(Editor’s note: This article is published in conjunction with this week’s International Holocaust Remembrance Day, observed each year on Jan. 27 to commemorate the day in 1945 when Soviet troops liberated Auschwitz. Read related content here.)
This past fall, 5 percent of Americans reported believing that the use of force was justified to restore former President Trump to office even if it resulted in injury or death. That translates to approximately 13 million American adults. Another 12 percent, or some 31 million, felt ambivalent. The main drivers for the millions supporting anti-democratic violence was belief in two prominent conspiracy theories that are rife with antisemitism: “great replacement” theory (believed by 60 percent of those supporting political violence) and QAnon (49 percent).
These are the findings of University of Chicago Professor Robert Pape and the Chicago Project on Security & Threats (CPOST) in the most recent published survey of a series they have been conducting regularly since the Jan. 6 insurrection. Great replacement theory and QAnon are conspiracy theories that express, or even rely at their core on, antisemitism and racism to further anti-democratic political goals. They lay the foundation for democratic backsliding and violence.
Thirteen million people supporting the violent overthrow of U.S. democracy as of last fall, while chilling, actually represents a decrease; prior to the most recent survey, the percentage of insurrection supporters consistently mapped to a range of 21 to 26 million Americans. Regardless, supporters of political violence are still far from a fringe segment of extremists, going well beyond individuals who already have affiliations with white supremacist groups or far-right anti-government militias like the Proud Boys and Oath Keepers. While the Jan. 6 insurrection would not have happened without former President Donald Trump’s incitement (coming after years of embracing extremist groups and trafficking in their ideologies), the danger continues after his term has ended, as support for his and others’ anti-democratic views, and the widespread threat of violence that feeds off it lives on.
Yet the role antisemitism plays in this deadly interplay between political violence, the conspiracy theories that motivate it, and anti-democratic schemes remains badly misunderstood and dangerously underestimated. Effectively addressing the risks posed by rising antisemitism and its often complex relationship with other forms of hate and anti-democratic movements will require a comprehensive approach, drawing upon public policy, civil society, and the private sector, and demanding consistently courageous leadership in all of these segments in order to mitigate antisemitism and bigotry while bolstering the safeguards of democracy. No one policy will “fix” this; we need a whole-of-society approach.
Antisemitism is Surging
While many think antisemitism is simply prejudice against Jews, it functions more like an all-encompassing conspiracy theory, motivating hostility against a range of people, not just Jews, based on erroneous beliefs about Jewish power, influence, and exploitation. As Ambassador Deborah Lipstadt, the U.S. Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Antisemitism, has long warned, antisemitism is like “the canary in the coal mine,” and while hatred, discrimination and persecution may “begin with the Jews, [it] does not end with the Jews.” And U.N. Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief Ahmed Shaheed has explained that not only is antisemitism the harbinger of “global hatred,” it is also “toxic to democracies, a threat to all societies if left unaddressed.”
Data compiled by ADL, where we work, and others indicates that antisemitism – measured in a number of ways, including annual incidents (harassment, vandalism and assault) and antisemitic attitudes – has been increasing in the United States to levels not seen in many years. Historically, antisemitism increases during times of heightened social or collective anxiety, such as that induced by war, pandemic, market failure, disruptive technological change, political instability, and rapid demographic change. People search to identify a simple, concrete source for the threat and suffering so that a response can be mounted to neutralize that threat.
Although antisemitism shares many characteristics with other identity-based hatreds, manifesting as a hatred toward a particular group that can be “othered” and dehumanized, it also operates as an overarching conspiracy theory that aims to explain how the world works. It casts Jews centrally as an all-powerful, malignant force responsible for all the world’s ills. In doing so, as civil rights leader Eric Ward has noted, antisemitism uses bigotry against the Jewish community to “deconstruct democratic practices . . . framing democracy as a conspiracy rather than a tool of empowerment or a functional tool of governance.”
The Great Replacement Theory
The “great replacement” theory is the belief that CPOST found to be the primary motivation among those supporting political violence in the United States (60 percent). It is originally an explicitly white nationalist, antisemitic conspiracy theory which maintains that Jews and other “globalists” or “global elites” – often code for Jews – are orchestrating the replacement of white Christian Americans of European heritage with non-white immigrants, and more generally with Black and brown people, a process they claim will lead to “white genocide.”
When white supremacists marched in Charlottesville, Virginia in 2017 at the Unite the Right rally chanting “Jews will not replace us,” they did not literally mean that they thought the country’s small Jewish population could replace the vastly more numerous white Christian population. Rather, they meant that Jews would not succeed in their alleged plot to replace them with the “non-white” Americans they claimed were surging across the border, or with Black and brown Americans whom they saw gaining status and taking positions of power away from them.
Antisemitism and anti-Black and brown racism thus work in tandem for white nationalists. White nationalists hold people of color to be inferior, both intellectually and morally incapable of having won by themselves the victories of the civil rights era against white supremacy as a system of law. So they search for another reason and find the answer in the Jews, whom they see as an inordinately powerful group who utilize Black people and other people of color against deserving White America. In this way, antisemitism also denies both the agency and legitimate grievances of Black Americans and other people of color.
A more indirect way in which this theory is advanced is through media influencers such as Tucker Carlson, absent the overtly racist trappings, but with the same overarching sentiment. The usefulness of such a “softer” version has not been lost on white supremacists. Both versions posit that non-white immigrants are coming to America as part of an orchestrated plot to change the country’s demographics and voting population. While not always explicitly stated, this provides a key explanation undergirding baseless charges of massive voter fraud in the 2020 presidential election.
Indeed, great replacement theory, or a version of it, was also a driving force for participation in the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol: CPOST found that, other than sheer population size, the most salient characteristic of the counties of residence of insurrectionists criminally charged by the DOJ (now topping 970) was not whether they were predominantly white, poor, or voted for Trump, but that in the years preceding the insurrection they had experienced the greatest declines in their non-Hispanic white population.
QAnon and Antisemitism
The other main conspiracy that motivated those supporting insurrection is QAnon, a decentralized, far-right movement rooted in an endlessly adaptive and totalizing conspiracy theory that the world is controlled by the “Deep State” — a cabal of Satan-worshiping pedophiles — that only Trump can defeat. QAnon follows the basic blueprint of antisemitic conspiracy theory, or at least weaponizes key ingredients of classic antisemitic conspiracy theory. It revolves around an evil elite and a deep state and is associated with satanic/demonic rituals, wealth, Hollywood, sexual predation, pedophilia (blood libel), and exploitation.
QAnon’s originators – including “Q,” a pseudonym used by an author claiming to have high-level government Q clearance who appeared on online message boards beginning around 2017 – and followers exhibited different levels of antisemitism. From the beginning, many early adopters of Q’s posts went immediately to interpreting those posts as foretelling a genocide of Jews. The antisemitic rants of key QAnon influencers became more pronounced in the wake of Jan. 6, when mainstream social media sites de-platformed them and they migrated back to smaller alternative sites.
Political Violence and Threats to Democracy
The antisemitic and racist conspiracies that motivated the Jan. 6 insurrection are a clear threat to democracy, as that attack sought to violently overthrow an election. But beyond large-scale insurrections on par with Jan. 6, which we may or may not see again, there are smaller, more targeted, and potentially more dangerous attacks occurring on an ongoing basis. The report created by ADL with our partners at the Princeton Bridging Divides Initiative assessed 400 threats to state and local officials throughout the 2022 election, finding that 14 percent of threats involved a gun or a death threat. These threats, which lead to elected officials being intimidated, or even choosing not to serve in office, disrupt the democratic process writ large and, in some cases, threaten those administering election processes – 35 percent of threats targeted election officials or poll workers.
Political violence today often takes the form of stochastic terrorism, a destabilizing, decentralized and unpredictable threat caused by dehumanizing and demonizing individuals or groups. The targeting and intimidation of people participating in democratic processes and institutions, over a long enough timeline, will crowd out good faith democratic engagement, creating space for bad faith actors to replace it with undemocratic norms.
Targeting Practical Policy to Address the Challenge
To address the rise in antisemitism, racism, and the often-connected fraying of democratic norms, the United States needs a comprehensive, whole-of-society dedication to breaking down political silos, embracing inclusion, and building affirmative support for democratic protections. The extraordinary rollback of civil rights and liberties currently underway needs to be effectively countered. Crucially, policymakers and other leaders and influencers across the full political spectrum must affirmatively and consistently condemn antisemitism and support democratic norms. Ideally, Congress would pass sweeping election integrity protections, such as some of the voting rights provisions proposed in the last Congress; but while a laudable goal, this seems unlikely.
Passage of the Electoral Count Reform Act last year will ensure that opponents of democracy need more than to simply convince the vice president of their views, but it is politically naive to expect that this Congress will be able to build on that success.
More pragmatically and immediately, there are five key areas where policymakers could invest in practical, near-term impact that could catalyze progress in countering antisemitic, anti-democratic threats.
First, a top-down strategy can communicate a vision to facilitate alignment across many constituencies. The Biden administration’s National Strategy to Counter Domestic Terrorism, released in June 2021, was a good start, though how it is being implemented and opportunities for larger impact could be further clarified. More recently, in December 2022, the administration announced that it will launch a new national strategy to combat antisemitism. The terrorism strategy should be fully implemented, and the antisemitism strategy should be created with urgency, ideally synchronizing with the terrorism strategy’s goals. The administration also needs to do far more to address the viral spread of anti-democratic antisemitism, hate, and extremism on social media.
Second, both state and federal officials could seek to clarify what is criminal in undermining democracy and what are the best practices in addressing such crimes. For example, the DOJ (or state equivalents) could share best practices to prevent harassment and undermining of election officials’ work, identify best practices in countering harassment and threats targeting election officials, and clarify and widely communicate which polling place offenses can be prosecuted. The DOJ’s Election Threats Task Force has begun much of this work; it should continue through 2024. Where there are gaps – such as statutes addressing the doxxing of election administrators or armed paramilitaries near polls – state legislatures can seek to close those gaps.
Third, officials should more proactively engage key stakeholders with existing best practices. While there are government resources for how election officials and other protectors of democracy can protect themselves or their systems from threats, they are not necessarily widely read or understood by all election administrators or other key officials. The Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA), for example, could use its public engagement mandate to develop an election worker initiative and to build closer relationships between DHS and state secretaries of state.
Fourth, further evaluation of threats is needed. Government and non-government funders alike should pursue further initiatives to cultivate data into antisemitism, democracy, and related threats. As threats rise to national security concerns, the intelligence community could provide intelligence assessments to scope when threats to democracy become threats to national security.
Finally, all stakeholders must work to prevent conspiracy theories from being embraced and from being acted upon violently. Holocaust and genocide education and promoting digital literacy could be useful tools here. Additionally, secondary and tertiary prevention initiatives could be more directly applied to existing conspiracy theories and individuals who may act on them. One key example is the DHS’s Center for Prevention Programs and Partnerships, which funds approximately $20 million per year in public health-style terrorism prevention grants such as hate helplines, community and behavioral health resilience, and digital literacy and communication related to hateful conspiracies. A related idea proposed by ADL is that Congress fund an independent nonprofit to proactively investigate online conspiracies and, when it suspects criminal behavior as a result of those conspiracies, alert government officials. This would not empower law enforcement to proactively scour the internet, but would provide a necessary civil liberties-protected resource for getting fast-moving online threats in front of law enforcement when criminality is suspected.
While the government has yet to take these threats on in a manner proportional to the risks they pose, civil society has begun to do so. Whether the civil litigation that reduced Alex Jones’ and the Unite the Right Rally’s organizers’ ability to scale their efforts, ADL’s and its co-counsel’s own work representing the District of Columbia in a Jan. 6-related federal civil suit against the Oath Keepers and Proud Boys, legal support to states and nonprofits from entities like Georgetown Law’s Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection or States United Democracy Center, or the mapping of bad actors and potential mediators by Princeton’s Bridging Divides Initiative – civil society actors have produced much of the positive impact to mitigate these threats. For ADL’s part, we work to inform the public on extremist movements, and band together through new coalitions like the Community Solidarity and Safety Coalition – whose 25 members represent communities at risk of hate-fueled violence – to inform and support communities nationwide in building hope against hate. But civil society and piecemeal government efforts alone are not enough; state and federal officials must scale efforts to take on the challenge to shift the tides.
None of these will “solve” antisemitic, anti-democratic challenges. But taken collectively, a comprehensive strategy implementing the recommendations above could move the needle noticeably closer to protecting elections, securing communities, and battling antisemitic, bigoted, and anti-democratic conspiracies that are the toxic fuel for democratic backsliding.