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Ta-Nehisi Coates on why Obama didn’t believe Trump could win

Constance Grady is a senior correspondent on the Culture team for Vox, where since 2016 she has covered books, publishing, gender, celebrity analysis, and theater.

Certified MacArthur Genius and National Book Award winner Ta-Nehisi Coates stopped by Late Night With Seth Meyers on Tuesday to discuss his recent Atlantic article “My President Was Black.”

The article is a thoughtful, lyrical appraisal of Barack Obama’s legacy, both bad and good. Obama’s presidency and the racist backlash it inspired, Coates argues, paved the way for a President Trump — but Obama’s power as “a symbol of black people’s everyday, extraordinary Americanness” is unparalleled.

The whole piece is emblematic of Coates. His writing is consistently both nuanced and aesthetically beautiful, on a level that is frankly shocking in the realm of political writing.

And his appearance on Late Night is emblematic of Meyers, who has quietly made a habit of featuring literary guests on his show on a much more regular basis than any of the other network late-night hosts. (He’s also the only one who’s made a habit of regularly hosting authors who are specifically women and people of color.)

Over the course of Coates and Meyers’s discussion, the central theme that emerged concerned the power and the pitfalls of the optimism that characterized Obama’s presidency.

For as inevitable as Obama’s meteoric rise appears to be in hindsight, Coates pointed out, it is equally astonishing that it ever occurred in the first place. “It’s hard for people to remember this,” he said, “but before Barack Obama won in 2004, there had been only two black people post-Reconstruction who had been in the Senate: Edward Brooke and Carol Moseley Braun, also from Illinois. So the idea that a black guy was running for Senate and might actually win, named Barack Obama — people overlook that all the time — named Barack Hussein Obama in 2004, three years after 9/11, was stunning.”

Even after Obama’s Senate victory, Coates said, he did not expect the senator to win the White House. “I didn’t think there could be a black president,” he said. That Obama succeeded, Coates thinks, is in part due to his innate optimism and belief in the value of the American spirit. Obama was raised in Hawaii, “far from the fulcrum of Jim Crow and segregation,” and that distance, Coates argues, kept racism abstract for him, and allowed him to approach white America with trust.

But it also left him blindsided by Donald Trump’s victory. “I don’t think it accords with his basic theory,” Coates said. “When I talked to him before, he did not think Trump could be elected,” because of “his beliefs about the American people. He really, really didn’t think it was possible.”

When Obama won the presidency, he did it under the assumption, Coates said, “that you had to be optimistic. You couldn’t approach it with some sort of dark sense.” He shrugged. “That proved to not be true.”

Coates and Meyers’s whole conversation — which also covers the role of racism in Trump’s election and Coates’s occasionally vexed relationship with Obama — clocks in at just over seven minutes long, but it’s well worth your time. Like most of Late Night at its best, it feels like eavesdropping on a conversation between two of your smartest and most well-read friends.

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