What Does the Far Right Want From the COVID-19 Crisis?

NSFH Research Division interviewed by Rampant Magazine

A researcher of far-right activity talks about the real threat posed by recent right-wing rallies—not just in worsening the spread of the virus but in an advance of their toxic politics.

Rampant Magazine is grateful to have interviewed a researcher with No Space for Hate (NSFH) Research Division, a collective of activists, scholars, students, and data analysts who monitor the activities of white supremacists in the United States. At present, their work involves collecting, analyzing, and publishing information about how white supremacist organizations in the Midwest are making inroads into American politics.

Last week, across the United States, far right protesters demonstrated against the stay-at-home orders that had been issued by state governments to stop the spread of COVID-19. What is significant about these protests?

These protests are a catalyst and a point of convergence for the far right in the United States. As recently as January, the far right was in disarray. This was especially true of white supremacist organizations and fledgling fascist political coalitions. Factionalism, infighting, and differences in political strategy had reached a fever pitch. These divisions have not disappeared. But many far-right groups that were recently at odds managed to find common cause in the Operation Gridlock/Reopen America protests. 

Although the physical protests themselves are important for understanding the extent to which these demonstrations were motivated by petit bourgeois interests, social media platforms provide further insights into the ways that neo-Nazis, far-right militia organizations, and Second Amendment organizations amplified their message. In Indiana, some of these same groups were the primary organizers of protests at the state capitol. In states like Michigan, the Proud Boys and Patriot Front not only participated in the demonstrations, they were instrumental in recruiting participants via social media platforms. Neo-Nazis also used the protests as a platform to publicly showcase anti-Semitic messages and images derived from Third Reich propaganda. 

What we are seeing now is a troubling convergence of far-right groups, from the so called alt-lite to ultranationalists, seeking routes to the political mainstream. Organizations like Patriot Front and the American Identity Movement see this as an opportune moment. They are building political coalitions with connections to key conservative backers in Washington, DC, and many of their members are staunch supporters of the Reopen America protests. If you looked at discussions by white supremacists, Nazis, and accelerationists from a year ago, you would have found posts hoping for an event like this one that would “unite the right.” The fact that members from such a broad range of far-right organizations, from the entryists to the accelerationists, participated in this protest suggests that this will become a rallying point for their political strategy moving forward.

Many national news sources have reported on the ties between these protests and key political players in the Trump administration and state government officials. Newsweek reported that protests in Michigan were financed in part by the Michigan Freedom Fund, an organization with direct ties to Betsy DeVos. These demonstrations are not part of a grassroots social protest movement, but were engineered by conservative backers on a massive scale. On Friday, a redditor named u/Dr_Midnight identified a large set of GoDaddy sites that appear to have been opened up by a retired Floridian businessman in an effort to create a massive groundswell for the Reopen America protests. This astroturfing campaign created web domains that could easily be converted by local Reopen America sponsors. Since that time, reddit users u/icesir and u/derelict have combed through the sites to find the sponsors backing each state protest. Their efforts have revealed that many were connected to LLCs linked to gun rights organizations created by the Dorr brothers. 

The protests were coordinated on Facebook beginning two weeks ago. There had been discussions on other platforms about a resistance movement against the quarantine. In Indiana and Michigan, the protests were almost singularly focused on impeaching and replacing the governor. It’s enough to make one wonder whether this is part of a concerted effort to replace Trump critics with Trump surrogates.

In a series of tweets, President Trump called on his Twitter followers to “liberate” the states of Michigan, Minnesota, and Virginia, and to “save your great 2nd amendment.” This was, if not a literal call to arms, then at least a green light for further protest. Can you say more about what these tweets mean and how the far right views Trump? 

In those tweets the president aligned himself with the protests. Again, this wave of demonstrations was not the product of grassroots organizing, but rather a concerted effort to catalyze the president’s base into action. National news coverage of the protests has largely focused on protesters’ signs, on their lack of understanding of COVID-19, or the spread of the demonstration across the US, but it has provided little analysis of how these demonstrations were organized in the first place. At the very moment when the news was focused on the federal response to the COVID-19 pandemic, these protests have successfully refocused media attention on a fictive representation of the American people. The fiction has been an effective tool for the Trump reelection campaign and for efforts to recruit white supremacists across the United States. The false idea that these protests represent the grassroots will be used by Trump to suggest that he has not aligned himself with white nationalism, but rather with ordinary citizens. He will use it to say The people spoke and I listened.

Currently, white supremacists like Nick Fuentes and Patrick Casey are praising the president’s choice for a full immigration lockdown. They regard this policy as a win for the far right considering that white supremacists like Richard Spencer were calling for a full immigration ban in 2016 during Trump’s presidential campaign. However, as seen in the tweets, they do not believe this goes far enough as it does not end the H1B visa program. They have begun to jokingly suggest that the November elections be canceled for the sake of public health.

How can we expect far-right and fascist forces to try to exploit the COVID-19 pandemic and the impending economic crisis? What stories do they tell about what is happening? What opportunities do they see for themselves?

Across the US, far-right organizations view this crisis as a we-told-you-so moment. Online, far-right twitter has seen an explosion of posts that essentially argue the virus is a product of America’s ties to international trade and migration. Particularly pernicious forms of anti-Asian racism have been spread by accounts on twitter and Facebook. Historically white supremacists have used the vicious racist tropes of yellow peril and stereotypes of Asian cultures as backward and superstitious to foment violence. Far-right social media groups have furthered the spread of misinformation on the origins of COVID-19 such that it is now in mainstream news sources. 

White supremacist groups in particular are looking to recruit based on this platform of xenophobia and anti-globalism. White nationalist groups have been calling for hard borders and a full shutdown of immigration for the foreseeable future. The Trump administration has followed suit: prioritizing the deportation of immigrants sickened in detention camps, shutting down the US passport office, and now amping up its campaign against China (note, they did not specify the Chinese government but the country itself). Many of the domestic policies and international sanctions that far-right organizations sought to enact have already come to fruition in the Trump administration’s response to COVID-19.

Many of the policies far-right organizations sought to enact have already come to fruition in the Trump administration’s response to COVID-19.

In the coming months leading up to the 2020 elections we are going to see an increase in violent terrorist attacks—in physical space and coordinated cyberattacks. Over the past month, there have been four attempted bombings by domestic terrorists. The case of John Michael Rathbun of East Longmeadow provides significant insights into the workings of accelerationist terrorist networks. In the federal complaint against Rathbun, the arresting agent states that Rathbun may have been a member of an as yet unnamed white supremacist organization that used two unnamed social media platforms to coordinate attacks on Jewish people and Black folks. Both sites appear to have provided users with access to information about building IEDs and had a calendar featuring specific dates for coordinated attacks. 

What we are seeing at this moment is the beginning of what social theorist Prester Jane terms a “compaction cycle,” where members of white nationalist organizations decrease leaving only the most committed and violent members in core groups. There are already signs that members of white nationalist organizations, far-right militias, and conspiracy media are further radicalizing. Just last week, the Washington Post reported that three pro-gun activists were behind the Reopen America protests and that some of the protesters appear to have connections to the Unite the Right rally held in Charlottesville in 2017. The ultimate goal of their particular form of fascist accelerationism is the overthrow of the American government. Given that over the past week they made the leap from sharing conspiracy theories about the virus to organizing mass demonstrations outside statehouses and the private residences of governors, the next step in their escalation pattern will likely be a coordinated attack on a symbolic target. 

Andrew Anglin, a prominent neo-Nazi and the founder of the Daily Stormer, recently published a fanatical vision of a white supremacist postapocalyptic future complete with “Aryan rape gangs” designed to “breed an Aryan army.” Yes, you read that right. Anglin’s piece reads like horrifying fan fiction about William Luther Pierce’s Turner Diaries. Many of the more recent actions of the militant far right are patterning their actions on some of the events from the Diaries. White supremacist podcasters have been particularly influential in spreading Pierce’s ideas, with more than a few saying “Hail Pierce” on air since 2017.

In addition to physical escalation, white supremacist propaganda campaigns and online attacks are also on the rise. Last month, as universities and high schools moved instruction online multiple white supremacist networks coordinated online Zoom-bombing attacks via 4chan. Publicly available links were posted on 4chan message boards and users hijacked Zoom conferences, posting pornographic imagery and racist slurs. Many of these attacks appear to have targeted instructors of color and Jewish educational and religious institutions. These attacks align with far-right and white nationalist agendas that advocate for the destruction of higher education, terming it a bastion of “liberal indoctrination” that must be destabilized and dismantled. 

Their usual strategy is to use racist scapegoating to further their agenda. How do you see that playing out?

As Naomi Klein argues in her book The Shock Doctrine, historical crises are prime moments for exploitation by disaster capitalists and authoritarians. In US white supremacist organizations there are two competing ideas about how best to achieve a white nation-state: entryism (assimilation in the political structure) and vanguardism (violent accelerationism). In the United States, entryists and white nationalists in the policy sectors will push the country towards regressive isolationist stances and create policies that prop up the interests of entrepreneurs (this will likely be phrased as “small business”). Their legislative agenda will be directed at an immigration moratorium, which, they will argue, will make it possible to support struggling American businesses. 

Vanguardists will continue to engage in racist violence against Black, brown, Asian, and Native people, but the nature of that violence is already shifting. We are going to see continued incidents of anti-Asian racism which will be increasingly violent in both physical and digital space. White supremacist groups will continue to boost messaging that seeks to normalize anti-Asian prejudice in American society writ large. Already, members of far-right groups have demanded reparations from China for the virus, a framing that co-opts the language of legitimate claims to compensation for extreme suffering at the hands of an oppressor. The far right and center right will attempt to force the UN Security Council to acknowledge Wuhan as the origin point of COVID-19 as a means of bringing formal litigation against the Chinese government.

For our Black, Native, Latinx, queer, nonbinary, and trans comrades, this continuation of American necropolitics will exact a terrible toll. The Trump administration will not acknowledge the structural racism that has now condemned so many of our siblings to an untimely and painful death. As a system founded in plantation slavery and genocide, the federal government will continue its policies of denial and neglect toward the communities it has brutalized the most. Far-right groups will continue to propagate a narrative of blame rooted in eugenics, biological definitions and nineteenth- and twentieth-century racist pseudo-science. White supremacists across multiple organizations and ideological lines have openly discussed this virus as doing the work of removing those they deem undesirable from society. The Trump administration will continue to revoke treaty statuses and expropriate tribal land. And white nationalists will claim this as their birthright citing the rhetoric of Manifest Destiny.

The far right already views this crisis as an opportunity to organize and make real the white nation they have always envisioned for themselves.

Marxists tend to see the roots of fascism in the petit bourgeoisie. It’s well known that small businesses are hurting right now. Some project that more than 40 percent of them will close because of the shutdown. Is this something that the far right is orienting on? 

Though there are certainly many people concerned about small businesses, much of what we’re seeing could best be described as a protest about inconvenience. For the Reopen America protesters who posted on social media, many of the complaints center on the fact that their everyday lives have been disrupted and on specific experiences of not being able to shop or attend church. They view the lockdown and restrictions on their mobility as tyranny. Here it’s critical to understand the extent to which these complaints fall at the intersection of multiple identities, where class, religion, and race are key factors. White middle-class Christians, who have historically sought to restrict and control the movement of Black, brown, Native, and Latinx people, are deeply angry that their state governments have restricted their ability to attend large gatherings. And while some mention their concern for local business owners, many more seem disturbed by what they viewed as government overreach and a “Coronavirus death toll hoax.” Many at the protests in Indianapolis last weekend stated that they did not believe the virus death toll numbers at all and felt that the state-level response to the virus was a clear attempt at a “fascist coup.”

Recently there was a right split within the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) leading to the formation of the America First PAC. How does this relate to the overall strategy of the right and how will it figure into their response to COVID-19?

The America First PAC will be crucial to the far right’s designs on political office, particularly for white nationalists who believe they can gain a foothold in American government and push far-right anti-immigration policy. White supremacists are going to seek shelter under the umbrella of AFPAC, using it to claim their eliminationist rhetoric as legitimate political beliefs rather than incitement to violence. They will continue to specifically target college-aged students, particularly those who participate in Turning Point USA, College Republicans, and fascist student organizations. We will begin to see more chapters of America First Students across the US, but particularly in states with a substantial population of white supremacist organizations. AFPAC will use the COVID crisis as a major talking point going into the 2020 elections, focusing on the importance of American business, hard borders, and propagating nativist talking points. 

Would you say that the COVID-19 crisis has led to a growth in the far right either in numbers or in activity? What should we expect their strategy to be?

COVID-19 has shifted the landscape of possibilities for the far right. With the convergence of some groups on the right in local protests, we will likely see more of a shift toward creating America First coalitions on a larger scale. Recruitment numbers are already increasing, with white supremacists gaining larger social media followings and fashioning themselves as social media influencers. The number of people willing to participate in actual, physical protests has remained somewhat stable, however the numbers of sponsors for white supremacist groups is likely to increase. In a disturbing turn, white supremacists are radicalizing kids as young as ten

The strategy going into 2020 will be mainstreaming far-right talking points and calibrating those talking points to what “normies” believe is happening in the United States for the purposes of recruitment. Now that means recruitment into a political coalition. We will also see more people of all political affiliations repeating white supremacist talking points as we move closer to the election in 2020. Figures from the far right will again begin appearing on Fox News and on the One America Network for the purposes of recruitment and normalization. Accelerationist violence will likely continue despite the federal court cases against members of white supremacist groups. White supremacist political coalitions will deny any association with mass shooters, while also continuing to endorse the same rhetoric found in their manifestos.

What does this mean for a left strategy to combat them?

Our institutions will not save us. We will save us. Collective work and community organizing have already created networks of solidarity and support that are saving lives. All around the United States today there are mutual aid networks helping people to find what they need to survive. There are antifascist research networks tracking hate groups to help keep all of us safe. Collective work and the redistribution of wealth and supplies are critical at this juncture. With these in place, we have the ability to radically reimagine what community means and the duty to reject the nihilistic necropolitics inherent in fascism and white supremacy. 

Our institutions will not save us. We will save us.

Further, we must acknowledge that fascism is a cult that is always seeking followers. And by extension, that fascist organizing always leads to fascist violence. These groups are taking root in our communities with the intent to enact their violent vision of a white nation-state. Our institutions have been slow to interrupt their activities and the current president is unlikely to acknowledge the extent of the white supremacist networks that are growing under his administration. In many of our communities, industries, and institutions, our leadership have likewise refused to acknowledge the threat posed by white supremacist groups to their constituencies even when faced with outright incidents of fascist violence. As leftists, part of our work must be to help create policies at local, state, and national levels that will counter the rise of fascism and ensure that white supremacists cannot recruit or organize in our communities.

As for things we on the left can do to better understand how to counter fascism, we should be listening to and supporting those directly engaged in the struggle against white supremacist violence. You should follow your local Black Lives Matter chapter and read up on the issues they are working against. To counter violent right-wing extremism and white supremacist recruiting we also have to learn from those who have studied fascist networks. If you’re on twitter you should be following Emily Gorcenski, JJ McNab, Kathleen Belew, and Megan Squire, all of whom do incredible work tracking white supremacist violence and showing the development history of their networks. 

Youth deradicalization is essential right now. Nora Flanagan and Shannon Foley Martinez posted this helpful thread about how white supremacists have used the COVID-19 lockdown to recruit children and how parents can do deradicalization work. The next step will be to create effective propaganda that counters fascist recruitment and talking points. Awareness of the extent of the problem will not be enough for the coming year. We must develop effective counter-messaging strategies that will disrupt the cult psychology of fascism, ultimately revealing the nihilism inherent in its cries for “blood and soil.”