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21 October

Political turmoil is no excuse for anti-Semitic conspiracy theories

People are invoking a “globalist coup” after Grant Shapps, who is Jewish, was promoted to be Home Secretary.

By Tom Phillips

As the British government self-immolates, an oddly specific consensus has emerged in one corner of the political world. It has been described as a “globalist coup” in certain circles, which I won’t name so as not to give them more publicity.

This was criticised, with good reason: “globalist” has for years been used in far-right circles as a euphemism for “Jewish”. Per the American Jewish Committee, it’s “a coded word for Jews who are seen as international elites conspiring to weaken or dismantle ‘Western’ society”. 

Of course the term is not meant by those who use it in an anti-Semitic way, and obviously, not every use of the word “globalist” is necessarily anti-Semitic: that’s how code words work. But the fact that the latest incident to prompt its use was the promotion of Grant Shapps, who is Jewish, as Home Secretary made it, at best, a spectacularly reckless use of the term. 

It would be wrong to think, however, that the problem with this kind of rhetoric is simply using the wrong word. Rather, it’s that the underlying idea is descended from more than a century of conspiracy theories. They tell of an international elite with no loyalty to any nation, who work in secret to subvert national authorities to bring about their ultimate goal of a single global government. Swap out “globalist” for some other, less loaded term and you’re still left with that animating idea.

In our recent book Conspiracy, my co-author Jonn Elledge and I trace the history of this idea. Anti-Semitism has been woven into it from the start. While some versions of the conspiracy downplay or outright reject that aspect, the different variants share so much DNA that they’re inextricably linked.

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You can see flashes of it in early 20th-century conspiracy lore, such as the infamous hoax, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Its modern form can be traced to the 1920s, when the British fascist Nesta Webster revived the old theory that the French Revolution was instigated by a small group of Bavarian academics known as the Illuminati. She combined that with the growing myth of Judeo-Bolshevism (that communism was exclusively a Jewish project) to depict a vast conspiracy that spanned the centuries, and urged her readers to confront the “immense problem of the Jewish Power”.

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Webster’s ideas were passed down through the decades, as successive generations of conspiracy thinkers adapted them to fit their age. In the 1950s, William Guy Carr wrote of an Illuminati-Jewish-Satanist plot to form a one-world government called the “New World Order”. In the 1960s, that phrase was adopted by the infamous John Birch Society, who integrated the theory’s framework into a fervent anti-communist world-view. By 1991, when the televangelist and occasional presidential candidate Pat Robertson published his bestseller The New World Order, he was using terms like “globalist agenda” pretty much interchangeably with the conspiracy theory of the title. 

These theories form a clear lineage. Most of its promoters explicitly cite their predecessors’ work as “evidence” (Robertson got into trouble for uncritically quoting Webster). The wording may change, but the central idea persists – and has repeatedly filtered through into mainstream discourse. 

Blaming anybody other than Liz Truss and her enablers for the current mess is, on the face of it, absurd. But doing so by invoking a paranoid doctrine with a long, ugly history is more than foolish – it’s dangerous.

[See also: It’s fitting that a vote on fracking destroyed Liz Truss’s government]

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