The charges have been raised for some time. “Donald Trump is a racist!” “Donald Trump is an anti-Semite!” Is there anything to the charges?
Before we say anything about Trump in particular, we need to acknowledge that the public discourse is hampered by a crudely binary understanding of racism as if the choices are Grand Dragon of the KKK (i.e. a hopeless racist) or fearless civil rights campaigner (i.e. not a racist bone in one’s body).
But that is absurd. As with prejudice more generally, racism comes in degrees. Picture, for example, the enlightened liberal parents featured in the 1967 classic Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? These parents (played by Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn) would have voted for Hillary Clinton any day of the week. They viewed themselves as progressive, enthusiastic supporters of racial equality and the civil rights movement. That is, until their daughter became engaged to a black man (Sidney Poitier).
What does it mean to be a racist? It seems to me that it means you hold prejudicial attitudes regarding race. And there is no doubt that those “enlightened” parents, Matt and Christina Drayton, hold prejudicial attitudes which they had buried in their socially progressive worldview. Racial equality was wonderful … until it meant their daughter might marry a black man. Of course, the Draytons aren’t David Duke, but that doesn’t change the fact that they are racist.
The lesson is not that we can now write off the Draytons as racists and put them into a basket of retrograde deplorables. Rather, the lesson is that racism can be a very subtle prejudice, and that few if any of us are completely free of it.
It’s for this reason that I find the current discussion of Donald Trump and racism to be absurdly binary. Based on the publicly available evidence, I have no doubt that Trump holds racist attitudes. In his famous public roasting of Donald Trump at the 2011 White House Correspondents Dinner, Seth Myers summarized the situation well: “Donald Trump said recently he’s got a great relationship with ‘the blacks.’ Unless the Blacks are a family of white people, I bet he’s mistaken.” (See here.)
In my estimation the concern with Donald Trump is not simply that he is racist but that his racist attitudes appear to be more visible than those of other elected leaders and they appear to feed into a program for reshaping society. Along with a festering xenophobia, Trump’s prejudice is visibly shaping the public policy debate in a way that hasn’t been seen in years, from the Wall to the deportation force to the continued demonization of refugees with the wrong ethnicity and religion.
Trump may be a racist, but can he be considered an anti-Semite? This is a particularly explosive charge for obvious reasons. Yesterday Steven Goldstein squared off with Trump surrogate Kayleigh McEnany on the topic of Trump’s alleged anti-Semitism. It’s an unfortunate exchange full of fury and finger-wagging, and it exhibits the general denigration in civility within the public square:
McEnany suggests the fact that Trump has a Jewish son-in-law and Jewish children provides evidence that he doesn’t hold anti-Semitic attitudes. Granted, it does provide some modest all things being equal evidence. However, what McEnany fails to recognize is that one can hold racist attitudes toward groups while not extending that attitude to individuals from the group (e.g. because one has a personal relationship with that individual).
And there is a lot of evidence that Trump holds anti-Semitic attitudes, from the Star of David he used in an anti-Hillary corruption ad to his general reluctance to speak out against anti-Semitic attacks (as when he refused to address two questions on the topic at his press conference last week) to his ongoing relationship with Steve Bannon. Let me put it like this: if Uncle Dave behaved like this, I’d say he held anti-Semitic attitudes. I don’t see why Trump should be any different.
Racism is ugly whenever and wherever it appears. We’d all do well to reflect more on the extent to which we may have racist attitudes buried in our own psyche. Like the Draytons, we may not be as progressive as we think we are. But none of that changes the fact that Donald Trump exhibits racist attitudes often to an alarming degree, and they’re having a corrosive impact on the public discourse and the shaping of public policy.