How Bannon and Trump normalized antisemitic bigotry
Loaded attacks on "Soros" and "globalists" are now part of the Republican brand.
By David R. Lurie
There’s been much talk lately about whether the Republican Party is, finally, readying itself to jettison Donald Trump, perhaps in favor of a new “populist” leader, such as Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. That talk is likely to increase in the wake of Trump’s recent dinner with a couple of Hitler-loving antisemites.
But even if Trump recedes from the political stage, the GOP is all but certain to remain poisoned by bigotries that Trump introduced into the mainstream of Republican ideology for the foreseeable future. The normalization of antisemitism within the Grand Old Party is a particularly noxious case in point.
The antisemitic origins of the GOP’s Soros obsession
Trump has trafficked in the vilest forms of conspiratorial antisemitism since his 2016 presidential campaign. That summer, he posted a tweet featuring an image of Hillary Clinton next to a Star of David with text on it reading, “Most Corrupt Candidate Ever!” When he came under criticism for using an obvious antisemitic trope, Trump played dumb, insisting (nonsensically) that it was really “a Sheriff’s Star, or plain star!”
Months later, Steve Bannon closed out Trump’s presidential campaign with a commercial prominently featuring images of Jewish financiers, notably including George Soros. The ad also featured images of blight and shuttered factories, and Trump’s voice declaring:
“It’s a global power structure that is responsible for the economic decisions that have robbed our working class, stripped our country of its wealth and put that money into the pockets of a handful of large corporations and political entities.”
A centerpiece of Trump’s campaign was the claim that powerful “globalists” were scheming to strip American workers of their wealth and, for unstated but plainly odious reasons, to hand it over to foreign countries, most notably China.
The Anti-Defamation League, accurately, described the commercial as a pastiche of “painful stereotypes.” Trump’s rhetoric was grounded on one of the oldest conspiracy theories, most notoriously recited in Protocols of the Elders of Zion — a Czarist fabrication that was popularized by Henry Ford — that purported to prove a secret cohort of Jews secretly controlled, and manipulated, international financial institutions. But the ad was also clearly linked to more recent antisemitic conspiracism that had begun proliferating in the wake of the 2009 financial crisis, particularly in Hungary under that country’s authoritarian, and increasingly neo-fascist, Prime Minister Viktor Orban.
By 2016, Orban had already devoted years to fomenting antisemitic conspiracism in Hungary. Much of his rhetoric was centered on Soros, a Hungarian American Holocaust survivor, and hedge fund manager, who had focused much of his philanthropic efforts on rebuilding Hungarian educational and civil society institutions in the wake of communism — institutions Orban was avidly seeking to dismantle once again.
Orban, echoing theories advanced by other European neo-fascists, demonized Soros by suggesting he was at the center of a shadowy Jewish-led scheme to send a flood of largely Muslim refugees from the Middle East to Europe, purportedly to overcome the white, Christian majority population. In fact, many of the refugees had fled from the genocidal war unleashed on Syrians by their ruler Bashar Assad and his ally, Vladimir Putin’s Russia. Russia, which was also focused on undermining democratic governments in Europe, used its propaganda techniques to further popularize the antisemitic conspiracy theory regarding a refugee crisis Putin himself had helped to create.
Trump, also with Putin’s assistance, proved to be an ideal vehicle for importing a version of the antisemitic “great replacement” conspiracy theory to North America, as reflected in the Bannon ad. In the American formulation of the conspiracy theory, “globalists” were scheming to undermine white American civilization by flooding the United States with undocumented immigrants from Latin America.
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Upon taking office, Trump invited right wing extremists into the GOP. The toxic brew he was creating dramatically came to public attention with the 2017 “Unite the Right Rally” in Charlottesville, Virginia, during which a motley crew of neo-Nazis, Ku Klux Klan members, and other racists gathered to protest the planned removal of a Confederate monument — a cause Trump enthusiastically endorsed.
During the event, participants brandishing tiki torches (in an unintentionally parodic reference to fascist rallies of the 1930s) declared: “Jews will not replace us.” The bigots’ chant was an obvious reference to the great replacement theory. Even after one of the neo-fascists killed a counter demonstrator by crushing her with his car, Trump refused to squarely denounce the extremists, and asserted that their number included many “fine people.”
In the wake of the events at Charlottesville, the press, understandably, made much of Trump’s refusal to condemn the neo-fascists, as well as the widespread refusal of other Republican elected officials to condemn Trump’s dalliance with fascism.
But what received far less attention was the degree to which Trump’s fellow GOP leaders not only failed to denounce, but also actually adopted many of the antisemitic conspiracy theories Trump championed — and indeed increasingly began to incorporate them into the party’s “mainstream” ideology.
A case in point is the “great replacement” theory, which — if anything — became a more central element of GOP ideology after Trump’s 2020 election loss. In over (at last count) 400 episodes of his primetime Fox News show, Tucker Carlson has promoted the theory that the country is in the midst of a maliciously engineered “demographic change” or “replace[ment of] population.”
Even after right-wing extremists motivated by the conspiracy theory began attacking Jews in synagogues and shoppers in predominantly Latin American and African American communities, GOP leaders continued to make great replacement conspiracism a centerpiece of their rhetoric, including during the months leading up to the midterm election.
A case in point is New York Member of Congress Elise Stefanik, who herself replaced Liz Cheney as the third highest ranking member of the GOP House leadership. A self-described “Ultra-Maga” Republican, Stefanik accused Democrats of conspiring with “pedo-grifters” to divert scarce baby formula to immigrants, echoing, along with QAnon adherents, the vilest of antisemitic conspiracy theories: The claim of a secret Jewish plot to abuse, and consume the blood of, young children.
Stefanik also alleged the existence of a plot to promote “permanent election insurrection by granting amnesty to millions of illegal immigrants.” Even after a right-wing extremist mass murdered supermarket shoppers in a predominantly African American neighborhood of Buffalo, Stefanik — like some other “mainstream” Republicans — defiantly defended her embrace of such conspiracism.
The mainstreaming of antisemitic conspiracism in the GOP is also evident in the now-routine demonization of, often Jewish, “globalist” financiers by many Republican politicians, and of one such individual in particular: Soros, the longtime target of Hungary’s Orban.
“Respectable” right wingers like New York Times columnist Ross Douthat have taken to suggesting that aspects of Orban’s neo-fascist regime offers a model for the United States, declaring that “some version” of Orban’s “interventions in Hungarian cultural life [and] attacks on liberal academic centers ... is actually correct.” The prominent GOP organization CPAC has not only championed Orban, but also recently held its own conference in Budapest.
It is therefore unsurprising that the GOP fully imported Orban’s obsession with George Soros to the United States, as foreshadowed by Bannon’s 2016 Trump commercial that featured a hedge fund manager. Before the 2018 midterm elections, Trump falsely accused Soros of funding a “caravan” of refugees headed from Mexico to the United States.
The baselessness of Trump’s accusation did nothing to dissuade other GOP “leaders” from joining in, and indeed amplifying, his conspiracism. Soon (maybe) to be House Speaker Kevin McCarthy accused Soros and two other wealthy Jews of seeking to “BUY [the 2018 midterm] election.”
And Republican politicians began to routinely assert that Soros, an advocate for criminal justice reform, and his philanthropies, are at the center of yet another shadowy conspiracy, this one allegedly focused on actively promoting crime and mayhem in the United States. GOP politicians routinely blame Soros for a purported explosion of violent crime, purportedly being furthered by what the Heritage Foundation calls a “scheme of replacing real prosecutors with rogue prosecutors.”
GOP politicians’ claim that “Soros” has schemed to plunge the United States into a nightmare hellscape of violent crime and rampant deadly drug sales is often accompanied by assertions that he and like-minded “globalists” are focused on undermining the nation’s “culture,” in particular by challenging gender norms among, and otherwise corrupting, children.
The echoes of longstanding antisemitic conspiracies are, once again, unmistakable — and these claims only became louder and more pervasive within the GOP in the wake of the 2020 election. For example, in October, Virginia governor, and potential GOP presidential candidate, Glenn Youngkin, accused Soros of “inserting” political activists into school boards. GOP Sen. Tom Cotton has made a virtual industry out of attributing most all violent crime in the nation’s cities to Soros. Immediately after the 2022 midterm election, Pennsylvania’s Republican-controlled House voted to impeach Philadelphia DA Larry Krasner, whom Republican propagandists described as a “Soros prosecutor.”
It is against this background that Trump, never to be outdone where GOP extremism is involved, had his infamous pre-Thanksgiving meal with notorious anti-Semite Ye a/k/a Kanye West and his sidekick, white supremacist, and fellow Nazi sympathizer – and one of the “fine people” who rallied in favor of the Confederacy in Charlottesville — Nick Fuentes.
It’s not just Trump
Much has been made of the fact that precious few GOP leaders have denounced Trump’s dinner with antisemites. In the wake of Ye’s recent declaration — during an appearance with Alex Jones and Fuentes — that he likes Hitler, the number of denunciations may increase. This is all the more likely, given the desire of many putative GOP “leaders” — including Rupert Murdoch and many wealthy donors — to “move on” from Trump following the disappointing midterm election results.
But even if Trump is pushed out of the way — a maneuver which would seem quite hard to pull off, given his hold on the much of the GOP electorate — it is all but certain that the bigotry Trump has made central to the Republican Party’s animating ideology will not go away any time soon.
That much is clear from the records of the politicians who are marketing themselves most effectively as potential Trump replacements. As explained, Virginia’s Youngkin, who has been pitching himself as a potential choice of what is left of the GOP establishment, has spent much of the last year pandering to the very conspiracism Trump has indulged.
The most prominent Trump rival, Ron DeSantis, is also among the GOP leaders most willing to associate himself with the dark side of his party. DeSantis has an uncanny appeal to neo-Nazis and other bigots. Like Trump, DeSantis has declined numerous opportunities to distance himself from neo-Nazis and white supremacists whose visibility has grown ever more prominent during his tenure as Florida’s governor. DeSantis has not only remained studiously silent about Trump’s dinner with Fuentes and West, but also about a number of other racist and antisemitic displays, contending that those asking him to criticize bigots are “trying to manufacture division.”
Last August, DeSantis took the unprecedented step of unilaterally removing the elected prosecutor for Tampa’s Hillsboro County, Andrew Warren. Warren subsequently sued to challenge his removal; that suit went to trial late last month, disclosing — very unsurprising — evidence that DeSantis’s actions were motivated entirely by political expediency, as well as an obsessive focus on Warren’s connection with George Soros, who contributed to his campaign. But even before the trial, DeSantis made his motives clear during an appearance on the Tucker Carlson show immediately after he tried to fire Warren:
“Well, Tucker, you’ve documented the destruction that we’ve seen with these Soros prosecutors around the country where they take it upon themselves to determine which laws should be followed and which laws should not be followed.”
In firing Warren, DeSantis placed particular focus on a statement the prosecutor had signed decrying the potential criminalization of gender affirming medical care. According to DeSantis, the statement reflected Warren’s contempt for his duty to enforce Florida’s law.
There was a big problem with that claim: There were no laws in Florida directed at criminalizing such medical care when DeSantis suspended Warren. DeSantis, however, apparently felt it was so important to identify Warren with the supposed conspiracy to corrupt the nation’s children, which conspirators claim is led by Soros and like malefactors, that he punished Warren for failing to enforce a non-existent law.
On this record, it is clear that, even if Trump exits the political stage, GOP figures like DeSantis will be standing by, ready and willing to continue to promote the bigoted conspiracism Trump helped to normalize in the Republican Party.