Trump is an “Anti-Semite” (Says Jean-Paul Sartre)

Sartre’s portrait of the anti-Semite as a reactionary type throws a lot of light on Trump, and Trumpism related to social and political contradictions inherent in the liberal-democratic state. The key distinction (problematic but not entirely so) is what you find in Hannah Arendt writing in the same time-period in the wake of totalitarianism at mid-century. The conceptual distinction is between abstract liberal political order and formal legal rights and protections versus the elemental (Sartre calls is “primitive”) reality of society and social prejudice. In Europe, that social force is formed on the basis of Christian hegemony, which in the U.S. one would map out as white supremacy. The problem isn’t Trump, but society, but society is led by leaders who crystalize values and motivate a mass. That Trumpism bleeds into anti-Semitism and anti-Semitic conspiracy theory is an American sideshow, while also very much to the point.  In this respect at the very least, Trump is an “anti-Semite.” 

A historical time-piece in the French philosophical and political tradition, Anti-Semite and Jew is still worth a read. This was a passage that caught my attention. At issue in the passage is is not the Jews ore even anti-Semitism as such, but about the reactionary-totalitarian type and how this type reflects a force of “society” that eats against the “political” order of a liberal democracy. Whether or not Trump is an actual anti-Semite is beside the point here, although the way Trumpism taps into anti-Semitism is not. But here it is in a technical sense that one could read Trump and his circle into Sartre’s analysis of the “anti-Semite.”

Any anti‐Semite is therefore, in varying degree, the enemy of constituted authority. He wishes to be the disciplined member of an undisciplined group; he adores order, but a
social order. We might say that he wishes to provoke political disorder in order to restore social order, the social order in his eyes being a society that, by virtue of juxtaposition, is egalitarian and primitive, one with a heightened temperature, one from which Jews are excluded. These principles enable him to enjoy a strange sort of independence, which I shall call an inverted liberty. Authentic liberty assumes responsibilities, and the liberty of the anti‐Semite comes from the fact that he escapes all of his. Floating between an authoritarian society which has not yet come into existence and an official and tolerant society which he disavows, he can do anything he pleases without appearing to be an anarchist, which would horrify him. The profound seriousness of his aims — which no word, no statement, no act can express — permits him a certain frivolity. He is a hooligan, he beats people up, he urges, he robs; it is all in a good cause. If the government is strong, anti‐Semitism withers, unless it be a part of the program of the government itself, in which case it changes its nature. Enemy of the Jews, the anti‐Semite has need of them. Anti‐democratic, he is a natural product of democracies and can only manifest himself within the framework of the Republic”

About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish thought and philosophical aesthetics.
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