Ta-Nehisi Coates on Obama’s Greatest Weakness

And why you can’t blame progressivism for the Democrats’ losses this election.

Ta-Nehisi Coates speaking at an event.
Ta-Nehisi Coates speaks at Carnegie Hall on Feb. 29 in New York City. Bryan Bedder/Getty Images for History

On Thursday’s episode of the Political Gabfest, the hosts spoke with writer Ta-Nehisi Coates about the 2020 election, the idea of defunding the police, and Barack Obama’s return to the public eye. This partial transcript has been edited and condensed for clarity.

David Plotz: Do you feel any sense of relief at all that the Trump presidency is ending?

Ta-Nehisi Coates: Yeah, of course. This is better. And while this is really bad right now, there are levels of bad—I’d rather have, I don’t know, a blown Achilles than have to have my whole leg amputated. So yeah, this is better.

Emily Bazelon: Ta-Nehisi, I was reading over various essays you’ve written and interviews you’ve given over the last year. It seemed like maybe there was a period before the election where you were feeling optimistic—and then perhaps less so of late. I was thinking about that in terms of all the rending of garments right now within the Democratic Party, about whether progressive slogans like “defund the police” are to blame for the fact that the Democrats didn’t do as well in the down-ballot races, and what we’re supposed to make of the slight uptick among Black voters and slightly larger uptick among Latino voters of support for President Donald Trump, despite all of the racism and degrading of the country and bad policy. And I wonder what you’re making of all this right now. It’s always hard in these racing, historically contingent moments to quite know how to pause, but I just wonder how you’re taking it all in.

Coates: I mean, I think the thing that always inspires me and was inspiring me over the summer is the mass movements among people. I watched those movements spread, not just nationally, but internationally. It was a thing to behold. I was in Louisville to report on Breonna Taylor and her killing. I would say 70 percent to 80 percent of the protesters were not Black. There were some moments that some probably would render absurd, but I thought were quite beautiful. At one moment at one of the protests, her mother spoke and one of the leaders of the protests said, “OK we’re all going to sing right now.” The song they played was “Young, Gifted, and Black” by Nina Simone, and [there were] all these white people with the Black power fist up, singing and nodding to “Young, Gifted, and Black.” Now, there’s a way of mocking that and talking about how people are posing, and I guess there’s always some level of that among all groups of people. But I don’t think that would have happened 20 or 30 years ago. Posing’s old. People are always posers. What I’m trying to say is, I’ll take that. If you were so moved to spend your afternoon or your day protesting the killing of this woman in her own home, and that moves you to sing and raise a fist—I’ll take it. That always made me feel good.

In terms of the Democratic Party, and I’d like to quantify this: How many Democrats ran on defunding the police? I don’t think very many. I didn’t pay all of the attention to the rhetoric of “the squad,” but let’s say it was the squad. You’ve got four right there. Maybe there are a couple more who I’m unaware of. Bernie Sanders was against it; he was loudly against it. But if defund the police is enough to counterbalance 250,000 dead Americans, I don’t really know what to do with that. You know what I mean? At that point, you start looking at the board on which you’re playing, because here you have a kind of anomalous threat that I believe at this point has been trying to be enacted in Milwaukee, maybe something out in Portland somewhere. If large swaths of Americans feel like they’re willing to tolerate 250,000 dead people, as opposed to an activist call to defund the police, that those two things are equal—indeed, that one is actually more of a threat than the other—I think it’s my job, then, to ask some questions about the society.

I think it’s really, really hard to say to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez that she should talk as though she’s in a swing district. Now she can’t, on the other hand, go and talk to somebody in an actual swing district that, “You should be talking like me.” I think it’s really hard to say that activists out in the street—who are not politicians and do not and shouldn’t see it as their business to be reduced to apparatchiks of the Democratic Party—that it’s their job to make it easier for folks running. That’s not who they are. That’s not what they’re supposed to be doing. I would really resent it if I was, as a writer, told, “You have to write in such a way to make it easier for us to win the state Legislature of Florida.” I mean, it just restricts the lane and the amount of things that can be said within politics. I probably would take it further and argue that’s how we got here in the first place. Not necessarily if those policies are correct, that’s not what I’m saying, but by shrinking the board and what we can think about and what’s possible what we’re trying to achieve.

John Dickerson: Ta-Nehisi, I want to ask you about shrinking the board and also what you’ve been doing for the last year, because when you left Twitter, I feel like that was deeply healthy. There’s a quote, and I don’t know who it’s attributed to: “To be creative, you have to disappear sometimes.”

Coates: Yes.

Dickerson: And you just unplugged from the madness. You’ve said two things already, you said, “Look at the board on which you’re playing,” and that, “You might have to ask some questions.” How has the last period of your work and your thinking changed in the way you ask questions, the way you look at your work?

Coates: That’s a great point. I mean, I think when Trump was elected—and really honestly, even if it had been Hillary—I found myself with a creative problem. I felt like I had said something for the past eight to 10 years. It had brought me a certain amount of acclaim. And there is a world in which you keep saying and doing that same thing. I just didn’t want to do that. I just could not imagine spending the next four years, just every week, talking about how racist and corrupt Donald Trump was. I felt like that would be destructive for me. I would do more harm to myself than I would offer any enlightenment to anybody else.

One of the cool things about writing about Barack Obama is—and you see this even in his reemergence—he’s such a complicated figure. What that does is it forces you to think. I found it a great mental exercise as a writer. I feel like I had Trump pretty figured out in 2016; it was not going to be a great mental exercise to try to understand what he was doing and why he was doing it. It’s pretty clear. It’s very obvious. This is not a thing you have to wrestle with.

But one of the things about not being public is now you can actually go and just be curious about things that you were curious about and expand your boundaries and not have to write about it. Probably two questions I’ve been thinking about a lot and doing a lot of reading on is just to get for myself a basic and clear understanding of economics and finance and how that works. I always thought that was a glaring gap in reparations. I could point out what happened, but I couldn’t really quantify it. I couldn’t really explain it. So I’ve been doing a lot of reading on that.

Then the second question that I’m just beginning to tackle, but I’m really, really looking forward to, is whether we have the ability—put bluntly—to create a public that is truly public and not based on just giving white people things, or just privileging white people. Whether we have the ability to create an egalitarian public or not. Because I think that’s actually at the root of a lot of what’s going on right now. I think it’s very difficult to disentangle that from the toleration of how many folks have died.

I’m not saying it’s like an A to B situation where you say, “Ha, ha, ha. It’s just Black people, so I don’t have to do …” I mean, that might be part of it, but I don’t think that’s all of it. But it is hard to dismiss the fact that this era of polarization that folks talk about, this era wherein the societal bonds seem to be fraying, pretty much maps perfectly on the post-civil rights era. I don’t really have the science behind that yet, but I’m acquiring it. Just to be able to do that and not have to tweet about it. It’s kind of cool.

Plotz: Ta-Nehisi, how do you feel about the reemergence of the term Black and the recession of the term African American? Do you have views on that or why that’s happened so quickly and in such a dramatic way?

Coates: No. I mean, I think these things happened within the political moment. It was this whole debate this summer. Like this is the sort of thing I’m glad I don’t … I don’t have an opinion. I read about it. There was a whole thing this summer about whether the B in Black should be capitalized or the W in white, and I don’t have an opinion on it at all. I mean, do what you want!

Can I go back to something else? It’s just this notion of public, because I want to connect two things, what John was asking about and what Emily was asking about. I think this is why this idea, not really defunding the police, but actually abolition of policing is very interesting to me, because I think at the root of it is a question of public safety. I think if you polled African Americans and said, “When you see a police car coming down the street or you see police officers, do you feel safe?” I suspect that the numbers and the things that would be elicited, even in a qualitative conversation, would be much more nuanced and much more complicated than you would in other conversations.

Look, if somebody just got shot or just got robbed, I’d said, “Yes, I do feel safer when that happens.” You know what I mean? When I’m walking down the street, not necessarily. What I’m trying to say is the very fact that African Americans—or Black people, Black Americans, whatever we’re saying now, capital B—the very fact that you pledge your fealty to a state, to a public enterprise, the very fact that you pay taxes to it, and it doesn’t ensure you an equitable level of safety. And then you begin to look at other communities and you say, “Well, how do they ensure an equitable level of safety?” The answer is not by jailing large groups of people. The answer is not by stop-and-frisking random folks. Then you have to say, “OK, so can we do something different here?” I get it, nobody likes crime. Nobody likes feeling vulnerable to gun violence. No one likes that, but maybe we need to think about another way besides just sending the cops in.

We published this piece on police abolition when I co-edited this issue of Vanity Fair over the summer and the writer, Josie Duffy Rice, she made a great point that I think about a lot, and that is there’s considerable evidence that you actually can reduce crime by a strong presence of policing. But she went back and started looking at what that meant, what those tactics actually were, and as it turned out, a lot of those tactics are things that got us in hot water in the first place. So if you’re fine with this and that stop and frisk actually does have an effect on crime, is it OK to detain my son on the street just because he’s walking somewhere? Are you willing to tolerate the fact that just being young and African American means that you necessarily will have higher contact with the police and that necessarily, just on average, will lead to more violent contact? Folks are right to say, or to at least question: Why am I being made to feel that this is the only way I can be made to feel safe within my neighborhood? I think that’s a really good question.

I don’t know about the slogan “defund the police,” but I like where the thinking is going, and I don’t want us reduced to a world in which we can’t think about that because some fucking congressmen in Wisconsin, because Max Rose isn’t good enough to win Staten Island or doing whatever—that’s Max Rose’s responsibility. Don’t bring that over to me and tell me I’m not allowed to have a public conversation about what does and does not make my son safe.

Dickerson: Ta-Nehisi, what do you make of President Obama in this moment he has? What do you think the next chapter is going to be like for him? Because he’s clearly gearing up for a new chapter—the book as part of it—but where do you assess him right now?

Coates: I don’t know. I don’t know where he’s headed. He was always tough to cover because I disagreed so much, but at the same time, I had incredible respect for his intelligence, for his basic decency, the importance of which has only been emphasized over the past four years. For his ability to communicate to a section of America that certainly I could never imagine how to even begin to do that. And yet, I think it was probably his biggest weakness. I think that is not entirely blameless for the moment that we’re in right now. And I want to be really clear about this: I think the very things that brought him to power, that made it possible for him to be the first Black president, are the things that hurt. I don’t think you get one without the other.

There was a piece in the Atlantic a couple of weeks ago, I think it’s like the prologue to the book. He said something to the effect of that he could not foresee what was going to happen over the next four years. That one of the reasons why the book was difficult was because he just never expected things to go this way. And I just said, wow, how could you not? I mean, this dude ran on building a wall, he ran on a Muslim ban. You were not going to give him more power and he was going to become a better person. What history says is that there are always cowards who will bend to the will of folks. That’s pretty much what happened.

At the same time, had he had my perspective, he probably never would have been president! That’s the really complicated thing about it. Man, watching him campaign, watching him in interviews, I still find him impressive. I still find him extremely, extremely impressive. I probably blame the circumstance more than I blame him, you know. I think it may prove true sadly at the end of the day that Trump was a more impactful president. I think it’s easier to destroy than it is to build. But you’re talking about three Supreme Court justices in four years. At this very moment, Trump is still trying to impose his will. It’s much easier to destroy any collective sense, or wage an assault on any collective sense of the idea of democracy than it is to build it in the first place. Regrettably, just living in the country that we live in with the history it has, Trump has a great tool in the fact that he had a Black president before him.

To hear the entire episode, in which the hosts also discussed Trump clinging to power and the sabotage of Biden’s COVID-19 response, subscribe to the Political Gabfest on Apple Podcasts or listen below.