By Jonathan S. Tobin
American conservatives have gotten to the point where they are often unmoved by efforts by their liberal antagonists to get them to disavow extremists on the far-right. The existence of hateful and dangerously extreme groups, including those that spread antisemitism, is a problem that needs to be confronted, however small their numbers may be.
So deep is the distrust between the two sides in the tribal culture war that passes for political discourse these days that they assume every such request is merely a setup. They see no reason to comment on people who are wholly unrelated to them, and they also believe that no matter what they say, their remarks will be twisted or misinterpreted to falsely portray them as extremists by a partisan liberal media.
There are plenty of examples of this dishonest game being played by some in the press, not the least being the way former President Donald Trump’s remarks were taken out of context and fallaciously portrayed as an endorsement of the participants in the 2017 “Unite the Right” neo-Nazi march in Charlottesville, Virginia, when his “very fine people” line was actually not about them, but those there to preserve certain statues. Trump still hasn’t escaped that false narrative.
But the scandal that Doug Mastriano is dealing with can’t be dismissed as a similar example of liberal bias or unfair reporting. On the contrary, the Republican Pennsylvania gubernatorial nominee, whose ties to a brazen antisemite were recently made public, is the author of his own troubles.
Mastriano spent 21 years in the Army before being elected to the Pennsylvania State Senate. He is no stranger to controversy. A hard-core conservative and ardent Trump supporter, he believed that the 2020 presidential election results in Pennsylvania were “rigged.” He helped organize attendance at Trump’s Jan. 6 “Stop the Steal” rally and was present when some participants later broke into the Capitol, though did not himself join in.
That’s enough for Democrats to label him an “insurrectionist.” Interestingly, his opponent — Attorney General Josh Shapiro, who is Jewish — and other Democrats spent heavily on ads promoting Mastriano in that primary over other more moderate opponents. They did so because they believe him to be the weakest GOP candidate.
In a year in which President Joe Biden’s popularity is cratering amid record inflation and an impending recession, it’s not entirely clear whether that cynical tactic, which has also been employed elsewhere by Democrats, will backfire on them. But in the case of Mastriano, who trails Shapiro in the polls, they might have been right.
The issue is Mastriano’s decision to invest some of his campaign funds in ads on Gab, a social-media platform. Gab says it is devoted to free speech and proclaims its willingness to host “offensive” messages. In theory, that’s OK since, in a free country, there should be room for all kinds of speech, including messages that are offensive. The willingness of major platforms like Twitter to censor ideas or opinions its liberal owners and staff don’t like is a threat to democracy since it is, along with Facebook, for all intents and purposes, the modern public square.
But Gab isn’t merely a site for those who are sick of Twitter’s woke censorship. It is a place where genuinely extremist and hateful messages from the far-right are commonplace.
So, Mastriano’s decision to invest even a relatively small sum in advertising there is troubling. The deal he cut with Andrew Torba, its CEO, which led to all new accounts being automatically made followers of Mastriano’s account, reportedly also involved some additional consulting fees.
Torba is also not merely the impresario of a platform that is home to despicable hate. He’s someone who is himself antisemitic.
Torba went beyond the usual critique of some Democrats, especially those in law-enforcement positions like Shapiro, getting support from leftist billionaire George Soros, which ought to be considered fair comment and not antisemitic. Instead, he spoke of Mastriano as the leader of a “Christian movement” and denounced Jewish conservatives like Ben Shapiro and Dave Rubin. He thinks they should be shunned because they are Jewish and therefore undermining his goal of making America an exclusively “Christian country.” Even after the first criticisms of his ties to Mastriano surfaced, he said that all those who are not Christians would be welcome, but only so long as they “repent.”
Indeed, he went even further in saying he wished to expand this sphere of Christian dominance to the entire planet, declaring, “Our generation of Christians is not buying dispensational Zionist lies.”
That such a person would be regarded as an ally by Mastriano is troubling. But so intense is the distrust of the media and so strong is the instinct of many on the left to ignore all accusations about ties with extremists that Mastriano delayed for weeks saying anything to disassociate himself from such a bizarre and delusional personality.
It was only on July 27 after pressure and condemnations of his silence grew that he deleted his Gab account and finally stated that Torba “doesn’t speak for me or my campaign,” and added, “I reject antisemitism in any form.”
Still, Mastriano’s complaints about “smears from Democrats and the media” aren’t enough to answer the questions that must be posed about his decision to partner with Gab and Torba until it became politically expedient to back away. In order to fully defuse this controversy, he would have to explicitly state his condemnation of Torba.
That probably won’t happen because Mastriano is following the lamentable example of Trump, who believes it is counterproductive to apologize for offensive statements because he not incorrectly believes that it will make no difference to his critics.
But there is a distinction that should be pointed out. Trump is blamed for extremism because his opponents claim radicals are encouraged by his contempt for the conventional pieties of public discourse. That is largely unfair because it involves blaming Trump for people with whom he has no contact and who often don’t even support him. But Mastriano’s endorsement of Torba isn’t a matter of connecting otherwise disconnected political dots.
Antisemitism is on the rise on the political left largely because of the way intersectional ideology and ideas related to critical race theory are linked to antisemitism and anti-Zionism. Those politicians on the left who associate with or support open Jew-haters — such as, for example, congressional “Squad” member Rep. Cori Bush (D-Mo.) — deserve the opprobrium directed at them. But if Bush should be condemned for fundraising with an anti-Zionist who said she wanted to “burn every Israeli alive,” then the same conclusions should be drawn about Mastriano. That’s exactly the conclusion drawn by the Republican Jewish Coalition, which condemned Mastriano for his actions.
Right-wing antisemitism is an unfortunate fact of life that cannot be ignored. There can be no tolerance for hate or antisemitism on either side of our polarized political landscape. And there should be no room for excuses, rationalizations or examples of “whataboutism” in which leftist Democrats’ misbehavior is cited, put forward on behalf of Mastriano.
It is a sorry commentary on the state of American politics that someone who is comfortable associating with far-right wing antisemites has worked his way into the political mainstream. But citing the actions of bad actors on the left who are also no longer confined to the fever swamps of American discourse is not a sufficient reason to avoid treating Mastriano as having gone beyond the pale.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS — Jewish News Syndicate.