Far-right extremists believe the intense uncertainty surrounding the outbreak of COVID-19 will aid their ability to recruit new members into their movement.
The pandemic has unleashed a feeling of collective anxiety about the economy, unemployment, public health and an uncertain future. The Trump administration’s inconsistent messaging has heaped more unpredictability onto an already formidable crisis.
The most extreme wing of white nationalists and neo-Nazis believes it is poised to take advantage of this confusion.
Over the past year, a faction referring to themselves as “accelerationists” has gained strength within the movement, united in their belief that our current globally connected, pluralistic society is irredeemable and “degenerate.” Society, this faction has argued, must be dismantled by bringing about “system collapse” – specifically through acts of violence that will accelerate its downfall. Only then, they believe, can they build an ethnonationalist society in its place. Accelerationists consider themselves the revolutionary vanguard of the white supremacist movement.
These far-right extremists are arguing that the pandemic, which has thrown into question the federal government’s ability to steer the nation through a crisis, supports their argument that modern society is headed toward collapse.
“We’ve been kind of calling this from day one. Even before day one. Long before the coronavirus,” a white supremacist who goes by “Joachim” said on a recent episode of Heelturn II, a podcast that is currently hosted on YouTube. “We’ve been talking about accelerationism, we’ve been talking about the fact that a complex society, a globalized world, it’s all very unsustainable. And the moment that the rubber really hits the road things start falling apart.”
While President Trump has garnered the support of some white supremacists, accelerationists view him as insufficiently extreme and generally incompetent. Though they have praised the president’s rhetoric – one white supremacist user on Telegram wrote that he was “fanning the flames of racial hatred by tripling down on calling it the Chinese Virus” – they have also used his inconsistent messaging about the virus to further breed distrust in democratic institutions. One accelerationist on Telegram last week wrote, “Remember when the government said it was contained?” in reference to the coronavirus, which had spread significantly since one of Trump advisors made that claim at the beginning of March. “That same government expects you to believe everything they say.”
Accelerationists hope the government botches their response to the virus. They hope the chaos will drive more people to become frustrated by the status quo and begin pushing for more extreme political positions, spark political unrest or even begin agitating for more revolutionary measures to upend the current political system. While they do hope to bring new people into their movement, they are also looking to further radicalize those already on the far right into accepting their more militant tactics.
“The Dow is at 19,173,” a far-right extremist posted on Telegram late last week. “Please Saint Corona, I want to beleive [sic] in you. Crash the system into the flood boards,” the post read, alluding to a white supremacist meme lionizing mass killers as “saints.” Another poster on the extremist-friendly platform lamented that if the government mandated a shelter-in-place order it would “flatten the curve not only for the disease, but also for acceleration.”
Extremists look to capitalize on uncertainty – and historically, they have benefited from moments of economic and political crisis. One study, conducted by three German economists in 2015, found that far-right political parties benefit the most from financial crashes. These parties give voters scapegoats to blame for economic precarity and hardships, including elites, immigrants and people of color. The study’s researchers found that while the boost in votes was largest for “New Right” populist parties, fascist and neo-Nazi parties benefited from financial crises as well.
While accelerationists openly embrace violence as a political tool, right now most appear content to watch the coronavirus crisis play out on its own. They, too, are sheltering in place and preparing to remain in quarantine. Some have noted that the situation seems to be escalating on its own, requiring no additional involvement on their part to move closer to a crisis point. “We don’t need to accelerate shit,” a white supremacist podcaster told his followers on Telegram. “It seems to be going plenty fast, thanks.”
Members of the extreme right believe that most white people are simply being pacified by modern conveniences. Only after these are taken away will they wake up to what accelerationists see as political truths. Among these is the idea that a “great replacement,” or a “white genocide,” is displacing white people while immigrants “invade” Western countries at the hands of “globalists” and Jews. Brenton Tarrant, who this week pleaded guilty to killing 51 people at two mosques last year in Christchurch, New Zealand, advanced this notion in his manifesto.
One Telegram user whose entire channel is devoted to COVID-19-related content quoted a relevant passage from the manifesto, adding mockingly: “Oh nooo the white normies. The White man has lost his savings, job, & now he has no food. His bread and circuses have been canceled. What a terrible thing he has nothing left to lose. No more peaceful status quo.”
White supremacist extremists hope to harness people’s fear and distrust of the government in order to draw in new recruits and encourage those already supportive of their cause to organize better. On his podcast, “Joachim” noted that many people who identify with white supremacist ideology are not organized into a formal group or network, but this crisis may provide the impetus they need. “Everyone’s like, ‘Holy shit, they put the state of California on lockdown – this whole thing is coming down,’ [and] you’re seeing a lot of people transition from these hypothetical what ifs to ‘Hey, I need to find my homies locally that are capable of surviving it.’”
“Even normal people are starting to think that way,” his cohost, who goes by the pseudonym “SoCo,” added.
That uneasiness is something they hope will work in their favor.
“We’ve definitely entered uncharted waters. And the fact that we don’t trust the government at all … do you think that there's a lot of other people who do trust the government? I don’t,” neo-Nazi Paul Nehlen, who was a guest on the show, noted.
“Joachim” said he was pleased that “this accelerationist perspective, which has left us on the fringe for so long, seems to be being pretty broadly embraced by just about everybody.”
He continued: “You’re seeing the media’s telling people to freak out. You’re seeing just average people who are not politically active or are relatively moderate and all this kind of stuff, and theyre talking about the collapse of society. And it’s like, oh, that’s pretty cool.”
Photo illustration by SPLC