Friday, May 13, 2016

Trump Implicitly Condones Anti-Semitism (redux): The Use of Stereotypes

I want to share a comment that I received on Facebook from a friend in response to my post Trump Implicitly Condones Anti-Semitism:

I guess he might not think of himself as an anti-Semite, but statements about Jews and money (“I only let short guys wearing yarmulkes handle my money” and “I know you folks won't listen to me because I don't need your money” and “you folks understand deal-making, am I right”) suggests at least a tendency to generalize and stereotype.

I think that the point the commenter makes is precisely right and is one of the things that I planned to write more about as the election draws closer. But it is worth contemplating the extent to which Trump’s statements that tend to pigeonhole people into discrete groups that are often defined by stereotypes (whether Mexicans, Muslims, Jews, or others) give his supporters a sort of framework or justification for their own prejudiced worldview.

Think of it this way: When Trump stereotypes Jews as being good with money, being rich and caring only about money, using their money to influence politics, and being good at “deal-making”, he is, in essence, playing into the ages-old stereotype of the rich, controlling, all-powerful Jew that is secretly pulling the strings of power and preventing others from succeeding in our society. Look at any anti-Semitic hate site and you will see Jews commonly described with these sorts of “attributes” (and those descriptions are neither generous nor favorable).

The odd thing, in Trump’s case, is that these stereotyped views aimed at Jews actually do seem to have been intended as compliments, but I’m not sure that all who hear these statements understand that intent or have the capacity to separate “good” stereotyped traits from the sort of stereotypes that lead to anti-Semitism. And no matter the intent of the use of the stereotyped, those within the group being stereotyped (in this case, Jews), almost universally take umbrage.

I believe that Trump’s use of stereotypes in his rhetoric emboldens his supporters to use similar rhetoric in expressing their own views; after all, if a billionaire, TV star, candidate for President can get away with saying certain things about certain people, then why can’t everyone else? Furthermore, Trump’s insistence that using harsh and divisive rhetoric is merely avoiding political correctness (a false charge I’ll address one of these days) gives cover to those who want to express their own racist or bigoted thoughts but who previously felt societal constraint from doing so.

Trafficking in stereotypes from a bully pulpit or soap box serves to perpetuate those stereotypes. When those stereotypes are negative or play upon people’s bigotry or fears, then the speaker, intentionally or otherwise, is stoking the flames of intolerance and hate. And the use of inherent characteristics as the basis upon which groups of people are identified and separated from the general core of the population, is a primary means by which demagogues acquire power as they give their supporters an external threat to fear and loathe in lieu of focusing on the real issues to which attention and discussion should be directed.

Trump may not be an anti-Semite but his use of traditional anti-Semitic stereotypes likely reassures those who are anti-Semites that their views are neither out of the mainstream nor wrong. Combine that with Trump’s refusal to repudiate those spewing anti-Semitic hate on his behalf and you have a situation from which it is hard to see any good result occurring. Those who oppose racism and bigotry and who support civil civic discourse, must work to call out the sort of stereotyping and worse that we’re hearing from Trump and his supporters. Before it’s too late.

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