Holocaust Museum Shooting, Antisemitic Conspiracy Theories, and the Tools of Fear

The alleged shooter at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum Wednesday has
an online book excerpt revealing his deep roots in historic White
Supremacy and antisemitic conspiracy theories, including references to
the hoax document The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. His website includes links to White Supremacist and Holocaust denial sites.

People who believe conspiracist allegations sometimes act on those
irrational beliefs, and this has concrete consequences in the real
world. The shooting on Wednesday is a prime example of why it is a mistake to
ignore bigoted conspiracy theories. Law enforcement needs to enforce
laws against criminal behavior. Vicious bigoted speech, however, is
often protected by the First Amendment. We do not need new laws or to
encourage government agencies to further erode civil liberties. We need
to stand up as moral people and speak out against the spread of bigoted
conspiracy theories. That's not a police problem, that's our problem as
people responsible for defending a free society.

Demagogues and conspiracy theorists use the same four "tools of
fear." These are 1) dualism; 2) scapegoating; 3) demonization; and 4)
apocalyptic aggression. The tools of fear are a connected constellation
of frames, narratives, and processes used by demagogues to mobilize
resentment and undermine the democratic process.

The basic dynamics remain the same no matter the ideological
leanings of the demonizers or the identity of their targets. Meanwhile,
our ability to resolve disputes through civic debate and compromise is
hobbled. It is the combination of demagogic demonization and widespread
scapegoating that is so dangerous. In such circumstances, angry
allegations can quickly turn into apocalyptic aggression and violence
targeting scapegoated groups like Jews or immigrants.

Apocalyptic aggression is fueled by right-wing pundits who demonize
scapegoated groups and individuals in our society, implying that it is
urgent to stop them from wrecking the nation. Some angry people already
believe conspiracy theories in which the same scapegoats are portrayed
as subversive, destructive, or evil. Add in aggressive apocalyptic
ideas that suggest time is running out and quick action mandatory and
you have a perfect storm of mobilized resentment threatening to rain
bigotry and violence across the United States.

What historian Richard Hofstadter famously described as the
"paranoid style" in American political rhetoric can quickly move far
beyond the conscious intent of those who practice it.

Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.