The Virus of Extremism: The Far Right’s Response to COVID-19

Maresi Starzmann Apr 3, 2020

With the Corona crisis in full swing, people everywhere are switching into survival mode, buying in bulk and stockpiling at home. Few were prepared for this. Few it seems except for survivalists like Alex Jones. 

The far-right conspiracy theorist and broadcaster of InfoWars runs an online store that offers “preparedness” supplies. Even after he received public pushback over claims that his products could prevent or cure COVID-19, his website remains full of alarmist statements about the virus. The global health emergency,  Jones claims, “has made it virtually impossible to get storable food. Everyone is sold out across the board.” 

But Jones has a solution. 

He sells storable food as “insurance that you can eat.” These “Emergency Survival Foods” go for up to $2,987 for a 1-year supply and consist of a variety of meals, ranging from 448 servings of oatmeal and 520 of buttermilk pancakes to 64 servings of black bean soup and 48 of creamy Stroganoff.

Accelerationists claim coronavirus is doing their work for them while they sit at home and watch the crisis unfold. They don’t need to accelerate anything — at least, not yet.

But Jones’ response to the pandemic is only one of many among the far-right. While its adherents typically present themselves as part of a well organized, cohesive movement, they have been all over the place when it comes to COVID-19. 

Some spin conspiracy theories, according to which the virus is an attempt by elites to cause a financial meltdown and establish a new world order. For them, the coronavirus is a hoax just like climate change. Instead of considering the virus a real risk to people’s lives, they see it as a way for governments to increase their powers as they pretend to contain the crisis.

Like many on the left, these far-right ideologues worry that civil liberties could be eroded and their ability to organize be impeded — a concern that is not entirely unjustified, only the danger does not lie with some secretive cabal. It is far-right authoritarian leaders, like Hungarian Prime Minister Victor Orbán, who are grabbing for power right now. Under the state of emergency, Hungary’s parliament just passed a law that will allow Orbán’s government to rule by decree without oversight.

Other far-right conspiracy theorists call COVID-19 a “bioweapon” designed by China (sometimes with the help of Bill Gates or George Soros) to bring down Trump. 

There’s an underlying xenophobic paranoia to such beliefs, which are spreading along with the virus. Donald Trump is far from the only one who thinks that corona is a “foreign” or “Chinese” virus. Many others on the far right also consider non-white people or migrants to be the carriers of the virus. 

In a recent conference call with European Union heads of state, Orbán argued that the coronavirus was primarily brought into his country by illegal immigrants. Gottfried Curio, member of parliament for the German far-right party Alternative für Deutschland (AfD), fretted about “corona migrants” in a recent Facebook post.

But it’s not only survivalists, conspiracy theorists and xenophobes who are exploiting the virus for their political agendas. An extreme wing of neo-Nazis known as “accelerationist” see a chance to profit politically from the virus. 

“They smell an opportunity for recruitment,” says investigative journalist Chip Berlet who researches the far right. 

While accelerationists constitute a relatively small segment within the hate movement, they are prone to extreme violence. The perpetrator of the mosque massacres in New Zealand referenced accelerationism in his manifesto

As Heidi Beirich, the former director of the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Intelligence Project and founder of the Global Project Against Hate and Extremism tells The Indypendent, “Their entire philosophy is built on violence.”

Arguing that our globalized, pluralistic world is “degenerate,” accelerationists want to bring on what Beirich calls “the ‘boogaloo,’ a sort of violent cascade” to hasten society’s downfall and create a racist ethnostate in its place. 

Hate groups are banking on the feeling of unpredictability that most of us are experiencing at the moment.

Groups like the Base, a self-described white protection league, believe that this transition of power cannot be peaceful. Founded by Rinaldo Nazzaro (alias Norman Spear), a native of New York who now lives in Russia, the Base — whose name is, probably not coincidentally, the English translation of al-Qaeda — started actively recruiting members in late 2018. According to a tweet by an anti-fascist watchdog, the group also organized a “hate camp” in the area of Spokane, WA, for training in paramilitary tactics last summer. 

In lieu of a cohesive ideology beyond white supremacy, accelerationists want to destabilize the existing political order through terrorist acts like bombings or mass shootings. The coronavirus is now doing this work for them, they claim, while they sit at home and watch the crisis unfold. They don’t need to accelerate anything — at least, not yet. 

While some groups have discussed “intentionally spreading the virus to Jews and marginalized populations as a terrorist tactic,” notes Beirich, there is no evidence that this has happened thus far. For the moment, they seem to be content with waiting for the government to botch its handling of the pandemic. 

Unlike other far-right extremists and white supremacists, who support Trump’s response to the health emergency, accelerationists hammer down on the unclear policies and inconsistent messaging of the current administration. To them, this is merely another example of an incapable government and the failure of democratic institutions. They hope that as the crisis intensifies more and more “normal people will share their sense that the whole system is going to come crashing down. 

Chip Berlet warns that this may be the time for accelerationists to “engage in ‘propaganda of the deed’ through acts of ‘exemplary violence’ to gain media coverage.”

The corona crisis has encouraged irrational behavior and conspiratorial thinking and not just among the far right, but among individuals of various political convictions. As many governments are implementing measures to temporarily rescind basic civil rights, such as the right to assemble or to free movement, an intense sense of insecurity and uneasiness toward the role of the state is increasing. 

Even though the far right is split in its response to the pandemic, what the different factions all have in common is that they bank on the feeling of unpredictability that most of us are experiencing at the moment. But they are also seeking to tap into long-existing resentments that many — especially young, white men — who feel inadequately represented by established parties, traditional institutions and democratic processes harbor.  To the resentful, the far right offers simplistic explanations for an increasingly complex global health emergency and militant solutions.

What makes this extra dangerous is that far-right movements operate so much in the online world. With stay-at-home orders in effect and impending mass unemployment as a result of large-scale shutdowns, many people will be spending a lot more time on the internet. This will give accelerationists “more time to talk, propagandize, and organize online,” Beirich worries. 

We are still in the early days of this crisis, but there is a real potential that additional people will now be radicalized into the ranks of this movement.

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