The out-of-control spread of conspiracy theories is a mortal threat to Jews
A few months ago, Senator Ted Cruz said, “If it ends up that Biden wins in November… I guarantee you, the week after the election, suddenly all those Democratic governors, all those Democratic mayors, will say, ‘Everything’s magically better. Go back to work, go back to school.’ Suddenly, the problems are solved; you won’t even have to wait for Biden to be sworn in.” Cruz — who knows a thing or two about conspiracy theories, having been a victim of one in 2016 — was actually just parroting a theory advanced by his erstwhile victimizer.
But it hasn’t exactly worked out that way. We’re six weeks past the election and the pandemic is still very much with us and being treated as such. But that’s the great thing about conspiracy theories: They can just be trotted out to suit one’s political purposes, and when, with the passage of time, they turn out to be baseless, no one even remembers them, and it’s on to the next wild imagined conspiracy.
Remember this one? “Joe Biden is a mere puppet of the radical left to be used as a tool to burn down the suburbs and impose atheism on America.” During the campaign, his opponent referred to him regularly as a “Trojan Horse for socialism.” When asked by talk show host Laura Ingraham who Biden’s being controlled by, he helpfully clarified that it’s “people who you’ve never heard of, people who are in the dark shadows,” and “people who are in the streets, people who are controlling the streets.”
I didn’t vote for Mr. Biden, nor have I ever written anything in support of his policies. Indeed, I look forward to the end of January, when I can pick up where I left off in 2016 and once again begin critiquing, often harshly, the policies of a Democratic president (to be cheered on no doubt by some who were aghast these last four years at the thought of criticizing a sitting US president).
But during this brief honeymoon period until the inauguration, it’s worth reading what Mona Charen wrote at The Bulwark about a recent meeting Mr. Biden had with civil rights leaders, an audiotape of which leaked:
Biden, we’ve been told, is a stalking horse for the far left of the party. Or, if not that, then a weak weed who will be pressured by the left of the party to do its bidding. Nothing he has done in his whole career, during the long campaign of 2020, or since his victory, has suggested that.
So what did he say to civil rights leaders? “What I’m not going to do is I’m not going to do what… you probably used to get angry with me during the debates, when you’d have some of the people you were supporting saying, ‘On Day 1, I’m gonna have an executive order to do this!’ Not within the constitutional authority. I am not going to violate the Constitution. Executive authority that my progressive friends talk about is way beyond the bounds… There is a Constitution,” he repeated. It’s going to take some getting used to, having a president who respects the limits of his own power.
Here’s another thing he was heard saying on tape: “[Republicans beat us badly] across the country, saying that we’re talking about defunding the police. We’re not. We’re talking about holding them accountable. We’re talking about giving them money to do the right things…. We’re talking about spending money to enable them to do their jobs better….”
And there’s this week’s headline in the New York Times: “Biden Cabinet Leans Centrist, Leaving Some Liberals Frustrated: President-elect Joe Biden’s choices are more pragmatic and familiar than ideological. It’s what he campaigned on, but the left had hoped for more.”
But being a conspiracy theorist means never having to say you’re sorry even when the theories turn out to be baseless. So if it turns out Joe Biden is no one’s marionette, no big deal. After all, didn’t you hear? He’s not actually the next president since he stole the election.
Although grounded, reality-based people tend to downplay the gravity of conspiracy theories because they’re just so outlandish, when their prevalence reaches a critical mass in society, they become a deadly serious issue indeed. And they have reached that point, as Kevin D. Williamson writes in National Review:
When I first started writing about QAnon, some conservatives scoffed that it wasn’t a significant phenomenon, that it had no real influence on the Republican Party or conservative politics. That is obviously untrue. Rather than ask whether conspiracy kookery is relevant to Republican politics at this moment, it would be better to ask if there is anything else to Republican politics at at this moment. And maybe there is, but not much.
For the uninitiated, QAnon, which been identified by the FBI as a domestic terror threat, is a complex, mutating theory centered around the belief that the outgoing president is a heroic savior secretly battling to save the world from a Satanic cult of pedophiles and cannibals connected to prominent Democrats and Deep State denizens. The president has publicly welcomed its support and has retweeted scores of its supporters’ posts; dozens of its supporters have run for office and two were just elected to Congress, with Republican Party help; and opinion surveys show over half of Republican voters believe its central elements.
Read those lines again. Five years ago, a novel or movie script based on this would’ve been rejected as too implausible to attract an audience; today, we’ve acclimated to it emerging from the Oval Office, from the same fingers that are on the nuclear button.
The out-of-control spread of conspiracy theories is a grave enough danger to the health of the nation, but for Jews it is a mortal threat. It is perilous for us in physical terms, given the fact that conspiracy theories have been at the very heart of Jew hatred during the entire history of our people.
And it is equally ominous for us spiritually, because our very existence as the Am Hashem depends on holding fast to truth, rejecting falsehood, and insisting on the highest epistemological standards for discerning between the two. Every Jewish heresy has trafficked in part or in whole in wildly fantastical or conspiratorial theories, from false Messianic movements, to Bible critics’ fever dreams of a fabricated Torah, to contemporary Orthodox feminism’s baseless delusions about a women-subjugating rabbinic cabal. If you think entertaining outrageous political conspiracy theories at the Shabbos table is harmless fun that doesn’t risk corroding the exquisite sensitivity to emes and sheker that our young people need to subscribe to ikarei hadas — think again.
In recent weeks, however, things have risen to a dangerous new level. Yuval Levin, senior scholar at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, writes at The Dispatch:
For our political culture, the Trump era is ending much as it began — in a hail of delusion and fantasy. Throughout his term, the president has invented stories of his own victimization and heroism, demanded the acceptance of lies as tests of loyalty to himself, and elevated baseless theories from the depths of various internet cesspools. His opponents have often responded in kind….
Our affinity for partisan conspiracy obviously did not begin with this presidency…. But the fever has clearly grown much hotter in the Trump era. We’ve seen not only the party out of power easing its pain with myths of victimization by shadowy forces but a sitting president actively blurring the line between fantasy and reality. It should be no surprise that he is now concluding his presidency by insisting the election was stolen and beckoning his supporters down a rabbit hole of unreality and grievance.
And anecdotal indications are that among those going down that rabbit hole are more than a negligible number of members of our own community. Our history is replete with a country’s Jews being the victims of blood libels, but now we face the prospect of something at least as chilling: Jews, a tiny, vulnerable minority in a country already riven by partisan hatred and fear, publicly identifying with those promoting a libel aimed at delegitimizing the country’s rulers.
We can hope that the conspiratorial fever that has seized millions of Americans these last six weeks will yet break. But if it doesn’t, the potential implications for Jews are frightening.
Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 841. Eytan Kobre may be contacted directly at firstname.lastname@example.org
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