Far-right platform Gab veers into overt antisemitism — and only some Republicans back away
Doug Mastriano celebrates his victory in the Republican primary for governor on Tuesday, May 17, 2022, in Chambersburg, Pennsylvania. - STEVEN M. FALK/The Philadelphia Inquirer/TNS

On Friday morning, Andrew Torba, founder of the far-right social media platform Gab, issued a seeming ultimatum to the Republican Party: "Gab is becoming the litmus test for candidates. Many have passed the test and doubled down. Some have lied and disavowed to gain points with the enemy. A truly great service to the American people to see who has a spine and who does not."

This article first appeared in Salon.

The occasion for the post was the fact that, over the last month, Torba and his platform, a hotbed of Christian nationalism and overt bigotry of various kinds, have become the center of numerous political controversies. After Torba endorsed a series of Republican candidates from the party's MAGA wing, one after another has been pressed to explain their relationship with a figure long associated with racist and antisemitic speech, including, just this Thursday, his calling Pennsylvania gubernatorial candidate Josh Shapiro, the state's Jewish attorney general, "this antichrist."

Much of the controversy began last month when Media Matters revealed that Shapiro's Republican opponent, state Sen. Doug Mastriano, an outspoken Christian nationalist who was at the U.S. Capitol amid the Jan. 6 riots, had paid $5,000 to Gab for "consulting services." The money, Mastriano later said, was a one-time payment for advertising services, which, as HuffPost later reported, may have been an agreement to help Mastriano gain new followers by automatically signing all new Gab accounts up to follow the candidate.

While Mastriano had previously interacted with Torba — including a May interview for Gab News in which Mastriano thanked God for the platform — news of the payment brought renewed attention to Gab's long history of extremism.

Most notoriously, the platform was the preferred outlet of Robert Bowers, the man who killed 11 people at Pittsburgh's Tree of Life synagogue in 2018 in the deadliest act of antisemitic violence in U.S. history. Bowers was motivated by the "great replacement" conspiracy theory, and in particular the version of it that claims Jews are orchestrating a deliberate effort to replace white majorities in Europe and North America with nonwhite immigrants.

After the massacre, Politico reported, Gab users posted memes celebrating Bowers as well as surveys about what "the future of Jewish people in the West" should be, with 47% voting for "repatriation" and 35% for "genocide."

A report published this June by the Stanford Internet Observatory found that was par for the course, with "Extreme anti-Semitic, racist and homophobic content" rife across the platform, alongside "open praise of Nazism, encouragement of violence against minorities, and 'Great Replacement' narratives." The rhetoric used by the perpetrator of the massacre this May in Buffalo, the report continued, was "indistinguishable" from content on even Gab's most "'mainstream' user groups."

The problem isn't just Gab's users, but Torba himself, a self-declared Christian nationalist who has shared memes accusing Jews of crucifying Jesus or controlling the U.S. government. In 2021, Torba began promoting Gab as the first step in establishing a "parallel Christian society" so that, as Torba told far-right Catholic outlet Church Militant in early 2021, "when the communist takeover happens, Christians will have alternative systems built up." Last October, he elaborated that such a parallel society was necessary "because we are fed up and done with the Judeo-Bolshevik one."

"That's a phrase right out of Nazism," said Richard Steigmann-Gall, a history professor at Kent State University and author of "The Holy Reich: Nazi Conceptions of Christianity, 1919-1945." Noting that the Nazi party used such language to blame Jews for communism, he continued, "I mean, he just lifted that out of some Nazi text, whether it's 'Mein Kampf' or another one."

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The same year, as Mother Jones reported, a cache of hacked private messages from Gab showed Torba praising E. Michael Jones, a writer known for his claims that Jews are attacking both the Catholic Church and Western civilization. Gab's Twitter account has also publicly praised Nick Fuentes — the leader of the white nationalist America First/groyper youth movement who revels in grossly offensive rhetoric, including elaborate jokes about the Holocaust and calls for "total Aryan victory" — as embodying "the true and relentless spirit of American excellence, ingenuity, grit and defiance in the face of tyranny." On Gab News, Torba has published numerous antisemitic articles written by himself and others, including one distributed in Gab's newsletter this July arguing that Judaism is a "made-up," "LARP religion" and that the "very best thing the church can do for modern Jews is to heighten the distinction between Christianity and their false religion. Only then can they come to know salvation in Christ."

In recent days, Torba has posted a video about Jewish bankers and "usury," suggested that Trump's Jewish son-in-law Jared Kushner was an FBI informant and shared a post by a Gab user called "Kitler," whose avatar is a cat with a Hitler mustache and who has previously written, "You can tell jews are a persecuted minority by the way they use their total control over government and media institutions to slander and ban anyone who says they hold a disproportionate amount of power."

Given all this, the news of Mastriano's payment to Gab drew extensive media coverage, as did Torba's statements noting his policy to not "conduct interviews with reporters who aren't Christian or with outlets who aren't Christian." He went on to claim, "Doug has a very similar media strategy where he does not do interviews with these people."

Mastriano responded with a Twitter statement saying that he rejected antisemitism "in any form" and that Torba did not speak for him. He also deactivated his Gab account. When that failed to quell the controversy, he pointed to the fact that his campaign events have included the blowing of shofars — an instrument traditionally used in Jewish religious celebrations but widely adopted in recent years by some far-right Christian groups as a symbol of spiritual warfare — and complained he was being accused of having "too much Jewishness" in his events.

Torba's own response to the controversy has been to double and triple down. In a livestream video responding to coverage of the controversy on MSNBC, Torba said he was building an explicitly Christian nationalist movement in which Jews and other non-Christians were not welcome, adding that "we're not bending our knee to the 2 percent anymore" — a reference to the rough proportion of Americans who are Jewish.

"This isn't a big tent," he continued, but rather a "Christian movement, full stop." And consequently, he said, "we don't want people who are atheists. We don't want people who are Jewish."

Torba went on to attack Jewish conservatives such as Ben Shapiro and Dave Rubin, saying, "These people aren't conservative. They're not Christian. They don't share our values. They have inverted values from us as Christians."

In another video posted in July, and pointedly directed at Anti-Defamation League CEO Jonathan Greenblatt, Torba said, "This is a Christian nation. Christians outnumber you by a lot. A lot." Again referencing Jewish demographics, he continued, "You represent 2 percent of the country, OK? We're not bending the knee to the 2 percent anymore." Christians, he said, were "done being controlled and being told what we're allowed to do in our country by a 2 percent minority or by people who hate our biblical worldview, hate our Christ, hate our Lord and savior."

The media attention led to even more antisemitic language and threats on Gab, Media Matters reported earlier this month, with user posts calling to "exterminate all jews," asking "WHERE IS ADOLPH WHEN HE IS NEEDED" and praying "Dear Lord, SMITE JOSH SHAPIRO, that weasel, lying Jew." When Torba plaintively posted, "According to the New York Times it's 'anti-semitic' to describe demographic percentages," a user responded with a genocidal proposal: "if the jewies do not like to hear or read 2% then let's make it zero %."

On Thursday, after Shapiro tweeted that Mastriano had used Gab's "alt-right platform" to build support, Torba wrote, "Lol this antichrist can't stop talking about us," invoking the antisemitic slur of Jews as Christ-killers. The next day, after Greenblatt denounced that comment, Torba responded, "If you reject Christ and actively work to undermine Him, you are by definition antichrist. I'm praying every single day for your conversion too, Jonathan. Every knee will bow to Christ the King."

Following the controversy over Mastriano, attention fell on a number of other far-right Republicans whom Torba has endorsed as part of what he calls "the Gab Caucus," including six politicians in Arizona: gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake, Senate candidate Blake Masters, incumbent U.S. Reps. Andy Biggs and Paul Gosar, state Sen. Wendy Rogers and secretary of state candidate Mark Finchem, all of whom won their primary races on Aug. 2.

Some of the candidates welcomed his endorsement as an honor, including Finchem, an apparent supporter of the QAnon conspiracy theory and the Oath Keepers militia, and Rogers, who spoke at the white nationalist America First Political Action Conference last February, where she called for the execution of political enemies. (The same month Rogers posted an antisemitic meme depicting herself, Torba and Fuentes crouched over the carcass of a dead rhinoceros emblazoned with the word "CPAC" — referring to the more mainstream conservative conference — and a Star of David.) This Monday Gosar posted on Gab, "They've been going after Andrew Torba for months now — some would say years — because the platform that he is building threatens the Liberal World Order and their control over what we're allowed to say and see online. …I don't listen to the media. I'm not leaving Gab."

But others, including Lake and Masters, disavowed the Gab endorsement, with Masters saying in a statement to the Arizona Mirror, "I've never heard of this guy and I reject his support. The reason I've never heard of him is because he's a nobody, and nobody cares about him except the media."

Torba called Masters a liar, and this week Jewish Insider found a recording of a recent and genial live Twitter conversation between Masters and Torba, wherein Masters offered sympathy for Gab's exclusion from major internet hosting companies like Apple.

"Let this be a lesson to all of the GOP establishment shills, liars and deceivers," Torba said in a video this week. "Don't mess with me."

After Media Matters unearthed another current candidate's lavish praise of the Gab founder — Ohio Republican congressional candidate J.R. Majewski, a Jan. 6 rioter who last year called Torba one of "America's Greatest Patriots" — Torba urged Majewski to "Double down!" on his support for Gab, writing that doing so was quickly becoming "the litmus test" for conservative candidates.

To experts on antisemitism, all of this is a deeply worrying sign of the state of U.S. politics today.

The swirl of controversies around Gab, Torba and the GOP clearly demonstrates a broader increase in and acceptance of explicit antisemitism in the U.S., said Susannah Heschel, a Dartmouth professor of Jewish studies and author of "The Aryan Jesus: Christian Theologians and the Bible in Nazi Germany." "It's a very troubling development," she said, to see "candidates for high office in the United States accepting endorsements from someone like [Torba], which means that they've already made their own evaluation that an endorsement from him will be effective."

Noting that scholarship has pointed to a "culture of despair" in Germany that preceded that country's descent into fascism, Herschel suggested a similar dynamic is playing out today. "I don't think we really have a culture of despair, but we do have an emotional politics going on," she said. "And antisemitism is one of the primal templates for being emotional. There's so much that antisemitism has to offer people who want to be angry and outrageous."

"Antisemitism is centuries long. It comes and goes. It's tidal," said Richard Steigmann-Gall. "Now it's back, and not, I think, just because of Trump, but because of the larger cultural crisis among white Americans that Trump exploited."

"We are tempted in such moments to decry this as the demagoguery of an opportunist who may not believe a word they say," Steigmann-Gall continued. "But if that's true, then it actually makes things a little more dire, because what then would be happening is a politician putting their fingers in the air to see which way the wind is blowing."

Torba has clearly drawn his own conclusions on that front. "Establishment Republicans literally can't disavow us because if they do they disavow 80% of their voters," he wrote Friday night. "We own you now. This party belongs to Christ. Tell your antichrist donors to get the heck out of our way."