This week in the annals of Republican projection, just in time for Passover, comes a doozy: After six years of steady conservative antisemitic insinuations, conspiracy theories and the inevitable violence those narratives can inspire, it’s Democrats who are the real antisemites.
On Monday, one of the Republican Party’s social media accounts, @RNCResearch (dedicated to “Exposing the lies, hypocrisy, and failed far-left policies of Joe Biden and the Democratic Party”), tweeted a brief clip of Biden in the Rose Garden introducing his nominee to head the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, Steve Dettelbach. In the clips, Biden makes the daddest of Dad jokes: that Dettelbach, a former DOJ prosecutor, “was responsible for” the fine weather that day. “Dettelbach is Jewish,” commented @RNCResearch, in what was apparently meant as a gotcha.
All of this dumb. Boy, is it dumb. Unfortunately, it also means something.
On the most basic level, the GOP tweet is a reference to one of the goofier antisemitic conspiracy theories out there: the idea that Jews, and more specifically the Rothschild banking family, can control the weather. In 2018, this conspiracy theory ranked a brief moment in the sun when Washington, D.C. council member Trayvon White Sr., a Democrat, posted a Facebook video on a snowy day, talking about “climate manipulation” and saying, “that’s a model based off the Rothschilds controlling the climate to create natural disasters they can pay for to own the cities, man. Be careful.”
A few hours after the Washington Post reported on his comments, White apologized, saying he hadn’t realized the conspiracy theory was antisemitic, but that a progressive Jewish group that had endorsed him “was helping him understand the history” behind it.
It’s a long history. In the last decade, as Michael Rosenwald wrote at the time, also in the Post, the fact that one branch of the Rothschild family had acquired a controlling stake in the company Weather Central, which provides weather forecasts to media outlets, became fodder for conspiracy theorists who have long attributed vast, world-shaping powers to Jewish bankers in general and the Rothschilds in particular.
But the notion that one affluent family — which rose to prominence after Mayer Amschel Rothschild founded a banking business in Frankfurt in the 1760s — can literally control the weather is just one in a long series of conspiracy theories that have circulated around the family for the last 200 years. That’s where the narrative becomes less funny. That history starts in the mid-1800s, when an anonymous pamphlet — supposedly authored by “Satan” — was circulated in Europe, blaming the Rothschilds for exploiting Napoleon Bonaparte’s defeat at Waterloo in 1815 in order to “make a killing on the Stock Exchange.”
According to the story, London banker Nathan Rothschild witnessed Napoleon’s fall at Waterloo, and raced back to England to use the inside knowledge to game the stock market before anyone else heard the news. This absolutely didn’t happen — Rothschild was not in fact present at Waterloo — but as we know, facts don’t matter in the conspiracy-theory context. This invented narrative became the foundational example of nearly two centuries of conspiracy theories about the Rothschild family’s supposed uncanny ability to manipulate world events to their favor.
About half a century after the Rothschild-Waterloo pamphlet was published, another anonymous publication — the notorious forgery “Protocols of the Elders of Zion,” purporting to reveal the minutes of a meeting of Jewish leaders plotting to achieve world domination — would help spread that narrative worldwide, ultimately helping pave the way for the Holocaust.
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The conspiracy theories never really went away, but in recent years, they’ve come roaring back, sometimes to deadly effect. As Spencer Ackerman wrote several years ago in the Daily Beast, the myth was a forgotten undercurrent to the 2016 hacking of the Democratic National Committee. One of the entities behind the hack, DCLeaks, used the publicity it generated to promote another of its projects: a website targeting George Soros that depicted the Jewish liberal philanthropist’s face superimposed atop scenes of chaotic street protests in Ferguson, Missouri — the protesters all apparently non-white. The intended takeaway was that Soros was masterminding racial unrest in America, just as, the website claimed, he was behind “almost every revolution and coup around the world for the last 25 years.”
The site offered a neat echo of Glenn Beck’s deeply antisemitic 2010 Fox series on Soros, “The Puppet Master,” and foreshadowed Donald Trump’s 2018 suggestion that Soros was bankrolling protests against Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, rendering them “fake” and unworthy of attention. (As Ackerman points out, that was projection too, since Trump had in fact hired people to pose as supporters for his now-legendary 2015 presidential campaign announcement.)
As Soros became a dominant folk devil in both the U.S. and his native Hungary, the conspiracy theory was also invoked in campaigns blaming Soros for immigration and refugee crises. In 2017 in Hungary, Viktor Orbán’s government papered the capital with posters of Soros’ face to promote its “Stop Soros” law, which made it illegal to help undocumented immigrants. In the U.S. the next year, Trump and other Republicans adapted the narrative to declare that Soros was paying Central American migrants to form a “caravan” to “invade” the U.S.
Conspiracy theories focused on George Soros clearly allude to the “Great Replacement” narrative, which directly fueled the synagogue massacre in Pittsburgh and the tiki-torch march in Charlottesville.
Underlying both campaigns was the clear allusion to the “Great Replacement” theory: the far-right narrative that liberals — more specifically, Jewish liberals — are intentionally flooding Europe and the U.S. with migrants in order to “replace” the white population. In 2018, amid Trump’s crusade against the migrant “caravan,” that narrative led Robert Bowers to kill 11 people at a Pittsburgh synagogue, because he blamed a Jewish refugee aid group for bringing “invaders” into the country. The same conspiracy theory inspired both the infamous tiki-torch chants in Charlottesville, Virginia, as well as a number of other replacement theory-driven massacres, in the U.S. and elsewhere.
Trump also infamously deployed an anti-Hillary Clinton meme in 2016 that paired his rival with a pile of cash and a Star of David, and closed his campaign that year with a video casting Jewish figures, including Soros and Federal Reserve chair Janet Yellen, as “global special interests” who controlled “the levers of power in Washington.”
Then, of course, there’s QAnon: the wide-ranging conspiracy theory premised on the idea that Democratic leaders and other “elites” are involved in a massive child sex trafficking (and/or cannibalism) ring that only Trump can stop.
The central claims of QAnon are a warmed-over version of the blood libel, a medieval slur claiming that Jews ritually murdered Christian children and used their blood to make matzo.
As innumerable experts have pointed out, the central claims of QAnon are a warmed-over version of another old canard: the blood libel, a slur first generated in medieval Europe, claiming that Jews ritually murdered Christian children in order to use their blood to make matzo. The claim has been used to justify intense persecution of Jews throughout history, from the Inquisition to pogroms to the Nazi regime. It crossed the Atlantic to the U.S., showing up in its original form amid the 1928 presidential election, but then returning in slightly modernized guise in the 1980s Satanic Panic, when thousands of Americans became convinced that child daycare centers were actually fronts for Satanic child sex abuse.
In 2018, Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, the congresswoman from Q, indulged in a spinoff theory that one of California’s apocalyptic wildfires had been caused by a “laser” from “space solar generators” somehow connected to the Rothschilds. (She did not actually say “Jewish space lasers,” but that’s a plausible interpretation.)
Scholars of conspiracism have long noted that below even the most fantastic and baseless examples of the genre, conspiracy theories tell us something true, if only in how they serve as a mirror to society, reflecting back something about ourselves.
As British philosophy professor Qassim Cassam noted in his 2019 book, “Conspiracy Theories,” conspiracism is “first and foremost a form of political propaganda,” spreading theories that are unlikely to be true, or are even ludicrous, but which “are likely to influence public opinion.”
Or as Reason editor Jesse Walker wrote in “The United States of Paranoia,” a meditation on the topic published in 2014, “A conspiracy theory that catches on becomes a form of folklore. It says something true about the anxieties and experiences of the people who believe in and repeat it, even if it says nothing true about the objects of the theory itself.”
In his article on antecedents for today’s anti-Soros panic, Ackerman observed that, “A recurrent theme of 19th-century anti-Semitism is that it finds substantial currency at moments when old regimes appear exhausted and fear about revolutionary dislocation intensifies.” That is to say, when public discontent grows more intense, antisemitic yarns provide a convenient scapegoat and “an omnibus explanation for the anxieties of the age” — something that helps unpack both how Jewish figures throughout history have been simultaneously blamed for the excesses of capitalism and for spreading Marxism, and why upticks in antisemitism are reliably considered warning signs of looming social instability.
So what does it mean that an official account of the Republican Party clumsily attempted to turn the tables and suggest that — despite the modern blood libel, the “Protocols” fanfic, the space lasers — actually Democrats are the real antisemites?
To Sarah Posner, author of the 2020 book “Unholy” and a religion journalist who’s written extensively about QAnon, it’s a particularly vulgar form of projection. “The RNC’s attempt to claim Biden’s Dad joke was somehow antisemitic,” Posner says, “is an obvious deflection from its unmitigated support for Donald Trump, who spent his candidacies and presidency elevating, electrifying and mainstreaming white nationalists and antisemites; claimed ‘very fine people’ marched chanting ‘Jews will not replace us’ in Charlottesville; and cheerleaded conspiracy theories about QAnon, which traffics in one of the oldest antisemitic tropes.”
Such a deflection is not just farcical amid the GOP’s growing elevation of Greene as a legitimate party leader, but represents a broader effort to diminish the more serious, and sometimes deadly, antisemitism that the right traffics in on a regular basis.
As Salon’s Amanda Marcotte wrote recently, Greene exemplifies that pattern herself, pairing her QAnon and space laser talk with abundant accusations that pandemic public health policies are equivalent to the Holocaust and Democrats are just like the Gestapo.
“Greene’s relentless accusations of Nazism are a crude but potent form of propaganda,” Marcotte writes, serving to “defang” accusations of fascism so that “when Republicans commit actual acts of fascism, it’s difficult to persuade the people to be as alarmed as they should be.” In other words, she continued, “If everyone is a ‘fascist,’ then no one is.”
Regardless of how spectacularly this particular attempt may have flopped — the ratio was extreme — it’s fair to assume @RNCResearch is betting the same strategy works for calling out bigotry.
“This has been a favorite right-wing rhetorical tactic for a long time: to adapt leftist language as a way of throwing it back in the faces of their liberal targets,” says David Neiwert, author of “Red Pill, Blue Pill: How to Counteract the Conspiracy Theories that are Killing Us.” But beyond just inverting reality and muddying the waters, Neiwert said, “The pernicious effect is that eventually it undermines situations where someone like Paul Gosar tweets out something crudely antisemitic. People learn to write these things off as a result of these non-controversies that get whipped up as political gotchas.”
In other words, if Biden’s obviously harmless banter can be cast as antisemitic, then the entire notion of antisemitism becomes absurd — as conservatives will surely claim the next time they’re called out for tapping into society’s darkest narratives to win support.
Read more from Kathryn Joyce on religion and the global far right: