December 22nd, 2017

In light of recent events surrounding Ta-Nehisi Coates and Cornel West, I’ve pulled this piece from my Isle Of Misfit Blog Posts . I originally wrote this on 22 October.

I’m uncertain how much of America missed the rise of Donald John Trump. His nomination seemed a lock to me in August 2015 and his election was assured as soon as Hillary Rodham Clinton secured the Democratic Party nomination in July of 2016.

There are plenty of people, nearly a year after the fact, who continue to ask: “What the fuck happened?”

Ta-Nehisi Coates, writing in We should have seen Trump coming for The Guardian (you can also listen to Greg Lockett read the piece in a podcast) digs deep and tells us how he missed the rise of Trump. He begins:

I have often wondered how I missed the coming tragedy. It is not so much that I should have predicted that Americans would elect Donald Trump. It’s just that I shouldn’t have put it past us.

I think we missed the coming tragedy in the same way that most people miss considering the most dangerous, most life-threatening act, that they perform daily: getting into a vehicle and driving on America’s highways. In 1972, 54,589 Americans died in cars in crashes; last year, thanks to airbags and other safety-related technologies, that number was only 37,461. We miss tragedy because we suck at assessing risk. Ask a Brexit voter. Coates continues.

Obama was dubbed “the new Tiger Woods of American politics”, as a man who wasn’t “exactly black”. I understood the point—Obama was not “black” as these writers understood “black”. It wasn’t just that he wasn’t a drug dealer, like most black men on the news, but that he did not hail from an inner city, he was not raised on chitterlings, his mother had not washed white people’s floors. But this confusion was a reduction of racism’s true breadth, premised on the need to fix black people in one corner of the universe so that white people may be secure in all the rest of it.

Not exactly Black. Think about that phrase and where Coates comes from. Like many of us, he ought to have listened more closely to his father.

“Son,” my father said of Obama, “you know the country got to be messed up for them folks to give him the job.” The economy was on the brink. The blood of untold numbers of Iraqis was on our hands. Hurricane Katrina had shamed the society. From this other angle, post-racialism and good feeling were taken up not so much out of elevation in consciousness but out of desperation.

It all makes so much sense now. The pageantry, the math, the magazines, the essays heralded an end to the old country with all its divisions. We forgot that there were those who loved that old country as it was, who did not lament the divisions but drew power from them.

And so we saw postcards with watermelons on the White House lawn. We saw simian caricatures of the first family, the invocation of a “food-stamp president” and his anticolonial, Islamist agenda. These were the fetishes that gathered the tribe of white supremacy, that rallied them to the age-old banner—and if there was one mistake, one reason why I did not see the coming tragedy, why I did not account for its possibilities, it was because, at that point, I had not yet truly considered that banner’s fearsome power.

The veneer of civilization, I’ve often remarked, is thin, very thin, and we can be lulled by the thought that that gossamer sheet is a wall of imagined Trumpian solidity, into dangerous complacency. That is what I think happened to Coates, indeed to most Americans, in 2016.

Like Coates, I’m pessimistic and—Daniel Steinmetz-Jenkins notwithstanding—I think he’s right.

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