Jonathan Neale writes: One of the puzzling and enraging things about the covid pandemic is the anti-maskers and anti-vaxxers in the United States, Britain, and more widely. And then there are the other forms of covid denial – ‘It’s only the flu’, ‘It’s not real’, ‘There are no cases in hospital’, ‘Herd immunity will save us’.
Many people explain this by saying those other people are mad, deluded, stupid, paranoid, the victims of the internet and conspiracy theories. Or by saying it’s a mystery why they do that. I want to present a political explanation. It comes from some thinking Nancy Lindisfarne and I have been doing about big lies and fascist movements.
[First published at The Ecologist on 27 Jan 2021]
It is hard to miss that all the anti-maskers and the covid liars have been led by Donald Trump and are strongest in the United States. But they are here too in the UK. Nancy and I have been thinking particularly about Trump’s lies, and how big lies have served his project.
Trump’s movement, and his electoral base, were built on a balancing act. He could not have been elected without mass support from working class white people. Working class people of all races have had a hard time in the United States in the last 40 years, and that has got much worse in the last 12. Ordinary people of all races are angry in the United States, as well they might be.
There is also general agreement that there is something very badly wrong with the country.Moreover, neoliber al America has become steadily more and more unequal over the last forty years. That can be measured in income inequality. But it is also measured in suffering, and in the open contempt of so many of the well educated and wealthy for the losers, the fat, the smokers, the people ‘left behind’.
The dispute among working class people is about who to hate. Trump’s answer has been that white workers should hate black people, Mexicans and the elites who run the country.
There is a lot of debate on the left, and among journalists, about whether Trump’s movement is just racist or maybe articulates the class bitterness of the people left behind. There is a parallel debate about Brexit in Britain. The answer is that Trump’s movement is both.
Of course it is not just Trump. The racist right in the US had been growing long before Trump hitched his wagon to it. And the evil genius of this movement has been to meld bitterness against elites with racism to form one integrated set of ideas.
In practice, the balance is different for different people in the movement, and at different times. Many people voted for Brexit mainly because it was against immigrants, many to protest the elites and austerity, and many others for both reasons.
But there is a contradiction in the racist right. It is a movement against elites led by people who want to make the world better for elites. That explains why people like Trump have to tell big lies.
Enter conspiracy theories. People often write about conspiracy theories as if they are the original sin, the prime mover. Sometimes, for some people, yes. But in general it is the Big Lie that requires the Big Conspiracy.
For example, Trump kept denying the reality of the threat from Covid. But an enormous amount of public evidence has piled up that many people have died from Covid, many more have become ill, and that masks help some and vaccinations will help a great deal. The only way to explain all that and still preserve the lie is to say that there is a gigantic conspiracy to conceal the truth.
The Big Lie and conspiracy theories have worked in the same way in many times and places for the new Racist Right, and the classic fascists before them.
It’s why conspiracy theories about Jewish domination have been, and remain today, so important to fascists. The fascists tell their followers that they are against all elites, and yet they govern with and for the ruling class. So they invent a fantasy Jewish elite, who are not the actual ruling capitalist elite. And then they blame the Jews.
Again, Trump needed a Big Lie to explain why he could not accept that he had lost the election. But that Big Lie could not make sense unless there had been a conspiracy by tens of thousands of local election workers, lawyers and journalists.
Trump knew from the beginning how serious Covid would be. We know that because he told the journalist Bob Woodward so. But, as I said last March in The Ecologist, he was also afraid of the economic consequences of the pandemic. An economic recession was already on the horizon. To stop Covid he would have to lock down.
At that point the economic argument for doing nothing about Covid looked strong. Trump was facing an election at the end of the year, and he was sure that if the economy slumped, he would lose the election. In this he was right.
But Trump could not say that to the people who voted for him. There was a hard core who might have accepted his argument. Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick of Texas, for example, told Fox News in March that older people would rather die than hurt the US economy.
Patrick was widely ridiculed. Trump was not so stupid as to say that. Many of Trump’s voters were elders. Some were very heavy, others had diabetes, some had COPD. Many had parents and grandparents. They did not want to die, and they did not want the people they loved to die. They might be racists. But almost all of them found the idea that the people they loved should die to save Wall Street a moral abomination.
One of the tricks of the far right is that they say they only want to hurt black people, or Muslims, or immigrants or gays. But in practice their policies hurt all working-class people. It’s divide and rule, and white working class racists get ruled too.
Enter the big lie. Instead of being frank about his personal ambitions and saving the economy, Trump refused to wear a mask. Trump said Covid was just like the flu. He said it would be gone by next month, that there were various miracle cures, that it was all a panic. His strong supporters started to organise on the internet and on the streets against masks and against vaccinations.
People who had had their kids vaccinated against measles and polio and smallpox, suddenly discovered and popularised the arguments of the middle-class anti-vaxxers. People who would have been outraged if the surgeon had not worn a mask each time they had an operation, now said that masks were a violation of their freedom.
In the service of Trump’s government, in support of police forces who killed black people with impunity, they argued that their liberty was at stake.
Trump’s refusal to wear a mask was a key signal. Covid was not real, or it did not matter.
It was crazy to believe that. But for many people who had supported Trump, who had argued for him with their friends, who had voted for him, it was easier to believe that lie than to accept that Trump would let the people they love die for the sake of the corporations and the bankers.
Moreover – and this is very important – Trump supporters were responsible for their opinions and their loyalties to people who knew them, and to people who loved them.
Yet as the virus spread, and perhaps their grandmother got sick, or their father, their workmate, their neighbour or their brother-in-law. Even if they believed the economic argument, to say so in these situations would be make themselves pariahs. Even as the evidence accumulated, they were under pressure to double down on the lie.
There is good news here, though. First, even hard core Trumpers live in families and communities where there is a basic accepted morality about life and death. That’s why they have to believe lies.
Second, lies and conspiracy theories reflect an important weakness in the movements of the racist right. Reality is a powerful force, and it constantly pushes its way through the cracks of denial. We are winning the arguments against Covid denial and climate denial.