Why now? in trying to make sense of Trump’s effective use of racism to win the presidency, many have pointed to a long tradition of dog-whistling, reaching back decades. Trump is the nationalization of Nixon’s Southern strategy, the shadow cast forward by Reagan’s welfare queens and George H.W. Bush’s Willie Horton. Writing before the general election, Slate’s Jamelle Bouie linked Trump’s politicized racism to his predecessor’s upending of the racial hierarchy. After the vote, Ta-Nehisi Coates described Trump as the country’s first white president, in that whiteness is a negation of blackness, and Trump’s driving passion seems to be a desire to negate the legitimacy and legacy of Barack Obama, the country’s first African-American president.
Coates’s point is profound, especially when read against those moral philosophers who say the right to political sovereignty can be claimed only by those who possess emotional sovereignty. “Self-command, self-possession,” Woodrow Wilson wrote in 1889, are the pillars of America’s exceptionalism. Setting Trump aside for the moment, Wilson—the man who segregated the federal civil service, celebrated the Ku Klux Klan, and launched a racist counterinsurgency in Haiti—must be considered among the whitest of white presidents. He believed that individuals qualified for political self-rule through personal self-rule, demonstrating that they could use virtue and reason to regulate passion and impulse. “Government as ours is a form of conduct,” he said, “and its only stable foundation is character.” Along with his predecessors and contemporaries, Wilson associated the virtue of self-regulation with white skin, contrasting property-possessing, self-commanding sovereigns with their opposites: unself-governable people of color. They imagined—in fantasies that fishtailed wildly between nostalgia and wrath—that African Americans, Native Americans, Mexican Americans, and Mexicans were immature, childlike in their emotions and unable to distinguish between true liberty and licentiousness, between the pursuit of happiness and lust.
In a way, then, according to America’s color-coded guide to political virtue and vice, Barack Obama might be considered the country’s only white president, in the sense that he served almost as a Platonic ideal of ancient moral philosophy. In office, he was preternaturally self-governed and self-regulated—Vulcan-like, as some said, and in control of his emotions, especially his anger. This self-regulation is a burden of race, which must have weighed heavily on Obama, being not just the first African-American president in US history but also one who took the office during a moment of extraordinary economic and military crisis.
Trump, by contrast, is all id and pure appetite, unspooling raw, insatiable, childish hunger every night on Twitter. He’s the most unregulated, unself-governed president this country has ever had, an example of what happens to the psyche of rich white people after four decades of economic deregulation. But white folks—at least powerful ones—get to decide the exception to the rule. (“Some of the virtues of a freeman would be the vices of slaves,” as one 1837 defense of slavery explained.) And that’s what makes Trump the whitest of white presidents: He can openly tweet-mock moral conventions that hold that only those who demonstrate self-sovereignty are worthy of political sovereignty and still be the sovereign.