When Fox News commentator Glenn Beck recently accused investor and philanthropist George Soros, who is of Jewish and Hungarian origin, of running a "shadow government" whose aim is to destroy the American political system, he was drawing on a rich tradition of anti-Semitic attacks.
It's indeed amazing how often, in the past hundred years or so, the most deranged people, movements and governments have found their way, with a kind of dreary consistency, to anti-Semitism as the explanation for their activities. Hitler (much mentioned by Beck), of course, placed his attack on the Jewish people at the core of his political program—a fact that for all its familiarity still has the power to astonish. When the exercise of great power is involved, something in most of us would like to think that rational motives—even if only ruthless self-interest, for instance—are at work. Such rooted, commonplace impulses would at least promise to set some limits on whatever wickedness was afoot. That they can be overridden by crazier considerations raises a possibility that is more distressing: that, in the old nihilist formulation, "anything is possible."
What is it about this particular piece of insanity that has had such power to derange? The burden of the question was captured in a well-known joke that circulated in Hitler's time: "The Nazis are planning to kill all the cyclists and the Jews."
"Why the cyclists?"
"Why the Jews?"
Whatever the answer, anti-Semitism has not been confined to the right. The century's other colossal monster, Stalin, found his way at the end of his life through all the thickets of Marxist dialectic to anti-Semitism. After a series of anti-Semitic trials in the early 1950s in Soviet-occupied Eastern Europe (the accused were charged with Zionism and "cosmopolitanism"), Stalin began laying the ground for a broad anti-Semitic purge, which was cut short only by his death.
While it's impossible, of course, to assign any single or simple cause to the recurring appeal of anti-Semitism for demagogues, one reason appears to be that by the beginning of the twentieth century it had developed into a full-dress conspiracy theory, set forth by the infamous forgery The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, according to which Jews were secretly planning to subvert all existing governments and take over the world. A clear advantage for totalitarian regimes was that the fictional conspiracy provided the ideal justification for perfectly real conspiracies mounted by those regimes to achieve world domination. There was no better guide to what they planned to do than what they professed to fear.
But to achieve this mirror effect, in which reality responded to and aped fantasy, something prior was needed. The totalitarians had to cut themselves off from actual events—to achieve what Hannah Arendt called "the totalitarian contempt for facts and reality." Anti-Semitic global conspiracy theories, by purporting to account for the inner workings of history itself, were ideal for the purpose. Indeed, one might say that they provided the gold standard for divorce from reality—for organized insanity that rests not on mere inattention to truth or failure to fact-check but on the systematic replacement of reality with a more satisfying world of fantasy.
In those cases, conspiracy theories are appealing not despite their nonfactuality but precisely because of it. When the longing for illusion—a hardy perennial in political life—arises, anti-Semitic conspiracy theories, which almost flaunt their defiance of the actual world, are ready and waiting to satisfy the need. Casting off factuality is then not a burden but a release from a burden—a palpable liberation from the ever-difficult, ever-frustrating effort of seeing things as they are.
All of which brings us back to Glenn Beck. He takes to a new level the style of right-wing entertainer-demagogue pioneered by such as Rush Limbaugh and Michael Savage. He can switch in an instant from weepy, self-abasing recovering alcoholic to stern moralist and scold, from clown to revival preacher ("God gives me hints of stuff"), from Woody Woodpecker to bespectacled professor. Most demagogues have something of the clown about them, but in Beck this is deliberate; it is controlled. At the same time, his political importance is undeniable. He is one of the most revered figures of the Tea Party, which stands astride the Republican Party, which is about to assume control of the House of Representatives. The Republican Party, in turn, has been exhibiting in especially aggressive form the kind of denial of fact and reality that is one of the hallmarks of totalitarianism. The most striking case in point is that the great majority of newly elected Republicans are, in one form or another, deniers of what is, together with nuclear danger, the greatest peril confronting the nation as well as the human species: man-made global warming. Such a stance, maintained in the teeth of rock-solid scientific consensus to the contrary, is a tour de force of reality-rejection that has no obvious counterpart in recent American political life. Lesser but still notable achievements in fiction are the frequent branding of Obama as a "socialist" (if not a Muslim or a foreigner) and the claim, in defiance of mathematics, that it will be possible simultaneously to cut taxes and cut the budget deficit—without identifying sufficient spending cuts that would close the widening budgetary gap that must result.
One Republican operative in the Bush years was famously quoted as deriding Democrats for living in "the reality-based community"—a manner of speaking that clearly points to belief in a non-real alternative. That's where Beck has stepped in. With a freer hand than anyone else, he has been sketching out a parallel fictional universe. He is a purveyor of conspiracy in the classic mode: for the past hundred years, history, he says, has been controlled by a secret force, "progressivism," that is now poised to overthrow the American system in favor of "one-world government." Some of this is garden-variety redbaiting, familiar from the time of McCarthy on. (Of Obama's White House, Beck says, "There are communists, Marxists, revolutionaries all around this president.") More unusual is that Beck has demonized, of all people, Woodrow Wilson, whom he portrays as the fountainhead not only of progressivism but also of Nazism and Bolshevism (some of the more startling sights at Tea Party rallies are people holding signs vilifying Wilson, whose presidency ended ninety years ago). Wilson, progressives and Nazis are linked by a chain of wild free association characteristic of conspiracy theories: Wilson was a progressive (at least Wilson really was a progressive in most respects); some progressives dabbled in eugenics (never mind that some conservatives did as well); the eugenics movement influenced Hitler; Obama, too, is a progressive. Quod erat demonstrandum: progressives, Hitler and Obama are the same! Of all this we can say what Arendt said of the Protocols. Its effect is to "reveal official history as a joke, to demonstrate a sphere of secret influence of which the visible, traceable, and known historical reality was only the outward facade."
But not until the attacks on Soros did Beck's crackpot vision of a grand conspiracy acquire a human face—as it happens, a Jewish one. Like the Protocols, Beck's presentation—titled The Puppet Master?—discovers a single malevolent force operating behind the scenes to control history. While horror-film music plays and clips of history's disasters are shown on the screen, a voice intones, "Eighty years ago, George Soros was born. Little did the world know then, economies would collapse, currencies would become worthless, elections would be stolen, regimes would fall. And one billionaire would find himself coincidentally at the center of it all." Going on to accuse Soros of creating a shadow government, the show states that this "greatly resembles" similar organizations "he has created in other countries," supposedly "before instigating a coup" (among the countries are Czechoslovakia, Georgia and Ukraine). Thus, Beck falsely charges that Soros instigated coups abroad while also implying that he plans to carry out one in the United States. (What Soros has actually done is give support, through his Open Society Foundations, to democracy movements in many countries.)
In a novel and especially vile (and also false) twist, Beck, while heaping the classic anti-Semitic slurs on Soros, insinuates that Soros, a Holocaust survivor, is himself anti-Semitic. Beck, who denies that he is an anti-Semite, accuses Soros of having had to "go over and take the lands from the people, his Jewish friends and neighbors, who were being sent to the gas chambers" when he was a boy in Hungary during World War II. (In reality, as Michael Kaufman reveals in his book Soros: The Life and Times of a Messianic Billionaire, Soros's Christian protector was ordered to inventory the estate of a Jewish aristocrat who had escaped Hungary. He brought Soros, 13 at the time, with him. Soros wandered the estate and rode a horse. He never took any lands or anything else from Holocaust victims or anyone else.) In a perverse way, the libel is a perfect complement to the history of anti-Semitism: now the Jew is found to be guilty of, on top of all of history's other evils, his own people's persecution.
How seriously should Beck's charges be taken? It would be comforting, relying on his clownishness, to assess Beck's whole career as nothing more than the political equivalent of professional wrestling: a fraud tacitly understood by all to be a fraud, signifying little that is more troubling than some coarse amusement. After all, one would not, in a further extension of the mirror effect, want simply to unthinkingly turn Beck's outlandish accusations around and aim them thoughtlessly back at him. On the other hand, Beck's undoubted centrality in the present moment requires that he be taken seriously. There is no doubt that he has injected into American life one of the most virulent and dangerous sorts of accusations of which there is record. His smears mark the first time in recent memory that a major network has leveled anti-Semitic charges in a calculated campaign. History never repeats itself exactly, but the record of conspiracy theories would seem to provide at least some warnings that deserve to be taken to heart: political fantasies based on conspiracy theories are dangerous. Beware gifted hysterics who make things up. That usually ends badly.