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IN MORE THAN 30 of America’s 50 state capitals angry crowds have been gathering to protest against stay-at-home orders. Buoyed by tweets from President Donald Trump encouraging them to “liberate” their states, some even compare their elected officials to the Nazis. A few among them toting assault weapons are dressed incongruously in Hawaiian shirts. They might seem almost comical were it not for the fact that, in the fetid corners of the internet, such beachwear is recognised as the uniform of the extreme right.
The extreme right is making good use of the pandemic. A fractious movement by nature, its followers have responded to covid-19 in many ways besides displays of brash shirts and guns. They have carried out Zoom-bombings (ie, interrupting video-conference meetings), encouraged others to infect police officers and Jews and sought to disrupt government activities, including New York City’s 311 line for non-emergency information and National Guard operations.
Some have even come perilously close to committing deadly acts of terrorism. In March a man with ties to neo-Nazi groups was killed in a shootout with FBI officers who were attempting to arrest him for planning to bomb a hospital in Missouri. Though he had been planning the attack for some time and had considered a variety of targets, the outbreak of covid-19 persuaded him to strike a hospital to gain extra publicity.
The spreading of conspiracy theories is central to the extreme right’s activities. Some claim the virus is a hoax. Others blame the Chinese, the Jews or even Bill Gates. Some claim that the federal government is using the virus as a pretext to confiscate weapons and enforce “medical martial law”. Extremists also spread more familiar conspiracy theories, decrying 5G networks and vaccinations, which help introduce the uninitiated to their ideology.
Lockdowns fit this recruitment agenda. Stuck at home with money running short, people might become “more receptive to these movements”, warns Joshua Fisher-Birch, of the Counter-Extremism Project, an NGO. The far right is making use of online platforms such as Facebook, Gab and Telegram to spread its message to this captive audience. They use an ever-changing litany of memes, ranging from George Washington dressed as one of their ranks to Ronald McDonald with a machine gun on his lap. They also have a significant presence in the online gaming world, which helps them attract young recruits.
A closer look at the far right’s beliefs helps explain why extremists have been energised by America’s new reality. Three related ideas—white supremacy, the “boogaloo” and “accelerationism”—are particularly suited to the coronavirus crisis.
The most familiar of these is white supremacy. Its adherents exploit the virus’s geographical origins to drum up racial antipathy towards Chinese people. Anti-semites have been accusing Jews of deliberately spreading plagues ever since the Black Death, and covid-19 gives them a chance to reuse the template. The supremacists thus use fears about “white genocide” to argue for closed borders and eventually a white ethno-state. “Open borders is the virus,” declares one protest sticker placed on road signs.
Some white supremacists are also among those who style themselves as “Boogaloo Boys” or “Boojahdeen”. This refers to a belief in an imminent “boogaloo”: an armed insurrection against the American government, a race war, or both. The term is ultimately (and tortuously) derived from “Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo”, a film about breakdancing, made in 1984, which was a near-copy of its precursor, “Breakin’”. Boogaloo boys style the forthcoming war as a repeat of the American civil war. The Hawaiian shirts that dot the crowds are a reference to “the big luau”, another name for the “boogaloo”, which celebrates pig (police) roasts. (A luau is a traditional Hawaiian feast.)
Prolific practitioners of “memetic warfare” and fond of merchandising, the white supremacists’ primary objective is to recruit, especially among members of America’s armed forces. Their online forums are filled with information on how to 3D-print guns and make napalm. The “boogaloo boys” have repeatedly claimed that particular events will trigger their apocalyptic vision (a gun-rights rally in January, for example, was supposed to lead to mass confiscations by the state of Virginia, sparking civil war). But the social dislocation that has accompanied covid-19 lends a veneer of credibility to these fantasies; some extremists predict that “things will begin to implode” as early as the autumn. “Boog is coming boys. Get prepping,” declares one message in a far-right Telegram channel.
Protests against stay-at-home orders provide an opportunity to spread both of these beliefs. The vast majority of people in attendance are ordinary Americans. But demonstrations decrying over-reach by the state also tend to draw radical libertarians, militiamen and Second Amendment die-hards who worry that lockdowns will lead to tyranny and the confiscation of firearms. Extremists think these groups are susceptible to their more radical ideology. The New Jersey European Heritage Association, a white-supremacist group, has been spotted as far away as Florida handing out propaganda. Press reports lumping ordinary protesters in with the extreme right may also help to create a general sense of grievance on which extremists can prey.
But it is the third idea, accelerationism, that is best placed to spread during the pandemic. Accelerationism is a strange marriage of Marxism and neo-Nazism. The idea is that the internal contradictions of the economic and political order will cause it to collapse. From the ruins, the extreme right can create its “nation built on blood and soil”. They see the virus both as evidence of accelerationism’s truth and an excellent opportunity to hasten the system’s demise. Followers act alone or organise themselves into decentralised terrorist cells, encouraging any act that will “accelerate” this breakdown (an idea borrowed from Lenin). These include the spreading of disinformation and conspiracy theories, attacks on infrastructure (such as that on New York’s 311 line) and lone-wolf terrorism. The would-be hospital bomber was a believer. So were the gunmen who attacked mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, and a synagogue in Poway, California, last year.
The publicity drive seems to be working, even if the extremists’ numbers are still small. Moonshot CVE, an organisation that monitors extremism online, reports that in America the average number of daily searches related to white supremacy (eg, links to extremist literature or the coded language of the far right) rose from 1,475 between June 2019 and February 2020 to 2,024 between March 30th and April 28th. Far-right Telegram and Facebook groups have grown larger during lockdown. The pandemic “is their coming-out party”, says Colin Clarke of the Soufan Center, an NGO that researches into extremism. “This is going to be a watershed moment for a lot of these groups in terms of recruitment”.
But for the far right, the aim is not recruitment for its own sake: “the purpose of propaganda is to push people towards action”, as one neo-Nazi puts it on Telegram. And as demonstrated by the murderous attacks in Christchurch and Poway, and the killing spree by Anders Breivik, another right-wing extremist, in Oslo in 2011, even lone actors can wreak terrible havoc.
Yet America’s federal government has so far been slow to take on domestic right-wing extremism. Granted, on April 6th, for the first time the State Department labelled a white-supremacist organisation—the Russian Imperial Movement (RIM)—as a terrorist group. “This administration isn’t just talking the talk,” the department declared. “We’re walking the walk.” But this is a largely symbolic first step. Although the RIM has some links to the American far right, its official status, “specially designated global terrorist”, is fairly lowly. It gives the government the power to impose financial sanctions; the higher status of “Foreign Terrorist Organisation” would criminalise providing the group with “material support or resources”, though even this designation can be applied only to foreign organisations.
Congress is also considering several bills to improve the federal government’s ability to combat domestic terrorism. But all too often the fight is left to local law-enforcement officers, who rarely understand extreme-right groups and their methods. While the nation’s attention is fixed on the coronavirus, another disease is spreading.