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. It was tough to keep track of the currents of politics and pageantry swirling at once. All my life I had seen myself, and my people, backed into a corner. Had I been wrong? Watching the crowds at county fairs cheer for Michelle Obama, or flipping through the enchanting photo spreads of this glamorous incoming administration, it was easy to believe that I had been. It was hard to not reassess yourself at, say, the sight of John Patterson, the man who’d “outniggered” George Wallace to become governor of Alabama in 1959, endorsing Obama. It was hard to not feel that you had been wrong about your country when the very men who’d tangled with Patterson and Wallace seemed to believe that something had changed too. “We seem to be evolving,” former SNCC leader Bob Moses told a reporter. “The country is trying to reach for the best part of itself.” And it was more than symbolic. Obama’s victory meant not just a black president but also that Democrats, the party supported by most black people, enjoyed majorities in Congress. Prominent intellectuals were predicting that modern conservatism—a movement steeped in white resentment—was at its end and that a demographic wave of Asians, Latinos, and blacks would sink the Republican Party.
That was one way of thinking about things. Here was another. “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. 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 I had not yet truly considered that banner’s fearsome power.
Ta-Nehisi Coates, We Were Eight Years in Power. An American Tragedy, 2017.