Back in 2008, I wrote a book that took a skeptical look at the phenomenon of paranoid conspiracy theory. Most of it, I learned, still follows the template that was laid down in THE PROTOCOLS OF THE LEARNED ELDERS OF ZION a century ago, which purports to reveal that organized Jewry is using socialism, popular culture, and its vast money power to undermine the moral and economic foundations of the Christian West, with the ultimate goal of ruling over it from a Davidic Superstate in Jerusalem. Dig past the surface of any subsequent New World Order conspiracy and you will soon recognize this same basic narrative, whether the antagonist is international Communism, the UN, race-mixing integrationists, or shape-shifting lizards. Since 9/11, Islamic Jihad and creeping sharia have been squeezed into the template as well.
The alt-right is a loose movement, born on the Internet, that has brought together and catalyzed a lot of the people who subscribe to these conspiracy theories. I see it as a product of a kind of Intersectionality in reverse. For all their differences with each other, its members see themselves as victims of a hegemonic Cultural Marxism that seeks to undermine whiteness, the traditional state, traditional religion, and traditional masculinity, and replace it with a globe-spanning reign of totalitarian political correctness.
Among their number are anti-feminist mens’ rightists, War of Civilization Islamophobes, scientific racists, Christian dominionists, classic anti-Semites, self-styled Libertarians, and even some radical Zionists. Donald Trump, a casual trafficker in conspiracy theories, racist dog whistles, and vulgar sexism, was their chosen candidate in 2016. After his victory, he installed Steve Bannon—the former chief executive of the Breitbart Report, the premier platform of the alt right—in the West Wing of the White House.
The election and its aftermath have been enough to make anyone believe in conspiracy theory, but I don’t and you shouldn’t. As Masha Gessen wrote in The New York Times last week, “the 2016 election was unimaginable…but we seem to have fallen into a trap: The unimaginable, happening out in the open day after day, not only continues to dull our defenses but also creates a need to see a conspiracy big enough, a secret terrible enough to explain how this can be happening to our country.”
Conspiracy theory has more to do with theology or literature than it does with history-as-it-is-lived, which is to say, politics. Conspiracy theory sees history as a well-crafted story, in which every character knows his or her role, and every twist propels the plot forward to a certain end. Jews have often been its antagonists, but we are not immune to the conspiracist temptation ourselves.
After Trump issued a statement on International Holocaust Remembrance Day that undercut Jewish ownership of the Holocaust, many were quick to connect the dots between his election and the cemetery desecrations and bomb threats against JCCs that were being reported in the news. When Trump floated the ridiculous idea that his Jewish enemies were planting false flags to discredit him as an antisemite, many believed that he had proven that he was.
I believe that too, but now I also know that, for whatever reason, an Israeli Jew phoned in some of those bomb threats. We live in a world in which there are Jewish victims and Jewish perpetrators, Jewish by-standers and Jewish allies, and in which some Jew-haters are Zionists and many anti-Zionists are Jews. Reality requires us to hold all sorts of things in our heads at once. The fact that some of them seem to contradict each other doesn’t necessarily mean they can’t all be true. Reality is not an equation.
Most of all, reality demands that we acknowledge that everything that happens isn’t about us. Antisemitism was and continues to be a real thing, but it is not the only thing. At our present moment, Islamophobia and racism loom much larger.