as whole barrels of ink were emptied to champion free speech and denounce “cancel culture.” Meanwhile, from the most powerful office in the world, Trump issued executive orders targeting a journalistic institution and promoted “patriotic education.” The indifference to his incredible acts was telling. So much for chivalry.
The mix of blindness and pedantry did not plague merely writers, but also policy makers and executives. “The FBI does not talk in terms of terrorism committed by white people,” the journalist Spencer Ackerman wrote in the days after the January 6 riot at the Capitol. “Attempting to appear politically ecumenical, a recent bureaucratic overhaul during an accelerated period of domestic terrorism created the category of ‘racially motivated violent extremism.’” But only so ecumenical. “For all its hesitation over white terror,” Ackerman continued, “the FBI until at least 2018 maintained an investigative category about a nebulous and exponentially less deadly thing it called ‘Black Identity Extremism.’”
“When the gap between ideal and real becomes too wide,” Tuchman writes, “the system breaks down.” One hopes that this moment for America has arrived, that it can at last see that the sight of cops and a Confederate flag among the mob on January 6, the mockery of George Floyd and the politesse on display among some of the Capitol Police, are not a matter of chance.
More, that Trumpism did not begin with Trump; that the same Republican Party some now recall in wistful and nostalgic tones planted seeds of insurrection with specious claims of voter fraud; that the decision to storm the Capitol follows directly, and logically, from respectable Republicans who claim that Democrats steal elections and defraud this country’s citizens out of their right to self-government.
This, of course, is not my first time contemplating the import of such things. “The First White President” was the culmination of the years I’d spent watching the pieces fall into place. Pieces that, once assembled, finally gave us Trump. I’m sorry to report that I think the article holds up well. This would be a much better world if it didn’t. But in this world, an army has been marshaled and barbed wire installed, and the FBI is on guard against an inside job. Whatever this is—whatever we decide to call this—it is not peaceful, and it is not, in many ways, a transition. It is something darker. Are we now, at last, prepared to ask why?
IT IS INSUFFICIENT TO STATE the obvious of Donald Trump: that he is a white man who would not be president were it not for this fact. With one immediate exception, Trump’s predecessors made their way to high office through the passive power of whiteness—that bloody heirloom which cannot ensure mastery of all events but can conjure a tailwind for most of them. Land theft and human plunder cleared the grounds for Trump’s forefathers and barred others from it. Once upon the field, these men became soldiers, statesmen, and scholars; held court in Paris; presided at Princeton; advanced into the Wilderness and then into the White House. Their individual triumphs made this exclusive party seem above America’s founding sins, and it was forgotten that the former was in fact bound to the latter, that all their victories had transpired on cleared grounds. No such elegant detachment can be attributed to Donald Trump—a president who, more than any other, has made the awful inheritance explicit.
His political career began in advocacy of birtherism, that modern recasting of the old American precept that black people are not fit to be citizens of the country they built. But long before birtherism, Trump had made his worldview clear. He fought to keep blacks out of his buildings, according to the U.S. government; called for the death penalty for the eventually exonerated Central Park Five; and railed against “lazy” black employees. “Black guys counting my money! I hate it,” Trump was once quoted as saying. “The only kind of people I want counting my money are short guys that wear yarmulkes every day.” After his cabal of conspiracy theorists forced Barack Obama to present his birth certificate, Trump demanded the president’s college grades (offering $5 million in exchange for them), insisting that Obama was not intelligent enough to have gone to an Ivy League school, and that his acclaimed memoir, Dreams From My Father, had been ghostwritten by a white man, Bill Ayers.
It is often said that Trump has no real ideology, which is not true—his ideology is white supremacy, in all its truculent and sanctimonious power. Trump inaugurated his campaign by casting himself as the defender of white maidenhood against Mexican “rapists,” only to be later alleged by multiple accusers, and by his own proud words, to be a sexual violator himself. White supremacy has always had a perverse sexual tint. Trump’s rise was shepherded by Steve Bannon, a man who mocks his white male critics as “cucks.” The word, derived from cuckold, is specifically meant to debase by fear and fantasy—the target is so weak that he would submit to the humiliation of having his white wife lie with black men. That the slur cuck casts white men as victims aligns with the dicta of whiteness, which seek to alchemize one’s profligate sins into virtue. So it was with Virginia slaveholders claiming that Britain sought to make slaves of them. So it was with marauding Klansmen organized against alleged rapes and other outrages. So it was with a candidate who called for a foreign power to hack his opponent’s email and who now, as president, is claiming to be the victim of “the single greatest witch hunt of a politician in American history.”
In Trump, white supremacists see one of their own. Only grudgingly did Trump denounce the Ku Klux Klan and David Duke, one of its former grand wizards—and after the clashes between white supremacists and counterprotesters in Charlottesville, Virginia, in August, Duke in turn praised Trump’s contentious claim that “both sides” were responsible for the violence.
To Trump, whiteness is neither notional nor symbolic but is the very core of his power. In this, Trump is not singular. But whereas his forebears carried whiteness like an ancestral talisman, Trump cracked the glowing amulet open, releasing its eldritch energies. The repercussions are striking: Trump is the first president to have served in no public capacity before ascending to his perch. But more telling, Trump is also the first president to have publicly affirmed that his daughter is a “piece of ass.” The mind seizes trying to imagine a black man extolling the virtues of sexual assault on tape (“When you’re a star, they let you do it”), fending off multiple accusations of such assaults, immersed in multiple lawsuits for allegedly fraudulent business dealings, exhorting his followers to violence, and then strolling into the White House. But that is the point of white supremacy—to ensure that that which all others achieve with maximal effort, white people (particularly white men) achieve with minimal qualification. Barack Obama delivered to black people the hoary message that if they work twice as hard as white people, anything is possible. But Trump’s counter is persuasive: Work half as hard as black people, and even more is possible.
For Trump, it almost seems that the fact of Obama, the fact of a black president, insulted him personally. The insult intensified when Obama and Seth Meyers publicly humiliated him at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner in 2011. But the bloody heirloom ensures the last laugh. Replacing Obama is not enough—Trump has made the negation of Obama’s legacy the foundation of his own. And this too is whiteness. “Race is an idea, not a fact,” the historian Nell Irvin Painter has written, and essential to the construct of a “white race” is the idea of not being a nigger. Before Barack Obama, niggers could be manufactured out of Sister Souljahs, Willie Hortons, and Dusky Sallys. But Donald Trump arrived in the wake of something more potent—an entire nigger presidency with nigger health care, nigger climate accords, and nigger justice reform, all of which could be targeted for destruction or redemption, thus reifying the idea of being white. Trump truly is something new—the first president whose entire political existence hinges on the fact of a black president. And so it will not suffice to say that Trump is a white man like all the others who rose to become president. He must be called by his rightful honorific—America’s first white president.