Under cover of Covid-19: the international far right and the coronavirus crisis

By Martin Smith | 14 May 2020

A far right “Reopen” demo in Ohio, US, in April 2020. Pic credit: Paul Becker

From minimising the threat of Covid-19 to violent racist scapegoating, street protests, conspiracy theories and even food distribution, the international far right’s responses to the coronavirus crisis have been many and varied. Here, we look at how it has responded to the pandemic and the real problems it faces.

When the Covid-19 pandemic broke, the reaction of some far right heads of state was to dismiss the severity of the threat and ridicule the advice of scientists and the World Health Organisation. The most prominent of these were US president Donald Trump and the “Trump of the tropics”, Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro. On 19 February 2020, Trump addressed a group of US state governors and predicted the virus would disappear.

“I think it’s going to work out fine,” he bragged, “I think when we get into April, in the warmer weather, that has a very negative effect on that type of a virus.”

He refused to practise social distancing and made great play of shaking hands – a gesture echoed in Britain by prime minister Boris Johnson. Even in late February Trump was claiming Covid-19 was “fake news”, stating on Twitter that sections of the media, “are doing everything possible to make the coronavirus look as bad as possible, including panicking markets… USA in great shape!”

The same “fake news” strategy was deployed by Bolsonaro in Brazil. In late April he was telling supporters that 70% of the country was going to get sick sooner or later and everyone should just get back to work. He dismissed Covid-19 as a “fantasy”, claiming Brazilians could swim in excrement and emerge unscathed.

Bolsonaro and Trump’s persistent denials of the severity of the pandemic and contempt for the medical evidence stems partly from their own macho egos, but is also rooted in their political theory and practice.

Their outlook is shaped by a willingness to keep the economy open at all costs and their support for – and perhaps more importantly many of their advisors’ adherence to – eugenics. Their racialised worldview means they are open to theories of natural selection and social Darwinism, the belief in the “survival of the fittest”.

Boris Johnson with health secretary Matt Hancock at a coronavirus crisis meeting, February 2020. Pic credit: Andrew Parsons / No10

In Britain, Johnson’s promotion of “herd immunity” in the early stages of the pandemic was another graphic example of this. Johnson is a Conservative Party adherent, not a far right politician – but he is a trusted political ally of Trump. And many of Johnson’s key advisors are heavily influenced by eugenics.

Dominic Cummings, Johnson’s main advisor, has argued that children’s school performance has more to do with genetic makeup than education. The Sunday Times reported that Cummings was a key advocate of the “herd immunity” strategy.

Another advisor to Johnson, Andrew Sabisky, was sacked in February after it was revealed that he believes intelligence is linked to race. The influence of eugenics inside the Tory Party goes back to Margaret Thatcher and the infamous speech by her minister Keith Joseph, claiming, “Our human stock is threatened”.

Racism has also come to the fore with renewed force as far right politicians and movements use the Covid-19 crisis to pursue their racist and nationalist agendas.

Trump, for example, has gone out of his way to fuel anti-Chinese racism. In press conferences he constantly refers to the “Chinese virus”. He has also claimed that the Chinese state is lying about its own death and infection rates and is involved in dirty tricks to weaken the US economy.

Trump’s racist invective has created a spike in levels of racially linked violence and hate speech. According to Stop AAPI Hate, a US anti-hate organisation, in the two weeks from 19 March there were more than 1,100 reported physical and verbal attacks against Asian Americans.

Moonshot CVE, which monitors extremism online, analysed more than 600 million tweets and found that nearly 200,000 contained hate speech or conspiracy theories. The majority were anti-Chinese, using hashtags such as #CCPVirus, #ChinaLiedPeopleDied and #DeepstateVirus.

Moonshot said it recorded a 300% increase in the use of “hashtags that support or encourage violence against China and Chinese people” in a single week in March. Britain has also experienced a significant increase in anti-Chinese racism. A Sky News investigation of police data revealed 267 such offences were recorded in the first three months of 2020, compared with 375 for the whole of 2019.

Islamophobia and antisemitism are also being interwoven in the far right’s narrative of the virus. Anti-racist groups in Britain, France, Germany and Sweden note that supporters of far right groups are circulating memes that falsely claim mosques are remaining open and are helping to spread the virus. Marine Le Pen, leader of the French Rassemblement National (RN, formerly the Front National) makes the outrageous claim that mosques are using the call to prayer to invade people’s space, “drive back the principle of laïcité [secularism] of the republic” and “openly flout the republican state”.

The growth of conspiracy theories surrounding Covid-19 has also brought with it a proliferation of antisemitism on social media and on some of the “reopen” protests against coronavirus lockdowns.

The academic Beatriz Buarque says the most common antisemitic themes include that Covid-19 was created by Jews for the purpose of making a profit or for surveillance, that it is part of a Jewish plot to eliminate those unable to work, that it is a hoax created by the “Jewish controlled media”, and that Jews are spreading the virus.

She has also identified a “clear” spike in the use of antisemitic hashtags on social media in relation to the outbreak. These included #SorosVirus and #IsraelVirus and were usually linked to longstanding racist tropes about Jewish-led “world governments” or the virus being used to kill off sections of the population.

In the US, the FBI security service has noted a proliferation of antisemitic propaganda promoted by neo-nazis and white supremacist groups on social media and on the “reopen” protests.

And the Executive Council of Australian Jewry research director and Australian Hate Crime Network co-convenor Julie Nathan, notes,

“Australian racists online have been posting comments and sharing various images, presumably originating from overseas, portraying the coronavirus as a ‘Jew’, as well as accusing ‘the Jews’ of creating and spreading the virus, and expressing the wish that all Jews die from the virus.”

The pandemic has also brought fresh challenges and dangers for asylum seekers, migrants and refugees. Almost all nation states have closed their borders and hardened their immigration policies. Far right leaders and groups have seized the chance to conflate the pandemic into their racist narratives, with migrants and refugees portrayed as potential carriers of the deadly virus and so a health threat.

Blamed

Trump sealed off the US during the pandemic and at the same time blamed Mexicans and the Chinese for importing the virus into the country. In Hungary, president Viktor Orbán blamed migrants for the spread of the virus.

“We are fighting a two-front war. One front is called migration and the other one belongs to the coronavirus. There is a logical connection between the two as both spread with movement,” he said.

In Slovakia, Marian Kotleba, leader of the fascist People’s Party Our Slovakia, claimed,

“Due to the open borders within the EU… there are many migrants wandering across Europe without any control. And those people brought the coronavirus to Europe.”

In Italy, Matteo Salvini, leader of the far right racist Lega party, has whipped up further anti-immigration rhetoric while in France, Le Pen has used the virus to renew calls for closing the border with Italy. Far right parties in Germany and Spain have also pursued this anti-immigration agenda.

Not to be outdone Nigel Farage, the far right populist former UKIP leader, broke Britain’s social distancing rules to travel to Dover where he held a press conference, claiming the British authorities were deliberately covering up the number of refugees “illegally” entering the country.

In Eastern Europe especially, the far right has also incorporated anti-Roma racism into its response to the coronavirus. A report by the Open Society Foundation found that Roma people in six countries Bulgaria, Hungary, Italy, Romania, Slovakia and Spain have experienced increased stigmatisation as a result of Covid-19. The report highlighted several cases of Roma communities being separately quarantined and cordoned off from the rest of society.

Fascist and white supremacist groups have also used the pandemic to peddle their wider theories and garner new recruits. Because of the lockdown, much of this activity has taken place online.

But in the US, Australia, Germany and other countries, the far right has aggressively taken to the streets to demand an end to the lockdowns. In mid-April a wave of anti-lockdown protests took place outside US state buildings. Many involved several hundred activists.

Armed militia turned out on a “Reopen” protest in Ohio, in April. Pic credit Paul Becker

The US anti-racist monitoring group, the Southern Poverty Law Center, reported that far right militias, and nazi and white supremacist groups were behind the protests, and some participants carried nazi flags or antisemitic banners – along with guns. This wave of protests was favourably covered by Fox News and Trump joined in a Twitter storm in support of the anti lockdown protests, posting “LIBERATE MINNESOTA!” “LIBERATE MICHIGAN!” “LIBERATE VIRGINIA”.

The SPLC believes that “accelerationist” groups are attempting to exploit the pandemic. These small nazi cells believe in encouraging chaos and violence in order to speed up “the boog” – a term used by the US far right which refers to their belief in an impending civil war.

At the same time, such groups are using the pandemic to sharpen their condemnations of “the system”. The SPLC believes these strategies combine forms of “nihilism, exhortations to violence and conspiracy-addled racism”.

We are already seeing the fruits of this strategy. In March, Timothy Wilson, from Missouri, was shot dead in a gun battle with the police who were trying to arrest him for planning a car bomb attack on a hospital treating coronavirus patients. Wilson, who had been under FBI investigation for months, was actively associating with the nazi National Socialist Movement and the accelerationist group the Vorherrschaft Division.

Demonstrator on far right “Reopen” protest in Ohio. The “Dont tread on me” snake is a popular motif of the US alt-right. Pic credit Paul Becker

By contrast, fascist parties in some European countries have set up aid campaigns. For example, in Hungary the Jobbik movement, which has undergone a de-nazification process in an attempt to distance itself from fascism, is using its old paramilitary Hungarian Guard in food distribution programmes and is heavily involved in campaigns for better personal protective equipment, health provision and benefits for those affected by the virus. In Italy, CasaPound and Forza Nuova have launched “humanitarian” efforts to help people affected by the coronavirus pandemic.

Italian fascist group CasaPound delivers food in a bid to win support during the coronavirus crisis

Zinc Network, a communications monitoring organisation, has found British groups such as Britain First and the Knights Templar International, and former British National Party members are attempting to promote fascist ideas and portray themselves as supporters of the community during the lockdown. The BNP’s former leader, Nick Griffin, has posted images of himself distributing food parcels.

The far right has also used conspiracy theories as a way of promoting its worldview. A prominent conspiracy theory that has developed during the pandemic has focused on 5G communications networks.

Clearly not all those who support the misinformation around 5G belong to the far right. But Moonshot CVE’s analysis of 5G stories on social media found that the far right was using popular distrust of 5G “as a gateway into their world more generally, exposing users to other, potentially more harmful worldviews”.

It adds, “The ideological underpinnings of these worldviews are often explicitly anti-government and sometimes antisemitic in their belief that the world is controlled by a covert network of elites who work against the population’s interest.”

Many far right leaders have also used the pandemic to further increase their support among rightwing religious groups. Bolsonaro has held regular meetings with Brazil’s influential Pentecostal evangelical leaders. They jointly called a national day of fasting, “so that Brazil can free itself from this evil as soon as possible”.

Since the beginning of the crisis, Salvini has made his religious devotion a central theme of his political profile. This attempt to win over Italy’s conservative Catholics to the Lega has seen him recite a prayer for the victims of Covid-19 live on national TV – it went viral on social media. Just before Easter he led the call for Italy’s churches to be reopened and claimed that science was not enough to defeat “this monster” – the virus. What was needed, he said, was “il buon Dio” (the good Lord).

Political scientist Cas Mudde rightly notes that the Lega’s promotion of a conservative form of Catholicism is intended to “reinforce the Lega’s self-promotion as the defender of western culture, civilisation, and ‘Judeo-Christian’ identity against Islam”.

A similar strategy was deployed by Orbán, when he met Andrzej Duda, the far right president of Poland, in May, and stated, “I am convinced that by working together, we can contribute to preserving Europe’s Christian heritage, to strengthening the continent’s security and competitiveness, and to restarting our economies.”

Contradictions

But there are contradictions in the far right response too, with different political approaches emerging in some organisations, such as the Lega and the French RN.
The Covid-19 crisis pushed Italy to the brink of a national catastrophe. Salvini’s message was one of warning of the dangers of a pandemic mixed with anti-Chinese racism.

He was ridiculed by the governing parties, which accused him of exaggerating the dangers of Covid-19 and went to great lengths to downplay the crisis. Even in late February, Italy’s foreign minister insisted that it was perfectly safe for tourists and business people to visit the country.

Two of the regions most affected by the pandemic in Italy are Lombardy and Veneto. Attilio Fontana is the regional governor of Lombardy and Luca Zaia is his counterpart in Veneto – but both are Lega members. The governors adopted different responses to the pandemic: Fontana was widely criticised for his handling of the crisis, in which Lombardy has suffered significantly more deaths than any other region.

On the other hand, Zaia put in place a well coordinated programme of testing and tracing. There have been 1,500 coronavirus deaths in Veneto, compared with 14,000 in Lombardy, which has double the population.

Although other factors play a significant role in explaining the different death rates, there is a perception among many voters that Zaia’s strategy was crucial in keeping the death toll down. Zaia’s response to the pandemic and the EU’s failure to provide adequate medical aid for Italy have created a favourable political climate for the Lega.

But the failure to tackle the virus in Lombardy created a backlash against the party.

Le Pen and the RN have also followed two different approaches to the pandemic. At the beginning of the crisis Le Pen gave tentative support to French president Emmanuel Macron’s strategy, publicly stating that he was taking a sharp turn away from the EU and adopting a more nationalist orientation – all good from the RN’s viewpoint.

She also noted signs that the government was rejecting its ultra-neoliberal model of outsourcing and privatisation and was moving towards a more statist economic model.

Crashing

But this support for Macron’s strategy saw a dramatic fall for the RN in the polls, with Le Pen’s personal ratings crashing by 10 points in March. She then made a complete U-turn to openly challenge the government. By the end of March Le Pen was accusing the government of having failed to prepare for the crisis, in particular focusing on the lack of personal protective equipment.

French fascist Marine Le Pen wears a mask in a show of concern

She also claimed that the government was the “biggest purveyor of fake news”. With the French presidential elections less than two years away, the RN is attempting to tap into hostility to Macron’s pro-privatisation policies and his handling of the Covid-19 crisis.

In parts of Central Europe the far right has used the pandemic for huge power grabs. The most dramatic has taken place in Hungary, where Orbán has used the two-thirds majority of his far right Fidesz party in parliament and the Covid-19 crisis to introduce an emergency powers law that allows him to rule by decree – indefinitely. Overnight Orbán transformed himself from an authoritarian leader into a dictator.

The state now has the power to jail people for up to five years if they promote “false facts” about the virus or “interfere” with a quarantine or isolation order.

Orbán also wants to introduce a new law that will end gender recognition rights for trans people and will make it a legal requirement for passports and ID cards to revert to the sex of the holder at birth.

Election

Despite the pandemic and the opposition of all the major parties in Poland, the far right populist PiS government attempted to go ahead with a presidential election on 10 May. The election was never cancelled – yet no votes were counted. The government is also attempting to push through regressive legislation that would restrict sexual and reproductive health rights.

In 2016, Polish pro-choice campaigners organised wide-scale protests and strikes against government attacks on abortion provision. Now the government hopes the restrictions on the right to protest during the crisis will weaken resistance.

We have focused here on how the far right has responded to the Covid-19 crisis and the varied ways it is attempting to capitalise on the pandemic. But it is important to note that the socio-economic impact of the crisis has only just begun and will be with us for a long time to come. It is possible that the far right can come out of the crisis stronger and more entrenched, but this is far from certain.

The situation is fluid and contradictory. Trump is running high in most US opinion polls, but the soaring death rate in the US and even his infamous “bleach cure moment” shows he is vulnerable.

Bolsonaro faces three interrelated problems – a public health crisis, economic disaster and a corruption scandal. If media reports are to be believed he has lost the confidence of the army generals and there is a growing movement against him among sections of the working class and in the poverty stricken favelas.

Since the beginning of April, the proportion of Brazilians who want Bolsonaro to resign has gone up by 9 percentage points, to 46%. But around a third of Brazilians strongly support him.

A far right demonstrator in Ohio says no to safety masks but yes to guns… Pic credit: Paul Becker

Historically social, political and economic crises have provided the far right with fertile ground. This pandemic is no exception. The far right believes it can further energise its support. And the actions of far right populist leaders are giving a boost to fascist parties and have encouraged racism and violence.

But across the globe we are also witnessing great unease with many of the policies and strategies the far right is adopting. Far right politicians have faced a backlash from large sections of the electorate when they have implemented anti-scientific practices and promoted policies connected with eugenics.

And all far right governments have promoted economic recovery above the health of the nation – something that is unpopular among significant sections of the population.

What kind of world will emerge after the Covid-19 pandemic is contested territory. The success or failure of the far right will very much depend on the response of anti-racists and anti-fascists to this new situation.

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