Resisting Racist Rhetoric, Trump or No Trump

If you’re a Donald Trump supporter, you’ve probably had the unpleasant experience of being compared to a Nazi at some point in the last few months. Media outlets and foreign observers alike have found numerous ways to associate Mr. Trump with Hitler; even respected public figures like Robert Kagan of the Brookings Institution andAnne Frank’s step-sister have joined the fray.

It is unsurprising to hear from my pro-Trump friends that this is enormously frustrating. One Trump supporterarticulates his enthusiasm for Mr. Trump as a countermeasure against the rampant political correctness that he thinks instigates this kind of name-calling. In today’s culture, he argues, issues like immigration policy are not debated honestly. Charges of racism can shut down a debate before it begins in a way that is antithetical to democracy for Americans of all races.

However, Mr. Trump’s aversion to political correctness does not necessarily create the thoughtful conversations his supporters seem to want. If someone desires reasonable dialogue, saying unpredictable things without supplemental nuance only swings the pendulum equally far in the other direction. Meanwhile, honest debate remains out of reach.

This, then, is the fundamental disconnect between Mr. Trump’s fans and detractors. When people see him read poems comparing refugees to snakes and hear him disqualify an American judge because he is Mexican, they are stunned by aggressive language that seems uninterested in respectful debate. Fearful of potential consequences, they overreact with harsh and unsavory comparisons. These comparisons infuriate Trump supporters, who feel misrepresented and slandered by an over-sensitive populace, and make it nearly impossible for civil dialogue to occur.

In this assessment of our political discourse, both sides presumably share one principle: a hatred for discrimination. This concern drives both the outrage of Trump antagonists and the offense taken by Trump apologists. How can we pursue this principle without losing it in a forest of partisan rhetoric?

As someone who has made similar comparisons when talking about Trump’s candidacy, perhaps a more nuanced version of my thoughts could help.

Part of the reason for the popularity of comparisons with Nazi Germany is that it is so familiar to us as Americans. While it is unlikely that America would fall to those levels, we are eager to prevent even miniscule versions of the racism that accompanied World War II-era Europe.

Historian Ian Kershaw, a leading expert on Nazi Germany, argues that “the road to Auschwitz was built by hate, but paved with indifference.” Not everyone in Germany was a racist. In fact, many Germans were largely ambivalent towards Nazi dogma about race. Without acquitting Germans of moral responsibility, Kershaw’sevidence suggests that German resentment towards Jews was largely a result of insidious manipulation from the Nazis.

Being actively aware of our biases can motivate us to consider the minds of our neighbors and inspire real change.

How could anything except blatant racism leave Germans susceptible to such obvious propaganda? “Indifference,” Kershaw argues. It didn’t take long before most of the Jewish population was out of sight and out of mind, removed from German towns and into ghettos. If a leader said that Jews were a threat to German safety, who could prove otherwise? With few personal connections to Jewish individuals, it was easier to disassociate humanity from heritage.

This indifference created an opening for conscious and unconscious dehumanization. One especially revolting piece of propaganda, a children’s book called "The Poisonous Mushroom," exemplified anti-Semitic Nazi propaganda by using grotesque illustrations to create feelings of disgust towards Jews. These kinds of feelings are not easily ignored or forgotten, especially in the absence of personal relationships with the targets of that disgust. And their impact, as demonstrated in modern research, is more insidious than you might expect.

One study proves that most social emotions, like envy, pride, and pity, activate a specific region of the brain necessary for social cognition (ie: the ability to consider someone’s mind – the very thing that makes people human). Disgust, however, does not activate this region. It is processed in an “anatomically distinct” region of the brain. This is why we can be disgusted by an inanimate object like a garbage can even though we would never pity it. Because disgust is not an exclusively social emotion, our bodies are programmed to feel it without human associations.

When we are disgusted by someone, there are only two ways to keep sight of the person’s humanity. The first is to have a social emotion activated. Kershaw explains that when the Nazis violently destroyed Jewish property on Kristallnacht (the Night of Broken Glass), German public opinion changed so dramatically from indifference to outrage that Nazi leaders specifically prohibited similar measures from ever being carried out publically again. Having seen the up-close-and-personal effects of Kristallnacht on their few remaining Jewish neighbors, the German people felt pity for them as fellow humans.

The second way to retain a humane perspective is more reliable but more difficult: make a conscious effort to consider the mind of the other person. Feelings of disgust, especially when accompanied by fear, tend to overwhelm any of our more charitable inclinations. One recent study found that when a sample of Americans displayed dehumanizing attitudes towards African Americans, Hispanic Americans, and Chinese, they did so regardless of whether or not they harbored pre-existing prejudice towards those groups.

This is where modern-day Hitler comparisons begin to intersect with real concerns. If most of us are told “you sound like Hitler,” we reasonably hear it as “you’re a racist.” But often its real intention is as a wake-up call, an antibody intended to expel any discriminatory viruses that have crawled covertly into our hearts.

When I react against the rhetoric of public figures like Donald Trump, I am not interested in flippant accusations. Name-calling may stir up emotions, but Christians – and all citizens, really – are called to a higher politics aimed at mutual understanding for the sake of doing what is right.

I am, however, interested in pushing all of us out of passive thought patterns about race relations and into active ones. It is dehumanizing to associate Mexicans with rapists, yet a passive perusal through the news leads us to do that very thing. Being actively aware of our biases can motivate us to consider the minds of our neighbors andinspire real change.

Our standards of judgment, then, cannot begin with what we feel. They must begin with the fact that others feel – people, just like us.

- Philip Kline is co-editor in chief of the student newspaper at Wheaton College, where he is a senior completing a political science degree.