fb-pixelTa-Nehisi Coates tackles Obama and Trump, and fragile white feelings are not spared - The Boston Globe Skip to main content
Book Review

Ta-Nehisi Coates tackles Obama and Trump, and fragile white feelings are not spared

James Steinberg for The Washington Post/Washington Post

In the Old Testament Book of Lamentations, Jeremiah grieves Jerusalem’s destruction, its once vibrant streets rendered silent, the ache of mourning, humiliation, and betrayal as sharp as broken glass:

“All the beauty and majesty of Jerusalem are gone. Her princes are like starving deer searching for pasture, too weak to run from the pursuing enemy. And now in the midst of her sadness and wandering, Jerusalem remembers her ancient splendor. But then she fell to her enemy and there was no one to help her. Her enemy struck her down and laughed as she fell.’’

“We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy” is Ta-Nehisi Coates’s modern book of lamentations — of a nation’s hope in tatters and change stifled by bigotry emboldened.


Coates, national correspondent for The Atlantic, ruminates on America’s own “ancient splendor’’: the historic presidency of Barack Obama, but also the vindictive man singularly fixated on erasing his legacy — Donald J. Trump. Certainly Coates recognizes that this malevolence is beyond Trump; after all, he didn’t elect himself. It’s also about white supremacy’s savage peal, as loud as it’s been at any time in this nation’s scarred history, and its zealots who bucked hard against eight years of a black man in the White House.

“It all makes so much sense now,” Coates writes. “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.”

Expect no sugarcoating or coddling of fragile white feelings here.

Like an intellectual remix, “We Were Eight Years in Power” collects eight articles Coates wrote for The Atlantic, one for every year of the Obama administration. Each is paired with a new essay that peers through the prism of the past for insights into how we got to now. Coates also critiques his earlier pieces, such as his 2009 essay on Bill Cosby, “This is How We Lost to the White Man”; he now regrets barely mentioning decades of sexual assault allegations against the once-beloved comedian.


Coates maps his own career path from unknown blogger to revered journalist invited by Obama “into the Oval Office to bear witness to history.” His professional ascension, including his National Book Award-winning bestseller, “Between the World and Me,” coincided with Obama’s presidency, and this was not a coincidence. Too many people who should have known better declared Obama’s election as the Big Bang of a post-racial America, and Coates’s probing essays about race, politics, and history became necessary ballast for this nation’s gravity-defying moment.

Like many African-Americans who doubted whether they would see a black president in their lifetimes, Coates was surprised by Obama’s march toward the White House in 2008. From Shirley Chisholm to Al Sharpton, there had been other black presidential candidates, but anyone who saw Obama, dating back to his electrifying 2004 Democratic National Convention speech in Boston, recognized in him something brand new.

“I had never seen a black man like Barack Obama. He talked to white people in a new language — as though he actually trusted them and believed in them,” Coates writes. “It was not my language. It was not even a language I was much interested in, save to understand how he had come to speak it and its effect on those who heard it.”


During that whirlwind summer, America itself began to feel brand new and as the days clicked down toward the election each began with a heady prayer — that a country built on the unforgivable sin of human bondage, that had elevated white supremacy into a national creed, could be “approaching an end-of-history moment,” as Coates puts it. “In those days, I imagined racism as a tumor that could be isolated and removed from the body of America, not as a pervasive system both native and essential to that body. From that perspective, it seemed possible that the success of one man really could alter history, or even end it.”

Of course, we now know the madness of that promise; perhaps we knew it then, but even foolish hope is better than none at all. Obama could no more be a remedy for racism than the Civil War could have ended white domination. It wasn’t a squandered moment so much as a stillborn idea, one that too many in this nation would never allow.

Coates, who could be critical about Obama’s reticence to talk about race, writes with painful clarity about how at the close of Obama’s first term, “the limitations of his ascendancy now came into view: a black president whose power was bracketed by the same forces that bracketed the lives of black people everywhere,’’ Coates writes. “He represented our aspirations and hopes but could never forthrightly address the source of our agony. And should he ever attempt to (‘The officer acted stupidly’; ‘If I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon’), white innocence would be there waiting for him, threatening to derail his agenda and destroy him,’’ blameless as always for whatever results.


After spending much of this essential book looking backward, Coates stares squarely at our chaotic present in his most recent essay, “The First White President.” It’s a scorching takedown of Trump, his calamitous presidency, and his open embrace of racism, something in which he was well versed long before he moved into the White House.

Trump’s ideology, Coates writes, “is white supremacy in all of its truculent and sanctimonious power.” In Trump, this rancid power has settled into this nation’s highest office. Crowing that Hillary Clinton got 3 million more votes than Trump doesn’t negate the fact than more than 62 million people chose as president a man who represents the worst this nation has to offer. And for all the damage already done, this tragedy’s magnitude has only begun to unfold, Coates warns.

“Trump’s legacy will be exposing the patina of decency for what it is and revealing just how much a demagogue can get away with,” Coates writes. “It does not take much to imagine another politician, wiser in the ways of Washington, schooled in the methodology of governance, now liberated from the pretense of anti-racist civility, doing a much more effective job than Trump.”



An American Tragedy

By Ta-Nehisi Coates

One World, 367 pp., $28

Renée Graham can be reached at renee.graham@globe.com.