How the GOP brought antisemitism from the margins to the White House

How the GOP brought antisemitism from the margins to the White House

July 09, 2020

Originally published here.

On March 25, 2019, Republican Representative Mo Brooks took to the floor of Congress and read aloud a passage from “Mein Kampf.” Brooks, who represents Alabama’s 5th District, claimed that by initiating impeachment proceedings against Trump, the Democrats were perpetrating the “Big Lie” — a propaganda technique Hitler accused German Jews of using, which involves creating a fiction so massive no one could believe it was an invention. Throughout his speech, Brooks repeatedly referred to Hitler and the Nazi party as “socialists” in an effort to imply political proximity to the Democrats.

A few days later, Donald Trump, Jr. gave an interview to TruNews, a far-right racist website that most recently drew attention for referring to Trump’s impeachment as a “Jew Coup.” Just over a week later, on April 6, President Trump told an audience at a Republican Jewish event that Benjamin Netanyahu was their prime minister, invoking the antisemitic “dual loyalty” trope, which holds that Jews are more loyal to the Jewish community worldwide (or, more recently, to Israel) than they are to their own countries.

As much as observers were shocked by these incidents, this was a fairly typical fortnight in contemporary U.S. politics. As a new website, How to Fight Antisemitism, shows, rarely a week goes by without the GOP engaging in antisemitic rhetoric or actions, or enabling the wider ecosystem of white nationalism it has emboldened in recent years.

The website — which is part of a broader campaign against white nationalism launched earlier this year by progressive Jewish group Bend the Arc — aims to educate the wider public on the explosion in far-right antisemitic incidents since Trump became the Republican presidential nominee.

The timeline, which stretches from May 2016 to the present, reveals what Sophie Ellman-Golan, an independent strategist who created the website with Bend the Arc, calls a “staggering” track record of antisemitism directly or indirectly linked to the Republican Party.

With more than 150 entries on the timeline, the list of incidents is too widespread and diverse to summarize. But picking months at random is instructive. A look at August 2019, for example, shows that Minnesota Representative Tom Emmer claimed Jewish billionaires have “bought Congress.” Trump called American Jews disloyal if they voted for Democrats.

October 2019? Trump called Jewish Democratic Congressman and head of the House Intelligence Committee Adam Schiff “shifty,” using an antisemitic dog whistle about dishonest Jews. Donald Jr. tweeted that a White House whistleblower was a “puppet” of Hungarian-Jewish financier George Soros — joining far-right populists around the world in suggesting Soros is behind whatever their present government’s enemy of the day is, and thus invoking a longstanding conspiracy claiming shadowy global Jewish control.

And just last month, Republican Representative Ben Carpenter of Alaska argued that Hitler was not a white supremacist, but rather “fearful of the Jewish nation.” Trump, while delivering a speech at a Ford factory, declared that Henry Ford, an inveterate antisemite and purveyor of “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion,” had “good bloodlines.”

In addition to the litany of antisemitic rhetoric, the website also lists an extensive array of connections between high-profile white nationalists and Republican politicians, candidates, and strategists. One example Ellman-Golan cites is the posed photograph featuring Kimberly Guilfoyle, a senior advisor to the Trump campaign and Donald Trump Jr.’s girlfriend, and Jovi Val, a notorious neo-Nazi, taken at a Women’s National Republican Club event in New York in January 2019.

In a more recent example, former Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who is running for his old Senate seat, sent out a fundraising email in May penned by white nationalist Michelle Malkin. Malkin, who has dabbled in Holocaust denial, assured potential supporters that “Jeff understands the dangers of globalism” (as the How to Fight Antisemitism website points out, “globalists” is antisemitic code for “Jews”).

Ties between white nationalists, the GOP, and the Trump orbit are nothing new, of course — they have been in place since at least May 2016, according to the first entry on the timeline, when the Trump campaign selected a white nationalist delegate for California. Yet the How to Fight Antisemitism website makes clear that this state of affairs, as with antisemitic rhetoric, is not the exception but the rule.

Although it is plausible, as Ellman-Golan acknowledges, that some of these Republican figures may not always be aware of the politics of everyone they fraternize with, there should be at least one question on people’s minds: “Why do so many Nazis flock to the Republican Party?”

Mainstreaming far-right conspiracy theories

Despite the extensive evidence of widespread far-right antisemitism, much of the public discourse has focused on antisemitism on the left, or on antisemitism by non-white individuals who are inaccurately characterized as acting on a left-wing political agenda. A 2018-19 study by Media Matters for America, a progressive media watchdog, shows that in the 11 months following the Tree of Life synagogue shooting in October 2018, mainstream media discussed antisemitic rhetoric on the left more than antisemitic violence on the right.

Part of the reason for this, Ellman-Golan says, is a well-coordinated right-wing campaign to paint the Democrats as the “party of antisemitism.” On March 10, 2019 — two weeks before Brooks quoted from Mein Kampf in Congress — Wyoming Republican Senator Liz Cheney, the third-ranking Republican House member, told NBC’s “Meet the Press” that since regaining control of the House in the November 2018 midterms, the Democrats had become “the party of antisemitism, the party of infanticide, the party of socialism.”

Two days later, Cheney repeated these exact terms during a press conference on Capitol Hill, stating that the House GOP’s “big, overall message” would be to connect the Democrats to this trifecta of accusations as part of its 2020 election strategy.

The fact that this strategy has met some success is down to a range of factors. One, says Bend the Arc CEO Stosh Cotler, is that many Americans — including progressives — are less familiar with what antisemitism is and how it manifests than with other forms of oppression. “Antisemitism can be difficult for all people to recognize, including Jews,” Cotler explains. “So when the general public is being told through a very well-funded, right-wing message machine that antisemitism is most dangerous coming from the left, we need to be actively refuting it while lifting up a more accurate reflection of what is really true.”

There is a historical component to the right’s success in claiming that antisemitism is more prevalent on the left. As Cotler notes, the political right has “essentially owned the definition of antisemitism” since the 1960s, with the emergence of what was termed the “new antisemitism.” The theorists behind this strand of thought pointed to the radical left, the Soviet Union, and Muslim countries as the major contemporary proponents of Jew-hatred, while conflating anti-Zionism and antisemitism.

Moreover, says Bend the Arc Senior Strategist Dove Kent, there is a legacy of right-wing messaging that blames antisemitism on anyone but white Christians.

“The people on the left who Republicans have accused of antisemitism are Black women, Muslim women, and Arab women, and we have a long story that says that Black people, Arab people, and Muslims are more antisemitic than other communities,” says Kent. Although, she adds, the data in fact shows that white Christians are the most antisemitic group in the United States, “there’s a story that’s been told to us by white supremacy which says that those [non-white groups] are the groups that hate Jews. So it then becomes very believable to audiences receiving this message that these women would be virulent antisemites.”

Another part of the campaign aimed at obfuscating the sources of antisemitism, Kent continues, involves relying on the other side of the story told by white supremacy — that white Christian men, who form “the grand majority” of antisemitic actors on the far right, “are neutral and safe.”

The efficacy of this strategy is made clear by remarks made by Republican Representative Matt Gaetz, who in October 2018 became the first person to mainstream the antisemitic conspiracy theory that George Soros was “paying” the migrant caravan making its way into the United States from South America. Gaetz’s theory, which originated in obscure corners of far-right social media, was rapidly picked up by Trump, Fox News, and other far-right commentators.

By October 22, the conspiracy theory had reached up to 370 million people, according to a study undertaken by Bend the Arc and Political Research Associates, a think tank that focuses on the far right. That was also the day a property manager at Soros’ New York home found a pipe bomb addressed to Soros in the mailbox, sent by Cesar Sayoc, a hardcore Trump supporter who mailed similar devices to a string of other prominent critics of the president. During Sayoc’s trial, his defense lawyer told the court that Sayoc saw Trump as a “father figure” and that “the president’s rhetoric” contributed to the defendant’s behavior.

By October 27, the day that a white nationalist shot and killed 11 worshipers in the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, the lie about the migrant caravan and Soros had reached up to 670 million people on Facebook and Twitter alone. The shooter, who had previously posted about the migrant caravan conspiracy theory, targeted the temple at least in part because it had hosted a special event for refugees earlier that year.

The origins of this conspiracy theory’s induction into the mainstream have, as Kent notes, largely slipped out of view — an omission she calls “extremely concerning.” “A member of the U.S. Congress is moving conspiracy theories from extremist sites into the mainstream, which within a few weeks are leading American Jews to be killed, and yet no one is mentioning the name Matt Gaetz in any connection to the Pittsburgh shooting,” she says.

The relatively low level of censure directed at Gaetz for his tweet is comparable to that directed at then-House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, who in between the pipe bombs and the shooting sent out a now-deleted tweet suggesting that wealthy Jews were stealing the midterm elections. Both sets of responses pale in comparison to the reaction that Ilhan Omar, the Democratic Representative of Minnesota, received after she tweeted about AIPAC in early 2019. Her tweets, which some felt invoked an antisemitic trope about Jews buying political influence, received prolonged, wall-to-wall media coverage, prompted a condemnatory House resolution, and are still regularly cited by those striving to paint the Democrats as “the party of antisemitism.”

For Kent, this disparity is stark evidence of a two-pronged Republican campaign that at once inflates and suppresses information in order to misrepresent where the real threat to Jews is coming from. “People assume they’re always hearing about major events, but what they’re hearing are the results of campaigns people are waging in one direction or the other,” she says. “There’s been no campaign to expose antisemitism on the right, so people haven’t heard about it.”

Connecting antisemitism to surge in overall hate crimes

Key to redirecting the focus on antisemitism back to the GOP, says Cotler, is connecting it to the overall rise in bigotry and hate crimes that accompanied Trump’s ascendance to the presidency. To that end, the “We Rise As One” campaign, which the How to Fight Antisemitism website is part of, has both Trump and white nationalism in its sight. A core part of pushing white nationalists back out of power, Cotler emphasizes, is a narrative fight that pushes back on Republican efforts to divide Jews and their natural allies, who are also endangered by the current administration.

Kent concurs, noting that attacks on all minority communities have increased “astronomically” since Trump took power. Yet, she says, “there’s a campaign to ensure that the increase in antisemitic attacks is not connected to the increase in attacks on Black and brown people, immigrants, trans people, Asian-Americans, Native people.”

It’s therefore crucial, Cotler stresses, that American Jews recognize that “when the political right weaponizes antisemitism, it’s a deliberate attempt to deflect from their own antisemitism and to create wedges between us that none of us can afford to have.”

The surge in American-Jewish progressive activism over the past few years suggests that this message has already embedded itself in significant parts of the community. “Jews are not fooled by Republicans’ attempts to demonize the Democratic Party as the party of antisemitism,” Cotler says. Despite GOP efforts to “actively create disinformation” about where antisemitism is most concentrated, most American Jews are clear that while antisemitism is found in all areas of society, “it is the political right that is organizing, mobilizing, and leveraging antisemitism, particularly in its most physically violent forms,” she adds.

Nonetheless, there is a persistent mismatch between the consistent, vocal stance that progressive Jewish groups such as Bend the Arc, Jews for Racial and Economic Justice, and IfNotNow have taken on the issue of right-wing antisemitism and that taken by large parts of the American-Jewish establishment, such as the Anti-Defamation League and the American Jewish Committee. While these organizations and their leaders have at times voiced criticism of Trump, they have generally refrained from drawing direct connections between rising antisemitism and the current government.

For Cotler, this phenomenon reflects these organizations’ claim to be, and desire to be seen as, “apolitical” — a stance they believe would be jeopardized by holding the right responsible for antisemitism when the Republican Party is in power. But, she continues, “everything is political. Everything is about power, who has it, the abuse of it, who’s using it to transform society toward a positive, equitable place, and who’s using it to do the opposite.” In this vein, “silence is also political, and in their silence they are being political, whether they would say that about themselves or not.”

Equally, says Ellman-Golan, many mainstream American-Jewish institutions are thrown off course in their assessment of the Trump administration due to the “reorientation of viewing antisemitism through the lens of support for or opposition to the State of Israel and its government and policies.

“That’s the primary framework, and when that’s your primary framework, there’s not a lot [of antisemitism] that comes from the Republican Party because you have so many Christian evangelicals professing how much they love Israel, while also being pretty antisemitic,” Ellman-Golan explains. Kent also sounds the alarm about this status quo, calling it “a dangerous misunderstanding for who it leads us to be in political partnership with.”

Ellman-Golan believes this dynamic is morally and politically untenable. “The American-Jewish community votes 70-80 percent Democratic,” she says. “For a lot of institutional leaders there’s a desire to overcompensate to appeal to that other 20-30 percent, rather than meeting the majority where they’re at. But when one party is actively working toward fascism, and the other one is not, that’s no longer possible.”

Antisemitism in the age of coronavirus

George Soros’ name has been doing the far-right rounds again over the past few months — first in connection with the COVID-19 pandemic, and then in connection with the nationwide protests that followed the killing of George Floyd by a white police officer who knelt on his neck for almost nine minutes. Bill Mitchell, an ultra-conservative commentator and Trump supporter, has repeatedly demanded authorities arrest Soros over the current unrest. (Mitchell made the same demand just before and just after the pipe bomb was discovered at Soros’ home.)

The conspiracy theory on both fronts is largely the same — that Soros is somehow fomenting, funding, and benefiting from the chaos of the United States’ worst public health crisis in living memory, as well as the historic protests against racist policing and police brutality.

Beyond the invocation of Soros and “globalists” more broadly, the most visible surge in antisemitism during the pandemic era has been at the anti-lockdown protests that proliferated throughout April and May. From Ohio to California to Michigan, far-right protesters brandished signs variously calling Jews “the real plague,” and comparing stay-at-home orders to Nazism and the responsible governors to Hitler, replete with giant swastikas.

At the same time, says Ellman-Golan, “there’s a lot of red-baiting going on, lumping together the Nazis with communists, socialists, and the USSR,” much as Brooks did on the floor of Congress over a year ago.

Ultimately, the renewed spike in antisemitism since the COVID-19 outbreak has been one of the many existing crises highlighted and exacerbated by the pandemic — an unveiling further accelerated by the ongoing protests against police violence and systemic racism. Antisemitism has historically swelled in periods of political and social instability, and it is no different in 2020 — a year in which, Cotler says, Americans face the “real possibility of moving into a period in which we see democracy completely eviscerated.” The other option, she continues, is “building an inclusive, multiracial democracy — which is something we’ve never actually seen in the United States.”

Which path is taken will be partly dictated by overcoming what Kent calls a “degree of denial… that we have an extremist movement in this country on the rise, which has antisemitism at its core and that has a clear path to power.” The How To Fight Antisemitism project has set itself the task of challenging that denial — even as the timeline continues to grow.