The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion is a classic in paranoid, racist literature. Taken by the gullible as the confidential minutes of a Jewish conclave convened in the last years of the nineteenth century, it has been heralded by anti-Semites as proof that Jews are plotting to take over the world. Since its contrivance around the turn of the century by the Russian Okhrana, or Czarist secret police, “The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion” has taken root in bigoted, frightened minds around the world.
The booklet’s twenty-four sections spell out the alleged secret plans of Jewish leaders seeking to attain world domination. They represent the most notorious political forgery of modern times. Although thoroughly discredited, the document is still being used to stir up anti-Semitic hatred.
Origins of the Protocols
Serge Nilus, a little-known Czarist official in Moscow, edited several editions of the Protocols, each with a different account of how he discovered the document. In his 1911 edition Nilus claimed that his source had stolen the document from (a non-existent) Zionist headquarters in France. Other “editors” of the Protocols maintained that the document was read at the First Zionist Congress held in 1897 in Basel, Switzerland.
The Protocols served to rationalize anti-Semitism and genocide in Hitler’s Germany. The myth of the Jewish world conspiracy permeated Hitler’s thinking, and he linked Germany’s economic hardship during the 1920s to the secret plot. Once in power Hitler invoked the Protocols to justify anti-Semitic legislation and suppression of all opposition to the Third Reich. For example, the first anti-Semitic measure in April of 1933, a one-day boycott of Jewish stores, was deemed a defense against the “Plan of Basel” (another name for the Protocols).
The speed of America’s moral descent under Donald Trump is breathtaking. In a matter of months we’ve gone from a nation that stood for life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness to a nation that tears children from their parents and puts them in cages.
What’s almost equally remarkable about this plunge into barbarism is that it’s not a response to any actual problem. The mass influx of murderers and rapists that Trump talks about, the wave of crime committed by immigrants here (and, in his mind, refugees in Germany), are things that simply aren’t happening. They’re just sick fantasies being used to justify real atrocities.
.. And you know what this reminds me of? The history of anti-Semitism, a tale of prejudice fueled by myths and hoaxes that ended in genocide.
.. There is a highly technical debate among economists about whether low-education immigrants exert a depressing effect on the wages of low-education native-born workers (most researchers find that they don’t, but there is some disagreement). This debate, however, is playing no role in Trump policies.
.. What these policies reflect, instead, is a vision of “American carnage,” of big cities overrun by violent immigrants. And this vision bears no relationship to reality.
.. violent crime in America is actually at historical lows, with the homicide rate back to where it was in the early 1960s. (German crime is also at a historical low, by the way.)
.. places with a lot of immigrants, legal and undocumented, tend to have exceptionally low crime rates. The poster child for this tale of un-carnage is the biggest city of them all: New York
.. crime has fallen to levels not seen since the 1950s.
.. Where does this fear and hatred of immigrants come from? A lot of it seems to be fear of the unknown: The most anti-immigrant states seem to be places, like West Virginia, where hardly any immigrants live
.. a lot of the funding for anti-immigrant groups comes from foundations controlled by right-wing billionaires. Why do wealthy, successful people end up hating immigrants? I sometimes find myself thinking about the TV commentator Lou Dobbs
.. who is currently warning against a pro-immigrant plot by “the Illuminati of K Street.”
.. The thing about anti-Semitism is that it was never about anything Jews actually did. It was always about lurid myths, often based on deliberate fabrications, that were systematically spread to engender hatred.
For example, for centuries people repeated the “blood libel” — the claim that Jews sacrificed Christian babies as part of the Passover ritual.
.. In the early part of the 20th century there was wide dissemination of “The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion,” a supposed plan for Jewish world domination that was probably forged by the Russian secret police.
.. The fake document received wide dissemination in the United States thanks to none other than Henry Ford, a virulent anti-Semite who oversaw the publication and distribution of a half-million copies of an English translation, “The International Jew.” Ford later apologized for publishing a forgery
.. Again, why would someone like Ford — not only wealthy, but also one of the most admired men of his time — have gone down this path? I don’t know, but clearly such things happen.
.. the atrocities our nation is now committing at the border don’t represent an overreaction or poorly implemented response to some actual problem that needs solving. There is no immigration crisis; there is no crisis of immigrant crime.
.. No, the real crisis is an upsurge in hatred — unreasoning hatred that bears no relationship to anything the victims have done. And anyone making excuses for that hatred — who tries, for example, to turn it into a “both sides” story — is, in effect, an apologist for crimes against humanity.
Buckley excommunicated the John Birch Society, anti-Semites and supporters of the hyperindividualist Ayn Rand, and his cohort fused the diverse schools of conservative thinking — traditionalist philosophers, militant anti-Communists, libertarian economists — into a coherent ideology, one that eventually came to dominate American politics.
.. Goldwater’s loss, far from dooming the American right, inspired a new generation of conservative activists to redouble their efforts, paving the way for the Reagan revolution.
.. If Donald Trump is the latest chapter of conservatism’s story, might historians have been telling that story wrong?
.. Hofstadter was the leader of the “consensus” school of historians; the “consensus” being Americans’ supposed agreement upon moderate liberalism as the nation’s natural governing philosophy. He didn’t take the self-identified conservatives of his own time at all seriously.
.. He named this attitude “the paranoid style in American politics” and, in an article published a month before Barry Goldwater’s presidential defeat, asked, “When, in all our history, has anyone with ideas so bizarre, so archaic, so self-confounding, so remote from the basic American consensus, ever gone so far?”
.. she wrote, in an effort to address political concerns .. “liberal permissiveness” about matters like rising crime rates and the teaching of sex education in public schools.
.. historians of conservatism, like historians in general, tend to be liberal, and are prone to liberalism’s traditions of politesse. It’s no surprise that we are attracted to polite subjects like “colorblind conservatism” or William F. Buckley.
.. have found themselves increasingly uncomfortable, and finally deeply distressed,” watching a “moral breakdown” that was destroying a once-great nation.
.. control of much of our industry and commerce taken over by strangers, who stacked the cards of success and prosperity against us
.. The only thing that would make America great again, as it were, was “a return of power into the hands of everyday, not highly cultured, not overly intellectualized, but entirely unspoiled and not de-Americanized average citizens of old stock.”
.. support for public education, to weaken Catholic parochial schools
.. By reaching back to the reactionary traditions of the 1920s, we might better understand the alliance between the “alt-right” figures that emerged as fervent Trump supporters during last year’s election and the ascendant far-right nativist political parties in Europe.
.. But the Klan remained relevant far beyond the South. In 1936 a group called the Black Legion, active in the industrial Midwest, burst into public consciousness after members assassinated a Works Progress Administration official in Detroit.
The group, which considered itself a Klan enforcement arm
.. Coughlin’s magazine, Social Justice, began reprinting “Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion,” a forged tract about a global Jewish conspiracy
.. Its members were among the most enthusiastic participants in a 1939 pro-Hitler rally that packed Madison Square Garden, where the leader of the German-American Bund spoke in front of an enormous portrait of George Washington flanked by swastikas.
.. Young Irish-Catholic men inspired by the Christian Front desecrated nearly every synagogue in Washington Heights.
The New York Catholic hierarchy, the mayor of Boston and the governor of Massachusetts largely looked the other way.
.. no less mainstream an organization than the American Legion, whose “National Commander” Alvin Owsley proclaimed in 1922, “the Fascisti are to Italy what the American Legion is to the United States.”
.. In 1927, 1,000 hooded Klansmen fought police in Queens in what The Times reported as a “free for all.” One of those arrested at the scene was the president’s father, Fred Trump.
.. The family settled with the Justice Department in the face of evidence that black applicants were told units were not available even as whites were welcomed with open arms.
.. at Kent State University in Ohio, a Gallup poll found that 58 percent of Americans blamed the students for their own deaths. (“If they didn’t do what the Guards told them, they should have been mowed down,” one parent of Kent State students told an interviewer.)
.. 76 percent of Americans “said they did not support the First Amendment right to assemble and dissent from government policies.”
.. In 1973, the reporter Gail Sheehy joined a group of blue-collar workers watching the Watergate hearings in a bar in Astoria, Queens. “If I was Nixon,” one of them said, “I’d shoot every one of them.”
.. “hard-hat populism” — an attitude, Rosenthal hypothesizes, that Trump learned working alongside the tradesmen in his father’s real estate empire.
.. the case itself also resonates deeply with narratives dating back to the first Ku Klux Klan of white womanhood defiled by dark savages. Trump’s public call for the supposed perpetrators’ hides, no matter the proof of guilt or innocence, mimics the rituals of Southern lynchings.
.. At the beginning of the 20th century, millions of impoverished immigrants, mostly Catholic and Jewish, entered an overwhelmingly Protestant country.
.. It was only when that demographic transformation was suspended by the 1924 Immigration Act that majorities of Americans proved willing to vote for many liberal policies. In 1965, Congress once more allowed large-scale immigration to the United States — and it is no accident that this date coincides with the increasing conservative backlash against liberalism itself, now that its spoils would be more widely distributed among nonwhites.
.. Shortly before announcing his 1980 presidential run, Reagan even boasted of his wish “to create, literally, a common market situation here in the Americas with an open border between ourselves and Mexico.”
.. what are we to make of the fact that he placed so many bankers and billionaires in his cabinet, and has relentlessly pursued so many 1-percent-friendly policies? More to the point, what are we to the make of the fact that his supporters don’t seem to mind?
.. The history of bait-and-switch between conservative electioneering and conservative governance is another rich seam that calls out for fresh scholarly excavation
.. when Reagan was re-elected in 1984, only 35 percent of voters favored significant cuts in social programs to reduce the deficit
.. It was business leaders, not the general public, who moved to the right, and they became increasingly aggressive and skilled in manipulating the political process behind the scenes.
.. the ads created a sense of Reagan as a certain kind of character: the kindly paterfamilias, a trustworthy and nonthreatening guardian of the white middle-class suburban enclave. Years later, the producers of “The Apprentice” carefully crafted a Trump character who was the quintessence of steely resolve and all-knowing mastery.
.. Consider the parallels since the 1970s between conservative activism and the traditional techniques of con men. Direct-mail pioneers like Richard Viguerie created hair-on-fire campaign-fund-raising letters about civilization on the verge of collapse.
.. Recipients of these alarming missives sent checks to battle phony crises, and what they got in return was very real tax cuts for the rich.
.. the more recent connection between Republican politics and “multilevel marketing” operations like Amway (Trump’s education secretary, Betsy DeVos, is the wife of Amway’s former president and the daughter-in-law of its co-founder)
.. Mike Huckabee shilling for a “solution kit” to “reverse” diabetes
.. Trump himself taking on a short-lived nutritional-supplements multilevel marketing scheme in 2009
.. Future historians won’t find all that much of a foundation for Trumpism in the grim essays of William F. Buckley, the scrupulous constitutionalist principles of Barry Goldwater or the bright-eyed optimism of Ronald Reagan.
.. They’ll need instead to study conservative history’s political surrealists and intellectual embarrassments, its con artists and tribunes of white rage.