The Volokh Conspiracy

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On anti-Semitism and dog whistles


Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump.
Donald Trump on the campaign trail.

Back in November, I commented on a controversy about an allegedly anti-Semitic television ad produced by the Trump campaign:

The Post's Dana Milbank, reflecting widespread criticism in progressive circles, writes:

On Friday, [Trump] released a closing ad for his campaign repeating offending lines from that speech, this time illustrated with images of prominent Jews: financier George Soros (accompanying the words "those who control the levers of power"), Fed Chair Janet Yellen (with the words "global special interests") and Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein (following the "global power structure" quote). The ad shows Hillary Clinton and says she partners "with these people who don't have your good in mind."

I watched the ad when I first heard of the controversy, and while I can't logically rule out the possibility that someone intentionally chose to obliquely satisfy their anti-Semitic urges by including Yellen et al. in the ad, I found it hard to credit Milbank's claim that the ad shows that "anti-Semitism is no longer an undertone of Trump's campaign. It's the melody." Indeed, I doubt I would have noticed any potential anti-Semitic implications of the ad at all, had I not been alerted to them.

First, and in contrast to almost every article I've read about the ad, suggesting that Jews were somehow featured, the Jews in the ad only appear for a total of about four seconds in a two-minute ad. Second, only Yellen and Soros are identified by name. I doubt 1 in 20 voters even knows who Yellen is, much less her ethnic background. Moreover, neither has a recognizably Jewish name—if you were going for the anti-Semitic vote, why not use Clinton supporters far more well-known and identifiably Jewish, such as Steven Spielberg, Joe Lieberman, or even Sarah Silverman? I didn't know Yellen is Jewish. Third, Lloyd Blankfein is pictured, but not identified by name. How many voters would recognize Blankfein? I didn't. And how many of those know he's Jewish? Again, I didn't.

Various correspondents let me know that they thought I was being horribly naive, and that of course the ad was an "anti-Semitic dog whistle." International banker/finance types + Jews + conspiratorial messaging = anti-Semitism.

I had the opportunity to revisit this issue when I came across this statement today: "Americans below the top of the heap, with or without college degrees and regardless of race, have been ill served by the axis of Robert Rubin, Lawrence Summers, and the Davos-class donor base that during Bill Clinton's presidency helped grease the skids for the 2008 economic collapse and allowed the culprits to escape from the wreckage unscathed during Barack Obama's." Hmm. Only two villains are mentioned, and they are both Jewish. One (Rubin) has an obviously Jewish name and was treasury secretary under Bill Clinton. The second (Summers) is known for being outspoken on Jewish issues and served as director of the U.S. National Economic Council under President Barack Obama. Both have been involved in international finance, but neither had much of anything directly to do with the financial crisis, yet they are being blamed for it, along with their compatriots in a class of international (Davos) elites, a classic anti-Semitic trope.

I have little doubt that if Stephen K. Bannon, or someone else associated with Donald Trump, had written the sentence quoted above, it would be seen by many as an obvious anti-Semitic dog whistle, or maybe even as overt anti-Semitism, as "blaming the Jews" here seems far less subtle than in the ad described above.

It turns out, however, that the relevant sentence was written by liberal (and Jewish) pundit Frank Rich. If you read the sentence and thought it was anti-Semitic, does your opinion change because you know that Rich wrote it. Why? Because he's writing for predominately liberal audience? A far higher percentage of Democrats than Republicans thought that "the Jews" were to blame for the financial crisis. Because he's Jewish? Maybe he unconsciously picked up societal anti-Semitism. Because he has no history of anti-Semitism? Neither did Bannon.

If you're willing to condemn Rich's article along with the November Trump ad, I disagree, but at least you're being consistent. If you think only the Trump ad was anti-Semitic, but not the Rich column, might you be applying a double standard?