In the two weeks since the election of Donald Trump, we are already on dangerous footing. Last night, my wife and I watched with disgust and disbelief a clip circulating online of CNN pundits debating whether or not it would be politically expedient for the president-elect to clarify that Jews are, in fact, human beings. This abomination of a discussion was occasioned by remarks white nationalist and Trump supporter Richard Spencer made at a gathering of like-minded racists at the Reagan Building in Washington, D.C. In the CNN segment, Spencer says, “One wonders if these people are people at all, or instead soulless golem,” while beneath him runs a surreal “chyron,” or on-screen headline, reading “Alt-Right Founder Questions If Jews Are People.” Spencer’s views should not be taken seriously on any level, but as Sartre observed in his seminal 1948 Anti-Semite and Jew:
Never believe that anti-Semites are completely unaware of the absurdity of their replies. They know that their remarks are frivolous, open to challenge. But they are amusing themselves, for it is their adversary who is obliged to use words responsibly, since he believes in words. The anti-Semites have the right to play. They even like to play with discourse for, by giving ridiculous reasons, they discredit the seriousness of their interlocutors. They delight in acting in bad faith, since they seek not to persuade by sound argument but to intimidate and disconcert. If you press them too closely, they will abruptly fall silent, loftily indicating by some phrase that the time for argument is past. It is not that they are afraid of being convinced. … If then, as we have been able to observe, the anti-Semite is impervious to reason and to experience, it is not because his conviction is strong. Rather his conviction is strong because he has chosen first of all to be impervious.
Sartre’s observation holds not just for Jews but also for blacks, Muslims, immigrants, gays, or any other group that can be conveniently scapegoated. That Spencer said what he did is far less frightening than the fact that he now receives a reasoned, “let’s-present-both-sides-of-the-argument” national hearing. It points to the severity of the threat we now face: the expansion of what it is possible to say and, if we aren’t much more careful, what it will become possible to do.