The U.S. House of Representatives kicked Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene off her committees on Thursday as punishment for the far-right Republican’s past support of violence against prominent Democrats and various styles of bigotry and extremism, including anti-Muslim dogmatics and the viral anti-Semitic QAnon conspiracy theory. In one Facebook post, Greene suggested forest fires were started by the Rothschilds using a space laser.
How are rising anti-Semitic conspiracy theories changing American politics? Emily Tamkin has been writing about these subjects as the U.S. editor for the U.K.’s New Statesman. She’s the author of The Influence of Soros, a book about the Jewish billionaire and philanthropist George Soros, who has lavishly funded progressive causes and had become a frequent figure in right-wing conspiracies long before Donald Trump took office. Tamkin sees strong correlations among anti-Semitism, conspiracy narratives, and some core challenges to liberal democracy and the “open society” worldwide.
Graham Vyse: What does the election of Marjorie Taylor Greene tell you about the role of anti-Semitism and conspiracy theories in contemporary American political life?
Emily Tamkin: Anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, and anti-Black racism are all connected. But if we focus on what is explicitly anti-Semitic—from the supposed laser controlled by the Rothschilds to the idea that Jewish people are responsible for a Muslim invasion—what these things have in common is the notion that Jews have outsized control and are using that control to hurt the sovereign country. This is classic anti-Semitism.
It’s tempting to write off the “Jewish space laser” as zany—to say it's so outlandish that it shouldn't be taken seriously. But the risk, because some of this congresswoman’s views are almost cartoonish, is that she will be taken as a cartoon. I don't think there's anything funny about the idea that Jews are controlling various nefarious elements to hurt people.
Vyse: Greene was first known nationally for believing in QAnon. What’s the connection between conspiracy theories generally and anti-Semitism specifically?
Tamkin: If you adhere to something like QAnon, which basically claims to explain everything going on in the world through a series of events that are not actually happening, you can believe the world is ordered in a certain way. Things are happening for a reason. But if you give yourself over to that, you need a villain—somebody pulling the strings.
Since we have these old anti-Semitic tropes, you don’t even have to say the word “Jewish.” You can say “Rothschilds” or “Soros,” “cosmopolitan” or “banker,” and people hear it. If there’s an order people are supposedly trying to keep from you, the question is who’s trying to keep it from you. And fortunately for conspiracy theorists, we have this very old trope they can go back to that says it’s Jews.
Vyse: What does the life of George Soros—and the longtime conservative effort to cast him as a nefarious liberal supervillain—say about these issues?
Tamkin: His life illustrates two things. The first is that anti-Semitism has potentially deadly consequences for Jewish people. Soros was a teenager hiding out from the Nazis and the Hungarian equivalent, the Arrow Cross, which started because of anti-Semitic conspiracy theories. There’s good reason to be wary of the road these theories will take us down.
The other thing goes back to the interconnected nature of these different hatreds. One of the reasons Soros in particular is chosen as the boogeyman for anti-Semites is that, if you look at the causes he supports through his philanthropy, many of them are about empowering religious, racial, and sexual minorities. Anti-Semitism not only villainizes Jewish people but also delegitimizes these other groups.
If you're saying, for example, “Black Lives Matter is paid for by Soros,” you're saying that people marching in support of Black lives and against state-backed violence against Black people aren’t out there for themselves or those causes. They're out there because a Jewish person made them be out there. If you say, “Syrian refugees are here because of Soros,” you're completely overlooking the actual plight of the Syrians who went to Europe. You’re not just assigning too much agency to one Jewish person. You’re stripping it away from these other groups.
Part of anti-Semitism is that Jewish people are always above, outside, or on the fringes of society, never really part of it. The reason they want to hurt the society is they’re not part of it. This is also very dangerous. It means you can never really be Hungarian or American.
Vyse: This gets to “Jews will not replace us,” the chant of white supremacists marching in Charlottesville, Virginia, in the summer of 2017. It seems notable that the Charlottesville rallies and the U.S. Capitol riot in January—these dark, deadly, and indelible moments of the Trump presidency—were both tied to anti-Semitism. Is that an element of the Trump legacy?
Tamkin: What I think is not fully appreciated is that all of these different hatreds are as connected as they are. Charlottesville was extremely racially motivated and also you had people chanting “Jews will not replace us.” The storming of the Capitol was fundamentally about people not believing the legitimacy of votes from cities with large Black populations and also there was a man wearing a ‘Camp Auschwitz’ sweatshirt. What's at stake is whether we will have an ethnic-based or civic-based conception of American society.
Vyse: The Anti-Defamation League reported that 2019 brought an unprecedented level of anti-Semitic incidents in the U.S. When did you start perceiving anti-Semitism on the rise in American politics?
Tamkin: I noticed a turning of the tide in the 2016 election. I grew up in a town without a lot of Jewish people and residents often made their feelings about Jewish people very clear. It’s not like I grew up thinking everybody loved Jews. But I didn't expect to see Hillary Clinton's face on a Star of David with the phrase “Most Corrupt Candidate.”
[In July of 2016, then-candidate Donald Trump tweeted and then deleted this image. The New York Times explained that while “the six-pointed star is used in other contexts, including as a symbol of many Sheriff’s Departments, it has deep meaning in Judaism and the image was overlaid atop a pile of money. It appeared to play into the stereotype of Jews being obsessed with finances.” As Tamkin notes, Trump repeatedly made anti-Semitic statements throughout the campaign.]
It really escalated in the United States in the 2018 midterms. Soros conspiracies were everywhere. That fall, you also had the shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and then-Republican House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy tweeted “We cannot allow Soros, Steyer, and Bloomberg to BUY this election!” Anti-Semitism was tied to the migrant caravan and the conversation around immigration. It makes Jewish people less safe and it also degrades us as a society.
A society that believes these tropes and lies is deeply paranoid about the working order of things, about who has power, and about information systems. It’s a hateful and violent society. It’s worse for everybody.
Vyse: There was also some discussion of left-wing anti-Semitism in the Trump years, including in specific statements from Democratic Representatives Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib. How do you understand these incidents in comparison with what happens on the right?
Tamkin: Anti-Semitism doesn’t map clearly onto the left or the right. What I will say is that, according to an AJC study published last year, the vast majority of American Jews see anti-Semitism on the right as a greater threat than anti-Semitism on the left. If we're talking about [Omar’s tweet that American political leaders’ support for Israel was “all about the Benjamins”], she apologized. You can believe it was a legitimate apology or not, but unlike many politicians she actually said it was wrong and she was sorry. It was wrong. She shouldn't have said it. I appreciated that she apologized. But there are politicians on the right who’ve made that same implication. I don’t think there’s an equivalence between Marjorie Taylor Greene and anybody in the Democratic Party.
Vyse: Thinking of perspectives on the right, your book is called The Influence of Soros, and he clearly has had enormous influence on politics. Is there a way for conservatives to criticize Soros for the role he has played in advancing progressive ends without being anti-Semitism?
Tamkin: You can absolutely criticize what Soros has done, provided you're criticizing what he's actually done. To say Soros poured a lot of money into certain campaigns isn’t anti-Semitism. That’s a thing that happened. It’s well documented. But to say that Soros is hijacking democracy is where you cross the anti-Semitic line. You're saying the candidates running didn't have agency. The people who voted for them didn't have agency. The other donors didn't have agency. It's all about Soros.
Vyse: Beyond Soros, what are the relationships among the rise of anti-Semitism and conspiracy theories and challenges to liberal democracy globally?
Tamkin: You can judge the health of a liberal democracy, to a certain extent, by how it treats its minorities, including Jewish people. Many Jewish Americans go through life as white Americans and are therefore part of the majority in that one way. But on the other hand they are a religious minority or consider themselves ethnic minorities.
The other thing is that, if you look at these various illiberal leaders around the world, you will notice that very often they are trying to distract from their own power grabs, alleged corruption, or poor governance. How do you do that? You create an enemy who's actually responsible for everything that’s wrong. And again, because of these old tropes, very often that enemy happens to be Jewish.
Vyse: QAnon is now a part of mainstream political discourse in the U.S. The Democratic Party is running ads saying pro-Trump Republicans “stood with Q, not you.” How is the rise of conspiracy theories changing American politics?
Tamkin: Democrats are using guilt by association, which is fair to a large extent. If you’re not standing up to QAnon adherents who are elected, what are you doing? But the further we get into this, the more our politics aren’t based on fact. They're about countering claims that can't even be disproven. It makes people more vulnerable, increases hatred, and takes us further from the conversations we could actually be having that would improve people's lives.