How far-right conspiracy theories about "cultural Marxism" fueled the Pittsburgh massacre

The bizarre, conspiratorial worldview of Trumpism made this happen — and its roots run deep in the paranoid right

By Paul Rosenberg

Contributing Writer

Published November 4, 2018 12:00PM (EST)

A memorial for victims of the mass shooting that killed 11 people and wounded 6 at the Tree Of Life Synagogue. (AP/Getty/Salon)
A memorial for victims of the mass shooting that killed 11 people and wounded 6 at the Tree Of Life Synagogue. (AP/Getty/Salon)

Donald Trump has blood on his hands. The blood of 11 victims in the Tree of Life massacre.

As with the would-be pipe bomb mass assassin before him, the Tree of Life shooter was a classic example of the fruits of stochastic terrorism, defined as “the use of mass communication to incite random actors to carry out violent or terrorist acts that are statistically predictable but individually unpredictable.”

Key specifics of how it worked with the Tree of Life massacre have been laid out clearly by Adam Serwer at the Atlantic, with a subhead that sums it up succinctly: “The president and his supporters insisted that several thousand Honduran migrants were a looming menace — and the Pittsburgh gunman took that seriously.” But that’s only one incident, one facet of a whole horrific dark fantasy playbook from which Trump is governing.

Contrary to Sarah Huckabee Sanders' claim that "the president is certainly not responsible for sending suspicious packages, any more than Bernie Sanders was for supporter shooting up a baseball practice," there is a world of difference between the two: Trump deliberately incites violence, repeatedly demonizing and dehumanizing political opponents he perceives as enemies, whereas Bernie Sanders — who regularly refers to "my Republican friends" — does not.

It’s not that Trump wanted these specific events to occur when and how they did. The timing was lousy, as he complained — “Trump Says Pittsburgh Shooter and Mail Bomber Stopped GOP's 'Tremendous Momentum'" — just so we're all clear who the real victim was.  But stochastic terrorism is inherently messy, and Trump’s an inherently messy guy. He only has a gut-level understanding of the conspiracy-theory playbook on “political correctness” and “cultural Marxism,” although it's a big part of what got him to the White House.

As I reported here in July 2016, that's part of the supposed “Bannonite” package, which was actually put together by paleoconservative strategist William Lind. Researcher Bruce Wilson described it to me as “rebuilding infrastructure, protective tariffs, securing borders and stopping immigration, neutralizing designated internal enemies and isolationism.”  

It also includes a bizarre anti-Semitic conspiracy theory about the sinister force of “cultural Marxism.” This is focused on the 20th-century post-Marxist philosophers and social theorists known as the Frankfurt School, nearly all of whom were of Jewish descent, as Lind told a gathering of Holocaust deniers in 2002. In the paranoid imagination, the Frankfurt School is an elaborate scam, in which those who seemingly benefit by not being repeatedly demeaned for who they are — women, people of color, members of non-Christian faiths, non-LGBT people and so on — are merely pawns in the political correctness game. If they think being treated with dignity as human beings is a good thing, they are sorely mistaken. They’re being enslaved to a totalitarian ideology:

The parallels between cultural Marxism and classical, economic Marxism are evident. Cultural Marxism, or Political Correctness, shares with classical Marxism the vision of a “classless society” i.e., a society not merely of equal opportunity, but equal condition. Since that vision contradicts human nature – because people are different, they end up unequal, regardless of the starting point – society will not accord with it unless forced. So, under both variants of Marxism, it is forced.

Of course the oppression Lind sees is merely a reflection of his own benighted, unexamined ideology. Treating everyone with basic human dignity contradicts psychopathy, not healthy human nature. Second, the conspiracy is pure illusion, and the things he abhors have much wider, deeper and complicated roots. Secular government and religious pluralism flow from our Constitution, and centuries of intensely European struggles leading up to it. What we now call "multiculturalism" owes more to anthropologists like Franz Boas, Margaret Mead and Ruth Benedict; thousands of overseas missionaries from the 19th century onward; America’s multiethnic, multiracial history; and the competition for Third World allies, first during World War II and then during the Cold War. Anti-racist and anti-sexist policies have earlier antecedents, but were put on the political map by way of the faith-inspired mass movements that profoundly shaped 19th-century America. In short, Lind’s conspiratorial view of cultural history is ludicrous.

“In many ways, Lind’s 'cultural Marxism' tracks the famous anti-Jewish hoax 'The Protocols of the Elders of Zion',” Wilson told me in a recent interview. “Like the 'Protocols,' Lind’s cultural Marxism idea purports to expose a secret Jewish plan for world domination. The interesting thing is that Lind’s alleged conspiracy has a real counterpart on the American religious right -- and Lind is part of it.”

Lind has far-reaching white nationalist ties dating back decades, according to former intelligence analyst James Scaminaci. These connections include the militia movement, Holocaust deniers, John Tanton's Federation Against Immigration Reform and the border-vigilante “Minuteman” project.

Scaminaci has researched Lind’s writings and activities intensively, including a detailed study of Lind’s military strategy work involving “fourth-generation warfare” (more on this below) and how, in Scaminaci's words, "the Christian Right is, in fact, waging a ... campaign against the federal government, and our secular, pluralist society.” It's exactly the same kind of asymmetrical, existential culture war that Lind blames on the Jewish intellectuals of the Frankfurt School.

In fact, Lind’s conception of making America great again ultimately involves its violent destruction, a chilling “utopian” vision about which he has long fantasized. Just 11 days after the Oklahoma City bombing, the Washington Post published an op-ed article by Lind that began this way:

The triumph of the Recovery was marked most clearly by the burning of the Episcopal bishop of Maine … .

The Post entitled his article “Understanding Oklahoma,” but Lind called this work of speculative fiction “Militant Musings: From Nightmare 1995 to My Utopian 2050." And what a utopia it was, in which "the nations that cover the territory of the former United States are starting to get things working again.”

There was some trouble getting there, of course. “The first Civil War was, on the whole, a gentlemanly affair; the second one wasn't,” Lind wrote. But living in an ethnically cleansed New England enclave (which has been combined with some former Canadian provinces), Lind’s narrator seems content. A second Confederacy has been established in the South, although the status of black people is not discussed. Japan now controls Oregon and Washington; Puerto Rico has annexed New York City. The Southwest has apparently been carved up between whites and Latinos: “The Reconquista drove the Anglos out of Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and Southern California," Lind writes, while "the Anglos drove the Hispanics out of what was left of the American West.” Talk about making America great again!

But the real kicker here is Lind’s broader promotion of the “cultural Marxism” conspiracy theory, in which he projects his own fervent desire to fragment and destroy America onto a shadowy Jewish cabal. It’s not Lind and his fellow white supremacists who seek America’s destruction in a race war — it’s those politically correct Jews who started it! This is one of two key elements in Lind’s playbook for Trumpism.

The second element provides a defense for telling such over-the-top lies: Lind’s aforementioned theory of “fourth-generation warfare,” which returns war to its premodern roots, blurring or erasing virtually all distinctions — between civilians and combatants, between war and politics, between truth and lies and just about any other lines it has to blur in order to gain its objectives.

Not only does this justify equating immigrants or refugees with armed invaders, it justifies all lying in general. Propaganda, disinformation, “fake news,” etc., are all standard 4GW weaponry, which allows actors like Lind, Trump and their allies to lie indiscriminately, protected by the assumption that everyone else is just as dishonest as they are. Thus the notion of 4GW actually contains at its very core the exact same nihilistic relativism that Lind blames on the Frankfurt School.

Lind introduced the idea of fourth-generation warfare in a pair of papers he co-authored years ago in the Marine Corps Gazette: “The Changing Face of War: Into the Fourth Generation” in 1989 and “Fourth Generation Warfare: Another Look” in 1994. The latter, let us note, was published just a few months before his Washington Post “Utopia” op-ed.

Scaminaci describes Lind as “the Christian right’s foremost military strategist," saying he had "framed 4GW in America as a war over the legitimacy of the federal government, pitting ‘politically correct. cultural-Jewish Marxists’ who hated our Judeo-Christian culture against traditional Christians. ... Both Lind and his boss, the late Paul Weyrich, made clear that their list of enemies — which is largely shared by the Tea Party movement, the Patriot militia, and the broad alt-right — would include immigrants, refugees, African Americans, Hispanics, Muslims, feminists, gays, liberals, secularists and scientists." Furthermore, Scaminaci told me, "Lind specifically framed one aspect of this war in relation to immigration from the Southern Hemisphere.”

Simply put, Lind developed and promoted the “cultural Marxism” myth as a framework for rationalizing the white nationalists’ enemies list, while separating it at least a little from the legacy of Nazism and related ideologies. Immigrants top that list today, just as Muslims did after 9/11. But Jews remain forever at the center — even when Lind incoherently frames his imagined conspiracy as an attack on “our Judeo-Christian culture.” As noted above, Lind's vision of 4GW eliminates a host of previous distinctions, including those between civilians and combatants, and between immigrants who are fleeing violence and invaders who are spreading it.  

However, 4GW plays in different ways to different audiences, Scaminaci explains:

In scholarly works examining Lind's 1989 article, scholars almost deliberately ignore his 1994 Gazette article in which Lind claimed that President Clinton and the Democrats (though not by name) were waging war against our "Judeo-Christian" values and culture because "cultural radicals" had pushed "cultural Marxism" in favor of "cultural fragmentation." As useful as his 1989 article has been in the fields of terrorism and national security strategy, his 1994 article was political in intent. The intent was to delegitimize, without naming anyone, President Clinton, the Democratic Party, liberalism, and secularism. 4GW is as much a guiding strategy of the Christian right as it is also a useful tool for understanding the Christian right's assault on secular, multicultural America.

Lind’s influence on Trump is profound, in ways both direct and indirect. Scaminaci cites a specific example: “Trump's emphasis on the MS-13 gang is an echo of Lind's 2004 article in which Lind asserted that any MS-13 gang member who killed a police officer was ‘an act of war,’ not simply a crime of murder. Lind had emphasized gangs and Mexican immigrants as agents of Fourth Generation Warfare in America. Thus it is not surprising that Trump has emphasized Mexican immigrants and MS-13 in his rhetoric to his largely white, conservative, Christian base.”

But the influence is broader, too. “Lind wrote frequently that America’s elites — namely the GOP and Democratic Party elites and Wall Street’s business conservatives — had conspired to have an open border that would challenge the traditional Judeo-Christian culture,” Scaminaci pointed out. This framework has been adopted by Trump, by various Fox News personalities and by far-right Republicans like Rep. Matt Gaetz of Florida. As those people present this narrative today, "They are resisting an ‘invasion’ orchestrated by a Jewish cabal headed by George Soros," Scaminaci told me. Lind had long argued in favor of a ‘Berlin-style’ wall on the U.S.-Mexico border and an armed response to immigrants coming from Mexico. Trump is essentially following Lind’s strategic advice.”

What’s more, Scaminaci observed, Lind has argued “that the inability of America’s elites to defend the southern border meant that they were being delegitimized by their (nonexistent) 4GW opponent, namely the undocumented immigrants." The logic is clear enough, however preposterous the links in its chain may be: 

Trump, in rushing thousands of ground forces to the southern border to stop an imaginary “invasion,” is thus attempting to delegitimize those who oppose this agitprop. In simple terms, here is what Trump’s 4GW agitprop or theatrical propaganda looks like: Caravan = Invasion = Defend With Troops = Only I Protect America = No Jewish/Brown Replacement = No White Genocide. Pure political propaganda to stoke fear and loathing of all people brown.

Lind’s ideas didn’t spread organically or by accident. The Free Congress Foundation, a conservative think tank founded by Lind's mentor Paul Weyrich in 1977, allowed a white supremacist organization called the Council of Conservative Citizens — which later radicalized Dylann Roof, the Charleston church shooter — "to reproduce a FCF video on 'political correctness' and distribute it into the KKK, neo-Nazi, and white nationalist spheres," Scaminaci explained. From there, it migrated into the Patriot militia movement, the Tea Party movement and what ultimately became known as the alt-right. 

“Thus, by the time Trump ran for president in mid-2015, parts of the GOP and the broad right wing had a working vocabulary of ‘political correctness’ and ‘cultural Marxism’ that needed no further explanation when bellowed by Trump at his pumped-up rallies,” Scaminaci explained.

This stands in sharp contrast with how clueless the mainstream pundit class remains to this day, as I recently observed about the Atlantic’s reporting on a question about “political correctness” in the “Hidden Tribes” report. Things are very different within Trump’s base, as Scaminaci notes. They understand exactly what these things mean: “While various segments could identify different elites as ‘politically correct’ or ‘cultural Marxist’ traitors, the broad right wing understood who were the nationalists and who were traitors,” he said.

There has been a similar lack of understanding about the Tree of Life massacre.  As Adam Serwer's Atlantic article outlines, Trump kicked things off with a series of tweets about the migrant caravan, echoed by Mike Pence and supported by other administration officials. After that, Serwer notes, “In the right-wing fever swamps, where the president’s every word is worshipped, commenters began amplifying Trump’s exhortations with new details,” citing Matt Gaetz on Twitter, .Chuck Holton on NRATV, and Matt Schlapp on CNN as prominent pushers of the supposed connection between the migrants and George Soros. On Laura Ingraham’s Fox News show, “a guest said ‘these individuals are not immigrants. These are people that are invading our country,’ as another guest asserted they were seeking ‘the destruction of American society and culture.’”

Serwer does an excellent job of tracing the unfolding dynamic that ultimately led to the massacre in Pittsburgh. But without understanding the back-story of William Lind’s two-pronged influence — the “cultural Marxism” conspiracy theory, and its 4GW defense — it's not possible to understand why Gaetz, Holton, Schlapp and Ingraham responded as they did, or how their audiences understood the dark meanings encoded beneath their words.

By Paul Rosenberg

Paul Rosenberg is a California-based writer/activist, senior editor for Random Lengths News and columnist for Al Jazeera English. Follow him on Twitter at @PaulHRosenberg.

MORE FROM Paul Rosenberg