An alleged threat to kill Jewish government leaders in Michigan reflects two of the most dangerous, and interlocking, menaces in American politics and society – an alarming spike in antisemitism and escalating threats against elected officials.
Police last month arrested a man accused of posting a Twitter threat to “carry out the punishment of death” against anyone Jewish in the Wolverine State’s government. Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel said on Thursday she was among those targeted.
This is the latest example of a growing trend of intimidation and attacks targeting Jewish people at a time when extremists, who might once have been isolated, find affirmation and spurs to act from social media.
The impact is horrific, not only for those directly targeted but for the wider Jewish community.
Another Michigan lawmaker who was also allegedly targeted in the threat, state Rep. Samantha Steckloff, said that such incidents made her question her public service but that she felt a duty to fight for her community.
“Putting myself out there openly as a Jewish representative, when I have already received death threats on a daily basis, was one of the scariest things I’ve ever done,” Steckloff told “CNN This Morning” on Friday. “And I know even today, by showing my face, speaking out against this horrible tragedy that could have been, I am prone to some today.”
Only a few years ago, top American officials would bemoan rising antisemitism in Europe and question whether the lessons of the Holocaust were being forgotten: Now it’s a growing and pernicious feature of US life that threatens the security and peace of mind of millions of citizens whom extremists want to ostracize as outsiders in their own country.
In certain political and social media circles – sometimes fueled by celebrities – antisemitic rhetoric that was once taboo seems to be filtering into accepted discourse, alongside conspiracy theories like QAnon. It is hardly a coincidence that assaults, vandalism and harassment targeting Jewish communities and individuals in the United States have raced to their highest levels on record.
And the consequences run much deeper than this inhumanity. History shows that antisemitism, which is attractive to unhinged conspiracy theorists, is often an early warning sign or a symptom of deepening threats to democracy. The latest spate of incidents targeting Jewish Americans coincides with unprecedented attacks on the integrity of elections and the public officials who administer them. It comes as right-wing commentators muse about “Great Replacement Theory,” which posits that outsiders are coming to America to overwhelm its majority White population – a fantasy that has its roots in antisemitism but is now often applied to migrants.
“Unfortunately, whether it is in Michigan or other parts of the country, we are seeing the confluence of anti-government, Covid and other conspiracy theories combined with antisemitism, and we see how this is animating people to action,” Oren Segal, vice president of the Center on Extremism at the Anti-Defamation League, said on CNN Thursday.
“It is not only operating in spaces online but in the fantasies and imaginations of people who are willing to then take action.”
Violence as a political tool
This is an age when political brutality isn’t just some remote theoretical possibility. Ex-President Donald Trump’s lies and incitement spilled over after the 2020 presidential election, when the US Capitol insurrection chillingly revealed that some Americans view violence as a legitimate tool to express their political grievances. The unrelenting lies about a stolen election, the currency that election deniers have on the right and the endless propaganda on conservative television curate a festering pool of anger that influences those who are tempted to act on their own anti-democratic grievances.
The alleged threats against specifically Jewish officials in Michigan are only the most recent and high-profile example of a rising tide of antisemitism. Last month, San Francisco police arrested a man who allegedly made political statements and fired apparently blank rounds in a synagogue. Days earlier, a man allegedly threw a Molotov cocktail at a synagogue in New Jersey. In December, a 63-year-old man was assaulted in New York’s Central Park in what police called an antisemitic attack. These were just the latest is a string of antisemitic incidents that included incendiary tweets from Ye, the rapper formerly known as Kanye West, with whom Trump dined at Mar-a-Lago in November, alongside White supremacist Nick Fuentes. Also last year, demonstrators were spotted giving the Nazi salute and holding banners targeting Jews on a Los Angeles bridge. Shocking antisemitic messages were also projected onto buildings in Jacksonville, Florida.
In 2018, a mass shooting at the Pittsburgh Tree of Life synagogue that killed 11 people stunned the nation. The year before, White supremacists converged on Charlottesville, Virginia, chanting, “Jews will not replace us,” in a march over which then-President Donald Trump equivocated. Scores more incidents failed to make national headlines but have had a corrosive and frightening impact on America’s Jewish community. The Anti-Defamation League, in the latest available annual figures, found that a total of 2,717 antisemitic incidents were reported in 2021 – a 34% increase on the 2,026 incidents reported the year before.
In the new case in Michigan, the FBI National Threat Operations Center told the Detroit FBI office that a person with the Twitter handle “tempered_reason” said he was heading to Michigan and “threatening to carry out the punishment of death to anyone that is Jewish in the Michigan govt.” Any attempt to “subdue” him would “be met with deadly force in self-defense,” the user said.
Former Deputy FBI Director Andrew McCabe said Thursday that the details of the alleged threats to Nessel and other officials underscored the increasing risks of political attacks motivated by antisemitism and extremism.
“This is right in the wheelhouse of what the FBI and Director [Chris] Wray have told us. That … the most dangerous, the most concerning threat that they face on the counterterrorist side, and that is the threat from domestic violent extremists,” McCabe said on “CNN Newsroom.” He added that such offenders were often “motivated by racial animus, they’re motivated by antisemitic feelings, by anti-immigrant feelings, charged sometimes with political grievance and then motivated to act violently on their own.”
The dangers to democracy posed by political intimidation
Even without the antisemitic dimension, the alleged threats to Nessel and other officials are a fresh example of Michigan’s problem with political hate and extremism, though the state is far from alone in seeing its officials exposed to intimidation.
In December, a federal judge sentenced one of the convicted leaders of a separate plot to kidnap Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer to nearly 20 years in prison. The man’s lawyers argued he had descended down a “conspiracy rabbit hole” during long solo trips as a truck driver. Another Democratic state official involved in election administration, Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson, has said armed protesters turned up outside her home to denounce her as a “traitor” in late 2020 when Trump was pushing lies about a stolen election in the critical swing state.
Outside Michigan, two Georgia election officials testified last year to the House select committee investigating the January 6, 2021, insurrection how verbal attacks on them by Trump and his aides had ruined their lives, with one saying, “There is nowhere I feel safe.” In January, a Republican former candidate for New Mexico’s legislature – who claimed there had been election fraud, according to police – was arrested on suspicion of orchestrating shootings that damaged the homes of Democratic elected leaders. And Paul Pelosi, the husband of former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, is still recovering from a late October assault, allegedly by a man with a hammer who told police that Democrats had committed crimes against Trump, using rhetoric popular with the ex-president’s supporters.
Democrats are not the only victims of extremism. In 2017, Republican Rep. Steve Scalise of Louisiana, who now serves as House majority leader, was seriously injured in a shooting at a congressional baseball practice by a man claiming to be a Bernie Sanders supporter. And last year, police arrested a man near Brett Kavanaugh’s home and charged him with attempting to murder the conservative Supreme Court justice.
And as recently as Thursday, New Hampshire woman Katelyn Jones, 25, pleaded guilty to sending a series of threatening texts to a Michigan county election official after the 2020 election. She faces up to 10 years in prison when she is sentenced in July, according to the Justice Department.
Each case is different, and individuals act on their own agency however they might be persuaded by heated political rhetoric. Politicians often use this to claim plausible deniability that their words caused violence. But the House January 6 committee aired video of Trump supporters on the day of the riot saying they were inspired by his false claims of election fraud. And a poll from The Washington Post and the University of Maryland in January 2022 found that 34% of Americans – and 41% of Republicans – think violent action against the government is sometimes justified.
It is also undeniable that antisemitic attacks and violence and threats against public officials are coming at a time when the ex-president and his supporters have made false claims about stolen elections, which have been amplified by powerful media organizations like Fox News, even when – as emerged in court filings this week – the network’s leaders knew those claims to be lies.
Just this week, Georgia Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, who also has a record of spreading antisemitic material, showed up at a meeting on election integrity and berated Gabriel Sterling, a Republican election official from the Peach State who resisted Trump’s baseless claims that he won the swing state in 2020. Greene fired off a flurry of claims and conspiracies for the cameras, which were almost all false.
“She came in late. She purposely sat next to me because she wanted to get her social media hits,” Sterling told CNN’s Anderson Cooper on Wednesday.
Behavior like that often seen from Greene and Trump risks damaging democracy at its roots, since it comes with sometimes dangerous consequences for local public officials like Michigan’s Nessel, who are critical to ensuring Americans can vote.
“It’s happening in almost every state. It’s happening against regular people,” said Rachel Kleinfeld, a senior fellow in the Democracy, Conflict and Governance Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
“Who is willing to take these jobs?” she asked, before warning: “Our democracy is only as good as the people we elect, and we can only elect the people willing to run. And polling is showing that people are stepping back from running when they have to add this to a stressful job that doesn’t pay particularly well and puts them in the literal targets of their fellow citizens.”
Source: Cable News Network