On Monday, October 22, reporting that someone had placed a bomb in the mailbox of billionaire George Soros dominated news coverage.1 Similar devices were subsequently discovered to have been sent to prominent Democratic Party figures, including former President Barack Obama, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, one-time CIA director John Brennan in care of CNN, and former attorney general Eric Holder Jr. Apparently two such bomb packages were mailed to Rep. Maxine Waters (D-California), one to her offices in Washington and a second to Los Angeles. Another was discovered at the Tribeca restaurant owned by actor Robert De Niro.
According to the New York Times, “None of the devices harmed anyone, and it was not immediately clear whether any of them could have.” It is more accurate to say that none of the bombs detonated—whatever their potential as explosives, they have done considerable harm.
The starting point for understanding these attacks, however, is Soros, the currently designated face of Right and Far Right conspiracy fantasies. Soros has been accused of everything from orchestrating the fight against the confirmation of Bret Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court2 to—according to Texas Gov. Greg Abbott—trying to manipulate U.S. elections in order “…to install his liberal puppets in positions of power this fall.” Images and memes generated in the far corners of the internet depict hundreds, perhaps thousands of variations of Soros as a puppet master or a demonic octopus;3 former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani recently referred to him as the “anti-Christ.”
The fables told about Soros and his power to manipulate history and the fate of the world from behind the scenes are a modernization of the “Jews control the world” conspiracy fantasy found in classic works of antisemitism such as the Protocols of the Elders of Zion—a Czarist hoax, produced to scapegoat a Jewish conspiracy.4 Soros is the current stand-in for the Rothschild family—the Jewish banking family that anti-Jewish conspiracism centered for much of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
While overt antisemitism was widely rejected in the post- WWII era because of its association with the Nazis, the most vulgar forms of Jew-hatred lived on in neonazi and other far-right circles, and have proliferated in the internet era. These can now be seen clearly in countless memes that depict Soros as a puppet master controlling Obama, Clinton, the “deep state,” immigrants and social movements. One of these, an image commissioned by right-wing radio personality Mike Cernovich and drawn by libertarian artist Ben Garrison, shows a hand labeled “Rothschilds” controlling a suspended “Soros” puppet, who in turn holds the strings of American generals H.R. McMaster and David Petraeus, who stand in for the so-called deep state that is critical of Trump.
The depictions of Soros as puppet master and octopus, as the malevolent power behind everything that White nationalists and their Make American Great Again apologists despise, are antisemitic. They re-circulate images and ideas that blame Jewish people for the ills of the world—and that attribution of malevolence spills over to all Jewish people. Moreover, in the imagination of the Right, the distinction between “Jews” and their other boogeymen is fuzzy, nebulous: liberals, cultural Marxists, global elites, cosmopolitans, socialists: what are they all but a different language for talking about “the Jews?” Or, like Black people, LGBTQ people, and immigrants, they are imagined as the puppets of Jewish elites. In such a context, the assumption that whoever mailed out those pipe bombs was “merely partisan” misses the point—the character of the harm. Regardless of the intent of the bomber, be they violent MAGA fans, hardcore White nationalists, or (as right-wing bloviators Frank Gaffney5 and Rush Limbaugh assert) a “false flag” operation from the Left, the bombs activate circuits of fear and intimidation, ripping away at the already fragile fabric of democratic institutions in the United States.
In the strange moment in which we find ourselves, it has become normal to expect the language from the White House, and from those following along in Trump’s wake, that echoes and amplifies racist and antisemitic ideas once confined to a fringe too readily dismissed. So when the National Republican Campaign Committee (NRCC) runs a television advertisement titled “Owns” suggesting that a Democratic candidate for the U.S. House of Representatives in Minnesota Dan Feehan is “owned” by George Soros, it is an echo of the final Trump campaign advertisement which used prominent Jewish people and the barely coded language of “global elites” as an antisemitic dog whistle.
The NRCC advertisement has the added feature of depicting Colin Kaepernick, the former NFL player who has become famous for protesting racist policing, as an example of “prima donna athlete protesting our anthem.” Kaepernick and the NFL have not only been another favorite target of the President, but the Movement for Black Lives that inspired these protests is yet another imagined piece of the vast conspiracy Soros supposedly controls.
The NRCC and Trump lump a Democratic candidate for Congress, a Black NFL protestor, and—also mentioned in the anti-Feehan advertisement—“antifa” together, and attribute them to George Soros—which should read “the Jews”—and his plan to destroy the United States and turn it over to a new world order that will take away our beloved freedoms.6 On the same day the bomb was dropped in Soros’s mailbox, President Trump declared to a rally in Houston: “You know what I am? I’m a nationalist, O.K.? I’m a nationalist. Nationalist! Use that word! Use that word!”
Which brings us at the last to the caravan of migrants and refugees, currently making their way from Central America, through Mexico toward the U.S. border. Immigration is a key issue around which President Trump has weaponized racism, depicting Mexican migrants as drug dealers and rapists and Syrian refugees as terrorists. He continues to promise his base that he will “build that wall.” So it should come as no surprise that Trump has accused Soros of funding the caravan—paying people to rush the U.S. border. A claim repeated by U.S. Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL) and amplified on social media, including the Deplorables Facebook page, was that Soros was leading the caravan on a “death march” directly into the path of Hurricane Willa.
There is not a shred of evidence for any of this. Evidence, however, has little to do with the swirl of stories, biases, and assumptions shaping so much of the discourse, the policy, and violence of our times. Christian Right fixture Pat Robertson, who authored a conspiracy-promulgating book titled The New World Order (Word Publishing, 1992), has also now piped up to accuse Soros of funding the migrant caravan, even while admitting that there is “no hard evidence” to support this. Facts are optional in the worldview of the Right, and the strategy of blaming Soros for trying to use migrants to overrun the U.S. has been lifted from the playbook of Hungarian antisemite and authoritarian Viktor Orban, who orchestrated a campaign to demonize refugees and immigrants and blame Soros for their arrival in Europe. The U.S. white nationalist movement pushed a similar narrative for decades, alleging that Jews are using non-European migration to change the demographics of the United States and instigate “White genocide”.7 The key difference, of course, is that what was once the rhetoric of the far right is now becoming U.S. government policy. The damage done by conspiracy and vigilante violence alters the fabric of democracy, and our collective capacity to understand what is going on in our world, to trust each other. The degradation of politics and attacks on the vulnerable, now proliferating, did not start with Donald Trump, but he rides its wave. The backlash and spillover injuries do not affect only high profile-individuals. As always, it is vulnerable people who will be targeted. It is transgender people, as the bigotry amplification machine that is the current administration seeks more scapegoats. It is those involved in the liberation Movement for Black Lives, and for just and compassionate immigration. It is the migrants seeking to cross the border and the refugees from the wars the U.S. has done so much to spread around the globe. It is not for the plutocrats that we are called to resist, but to for the sake of a world where a just, multi-racial democracy is even remotely possible.
1New York Times, Oct. 23, 2018; Time.com Oct. 23, 2018; NBCNews.com Oct. 23, 2018 and dozens of other examples just from the mainstream press. As of this writing (Oct. 25, 2018), the google search string “Soros pipe bomb” turns up 1.5 million hits.
2 In a tweet timestamped 6:03 AM, Oct. 5, 2018, President Trump (@realDonaldTrump) wrote: “The very rude elevator screamers are paid professionals only looking to make Senators look bad. Don’t fall for it! Also, look at all of the professionals made identical signs. Paid for by Soros and others. These are not signs made in the basement from love!” Also jumping on the “Kavanaugh is being targeted by a conspiracy” bandwagon was the neo-Nazi website The Daily Stormer, that distributed flyers depicting Kavanaugh surrounded by a see of Jews and “Good Goy” and the text: “Every time some anti-white, anti-American, anti-freedom event takes place, you look at it, and it’s Jews behind it.” Soros is depicted top and center of the flyer.
3 Almost any google image search that includes any of the terms “Soros,” “antisemitism,” or “puppet master” will yield hundreds of results. The ADL discusses some of these images and the conspiracy narratives that go with them in a blog post titled “Anti-Semitism Used in Attack against National Security Advisor H. R. McMaster” (Aug 3, 2017).
4 The ADL has a useful summary of the history of the Protocols: https://www.adl.org/resources/backgrounders/a-hoax-of-hate-the-protocols-of-the-learned-elders-of-zion
5 Frank Gaffney, founder and president of the right-wing Center for Security Policy, tweeted (8:20 AM, 24 Oct. 2018): “None of the leftists ostensibly targeted for pipe-bombs were actually at serious risk, since security details would be screening their mail. So let’s determine not only who is responsible for these bombs, but whether they were trying to deflect attention from the Left’s mobs.”
6The Atlantic, 5 Dec. 2017. Note that “new world order” is a code phrase used by the far right to indicate a vast conspiracy to create a world government that will do away with national sovereignty.
7 Steven L. Gardiner, “White Nationalism Revisited: Demographic Dystopia and White Identity Politics,” Journal of Hate Studies, Vol. 4, pp. 59 – 87, (2005/2006).