Conspiracy theories are flourishing in America, from the Oval Office to the fever swamps of the Internet. They include the viral notion that the liberal 88-year-old billionaire George Soros, a Hungarian American Holocaust survivor, is funding the migrant caravan slowly making its way from Central America in the direction of the United States.
It’s not true, but it has apparently fueled homicidal rage in recent days.
Cesar Sayoc, the Florida man whom authorities have accused of mailing more than a dozen bombs to people and organizations President Trump has criticized, appeared to be obsessed with Soros, mentioning him dozens of times on one of his Twitter accounts. Authorities say he mailed one of his bombs to Soros.
Robert D. Bowers, charged with killing 11 people Saturday at a Pittsburgh synagogue, also reposted several viral comments on a since-deactivated social media account about the migrant caravan. One post described the “third world caravan” as a group of approaching “invaders.”
Bowers directly posted a comment referring to “the overwhelming jew problem.” He spoke of the U.S. having a Jewish “infestation,” and reposted another user’s anti-Semitic comment: “Jews are waging a propaganda war against Western civilization and it is so effective that we are headed towards certain extinction within the next 200 years and we’re not even aware of it.”
The Soros/caravan theory dates to late March, when an earlier wave of migrants was heading north, according to an extensive blog post on Medium by Jonathan Albright, director of the Digital Forensics Initiative at Columbia University’s Tow Center for Digital Journalism. One Twitter post, which had no factual foundation, stated, “Caravan of 1,500 Central American Migrant Families Crossing Mexico to Reach U.S. Border All organized by Soros groups to cause more division.”
The rumors circulated on closed Facebook groups and various right-wing websites, as well as on left-wing sites seeking to debunk them. They cropped up again in recent weeks when a new caravan started receiving attention among conservatives. President Trump warned without evidence that people from the Middle East were among the Central Americans. A Florida congressman, Matt Gaetz (R), posted a video on Twitter of someone supposedly handing cash to migrants to “storm the US border,” and he asked: “Soros?”
Lou Dobbs, host of a show on Fox Business, tweeted on Oct. 23, “Do you think the Radical Left is working with Central and South American socialists and leftists to organize and support the migrant caravan?”
As Albright put it: “There are no barriers for rumors, misinformation and memes. It’s ‘Rumors Without Borders.’ ”
The Soros-caravan conspiracy theory weaves together anti-Semitism, fear of immigrants and the specter of powerful foreign agents controlling major world events in pursuit of a hidden agenda. And it appears to have had real-world consequences on Saturday for Jews attending services,including a baby-naming ceremony, in their synagogue in Pittsburgh’s Squirrel Hill neighborhood.
Armed with an AR-15-style assault rifle and at least three handguns, a man shouting anti-Semitic slurs opened fire inside a Pittsburgh synagogue Saturday morning, killing at least 11 congregants and wounding four police officers and two others, the authorities said.
In a rampage described as among the deadliest against the Jewish community in the United States, the assailant stormed into the Tree of Life Congregation, where worshipers had gathered in separate rooms to celebrate their faith, and shot indiscriminately into the crowd, shattering what had otherwise been a peaceful morning.
The assailant, identified by law enforcement officials as Robert D. Bowers, fired for several minutes and was leaving the synagogue when officers, dressed in tactical gear and armed with rifles, met him at the door. According to the police, Mr. Bowers exchanged gunfire with officers before retreating back inside and barricading himself inside a third-floor room. He eventually surrendered.
Mr. Bowers, 46, was injured by gunfire, although the authorities said it was unclear whether those wounds were self-inflicted or whether the police had shot him. He was in stable condition Saturday at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center.
Trump’s initial response was to denounce anti-semitism. But later we learned that it “took the importuning of his Jewish daughter and son-in-law to craft a powerful statement of outrage at anti-Semitism after Saturday’s slaughter at a Pittsburgh synagogue.” That is what The New York Times reported on Sunday.
And since then, left to his own devices and words, Trump and his minions are letting their nationalistic flag fly.
Bowers’ anti-semitism was already there, but the rampage was stoked by Trump’s fake news. On Tuesday, President Donald Trump was asked about his recent tweet that “criminals and unknown Middle Easterners are mixed in” with the migrant caravan in southern Mexico. At first, he deflected, telling reporters that the US Border Patrol has apprehended people from the Middle East before. When a journalist asked him if he had any proof that Middle Easterners are in the caravan right now, Trump simply said, “Well, they could very well be.”Asked again for some proof, the President answered, “There’s no proof of anything. But they could very well be.”
In other words, he was gaslighting.
And the gaslighting continues this morning, as Trump tries to place blame for the divided America on the media.
The Fake News is doing everything in their power to blame Republicans, Conservatives and me for the division and hatred that has been going on for so long in our Country. Actually, it is their Fake & Dishonest reporting which is causing problems far greater than they understand!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 29, 2018
There is great anger in our Country caused in part by inaccurate, and even fraudulent, reporting of the news. The Fake News Media, the true Enemy of the People, must stop the open & obvious hostility & report the news accurately & fairly. That will do much to put out the flame…— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 29, 2018
….of Anger and Outrage and we will then be able to bring all sides together in Peace and Harmony. Fake News Must End!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 29, 2018
These tweets are, in effect, a demand to stop reporting critically on the President backed by the threat of violence. What would you say if you saw it in another country? pic.twitter.com/Hp9PHc0pJv— Brendan Nyhan (@BrendanNyhan) October 29, 2018
He then immediately followed up that last tweet — calling the fake news the “enemy of the people” — with some lies:
Many Gang Members and some very bad people are mixed into the Caravan heading to our Southern Border. Please go back, you will not be admitted into the United States unless you go through the legal process. This is an invasion of our Country and our Military is waiting for you!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 29, 2018
The reason Trump is conflating the caravan with terrorists ostensibly has little to do with reality and everything to do with politics. With the midterms a little more than a week away, he sees fear-mongering as the best way to activate his base. What else does Trump have to talk about?
His tax cuts are not popular with voters. His installation of Brett Kavanaugh on the Supreme Court divided the country. Trump has not fulfilled his campaign promise of building a wall. So he is forging ahead with scare tactics. His advisers basically admit as much; referring to the president’s mistruths about the caravan, one senior Trump administration official told The Daily Beast, “it doesn’t matter if it’s 100% accurate. This is the play.”
Actually, it does matter that what the President says is accurate. Though Trump has a well-documented reputation for lying, it is particularly troubling when he is lying about a situation where lives are potentially at stake.
The good news is that attacking immigrants may not work as a midterm message. A 2018 midterm survey of voters in competitive congressional districts indicates that many Americans reject his xenophobia and divisive rhetoric. Polling from the research firm Latino Decisions shows that 61% of whites from battleground congressional districts favor a welcoming approach to immigration.
As long as Trump misrepresents the circumstances surrounding the migrant caravan, we will move no closer to solving the problem of so many families arriving at our southern border. That the President would use a humanitarian crisis for his own political gain is as cynical as it is predictable.
Trump’s minions are also out there trying to diminish the massacre and their role in it. Here is Kellyanne Conway doing the “All Religions Matter” bit.
Conway tries to frame Pittsburgh shooting as really being about “anti-religiosity” writ large.— Aaron Rupar (@atrupar) October 29, 2018
“The anti-religiosity in this country that is somehow in vogue… making fun of people who express religion, the late night comedians,.. It’s always anti-religious.” pic.twitter.com/yw6ZvY1CIQ
UPDATE — Sarah Sanders now has the ball….
“The very first thing the president did was condemn the attacks — both in Pittsburgh and the pipe bombs. The very first thing the media did was blame the president,” Sanders said when asked if Trump was concerned that his words could encourage people to harm others pic.twitter.com/0DILDgpiy9— POLITICO (@politico) October 29, 2018
No, the first thing the media is report the facts. Then they blamed and identified the bomber. THEN they blamed the president and the rhetoric of the right.
This of course echoed what Sanders tweeted earlier:
Is there any tragedy the Washington Post won’t exploit to attack President @realDonaldTrump? The evil act of anti-Semitism in Pittsburg was committed by a coward who hated President Trump because @POTUS is such an unapologetic defender of the Jewish community and state of Israel. https://t.co/0tCNpepC9k— Sarah Sanders (@PressSec) October 28, 2018
First of all, Pittsburgh has an H, Sarah!
Secondly, the New York Times and other papers were simply reporting what critics of Trump were saying. Apparently, Trump and Sanders think the role of a newspaper is supposed to be just what Trump wants said, which is what dictators think.