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Understanding the state of American democracy with Ta-Nehisi Coates: podcast & transcript

In our first ever live edition of #WITHpod, Chris Hayes interviews writer Ta-Nehisi Coates about Trump’s rise, Twitter and race in the U.S.

In our first ever live edition of WITHpod, Chris interviews one of America’s most important non-fiction writers — Ta-Nehisi Coates. His books and essays drive national conversations about issues like systemic racism, blackness, white privilege and the legacy of President Barack Obama.

Chris and Ta-Nehisi sit down to talk about how the current political moment tells us where we stand in the American project. Listen for a conversation on the future of the Democratic Party, what it’s like to be a writer, who cleared the way for President Donald Trump’s rise, the power of staying off Twitter and a crucial 2-word piece of advice for anyone who hopes to be great.

CHRIS HAYES: It is far superior to have candidates of color talking on message about the issues they care about to all the people in the coalition then it is, basically, having white people performing wokeness.

TA-NEHISI COATES: So I ... I can't believe I'm gonna argue against this.

CHRIS HAYES: Yeah, see! It's a hotter take then you realized Ta-Nehisi!


CHRIS HAYES: Hello and welcome to "Why Is This Happening" with me, your host, Chris Hayes.

Well, it's a very, very special episode of "Why Is This Happening." It's a special episode because it's our very first live recording. Obviously I'm not recording this live right now, I'm recording this right now. I mean, what does that mean even? Philosophically to live record? I guess every recording is live because you record it when it's happening, but we recorded today's conversation at Congregation Beth Elohim, which is a remarkable synagogue in Park Slope in Brooklyn. We did it with Random House with one of their biggest authors these days, my dear friend, the one, the only Ta-Nehisi Coates.

Ta-Nehisi and I, I was trying to think as I was preparing this intro, of when it was that I met Ta-Nehisi. And I think that we met online because I read his work and he read some of my work and we started exchanging emails and over time we became colleagues and friends. And we were the kind of people that would send each other drafts of things we were writing. Ta-Nehisi would text me a question about something that he was thinking about as he was working on an essay and I would text him back. Then he would say, maybe it's easier if we talk on the phone and then we'd hope on the phone.

It's been a great delight to watch the arc of his career, because I think he is one of the most important non-fiction writers in America. And that's not my judgment, he's won every possible award. MacArthur Genius, I think he's got a National Book Award, I think he's a Pulitzer finalist. I could go on and on and on.

There's a few reasons that I think that he has been so important. One is just his tremendous stylistic grace. He's just a remarkable crafter of prose. He'll talk about in the conversation how he came to be that, largely through a lot of effort; sustained effort.

Number two, I that that at a time when a lot of the public intellectual life in America was dominated by people who were operating out of social sciences, particularly like kind of pop psychology and these, I think, kind of glib experimental findings turned into books about how you can hack your own brain and things like that, that Ta-Nehisi really invested himself in history. In taking history seriously, in reading history seriously, in writing about history and history's legacy.

And I think you can tell from the choices we've made here on "Why Is This Happening," that's something that's really important to me, and in some ways something I learned from him. I think my interest in the Civil War Reconstruction history, which is a theme in both my own intellectual life and on the podcast itself, largely comes from things that I came about through talking to Ta-Nehisi. Books I started to read because I talked to Ta-Nehisi, because he was reading them and talking about them and discovering how much power there was, explanatory power in understanding the current American political moment and the American project with respect to history. Particularly with respect to slavery, the Civil War, and its long aftermath.

And I think another reason he has become such a vital voice is because race and racial politics in America is a topic that is both extremely well worn, there's tons of people writing about it from various different backgrounds. And also a place where, because it's a place where a lot of people write about and think about, it can be hard to say something that feels genuinely new or fresh.

I don't think that I've ever been truly up to that task as much as I've occasionally struggled to do so, but reading Ta-Nehisi really feels new. And it's not, and he'll be the first to tell you, it's not because, say, “The Case for Reparations” which is an essay that got a lot of attention, that he was the first person to repose reparations or talk about reparations. It's not because he's the first person to write about the reconstruction or anything like that.

All of this has been written about before, but because of the particular sensibility, the particular soulful, emotional, and intellectual work that runs through his brain and heart and through his fingers into the keys and onto the page. The particular way that he is able to channel a kind of way of feeling, a feeling and thinking and experiencing together, it's a very, very rare and precious ability he has.

And for that reason, talking to him is a joy. He is an incredible person to talk to. He is incredibly good company. And so for this, the first big Live WITHpod, I wanted to do something a little different than how these things go, which is I didn't want to interview Ta-Nehisi. It wasn't like a Q&A format, I wanted to just talk to him. Just have a conversation on stage in front of some microphones and 1,100 people, like you do, about where we're at right now.

He's got a collection of essays out called "We Were Eight Years In Power," which is out in paperback, that collates a number of his essays; including a new one which is in the book about Donald Trump, who he calls the first white president. And so, I wanted to talk to him about how he is making sense of this political moment and also how his analysis of Donald Trump, the politics of race, the politics of whiteness and white supremacy, and the politics of true multi-racial democracy. How he feels about all of that, where we are on this long arc at this very moment.

There are a lot of you in here. It's very nice to see you. I've been thinking, we're supposed to talk about the midterms, but before we get to the midterms, I want to talk about something prior to the midterms which is, what is your news consumption situation like?


CHRIS HAYES: 'Cause you've done something very smart and bold that I envy, which is like ghosted on Twitter.

TA-NEHISI COATES: You hear that Chris? You hear that?

CHRIS HAYES: That's Chris, his editor, who’s in the audience.

TA-NEHISI COATES: What is my news consumption like? Well you know, the funny thing is, you're never off Twitter. That's what I realized when I left Twitter.

CHRIS HAYES: Wait, do you have like an alt? Do you have like a fake account?

TA-NEHISI COATES: No. No, no, no. But you're friends-

CHRIS HAYES: You're like lurking and getting to troll things.

TA-NEHISI COATES: ... send you things. So you know what's going on.

CHRIS HAYES: Don't send Ta-Nehisi tweets!

TA-NEHISI COATES: Like they send you things and I'm like, what's going on here? And then you can look and you see, so you're never off. Like you never ... There's some sort of beef or whatever, you hear about it, but at the same time I miss things.

You know me and Kenyatta joke, you know, when the "Black Panther" movie came out there was this meme, meme sorry, on black Twitter about, I can't do the imitation right but it's the Forrest Whitaker character, “the strength of the Black Panther has been stripped away!” And there was this hilarious meme where you have different people to be stripped away. And Kenyatta when did we see this, like four months later? And I'm dying. Like I'm sitting here dying and all my friends are like, you are so old. You're just so clearly old because, you know, this was a thing-

CHRIS HAYES: You're getting like a time capsule memes?

TA-NEHISI COATES: ... That's right. Time capsule memes.

So, I mean, you obviously miss ... And I miss that. I wish I had been part of that. I would have had jokes. I would have had jokes on top of jokes. That's what I most miss about Twitter is actually the jokes.



CHRIS HAYES: I mean, that's what I liked best about Twitter.

TA-NEHISI COATES: Right, right, right. So, I mean, what do I do? I go to The New York Times website and look at it and see what interests me. I have a subscription to The New Yorker, New York Magazine.

CHRIS HAYES: I guess here's the reason I ask because I feel like you have made a variety of decisions about your work process and your work that require just not being embedded in the insanity of the cycle. The news cycle.

TA-NEHISI COATES: That's true.

CHRIS HAYES: And maybe talk a little bit about why. What is it, what is the intentional thing you're trying to get to that that doesn't let you do?

TA-NEHISI COATES: So last year, about this time, there was this thing with Cornell West that happened and it felt like small. It just felt small, but it got really, really big.

CHRIS HAYES: Meaning he wrote a piece critiquing you?


CHRIS HAYES: And that became like a Google news headline?

TA-NEHISI COATES: It was a thing. Like it actually became this huge, huge thing and it was emotionally absorbing me. So I'm a very ... Like I write out of emotion. I'm a very emotional, even though I ... facts, studies, all of that. But my ... I have heat in here and I'm trying to conduct that heat out of me onto the page. That's how I write. And I think that's like a key to whatever success I've had and it was effecting me emotionally.

I think Twitter in general was, but at this point, it was really, really effecting me. I just, man, I felt like I was getting dragged into it. Not dragged like the normal Twitter-

CHRIS HAYES: Drag him!

TA-NEHISI COATES: ... Yeah, no not like that. I thought I was doing okay, but ... Like from that perspective. But I felt like I was being pulled into it and I had this really emotional response. Like I gotta write back, I gotta reply, you know what I mean? And I had to do some really serious soul searching about why I was here.

Like, listen man, I'm a kid. You know, as I talk about in "We Were Eight Years In Power" where only 10 years ago I was on unemployment. Ten years before that I was a college dropout. And 10 years before that I was in the streets in West Baltimore. I never thought I would be here. So, having gotten here, how should I spend my time? Like having had the great tremendous luck and fortune to be here, how should I spend my time?

I've said this I think before in other interviews, I want to be a great writer. That's what I want. I want to be a really decent person and a great writer. That's what I want out of my life. And that's not small, by the way. Like being a decent person is not a small thing and it's not an easy thing, by the way. It really, really isn't. I want those two things at the same time.

And part of that is what I realized is controlling what comes in. And I never had to think about that before. But it got to a level of where it's like, oh I can't absorb everything. I actually can't! There are some things I should not know. There are some things I should not see.

CHRIS HAYES: I have moments sometimes where I catch myself ... Like I try to keep the phone away during the mornings when I'm with my kids.


CHRIS HAYES: We're in the logistics of get cereal, dressed, brush teeth, book bags, get out the door.

TA-NEHISI COATES: Right, right.

CHRIS HAYES: But occasionally I'll fall prey to looking at something and it'll be like, someone said something insulting or mean about, like, last night’s show. And there's this little barb that just sinks in your heart.

TA-NEHISI COATES: That's right, and you think about it.

CHRIS HAYES: A distraction! It's like my four year old will be ... ask for the second time for something. And it's like, my four year old is right there, who I love more than anything in the universe, and a stranger has said something about our booking in the B Block last night-


CHRIS HAYES: ... and now I've got this little thing in my heart that's wincing these little bits of pain into me that I'm now feeling and that are occluding my perceptual openness to the people that I love the most.

TA-NEHISI COATES: Right, right, right. So what I felt like was, I was like at that moment last year, I was inhaling it. Like it was just-

CHRIS HAYES: I know that. I've been in that place. I've done that.

TA-NEHISI COATES: ... barbs just sorta coming in. I felt like it was becoming a threat. Like I was like, oh this is how I'm not gonna get where I want to go. Like this is exact ... There are all kinds of ways for me not to get there. And I hope I'm being clear. I hope you guys understand what I'm saying.

If I don't exert control over what comes in, I will in no way be able to exert control over what comes out. That's like, the writing is so important to me, man. And to lose it, and frankly to lose it to people who in general don't themselves have the discipline to sit back and write, to get pulled in. I mean, I don't know. I mean, I'm not the kind of person who has outside of writing a list of successes that I can say, well I did this, I did this, I did this, I'm just not that person.

I have this and this is so precious to me. This is like, the next thing after my child. The next thing after my wife. The next thing after my family is this. It's really, really precious. And so I almost have to parent it. Do you know what I mean? I have to protect the writing.

So I might, you know, love to know what's going on here, what's going on dah, dah, dah, but I shouldn't.


TA-NEHISI COATES: I shouldn't. You know, one of the things I often say, it's like I look at a crowd like this, and this will sound like ... I don't know if you guys will get this, but I'm very happy you guys are here. But I have these events and I say to my wife, I say, "I wish I could really see what they see. Like I wish I could see it from their perspective. I wish I could actually sit back and see, oh that's why somebody comes to see or to hear what you have to say."

Because as a writer you're inside, like you're here. You're inside the process. You can't actually see what the person whose never encountered it before.

CHRIS HAYES: But you can see ... I mean, I have known you long enough and we've talked enough-


CHRIS HAYES: ... for years about your process and your work to ... What you can see is when the work is good.

TA-NEHISI COATES: I can see when I think it's good.

CHRIS HAYES: You know when the work is good?

TA-NEHISI COATES: No, no. Yes, yes, yes, but that has ... but I have been writing for 20 years and for most of that 20 years it did not guarantee an audience like this.

CHRIS HAYES: Right, right.

TA-NEHISI COATES: You know? I thought my first book was good. It was like 10 people who came. So it's clearly not just ... And it's not just me. There are people who I think are fantastic who should command large ... and they just don't. They just don't.

CHRIS HAYES: Absolutely.

TA-NEHISI COATES: So what is the difference? But just to button that up, what my wife said was, "You shouldn't be able to see it. It would ruin you if you could see it. It actually would destroy you if you could see it. You would be a totally different person. You know what I mean? It would actually corrupt the process.”

And so I say, just to get back to that point, I have to exert some control over what I can see. I shouldn't see everything. I shouldn't know everything. If I can ... I compare it to like to be successful, and this was very frustrating to realize and difficult to do, you have to go in ... Like I'm finishing up a book right now and I have to go into the box. Just stay in the box. Don't come out the box. Don't talk to people about the box. Don't invite people into the box. Stay in the box and you can come out when you're done.


TA-NEHISI COATES: And that's it.

CHRIS HAYES: Part of the reason I asked you about that because I think it relates actually a lot about the way our politics are at this moment.

TA-NEHISI COATES: Mm-hmm (affirmative)

CHRIS HAYES: My feeling is two things. One is, a lot of the toxicity of what you're describing is a toxicity is extremely present in our politics. And I don't know how much that's ... Whether that's actually like a formally over determined fact, that actually the forms by which the president, for instance, chooses to communicate are 140-character insults and that creates the conditions for a lot of our politics?


CHRIS HAYES: But second of all because, politics the thing that is happening in the day to day news cycle and mobilization of news-

TA-NEHISI COATES: He's the perfect Twitter user.

CHRIS HAYES: ... He's the perfect Twitter user.

TA-NEHISI COATES: I just realized that. He's perfect. I mean, it's like you talk about people ... an artist being matched to their genre. It's perfect! It's perfect actually. I really is. Wow.

CHRIS HAYES: It's absolutely true.


CHRIS HAYES: What it selects for is brevity, bluntness, and ability to attract attention.

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

CHRIS HAYES: The thing that he has, and this is why I think this relates to exactly what you're talking about, your personal struggle?

TA-NEHISI COATES: Mm-hmm (affirmative)

CHRIS HAYES: Because I actually think that we as a polity are in that struggle with him.

TA-NEHISI COATES: Mm-hmm (affirmative) mm-hmm (affirmative) mm-hmm (affirmative).

CHRIS HAYES: There are some things I shouldn't see. Whatever ridiculous bullshit the president just said.

TA-NEHISI COATES: Yeah, you really shouldn't. You really shouldn't.

CHRIS HAYES: Like let's just take a pass on that one.

TA-NEHISI COATES: Right, right, right, right. Because here's the thing. Here's the thing, and this is what I realized. All information isn't information.


TA-NEHISI COATES: Like is this actually informing you? Is this something ... I mean, what are learning that you did not ... I mean, literally what have you learned about the world that you can now see that you could not see before?

CHRIS HAYES: And that's ... But that is ... He is doing to the whole system through this kind of forcing and through this weird, bizarre, canny, genius for attention.

TA-NEHISI COATES: Right, right.

CHRIS HAYES: It's like the box to get in for all of us, which is like the work of Democratic citizenship, or the work of building multiracial coalitions, or the work of whatever it is-

TA-NEHISI COATES: Right, right, right, right.

CHRIS HAYES: ... it's just a constant assault on that.

TA-NEHISI COATES: That's right. We're knocking on the box.

CHRIS HAYES: Yeah, I'm knocking on the box! And you're like, we're talking about healthcare in here. Oh they gotta rake the fire, so... What the fuck you talking about?

TA-NEHISI COATES: Right, right.

But see the question I have for you though, and this is you know, I haven't ... We've talked quite a bit about history is ... And I always struggle with this, is it worse now?

CHRIS HAYES: Yeah. I totally agree.


CHRIS HAYES: No, I'm not saying yes as in, yes it's worse now.


CHRIS HAYES: I'm saying yes, that's the question I ask myself.

TA-NEHISI COATES: Yeah, yeah. Right, right. I mean, you know, is it worse then people drawing up cartoons of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemmings? Is it worse than, you know, people drawing up these cartoons miscegenation ball, calling the Republican Party the Black Republicans? I mean, is it? I mean-

CHRIS HAYES: Is it worse then Andrew Johnson's campaign for the midterms?

TA-NEHISI COATES: ... That's right, that's right.

CHRIS HAYES: Swing around the circle, where he went around deploying the most vile racist invective?


CHRIS HAYES: Calling for his opponents to be killed?

TA-NEHISI COATES: Right, right.

| ANDREW JOHNSON | 3000000 | 1896"},"type":"media","attributes":{"height":220,"width":172,"class":"media-element file-teaser"}}]]

CHRIS HAYES: I think about Andrew Johnson every time anyone says something about Trump.

TA-NEHISI COATES: Yes, yes. They got the wrong Andrew. They go with Jackson, it's Johnson.

CHRIS HAYES: No, exactly.


CHRIS HAYES: And when people talk about no president has ever, I'm like, “Andrew Johnson.”

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

CHRIS HAYES: That dude was terrible.


CHRIS HAYES: Like I'm sorry Donald Trump, but you have not yet unseated Andrew Johnson, thank God.

TA-NEHISI COATES: But you know what Chris? It presents a very difficult problem because I think what we want is a usable history. We want, this is a clear break from X, Y, Z. And I'm sure it is in certain ways. I think there are clear, factual ways in which it's a break.

Previously, you know, all presidents have either served in the military or served in some sort of political office. You know, public service. Clear break in certain ways, right?


TA-NEHISI COATES: But the idea that there's a break in tenor? Maybe? Maybe? I mean, you know, Hamilton got killed, you know what I mean? What's my man who got caned on the Senate floor?


TA-NEHISI COATES: Sumner got caned. I mean, he got beat.


TA-NEHISI COATES: Like this is what was ... And really, you know, it's not even just Hamilton that got killed. Like, folks would routinely do this.


TA-NEHISI COATES: Like people would insult each other and Congressmen would fight. Like this was a thing that happened.

You know, I was telling you about this Douglas bio I'm reading right now. Can you ... Douglas is going on his speaking tour, this happens for 20 years, he goes to speak, he has to fight. Like physically fight, not debate. Toughs and thugs showing up and he has to fight.

CHRIS HAYES: Wait, really?

TA-NEHISI COATES: Yeah. Like man up, you know what I mean? Like that's-

CHRIS HAYES: Before or after he spoke?

TA-NEHISI COATES: ... I mean at the train station. Folks meeting him at the train station.

CHRIS HAYES: Oh, okay.

TA-NEHISI COATES: No, no, no, but then here too. Like then here too and then after. You know what I mean? There was one in New York where like-

CHRIS HAYES: And these are white racists who...

TA-NEHISI COATES: .... Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. And they just, they show up and they wanna fight. They wanna fight and Douglas is like, okay. I know all about this. You know what I mean? I know, listen man, I know all about this. I'm gonna give a speech and then there might be a fight afterwards and this is just for 20 years. For 20 years before the Civil War. I mean, this is just what it is.

So, you're like this is bad and I don't wanna make like this is not bad, but I think we should ask ourselves hard questions about the extent to which it's a break from history.

CHRIS HAYES: That to me ... I mean, that is, if there's a single thing that haunts me every day, it's this right? It's part of the nature of him, particularly because he has no sense of history-


CHRIS HAYES: ... is this relentless presentism.


CHRIS HAYES: History never happened like, never before has someone blah, blah, blah. Never before, never before… and you know, the format of cable news is not great for that. Like, cable news is that way too. Like every day is memento in cable news.

TA-NEHISI COATES: Right, right.

CHRIS HAYES: Wait the guy from "Home Alone 2" is president? Like, huh? It's probably our "A block." How did that guy get there? Like, so there's that-

TA-NEHISI COATES: How do you deal with that?

CHRIS HAYES: ... I don't ... I don't know man, I think I'm going crazy slowly. I think it's ... The way I deal with it is, I try to read. I have been trying to read a lot of history recently for that reason. Because it reminds you of that.

TA-NEHISI COATES: Right. 'Cause you know, like we were saying, Trump met his form? I love your show, but part of the reason why I think I love your show is, I don't think it's your forum in the same way. But I think that's what makes it great. Do you understand what I'm saying?


TA-NEHISI COATES: Like I think that tension, like it's a pull for you in a way that it's not a pull for Trump at all. You know what I mean?


TA-NEHISI COATES: Like there's no-

CHRIS HAYES: It is a pull. It is a pull.


CHRIS HAYES: But that's partly, I think, a pull with the nature of democratic discourse in the year 2018.

TA-NEHISI COATES: Uh-huh. Right.

CHRIS HAYES: Which is in not great shape?


CHRIS HAYES: And partly has to do with the lack of this historical reckoning, right? Which is ... and I think this is something, you know, in the first white president essay, which is in this book, which you all now have possession of, right? Yeah. Congratulations, it's very good.

The thesis of that essay as I read it, is that it's ... he's the culmination and also one out past the previous frontier.

TA-NEHISI COATES: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

CHRIS HAYES: Of what came before.


CHRIS HAYES: Like, he's both.


CHRIS HAYES: And keeping that bothness in your head, this is a person who's as deeply rooted and embedded in the story of America as anyone that we've elected ever, probably.


CHRIS HAYES: But also, is weird and new and is the guy from "Home Alone 2."

TA-NEHISI COATES: Right. Right. No, that's exactly it. Because, I think this is a particular time. And so it is ... Obviously every moment is different. You know, he's not Andrew Johnson, literally, you know what I mean? Obviously there is some actual ... And I see some important difference. Like, Andrew Johnson has a different lesson, which is ... that was Abraham Lincoln trying to triangulate. And, you know, ending tragically. That's a totally different lesson, right? And even though there are those similarities, there's a particular lesson about Trump that is likely different.

At the same time to go the other way and to, you know, focus too much in on the notion of unprecedented, is to let a lot of people off the hook who are responsible. Every single politician, who not just made a Birther joke, but tolerated a Birther joke, is responsible. All y'all responsible. All y'all responsible. I don't want to hear about how nice Mitt Romney was. I don't want to hear it. I have no tolerance for that at all. I just have no tolerance, because I remember even I ... A really bad half-assed joke, I remember him. I remember him saying, "I have my birth certificate." I remember that. It's not funny. It's obviously not funny right now. You know what I mean?

So, there are a lot of quote, unquote, Never-Trumpers, who are in fact proto-Trumpers, who made Trump possible. You can't ... And I think we knew this as the time, even though we didn't know what form it would take. Because, I can remember writing, and I was the only person ... You know, don't Obama say, "Y'all playing with fire, man." This was a constant refrain. Y'all are ... You have no idea what you're evoking. We thought this when Sarah Palin ... You have no idea what you're playing with here. And it's the irony.

CHRIS HAYES: Or they did. Or they did.

TA-NEHISI COATES: Or they did. Or they did. Or they did.

CHRIS HAYES: I sometimes-

TA-NEHISI COATES: That's the flip side of it, right?

CHRIS HAYES: I sometimes think Trump did know what he was playing with.

TA-NEHISI COATES: Right. Well, he did.


TA-NEHISI COATES: I mean Trump did, but I think there are a lot of people now who claim, who want to ... And I was ... You know, listen, I'm just going to go ahead and say it. There is a lot of revision and hagiography, for instance, around the legacy of John McCain. I'm sure it's, you know ... Actually, this is totally irrelevant, I was going to say ... I'm sure was a decent person. But it really doesn't matter if he was a decent or indecent. That's actually beside the point, because this ain't about whether you're a good person or not.


TA-NEHISI COATES: This really has nothing to do with that. This about choices made, and the choice is Sarah Palin. You know, the notion that power is so important to me. Winning is so important to me that I'll put somebody who knows nothing ... You understand? Within ... You know, a hair’s breath of the nuclear codes. If you would do that, how you going to object to Trump? You just did it. You was willing to do it yourself. You know, now you're on the other end of it. Now you're all like how Trump just dealing with you, how he's treating with you, but, bro, you was willing to do the same thing.

And there are other people. You know, who-

CHRIS HAYES: The thing I think about with this, and I completely agree, is Paul Ryan's Super PAC running ads in New York 19 in the Hudson Valley, on behalf of the incumbent John Faso against a guy named Antonio Delgada, you and I both know him.

And it was just the most racist ad campaign I have seen in a long time. It was just straight up ... Antonio Delgaoa was a black man. He is a Rhodes scholar.


CHRIS HAYES: And a Harvard Law trained lawyer.

TA-NEHISI COATES: But, he's also a gangsta rapper. That's what you need to know.

CHRIS HAYES: But, he released a rap album in his 20s.


CHRIS HAYES: And every ad ... You've probably seen, was like, "Big City Rapper, Antonio Delgado. Doesn't share our values." And it's like, big city ... What are you talk ... The Rhodes scholar guy? And they were like, they would like clip little parts of his rap, which was by the way, hilariously conscious and benign. But like, they would clip a little snippets, little, was like, at one point with the first ad they quote him saying "Dead Presidents." Like, in the context of money, but clearly to give the white voters, and you're like ... “He wants to kill all the presidents? He wants all the presidents dead? Oh my God.”

And they just ... and that was Paul Ryan Super PAC, and they didn't stop after one ad. They ran ad after ad after ad. And I was like tearing my hair out being ... All this discourses on Trump and all this stuff, it was like dude, you're running ...

TA-NEHISI COATES: Right there.

CHRIS HAYES: This guy, John Faso, no one's ever heard of. He's running as racist as Trump is.

TA-NEHISI COATES: Right. I don't know if there are political fictions that we need to agree upon to make the world okay. You know what I mean? Obviously, you know, you've done a ton of reading and thinking about Reconstruction, right? So the need to believe the south was honorable in order to keep the country together. Now there's a standard, I think, left wing, left this, critique which both of us would take, but we would point out all the horrible things that happened. But, if you start from the perspective that nations are not necessarily good or ... States are not necessarily good or bad, but primarily self interested. And I'm thinking out loud right now.

Maybe that's just what needed to happen. You know, a darker way of ... And, so, you start to wonder, well what if the country did acknowledge what you said? What if it accepted the fact that its major opposition ... Well, not opposition, majority party ... in the senate, presidency, supreme court ... These folks are, in fact, fundamentally racist. That racism is actually the key to their party. There is no, "I wish we could go back to Reagan." The guy who launched his presidency in Philadelphia, Mississippi. There is no, in fact, you know, redeemable thing to go back to. What would that mean? You know what I mean? And I wonder whether it would mean to really dark and ugly things.

I wonder even if it would go the way we would want it to go.

CHRIS HAYES: Well, I think what you're-

TA-NEHISI COATES: These are the kinds of things you can think about when you're not on Twitter.

CHRIS HAYES: That's right.

TA-NEHISI COATES: See, because there's no room for questions like that.


TA-NEHISI COATES: You can't ask that question. Don't ask that question on Twitter.

CHRIS HAYES: Well, that's why I have the podcast.

TA-NEHISI COATES: Right. Exactly. Yeah. Right, right.

CHRIS HAYES: That's why ... I think that's the moment we're in. So, here's what I think is happening. I think he's stripped away ... You know, we always joke about him, the Simpsons joke, where Homer Simpson says the quiet part loud.

TA-NEHISI COATES: Yeah, right.

CHRIS HAYES: And that's our line, always, in the editorial meetings are like, he says the quiet part loud. It's always the quiet part loud with Donald Trump, right?


CHRIS HAYES: And a lot of the things that were subtext innuendo, winks and nods ... That's all gone, he just says it.


CHRIS HAYES: That is clarifying. It's terrifying.


CHRIS HAYES: And sometimes inspiring in what it inspires on the other end.


CHRIS HAYES: But, what I think is happening now, and you and I have both talked about this, and there's research on this, from Michael Tesler and others, is that racial subtext has become text.


CHRIS HAYES: There's something that is both a continuation in that, but it's also something new about it that is pretty terrifying.

TA-NEHISI COATES: Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah.


TA-NEHISI COATES: Well, we have tools now to quantify it, see it. It's quite clear, but will it matter?

CHRIS HAYES: What do you mean?

TA-NEHISI COATES: The ability to see it. I think that's ... You can really actually see it, now. Because, what's Tesler's doing, he's ... in his work, it's actually pre-Trump.

CHRIS HAYES: Starts with Obama.

TA-NEHISI COATES: Yeah. Starts with Obama. You can see it going all the way through. What does it mean to be able to see it? I think we're better off, I just want to be clear, I would rather see it than not. I would rather have the evidence and I guess the subtext of the conversation we're having here, is the debate that happened after Trump won, about this is badly put ... But, economic anxiety, racism, da dee da dee da. You know, that conversation.

What I would say is we have pretty clear quantitative evidence that racism played a big role in Trump's election. It's pretty clear now.

CHRIS HAYES: I think just on that the debate is the results are back, and it was racism.

TA-NEHISI COATES: Right. Right, right.

CHRIS HAYES: I mean, and I don't mean that dismissively, because I think it was actually a really important and interesting debate.

TA-NEHISI COATES: Right, right.

CHRIS HAYES: Where people marshaled different kinds of evidence, and there is some interesting things happening in terms of places that feel left behind.


CHRIS HAYES: But when you look at the evidence and you look at the data it's ... Trump was activating something in a certain segment of white people ...


CHRIS HAYES: ... that was related to their level of racial fear, racial bigotry, racial anxiety, and racism.

TA-NEHISI COATES: So, one of the things that I think you said just in the conversations we've had is ... Okay, so what to do. One of the problems with the left behind thing, and I don't know how you feel about this, Chris, is ... Certainly, there are real economic changes that have happened in this country, let's say over the past 50 years, right? In terms of de-industrialization and that sort of thing, that make it difficult for all Americans. To, you know, say live better than their parents or their grandparents, or however you want to put that.

So, that's one piece of it that I think all people feel, but another piece of it is ... What happens when the fact of Barack Obama, the fact of a black president makes you feel left behind? You know what I mean?

CHRIS HAYES: And that's what the evidence shows.

TA-NEHISI COATES: Right. Right, right, right. So, what does one then do with that? I think that's the tough one.

CHRIS HAYES: Although a process begins with Barack Obama by the mere fact of who he is.


CHRIS HAYES: It is then exacerbated actively by the way that Donald Trump chooses to talk to people.

TA-NEHISI COATES: Are you saying he makes people more racist? Is that-


TA-NEHISI COATES: You really think that?


TA-NEHISI COATES: Wait, so what is that person like? What is that person like, in say, 2014. What do they think about the world and how does that work?

CHRIS HAYES: Okay, so here's the way I think about it, and I think this how I read the Michael Tesler data, which we're referencing.

TA-NEHISI COATES: It's a great book.

CHRIS HAYES: It's a great book, you should check it out. And there's a podcast we did with him. I'll give you the basics of the data, which is basically you can really predict how white people vote. Their feelings about Trump and Obama by a battery of questions about race. For instance, asking them, 'Are white people more discriminated against than black people?' The people that say yes to that across everything ... Education levels, all these things, whether they're economically insecure or not ... Whether they're democrats or republicans, they're going to vote for Trump.

Okay? This is to me ... Now we're at the core of it, because to me it's this question. What are the identities that we have as people as we move through this world as democratic subjects? And how mutable are they? Because, I think what Trump is doing is ... and this is what I think is so dangerous about this moment, is Trump is saying to people, "You're a white person and think about that whiteness." These are people, to me, that have that floating around in some sense. They have bigotries, they don't want to live around a lot of immigrants, and they're afraid muslims are terrorists, and they think black people should get off welfare and all these views.


CHRIS HAYES: But, they don't think of them ... their primary identity in the world as white.


CHRIS HAYES: And what I think Trump does is like a weaponization. And you saw it with Yamiche Alcindor. One of the other questions in the Michael Tesler data is a question about whether whites face racism. Right? And Yamiche Alcindor, here the other day, got up and asked the president a question about what he means by nationalism, and does that mean white nationalism, and he with the sneering invective of George Wallace on the top step, says, "That is a racist question. That's a racist ... What a racist question.”

TA-NEHISI COATES: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

CHRIS HAYES: He's saying to wipe those people that are his people, like, I am on your side. We are this thing called white. And we have these enemies. And we need to band together as these ... That to me is what is so nuculearly explosive about the moment.

TA-NEHISI COATES: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

CHRIS HAYES: And the question then is what do you do? How do you make a politics that takes that identity and makes it less salient to people? Because, I don't want a bunch of white people walking around with their political identity being "I'm a white person."


CHRIS HAYES: That's bad.

TA-NEHISI COATES: And when you say the manifestation of that is in, for instance, these attacks we've seen.



CHRIS HAYES: I think it's into the text, and I think it's in his election in the first place.

TA-NEHISI COATES: Right. I guess what I'm saying, and I don't want to get too direct here, but would it make a difference? Does it make a difference who’s president? Who has the megaphone, I guess.

CHRIS HAYES: Right. Right. Right.

TA-NEHISI COATES: Does that make a difference? I mean, Mother Emanuel happened under Obama, obviously. You know what I mean?

CHRIS HAYES: Or the other-

TA-NEHISI COATES: I think you're right though.

CHRIS HAYES: I guess the question I'm asking-

TA-NEHISI COATES: The reason I’m asking is because I'm thinking this too, but I think you're right.

CHRIS HAYES: But, I also think the question is, is it a one way ratchet? See, that's my fear.


CHRIS HAYES: Can we put the genie back in the bottle?


CHRIS HAYES: Is there a politics that's available after this.

TA-NEHISI COATES: I mean, there probably is, but it probably would have to be a particular kind of person, and I don't know if that person exists right now. I mean that. People say, well, when Obama was elected it was clear that the country was ready for a black president. No, I think it was certain conditions that existed in the country and a certain person arrived at that particular time. It could have been another 50 years before there was a black president.

CHRIS HAYES: Or a hundred.

TA-NEHISI COATES: Or a hundred. Or a hundred, or, you know, this is counterfactual, but could Colin Powell have won in '96, I don't know. I don't know.

CHRIS HAYES: I think there's an argument that the best bet for democratic presidential candidates going forward are black nominees.

TA-NEHISI COATES: And brown ... Or you, do ...

CHRIS HAYES: Black and brown. Yeah.

TA-NEHISI COATES: Black and brown.

CHRIS HAYES: Yeah. I think ... here's my feeling. This is my take. This is a hot take.


CHRIS HAYES: My hot take is ...

TA-NEHISI COATES: I don't think this audience is going to disagree.

CHRIS HAYES: Well, we'll see. We'll see.

TA-NEHISI COATES: I don't think it's that hot here.

CHRIS HAYES: Okay, it's a lukewarm take, but just bear with me. While I give you my left over take. Just sad take.

TA-NEHISI COATES: It's still yours.

CHRIS HAYES: It's on the table for four hours, this is my take. I think that as we negotiate the politics going forward, particularly the thorniness of putting together a multiracial pluralistic majority coalition ... it is far superior to have candidates of color talking on message about the issues they care about to all the people in the coalition ...

TA-NEHISI COATES: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

CHRIS HAYES: ... then it is basically having white people performing wokeness. And I think the latter is basically deathly, and I worry about it.

TA-NEHISI COATES: So… I can't believe I'm going to argue against this.

CHRIS HAYES: Yeah, see? It's a hotter take than you realized, Ta-Nehisi.

TA-NEHISI COATES: It's a cool take, it's a cool take. I give you that. It's a pretty cool take. I think the problem is there probably are fewer white people who can speak with sincerity and conviction to it.

CHRIS HAYES: To that coalition?

TA-NEHISI COATES: Yes. Yes, yes, yes. I don't think you got to be black or brown, but I think you have to be able to speak with conviction.

CHRIS HAYES: That is a more fine grain ... I think, more accurate way of saying it.


CHRIS HAYES: Which is that there's a particular set of skills that are very difficult at this moment.


CHRIS HAYES: Because, here’s the thing. I think about this all the time ... it's never happened.

TA-NEHISI COATES: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

CHRIS HAYES: Enduring multiracial pluralistic coalitions in democratic politics in moments of universal suffrage in American history ... You got like, Obama coalition and ... That's it.

TA-NEHISI COATES: Yeah. And you have these brief spurts in the 19th century, you know? Which quickly get squelched out.

CHRIS HAYES: But, are beautiful ... and exist.


CHRIS HAYES: It's hard.


CHRIS HAYES: Everyone's rolling the rock up the hill.

TA-NEHISI COATES: Right. I think there's something to that. I am not someone that's known for my optimism. But, that's a good thing. Again, just going back to this Douglas biography, last latter half of his life. He basically becomes a politician for Republican party, and he's urging them to stay true these values of Lincoln, Grant, Reconstruction, protect black rights, and they're like 'eh, maybe not.’ That's the basic attitude. To have a political party at this point in history where it's actually central to your political success.

If you can't go to South Carolina and talk to black people, you're done. You're not going to be President. You're just not. It's just tremendously ... no matter whatever else you may have, if you don't have that, you're in trouble. That's a good thing. I don't think this will change. I think this is a truth right now, that probably won't ... listen, look at me with all of my hope.

CHRIS HAYES: Yeah. I'm filled with hope. What did you think about the midterms? Aside from the fact that there was some thermostatic response.


CHRIS HAYES: It's too hot in here.

TA-NEHISI COATES: You know, the people who I loved the most are the people who lost. But, I love them. I don't think they lost, if that makes any sense. We get hot, right? And then we get all excited and you know, Stacey Abrams might win, Gillum might win. And we forget how far of an advance the "might win" conversation actually is. We talked about this the other night, but how much did Stacey Abrams lose by? What was ...

CHRIS HAYES: 50,000 voters.

TA-NEHISI COATES: I mean, it was like, this is tremendous. This is Georgia, dude.

CHRIS HAYES: She got ... I think, I want to say that I think she got 800,000 more votes than the last person to run for governor.

TA-NEHISI COATES: That's incredible. That is not a small thing. Andrew Gillum did, like ... It's not small. Obviously you prefer to win, right? You prefer to win, but ... I mean, to be honest with you, and I don't think I've ever said this publicly, but that probably ... Not probably, that should be said about 2016 too. People lose sight of the fact that on the heels of your first black president you had the nomination by a major party of a woman, for ... You know, president of United States, who won the popular vote.

I mean, this is not ... But, you need to remember that.


TA-NEHISI COATES: That doesn't mean that you don't have your critiques. Doesn't mean that you don't have ... You have anybody, right?


TA-NEHISI COATES: You do. You got your bag of da da da… but that's not small. You know what I mean? You have to ... like you were saying earlier, balancing these things in your head, you know what I mean? And being able to be very clear out about where you are. Have critiques of people, which you should, but I think this moment in history where you got to ... Oh man, 10 years ago you would of told me it was a black woman who's going to run in Georgia? Who writes what? Romance novels? Is that ... which somehow never came up?

She came within 50,000. In Florida? I mean, listen, people didn't think Gillum would do this, what ... Like during the primaries people would not-


TA-NEHISI COATES: So, we lose sight. We lose sight and I then watch how they perform their debates. I mean, it was encouraging. I just ... I'm fine. The only thing that scares me is that folks will change the rules. That's what scares me, you know what I mean? There will be a counter ... Because, I'm sure as inspired as I was watching them, there are other people who are inspired to do other things. I'm obviously very excited. You know, think it was, you know, tremendous our own Ocasio-Cortez, obviously, extremely ... I mean, who can not be?

I want to have a conversation with her about Twitter one day, but that's all good. That's okay. She look like she know what she doing. You know what I'm saying? Don't need advice from me. You know? Get off Twitter, but I'm just saying, you know what I mean? That's great. It's great. Give them hell. Give them hell, you know what I mean? I think for so long ... I mean, it just so infuriated me when Maxine Waters was out there and people are attacking Maxine Waters. I'm like, dude ... What are you doing? You know, I mean, no disrespect, I mean I guess we're here, so I'm going to call people out.

You know, Cory Booker talking about the politics of radical love and how it would have been with Shuttlesworth. Negro, no you wouldn't of. Did you know what these people were doing? They were the Maxine Waters of their time. I mean, Maxine Waters was the Maxine Waters of that time, too, but, do you understand what I'm saying?


TA-NEHISI COATES: These were not polite people. This wasn't polite. They were polite as we view it now. But, certainly the powers that be did not view them as polite. They were not ... Well, King is such a well-dressed polite loving young man. It's not what they said. They said what they say about Maxine Waters and the people that were in Corey Booker's position and were in, Nancy Pelosi, who said something similar, position at the time, they said about the same thing. What I mean is that the powers that be were not like, "Wow, I'm really inspired by this radical love." That wasn't what it was. And so to have people now, like Representative Ocasio-Cortez, actually giving it to fools, I mean, you're like, "Yeah. Tell them."

Because I think one the things that we lose sight of and this was always sort of one of my critiques of Obama is, obviously part of politics is compromise and reaching across the aisle but the other part is you gotta give people something to vote for, man. You gotta inspire people. I mean, this cat, Eric Levitz, who writes for New York Magazine, he wrote this great piece on why Merrick Garland, the nomination of Merrick Garland was such a tragedy. And a part of it was, listen, say what you want about Trump, he gave them Kavanaugh, he gave them something to fight on. And so it's like for us, it's like, oh, we're fighting over Merrick Garland. Another middle age moderate white guy, okay so this is what we're gonna fight on. Hmm.

I think that actually goes back to your point about who will make the best presidential candidate going forward. One of the things that Eric said, he said, "Man, you nominate a black woman, you know what I mean. Or some other sort of path breaking justice, you know what I mean, and give folks something to fight on, this is what this seat means. Who knows what happens then? Who knows?" I think that, I don't know that it's over but I think that we have certainly for a lot of the candidates, not all of them, but for a lot of them, you have entered into a period where there's thing of, "I'm gonna try to present myself a certain way, to obscure what I my actual intentions are." I'm seeing less of that.

CHRIS HAYES: That's partly I think, an effect of the way that the coalitions are going.


CHRIS HAYES: 'Cause I think there's less and less worry about that median voter in an ideological sense.

TA-NEHISI COATES: 'Cause what, they not voting for you, right? That's bottom line.

CHRIS HAYES: Basically, the president's already polarized everything.


CHRIS HAYES: Like nothing you can do can be more polarizing than that dude.


CHRIS HAYES: So if you're worried that you're gonna say something that's gonna polarize the electorate in some way, it's like, he's already done it.

TA-NEHISI COATES: It's done, it's done.

CHRIS HAYES: People are on one of two sides with this guy.

TA-NEHISI COATES: Right, and I think when that photo came out of Stacey Abrams burning the, what was it, the Georgia flag?

CHRIS HAYES: Confederate, yeah.

TA-NEHISI COATES: Confederate Georgia flag-

CHRIS HAYES: Well, the Georgia flag contained the stars and bars.

TA-NEHISI COATES: It basically was though. I was like, "Just please don't apologize."

CHRIS HAYES: I had the same thought.

TA-NEHISI COATES: Please do not, do not apologize for this shit. They're wrong. It should be burned-

CHRIS HAYES: Burn that thing.

TA-NEHISI COATES: It's totally defensible and anyone who is gonna vote for you, you know who's inspired by you, thinks that you should burn it and thinks that you were right. And she didn't and she didn't and came within 50,000 votes of being governor of Georgia. That's not small. These are not small things. That Gillum line, you know what I mean where he says, "I'm not saying he's racist but all the racists think he's racist."

CHRIS HAYES: Instant classic.

TA-NEHISI COATES: I mean that was worth it. That was worth it. That was worth it. Part of me was like, "Oh man, he's gonna lose over that." Some things are worth losing for. Some things, no, I mean that. I mean, you look at somebody like ... Obviously she doesn't share my politics, but Heidi Heitkamp. It was worth losing for. This is not at all cost, all cost. It was, Kavanaugh was worth losing for, it was worth it. It's actually in many times the people who lost, who made me feel the most optimistic weirdly enough.

CHRIS HAYES: I want to ask you a few questions from the crowd here. I think this is an interesting one and it's one I think about all at lot. Does voting make a difference?

TA-NEHISI COATES: Yes. Who asked that? You should have to stand up, that's weak, they wrote it on the card, right? But if you had to stand up and ask that, would you ... Oh, there it is, all right, okay. I appreciate it, okay, all right. I appreciate that. Actually, I want to talk about why it makes a difference, even though I'm being sort of comical. I respect where that comes from. I thought the same at one point. There are I think two problems here. The first problem is I think in our mind, voting has assumed outsize importance in the work of politics. It's important to vote. It's not singularly important to vote.

So we get ramped up about voting but we don't talk about everything that you got to do after that. We don't have a kind of ... Then everything becomes, particularly in presidential years. So everything gets put on Hillary or Bernie Sanders. Or Hillary or ... Well, I mean, it ain't gonna be Hillary or Trump here but it's gonna be Hillary or Bernie and that's it. As though if you vote for one that's the end. That's a declaration of who you are. I talked to this ... Greatest story out of Chicago, Barbara Ramsby and said that she was going this with a lot her students in the primaries.

And the thing was, "Well, I don't want to support Hillary 'cause I don't want to support ... It's the lesser of two evils." She said, "Yeah that's true but I'm in favor of less evil." And that's, in many times that's what voting is. And this is me right here, right? I don't go to vote to feel inspired about the world. A lot of times I'm preventing evil. That's what I'm trying to do, I'm trying to not, I'm trying to hold certain things ... It's important to hold certain things at bay. But if your work is just holding certain things at bay and not doing work to hopefully one day to have a process where you can actually feel inspired, feel good, feel represented. Then the work is kind of incomplete. You aren't doing the whole work of it.

I think, you gotta understand, listen. Eric Holder and Jeff Sessions ain't the same, that's not the same person. I mean, no matter how you feel about your critiques of Obama, your critiques of Hillary, you can have those critiques, you should make them, some of them are in this book, you should make them with all the force that you can. But at the same time, you should understand that those are not the same people. And let me make this beyond symbolic, if you are living under a police department, say in Baltimore, in Chicago, they're not the same, it makes a difference. The election made an actual difference. I just know this to be true having talked to certain folks.

For those of us here who feel that it's mysterious that we haven't heard anything from the federal government in terms of the killing of Eric Garner. It made a difference. It made an actual difference, it mattered. I think of voting as hygiene. You understand? I'm taking out the trash, dude. I'm sweeping the floor, I'm vacuuming. It's important to clean-

CHRIS HAYES: You're not gonna get an award for that.

TA-NEHISI COATES: Right, I'm not getting an award for that, right? You understand what I'm saying, you should be clean. You should be clean, you really should take out the trash, you actually should. Is it inspirational to take out the trash, no, no, no, no. But you really should do it, it's civic maintenance.

CHRIS HAYES: The thing I always think about particularly-

TA-NEHISI COATES: It's just not the end.

CHRIS HAYES: No, it's not the end. When you look at the cross tabs, I mean, to me the tell about voting and the power of voting, is the fact that the most powerful people in society all vote.

TA-NEHISI COATES: Right. Are they wasting their time?

CHRIS HAYES: Go to a neighborhood that's full of affluent, educated, rich folks, of course they all vote.


CHRIS HAYES: It's another means of wielding power in a society.

TA-NEHISI COATES: Right, right.

CHRIS HAYES: I worked as a field organizer for three months in 2004. And trying to get people to vote, is hard.


CHRIS HAYES: It's hard, you gotta hector them and call them nine times.

TA-NEHISI COATES: And by the way, there are real reasons for why it's hard too.

CHRIS HAYES: I'm not blaming them, I'm just saying ... It is a difficult thing particularly when people are not acculturated to it. They haven't voted before. And you say like, "You're gonna vote?" And it's like, "Wait, what do I have to do, how ..."


CHRIS HAYES: And it always makes me laugh about voter fraud, because if you ever actually tried to get people to actually vote, the idea that you could pull off a voter fraud conspiracy is insane.


CHRIS HAYES: Going to a bunch of people and be like, "Will you ... We just gotta find 1,000 people we could convince and get them all out ..." It's like, that's not gonna happen, you can't do that with the real voters.


CHRIS HAYES: No one can do that.

TA-NEHISI COATES: I get somewhat irritated by the hectoring rhetoric around voting.

CHRIS HAYES: I totally agree.

TA-NEHISI COATES: Even though what I said.

CHRIS HAYES: Even the Obama message down the stretch-

TA-NEHISI COATES: I can't stand it, I think it's bad. I actually think-

CHRIS HAYES: It was like full hectoring dad mode.

TA-NEHISI COATES: I think it's bad and it got so bad that at one point in one of those interviews, he said, "If you want to vote, you can vote." No, you can't, no you can't, that's not true. I mean, some of that changed in Florida, thank God. It's just not true, it's not true. There is an effort where folks shut down precincts or put it all the way on the counter or you need this type of a ... No, that's a real thing. You can tell people voting is important and not diminish say the work that the NAACP-LDF is actually doing. You don't got to do both. You can say, "Hey it's important, this is why it's important," without guilting people or shaming people.

CHRIS HAYES: I thought it was so strange too, just because as I watched him, he did a bunch of appearances where he was doing this kind of like, stern dad thing about voting. Which he has done before, it wasn't new. But if there's a single person in the history of American politics, who best understood that the way you get people to vote is you inspire them in an affirmative sense, it's Barack Obama.

TA-NEHISI COATES: Right, evidently not. And maybe that goes back to the thing of being able to see yourself and I don't know. I don't know. But it might be that he just can't quite see that.

CHRIS HAYES: Someone asked, what books besides your own, do you recommend to understand America's racial history?

TA-NEHISI COATES: Wow, oh man, we got all day to do this. Where do I begin ... Jesus, these questions. Where do I begin? Okay, so I think to narrow it down a little bit, I'll talk about probably what most directly inspired the work that I do. So this book, "We Were Eight Years in Power" is heavily, heavily rooted in W.E.B. Du Bois' "Black Reconstruction," which is a tremendous ... It's a task to get through. I won't lie about that. But it is a tremendous, tremendous book. I think it has one of the early actual retorts to actually something that we were just talking about just now. And that is the idea that if black people are civic minded and if black people do all the right things, America will then accept them.

And one of the things that Du Bois realized very quickly using Reconstruction as an example, is that, that clearly is not true. That's tremendous, Baldwin's "The Fire Next Time," which I would not have been able to write "Between the World and Me" if it didn't exist. One of my great inspirations, in terms of my work is Ida B. Wells and there's a great biography by her, about her, by a great historian, Paula Giddings. Paula Giddings’ book before that which is actually the first one that really gave me insight on Ida B. Wells, "When and Where I Enter," which is a history of black women in America. Tremendous, tremendous, tremendous book.

In terms of how I write, "Fire Next Time" is there but Zora Neal Hurston's "Their Eyes Were Watching God," which is poetry. Just had a huge, huge influence on me understanding how you write is actually important, the beauty of writing is actually a really important thing. And the last book which is not about race but in America it always is, E.L. Doctorow's "Ragtime." Which my wife was in a book club and they were reading it and she was like, "You should try this." And from page one I was like, "Oh, wow, this is what I want to do. I want to be this guy." And again, the ability to mix, even in my non-fiction, the way he would mix history in with actual narrative and make it alive and make it living. Even writing non-fiction, I think about that all the time.

CHRIS HAYES: I'm gonna ask you this question, which may put you on the spot but you referenced Chris Jackson, your editor in the audience.

TA-NEHISI COATES: I'm gonna put him on the spot if it's about him, so.

CHRIS HAYES: Put Chris on the spot.


CHRIS HAYES: You're working on something now?

TA-NEHISI COATES: Oh, why would you do that? Wait, what's the question?

CHRIS HAYES: What? Fine, I'll ask an open-ended question. Do you have a writing project you're working on now?

TA-NEHISI COATES: Oh yeah, I do.

CHRIS HAYES: You don't have to say anything about it, I just ...

TA-NEHISI COATES: I do, I do have a writing project and I love you people so much, let me tell you how much I love you. I was due on this writing project two weeks ago, it was like two weeks ago and yet I'm here with you. How much love is in my heart? Here I am. I do, man and I do and what I'll say is, I love it and it's the hardest thing ever. Writing is so ... I want to talk really, I don't know if they're people who want to be writers, who are writers in the building. But I just want to talk really quickly about that process. And about specifically working with Chris, who is magnificent. I give him shit all the time but he's actually magnificent, best editor and publisher, excuse me, make sure I get his title right.

I have a note that one day, we should have put it in "We Were Eight Years in Power," and the note is, I wrote "Between the World and Me" four times. And every time I would submit a draft to Chris and he'd be like, "Hmm, I don't know. I don't know, I don't know." Basically, I had to go and rewrite before we even got to the level of actual line by line editing. So he sent me a note after what must have been the second or third draft. And it's just like 2,000 words about why this does not work. And it was so depressing. I remember getting it at the time, I think you have to understand about "Between the World and Me" is, it's a book that came out of my head. I had artistic inspiration in the sense of James Baldwin, the fact that I had been working through the death of my friend for 14 years at that point.

I had the fact of a black president which was sort of swirling around but I didn't know what that was. Even the idea of a letter came at the very end of the actual process of us working together. And man, I got that note from Chris, 'cause every time you're like, "Okay, I think this is it, I think I got it, I think I got it." And it's go again, go again. And I feel like at that point, I was well-known enough and this is how the industry works. Somebody would have published that draft. It's an inferior draft, it's not the same book. And this is, I've been blessed because this is actually the relationship we have even on this book, man. I turned in a draft about this time last year. Oh, I'm done, we're gonna go to line edits. And Chris took forever to read it as is his way.

But when he did, he wrote, he did a little bit of line edit but he came over to the house and he talked to me about it and it was clear that I had to rewrite the whole thing. This is my third time, I've been writing this book for 10 years, this is my third time rewriting it. But he's not gonna let me embarrass myself. You understand? I think I'm good as a writer, but I actually have much more confidence in the people around me because the people around me, they just gonna tell me, "It's not time. It's not time, don't embarrass yourself." I think a lot of writers, listen, I think talent is really important but I think what I have been blessed with, from the time I was in my mom and my dad's house, you know what I mean? From the period of working for David Carr. From the period when James Bennett ran The Atlantic. I had hard people around me. You know who just pushed. Do it again, go again, go again, go again, go again.

So if you like what you see, and this is why I'm always a little uncomfortable with this, what you are seeing is not some innate thing. What you are seeing is, go again, go again, go again. And that's the spirit I think of certainly good writing and any writing that hopes to be great. The bleeding on the page. And then bleeding again and again. I just tell him this all the time, I'm thankful to have a reader like that who push you in that sort of way.

CHRIS HAYES: The book is called, "We Were Eight Years in Power" by Ta-Nehisi Coates, please give him a round of applause.

TA-NEHISI COATES: Thank you, thank you.

CHRIS HAYES: Thank you everybody, thank you Congregation Beth Elohim.



Once again, thanks to Ta-Nehisi for doing the podcast, thanks to the folks at Random House for putting the evening together and Congregation Beth Elohim for hosting us. You should tweet us with the #WITHpod and we'd like to know, would you like to go to your own live recording. I mean not a recording of you but, unless you'd be an amazing podcast guest but a live recording of the show, we're thinking about doing more of those so who would you want to see live, who would you go out to see. Where do you live and would you come out to a live recording? Tweet us at the #WITHpod so we can gage some interest. Or email us,

One more thing, Ta-Nehisi has an answer in that interview of books and writing he recommends and we will link to those in the transcript which will be available up on our website. "Why Is This Happening?" is presented by MSNBC and NBC News, produced by the "All In" team and features music by Eddie Cooper. You can see more of our work including links to things we mentioned here by going to