The Virulent Societal Virus That Will Still be Around After Covid-19 is Under Control
In August 2017, a two-day rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, brought together white supremacists, neo-Nazis and anti-Semites. Despite the name, Unite the Right was a coming together of the far-right, not the right in general. So-called ‘alt-right’ students rubbed shoulders with Ku Klux Klan members, Nazis and heavily armed far-right militias.
The stated aim of the rally was to protest the removal of a statue of confederate general Robert E. Lee from a park. The far-right were already outraged that the park had been renamed Emancipation Park (from ‘Lee Park’) two months before.
Lee’s statue was one of several of pro-slavery figures facing removal by communities in the USA, much to the anger of white supremacists. The decision by communities to remove confederate monuments followed a racist terror attack in a Charleston church in 2015. In the massacre, by far-right extremist Dylann Roof, nine black people were shot and murdered during prayers at the end of bible study. Roof told FBI investigators that he had wanted the massacre to ignite a race war or bring back segregation.
The Unite the Right rally was met with opposition from counter-protesters opposed to far-right ideologies, including many local people. The extremist rally was stopped from proceeding and a state of emergency called, due to violence on both August 12th and the preceding night. The angry far-right mob blamed anti-racism protesters for the rally being stopped, rather than taking responsibility for their own violence.
After the rally had been stopped, a white supremacist deliberately drove a car at a group of counter-protesters and then reversed into them. His actions killed a young legal professional called Heather D. Heyer and injured 35 others. The 20-year-old driver, James Alex Fields, was at the event representing Vanguard America, a white supremacist group. The Nazi-sympathising Trump supporter was subsequently convicted of hit and run, first-degree murder and eight counts of malicious wounding. He also pleaded guilty to 29 federal hate crime charges to avoid the death penalty.
In the hours after the murder, Trump made a statement that suggested a moral equivalence between the white supremacists and those who protested against them. Speaking from his private golf club, he said: “We condemn in the strongest possible terms this egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence on many sides, on many sides.”
Two days later he praised Heather Heyer, calling her “an incredible young woman.” Yet the following day he made another statement that suggested an equivalency between the far-right white supremacists and the counter-protestors. In that statement, on August 15th, he said: “I think there is blame on both sides. You look at, you look at both sides. I think there’s blame on both sides, and I have no doubt about it…you also had people that were very fine people on both sides.”
After the rioting and what many would regard as a terror attack by an extremist, Donald Trump’s decision to condemn the anti-Nazi protesters and suggest virtuousness among far-right racists seemed perverse. This position led to widespread criticism of Trump, though he might have calculated that supporting extremist elements of his ‘base’ was a good idea. He might have decided it was better to keep those on the far-right happy rather than lose their support by appeasing anti-racists unlikely to ever vote for him.
Why is this relevant today?
Trump is STILL cheerleading far-right conspiracy theorists, even though the narratives that are being spread are potentially as homicidal as firing weapons into crowds or driving vehicles at innocent people.
Trump’s relationship with the truth in relation to the virus Covid-19 has been precarious at best, and I have written about that elsewhere on Medium. Occasionally he has said something that corresponds to medical reality, but overall his inconsistent narratives have been shaped by scientific ignorance, personal political desperation and childlike wishful thinking.
Some of his far-right conspiracy theorist devotees have been more consistent than Trump — they have been consistently wrong. We have understood what we are facing for months and so claiming that the disease is a hoax, encouraging people to ignore stay-home orders and attacking medical expertise is ultimately homicidal. Restrictions were put in place to reduce the incidence of infection, reduce the number of deaths and support clinicians to care for those who are already infected. Undermining efforts to deal with the outbreak can only endanger life, just as blocking the path of an ambulance endangers life.
On April 17th Trump encouraged US citizens to protest against measures to limit the spread of the virus. The following day, rallies were held in state capitals in Texas, Maryland, and Ohio. The one in Austin, Texas, was attended by far-right propagandist Alex Jones. His Infowars conspiracy theory site organised the event.
The primed crowd of a few hundred yelled “Fire Fauci!”, referring to Anthony Fauci. Dr Fauci is a physician and leading immunologist and is one of the lead members of the White House Coronavirus Task Force. He is one of the experts trying to reduce the number of US citizens dying. Alex Jones is a permanently enraged rabid ranter who failed community college.
Jones has peddled everything from anti-vax disinformation to the deranged claim that philanthropist Bill Gates is part of a mass eugenics programme to ‘white genocide’ narratives, he claims global warming is a hoax and weather is being harnessed as a form of warfare. He has suggested Obama was responsible for an Oklahoma tornado, and has routinely linked US state agencies to major crimes. In relation to the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School mass shooting, he has peddled the contradictory conspiracy theories that there was no massacre, nobody died and the children were actors, and the massacre did take place but it was carried out by the US government.
The prominence of Alex Jones had increased with the resurgence of the far-right, which also helped get Trump into power. Jones was an early supporter of Trump, who, as a presidential candidate, appeared on Jones’ conspiracy theorist radio show Infowars. On the show Trump stated: “Your reputation is amazing. I will not let you down. You’ll be very, very impressed, I hope, and I think we’ll be speaking a lot.” Jones has said that Trump called him on the day after the election to thank him for his help in the campaign.
Seemingly oblivious to the fact that there were far-right, anti-science conspiracy theorists behind them, Trump has described those at recent protests against stay-home orders as “very responsible people”.
As is often the case with the far-right, they exploited fears among citizens and tragic experiences. In this case, the impact of shutdowns on the economy and jobs. Nevertheless, US citizens trust Dr Fauci while the conspiracy theorist event only got a small number onto the streets. Though clearly many people are suffering due to the impact of the pandemic, two-thirds of US citizens fear that state authorities will lift restrictions too quickly, compared with just a third who worry they will not do so quickly enough. The poll by the Pew Research Center also found that most people think Trump acted too slowly in responding to the pandemic.
Throughout the pandemic it has seemed that Trump has always had his mind firmly on the forthcoming election. His inconsistent and often bizarre statements are driven more by his personal ambitions than by scientific reality. This is perhaps not surprising, as Donald Trump has always been Donald Trump’s favourite subject. And his continued support for far-right conspiracy theorists should not come as much of a surprise to us, given the support the far-right has given him over the years and credibility he has bought them.
From his appointment of Steve Bannon to legitimisation of Alex Jones and the Charlottesville fascists, Trump sees goodness where I see a virulent and dangerous social virus that will be here long after Covid-19 is under control. The last few weeks has shown us that the societal virus can exacerbate a biological one.