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.
Gerald Horne offers his own version of the history of American whiteness in this interview with Abby Martin, From 1776 to Trump - White Mobs, Racist Heroes & Hidden History Empire Files/TeleSUR English 09/09/2017:
All this talk about the role of white racism and its role in American history and politics is making Bob "the Daily Howler" Somerby irritable. Because in his perpetual liberal-concern-troll mode, he's always unhappy to see the Democrats or anyone associated doing or saying anything that might be annoying to white people who would never consider voting for the Democrats. He grumps about Coates' writing style in
Our team is an embarrassment, faux! Daily Howler 09/12/2017. His post is mainly a polemic accusing Coates of being a publicity hound. He doesn't engage with the substance of Coates' arguments.
Coates gives this good description about how white privilege in the US is manifested in Donald Trump:
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. [my emphasis]I would have to agree the style is a little confusing at times. Although I do appreciate the Lovecraftian "eldritch energies."
Coates is making an argument about white racism and white privilege in current American politics that is actually pretty straightforward and hard to deny, although defenders of the racial status quo, not to mention those more fond of the racial status quo of 1955, have reason to discredit the argument. But he tries to explain them within a larger theory of American history.
His historical arguments from early and antebellum American history don't hold up so well, though. He looks at aspects of that history that are important in defending a democratic, humane, and scholarly understanding of history against the ideological pseudohistory of the neo-Confederates, which is a major part of the white supremacist worldview of hardcore Trumpists. But he builds them into a outlook that essentially assumes that overwhelming white solidarity against the interests of blacks has always been the decisive factor in American politics. And also effectively assumes that virtually everything in the early-antebellum that rose to the level of becoming policy at the national or state level was and is hopelessly tainted by that fact.
The problem is that it requires a pretty one-dimensional reading of historical events and players. One example from Coates' article:
And so George Fitzhugh, a prominent 19th-century Southern pro-slavery intellectual, could in a single stroke deplore the exploitation of free whites’ labor while defending the exploitation of enslaved blacks’ labor. Fitzhugh attacked white capitalists as “cannibals,” feeding off the labor of their fellow whites. The white workers were “ ‘slaves without masters;’ the little fish, who were food for all the larger.” Fitzhugh inveighed against a “professional man” who’d “amassed a fortune” by exploiting his fellow whites. But whereas Fitzhugh imagined white workers as devoured by capital, he imagined black workers as elevated by enslavement. The slaveholder “provided for them, with almost parental affection” — even when the loafing slave “feigned to be unfit for labor.” Fitzhugh proved too explicit—going so far as to argue that white laborers might be better off if enslaved. (“If white slavery be morally wrong,” he wrote, “the Bible cannot be true.”) Nevertheless, the argument that America’s original sin was not deep-seated white supremacy but rather the exploitation of white labor by white capitalists — “white slavery” — proved durable. Indeed, the panic of white slavery lives on in our politics today. Black workers suffer because it was and is our lot. But when white workers suffer, something in nature has gone awry. And so an opioid epidemic among mostly white people is greeted with calls for compassion and treatment, as all epidemics should be, while a crack epidemic among mostly black people is greeted with scorn and mandatory minimums. Sympathetic op‑ed columns and articles are devoted to the plight of working-class whites when their life expectancy plummets to levels that, for blacks, society has simply accepted as normal. White slavery is sin. Nigger slavery is natural. This dynamic serves a very real purpose: the consistent awarding of grievance and moral high ground to that class of workers which, by the bonds of whiteness, stands closest to America’s aristocratic class.Several problems are obvious to me in that passage. One is that he seems to be actually taking George Fitzhugh's argument against the exploitation of white workers seriously. But Fitzhugh didn't give a rat's behind for the well-being of white workers North or South. He was a proslavery propagandist, and he was making a polemical argument that the mean Yankees are big ole hypocrites. The polemics on both sides of the slavery issued produced an impressive set of descriptions of the downsides of the competing social models. But taking a polemic like Fitzhugh's as evidence of slaveowners solidarity with white labor is a serious misreading of the historical source. And it's really kind of silly. The fact that he mentions Fitzghugh saying that white workers would be better off enslaved should have been a tip-off.
Second, the highlighted passages about "original sin" and how black workers suffer because "it was and is our lot" may be meant as literary flourishes. But the also serve to define the problem of race in American history as a metaphysical one, which puts it beyond merely human solutions.
Third, that last concept of "the consistent awarding of grievance and moral high ground to that class of workers which, by the bonds of whiteness, stands closest to America’s aristocratic class" is indeed vague. But it's not because of the writing style. It's because it's a muddled idea. Who is he talking about there, the class "closest to America's aristocracy"? All white workers? A segment of the highest paid workers? Lawyers and accountants? His larger argument depends on a general white solidarity with wealthy whites who are hostile to blacks. But if the solidarity is only from a privileged segment of white workers, the larger argument is hard to sustain.
Gerald Horne in the interview above talks about the thesis of his book on the American revolution. The Counter-Revolution of 1776: Slave Resistance and the Origins of the United States of America (2014). He makes the case that the essential point of the American Revolution was to secure the existence of slavery. So the American Revolution was a reactionary, undesirable even in the world of the late 18th century? And this is different from the conclusions of aristocratic reactionaries of the time, how?
The problem with both approaches is their one-dimensionality. If we look at the advance of freedom and democracy in history, it comes not just in fits and starts. At any given time, some things are getting better and others are getting worse. Historical accounts need to be able to explain how it came to be that opposition to slavery among whites was associated with hatred and hostility to black people by those same whites. And if the American Revolution was all about defending slavery, how to explain that key leaders like the nonslaveholder Benjamin Franklin and the slaveowner Thomas Jefferson were in favor of abolishing slavery? How to explain that Northern states abolished slavery in their borders?
And if we are looking for a "usable history" that might throw light on current problems, to consign the American Revolution, the Declaration of Independence and every other political development and government action taken by white-dominated political community known as the United States is hopelessly tainted by a sinful metaphysical condition, it seems to me that it cedes the history and symbolism of that period to the right. Who will be happy to claim it and present themselves as the defenders of the Real American heritage.
George Packer makes some criticisms of Coates' article in George Packer Responds to Ta-Nehisi Coates The Atlantic 09/15/2017. Any article or book can be criticized for not including other things that might be relevant. And sometimes it a very valid criticism. The entire neo-Confederate narrative, for example, is built around minimizing or denying altogether the realities of slavery in the politics of secession. Packer argues with considerable justification that Coates' approach results in a much truncated view of current American politics:
When you construct an entire teleology on one cause —even a cause as powerful and abiding as white racism — you face the temptation to leave out anything that complicates the thesis. So Coates minimizes sexism — Trump’s disgusting language and the visceral hatred of many of his supporters for Hillary Clinton—background noise. He downplays xenophobia, even though foreigners were far more often the objects of Trump’s divisive rhetoric and policy proposals than black Americans. (Of all his insults, the only one Trump felt obliged to withdraw was his original foray into birtherism.) Coates doesn’t try to explain why, at one point in the campaign, a plurality of Republicans supported Ben Carson over the other nine candidates, all white. He omits the weird statistic that slightly more black and Latino voters and slightly fewer whites went for Trump than for Mitt Romney. He doesn’t even mention the estimated eight and a half million Americans who voted for President Obama and then for Trump — even though they made the difference. No need to track the descending nihilism of the Republican Party. The urban-rural divide is a sham [in Coates' approach].Given that this is 2017, it's also worth noting that Coates' argument agrees with the current corporate Democratic polemic that tries to treat a prolabor position as simultaneously somehow opposing civil rights issues for blacks and women. Although, as Packer writes, Coates' article also also tends to make consideration of the role of sexism in American society yet another distraction of the problem of white racism.
As a final note, I think that the concept of "whiteness" is a useful analytical tool. Race itself is a social construct. But the notion of whiteness allows for a dynamic historical view of how the boundaries of the American political community expanded to include groups like the Irish immigrants who weren't originally consider "white" enough. But as a master narrative of American history, it has its limits.