Anti-Semitism and the Alt-Right

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.

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Blood and Soil

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Steve Bannon emerged from the shadows yesterday to descant on his vision for our future for CPAC.

If you’re not scared by the phrase “deconstruction of the administrative state,” then how about “new political order”? I’m terrified by both.

“We’re a nation with an economy, not an economy just in a global marketplace with open borders, but we’re a nation with a culture and a reason for being and I think that’s what unites us.” The syntax is a little tangled, but the drift is clear. That culture and reason for being is white and “Judeo-Christian,” as I believe they still put it, at least when Jared is within earshot. We’re talking about blood and soil here.

What scares me the most is the prospect of this administration settling down into some semblance of normalcy and driving legislation through Congress, which it will in the next few months. If you take the temperature of left wing social media, you’d think that Trump and Trumpism are on the brink of collapse. But if you look at Republican America, they are 100 percent behind it and its right wing agenda, even when that agenda hurts them, even when it’s diametrically opposed to what it was, say, a year ago, and everything that their fourth grade civics teachers taught them about American values and the American way. You need to go back to the 1930s (or the 1790s or the mid-19th century) to see how this kind of collective madness plays out. And yes, we were spared the worst of it back then. We might have had a president Huey Long or Lindbergh but we didn’t. We elected Lincoln just when things reached their tipping point in the 1800s. Trump is no Lindbergh or Long, but Bannon is very much a Himmler.

Through the Looking Glass

Last Thursday was the 67th anniversary of Joe McCarthy’s Wheeling speech, in which he declared that the Democratic Party was “the bedfellow of international Communism,” working hand-in-glove with Stalin. Eight years later, Robert Welch circulated the broadside that would later be published as “The Politician,” in which he accused Eisenhower, the Republican president of the United States, of being a “conscious dedicated agent of the Communist Conspiracy.” For historians of conspiracy theory, these are high water marks of lunacy, but as I wrote in THE NEW HATE, they were neither the first nor the last times that a political party or even a president was or would be accused of subversion. All the way back in 1800, Jefferson had been said to be an agent of the Godless Illuminati. And as recently as 2012, Allen West, the Republican Representative of Florida’s Twenty-second district at the time, said that 78 or 81 members of the Democrats in the US Congress were members of the Communist Party.

“For many the American dream has become a nightmare,” Bernie Sanders said. And now with the ascendancy of Donald Trump, one of the oldest American fever dreams has become a banal reality.

Russia, of course, is no longer Communist, but it does make you wonder…. What will historians say about our present moment?

Flynn Gets Voted Off the Island

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1) The infighting, back-stabbing, and chaos in the West Wing are a feature, not a bug of Trump’s presidency. Reality shows turn on the Machiavellian wiles of their grotesque characters.

2) The weekly circus at Mar-a-Lago is to Trump’s incumbency what the heartland rallies were to his campaign. Now that he has won the White House, he can stay in his comfort zone, basking in the gaze of the rich suppliants who pay to play.

3) Trump’s right-wing agenda is a McGuffin; the prize that keeps his show’s plot boiling. It could change at any moment and almost certainly will, as its ratings ebb and flow.

4) The Trump Show’s eponymous star is so narcissistic and delusional that he’s forgotten that he works for its producers and sponsors, who actually care about that agenda, and not just for himself.

4) They may have already mounted a coup.

Yes, It’s This Bad: A Note in a Bottle to the Future

1) Trump and his family are the Kardashians, which is to say, unfathomably narcissistic and shamelessly mercenary–they court the gaze of the public so they can sell them stuff. Now that Trump Inc.’s leveraged buyout of America is complete, everything is up for grabs. And they are grabbing. Melania’s plan to market First Lady merchandise, like Ivanka’s dresses that Nordstrom doesn’t want to sell, are just the tip of the iceberg.

2) Trump is devolving. Just look at his tweets as if one of your relatives or friends had written them–the hallucinatory paranoia, the narcissistic self-regard, but most of all the impoverished language. I’m no Ben Carson, but it looks to me like there’s something wrong with his brain. Look at his photographs–he is bloated and pale beneath the spray tan. There are big bags under his eyes. He’s not sleeping and he’s eating way too much.

3) As deplorable and sad a spectacle as Trump may be, a big chunk of corporate America and the mainstream Republican politicians who are its servants see him as their last, best hope to abolish what’s left of the New Deal. They’ve joined forces with a whole congery of fringe characters and movements that under normal circumstances would be at odds with each other, but who see Trump as their champion–far right wing Zionists and hard-core neo-Nazis; old-line white nationalists and off-the-grid libertarians; Gates of Vienna war of civilization types, Know Nothing isolationists, men’s rightists, and Evangelical Christians–many of them the human detritus of the globalized, wired, knowledge economy, the under-educated, under-employed white blue collar people–Sarah Palin’s “real Americans”–who live outside the big urban areas. It’s a volatile, highly-unstable coalition and it is driven by grievance, superstition, and cynical opportunism. All of its members still add up to a numerical minority of the country, but for now, they are politically indomitable. And, oh yeah, there’s Russia too.

4) There’s no consistent underlying philosophy behind Trumpism–everything that comes out of his mouth or his smartphone is ad hoc. He will sell out anyone.

5) It’s not what Trump believes that we need to worry about–it’s what he’s going to do. And institutionally speaking, there’s no one that can stop him from doing whatever he (or his competing constituencies) like. The courts can try for now, but he will appoint hundreds of compliant judges to the lower courts and will control a majority of the Supreme Court in a matter of months. Congressional Democrats can throw sand in the gears of his agenda, but the Republican majority is in absolute lockstep with him. We can hope that the military and the police will defy his orders when he decides to go to war at home or abroad, but we’d be foolish to count on it. We can and should mobilize to elect more Democrats, but the Republican strongholds are gerrymandered and they will be working to suppress as many minority votes as they can.

6) Historians will wrestle with the question–why did so many people go along with him when he was so clearly corrupt and mad? We can only hope that they will also write about the steadfast, bottom-up resistance that finally broke Trumpism’s grip, about the unprecedented unity of purpose that brought progressives together.

7) Things really are as bad as they seem. Our national institutions aren’t going to save us, though some of our local institutions (city governments) will try. The only recourse we have is ourselves.

The New Hate Redux

Four years ago, in THE NEW HATE, I looked at the rise of the Tea Party and especially the explosion of anti-Obama conspiracism in books, radio, TV, and on the Internet, and traced their lineaments back to the Patriot militias that so hated the Clintons in the 1990s, the Minute Men, the John Birch Society and other anti-Communist/anti-Government organizations that arose in the 1950s and 1960s alongside the Councils of Concerned Citizens and other neo-Secessionist groups that followed in the wake of Brown v Board of Education, the America First movement in the 1930s, and Henry Ford’s anti-Jewish crusades in the 1920s. The deep structures and even some of the explicit language of all of these groups’ publications, I noted, owed a deep debt to the THE PROTOCOLS OF THE ELDERS OF ZION.

Looking back further still, I wrote about the anti-Catholic Know Nothings’ horror-mongering about sex-crazed priests in the 1840s, and the great anti-Masonic panics of the 1830s and 1790s, which uncannily mirrored the McCarthy period.

Deep, dark currents of paranoia have always been present just beneath the surface of the American polity, I wrote, and unscrupulous politicians have always known how to activate them and use them to their advantage. Once elected, they stuff those genies back into their bottles and get back to business as usual, but one day, I warned, they may find themselves in the position of the Sorcerer’s Apprentice.

Enter Donald Trump and Steve Bannon, whose Breitbart Report has become the platform for the Alt-Right. A font of conspiracism, Trump was able to pump his messages directly into his millions of fans’ bloodstreams via Twitter and, thanks to his celebrity and well-earned reputation as a loose cannon, round-the-clock media exposure. He won the impassioned support of Alex Jones (who says that 9/11 and the Newtown massacre were false flags carried out by a US government that has been putting estrogen in the lining of juice boxes to turn America’s children gay) and was enthusiastically endorsed by white nationalists like Jared Taylor, David Duke, and Richard Spencer, who hailed him as the “white person’s” candidate. Trump’s final campaign commercial described how an international cabal of insiders and money people have seized the levers of world power. Though it didn’t use the word “Jew,” it featured sinister images of three powerful Jews: George Soros, Janet Yellen, and Lloyd Blankfein. Al Franken called it a “German Shepherd whistle”; both its explicit and its subliminal messages came right out of the pages of the PROTOCOLS OF THE ELDERS OF ZION.

One of THE NEW HATE’s out-sized villains was Glenn Beck, who used his Fox News TV show to tell his listeners that Obama was a Marxist who hated white people. In a bizarre shift, he is now calling out Bannon and company as Nazis—and apologizing for the terrible things he said about Obama, whom he now professes to admire. He sees what he helped create and he doesn’t like it at all.

People in the mainstream media didn’t pay much attention to THE NEW HATE when it came out, because the figures it focused on were just too weird and off-putting and its historical excurses too far off in the weeds. Obama, after all, was elected and re-elected—-what long-term significance could the birtherism of people like Donald Trump possibly have? With Trump’s terrifying rise to the presidency, I think its clarifying perspective is badly needed. I hate to sound grandiose, but if people had paid more attention to it back then, they might have known to take Trump more seriously. I predicted that he could win as far back as September, 2015 in my New York Times op ed. But I confess that by the time of the Democratic convention, I’d convinced myself that he couldn’t possibly prevail.

I should have reread my own book.

It’s Not Over Till It’s Over

The important thing to remember is physics: everything is moving and every action has an opposite and equal reaction. Canceling Obamacare will be hailed as a big victory for the people who don’t depend on it, but the millions who do will feel otherwise unless they get something better immediately. Firing government workers is a great sop to hurting manufacturing workers, but not if they don’t get $36 an hour jobs with benefits in short order.

It’s not as if the Democrats won’t learn anything from this loss, or that none of them will rise to this unprecedented occasion. Backbenchers will step forward; old leaders will hone their messages. As scary as things are (and they are terrifying), they would be much scarier still if Trump had received a big mandate, which he didn’t. Assuming we hold elections in 2018, he is likely to suffer losses (the incoming party almost always does). Assuming we hold elections in 2020, we may do better than we can imagine today. Had Hillary squeaked in, the other side would be saying the same things. Their worries about canceled elections would be paranoid and baseless, but their hopes would be no less real than ours should be.

Hitler (and yes, he is the figure we should be comparing Trump to–Godwin’s Law is now our friend) had the backing of the elites and the industrialists, and the people he set out to crush really were despised minorities. Trump needs to crush or co-opt more than half the country and this is a big place. Also, Hitler had a plan for world conquest. The economic miracle he delivered turned on pouring public money into big industries and mobilizing the masses for war. If Trump can do that, we’re doomed. But I’m not at all certain that a minority president who has completely alienated the press can pull that off. Breitbart and Twitter allow him to communicate directly to his public, but we have the Web too. And the US doesn’t have Germany’s militaristic ethos. The heartlanders are already sending their kids into the military and it hasn’t been glorious for them.

There is going to be chaos, unthinkable things will happen, but Trump is not going to have a free hand. This is a big, diverse country and Trump is a minority president with a lot of demonstrated weaknesses. He is going to be struggling too. Be scared, be angry, be noisy, and don’t act intimidated even if you are. The story is still being written.