Earlier this week, Ta-Nehisi Coates published a long essay in the Atlantic that has been generating a lot of discussion online, including among historians. Entitled “The First White President,” Coates’s piece is the latest entry in a long series of pieces by public intellectuals that seek to understand the relationship between race and class in American politics, in general, and Donald Trump’s election, in particular. I think Coates’s essay, like nearly everything he writes, is insightful and worthy of all the attention it’s been getting. But today I want to use it as a stepping off point for a brief exploration of this genre more generally.
Although Coates is making an argument for the extraordinary salience of race – and especially of ideas of whiteness – to Donald Trump’s success, like all the best essays in this genre, “The First White President” acknowledges the importance of class, as well. This seems pretty obvious: both race and class have always played critical roles in American politics, as has gender, of course (there’s a reason for the canonicity of that analytic trinity). And yet the discussion of race, class, gender, and Trump among the (broad) left often seems to degenerate into two sides: one arguing for the absolute primacy of class (often while decrying the other side’s “identity politics” and suggesting that it is running interference for neoliberalism), the other for the primary of race and/or gender (often denouncing the other side for its white privilege and implicit racism and sexism, and even suggesting that the class-first crowd may be closet conservatives). Even more frequently than making reductive arguments themselves, people on both sides seem prone to accuse their opponents of reductively arguing for the importance of one of these factors to the exclusion of others.
The really interesting questions, however, involve the ways that race, class, and gender interact. And the best punditry on both the “class” and “identity” sides of the argument, like Coates’s essay itself, are actual attempts to describe those interactions.
Of course, many political, social, intellectual, and cultural historians also work on the interactions of these things in the American past. And though we argue about them at great length, I think it’s fair to say that most of us would say that the relationships between race, class, and gender in American political life are constantly shifting and vary in time and place, though there are of course patterns to be found and deep histories to explore.
All of which brings me briefly back to Nancy MacLean’s Democracy in Chains, which has been the topic of a roundtable and a number of other posts on this blog. One of the real virtues of that book, it seems to me, is that it illuminates the ways in which discourses of race and class interacted in the history of an important strain of the libertarian right. Though MacLean occasionally, and in my opinion unfortunately, sounds as if she is trying to reveal the secret to the entire history of American conservatism, this is in fact not what the book is up to and, on most occasions, she is actually pretty clear about that. As defenders of the book have exhaustively pointed out, MacLean is not particularly interested in the personal racial attitudes of the men who are at the heart of her story, James Buchanan and Charles Koch. What she is interested in, among other things, is the ways in which the politics of race and the policies pursued by out-and-out white supremacists like Harry Byrd created intellectual and political opportunities for men like Buchanan and Koch. Her story is very detailed and actually very local – in time, space, and ideology. It’s not by any means a universal tale of the relationship between race and class in American politics, though it rhymes with a lot of other episodes in that complicated relationship, as her discussion of John C. Calhoun suggests. And, in its complexity, concreteness, as well as its locality, it is a fine example of the particular kind of intervention that intellectual historians might add to the broader public discussion of which Coates’s essay is an important part.