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Mike Johnson’s Ugly New Lie About Campus Protests Hands Dems a Weapon

The speaker’s invocation of the name of George Soros bursts a tactical door open for Democrats—if they have the guts to walk through it.

Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images
House Speaker Mike Johnson in Washington, D.C., on May 1

This week, Mike Johnson floated a wild-eyed theory about the pro-Palestinian protests that have been rocking college campuses. The House speaker called on the FBI to get involved, adding: “I think they need to look at the root causes and find out if some of this was funded by, I don’t know, George Soros or overseas entities.”

Because such talk has become routine, Johnson’s claim didn’t garner much media attention. But Democrats can and should act to compel media attention to it. And they have a big opportunity to do so: Johnson is planning high-profile hearings about the protests in coming weeks, which will include grilling university officials about whether administrators are doing enough to combat antisemitism on campuses.

Republicans are being open about their aim here, which is to divide Democrats between those who will defend nonviolent protest and those who fear association with campus unrest. And many Democrats are feeling deeply skittish about all this.

That’s in some ways understandable. But Democrats should view upcoming hearings as an opportunity to reset the argument. Johnson’s Soros quote—and others from Republicans just like it—give Democrats a way to go big. They should hold the GOP and the MAGA media complex accountable for the ugly reality that a whole range of white nationalism-adjacent ideas—especially ones with antisemitic overtones—have been festering inside the House GOP for years and have even been mainstreamed at the highest levels of Republican power.

“They don’t actually care about Jewish people or antisemitism,” Democratic Representative Daniel Goldman of New York told me, speaking of Republicans. “When they start using antisemitic tropes,” such as “globalist” and “elite” in this context, Goldman continued, it “shows their true colors.”

Many Republicans, including Johnson, have also trafficked in the “great replacement theory.” The most important Republican of all, Donald Trump, recently hosted antisemite and white supremacist Nick Fuentes at his Mar-a-Lago resort. As Goldman told me: “These are House Republicans who did not condemn Donald Trump for having dinner with a neo-Nazi.”

Johnson isn’t even the only GOP leader to push the Soros libel. Representative James Comer, chair of the Oversight Committee, says that “global elites are funding these hateful protests.” The language of GOP leaders has merged with that of the fringe: Marjorie Taylor Greene tweeted that Soros “funds” the “pro-Hamas protests.”

Several Jewish Democrats have already called this out, with one lawmaker labeling it “one of the oldest antisemitic tropes in the world.” But Democrats can do more. At the hearings, which the political press will cover intensely, they can put those Soros quotes up on big screens and make Republicans defend them.

True, this is tricky political territory for Democrats right now. The party is divided over President Biden’s handling of Israel’s attack on Gaza, with some Democrats demanding that Biden withhold weaponry from Israel that could be used for its expected offensive in Rafah, arguing that the law requires this given Israel’s killing of civilians and blocking of humanitarian assistance to desperate victims.

Meanwhile, Democrats are divided over the protests themselves. When President Biden spoke out about them this week, he rightly distinguished between peaceful protest and unacceptable violence, casting the latter as a threat to civil society, but he conspicuously said little about how appallingly disproportionate the police response has been. Some Democrats seem reluctant to seriously defend peaceful dissent, which is what many of the protests have offered.

But surely Democrats can navigate their differences and get the balance on all this right. They can use the hearings to voice support for core, clarifying principles: It’s possible to condemn the horrifying outbreaks of antisemitism on campuses, some of them violent, while also insisting it isn’t inherently antisemitic to criticize Israel’s treatment of Palestinian civilians. It’s possible to draw a line between civil disobedience with a long tradition in American life and wanton, destructive violence—even if the exact location of that line is hard to pin down and will be deeply contested.

And it should be possible to call out the towering absurdity of the Republican effort to cast the Democratic Party as an aider and abettor of antisemitic violence. “It’s entirely navigable,” Goldman told me. “You can oppose U.S. policy toward Israel” and also “oppose antisemitism on campus,” he said, while also challenging those who are “exploiting antisemitism for purely partisan gain.”

Others might object that indicting Republicans over all this is a tough sell. After all, Johnson is himself denouncing antisemitism. How can he simultaneously be pushing an antisemitic trope? Did he really intend the Soros smear that way? The truth is we don’t know, and it doesn’t really matter what he intended.

What does matter is that this kind of talk has become tantamount to the air Republicans and many of their voters breathe. As the Anti-Defamation League explains, Soros’s identity is well known. He’s been elevated for decades by malignant nationalists across the world into a symbol of nefarious globalist forces seeking to manipulate fifth-column agitators to destabilize nations from within. People steeped in these ideas will receive such remarks in exactly that way.

Some Republicans have ventured another version of these claims, insisting Soros funds organizations behind the protests. But Politifact looked exhaustively at this and found that it relies on a comically tortured chain of logic. As The Washington Post’s Philip Bump noted, the connections are “so tenuous as to be obviously contrived.” The crucial point here is that such conspiracy theories often map onto a kind of a spectrum, where softer versions are available that allow proponents to invoke the most pernicious versions while retaining plausible deniability. That doesn’t make it any more defensible.

Indeed, this is exactly how “great replacement theory,” also works: Many Republicans, including Johnson, push a soft version that doesn’t accuse Jewish elites of promulgating the conspiracy. But that’s what untold numbers of people will hear, and its proponents know it.

On top of all this, Democrats should challenge the GOP push aggressively because Donald Trump is advancing a vile line of propaganda, in which violent protesters are getting lenient treatment while the insurrectionists of January 6, 2021, are victims of overzealous law enforcement. More broadly, as Substacker Jamison Foser notes, Trump is openly campaigning on the language of authoritarians and dictators, and talk of an axis of “globalists” and domestic leftist agitators is a central pretext for threatening an authoritarian crackdown as president. The valorization of Trump’s paramilitary mobs as patriots and heroes alongside the demagoguing of protesters as the “real” enemy within, the vow to persecute “vermin” and prosecute treasonous political foes, the threat of mass removals of alien “invaders”—they’re all part of the same ugly story, and all should be contested vigorously.

So come on, Democrats: Use the hearings to remind everyone that Trump and the complicit GOP are the party that brought us the most serious outbreak of U.S. political violence in recent memory. Who do Republicans think they’re kidding, using campus protests to push their contemptible historical mythmaking designed to transparently sanitize that all away? Treat GOP demagoguery about the protests with the unbridled contempt it deserves.