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How mocking anti-Semitism got a Trump official falsely accused of actual anti-Semitism

You don’t have to agree with Leif Olson’s politics to think this situation is ridiculous.

The White House at dusk in June 2018.
Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images
Dylan Matthews is a senior correspondent and head writer for Vox's Future Perfect section and has worked at Vox since 2014. He is particularly interested in global health and pandemic prevention, anti-poverty efforts, economic policy and theory, and conflicts about the right way to do philanthropy.

On Tuesday, a bizarre thing happened in Washington: The Trump administration accepted the resignation of an executive branch official after a charge of bigotry that was both unfair and misleading.

Leif Olson, a senior adviser at the Department of Labor, resigned after Bloomberg Law highlighted what it described in a headline as “Anti-Semitic Facebook Posts.”

But if you read the posts — which Olson himself has posted screenshots of in a Facebook album titled, “Welcome Bloomberg Readers”; he says he deleted the original post to prevent harassment of commenters — it’s clear that Olson is mocking, not defending anti-Semitism.

The posts date from August 2016, when Paul Nehlen was challenging then-Speaker Paul Ryan in the Republican primary for Ryan’s House seat. In subsequent years, Nehlen has revealed himself to be a hardcore anti-Semite, but at the time he was championed by pro-Trump conservative sites and writers like Breitbart and Ann Coulter. He wasn’t a vocal anti-Semite yet, but he was a vocal anti-Muslim bigot.

Olson’s post sought to parody Nehlen and his allies, including by attributing anti-Semitic tropes to them:

Leif Olson’s initial Facebook post mocking Paul Nehlen.
Leif Olson

Written in the voice of a Breitbartist conservative who hates Paul Ryan, the post assails Ryan for his “emasculating 70-point victory” after Ryan defeated Nehlen by that overwhelming margin. The comments are what got Olson in (undeserved) trouble: “Neo-cons are all Upper East Side Zionists who don’t golf on Saturday if you know what I mean,” and, after a friend joked about Ryan being Jewish, Olson added, “It must be true because I’ve never seen the Lamestream Media report it, and you know they protect their own.”

You do not need a PhD in linguistics to correctly identify this as obvious sarcasm — another commenter on the thread praised the post’s “epic sarcasm.” Conservatives, especially ones of a neoconservative bent on foreign policy, have made sarcastic jokes like this about what they perceive as (and what sometimes, as in the case of Nehlen, is) anti-Semitic criticism of neoconservatism, a movement primarily founded by Jewish intellectuals.

But if that post was not clear enough on its own, Olson added an additional post making his point extremely, extremely clear:

Leif Olson clarifies his original 2016 post.
Leif Olson

In the post, written in 2016, Olson contrasts his post with the “unironic” enthusiasm for Nehlen on “what was, just a short time ago, a trustworthy source of opinion journalism”: Breitbart. He quotes Breitbart’s Matthew Boyle, the night before Nehlen’s humiliating defeat, declaring, “The sitting Speaker of the House, Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI), has been brought to his knees, bowing down before the almighty nationalist populist movement, as his life’s work—a career in politics—flashes before his eyes.”

Olson protested to Bloomberg Law that the posts were sarcastic, but the Department of Labor still accepted his resignation. “I never thought I’d see the day when making fun of alt-right anti-Semites led to being branded an anti-Semite, but here we are,” he wrote on his Facebook page. But his resignation was followed by a near-unanimous outpouring of indignation on Olson’s behalf, from conservative media, Yair Rosenberg of the Jewish online journal Tablet, and many liberal or leftist journalists as well:

The incident has also led to an outpouring of anger and abuse at the Bloomberg reporter who wrote the story; John Podhoretz, a conservative writer best known for taking over his father’s magazine Commentary and throwing massive temper tantrums, messaged the reporter, Ben Penn, to call him a “miserable prick” and a “repugnant child.”

I have no interest in spurring more abuse toward Penn, who appears to have made an honest mistake. And I have no interest in defending Olson’s policy positions or career more generally; he was working for a Labor Department that has been moving the balance of power away from labor and toward employers, and as Penn noted, worked on a 2013 case opposing recognition of same-sex marriages. Olson is a conservative; I’m not.

But I do think it’s important for people of all ideological stripes to defend him from losing his job. For one thing, it’s a matter of workers’ rights. Vox has a “just cause” provision in our union contract in part to prevent capricious removals like Olson’s, and a system of due process for arbitrating allegations and claims precisely so that bogus allegations don’t get people fired.

Furthermore, while conservatives tend to complain about “cancel culture” more than liberals, this kind of impetuous firing doesn’t really discriminate on the basis of ideology. Andrew Breitbart in 2009 successfully got the Obama administration to fire US Department of Agriculture staffer Shirley Sherrod by posting a misleadingly edited video to imply she was an anti-white racist. In 2017, MSNBC fired and then quickly rehired leftist commentator Sam Seder over a tweet that alt-right activist Mike Cernovich misconstrued as a joke about Seder’s own daughter being raped. (It was actually a joke mocking film director and convicted rapist Roman Polanski and his defenders).

Finally, I think it’s important to defend Olson because I believe in cancel culture. Societal norms against explicit bigotry — anti-Semitism, sexism, racism, homophobia, transphobia, and so forth — are important, and indeed the primary means through which marginalized groups obtain a higher status and more equal treatment. Government policy can help, but fundamentally what (insufficient) progress we’ve had against anti-black racism and homophobia in the past 50 years has been driven by the attitudes of individual people in response to societal pressure and changing norms.

But precisely because accusations that a person violated those norms cannot be adjudicated in a court, the only way to provide some kind of protection against false claims is for those of us in the “discourse” to police ourselves, and call out allegations when they go too far.

This was a case that went too far. The Department of Labor ought to rehire Olson so he can keep advising them to pursue policies I disagree with. Not doing so would damage our societal immune system and make it easier for false charges like this to stick in the future.

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