Ta-Nehisi Coates: With a Racist in the White House, the Bloodshed in Charlottesville Was Predictable

News & Politics

The nation continues to grapple with the fallout from this weekend’s violence after a Nazi sympathizer drove into a crowd of anti-racist protesters in Charlottesville, Virginia, killing one person and injuring 19. President Donald Trump finally condemned white supremacists on Monday for the bloodshed this weekend, after initially failing to directly blame the group. The move followed mounting pressure and severe backlash from nationwide street protests and corporate CEOs who resigned from Trump’s American Manufacturing Council over his failure to quickly condemn the deadly violence. Meanwhile, a Foreign Policy report revealed that an FBI and Department of Homeland Security bulletin concluded that white supremacist groups were responsible for more homicides "than any other domestic extremist movement." Despite these findings, the Trump administration recently slashed funds to organizations dedicated to fighting right-wing violence. To discuss all these developments, we speak with award-winning acclaimed author Ta-Nehisi Coates in his first major interview since the inauguration of President Donald Trump. He is the author of a forthcoming book, due out in October, "We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy."

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZÃ�LEZ: We turn now to look at the fallout from Saturday’s violent white supremacist protest in Charlottesville, Virginia, where a 20-year-old Nazi sympathizer killed one anti-racist activist and injured more than a dozen others when he intentionally drove his car through a crowd of counterprotesters. On Monday, the driver of the car, James Fields, appeared in court for the first time.

President Trump initially failed to directly blame white supremacists for the bloodshed in Charlottesville, saying the violence was committed by, quote, "many sides." On Monday, amidst growing street and corporate protest, Trump finally condemned the deadly white supremacist violence.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: As I said on Saturday, we condemn in the strongest possible terms this egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence. It has no place in America. And as I have said many times before, no matter the color of our skin, we all live under the same laws. We all salute the same great flag. And we are all made by the same almighty god. We must love each other, show affection for each other and unite together in condemnation of hatred, bigotry and violence. We must rediscover the bonds of love and loyalty that bring us together as Americans. Racism is evil. And those who cause violence in its name are criminals and thugs, including the KKK, neo-Nazis, white supremacists and other hate groups that are repugnant to everything we hold dear as Americans.

JUAN GONZÃ�LEZ: That was President Trump speaking on Monday. Meanwhile, Foreign Policy has revealed the existence of a recent FBI and Department of Homeland Security bulletin that concluded white supremacist groups were, quote, "responsible for 49 homicides in 26 attacks from 2000 to 2016...more than any other domestic extremist movement," unquote. The FBI and Department of Homeland Security report went on to state, quote, "Racial minorities have been the primary victims of [white supremacist] violence. The second most common victims were other Caucasians...and other white supremacists perceived as disloyal to the white supremacist extremism movement."

AMY GOODMAN: Despite the FBI and Department of Homeland Security findings, the Trump administration recently cut funds to organizations dedicated to fighting right-wing violence.

Well, as the nation grapples with what happened in Charlottesville, Virginia, we turn now to the best-selling author Ta-Nehisi Coates, the national correspondent for The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics and social issues. He’s the author of Between the World and Me, which won the 2015 National Book Award for Nonfiction, and the author of the forthcoming book titled We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy.

Ta-Nehisi, it’s great to spend this hour with you. I want to start by asking your response to what happened in Charlottesville and then to President Trump’s actions in response.

TA-NEHISI COATES: My response is that it’s predictable. You had eight years before President Trump, a situation where the opposition party basically ran in opposition to the president on a platform of thinly based racism. That doesn’t mean that the politicians themselves were outright racist, but when charges of birtherism came up, no one repudiated it. When the House majority leader at the time, John Boehner, claimed the president had never worked a real job, no one repudiated it. When Newt Gingrich called the president of the United States a "food stamp president," no one repudiated it. And so you found yourself in a situation in the 2016 election where all of that hate and all of that racism had been stoked at the party’s base.

And so, the idea that President Trump—or that Donald Trump would then become president, that he would become the winning candidate, is not surprising at all. And that Trump himself, you know, who was the stoker of birtherism, who has this long history of racism himself, going back to the 1970s, when he was accused of housing discrimination, into the 1990s, when he called for the death penalty for the Central Park Five, who were later exonerated, in the 1990s, when he claimed that he didn’t want black people counting his money at his casinos, that that person, that that figure, that political figure, would then use that same energy that was in the party to become president, and the reaction would be violence, is predictable. It’s lamentable, but it’s predictable. And no one should be surprised.

JUAN GONZÃ�LEZ: Well, I wanted to ask you, this Unite the Right rally and the resurgence now of white supremacists publicly throughout the country, largely in—under the symbolic protests against the taking down of these various Confederate monuments and statues around the country, your sense of how this—the saving of these Confederate statues becomes the rallying call of the supremacist movement?

TA-NEHISI COATES: Well, it makes sense. I mean, the Civil War was the most lethal war in American history. The casualties in the Civil War amount to more than all other wars—all other American wars combined. More people died in that war than World War II, World War I, Vietnam, etc. And that was a war for white supremacy. It was a war to erect a state in which the basis of it was the enslavement of black people. And so that, you know, these forces that I discussed, that really, you know, bubbled from the base of the Republican Party and that Trump nakedly activated, would then rally around the cause of the Confederacy makes complete sense.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to break and then come back to this discussion with Ta-Nehisi Coates, national correspondent for The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics and social issues. His forthcoming book will be out in October; it’s titled We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy. This is Democracy Now!We’ll be back with Ta-Nehisi in a minute.


AMY GOODMAN: "This Little Light of Mine" by Odetta. This is the song activists were singing Monday in Nashville, Tennessee, as they rallied against the bust of Confederate Army General Nathan Bedford Forrest, putting a black cloth over his head and demanding the bust be removed from the state Capitol. It’s also the song that clergy sang on Friday night as they held a gathering in a chapel at the University of Virginia, as, outside, hundreds of torch-bearing white supremacists marched past. This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.

JUAN GONZÃ�LEZ: Well, massive protests against white supremacists and the Trump administration continued nationwide on Monday, from the streets of North Carolina, where a crowd of activists toppled a Confederate statue in Durham, to the halls of Washington, where three separate corporate CEOs resigned from Trump’s American Manufacturing Council over his failure to quickly condemn the deadly white supremacist violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, over the weekend. In Durham, the crowd of activists shouted "We are the revolution!" as a woman climbed up a ladder, looped a rope around the top of the Confederate Soldiers Monument in front of the old Durham County Courthouse and then pulled the statue to the ground as the crowd erupted in cheers.

PROTESTERS: We are the revolution! No cops, no KKK, no fascist U.S.A.!

AMY GOODMAN: Meanwhile, in Nashville, Tennessee, activists rallied against the bust of the Confederate Army General Nathan Bedford Forrest, putting a black cloth over his head, demanding the bust be removed from the Capitol. In Gainesville, Florida, workers removed a Confederate soldier’s statue from downtown, while officials in Baltimore, San Antonio, and Jacksonville, Florida, all said Monday they would take steps to remove Confederate statues from public spaces. Major protests were also held in Washington, D.C., in Naples, Florida, in Minneapolis, Minnesota, where activists burned an effigy of a Nazi.

Still with us for the hour, best-selling author Ta-Nehisi Coates, the national correspondent for The Atlantic. He is the author of Between the World and Me, which won the 2015 National Book Award for Nonfiction, author of a forthcoming book, in October, We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy. And we are talking to him in his first major broadcast interview since President Trump was inaugurated.

This weekend, describe the groups, Ta-Nehisi, what they represent and the significance of President Trump taking two days to speak out against white supremacist violence.

TA-NEHISI COATES: Well, I’m having a bit of difficulty, I guess, generating much outrage here. I don’t know what people expected. Given Donald Trump’s record, given that he has somebody in the White House right now advising him, you know, who was the publisher for Breitbart media. Breitbart media is named after the same gentleman who basically framed Shirley Sherrod during the Obama administration. Steve Bannon, who was the publisher, bragged about Breitbart being the platform for the alt-right. The alt-right is who was protesting. And so, the notion that Donald Trump, when he has, you know, folks who provided that platform right in his—in the White House, would come out and provide some sort of strong statement against white supremacy, I don’t know where that expectation comes from. He is who he said he was. You know, you can say a lot about Trump, but, you know, he didn’t hide it. He is exactly who he said he was. And so I think the expectation that he will morph into some strong opponent or foe of white supremacy, even the kind of blatant white supremacy you saw on display in Charlottesville, I think, is misguided.

JUAN GONZÃ�LEZ: Well, Ta-Nehisi, I wanted to ask you, in that same vein, that he is who he said he—who he was during the campaign, he established a presidential advisory commission to look into the issues of voter integrity.

TA-NEHISI COATES: That’s right. That’s right.

JUAN GONZÃ�LEZ: And your—I’m wondering your reaction to what’s been going on now in terms of turning the entire political process of voting upside down by going after those who are already being disenfranchised.

TA-NEHISI COATES: Yeah, I mean, you know, not to be repetitive here, but again, I mean, it fits right along with what he said. And again, you know, because I think what happens is that people get too focused on Donald Trump and forget that what this comes out of is a long campaign, over—especially over the past 10 years or so, especially during the time when we had our first black president, where people sought to cast, A, the president as illegitimate, and that was basically accepted—you had a majority of the opposition party that believed the president was not a legitimate president—and then the notion of voter fraud was taken up across the party, by some of the same Republican politicians who are now coming out and denouncing Donald Trump.

They made Donald Trump. Donald Trump is not, you know, separate from it. You know, you can’t come out at the last minute, now that somebody has been killed, now that somebody is dead, and pretend that, you know, "Oh, we had no part in this." This is the result of a process. Donald Trump did not appear by magic. And so, when you see him taking up this form on alleged voter fraud, going out and soliciting the names from various states of voters, it’s right in line not just with what Trump said, but with the rhetoric of the base and of many of the politicians in the Republican Party over the past eight to 10 years.

AMY GOODMAN: And your response to those who are focusing on the Confederate statues around the South right now and actually physically, as in Durham yesterday, taking them down?

TA-NEHISI COATES: I’m happy to see it. I think I’m happy to see them. I’m happy to see that sort of awareness. I came up in a period where a show like Dukes of Hazzard was on TV, and people just basically accepted the Confederate flag in a sort of way, even as African Americans knew deep in their heart there were something deeply wrong with that. It’s good to see, you know, that there’s some sort of mass movement moving in that direction. I will say that there is some danger if it simply stops at taking down statues. I think the basic problem—and I think, honestly, this country has proved to itself over and over again—is a real lack of understanding of what the Civil War was and what its consequences were and the fact that we live with it, you know, even today. And so, I just—you know, I support the removal of the statues, but I just want to make sure that we’re not skipping over a conversation, you know, by taking down symbols and saying, "OK, that’s nice. That’s over."

AMY GOODMAN: One of those busts was the bust of Nathan Bedford Forrest.


AMY GOODMAN: And you wrote a piece about him, what, like in 2009, called "Nathan Bedford Forrest Has Beautiful Eyes."

TA-NEHISI COATES: I did. So the piece was about—I don’t want people to think like it was just, you know, lauding Nathan Bedford Forrest. But it was about how we award a certain kind of romanticism to Confederate generals and why they’ve proven so illustrative, you know, over the past—really since the end of the Civil War and the movement for the Lost Cause. And so, there’s been this movement to award glamor and glory and a kind of cowboy mystique to Confederate generals and ignore the fact that people like Nathan Bedford Forrest, for instance, perpetrated the massacre at Fort Pillow, where he murdered, in cold blood, African-American soldiers, before the Civil War, was a slave trader, literally had what he called a "NegroMart," where he vended black bodies. And people forget that. And instead what you get is the sort of swagger and glory and the mythology of the old Confederacy.

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