In the spring of 1963, James Baldwin was interviewed for the documentary, Take this Hammer, which followed the local African-American community in San Francisco. Seated, wearing a crisp collared shirt, an ascot tie, and smoking a cigarette, the author spoke about the creation of a class of pariahs in America.
Well, I know this. Anyone’s who’s tried to live knows this: That what you say about anyone else reveals you. What I think of you as being is dictated by my own necessities, my own psychology, my own fears and desires. I’m not describing you when I talk about you, I’m describing me. Now, here in this country, we’ve got something called a nigger. We have invented the nigger. I didn’t invent him. White people invented him. I’ve always known. I had to know by the time I was 17 years old, what you were describing was not me, and what you were afraid of was not me, it has to be… Something you were afraid of, you invested me with…
In an excerpt at The Atlantic from his upcoming book about the Obama administration and its legacy, We Were Eight Years in Power, Ta-Nehisi Coates riffs on Baldwin’s analysis to construct an incisive look at the foundations of Donald Trump’s political ascent.
For Trump, it almost seems that the fact of Obama, the fact of a black president, insulted him personally. The insult intensified when Obama and Seth Meyers publicly humiliated him at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner in 2011. But the bloody heirloom ensures the last laugh. Replacing Obama is not enough—Trump has made the negation of Obama’s legacy the foundation of his own. And this too is whiteness. “Race is an idea, not a fact,” the historian Nell Irvin Painter has written, and essential to the construct of a “white race” is the idea of not being a nigger. Before Barack Obama, niggers could be manufactured out of Sister Souljahs, Willie Hortons, and Dusky Sallys. But Donald Trump arrived in the wake of something more potent—an entire nigger presidency with nigger health care, nigger climate accords, and nigger justice reform, all of which could be targeted for destruction or redemption, thus reifying the idea of being white. Trump truly is something new—the first president whose entire political existence hinges on the fact of a black president. And so it will not suffice to say that Trump is a white man like all the others who rose to become president. He must be called by his rightful honorific—America’s first white president.