On Aug. 22, President Trump held a rally in Phoenix that aimed to report to the country the progress he has made on his administration’s agenda. Most of his 77-minute speech, however, consisted of a prolonged attack on “crooked media deceptions,” in which he argued that the media played a significant part in “fomenting” the country’s racial divisions. He then employed a phrase he uses almost daily on Twitter: “If you want to discover the source of the division in our country, look no further than the fake news and the crooked media which would rather get ratings and clicks than tell the truth.”
#FakeNews has become Trump’s tagline. He uses it to deflect questions from reporters and to discredit stories that portray him in a negative light. Although he claims that he coined the phrase, neither the term nor the idea it represents is new. In fact, the charge of “fake news” has roots in the dark world of American anti-Semitism and in the cries of Lügenpresse (“lying press”) that once echoed in Nazi rallies. Understanding those roots reveals not only the pattern of conspiracy at the heart of Trump’s rhetoric, but also tells us why many white nationalists find the concept of “fake news” so appealing.
“Fake news” is a classic trope from the anti-Semitic, fabricated book “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.” First published in its complete form in Russia in 1905, the “Protocols” are the brainchild of czarist nationalists who wanted to spur violence and pogroms against Russian Jews. The “Protocols” purport to be the minutes of a meeting in which Jewish elders detailed their plan to conquer the world.
Over the past century, the book has become the bible of the international anti-Semitic movement. Adolf Hitler learned about the book in the 1920s and promptly worked it into his political speeches. Dozens of editions appeared around the globe between 1920 and 1933. In Germany, the Nazi Party incorporated many of its main ideas into the laws enacted by the Third Reich.
The propagandists behind the “Protocols” attributed extraordinary power to the media. A section titled “Control of the Press” “reveals” that Jews seek to control every aspect of the media to protect their new, worldwide government from attack or criticism. Through false stories and skewed analysis, the Jewish-controlled media would lead the masses to see the world not as it was, but as Jews wished it to be seen: “Our subjects will be convinced [of] the existence of full freedom of speech and so [will] give our agents an occasion to affirm that all organs which oppose us are empty babblers.”
Fake news, then, begins as Jewish infiltration of the legitimate media and transforms into complete domination: “Not a single announcement will reach the public without our control.”
The first American to put the “Protocols” before a mass audience was Henry Ford. Long before the “Protocols” reached America, Ford had adopted the belief that Jews had started World War I in order to profiteer from it. Further, he thought he could best spread the word about outsize Jewish influence on world affairs if he had his own newspaper with which to reach the American people directly. So he started the Dearborn Independent.
Like many anti-Semites, Ford did not need to be persuaded that Jews controlled the media. The man who invented mass production for cars knew that the best way to market his ideas was to control how they were distributed. He used the Independent, a paper that derived its credibility from Ford’s sterling reputation, to weave conspiratorial theories about Jewish control of nearly every aspect of American politics and society.
Of all the distinguished Jewish Americans whom Ford libeled, it was a relatively obscure lawyer, Aaron Sapiro, who finally sued. When Sapiro’s case came to trial in 1927, Ford decided to issue an apology to avoid a damaging jury verdict. He said, “I deem it to be my duty as an honorable man to make amends for the wrong done to the Jews as fellow-men and brothers, by asking their forgiveness for the harm I have unintentionally committed.”
But many skeptics refused to believe that Ford meant to renounce anti-Semitism. In Europe, anti-Semites contended that “Jewish bankers forced the apology” out of Ford. Publishers who wanted to reprint Ford’s anti-Semitic publications insisted that the statement had been faked to assuage the “International Jew.” Having followed the Sapiro trial through a German reporter he planted in the courtroom, Hitler called the apology “Ford’s subjugation to the All-Jewish High Finance.”
In time, Ford eliminated all doubt about where he stood. In 1938, he accepted the highest civilian honor that Hitler’s government could bestow. Photographs of a smiling Ford wearing the Grand Cross of the German Eagle were splashed around the world. The automaker could not have repudiated his apology more effectively. Accepting the medal made it clear he had not “capitulated to the core of the Jewish danger” — that his apology had itself been fake news, meant to divert the public’s attention from his prejudice.
Once freed from the scrutiny of the lawsuit, Ford continued to spread his anti-Semitic beliefs more indirectly, by permitting publishers to reprint the Independent’s articles, charging no royalties, and allowing them to put his name on the cover.
The example of Ford reveals how effectively white supremacists have marshaled the claim of “fake news” to accomplish their political ends. Degrading one particular media outlet does not just discredit that newspaper or television station or cable network. Attacking the “fake media” draws many, if not most, elements of the media to the defense of their colleagues. Everyone in the media is discredited by association. The public in search of facts has to choose between its government and the independent media.
Ford used his immense cultural influence to oblige people to choose between himself — the person who was only saying out loud what he claimed most people privately thought to be true — and anyone in the media who publicly disagreed with him. Although Ford never employed the phrase “fake news,” he used the media’s fascination with him to embolden his admirers’ anti-Semitic attitudes and prejudices. In the process, he boosted the stock of “trustworthy” sources such as the “Protocols,” which his Independent articles authenticated and distributed on a scale its authors could not have imagined. Today, thanks to the Internet, “The International Jew” by Henry Ford is accessible everywhere in the world.
Anti-Semites, white nationalists and neo-Nazis have all praised Trump, and his virulent attacks on the media help explain why. His language and tactics echo those used by Ford, one of the foremost U.S. proponents of anti-Semitism. When Trump says “fake media,” anti-Semites translate this phrase into “Jewish-controlled media,” a media that exerts disproportionate power over other media outlets and public opinion. Anti-Semites blame the “whining Jew media” for forcing Trump to condemn the Nazis who marched in Virginia, just as they pilloried “the all-powerful Jew” for forcing Ford to apologize in 1927.
Trump’s reluctance to denounce white supremacists, his declaration that “many sides” are morally responsible for the Charlottesville violence and his defense of the “very fine people” marching with those bearing swastikas and torches are shocking. But they are also eerily reminiscent of Ford’s genteel anti-Semitism, which flourished when most everyone knew who was behind the “fake media” and believed instead the businessman in charge.