It is easy to look at the core ideology of the radical right—nativism, white supremacy, homophobia, misogyny—and call it ignorant and uninformed. This labelling is problematic because it is lazy; it assumes an either/or approach to knowledge and does not take into account the fact that there is always some kind of “knowledge” underlying every belief system.
Actually, the radical right is heavily invested in gathering and disseminating information as is clear from their numerous publication and media outlets. But it is what they call “alternative,” “censored” knowledge that supposedly exposes the institutionalized “propaganda” of mainstream education, media and society. Nowhere is this more evident than the current case of the Covid-19 pandemic. How did the radical right’s weaponization of science denial lead to a contagion of conspiracy theories that deny the very existence of the virus? And when they do not contest the existence of the pandemic, how do they use it for their own racist purposes?
Weaponizing science denial
From creationism to climate change denial and the distortion of research on gender and sexuality, radical right ideology communicates a range of skepticism concerning the production and consumption of scientific knowledge. But while distrust for science took off because of religious convictions that saw faith being threatened by scientific facts, it is important to appreciate how the radical right does not simply reject science; it invents its own “scientific” rhetoric to provide an “alternative” interpretation.
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Often appropriating cues from postmodern critiques of science and the post-truth rhetoric, the radical right popularized academic discussions on objectivity and relativism with the term “alternative news.” It enters climate change debates, for example, armed with its own data, metrics and conclusions about the impact of human activity in global rising temperatures and the “evidence” that what we are witnessing is part of a natural ebb and flow in earth’s cooling cycles. Often this evidence is heavily funded and carefully curated in order to present unequivocal consensus by scientists who claim that global warming panic is unwarranted. There are nuances in the climate change debate of course, as in the case of ultra-nationalist ideologies that embrace the alarm to preserve nature as the nourishing source of the national body.
The radical right does not simply reject science; it invents its own “scientific” rhetoric to provide an “alternative” interpretation
Similarly, as I have noted elsewhere, the radical right defends homophobia not through an analysis of Christian dogma but by citing sociological research results which demonstrate “scientifically” that the heteronormative family is an inevitable and indispensable part of “human nature.” The radical right’s reaction to the pandemic mirrors in many ways their insistence on “alternative news.”
Radical Right politicians all over the world doubted that this is ‘really’ a pandemic when most experts said so. As late as March, Brazil’s president Jair Bolsonaro called pandemic fears “exaggerated,” and USA President Donald Trump called it a “hoax” before beginning to acknowledge that it is a dangerous disease. Lega Nord’s Matteo Salvini circulated conspiracy theories and urged people to go on holiday while Covid-19 was ravaging the northern parts of Italy; though he later seemed to realize its magnitude and even called for stricter lockdown measures. Nothing spreads the virus more effectively than the belief that there is no virus.
The radical right views scientists, experts and professionals as having no more authority to speak on these issues than the person who randomly heard from a “doctor” that all Covid-19 deaths are made-up numbers to scare the world. In fact, it positions a lay person’s gut instinct against “elite” scientists as a form of resistance against oppression, especially against transnational scientific institutions like WHO.
Nothing spreads the virus more effectively than the belief that there is no virus
The radical right’s approach to scientific warnings is an extension of their attitude towards other regulatory bureaucratic institutions such as the EU. There is certainly an element of populist nationalism here that, much like the pandemic, has spread globally. On top of that, rightwing Christian preachers continue to use the pandemic as a day of reckoning in the war between faith and fact.
Beliefs that go against scientific facts are everywhere of course—creationists, flat-earthers—and the groundwork for such erosion of trust in science has been laid for a long time. But the institutionalization of these sentiments and their echoing by those in positions of power at the time of a pandemic is, literally, deadly. Furthermore, the radical right’s polemic approach to science is amplified by the appropriation of (leftist) critiques of capitalism and Big Pharma given that beliefs in the “Medical Deep State” are rooted in both ends of the ideological spectrum.
The assumption is that when epidemiologists share their models of Covid-19 contagion they are motivated by profit or some kind of slavish commitment to governmental authority and global control.
Science is, of course, political but not in the crude way suggested by those who reject long established facts or threaten scientists because they see them as partisan. Science is political because it is a human institution that despite its laws of objectivity, integrity and fairness functions in ideological contexts that shape how these rules become everyday practice. Scientists are not always noble (see for example eugenics) and they have served questionable government projects (e.g. the nuclear bomb, Tuskegee experiment, etc.). But the self-correcting mechanisms of science mean that there is always a new study or a new cohort that will rectify previous findings based on new evidence.
Mainstreaming Covid-19 conspiracies
From The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion to The Illuminati, conspiracy theories have a long history. But while these beliefs may have been burrowing within far-flung subcultures, the radical right managed to mainstream and globalize their digital consumption. Both the algorithmic modus operandi of the internet as well as the rhetorical refinement of conspiracy arguments have facilitated their mainstreaming. And while theories of world political domination may seem abstract, medical conspiracies are personal, as they speak to our basic, bodily sense of safety and welfare. In this sense, a health pandemic, silently spreading around the world with governments ordering citizens to stay home, is the perfect material for a cocktail of conspiracy theories that were already circulating.
Medical conspiracies are personal, as they speak to our basic, bodily sense of safety and welfare
What we have observed these past few months is the predictable radical right racist medley of blaming the virus on the usual suspects: that it is a ploy by the Jews/the Chinese/Bill Gates/Soros/the American military etc. Radical right conspiracies of Covid-19 come in two kinds, often held simultaneously in the same message: that the virus does not exist and/or there is a manufactured deadly virus because “they” want to exterminate “us.”
In the first case, denial of the virus is based on random shreds of evidence such as when people film their area hospital (#filmyourhospital) to show that it is not overwhelmed by Covid-19 patients. In the second case, the virus is planted to weaken “the people”—and sometimes to hide the deadly side effects of 5G technology.
It is difficult to document all the Covid-19 conspiracies that have been floating around and even more demanding to account for their existence. Furthermore, the mainstreaming of these theories means that by the time they reach an audience they are stripped of the theory: they are conspiracy ‘lite’ as Muirhead and Rosenblum aptly describe in their book, A Lot of People are Saying. People share them recklessly, just to show that they are not going to be taken for a ride: we may be locked down, but we know what is ‘really’ going on.
Embracing the apocalypse
The current pandemic is also bringing new life to the darkest corners of the extreme right where visions of violence and destruction seem more plausible than ever. The accelerationist ideology, linked to white supremacist killers, encourages events that will sow discord and chaos that will eventually lead to the collapse of governments and the violent uptake of power by the white race.
There are already indications, at least from online rants, that accelerationist ideologues find the current pandemic as a ripe opportunity to pursue this agenda. Contrary to conspiracy theories that view this pandemic as a global-scale prank, accelerationists see it as an opportunity to prove their prophecies and have already used online forums to intensify radicalization efforts. As Cynthia Miller-Idriss has noted, the current epidemic is ripe for exploitation by the far right.
For example, Simon Lindberg, the leader of the Nordic Resistance Movement in Sweden seized the moment to warn (white) followers that the pandemic may lead to a much anticipated catharsis: “You might have to sink to the bottom before you can climb to the top. For people to truly realize that the current anti-white system and the corrupt forces ruling us today have to be replaced, they might first need to realize their true nature in full and also understand that there is actually an alternative.”
Far right extremists view the pandemic as a gift that proves their Great Replacement Theory and justifies calls to shut borders
In the USA, it was only in early February that the FBI elevated white supremacist groups to a “national threat priority” which proved prescient for the current situation as there are already reports that these groups believe it’s their “obligation” to spread the virus, target cops and Jews or use it as a bioweapon. Overall, far right extremists view the pandemic as a gift that proves their Great Replacement Theory and justifies calls to shut borders.
At a technical level, Covid-19 is a scientific problem performed for us in real-time as we observe experts and medical professionals constantly adjusting models based on new data, metrics and variables. Covid-19, however, is also an ideological challenge, not only in the ways it has already transformed into a social and economic problem, but also in how ideological imaginaries envision the global impact of an invisible virus.
Medical misinformation is a public health hazard: the legacy of the AIDS epidemic has shown that the persistence of conspiracy theories works against cures, sometimes in a self-inflicting manner. Conspiracy, disinformation and xenophobia have been the trademark of the radical right’s response. And while the virus is taking lives, its specter has already been used to take down the foundations of democracy, as in the case of Hungary.