A dirty trick backfired. But the willingness to excuse using the frightening images of Charlottesville as a partisan ploy makes a mockery of discourse on antisemitism.
All may be fair in love, war and politics, but you have to wonder about the astonishingly poor judgment of the political gurus at the Lincoln Project for their latest act of campaign malpractice. The group, which has been widely and accurately slammed by both conservatives and liberals as a collection of political grifters, is somehow still in business. And it made the news last week when it sent a group of its staff members to pose next to the campaign bus of Virginia Republican gubernatorial candidate Glenn Youngkin while pretending to be neo-Nazis supporting him.
Group members were dressed in the same manner—white shirts, khakis and tiki torches—as the extremists who participated in the 2017 “Unite the Right” rally that took place in Charlottesville, Va., that led to the murder of one counter-demonstrator. The point was to make it appear as if neo-Nazis were endorsing Youngkin. And that’s the way liberal Twitter treated it for several hours afterward, with a wide variety of personalities from Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-Calif.) to the Jewish Democratic Council of America denouncing Youngkin for being associated with such disreputable characters. Many of those tweets had to be subsequently deleted by the end of the day after enough pushback from those who smelled a rat (the fact that one of the alleged neo-Nazis appeared to be African-American understandably raised some questions about the authenticity of the effort to tie Youngkin to them), and the Lincoln Project admitted they were behind it.
Rather than apologize, the geniuses at the group thought they had done something good, excusing the stunt as a way to remind voters that Republicans like Youngkin were not so different from neo-Nazis because they supported former President Donald Trump. Though some, like the JCDA, had to admit that playing the Nazi card in this manner was “inappropriate,” talking out of the other sides of their mouths they also insisted it was fair commentary because of the claim that Trump called such extremists “very fine people.”
As I’ve previously noted, the belief that Trump endorsed the Charlottesville neo-Nazis in this manner has become so entrenched in the public imagination, at least among many on the left, that pointing out that he didn’t actually say that about them is like talking to a wall.
The point of the exercise—and the subsequent spin of it by those who had hoped to benefit from the false impression that Youngkin was somehow associated with neo-Nazis—wasn’t subtle. It was done to label Republicans as fellow travelers with the several hundred far-right extremists who were at Charlottesville and to somehow associate them with neo-Nazis holding their own mini-rally.
That something this twisted would be cooked up by the Lincoln Project is hardly surprising. The group, which was founded by a group of former Republican campaign operatives who hate Trump, got a tremendous amount of favorable press attention in the mainstream media that helped them raise a fortune from Democratic donors. But there were two elements of this effort that weren’t exactly kosher.
The first is that all of their efforts in the 2020 campaign served primarily to fill their own pockets. The money raised went to ads created by the Lincoln Project’s principals and for which they received hefty commission fees from the media where they were placed. It was a neat piece of self-dealing that, while not strictly illegal, is certainly sleazy and something about which most of their donors were ignorant.
Their campaign was also a dismal flop. Their intent was to help rally GOP voters to support Joe Biden rather than Trump, yet their efforts didn’t prevent him from winning a record-high percentage of Republican votes even in what turned out to be a failed effort to win re-election. Even worse, much of their money was wasted on campaigns focused on red states like South Carolina, where Biden had little or no chance to succeed.
So it’s not surprising that the group would do something that was both dumb and not likely to help the Democrats win a race that seemed to be slipping away from them after starting out believing that Virginia’s shift to the blue column was irreversible.
The problem with this stunt was not merely that it was an example of the kind of gutter politics that has become the rule rather than the exception in the way the parties interact with each other in 2021. Calling political opponents names is as old as the hills. But the attempt to exploit the imagery of Charlottesville, which was itself an effort to invoke the imagery of Nazi Germany with its torchlight parade, is quite another thing.
One of the reasons why Charlottesville resonated in the public imagination was because of those tiki torches—stands-in for the more traditional firebrands that were hoisted at Nazi rallies in Adolf Hitler’s Germany. Equally chilling for many were the words “Jews will not replace us.” Though it was a gathering of only a few hundred neo-Nazis and allied Klan members, it mattered because its staging was intended to be intimidating as the group sought to claim the issue of protecting Confederate statues as its own. Trump’s comment, taken out of context, in which he noted that some “very fine people” were opposed to tearing down statues, was widely misquoted as being an endorsement of the neo-Nazis.
Much like the proliferation of other inappropriate Nazi analogies that has spread throughout the American public in which anything someone doesn’t like becomes Hitler, the effort to conjure up the Charlottesville neo-Nazis to scare Virginia voters was rooted in political intolerance. The idea that anyone who dissents against liberal orthodoxy, such as critical race theory curricula, as Youngkin does, must be labeled as not merely wrong but a hatemonger is deeply problematic.
It was not merely inaccurate since the accusation is false. That includes the efforts by some Democrats to pretend that criticizing controversial billionaire political donor George Soros reduces the whole idea of violent extremism and antisemitism to a partisan ploy. And if anyone we disagree with is a Nazi, then ultimately no one can or will be held responsible for spreading antisemitism. That’s a category that includes the left-wing Democrats of “The Squad,” like Reps. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) and Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.), as well as some of the groups that Soros funds, such as Human Rights Watch, which helps push the “apartheid state” libel about Israel. For the Democrats to be making false claims of antisemitism while not being honest about or capable of dealing with their own antisemitism problem is a disgrace.
It’s also especially hypocritical in Virginia, where the main issue in the gubernatorial race is the spread of critical race theory indoctrination in the public schools—an agenda that acts as a permission slip for antisemitism when Jews and Israel are often falsely labeled as wicked possessors of white privilege.
Just like we need to draw a strong distinction between ordinary political disagreements and accusations of antisemitism, so, too, must we be careful about treating events like Charlottesville, which sought to exploit the trauma of survivors and other Jews, as just another talking point to be deployed in an attempt to gain a political advantage. Those who play this game not only are stripped of their own credibility but make it harder to call attention to real extremists wherever they may show themselves.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS—Jewish News syndicate. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.