February 27, 2020

Trump, Bannon and the Protocols of the Elders of Zion

The “Protocols of the Elders of Zion” was an early example of fake news originating in Russia that has inspired anti-Semites and ignited anti-Semitism for over 100 years. Now, that revolting ideology may have found a new home in the White House.

First published in Russia in 1903, the forged document was quickly translated into many languages. The document purports to be an account of a late 19th-century meeting (which of course never took place) where Jewish leaders allegedly discussed their goal of global domination. Their means to world control would be through subverting the morals of non-Jews and by controlling the international press and the world’s economies. Sound familiar?

The influence of this infamous libel was far-reaching. Henry Ford financed the printing of 500,000 copies that were distributed throughout the United States in the 1920s. The Nazis used the Protocols to stir up hatred against the Jews. Despite being conclusively proven to be a forgery as early as 1921, it is still widely available today in many countries and languages as well as on the Internet and continues to be presented by some as genuine.

This early Russian foray into the invention of fake facts is interesting in light of what’s happening today. The spiritual heir of the original forgers is President Putin who during last year’s US presidential election authorized a flood of lies, smears, inventions, distortions and slanders designed to damage the candidacy of Hillary Clinton and help the election of Donald Trump. It’s hard to measure how much influence this had but one fact is clear – Trump and not Clinton is President today.

Trump’s chief White House strategist is Steve Bannon, the former head of the alt-right Breitbart News which has become notorious for its use of anti-Semitic tropes, many harking back to the same themes as those of the Protocols.

For example, during Bannon’s reign over Breitbart, the website ran articles referring to conservative commentator Bill Kristol as a “renegade Jew” and Washington Post columnist Anne Applebaum as “a Polish, Jewish, American elitist scorned.” The theme was that Jews have allegiance not to any one nation but only to each other.

After Bannon joined Trump’s presidential campaign, it too started flirting with anti-Semitic tropes, including tweeting an image of a star of David with Hillary Clinton’s face superimposed on a pile of money. His closing ad warned of a shadowy cabal of bankers and international elites, several of whom had Jewish names. These were words that could have been copied verbatim from the Protocols.

Once in the White House, it didn’t take long for Bannon to make his mark. The administration issued a statement on international Holocaust Day that contained no mention of the Jews. Of course, Holocaust denial is a staple of far-right neo-Nazi movements worldwide. It’s hard to make people hate the Jews when they feel sorry for them. Therefore it’s necessary to erase any sympathy people might have for the Jewish victims of the Holocaust.

When Jewish groups objected to being airbrushed from history, the Trump administration doubled down. The White House made it clear that the omission of Jews was no accident. Trump’s people wanted to make the point that other victims also suffered and died in the Holocaust.

Trump appears to have thoroughly absorbed the lessons taught to him by Putin, who himself draws of decades of lies and distortion put forward by the various rulers of the former Soviet Union and Tsarist Empire. Now Trump claims that any polls showing opposition to him are fake. On Feb 6, he tweeted: “Any negative polls are fake news, just like the CNN, ABC, NBC polls in the election. Sorry, people want border security and extreme vetting.” His adviser Kellyanne Conway referred to a “massacre” of Americans in Bowling Green, Kentucky which simply never happened. Yet Conway spoke of the lives of American troops lost as if it were a real event.

If the history of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion teaches us anything, it should be to be very wary and very fearful. Lies can have immense staying power. They can lead to extreme suffering and destruction. They can help pull the entire world into war and place the existence of an entire people under threat. They are especially dangerous when promoted by national leaders like Trump and Putin with almost unlimited access to the media and other means of communication at their disposal. They must be resisted at every turn. We have faith that the truth will eventually out – but it won’t unless we fight to make it so.

The author is Special Adviser to the President of J Street