Right-wing extremism and the covid-19 crisis

No one needs to be brought up to date on the devastation already wrought by Covid-19, in the United States, in Europe, and in other parts of the world, and more is almost certain to come in the next two years. The virus is highly contagious in social settings — not as contagious as measles, but more so than other viral diseases. It has a high mortality rate for older individuals, but it kills patients of every age. It can be spread by persons who do not yet show symptoms — perhaps even by people who will never develop symptoms. The disease has the great potential of overwhelming health systems in regions where it strikes hardest — northern Italy, New York City, Britain, Detroit. There is no effective treatment for severe cases of the disease, and there is no vaccine currently available. This is the pandemic that sane governments have feared and prepared for, for many years. Ali Khan, an experienced and long-serving leader on infectious disease at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, provides vivid descriptions of the background scientific and public health infrastructure needed to contain viral outbreaks like ebola, monkeypox, MERS, and SARS (The Next Pandemic: On the Front Lines Against Humankind’s Gravest Dangers). (Here is a list of possible global virus threats by the World Health Organization (link).

It is therefore plain to any sensible person that government-enforced public health measures are required in order to slow the spread of this disease. Countries that were slow to take the pandemic seriously and establish strong measures designed to slow the infection rate — like the United States and Great Britain — have reaped the whirlwind; the United States now has the highest number of Covid-19 cases in the world (link). And the stakes are incredibly high. The 1918 Spanish flu, for example, hit the city of Philadelphia with savage effect because the mayor decided not to cancel the Liberty Loan parade on September 28, 1918 (link); whereas cities like St. Louis made different decisions about public gatherings and had much lower levels of influenza.

The governors of most states in the United States have enacted physical distancing orders mandating “stay-at-home” requirements, business closures, closures of public places, and restrictions on public gatherings. And these measures have worked, on the whole. The governor of Michigan, my home state, for example, has assembled a world-class team of scientific and health advisers concerning the details of the shut-down orders, and a highly respected committee of business and health system leaders to work on developing a strategy for reopening the state in a way that does the best job possible of protecting the health of our ten million citizens. And the curve has flattened.

But now we come to the right-wing protests that have occurred in Lansing and other state capitals around the country (linklink). Guns, extremist placards, threatening behavior, and an armed invasion of the floor of the Michigan state house — what in the world is going on here? Protest of government policy is one of the fundamental rights of citizenship — of course. But why heavily armed protesters? Why racist, white-supremacist groups in the crowd? Why the hateful, vitriolic language towards elected officials? What are the underlying political motivations — and organizational resources — of these protests?

Cas Mudde has a perceptive analysis in the Guardian (link). His recent book The Far Right Today provides the broader context. Mudde sees the anti-lockdown demonstrations as being largely about Donald Trump’s increasingly desperate efforts to win reelection. Mudde calls out the financial ties that exist between these demonstrations and well-funded not-for-profit Republican organizations linked to Betsy DeVos (link).

And indeed, these protests look a lot like Trump campaign rallies, calling the faithful in “battleground” states. The hats, slogans, and behavior make it clear that these protesters are making a political statement in favor of their president. And the president has returned the compliment, describing these protests as reasonable, and encouraging more. The president’s behavior is, as usual, horrible. The idea that the president of the United States is actively seeking to interfere with the performance of the governors of many states in their duties of preserving the health and safety of their citizens, after himself failing abysmally to prepare or respond to the pandemic, is something out of a dystopian novel. Here is how Mudde describes the political strategy underlying this approach:

For Trump, the anti-lockdown protests provide him with visible popular support for his Covid-19 strategy. For the sake of his re-election, he is keen to move discussion from public health to the economy. Given that a clear majority of Americans support the stay-at-home policies, Trump needs the momentum to shift. The protests can help him, by taking his struggle from the White House to the streets, and thereby to the media. (link)

Where does the gun-toting extremism come into this political activism? One obvious strand of this “movement” is the extremist anti-government ideology that brought world attention to the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge takeover in 2016. These are radical militia adherents, rejecting the authority of the Federal government in all of its actions, and willing to overtly threaten the lives of others in their activism. Brandishing semi-automatic weapons is not political theatre; it is not “simply an assertion of second amendment rights”; it is a deliberate effort to intimidate and frighten the rest of society. And it is hard to avoid the question — what if these were anarchist protesters in black masks carrying semi-automatic weapons? Or Black Panthers? And what if the venue were the entrance to the White House, or the entrance to the Capitol Building in Washington? How would conservative Republicans react to these scenarios?

Another stream, not entirely distinct from the first, is the persistent and growing white supremacist movement in the right wing of conservative politics. Their involvement in these protests is opportunistic, but their potentially violent opposition to democratically elected government is in common. Here is a report by the Southern Poverty Law Center about involvement by extremist nationalist group the Proud Boys in the anti-lockdown demonstrations; link. Here is a snippet from the SPLC report:

Even though the Proud Boys weren’t behind efforts to get the protests off the ground, they quickly realized their value. They are the perfect platform for the proto-fascist group to make the case that the will of a small minority of Americans – the hyper-individualistic “patriots” who attend these rallies – should supersede democratic processes, and that individual desires should trump the collective public good. The protests also provide other benefits: the chance to launch their ideas into wider right-wing circles, further cement their status as core members of the Trump coalition, build relationships with local politicians and gain attention from outlets like Fox News.

(Neil MacFarquhar and Adam Goldman’s coverage in the New York Times of the white-supremacist terrorist organization, the Base, is sobering reading; link.)

It is certainly true that the pandemic is creating huge economic suffering for millions of Americans (and Europeans, Indians, Brazilians, …). People are suffering, and some much more than others. Poor people, hourly workers, small farmers, gig workers, and people of color are disproportionately victims to the economic recession, and people of color are vastly over-represented among the infected population and the death rolls of the disease. Closures of businesses have led to vast numbers of unemployed men and women. But notably, these demonstrations in Lansing and elsewhere don’t seem to be supported by the constituencies most at risk in the economic shutdown; the participants who show up to flaunt their guns and their reckless disregard for social distancing seem to be mostly angry activists pursuing their own agendas.

So an answer to the fundamental question here — why are we seeing this surge of right-wing extremist protests to pandemic policies? — seems to involve three related factors: political supporters of Donald Trump (President Trump’s efforts to normalize the pandemic and attack Democratic governors who are doing something about it); anti-government extremists who object to any exercise of the appropriate powers of the state; and opportunistic efforts by white supremacist organizations to capture the moment. Add to that the understandable concerns that citizens have about their immediate economic futures, and you have a combustible mixture. And the issue of trust in the institutions of government, raised in a recent post, is plainly relevant here as well; these extremist organizations are working very hard to undermine the trust that ordinary citizens have in the intentions, competence, and legitimacy of their elected officials.

Yes, the economic consequences of the pandemic are enormous. But the alternative is undoubtedly worse. Do nothing about physical distancing and the virus will sweep every state, every county, and every town. Experts believe that the unchecked virus would infect 20-60% of the globe’s population. And a conservative estimate of the mortality rate associated with the disease is on the order of 1%. Thomas Tsai, Benjamin Jacobson, and Ashish Jha do the math in Health Affairs (link), assuming a 40% infection rate. For the United States that implies an infected population within about eighteen months of about 98.9 million victims, 20.6 million hospitalizations, and 4.4 million patients needing treatment in ICUs. Both hospitalization rates and ICU demand greatly exceed the total stock available in the United States. Tsai et al do not provide a mortality estimate, but at a 1% mortality rate, this would amount to about a million deaths. It goes without saying that the health system, the food supply system, and virtually every aspect of our “normal” economy would collapse. So the only choice we have is rigorous physical distancing, a sound public health plan for cautiously restarting economic activity, massive increase in testing capacity, aggressive search for treatments and vaccine, and generous programs of Federal assistance to help our whole population make it through the hard times that are coming. And generosity needs to come from all of us — contributions to local funds for food and social assistance can make a big difference.

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