Henry Louis Gates Jr.: Trump Makes Reagan ‘Look Like a Liberal on Race Relations’

The Harvard professor and PBS host talks about Barack Obama’s legacy, giving Donald Trump a chance, and the passing of his friend and colleague Gwen Ifill.

Maarten de Boer/Getty Images

Throughout his ultimately successful campaign for president of the United States, Donald Trump liked to ask African-American voters, “What have you got to lose?”

Dr. Henry Louis Gates Jr.’s new PBS documentary, Black America Since MLK: And Still I Rise, aims to answer that question. The two-part, four-hour series, which aired its first half tonight and continues next Tuesday, finds Gates and a slew of prominent black voices—Cornel West, Al Sharpton, Jesse Jackson, and others—examining the “astonishing progress” that African-Americans have made since the height of the Civil Rights Movement.

“Yet far too many black lives are still threatened by harsh inequalities,” Gates says in his voiceover that opens the first episode, as images of the Black Lives Matter movement play on screen.

There is a certain irony in the fact the film is having its premiere just as America has voted to replace its first black president with one who has been openly hostile to numerous minority groups, including the one he has been known to call “the blacks.”

One week after Election Day, Gates spoke to The Daily Beast about how this transitional period from President Obama to President-elect Trump will influence the progress that still needs to be made.

How surprised were you that Donald Trump won the presidential election?

I was concerned that afternoon. I just had a bad feeling. But, basically, I was in total shock. I forced myself to go to sleep before Michigan and Wisconsin were finally called. I thought when I woke up my girlfriend might say, “Oh, a miracle happened!” But I find it astonishing actually and I’m just in shock, like everybody else in Harvard Square is.

We’ve seen varied reactions to President-elect Trump, from protests in the streets to President Obama urging Americans to give him a chance. What do you think is the right approach at this point?

We have no choice but to give the president-elect of the United States a chance. This is a democracy. This is how our country works. If more people who agreed with us had voted, you wouldn’t be asking this question. Who’s responsible? People who didn’t vote. I have friends who know Donald Trump. I’ve never met Mr. Trump myself. But those friends, some of whom are black, say that he was a perfectly center of the road, cosmopolitan person. Unfortunately, his campaign rhetoric leant itself to xenophobic, anti-immigration, isolationist attitudes by addressing people’s fears. Not by assuaging them, but by exacerbating them. The fears are economic fears.

I grew up with white working-class people in West Virginia. And I know that you can’t dismiss all white working-class people as being racist. That’s ridiculous. I have very close friends who voted for Donald Trump and they think the economy is going to be better and America is going to be stronger. They’re not racist, I know them. I think that the failure was that the Democratic Party didn’t find a way to speak to these anxieties. I don’t use the term “trailer trash” because I grew up with people for whom that was the equivalent of the “n-word.” You can’t demonize white working-class people just because we’re unhappy with the election results.

That said, I think it’s incumbent upon Donald Trump to address the country and to say that this hate-mongering and the manifestations of xenophobic violence and bullying that have broken out since the election are unacceptable. And they have to stop. He has to become a leader. My hope against hope is that Donald Trump is so ambitious that he’ll decide that he wants to attempt to be a great president—and being a great president means that he has to lead all Americans, whether they’re gay or straight, black or white, Jew or gentile, Muslim or Buddhist. Whether he can step up to the plate and do that remains to be seen. But history will judge him on whether he decides to take the job seriously and step into the role of the 45th president of this great republic. The jury’s out; we just don’t know.

For me personally, I’ve long been a friend of the Clintons. And my granddaughter turned two today. And I wanted her to grow up seeing a woman in the White House. And instead we’ll have Donald Trump in the White House. Hillary’s a friend of mine; I wanted to see her win. So it’s deeply disappointing to me. That said, I think it’s incumbent upon all of us who love individual freedom, who love affirmative action, who love the idea of the openness of American society to anticipate the worst and be vigilant.

Get The Beast In Your Inbox!

Daily Digest

Start and finish your day with the top stories from The Daily Beast.

Cheat Sheet

A speedy, smart summary of all the news you need to know (and nothing you don't).

By clicking “Subscribe,” you agree to have read the Terms of Use and Privacy Policy
Thank You!
You are now subscribed to the Daily Digest and Cheat Sheet. We will not share your email with anyone for any reason.

It’s clear that African-American voters did not come out for Hillary Clinton like they did for Obama. Do you think there’s anything she could have done to change that?

To say yes would be too simple an answer. I think that the party should have been working more rigorously to register voters and get them thinking about voting in the off-elections—pulling, as we used to call it. When you call people and then you go pick them up. Nobody could have a pull like the first black, serious candidate in the black community. No one could do that. Black people would have stood out in the rain or snow for weeks to make that happen. We smelled blood, and it worked. And then when it looked like he could lose, we voted again. But I don’t think that anyone actually thought Donald Trump could beat Hillary Clinton, so there was a lackadaisical response. Could black preachers have done more? Could black politicians have done more? Could black activists have done more? I don’t know. I don’t know why people didn’t vote. I can’t even imagine living in a republic and not voting. But it’s irresponsible and it’s very disappointing and it’s one of the reasons Donald Trump is president of the United States.

In that same sense, does it surprise you in any way that the country was able to elect and reelect a black man but fell short when it came to electing a woman?

Yeah. Well, one: the black vote was down, but we thought that women and Latinos would overwhelmingly vote for Hillary and that’s not what happened. And even the results with educated white women and white women who had not gone to college were surprisingly high. People have to figure out, what was Donald Trump’s appeal? And the appeal, to me, was he found a way to speak to people’s fears and anxieties. The biggest anxiety was about the economy. It used to be, the people I grew up with, black and white, thought if we work hard, eventually I’ll get a mortgage and I’ll buy one car and then two cars. And my kids will go to college and they’ll have a better life than I had. Well, a lot of people know that’s not inevitable anymore. And I don’t think that Hillary’s message spoke to that sufficiently. I know it didn’t. Bernie’s did. What happens historically in this country is that when people have economic fears and anxieties, someone gets scapegoated. Who gets scapegoated? Gay people, Jewish people, black people, immigrants. In this case, Mexicans. You have a symbolic solution of, I’m going to build a wall, I’m going to deport all these people, I’m not going to let Muslims in. Everybody goes, yeah, yeah, everything’s going to be better. It’s sad and horrific and that’s why I hope that the president-elect makes a stand for protecting the rights of all Americans and for American diversity, because these acts of hate that have broken out in the last week are deeply, deeply, deeply disturbing.

In the series, whether it’s intentional or not, you draw some parallels between Ronald Reagan and Donald Trump, beyond just the fact that they used the same campaign slogan. Michael Eric Dyson described Reagan to you as “a symbol of the repudiation of all of the progress” made by African-Americans. Do you view Trump in the same way?

When we made the series, we had no idea that Donald Trump would be president of the United States. But, the parallels are quite remarkable—and a bit frightening. That’s why I say we have to be vigilant about it and we’re all very worried about that. In fact, some people are worried that Ronald Reagan will look like a liberal on race relations compared to Donald Trump. Despite the setbacks from Ronald Reagan, it could be worse under Donald Trump. Again, we don’t know what the relationship between President Trump will be to candidate Trump. And that’s why we have to be vigilant. But yes, the parallels are unmistakable and that’s why people are so alarmed—because affirmative action came under assault. It’s important not to demonize your opponents, because then you reduce them to a stereotype and you can’t anticipate their actions and you can’t effectively fight back.

Like I said, I have friends who are black and know Donald Trump and none of them think that he’s a racist; they think that’s ridiculous. But, the campaign let the impression that—people of color and other minorities were being used in ways that were quite disturbing. But I don’t have a feeling that Donald Trump’s going to be championing affirmative action when he’s in the White House. His interests and the interests of the African-American community might very well diverge, which is why the Legal Defense Fund is important, the Children’s Defense Fund is important, the NAACP is important, and the Black Caucus is important. Because we can’t let the rights of black people be rolled back. We need more affirmative action, not less. If Donald Trump is right that he can create lots of jobs, hooray, hallelujah! Because that will help the black community. But you know, I haven’t seen the plan yet, so we’ll have to wait and see.

It seems that the series is building towards the election of Barack Obama and Black Lives Matter. You played a role in President Obama’s first term following your incident with the police officer at your home in 2009, leading the so-called beer summit at the White House. What do you think about the experience and Obama’s presidency as a whole now that his second term is almost up?

What happened to me is not in the series. It would have been inappropriate, because I’m the executive producer of the series and you can’t be talking about yourself. But frankly, I think what happened to me was of minor significance, tiny significance, compared to the real incidents of what happened to Trayvon Martin, Freddie Gray, what happened in Ferguson. Those are the signal incidences that we have to deal with. My arrest was an aberration. It was a fluke and you can’t generalize from flukes. But there’s a pattern if you add up Trayvon Martin and Freddie Gray and Ferguson, etc., etc. There’s a pattern there, but there’s no pattern to what happened to me.

As far as how history will judge Barack Obama, I heard [Civil Rights activist and Bill Clinton adviser] Vernon Jordan say, “Only historians will know.” And he was quoting Harry Truman, who said it takes 50 years for history to decide on the merits of a presidency. But that all he knew was that every time he saw a black man at the White House or a black man in front of that seal, whenever he realized that there was a black family living in the White House, he couldn’t stop tearing up. And that’s how I felt. When I’ve shown clips of the series, when we plays clips of Wolf Blitzer calling the election for Barack Obama, then Barack Obama giving that acceptance speech in Grant Park, I get tears in my eyes. It was a very moving, historic experience.

I think he’ll be remembered for opening up Cuba, I think he’ll be remembered for Obamacare. I’m hoping that a Trump administration does not roll that back. Dodd-Frank, saving the auto industry, getting us out of the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression—I mean, the man did a lot! He was stymied by a recalcitrant wing of the conservative branch of the Republican Party—the Tea Party people. And in an unprecedented way they announced that they would make it impossible for him to do things. So, I don’t know what history will say, but I think that he’s going to do OK. And of course, he’ll be remembered for being the first black president, for having a scandal-free administration. And he’ll be remembered for being a symbol of openness, of tolerance, cosmopolitanism. Seeing America as situated in the world and not isolated from the world.

It was really sad to hear the news about the passing of Gwen Ifill, who I know was a friend and colleague of yours.

Yes, I’m in deep mourning.

My question is, what lessons do you think the media can take from her as we move forward into this new political era?

Gwen reminded me very much of TV journalism at its best—at the height of the authority and popularity of Walter Cronkite. And I think too many journalists have forgotten that balance doesn’t mean giving someone who makes false claims or erroneous statements equal time with someone that you can fact-check. There’s a responsibility to protecting the First Amendment, and I don’t think that the media lives up to that in a lot of places. Some of our media outlets let us know, specifically when they saw the ratings they could get by giving Donald Trump seemingly limitless amount of exposure. Gwen was not like that. She was a real journalist and she knew what the calling was about. The calling is not about ratings, it’s not about entertainment. It’s about trying to tell the complexities of the truth, and even if there’s a pro and con and not one way to represent an incident, at least having standards and revering facts and being fair. And I don’t think the coverage of this campaign lived up to those standards. So she will be deeply missed. She was a pioneer as an African-American woman, but she also was an extension of a great tradition of TV journalism going back to Edward R. Murrow and Walter Cronkite. I cared for her deeply personally, and I’m going to miss her personally. But I think the country is going to miss her even more.