American neo-Nazi Timothy Wilson started building a bomb in mid-March. He planned to attack a Missouri hospital treating COVID-19 patients to accelerate the spread of the disease and invite social chaos, which he figured could be exploited to usher in a new world order of fascist ethno-states.
Wilson’s plan was stymied by the authorities after he was killed at his home in a shoot-out with FBI officers. But the incident is emblematic of a growing current of thought within the far-right around the world. According to a US Federal Protective Service intelligence brief, there has even been discussion in neo-Nazi forums about spreading the disease among migrant communities by “coughing on doorknobs”.
In the fevered imagination of neo-Nazis, white supremacists and eco-fascists, the virus is an opportunity. For some, like US shock jock Alex Jones, the crisis is a financial opportunity. His Infowars online store is doing a roaring trade in bogus anti-virals and “survival food”. For others, the opportunity is more political. Simon Lindberg, for example, leader of the neo-Nazi “Nordic Resistance Movement” in Sweden, wrote on the movement’s website that COVID-19 “might be precisely what we need in order to bring about a real national uprising and a strengthening of revolutionary political forces”.
Far-right activists are promoting the narrative that the pandemic is the fault of the left, of migration and of social liberalism. They are silent on the role of industrial food production, underfunded health care systems, and cities plagued by poverty and class divisions – so their narrative gels with some of the ideas being pushed by the rulers of capitalism, who are doing everything in their power to deflect any blame for the crisis.
There is a symbiotic relationship between fascist groups and right-wing populist political leaders such as Donald Trump. The Southern Poverty Law Centre, which studies far-right groups in the United States, estimates that white supremacist organisations have grown by 55 percent since Trump’s election. On COVID-19, Trump has been leading the way in deflecting blame and drumming up racism. He has on many occasions referred to it as “the Chinese virus”, and racist attacks on Chinese Americans have, predictably, followed.
Initially, Trump and many other right-wing politicians and commentators indulged in COVID-19 scepticism. Trump criminally downplayed the threat of the virus for months. Right up to the end of March, when the number of cases of the virus in the US was already rocketing into the tens of thousands, Trump was heaping scorn on those calling for a rapid escalation of social distancing measures to help slow the spread. In one tweet, from late March, Trump complained: “The LameStream Media is the dominant force in trying to get me to keep our Country closed as long as possible in the hope that it will be detrimental to my election success”.
Trump’s political ally, Brazil’s far-right president Jair Bolsonaro, continues to talk about the virus as a “little flu” and a trifling “cold”. In Australia, Pauline Hanson has also downplayed the severity of the illness, despite at one point fearing her daughter had contracted it. She calls social distancing measures “over the bloody top”.
In some instances, this initial COVID-19 scepticism has rapidly transformed into concern over the virus and the introduction of some strict social distancing measures. In many cases, however, these measures have been enacted by far-right governments with accompanying attacks on democracy, severe crackdowns on civil liberties and, in some cases, outright violence, rather than with humanity and care.
In Hungary, prime minister Victor Orbán has suspended democracy. He can now rule by decree for an indefinite period. In Poland, legislators are attempting to push through laws that stop doctors from criticising the performance of the health care system. In India, police and soldiers, under orders from president Narendra Modi, have been humiliating and brutalising those who don’t adhere to stay at home orders and curfews. The COVID-19 crisis has hit the country in the wake of a huge uptick in state sponsored anti-Muslim racism, and the virus has given licence for more racist violence. Footage from the southern state of Karnataka, for instance, showed police waiting outside a mosque and beating worshippers with sticks as they left.
The COVID-19 pandemic and associated economic crisis have intensified the existing ills of capitalist society. The far-right is hoping to turn the situation to its advantage – to push the world further down the path of barbaric inequality, racist division and extreme authoritarianism buttressed by violent repression. Fascists and the far-right have historically built their forces in times of crisis. We need a strong revolutionary left to counter them.