Ta-Nehisi Coates on Trump's rise, Obama's legacy and "We Were Eight Years in Power"

Author Ta-Nehisi Coates has been dubbed America's best writer on race – and that makes him want to gag. 

The Atlantic writer told "CBS This Morning" he'd prefer to someday be known as "the best writer in America, bar none."

Coates rose to prominence with his work after President Obama's 2009 inauguration, winning awards for essays like "Fear of a Black President" and "The Case for Reparations." His 2015 book, "Between the World and Me" about what it means to be black in America, topped the New York Times best-seller list and won the National Book Award for nonfiction.

Coates' new book, "We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy," analyzes the impact of the Obama presidency and the rise of Donald Trump.  


Coates freely admits he failed to predict both Obama's first election and Trump's 2016 win. The MacArthur fellow never believed he'd see a black president in his lifetime and now argues that Mr. Trump couldn't have won without Obama as a predecessor.

"I don't mean that in a particularly symbolic way. His (Donald Trump's) political career actually begins in birther-ism," Coates said. "I think Donald Trump had the wisdom – if you want to call it that – to see that that was not some fringe movement, that it could be the basis of launching a successful political career."  

Coates explained that people's votes, in part, for Mr. Trump were a symbolic rejection of Obama – retaliation, even.

"I think it was kind of a revanchism against this idea, the very symbolism of having a black man lead the country. And to some extent, we should expect this. We have a very, very long and regrettable history in this country of racism and white supremacy. The expectation that with the election of a black man to the White House that would somehow disappear and we would no longer have to grapple with that ... I think is a bit naïve."

As for President Trump, Coates had some harsh words. The subtitle of his new book of essays is "An American Tragedy," which he said might have been different if Mr. Trump had become more "presidential" after taking office.

"You see a president going to a region of the country that's been hit by a natural disaster and lofting paper towels into the audience," he said referring to Mr. Trump's visit Tuesday to hurricane-ravaged Puerto Rico.

Despite the fact that significant policies of Obama's presidency like Obamacare and the Iran nuclear deal remain intact, Coates said, "That doesn't give me much comfort."

Unlike President Trump, who seems to prioritize maintaining support within his base, President Obama didn't focus on the African-American community as much as Coates might have liked.

"Obama always had to find some way to somehow represent the community he came from and speak to a broader country at the same time. Now, there were people like me who were somewhat frustrated with some of those attempts and how that came out. But I was never unaware of what that meant and what that conflict meant and how special of a person you had to be to walk both lines like that," he said.

But Coates resists labeling his book as an "homage" to the former president, since it also takes him to task.

"I certainly have credited him for certain things. I think he was an extraordinary individual. I was not always a fan of how he addressed African-Americans and how he talked to the community," Coates said.