Here are some facts about The Protocols of the Elders of Zion: they were first published in the US exactly a hundred years ago this summer. While they were presented to readers in 1920 as the secretly recorded words of a Jewish leader forming a conspiracy to overtake the world, we now know it is a fabrication, created by tsarist agents in Russia two decades earlier. Published here by Henry Ford in his anti-Semitic Dearborn Independent newspaper starting in June 1920, The Protocols purport to be the minutes of a series of lectures given by a Jewish elder, plotting world domination. And in their broad incoherence, they sound a lot like the conspiracy theories inundating our discourse now—and the president’s speeches.
The text itself is comprised of 24 numbered sections. Each is two to six pages long, loosely based around a subject or a theme. Well, very loosely. Subjects are listed in terse sentences at the top of each section, and include “topics” such as gold, economics, international Masonry, gold (gold comes up a lot), drunkenness and “the meaning of anti-Semitism.” The Protocols is the most famous anti-Semitic tract in the western world, and though it’s regularly referenced in that context, I’ve never met anyone who has read it. Frankly, I suspect the vast majority of people who have referenced it have not read it.
With so many conspiracy theories surfacing toward the mainstream in 2020, no small number of them with an anti-Semitic bent, I felt it was time to read it myself.
So here are some other facts I can share, having done so: The Protocols are repetitive, unconvincing, fragmentary, a pure slog; disordered, ridiculous, elliptical, deliberately confusing, and above all, incoherent. So, so incoherent. One gets the sense while reading The Protocols that while a thousand monkeys with a thousand typewriters given a thousand years couldn’t compose King Lear, those same monkeys given six months and a bottomless pot of coffee might have created this mess. Here’s a sample paragraph, taken from “Protocol No. 1,” that will give you a sense of how they sound:
The despotism of Capital, which is entirely in our hands, reaches out to it a straw that the State, willy-nilly, must take hold of: if not—it goes to the bottom.
Should anyone of a liberal mind say that such reflections as the above are immoral I would put the following questions:– If every State has two foes and if in regard to the external foe it is allowed and not considered immoral to use every manner and art of conflict, as for example to keep the enemy in ignorance of plans of attack and defense, to attack him by night or in superior numbers, then in what way can the same means in regard to a worse foe, the destroyer of the structure of society and the commonwealth be called immoral and not permissible?
So, yes . . . willy-nilly and despotic, to be sure. We could take the time to break down the broken syllogism, the extraneous interpolations, the half-formed similes—but clearly the intention is not for it to be read so closely. It’s to confuse, to obfuscate, and as recourse for their confusion to make the reader think, “Right, hate the Jews, we’re supposed to be hating the Jews.” The text goes on like this for almost 80 pages, and its lone appeal is as a secretive look into secretive meetings—the sound of a voice in situ, a clandestine peek into the clandestine. There’s something far more complicated about it for its unintended audience, in possession of it as a forgery; reading it as the words of a tsarist agent trying to imitate a Jewish plotter, I found myself in that strange confusion I used to feel when on the satirical Colbert Report there was an author interview, and I’d lose the thread of Colbert in faux-Fox-News persona. In that case, the recourse was to say, Oh, right, satire and book promotion. Again, with The Protocols, the recourse is always: anti-Semitism.In their broad incoherence, The Protocols sound a lot like the conspiracy theories inundating our discourse now—and the president’s speeches.
It’s also worth pointing out that there are almost no proper nouns in The Protocols, granting the text a sense of universality, but also causing a broad atmosphere of generalized confusion. It’s hard to comprehend purely from a close reading, at any specific moment, who is speaking, and to whom, and why. There is no effort, to borrow Coleridge’s phrase, to conjure “willing suspension of disbelief.” The forgery relies entirely upon our accepting its verisimilitude as a given. The voice of The Protocols doesn’t convince the reader that it truly represents spoken word. There is no attempt at persuasion.
Which makes sense on its own terms, but is heavily troubled by the fact that Coleridge was describing how fiction works. We’re meant to believe that this particular incoherence is reality. In which case it strikes the reader that the incoherence is the point—we enter this text in a state of confusion, seeking answers. We grow only more confused as it incoherently proceeds. The only purchase we can really gain over it is remembering that is it meant to be factual, an artifact, authentic. Its lack of authenticity on its own terms hardly matters.
Incoherence, pseudo-authenticity, secrecy: the same qualities define the conspiracy theories that have overwhelmed the discourse in Right Wing circles for four years (and longer, frankly, none more than QAnon. Without rehearsing its entire history, in brief: a purported administration insider who calls himself Q began posting what appeared to be inside information on how Donald Trump was breaking up a ring of “deep state,” or pedophile, or otherwise nefarious actors not only in the world of politics, but in Hollywood (Spielberg, Hanks, COME ON) and philanthropy (Soros). While at first it seemed a fringe hobby, in recent days disgraced former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn has taken the group’s oath, sharing a video saying, “Where we go one, we go all,” and multiple GOP primary winners to varying degrees are open supporters of the conspiracy theory. They sell a lot of merch. The theory itself builds around Trump’s cryptic comment in a 2017 Oval Office interview that “a storm’s coming.”
The language of Q’s initial posts shared many qualities with The Protocols. Clipped, terse, bearing an aesthetic that suggested military concision and allusiveness, the style helped those who jumped on with Q early to be swayed by a sense of its verisimilitude. Here’s Q’s first post in its entirety:
HRC extradition already in motion effective yesterday with several countries in case of cross border run. Passport approved to be flagged effective 10/30 @ 12:01am. Expect massive riots organized in defiance and others fleeing the US to occur. US M’s will conduct the operation while NG activated. Proof check: Locate a NG member and ask if activated for duty 10/30 across most major cities.
Of course there are aspects of Q’s voice that are markedly different from the voice of The Protocols. There are knowable proper nouns, starting with the reference to Hillary Clinton, as “HRC.” There are time stamps, dates, the repeated reference to the National Guard as “NG.” But these references serve the same purpose at the elliptical generality of the voice of The Protocols—where in 1920 Henry Ford was presenting us with the purportedly authentic minutes of a meeting (leaving aside the fact they contain no real “protocols” in a literal way), in 2017 Q was presenting an ostensibly authentic voice of a government official on social media. Marshall McLuhan would remind us that each medium—the secrecy of meeting notes, the exposition and revelation of information on Twitter—determines the message. And in each case the message is: something serious is going down, and you’re not in on it.
Beyond that, there are some clear similarities in each voice. Compare Q’s cadences, the terse constructions, with the introductions to each of The Protocols. Here’s the opening of “Protocol No. 18”:
Measures of secret defense. Observation of conspiracies from the inside. Overt secret defense—the ruin of authority. Secret defense of the King of the Jews. Mystical prestige of authority. Arrest on the first suspicion.
One quality of this writing is that it appears to require some inside clandestine knowledge of its own system of reference. If you have to ask what HRC means, what NG means, you’ll never know. Same with the coded language of “the King of the Jews,” that “secret defense” both Wilsonian Americans and tsarist Russians might have feared in the Communists in their midst. It serves as well as a shorthand, pushing back against the painful project I myself undertook: You don’t really need to read the whole thing to get what it’s about. Here are some conspiratorial SparkNotes. There is also a marked absence of narrative. Narrative itself suggests causation—this happened, and then that happened next as a result. In The Protocols, in Q world, there is only one causal relationship: this exists because of the conspiracy itself, which predates and always supersedes the argument.
This kind of coded language as it pertains specifically to The Protocols themselves carries over into the rhetoric of our moment more directly. In anti-Semitic flare-ups this summer, NFL receiver DeSean Jackson caused controversy after sharing fabricated Hitler quotations on his Instagram account, and after apologizing, was backed up by former NBA star Steven Jackson, who was less contrite. Comedian Nick Cannon was fired from one of his jobs for referring to a Protocols-like conspiracy involving “Rothschilds,” language from all three appearing to derive from the rhetoric of Louis Farrakhan. Longtime anti-Semitic commentator and one of the few humans I believe actually has read The Protocols, British former footballer and full-time conspiracy theorist David Ickes, made a video claiming COVID was caused by new 5G cellular phone towers. It was immediately taken down in June by YouTube, but only after Britons had torn down 5G towers in England (it didn’t kill the virus). But the Icke video found new hosts, including space on the official personal website of longtime vocal anti-Semite, the novelist Alice Walker, who also posted on her site the pseudo-documentary Plandemic, about COVID-denier and disgraced former doctor Judy Moskovitz.
All these threads converged at the 2020 RNC. Only hours before she was to speak as part of the convention, Mary Ann Mendoza, the mother of an Arizona police officer killed in 2014 by a drunk driver, had her speech canceled. That day she’d retweeted a long Twitter thread claiming that QAnon had uncovered a Jewish plot, led by “Rothschilds,” [sic] to take control of world governments. “‘The Protocols of the Elders of Zion’ Is Not A Fabrication,” a part of the thread read. “And Certainly It Is Not Anti-Semetic [sic] To Point Out This Fact.” Mendoza had a long history of tweeting out such anti-Semitic canards.
So. Yes. Varied conspiracy theories proliferate, and The Protocols themselves have found their way back into our discourse alongside them. Early in Trump’s impeachment trial, in November 2019, security analyst Fiona Hill brought up the fact that anti-Semitic smears by Roger Stone, against her and philanthropist and Holocaust survivor George Soros, were literally out of the same playbook: “This is the longest-running anti-Semitic trope that we have in history,” Hill told congress. “This is the new Protocols of The Elders of Zion.” She at least was involved enough to describe the text as a tsarist forgery. On his Fox News show, GOP propagandist Tucker Carlson recently disparaged the popular book White Fragility by suggesting that seeing someone reading it on the subway is akin to watching someone reading The Protocols openly (I only brought my own copy to the public pool, and was careful to cover it up with my daughter’s Pocahontas towel).
And in May of this year, when the president himself went to visit a Ford factory in Michigan, he made his not so subtle dog whistle to all these conspiracists. Speaking to reporters, he said, “The company was founded by a man named Henry Ford. Good bloodlines, good bloodlines, if you believe in that stuff you’ve got good blood.” The ouroboros of conspiracy theorizing was complete. Who can even tell head from tail at this point.
Which inevitably, as all things seem to do in 2020, brings us back to the fascism-curious POTUS himself. In the epilogue of The Protocols, in the edition I read—I’m consciously not mentioning the publisher or editor, as it’s packed with all kinds of other anti-Semitic hate and doesn’t deserve our attention—the purported translator of the 1905 edition of the text, a Czech named Sergius A. Nilus, writes that when The Protocols were supposedly discovered, “the storm was about to break on apathetic Russia.” Is this the same storm Trump was dog whistling in Michigan, along with his propping up of Henry Ford? Could he be expected to remember such details? Wasn’t Churchill’s World War II memoir called The Coming Storm? How specific are storms, and their coming, their breaking? At some point when reading so much conspiratorial thinking one fears he’s growing to be part of the conspiracy, and ducks out. Remembers that the point of all these primary documents—The Protocols, Q’s posts, Plandemic, even Trump’s speeches and comments themselves—signify to the listener simply because they exist. There’s no narrative, no causation, just patterns in the rug.
This is almost certainly true of the rambling, incoherent speeches the president has given since the pandemic began. At his ill-conceived indoor rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma, in June, Trump’s long speeches could go on for endless paragraphs. Take this one, a kind of conspiratorial thinking about the upcoming presidential election:
Joe Biden and the Democrats want to prosecute Americans for going to church, but not for burning a church. They believe you can riot, vandalize and destroy, but you cannot attend a peaceful pro-America rally. They want to punish your thought, but not their violent crimes. They want to abolish bail, abolish and open up your borders. They want open borders, let everyone, and by the way, we’re doing so well. We have a record this month on the borders. Nobody’s coming in. Very few people. And they want to abolish ICE, our great people from ICE who send the roughest toughest, meanest people that you’ve ever seen or ever heard.
The paragraph reads like someone who has read The Protocols and wants to sound like them. I’d be remiss not to point out that even this long paragraph doesn’t come close to approaching the length and prolixity of any single protocol, and served as a reminder to this reader, at least, that the sheer length of each protocol strains the credibility of The Protocols as a record of actual spoken lectures. Reading a Trump rally speech on the page bears out something of the same thing that we find in The Protocols, in QAnon. It doesn’t hold up to scrutiny. It doesn’t often cohere. It’s so broad as to be difficult to track, and hides its outright lies (“Biden wants to prosecute Americans for going to church”) in a willy-nilly garble. It purposely obfuscates. But in the midst of the miasma, the confusion, we’re forced to grasp back at what we came here for. In The Protocols, it’s the anti-Semitism, fulfilling our belief in a Jewish plot to destroy non-Jewish culture merely because it exists. In Trump, it’s Trump’s desire to gain and retain power.
Some facts about this speech, still: it is repetitive, unconvincing, fragmentary, a pure slog; disordered, ridiculous, confusing, and above all, incoherent. But it’s not the voice of The Protocols, not exactly. It belongs to the same genre: spoken, boasting, elliptical. Early on in “Protocol No. 1” the forgery reads, “Every man aims at power, everyone would like to become a dictator if he could.” That part, at least, is not at all hard to comprehend. In fact, it sounds quite familiar.