Last weekend, the second mass shooting targeting the American Jewish community in six months left one dead and three injured at a Chabad synagogue outside of San Diego. The online manifesto published on a far-right message board by the alleged shooter, 19-year-old John T. Earnest, makes it clear that the white nationalist ideology that inspired him is also implicated in a number of other recent attacks, including the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting in October, the killing of 49 Muslim worshippers last month in New Zealand, and the 2015 murder of nine African-American Christian worshippers in Charleston, South Carolina.
In Earnest’s twisted worldview, “every Jew is responsible for the meticulously planned genocide of the European race,” and he scapegoats Jews as the “root cause” of every progressive movement he opposes, from feminism to immigration reform. As is true for the alt-right as a whole, Earnest’s xenophobia reflects, in more extreme form, the rhetoric against immigrants, Muslims, and other groups that’s become a common feature of mainstream conservatism in the Trump era. In particular, Earnest seems in intimate agreement with the deepest concerns of today’s Republican Party over the pernicious effect of “cultural Marxism and communism,” for which he blames the Jews, who “deserve nothing but hell.”
Indeed, it’s no surprise Earnest singles out “cultural Marxism and communism” with such vitriol given how obsessed today’s conservatives are with socialism. For many millennials and grassroots activists who are eager to address entrenched inequality and build a new progressive consensus, socialism has become quite appealing. Popular elected officials, like Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, identify as democratic socialists and, in response, conservatives have made fear-mongering about “the dangers of socialism” a mainstay of their attacks on progressive movements.
“Are we going to turn [America] into a socialist country [in 2020]?” Mitch McConnell asked earlier this month. “Don’t assume it cannot happen.” In February, Trump used his State of the Union address to declare “America will never be a socialist country,” a theme that already features prominently in his 2020 re-election campaign. Later that month, speaker after speaker at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference warned of the dangers of “creeping socialism.”
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Earlier this month, conservative commentator Glenn Beck linked the “socialist menace” to another familiar right-wing bogeyman, warning Fox News viewers that liberal Jewish philanthropist George Soros funded a group of communists responsible for orchestrating the migrant caravan. Across the ideological landscape of Trumpism, there roam a number of such specters—not only “socialists” and Soros, but “globalists” and “Cultural Marxists,” among others—painting a picture of rootless, nefarious forces on a mission to subvert traditional American values.
We’ve seen this before. Throughout the 20th century, insurgent far-right movements deployed conspiracy theories about shadowy socialists, cosmopolitan financiers, and covert culture-manipulators in order to win support for their authoritarian agendas. Most of the time, these theories were overtly anti-Semitic, with Nazi Germany and its obsession with “Judeo-Bolshevism” serving as the starkest example of the consequences of these theories—for Jews and for the world.
Today, it is can no longer be doubted that from San Diego and Pittsburgh to Charlottesville, Virginia, and the pages of Breitbart, anti-Semitism is resurgent in the Trump era. But how it operates—and why it’s on the rise—can be unmasked. What role do these conspiracy theories play in right-wing ideology? How are they related to discourses and policies that target other marginalized groups? How do they endanger Jews—and harm other justice movements?
Yiddish Communism Versus Christian Civilization
In the early 20th century, as communist movements were on the rise the world over, their opponents often portrayed these movements as Jewish conspiracies, hopeful that fearmongering about “Judeo-Bolshevism” would distract the public from serious consideration of the movements’ plans to address social inequities.
In pre-revolutionary Russia, Tsarist officials circulated the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, fabricated meeting notes of an alleged secret cabal of Jews who, in their quest for world domination, asserted “we support communism….in order that the true meaning of things may not strike the Goyim before the proper time, we shall mask [our plans] under an alleged ardent desire to serve the working classes.” And it’s important to note that this was not a concept adopted only by marginal groups and individuals; in 1920 Winston Churchill warned that “Bolshevism among the Jews is nothing new…this worldwide conspiracy for the overthrow of civilization…has been steadily growing.”
That same year, American industrialist Henry Ford began publishing a series called “The International Jew” in his Michigan newspaper The Dearborn Independent, warning readers that “the powerhouse of Communist influence and propaganda in the United States is in the Jewish trade unions,” and railing against the Soviet Union as “the present Jewish government of Russia.”
Fifteen years later, Nazi Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels insisted “it is the Jew who for decades past has endeavored to stir up world revolutions through the medium of Marxism. It is the Jew who is today at the head of Marxism in all the countries of the world.” Indeed, many consider Judeo-Bolshevism to be the foundational animating myth of German fascism, a movement that enshrined anti-Communism as a central organizing principle.
While the horrors of the Holocaust seemed to banish anti-Semitism from the public sphere in the United States, the logic behind “Judeo-Bolshevism” quickly came to animate Cold War anti-Communist frenzy. A 1948 survey by the American Jewish Committee found that nearly half of Americans associated Jews with Soviet spying, while 21 percent believed “most Jews were Communists.” A few years later, during the hunt for supposed Communist infiltrators known as McCarthyism, two-thirds of those questioned during government hearings were Jewish, with Democratic Congressman John E. Rankin framing the crusade as a battle between “Yiddish communism versus Christian civilization.”
During the 1950s, movements for civil rights and immigration reform were quickly painted as Communist conspiracies by far-right conservatives like George Wallace and the John Birch Society. White supremacist groups like the KKK and the Christian Identity movement went a step further, claiming that Jews were behind these Communist efforts at integration, equal rights, and an end to race-based immigration quotas. Even when no “Jewish agenda” was explicitly named, the cultural logic of “Judeo-Bolshevism” remained at play, with the supposed “guardians of Western civilization” tasked with uncovering the sinister phantom power behind progressive movements for equality.
With the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the “Communist menace” in 1990, a new conspiratorial mold was needed into which the far-right could pour its simmering blend of racism, xenophobic nationalism, and anti-Semitism. “Cultural Marxism” proved to be that mold.
In the 1980s, with the “Reagan revolution” in full swing, hard-right strategists William Lind and Paul Weyrich at the Free Congress Foundation had a vision for the future of the American right. They argued that American conservatives, having successfully mainstreamed a free-market consensus, should pivot to the terrain of social issues, and adopt a “cultural conservatism” centered on family, education, crime, and morality, in order to shape public discourse. Needing a new enemy to rally the public’s interest, Lind focused upon the Frankfurt School, a group of Marxist social theorists who fled Nazi Germany in the 1930s and established the Institute for Social Research in Manhattan, where they developed an influential discipline of cultural studies that subjected mainstream American politics and popular culture to critical scrutiny.
In Lind’s narrative, this band of “cultural Marxists” and their students systematically embedded themselves in cultural institutions such as academia, Hollywood, and the media, and worked deliberately, over several decades, to corrode the traditional foundations of Western civilization by mainstreaming multiculturalism, relativism, feminism, LGBTQ pride, social justice and, worst of all, “political correctness.” The old Bolshevik menace, Lind warned, had not fallen with the Berlin Wall—rather, it metastasized into the more diffuse realm of culture, making it more dangerous and difficult to fight than ever.
In the early 2000s, Lind’s cultural Marxism theory was enshrined upon the hearth of far-right conservatism by paleoconservatives like Pat Buchanan, conservative operatives like Andrew Breitbart, and movements like the Tea Party. Today, the cultural Marxism theory is featured regularly on outlets like Breitbart, The Daily Caller, and Infowars, and championed by the right’s favorite pop philosopher Jordan Peterson, libertarian figurehead Ron Paul, and even Brazil’s far-right President Jair Bolsonaro.
It has breached the highest halls of power here as well, with Trump reportedly expressing strong approval of a May 2017 opposition research memo, prepared by the “nationalist wing” of his White House, which warned of a conspiracy of “deep state’ actors, globalists, bankers” and others intent on attacking the president by “execut[ing] political warfare agendas that reflect Cultural Marxist outcomes.”
The theory has also been embraced by violent White nationalists, from videos produced by the neo-segregationist Council of Conservative Citizens to the manifestos of the San Diego shooter and the Norwegian mass murderer Anders Breivik. Today, the alt-right movement is structured around the basic idea behind cultural Marxism and its belief that patriarchal, white Western civilization is under attack by a cabal of “globalists” who have subverted traditional gender norms, sexuality, and other social values.
Cultural Marxism theories have been stamped with anti-Semitism from the beginning. William Lind was careful to clarify to his audience at a 2002 Holocaust denial conference in Washington, D.C., that his organization, the Free Congress Foundation, did not engage in Holocaust revisionism. However, he winked, it was worth mentioning that “these guys [Frankfurt School theorists] were all Jewish.”
Today, a central belief of the alt-right and white nationalist movements is that generations of progressive Jews in the United States have worked patiently and covertly, through myriad channels of civil society, government, and business, to orchestrate “white genocide”—the disappearance of the “white race” in the United States through gradual demographic minoritization, and cultural marginalization. The alt-right’s premier intellectual, evolutionary psychologist Kevin MacDonald, has helped shape this worldview by furnishing for the movement its most comprehensive theory of cultural Marxism as Jewish power.
In a trilogy of books culminating in The Culture of Critique, MacDonald claims that throughout the 20th century, covert groups of Jewish intellectuals and activists “construct[ed] highly focused ethnic networks in politics, the arts, the media, and the social sciences—all the critical centers of power in the modern world,” and that these Jewish networks were responsible for reforming America’s race-based immigration policies, orchestrating the civil rights movement, building the New Left, guiding movements for gender and sexual liberation, and engineering postmodern trends of cultural relativism and deconstruction in the academy. In MacDonald’s worldview, no Protocols-style conscious conspiracy is needed; Jews are genetically driven by a “group evolutionary strategy” to subvert the “traditional foundations” of the white Christian societies in which they live, as a parasite has evolved to live off its weakened host.
From the chatrooms of 4chan to the headlines of Fox News, theories about cultural Marxism in the era of Trumpism come entangled with other antisemitic theories, often arguing that George Soros and a shadowy “globalist” cabal are working to dissolve national borders and sovereignty into a totalitarian-communist “New World Order.” Anti-Semitic theories, in turn, become entangled with ideologies directed against other groups—both Glenn Beck and the Pittsburgh and San Diego synagogue shooters, for example, portrayed Jewish individuals and institutions as the “hidden hand” behind nonwhite immigration. From the center to the margins of today’s insurgent right wing, anti-Semitism is the narrative thread that connects all other forms of scapegoating, absorbing, and incorporating all others to offer a meta-explanation: It’s the Jews.
Of course, these theories are dizzyingly incoherent. George Soros is a supporter of capitalism and liberal democracy, not socialism, and he is certainly not orchestrating either the migrant caravan, Black Lives Matter, Democratic congressional campaigns, or protests against the Brett Kavanaugh nomination; Frankfurt School theorists have little influence outside of humanities departments; and Jews do not covertly orchestrate progressive movements, a charge that not only scapegoats Jews, but it dehumanizes the actual leaders of these movements who are quite capable of winning their own liberation.
Indeed, the fundamental irrationality of anti-Semitic conspiracism has historically allowed Jews to be scapegoated as the “hidden puppeteers” behind both socialism and capitalism. Since the 2008 financial crisis when the “globalist” canard and scapegoating of George Soros made their way into the discourse we’ve seen Jews blamed for the depredations of vulture capitalism and the finance sector even as, bizarrely, this same Jewish cabal is somehow deemed “socialist” as well.
Anti-Semitic conspiracy theories substitute an imagined revolt against illusory oppressors for a clear analysis of who really profits from societal structures of exploitation. While other racist tropes tend to “punch down” at an allegedly inferior target group, anti-Semitic conspiracism “punches up” at a target it imagines as inordinately powerful, seemingly standing above or behind social movements and political forces, pulling the strings.
In a world of dizzying social and political change, these conspiracy theories furnish a meta-explanation—for confused and alienated individuals such as Earnest and Pittsburgh shooter Robert Bowers, but also for right-wing media figures, politicians and other influential players—of how the world got this way and for who is responsible. In Europe and the United States, virtually any conspiracy narrative acts as an antisemitic dog whistle (or fog horn), even when Jews are not directly named.
This is why anti-Semitism is so dangerous, not only for Jews but for all movements for social change; because it’s such a powerful tool in the right-wing ideological arsenal, providing a scaffolding for sweeping attacks against progressive movements and perhaps sending some of the most vulnerable, who might otherwise benefit from those movements, down the dead end of conspiracism.