Along with much of the sane world, in January of last year, I sat, pinned to my sofa in utter horror as Donald Trump was sworn in as the 45th President of the United States of America. How had this country, or indeed, the world, gotten into such a state where a openly racist, misogynist tycoon/tv personality could rise to the most powerful seat in the world? A fact all the more astounding given his car crash of a presidential campaign. It was this question I was hoping to answer when I put forward Ta-Nehisi Coates’ book as an option for the book club last month. We took the tantalising bait.
Coates’ book consists of a series of articles, originally published in The Atlantic magazine, written over the course of Barack Obama’s time in power. He takes us from the Civil War, Malcolm X and black conservatism right through to the election of Donald Trump; whom he dubs America’s first ‘White President‘. Each article is preceded by a brief introduction from Coates explaining his motivations for each article in relation to each stage of the Obama presidency.
Coates obviously has a clear agenda with this book and that is ostensibly to demonstrate how the explanation for Trump’s victory lies not purely in struggling rust belt states and their distaste for a liberal, elitist class that they feel has forgotten them, but in racism, pure and simple. With the relevant facts and figures he demonstrates that the Trump electorate came from every class, gender and creed. Their unifying characteristic? They were overwhelmingly white.
Is this tribalism at its purist? The reaction of a spooked white populace desperate to claim back power? I really don’t know and am nowhere near qualified to answer. My instinct tells me that the answers are far more complex than even this book demonstrates, but Coates’ arguments are nevertheless compelling.
One thing that is clear is that racism, specifically towards African Americans, is an inherent part of American society. This is a country that, whilst advertising itself as the land of the free, was built on the backs of African slaves and their descendants. It is also a country where government legislation has actively cold-shouldered the African American community, be it through Jim Crow law or practices such as redlining. This is all fact (trust me, I fell into a Google hole with something every other page). And it is deeply shocking.
Most of the group found this book a bit of a slog. Thinking back to my university days this isn’t the densest non-fiction I’ve ever read but, since all I’ve read for years is novels I did find this slow going, but god is it illuminating and I do feel, as cliched as it may sound, a better person for having finished it. Coates is clearly writing, of course, from his particular point of view, which makes it tricky for someone who, although completely on side, doesn’t have the depth of understanding of American history and politics to hold her own (I’m repeating myself here I know but I’m wary about sticking my oar into such a sensitive subject when I understand so little). There’s also, due to the book being a series of articles, a lot of repetition which, although helping to hammer some points home that I may not have previously grasped, massively increased the slog factor.
Coates maintains that Barack Obama is the best of the best and that, including his unusual, multiracial, international upbringing made him uniquely qualified to rise up and take the seat of power. Now his legacy is threatened by a man who thinks that global warming is a ruse created by the Chinese and whose attitude towards women and ethnic minorities is deplorable. Nice one America.