With everyone from Trump, to media pundits, to fake “ANTIFA” accounts run by the far-Right, to state Governors repeating conspiracy theories and false information about “who is behind” the recent rebellion in the wake of the police murder of George Floyd, we thought it would be a good time to discuss the history associated with the trope of the “outside agitator.” This interview was conducted by It's Going Down with Spencer Sunshine.
With everyone from Trump, to media pundits, to fake “ANTIFA” accounts run by the far-Right, to state Governors repeating conspiracy theories and false information about “who is behind” the recent rebellion in the wake of the police murder of George Floyd, we thought it would be a good time to discuss the history associated with the trope of the “outside agitator.”
While this term in itself comes from police and KKK members who attacked participants in the civil rights movement, the racist ideology behind black freedom struggles being associated with “communism” and being led by “Jews,” goes back even farther.
Wanting to know more, we reached out to Spencer Sunshine, a long-time researcher of far-Right movements.
IGD: Why does the far-Right spread ideas that Black people have no agency over their own struggles and somehow need be guided and directed by outside forces? What do they gain by advancing such a narrative?
Even when these ideas are laundered by more mainstream conservatives like FOX News or espoused by right-wingers who are Jewish and/or people of color, they emerge originally from anti-Semitic white supremacist narratives. This is important because these claims fundamentally reflect those assumptions.
Popular Alt-Right cartoon, which shows Jews as behind “degenerate” forces within society
White supremacists view Black folks are animalistic and incapable of complex thought and organizing; so they couldn’t possibly construct complex liberation movements. Jews, however, are seen as crafty and manipulative, who act as puppet masters but don’t get their own hands dirty So Jews are portrayed as manipulating Black activists against the supposed interests of non-Jewish Whites. (Jews of color don’t exist in the white supremacist worldview). We see this very clearly today in the claims that George Soros—a liberal Jewish financier and philanthropist—is behind the protests.
This anti-Semitic framework is very consistent for them. They get to:
- use all their demonizing narratives, and so reproduce them;
- explain how Black folks, who they see as inferiors, are able to defeat Whites, their alleged superiors; and
- distract people from the real problem—that it is the very white supremacy that they practice which is the root cause of the uprisings.
The “Jews control Black Liberation movements” allows the Right to get to blame others, mobilize their base, and never face social reality or take responsibility for their actions.
IGD: How far back do these conspiracy theories go?
The initial conspiratorial narrative that we’re so familiar with was created by two writers at the end of the 18th century who were supporters of Christian feudalism. They opposed the new democratic structures which the French Revolution was implementing, and blamed the Masons as the agent behind the revolution. Anti-Semitism had long existed in Europe in a similar form—blaming Jews for conspiring against Christians—and the two narratives combined in the early 19th century to create what we know of as modern anti-Semitism. As Moishe Postone points out, this narrative fixates on the role of Jews as the manipulators of abstractions, including finance and media. A huge amount of conspiracy theories today are either inspired by, sanitized versions of, or lead back to anti-Semitism when you look at how they were created.
Conspiracy theories can be found in progressive movements as well. The Abolitionist movement claimed that the “Slave Power” conspiracy sought to spread slavery. Later on, books like Carleton Putnam’s Race and Reason—the most popular pro-segregationist book of the Civil Rights era—blamed Jews for spreading ideas about racial equality.
So conspiracy theories can be used by both the Left and Right—the 9/11 Truth movement famously has supporters on both sides—and sometimes these opponents will use them against each other. For example, today on the Right some people claim Soros is behind the movement to abolish borders, while simultaneously others on the Left see him an arch-neoliberal who backs U.S. soft power.
IGD: Can you talk about the John Birch Society, which played a pivotal role in the construction of the far-Right’s opposition to civil rights and the Black freedom struggle, as well as pushing the conspiracy that it was a front for communism?
The John Birch Society does not get the recognition it deserves regarding its role in shaping the ideas of the far-Right since its founding in 1958. It is important because it was a large and powerful organization which wrapped itself in U.S. ultra-patriotism, but in reality was fundamentally anti-democratic. The “Birchers,” as they’re called, allow in Jews and people of color, which is why I like to describe the Proud Boys as “Birchers as a street gang.”
But the John Birch Society’s main role was to sanitize anti-Semitic conspiracy theories into a palatable form—they rebranded “the Jews” as “the Insiders.” They have acted like a think tank for the far-Right, constantly coming up with new conspiracies and hitching them to every new right-wing cause, from opposing the civil rights movement to being some of the earliest opponents of environmental laws and public lands. The militia movement of the 1990s was largely driven by their ideas, and the Alt Lite today is basically the John Birch Society with better aesthetics. Much like today’s Alt-Lite, the Birchers were able to recruit Black members, feed them crypto-anti-Semitic narratives, and get them to oppose desegregation because it was a “Communist plot.” That’s really a feat, if you think about it.
IGD: The American Nazi Party (ANP), led by George Lincoln Rockwell, took these conspiracies a step farther and added an explicit anti-Semitic element to it, can you talk about this impact?
This is another organization whose influence doesn’t receive the recognition it deserved. It’s not a coincidence that the American Nazi Party’s direct precursor was founded the same year as the John Birch Society; each represented two different directions to take antisemitic white supremacy in: explicit and coded. (In fact a third important group also founded in 1958—J.B. Stoner’s National States Rights Party—took a middle path between the two by selling coded National Socialism to the Klan and other segregationists.)
George Lincoln Rockwell, the American Nazi Party’s founder, was disillusioned by the more mainstream far-Right and decided that the Right needed to openly proclaim their views to create something to rally around. He was disgusted by what he called “sneaky Nazis,” who wouldn’t openly own up to their beliefs, and his answer was to “raise the swastika.” In many ways, though, Rockwell was a typical white supremacist of this time and did not embrace many of the specific policies of Hitler’s National Socialism. So for example, he was in favor of the free market and wanted a Christian Republic, almost more like the militia and Patriot movement groups do. Except that he placed open anti-Semitism front-and-center to his racist politics.
So basically: if you wanted coded anti-Semitism, you went to the Birchers; but if you preferred it straight-up, you could join up with Rockwell. Many many White Supremacist leaders started their political careers as rank-and-file Birchers, before moving into open racism.
While Rockwell wasn’t terribly successful in his day, his impact has been long-lasting. (His original party still exists too, although today is it is a small cult called New Order that practice esoteric Nazism and worship Hitler as a kind of god). But Rockwell’s real impact was elsewhere. He single-handedly created the political space for open neo-Nazism, which had been a taboo since World War Two. Rockwell’s specific “Americanization” of National Socialism—including his conception of who was White, his early adaption of Holocaust Denial, his links with Christian Identity, and his use of provocative language and rallies to draw public attention, recruits, and money—has been practiced since then in increasing numbers. Of course, for Rockwell—as opposed to other white nationalists—anti-Semitism was front and center.
IGD: Today we’re seeing similar arguments predictably from the Right, but also from the Center and from liberals. How are these arguments mirroring and connecting with what is coming from the far-Right on social media?
In the 1990s, conspiracy theories escaped their far-Right bubble into large dissemination. Conspiracies were ironically enjoyed even by leftists and some anarchists, and many saw them as playful fun. Conspiracies about the JFK assassination were popular in the “slacker” subculture—both ironically and not. But conspiracy mongers like Alex Jones used their newfound audience to create a foothold from which they could grow and spread. While Jones moved much further to the Right since then, conspiracy theorists and have also made deep inroads into the Left. Conspiratorial takes on many issues have been popular for decades, and can be found in Left discussions about globalization, neoliberalism, de-industrialization, media consolidation, GMOs, and U.S. policy in the Middle East.
So today we’re getting both the Left and Right fling conspiracies at each other over the George Floyd protests. Some on the Left are claiming violence and looting at the protests is caused by white supremacists, while Right portrays the same acts as caused by antifa.
Of course, we’re seeing many progressives use these exact same conspiracy theories. It is wild to see liberal protest police use talking points taken directly from Donald Trump to attack “white anarchists” and antifa for “hijacking” the demonstrations. Just like the antisemitic conspiracy theories which hold that Black people can’t organize their own liberation movements, this view implicitly claims that Black anger over oppression would never spill over into property damage or similar actions. That’s ridiculous.
Spencer Sunshine is currently writing about the history of U.S. Nazism. He’s on Twitter @transform6789 and Patreon here.