The ‘Trope’ Trope

You keep using that word, I do not think it means what you think it means.

Kevin Drum wonders “Why Is ‘Trope’ So Popular on the Internet?

Let’s talk words for a bit. The reason this popped up today is because of Ilhan Omar’s tweets about AIPAC. Rep. Eliot Engel, chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, was typical in his use of the word today: “It is shocking to hear a member of Congress invoke the anti-Semitic trope of ‘Jewish money.’ ” The word trope, in my experience, mostly seems to be used the way Engel uses it here: when you need something a little fuzzy that doesn’t quite say what you’re really thinking. In this case, for example, what Engel really means is slur or conspiracy theory or something of the sort. But that’s a little harsh for a fellow Democrat, so trope it is.

In this case, though, it’s especially unsuitable. Here’s the dictionary definition:

trope [trohp] | noun any literary or rhetorical device, as metaphor, metonymy, synecdoche, and irony, that consists in the use of words in other than their literal sense.

In response to a tweet about US politicians defending Israel, Omar tweeted “It’s all about the Benjamins baby 🊀” and then made clear just whose money she was talking about “AIPAC!” That’s as literal as it gets. What’s more, the historical background of the belief revolves around secret Jewish money and is the farthest thing from a metaphor you could imagine. On the contrary, it’s a longstanding and quite literal belief that Jews control vast sums of money and use it to bribe and control politicians all over the world.

The answer to Drum’s titular question, I think, is simply that “trope” is a literary word that’s uncommon in ordinary conversation but something of a term of art in political and media critiques. (“Risible” is another example that comes to mind; one never hears it in ordinary conversation but encounters it quite often online.)

In defense of Elliot, however, “trope” has a second meaning—and it’s the one that I usually encounter:

: a common or overused theme or device : CLICHÉ
// the usual horror movie tropes

The folks at Wikipedia add another helpful insight:

The term trope derives from the Greek τρόπος (tropos), “turn, direction, way”, derived from the verb τρέπειν (trepein), “to turn, to direct, to alter, to change.” Tropes and their classification were an important field in classical rhetoric. The study of tropes has been taken up again in modern criticism, especially in deconstruction. Tropological criticism (not to be confused with tropological reading, a type of biblical exegesis) is the historical study of tropes, which aims to “define the dominant tropes of an epoch” and to “find those tropes in literary and non-literary texts”, an interdisciplinary investigation of which Michel Foucault was an “important exemplar.”

While I doubt Elliot recognized it, he was deconstructing Omar’s tweet. And saying that she was using a “trope”—a tired literary device—is safer than claiming that she’s a bigot because it’s much easier to point to other examples of that device being used than to analyze the workings of her brain.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Stormy Dragon says:

    Complaining about a common usage of a word because its current usage no longer complies with the traditional usage (usually while ignoring the ample documentation of that current usage) is also a trope.

  2. Kit says:

    When ideas fail, words come in very handy.
    — Goethe

  3. Roger says:

    @Stormy Dragon: Your trope begs the question of what we are supposed to call it now when someone engages in question-begging.

  4. Kylopod says:

    I think I first got into using the word because of the site TV Tropes (which I’ve discussed here before), where it’s sort of a synonym to “cliche”–but much broader. That’s natural because the site deals with movies, TV, literature, and the like, and yet many of its tropes include “real life” examples.

    So for instance, one of its tropes is “black best friend.” Is this a cliche? It could be. But pretty much any movie where a white character happens to have a black friend, the site gives it a mention. There’d be no reason to highlight it except due to a belief that it reflects an insidious tendency in movies and TV to cast black actors in supporting roles just in order to show the white lead’s racially enlightened attitudes. And it’s related to the real-life trope “Some of my best friends are X” (which the site also has an entry for), that favorite catch-phrase of bigots in denial.

    So the way the site uses the word “trope,” it’s almost like a term for a general category of some overall tendency–usually in an art form but often extending into the real world. And I think it has slightly negative connotations, because while tropes are inescapable to some degree, they usually imply some level of unoriginality. If you don’t notice it’s a trope, you risk being a prisoner to it.

  5. Kathy says:

    Most people, myself included, wind up deducing the meaning of several words through things like context and usage.

    I took “trope” to mean something like stereotype or dog-whistle. I think I wasn’t too far off if it means “cliche.”

    Listening to McWhorter’s podcasts on linguistics, too, has convinced me that word usage changes, and there’s little to be done about it.

  6. Kathy says:


    Have you noticed some people like cliche in their entertainment?

    Take the case of “Clear and Present Danger.” In both the Clancy book and the movie, the drug lords compromise the FBI director’s secretary, using a Cuban defector to do so. In both the book and the movie, the drug lords kill the FBI director. In the book, the Cuban defector is livid they’ve rendered his hard-earned intelligence asset inside the FBI useless. In the movie, he’s oblivious to the loss and merrily kills her a few takes later.

    I thought that was terribly screenwriting when I was watching the movie. A man seating behind me in the theater, told his companion, “She knew too much.” OMG!

    I think that’s why people get upset at movies or TV shows, or books I suppose, that don’t follow the conventions. Like “The Last Jedi”. It comes down, I often fear, to this scene from Pinky and The Brain:

    Brain: I thought you wanted something new and different.

    Broadway producer: Your play is too new, too different. I meant different enough so we won’t get sued.

  7. An Interested Party says:

    So…it is anti-Semitic to accuse AIPAC of paying politicians to take pro-Israel stances, even though

    It is entirely correct that the idea of Jewish money controlling the world is an old antisemitic trope. At the same time, there’s no question that Jewish money is deployed in defense of Israel in the form of US campaign contributions. And there’s no question that everyone believes money drives politics.

    So is this something Ilhan Omar is allowed to say because it’s a commonplace observation? Or is she not allowed to say it because it’s an old antisemitic trope? And does the answer depend on the fact that she’s Muslim and a frequent critic of Israel?

    Of course, there might not even be a need for the BDS movement if Israel wasn’t ruled by a hardline Likud government that doesn’t have any interest in making peace with the Palestinians and seems to be much more concerned with gobbling up as much of the West Bank as possible…

  8. Todd says:

    @An Interested Party:

    For me, if you prefix “conservative” in front of a word it changes the meaning.

    For instance …

    I don’t have a problem with Christianity, but it’s been my experience that many conservative Christians are hypocritical assholes.

    I don’t oppose all Republicans; in fact I still occasionally vote for some at the local level. But again in my experience, self-described conservative Republicans are pretty much always wrong … about almost everything.

    And finally, as to your point, I like Jewish people just fine. But from what I can tell, the conservative government of Israel regularly engages in some pretty awful actions and policies. Criticizing them is not criticizing all Jewish people … just the conservatives running that government.

  9. Modulo Myself says:

    Drum is not very correct here. The sun rises every day, and yet sunrises are also metaphoric. A painting of a sunrise is a cliche, but knowing what time the sun rises is not. It’s useful information. Or Jewish people–trust me on this–have money. Some Jewish people are even rich and powerful. You are allowed to say this. But Jewish money is also a metaphor for anti-semites. Or lobbies. Lobbies are very powerful. AIPAC is a powerful lobby. But AIPAC could also be an arm of the Jewish influence. Rod Dreher is going on about the antichrist–maybe they’re all part of the same NWO alliance.

    But considering that many Jewish people are standing behind Ilhan Omar, I’m going to say that we don’t know anything beyond the fact that both interpretations could be correct–she was making a factual claim about AIPAC as a lobby or she was talking about the ‘Jews’.

  10. Modulo Myself says:

    I would also note that tons of liberals who believe that Trump is being blackmailed/controlled by Putin (which is probably true) are shocked when somebody says Israel–that nice country which seems to have stolen American uranium–has influence in this country.

  11. KM says:

    One of the reasons stereotypes and bigotry are terrible things is they complicate discussing real world issues when they happen to resemble bigotry in question and thus hamper meaningful action. For instance, when discussing urban crime rates you will always gets someone screaming “13%!! It’s always ‘dem &%#*$()” and the topic gets derail by racism. However, there is still the issue of young black men dying violently, often caused by other young black men in gang violence. The key is to be able to discuss the issue as the issue itself and not let negativity, bias or hate influence the debate and attempted resolution

    AIPAC is a lobbying group and therefore money is involved. As they are a stated pro-Jewish group, it can be therefore reasoned it’s Jewish money being used to lobby and therefore influence politics. This is *not* bigotry to point out since that’s literally what a lobbying group is *for* – representing their clients’ interests and pushing for legislation favorable to them. It’s *not* bigotry to point out that lobbyists control Congress-critters for their own agenda and that’s often money. What would have been bigotry would have been her griping that no sweet AIPAC money was headed her way because of those damn Jews and where’s her cut? What would have been bigotry would have been her noting that “nothing gets done” without AIPAC approval (obv untrue) and that “they control everything” in Congress like the conspiracy theories of old.

    We’re so used to looking for Antisemitism we’re starting to equate any sort of perceived criticism of something Jewish with bigotry.

  12. charon says:

    @Modulo Myself:

    are shocked when somebody says Israel–that nice country which seems to have stolen American uranium–has influence in this country.

    I would say it’s a bit biased to zero in on AIPAC influence while not noticing/mentioning how supportive of Israel the Christian Right and organized conservative Christianity is.

    BTW, my expat experience living for years in a Muslim country is they don’t like jews all that much.

  13. charon says:


    David Leonhardt at the Times:

    Omar’s tweet turned into yesterday’s biggest political story. Her defenders argued that she wasn’t being anti-Semitic, because Aipac, the main pro-Israel lobbying group, and its members do spend significant sums of money to influence American politics.
    I find that explanation unpersuasive.

    It’s one thing to argue that campaign donations and other political spending play a role in congressional support for Israel. They do, much as political spending affects tax policy, health care, climate change and many other issues. But it’s factually wrong to say that congressional support for Israel is “all about” money.

    The support also reflects Israel’s popularity among American voters and its longtime alliance with the United States. Most members of Congress who support Israel — including many who I think are too dismissive of its human rights violations — do so for genuine reasons. They believe what they’re saying. They haven’t been bought off.

    Claiming otherwise is a double whammy: It’s inaccurate, and it traffics in an ancient bit of bigotry.

    I am glad Omar apologized yesterday. “Anti-Semitism is real, and I am grateful for Jewish allies and colleagues who are educating me on the painful history of anti-Semitic tropes,” she said. It was a classy move, as The Washington Post’s Dana Milbank noted.

    Her apology also raised a question about the Republicans who were so quick to criticize her: Will they also be willing to criticize the anti-Semitic stereotypes that President Trump has used in television advertisement and tweets? Or are they O.K. with anti-Semitism as long as it comes from other Republicans?

    Related, from my colleagues: Bret Stephens recently took progressives to task for what he calls their assault on Israel, and Michelle Goldberg writes that Omar’s tweets distract from important criticisms of Israel. On a recent episode of “The Argument” podcast, I moderated a debate between Bret and Michelle.

  14. Michael Reynolds says:

    I’m ethnically Jewish. Of course ‘we’ deploy money to influence politicians. Duh. So do Greeks, Armenians, Irish, Arabs and any number of other ethnic, national or religious groups with ties to ‘the old country’ or with specific asks. Evangelical Christians are known to spend quite a bit influencing elections. It’s not even American Jews dominating Congress on matters Israeli, it’s right-wing evangelical Christians.

    It is perfectly legitimate to criticize the government of Israel, I do it, most American Jews do. But BDS is anti-semitic. The BDS supporters are straining at a gnat and letting a herd of camels pass through the needle. Are the Israelis the world’s worst human rights abusers? Good God, not even close, they don’t even reach the third tier of asshole governments. But they are the target of BDS.

    Are the Israelis even the worst of our allies when it comes to human rights? No. Turkey, Egypt, Jordan, the Philippines, the UAE, Qatar, Saudi Arabia are all worse, and allies like Hungary are on their way. Yet we don’t sanction any of those countries. Why? Jews, duh. Anti-semitism.

  15. An Interested Party says:

    We are told that Israel is the only democracy in the Middle East…we are told that Israelis have more freedom than anyone else in the Middle East…while it is nice to single out Israel for its strengths, can we also not single it out for its weaknesses? Since it does hold to higher standards than other Middle Eastern countries, its government acting like a colonial power towards the Palestinians is all the more glaring…it is expected that Iran, Iraq, Syria, and even lately, Turkey will all have human rights abuses, but Israel is supposed to be better than those other places…

    Apparently it bears repeating, but it is not anti-Semitic to be opposed to the policies of the current Likud government…

  16. DrDaveT says:

    Drum wrote:

    Here’s the dictionary definition

    …and thereby proves that he is unqualified to comment on language, usage, grammar, etc. Anyone who can use the phrase “the dictionary definition”, as if there were only one dictionary (and only one definition), is at best an ignorant amateur.

    Wow, the word ‘trope’ has acquired a new usage over the last 30 years, and Kevin Drum didn’t notice. That must be everyone else’s fault…