May 24th, 2024

Reality Check

Conspiracy theories and political insanity

Jonathan Tobin

By Jonathan Tobin

Published Nov. 30,2020

Conspiracy theories and political insanity

There was a time when conspiracy theories were confined to the fever swamps of American society. Cottage industries of book publishers grew up to provide simple explanations to questions like whether humanity is alone in the universe or how could it be that a lone madman killed President John F. Kennedy. But as much as those who believed in UFOs or bizarre theories about the JFK assassination made a lot of noise, for the most part, conspiracy-mongers remained outside of mainstream public discourse.

That is no longer the case.

Americans spent much of the last four years being told by supposedly reputable sources that the president of the United States was either a Russian agent or that the 2016 election was stolen by Russia. Now Rudy Giuliani, the former mayor of New York City, is trying to persuade the nation that a different conspiracy — no less vast in its scope — has stolen the 2020 election from President Donald Trump. Democrats lapped up the simple explanation for an otherwise inexplicable outcome: Trump beating Hillary Clinton. Many Republicans are now doing the same for equally unsubstantiated charges that claim that a software company linked to foreign Communists handed the presidency to former Vice President Joe Biden.

On the other side of the aisle, Democrats assert that the accusations about Russia collusion were true even though a special prosecutor spent more than two years investigating them and came up with nothing against the president. Republicans will likely cling to the wild accusations being promoted by Giuliani and Trump attorney Sydney Powell with the same tenacity and for the same reason: It makes the world more understandable and provides them with ready-made excuses for uncomfortable facts they'd rather not think about.

Each side is equally convinced that their opponents are liars and threats to democracy. They dismiss any criticisms of their own allegations as proof of insincerity or corruption on the part of those pointing out that their cases are not only unproven, but a dangerous escalation of political warfare that threatens to tear the country apart. Those who point out what both parties are doing are accused of "whataboutism" because partisans are only interested in running down their opponents rather than in objective analysis, let alone restoring political peace.

All of which is to say that those who hoped the end of the election campaign would restore normalcy or at least some sanity to America's political culture were wildly over-optimistic.

But it appears that some in the American Jewish community, which has as much, if not more, at stake in seeking to deter extremism as any other sector of the population are making things worse by invoking the symbolism of the Holocaust to bolster their political positions. That is at one and the same time both disgraceful and inciting exactly the kind of reaction that makes it more, rather than less, likely that their opponents will believe conspiracy theories that are damaging to democracy and civil peace.

Along with so much else that has gone haywire lately in American society, the guardrails seemed to come off when it came to Holocaust analogies. The anger that Trump generated among his critics caused them not merely to denounce him for what did or said, but to claim that he was the second coming of Adolf Hitler or setting the stage for a Fourth Reich. This was absurd on many levels, not least because of his unprecedented support for the State of Israel and his Jewish family members. Yet for too many people on the left — and, as we've seen during anti-lockdown protests this year, also on the right — the "anyone I don't like is Hitler" rule seems to prevail.

At this point, when public debate has already become so toxic and partisans seem incapable of acknowledging that their foes have good intentions or are deserving of respect or a fair hearing, is it still possible to enforce rules that would make the use of Nazi analogies beyond the pale? When so many on both sides of the spectrum regard each other with such distrust and venom, are we at the stage when reasonable people must concede that this kind of discourse must be accepted as a normal, albeit distressing aspect of contemporary politics?

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Perhaps it was to be expected that someone like CNN anchor Christiane Amanpour would have the nerve to use the anniversary of Kristallnacht to claim that the efforts of Trump and his representatives to challenge the results showing that Biden won the election is in some sense a rerun of that pogrom against German Jews. Amanpour, like many others at her network, is an anti-Trump partisan as well as a bitter critic of his pro-Israel policies. She later walked that appalling assertion back by with an apology, acknowledging that she should not have "juxtaposed" the Nazi atrocity with Trump's complaints about voter fraud.

Even more discouraging was the fact that the clergy at one of the largest synagogues in New England — Temple Emanuel of Newton, Mass. — issued a similar statement likening Trump's allegations to Kristallnacht. Nor were they alone in this. After all, the Jewish Democratic Council of America ran ads during the campaign making the same sort of inaccurate and inappropriate analogy, and most of the organized Jewish world gave them a pass for it.

Rather than just shrug our shoulders at the way even Jewish institutions are treating the Holocaust as a political talking point, it's time for reasonable persons to say that whatever else is going on in our increasingly mad political debates, we must state that this sort of conduct is simply unacceptable.

Do we really need to point out that citing the Holocaust in this manner cheapens the memory of the Six Million, and gives deniers and anti-Semites license to disparage its importance and scope? Must we teach even Jewish clergy that the Shoah was a singular event in history, and that it cannot be treated so blithely without undermining Jewish history and the security of Jews today?

It's vital to understand that those who speak this way are making an already terrible situation worse. Are those who oppose Trump truly interested in persuading the 74 million Americans who voted for him to step back from claims of a stolen election? If so, then surely they must realize that when they call the president and his followers Nazis, they only make it more likely that they will believe the worst of Democrats. After all, if liberals really all thought the GOP is the moral equivalent of the Nazis, then why wouldn't Republicans believe they'd cheat to defeat them?

Extremism thrives in any conspiratorial mindset. That is as true about the far-left as it is about the far-right. And Jews have good reason to worry about anything that provides fertile ground for radicals to spread their poison will bring more anti-Semitism in its wake.

Those who care about pulling American society back from the abyss towards which these dueling sets of conspiracy theories have pushed it must be consistent in opposing this sort of discourse, as well as in condemning the use of Holocaust analogies.


Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of Jewish News Syndicate. He's been a JWR contributor since 1998.