In response to my look at Donald Trump’s final closing ad, which is unambiguously anti-Semitic, I thought I’d share my thoughts about whether Trump himself is an anti-Semite.
First it makes sense to settle on definitions.
Was famed GOP campaign wizard Lee Atwater a racist or did he just know instinctively how to use racism for political purposes, especially in the South? I’ve seen decades of discussion about this. It’s interesting in some ways. But it doesn’t really matter. Racism isn’t about what you think or feel. It’s about what you do. The same is true of anti-Semites. Fundamentally, it’s about what you do. If you really don’t have any problem with Jews but mobilize anti-Semitism for political ends, that’s just as bad as if you’re the most virulent anti-Semite. In some ways, it’s almost worst. True anti-Semites really believe Jews are evil. So within their warped mentality there is a logic and even righteousness to their actions. People who use anti-Semitism for cynical reasons are pretty close to being evil themselves. Even an ingrained anti-Semite might change their beliefs. Someone with no conscience will never grow one.
On the issue of Trump himself, I’ve studied up on him a good deal over the last eighteen months. I haven’t devoted a lot of time specifically to figuring out his attitudes about Jews. But that’s definitely a question I’ve examined. From the reporting I have read, my general belief is that Trump believes in various anti-Semitic stereotypes, probably largely drawn from his upbringing – time and place. But I don’t think he holds or did hold any particular animus toward Jews. Indeed, we have pretty reliable accounts of his thinking in anti-Semitic stereotypes in a way that people often interpret as philo-semitism. Like he wants Jews with yarmulkes as his accountants and money managers and not blacks. A former Trump executive claimed he said: “Black guys counting my money! I hate it. The only kind of people I want counting my money are short guys that wear yarmulkes every day.”
As those quotes would suggest, I think there’s much, much more evidence that anti-black racism has always been a much more driving force in Trump’s thinking, politics, hiring practices and so on.
There are certainly some claims of a darker form of anti-Semitism motivating Trump during his pre-campaign life. They don’t seem terribly convincing to me. Or perhaps it’s better to say, they do not seem well substantiated and the theory I’ve set forth above explains all the available evidence.
So how did the ad I analyzed yesterday come about?
My best guess is this.
Authoritarianism and xenophobia are longstanding features of Trump’s thinking and beliefs. Imagery of real Americans bled dry by foreigners, bad trade deals, ‘elites’ versus real Americans – all of this comes very naturally to Trump. It appeals to his zero sum worldview, his ingrained xenophobia and his own form of form of anti-elitism which seems tied both to his self-conception as a ‘blue collar’ billionaire and his failure to find recognition from more traditional elites. We’ve also seen how once Trump buys into a political storyline, a narrative of who’s good and who’s evil, his imagery, language and aggression become increasing florid and aggrieved.
In other words, I think Trump’s own beliefs, mentality and drives get you more than half way toward that the content of that ad. But Trump has surrounded himself with people from the transnational anti-Semitic, racist right. Steve Bannon is there at the top of the list but he’s not the only one. So a worldview which touches some anti-Semitic themes but isn’t inherently anti-Semitic gets packaged by folks who are anti-Semites and you get that kind of ad.
You can also see this in Trump’s speeches since his ‘unshackling’ – new vocabulary about ‘global special interests’, stuff that is similar, though not as extreme as the ad. Indeed, the ad actually is a speech, the very ominous and disturbing right nationalist speech Trump delivered on October 13th. The anti-semitic code words were all there. The ad just brought it all home by giving the visual cues for who the enemies were behind the phrases.
Is it possible that Trump himself doesn’t even realize what’s in that ad? In the sense of realize what the message is? I actually think that is possible. Trump’s Razor, after all.
My basic read on Trump is that what Trump buys into is right. 100% right. Anybody who doesn’t believe it is stupid and possibly evil. That’s the case even if what Trump chose to buy into was totally fortuitous or accidental. Once Trump buys in, all the aggression and narcissism kick in as though it’s his deepest, most long-held belief. We’ve seen through Trump’s campaign we’ve seen how Trump gravitates toward adoration, shifting his views, rhetoric and drives to find more of it. In this narrow and not terribly relevant respect I think it is quite possible or even likely that Trump is simply ignorant, oblivious or self-deluded.
But it doesn’t really matter. As a Jew and an American and a human, I don’t really care terribly what Trump thinks of Jews. It isn’t really relevant to my life or my family’s welfare or my country. The fact that he’s running a campaign that is propagating and mobilizing anti-Semitism, running blatantly anti-Semitic political ads in the hottest, final days of a national election is hugely important on all three of those fronts. The same applies to how he has mobilized and partly normalized anti-Semites, propagated their ideas, made them more defining in one of the country’s two political parties. And to be clear, this applies just as much to his racism and denigration of Latinos, blacks, Muslims and various other groups. I’m just focusing in this post on this one breed of Trump propagated hate.
So is Trump himself an anti-Semite? I have no idea. It doesn’t matter. He’s running an anti-Semitic campaign. That’s all that matters.