“Finkelthink”, a cornerstone of the TRS case against Trump as a "fake nationalist" politician, appears to be lightly laundered Soros propaganda.
In early 2019, a leading light of the American wignat scene, The Right Stuff podcast network, turned decisively against Donald Trump. They declared their disillusionment on 16 March in episode 198 of Fash the Nation, their political analysis program. This was at the very beginning of the 2020 presidential campaign, as Democratic politicians were announcing their primary candidacies.
A year later, TRS fielded their thesis of Finkelthink, according to which Trump is a "fake nationalist" politician, cooked up by establishment Republican operators in the tradition of strategist Arthur J. Finkelstein. They first outlined the idea, again on Fash the Nation, on 9 May 2020. Since then, Finkelthink has become a cornerstone of The Right Stuff's case against Trump, a doctrine invoked across the platform to portray the president as a crypto-establishment Republican, whose outsider nationalism is a facade engineered by Jewish campaign consultants.
Whatever you think about Trump’s presidency, the origins of the Finkelthink thesis are very clear. It is nothing but lightly retooled Soros propaganda from a journalist now associated with the World Economic Forum, who spent much of the Trump presidency reporting on matters adjacent to Russian election interference.
To get a handle on the origins of Finkelthink, we turn to Dissident Mag, which is Fash The Nation's online news magazine. It has seven sections, one of them devoted exclusively to Finkelthink – a testament to how central the concept has become to the FTN/TRS political program. Among the earlier items posted in the Finkelthink file is a long article from 5 August 2020, which presents itself as a primer on the concept.
As a set of ideas or a theory of modern politics, Finkelthink is remarkably ill-defined. Sometimes the TRS guys themselves seem to be uncertain of the extent of the Finklethink thesis, or its precise tenets. The written Finkelthink manifesto on Dissident Mag is likewise muddled. It spends far more words on the Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán than it does on Trump, then turns towards Israeli politics, to discuss how the same American consultants who helped Orbán also worked with Netanyahu. Finally it concludes with a denunciation of "Fake Nationalism" in Europe and America that appears to disavow current nationalist politicians almost entirely.
All of this is very odd.
Google shows that "Finkel-Think" was a term of deep obscurity until recently. Across the entire internet, a only a handful of pre-2019 sites know the word. Time Magazine believes it was coined by Bob Dole's advisers, to characterise the very specific tactic of smearing Democratic political opponents as "liberals". That's what they claim in a 1996 article, which is also the earliest hit for "Finkel-Think" that Google knows about. Then there's a Huffington Post piece from 2006, where we read again that "Finkel-Think" amounts to "brand[ing] somebody as a liberal," but that it is also a strategy for avoiding campaign spending limits.
None of that has any relationship to the TRS thesis of Finkelthink as "fake nationalism." The next hit, though, gets us closer. It's a 2014 article by the left-liberal Canadian columnist Michael Harris, up in arms about political attacks the Conservative prime minister was mounting against an up-and-coming Justin Trudeau.
Harris held these tactics to represent an unhealthy American influence on the Canadian political scene. He put them down to Finkelstein, a "merchant of venom" who had advised "three U.S. Republican presidents, countless senators and other right-wing world leaders like Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu." He explained further:
“Finkel-think” is an approach to new-age techno-politics based on three principles: 60 per cent of people don’t care about the news; perception, not content, is what matters in our dumbed-down age; and the right 15-second attack ad can separate a rival’s head from his shoulders in a heartbeat.
Before Finkelstein, the word “liberal” was a descriptor with many positive connotations, including tolerance and even enlightenment. After him, “liberal” became the ultimate political pejorative. It was used to brand and dismiss progressives as left-wing loons with dubious values and a bad habit of raising taxes and spending the numbers off the credit card.
Here we see some important innovations: "Finkel-Think" is suddenly more than just calling leftist politicians liberals. It is a specific brand of negative right-wing politics aimed at low-information voters, and associated with the US, Israel, and Netanyahu. Harper, Harris complains, was little more than "an American in a parka".
This new 2014 notion of "Finkel-Think", it is safe to say, is a way for leftist commentators outside the US to denounce the malign, American (and implicitly Jewish) tactics adopted by their conservative opponents.
We are suddenly a lot closer to Finklethink as Dissident Mag knows it. But we are not all the way there. The last step is a think-piece by a Swiss reporter named Hannes Grassegger. It first appeared on 12 January 2019 in Das Magazin, a publication of the Swiss daily newspaper Tages Anzeiger. Eight days later, Buzzfeed put up an English version: The Unbelievable Story of the Plot Against George Soros.
Almost all the Google hits you find now for "Finkel-Think" go back to Grassegger. It is undoubtedly the Buzzfeed article that Fash The Nation used for their Dissident Mag write-up, and that underpins the TRS thesis of Finkelthink more generally.
As its title suggests, Grassegger's article is not primarily about Trump, and it is not about "fake nationalism" either. Instead, it's about Hungarian nationalist smears on George Soros.
Have a taste:
The demonization of Soros is one of the defining features of contemporary global politics, and it is, with a couple of exceptions, a pack of lies. Soros is indeed Jewish. He was an aggressive currency trader. He has backed Democrats in the US and Karl Popper’s notion of an “open society” in the former communist bloc. But the many wild and proliferating theories, which include the suggestion that he helped bring down the Soviet Union in order to clear a path to Europe for Africans and Arabs, are so crazy as to be laughable — if they weren’t so virulent."Soros and his aides," we go on to read, "have spent a long time wondering: Where did all this come from?"
Birnbaum was ... unforthcoming about the exact details of the work they did for Orbán. He didn’t want to discuss whether they had drafted slogans or just simple concepts, nor would he say how much control they had over the campaign itself.
Despite all of this secrecy, Birnbaum can say that he and Finkelstein advised Orbán's in the ways of Finkel-Think and in this way steered him to victory. He holds that they cast Soros as a kind of globalist arch-nemesis of Hungary, whom Orbán could denounce at will. It was this cynical demonisation of Soros that, according to Birnbaum, has given rise to all the anti-Soros tropes in nationalist right-wing politics today. Grassegger tries very hard to draw Trump into this picture, but he doesn't have much. At most he can compare Trump to Orbán and list Trump's connections to some Finkelstein associates.
Birnbaum went to the Trump hotel in DC, where a friend, Trump’s former campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski, was presenting his new book, Trump’s Enemies. Kellyanne Conway dropped by. Caviar was being sold, $100 per ounce. Birnbaum chatted with the other guests and ordered a Moscow mule.Had he changed his mind about the Soros campaign? Any regrets?“Anti-Semitism is something eternal, indelible,” said Birnbaum. “Our campaign did not make anyone anti-Semitic who wasn’t before. Maybe we were just drawing a new target, not more. I would do it again.”
Why was Birnbaum feeding all this stuff to Grassegger, is one question you should be asking at this point. He's claiming to be a secret Orbán insider, giving a Soros-adjacent journalist material that he must know will be used against Orbán, a former client. Who was Birnbaum working for when he gave this interview, is another question it might be time to think about.
[Update 27 Nov. 2020: There's in fact a lot more to this angle than I thought. Maybe I'll write a second post on Birnbaum's strange career and how elements of the narrative he gave Grassegger in this article emerged slowly, first in Hungarian and Israeli outlets, after Finkelstein's death in 2017.]
Whatever the answers, the upshot is clear: Soros has been unjustly defamed by a clique of unscrupulous Jewish Republican operatives, and Trump's campaign has depended upon the same cynical anti-Semitic strategies.
... works on threats posed by disinformation, microtargeting and digital campaigning. An economist by training ... Hannes writes about how networked technology changes our economy and the way we live. He has covered targeting technologies, information warfare, blockchain, the emergence of anti-tech movements and the governance of social media companies like Facebook or TikTok.
Emphasis mine. There's certainly some kind of information warfare going on here. Grassegger's earlier work addressed the undue influence of social media on elections and Russian manipulation, particularly in reference to Trump's 2016 victory. He claims credit for setting off the Cambridge Analytica fracas, and he co-authored an article about Russian election interference in The New Republic in 2017. He appears to have been particularly interested in Facebook, writing for ProPublica about how their rules "Protect White Men from Hate Speech But Not Black Children", and about the curious role their get-out-the-vote mechanisms played in the 2017 parliamentary elections in Iceland.
On his Twitter account, Grassegger oddly declares himself a "Friend of the deplorables".
He still promotes his Finkelthink thesis. In fact he did so just yesterday, in the midst of a long thread on a guy named Marian Schreier. Schreier is running to be mayor of Stuttgart as a kind of liberal centrist, and Grassegger hopes he'll upset the CDU candidate. Apparently some people have claimed Schreier's campaign is funded by globalist interests from Switzerland.
A conspiracy theory, Grassegger scoffs:
There is indeed a political faction heavily involved in fielding what might be called "fake" candidates, but they're not nationalists. They mostly present themselves as left-liberals and advocate for things like mass migration and globalist economic schemes. Grassegger makes no secret of being a mouthpiece for them.Finkelthink is at root an anti-nationalist thesis, and the TRS guys have used it to argue against the authenticity of basically all prominent nationalist politicians. "It’s what Trump’s entire 2016 campaign was predicated on," they write. "And Bolsonaro’s. And dozens of politicians across Europe. This is the essence of Fake Nationalism."