Trump, Populism, and Anti-Semitic Dog Whistles
Distinguishing between anti-elite populism and coded anti-Semitism is next to impossible.
Donald Trump’s closing advertising message is a much more polished version of the populism he’s been peddling all campaign:
Joe Scarborough really likes it:
GOP candidates who want to win Michigan, OH, PA & the White House in the future should borrow heavily from this ad.https://t.co/X2yka7RlVS
— Joe Scarborough (@JoeNBC) November 5, 2016
Dan Drezner really hates it:
Are you fucking kidding me? https://t.co/Mv6K2TH2UO
— Daniel W. Drezner (@dandrezner) November 5, 2016
Josh Marshall is much more explicit:
From a technical and thematic perspective it’s a well made ad. It’s also packed with anti-Semitic dog whistles, anti-Semitic tropes and anti-Semitic vocabulary. I’m not even sure whether it makes sense to call them dog whistles. The four readily identifiable American bad guys in the ad are Hillary Clinton, George Soros (Jewish financier), Janet Yellen (Jewish Fed Chair) and Lloyd Blankfein (Jewish Goldman Sachs CEO).
The Trump narration immediately preceding Soros and Yellin proceeds as follows: “The establishment has trillions of dollars at stake in this election. For those who control the levers of power in Washington [start Soros] and for the global [start Yellen] special interests [stop Yellen]. They partner with these people [start Clinton] who don’t have your good in mind.”
For Blankfein: “It’s a global power structure that is responsible for the economic decisions that have robbed our working class, stripped our country of its wealth and put that money into the [start Blankein] pockets of a handful of large corporations [stop Blankfein] and political entities.”
These are standard anti-Semitic themes and storylines, using established anti-Semitic vocabulary lined up with high profile Jews as the only Americans other than Clinton who are apparently relevant to the story. As you can see by my transcription, the Jews come up to punctuate specific key phrases. Soros: “those who control the levers of power in Washington”; Yellen “global special interests”; Blankfein “put money into the pockets of handful of large corporations.”
I must confess, even as a die-hard #NeverTrump guy who has grudgingly endorsed Clinton, I just don’t hear it. The nature of dog whistles is that they’re only audible to those tuned to the frequency. Perhaps my ears just aren’t.
On the late, lamented “Colbert Report,” Stephen Colbert played a caricature of a ring-wing talk show host. Among his many tropes was “I don’t see color.” Having spent most of my life in the South, I certainly see color. But anti-Semitism has to be extremely overt for me to notice it, in that I’ve always viewed all but the most ostentatiously Orthodox Jews as “white people.”
Certainly, the Trump campaign has attracted the enthusiastic support of something called the “alt-right,” a phenomenon of which I was completely unaware until a few months back. And there has been a widespread and ugly attacking of Jews on social media this cycle of the likes I’ve never seen. I’ve experienced it second-hand, mostly by virtue of Dan’s Twitter feed.
Yet, while I see Trump’s bashing of Mexicans and Muslims as extreme nativism at best and racism at worst, I don’t see him overtly bashing Jews.
The attacks on a “global power structure” and “large corporations” who are “robb[ing] our working class” seem very much out of Bernie Sanders’ and Elizabeth Warren’s playbooks. It’s pure economic populism. And Sanders is Jewish.
But, again, when I see a picture of Janet Yellen, I don’t think “Jew.” Ditto George Soros. I wouldn’t know Lloyd Blankfein if I ran into him in the lobby at Goldman Sachs (which is exceedingly unlikely; I’m not even sure they have a lobby). His name is sufficiently unusual that it triggers a Jewish association in a way that “Yellen” and “Soros” don’t.
The same, I think, is true of Scarborough, who’s roughly my contemporary and a fellow graduate of The University of Alabama. (Roll Tide!)
I announced in 12/15 that I wasn't voting for Trump because of the Muslim ban. I don't get the dog whistles but that's not saying others do. https://t.co/u2ICOYHH9A
— Joe Scarborough (@JoeNBC) November 6, 2016
I consider Lloyd a friend. I respect Soros and Yellin. I admire Merkel. My only point is our economic system is stacked against workers. https://t.co/bgI3NawBvH
— Joe Scarborough (@JoeNBC) November 5, 2016
Drezner and Scarborough have a good exchange on the economic populism issue following the initial salvo above; I won’t reproduce it here but commend it to you. While I don’t particularly like the ad in question—even presuming any anti-Semitic messaging was unintentional—I agree with Scarborough that the key to a viable Republican party is figuring out a way to cater to the very real needs that Trump, Sanders, and Warren have tapped into while simultaneously being inclusionary. The Trump ad moves in that direction, in that, absent the baggage of Trump and his campaign, it’s a message that could appeal to working class blacks and Hispanics just as well.
The problem, as Drezner and I note in the exchange, is that it’s very difficult, indeed, to craft an inclusionary populist message. Almost by definition, populism is anti-elite. Which gets us back into the “dog whistle” issue. The fact that Jews are well represented in elite sectors like finance, law, entertainment, journalism, and the academy means attacks on these sectors could well invoke anti-Semitic reactions. I don’t know how we can disentangle that.