The antisemitism that animates so much of Republican politics seems to just keep popping out unbidden, particularly the right-wing devotion to the garbage conspiracy theory blaming George Soros as the source of everything they want to demonize as an existential threat. Just this week, Fox News had to hurriedly delete a post on Facebook and Twitter featuring a cartoon depicting Soros as a “puppet master,” a classic antisemitic trope that was popular in Nazi propaganda.
The same conspiracist impulse also appears to be at work even in law enforcement circles. In San Diego, it turns out that the Republican county prosecutor who earlier this month raised eyebrows by filing conspiracy charges against antifascists who counterprotested a post-Jan. 6 pro-Trump rally that turned violent appears to be at least partially basing the prosecution on her belief that “antifa” is being secretly funded by Soros.
The San Diego County prosecutor, Summer Stephan, is hardly alone in that regard. The fatuously false belief that Soros is secretly funding “antifa” has been an underlying component of that right-wing narrative since its early inception by extremist conspiracy theorists in late 2016 and through 2017. Fox News has similarly played a central role in spreading that conspiracy theory from the Infowars fringes into the mainstream.
It deliberately mimics early-20th-century antisemitic propaganda depicting Jews as the evil manipulators behind every ailment of modern society. As the ADL observes, “Soros’ Jewish identity is so well-known that in many cases it is hard not to infer that meaning. This is especially true when Soros-related conspiracy theories include other well-worn antisemitic tropes such as control of the media or banks.”
One of their favorite ways of doing this is spreading the image of Soros as a “puppet master” pulling the strings not just of politicians but also of black-clad antifascists—which was exactly how right-wing cartoonist A.F. Branco depicted the financier in the cartoon that Fox News posted. That same image was popular with German Nazi propagandists of the 1920s and ‘30s, and the eliminationist dehumanization it engendered led directly to the Holocaust.
Fox removed the posts from Facebook and Instagram shortly after the Anti-Defamation League protested on Twitter that “casting a Jewish individual as a puppet master who manipulates national events for malign purposes conjures up longstanding antisemitic tropes about Jewish power + contributes to the normalization of antisemitism. This needs to be removed.” When queried by journalists about the posts, Fox officials offered no response.
The smear campaign included online ads bought by conservative groups calling on authorities to “investigate George Soros for funding domestic terrorism and his decades-long corruption.”
Stephan, the San Diego prosecutor, offered up similar far-right propaganda as part of the 2018 election campaign in which she first won office, as Kelly Weill reports for The Daily Beast. Her campaign paid for a website attacking her Democratic opponent, Geneviéve Jones-Wright, as a pawn of Soros, who “backs anti-law enforcement candidates over experienced prosecutors, trying to tip the balance to the criminals.”
The website (since removed, but archived) was essentially a scrolling ad warning: “San Diego Public Safety Under Attack,” and then claiming: “Billionaire Social Activist George Soros has brought his war against law enforcement to San Diego and he’s spending more than $1 million to support anti-law enforcement candidate Genevieve Jones-Wright for District Attorney,” with a photo of Soros with his hands folded, superimposed over a backdrop of black-clad antifascists at a protest.
When Stephan was confronted in October 2018 about the website by a Times of San Diego reporter at a hate-crimes vigil organized by San Diego’s Congregation Beth Israel following the massacre at a Pittsburgh synagogue a few days before, she turned and walked away, and her security detail blocked any further queries.
“Do you regret putting up a website that labeled George Soros as a funder of your opponent?” the reporter asked her.
After Stephan walked away, her security detail blocked the reporter. But a few moments later, she was asked again: “Why did you take down that website?”
At that point, she was led to an outside porch by a bodyguard, who told the reporter: “We’re done here. This is a restricted area.”
A onetime spokesperson for Jones-Wright tweeted that the pictures of Stephan at the vigil “make me raging angry. You should not be able to campaign on anti-Semitic conspiracy theories & rhetoric and then stand in front of that crowd and act like you care at all about the rise of crimes against Jews.”
Stephan’s belief that nefarious forces were behind leftist protests never went away. In September 2020, the Times of San Diego reported that Stephan told a bench-bar media forum that “movements” were behind the protests that erupted throughout the summer around the nation in the wake of a Minneapolis cop’s murder of a Black man named George Floyd, which went viral after being caught on video.
“We’ve seen where there’s the peaceful protest and all of a sudden another group shows up without license plates, with generators and water, and there’s not good things that are happening,” Stephan said, adding that nefarious doings were being planned “behind the scenes.”
“Somebody talked about subverting the truthful nature of the protesters, and that is going on,” Stephan said. “There are movements that are not what you would think of.”
When the reporter tried to inquire further with her office, he was told by a spokesperson: “There’s nothing more we can share on this.”
Stephan’s case against the antifascist counterprotesters of the Jan. 9 “Patriot March” pro-Trump rally in the San Diego suburb of Pacific Beach—organized as a defiant gesture of support in the wake of the Jan. 6 Capitol insurrection, and featuring several people who were in the crowd in Washington, D.C., three days before—raised eyebrows among legal experts when she announced it. For starters, conspiracy cases typically don’t hinge on evidence that includes ordinary speech and behavior—such as simply agreeing to show up to an event in response to a social media post—as this case does.
The “Patriot March” violence broke out when several dozen black-clad antifascists showed up near Crystal Pier to counterprotest. As has been the case at nearly all such confrontations, it’s unclear where the violence originated. However, at least five people who’d been at the Capitol three days earlier were among the crowd, and as Weill notes, journalists that day described a typically complex confrontation clash involving both left- and right-wing activists and police. One reporter “was struck with a right-wing participant’s smoke grenade, and documented two Patriot March participants who wielded a knife or a BB gun.”
Two of that day’s counterprotesters have sued the San Diego Police Department for permitting the pro-Trump faction to freely inflict violence on dissenters. Attorney Bryan Pease filed a suit against the city of San Diego, as well as at least 10 of its police officers, for two clients alleging the police unlawfully cracked down on counterprotesters while the Trump supporters were permitted to proceed undisturbed.
“The San Diego Police Department ... took a heavy-handed approach to only the anti-Trump side, spraying peaceful protesters with pepper spray, shooting them with pepperballs, and beating them with batons,” Pease alleges in a civil suit filed in U.S. District Court. “Meanwhile, SDPD officers also high-fived and chatted it up with the violent pro-Trump side, including some who were later identified as being part of the assault on the U.S. Capitol.”
The case presented by Stephan’s office proceeds in precisely the opposite direction. “Video evidence analysis shows that overwhelmingly the violence in this incident was perpetrated by the Antifa affiliates and was not a mutual fray with both sides crossing out of lawful First Amendment expression into riot and violence,” read a news release.
Stephan’s criminal conspiracy complaint lists 68 overt acts by the antifascists, including seemingly innocuous actions like dressing in black clothing. Others include violent acts like kicking victims or spraying them with mace, as well as striking people with sticks and flag poles or pushing them to the ground.
It presents no evidence that any of those actions were agreed upon beforehand by the participants, however. Rather, prosecutors allege that the agreement to commit these acts was ratified by the defendants on social media or simply through their presence at the designated time and location of the counterprotest.
The defendants allegedly “pledged their support and participation by liking and sharing” a Jan. 2 social media post that called “for ‘counterprotesting’ and direct action,” the complaint states. By liking and sharing the post, the defendants “in essence (agreed) to take part in the ‘direct action’.”
"The Defendants are alleged to be affiliated with ANTIFA and are organized into two groups, one originating from Los Angeles and the other from San Diego," reads the charging document. "ANTIFA is known to use force, fear, and violence to further their own interests and to suppress the interests of others. This tactic is referred to as 'Direct Action' and is known to mean acts of violence such as assault, battery, assault with deadly weapons, arson, and vandalism. The alleged object of this conspiracy was to incite and participate in a riot using direct action tactics."
As Weill observes, that’s not actually what “direct action” means. Rather, the phrase describes a set of tactics intended to achieve goals outside of government involvement, including counter-protesting rallies as well as distributing free pandemic-era aid:
The argument that “direct action” means violence was recently laughed out of court, when neo-Nazi Chris Cantwell invoked it in trial last month. Cantwell attempted to argue that residents of Charlottesville, Virginia were threatening violence when they called for “direct action” against a deadly white supremacist rally in 2017. Cantwell lost his case and now owes his victims $500,000 in damages.
“I’ll be interested to see more documents that come from the [Stephan] court case,” Catrina Doxsee of the Center for Strategic and International Studies told the San Diego Union-Tribune, adding that she believes prosecutors will have a “heavy burden of proof” to show the defendants went to Pacific Beach specifically intending to commit violence.
Seamus Hughes, deputy director of George Washington University’s Program on Extremism, told the Union-Tribune that no federal conspiracy charges have ever been leveled against antifascists.
“It’s fair to say this (case) is both unique in its prosecution and its charges,” Hughes, , wrote in an email. "(Department of Justice) has flirted with the charge in the past, meaning that they’ve used the possible investigation of that charge to secure federal search warrants against self described antifa members, but ultimately did not bring criminal charges.”
The antifa smear narrative became deeply entrenched in the national discourse, as was demonstrated in several prominent court cases recently, including the Charlottesville trial.
Most people, after all, had not even heard of antifa prior to the violence at the 2017 “Unite the Right” riots around which that trial revolved. It was in the wake of those events that what had been primarily a fringe conspiracy theory about a communist plot to depose Donald Trump became a mainstream right-wing media standard. Multiple stories on Fox and in right-wing outlets began demonizing the antifascist movement, apparently with the intent of blunting the growing chorus of concern over the rise of white nationalist violence that Charlottesville represented.
This essentially created not just a “bothsiderist” narrative readily adopted by other mainstream outlets, but an eliminationist one in which antifa were depicted as so demonic in nature that they deserved no free speech or protest rights, and ultimately deserved only to be thrown out of helicopters (as the Proud Boys and other far-right thugs would have it). This narrative was used by Trump’s henchmen in the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to attempt to blame the summer 2020 violence in Portland on antifa, which turned into an incompetent shambles of an investigation—but still provided Trump with an excuse to deploy an army of DHS contractors on the streets of the city.
The same phony narrative, amplified incessantly by far-right actors on social media, also inspired a wave of “antifa bus” hoaxes that inspired hordes of heavily armed “patriots” to swarm the streets of various small towns across the nation last summer. When wildfires began burning up the West Coast, the same disinformation artists convinced their audiences that “antifa arsonists” were setting the fires, inducing clusters of right-wing goons to set up paramilitary checkpoints in rural areas.