The Politics of Fear

President Trump issued an executive order banning the entry of individuals from seven Muslim-majority countries for three months and from Syria indefinitely. Mass protests ensued, and as of today, a federal judge from the state of Washington placed a national stay on the order. There has been much debate, both before and after the executive order, asking whether or not the president supports racist policies. It has been argued that he couldn’t be racist, since his daughter and her family are Jewish. The core question, I think, is whether or not it is possible to support racist policies and engage in racist rhetoric without being actually racist.

I believe the issue is exemplified by the xenophobic and prejudicial attitude that has been his trademark, both personally and as a politician. When you fear and/or dislike those you deem strange or foreign, odds are you tend to associate with those you do like, namely people just like you. It then stands to reason that, barring firsthand interactions with those you dislike, your opinions about them will be shaped by broad brush stereotypes, which themselves were often created and spread by other xenophobes or hardcore racists (e.g., the blood libel against the Jews).

John O’Donnell, former president of the Trump Plaza Hotel and Casino, in a memoir quoted Trump as saying, after discovering there were African American accountants working at the property, “I’ve got black accountants at Trump Castle and at Trump Plaza — 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. Those are the kind of people I want counting my money. Nobody else. . . . Besides that, I’ve got to tell you something else. I think that the guy is lazy. And it’s probably not his fault because laziness is a trait in blacks. It really is; I believe that. It’s not anything they can control.” When asked during an interview whether the quote was accurate, Trump replied that it was probably true. In one outburst, he managed to insult two groups of people. But wait, you might say; he’s praising Jews for their business acumen. He wasn’t. He was parroting a stereotype that has been around since the Middle Ages.

During the campaign, Trump released an ad that showed pictures of George Soros, Janet Yellen and Lloyd Blankfein, all of whom are prominent Jews, while he railed against the “levers of power in Washington” and “global special interests” that threatened our country. That kind of rhetoric comes straight out of “The Protocols of the Elders Of Zion”, which was written by anti-Semites a hundred years ago. It would truly be astonishing if he and his campaign staff were ignorant of the parallels, especially with Bannon as his special advisor. If the similarities did escape his notice, however, the fact that he approved an ad that displayed pictures of Jews who are associated with finance during his condemnation of those he blamed for the ills of America again demonstrates how he has bought the stereotype of Jews and money, lock, stock and barrel. Furthermore, we would be delusional if we don’t believe that the white supremacists, neo-Nazis and other anti-Semites in the country didn’t watch that ad and say, “That’s right. It’s those Jews. So glad someone finally had the guts to say it.”

The problem with stereotypes is that they are tidy little boxes that claim to capture the “essence” of the people being stereotyped, but when you meet someone who is “that kind” of person, and you take the time and effort to know him, more often than not you do not find the stereotype. You meet someone who has his victories and defeats, his joys and challenges. You meet someone who is, by and large, an average person, living an average life, doing average things—nothing at all like the stereotype you expected. So how to reconcile the discrepancy? You must declare one incorrect or the another an anomaly. The hope is, in the grand experiment this melting pot of a nation has been, that as logical, sensible people, we would discard the stereotypes as incorrect. My concern is that Trump seems to take the latter approach: those in his inner circle who are not like him are anomalies rather than the norm, and consequently, those stereotypes remain intact and will continue to fuel his divisive rhetoric and policies.

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