At the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, denial was the default response from the political right. Donald Trump derided it as a “hoax”. Brazil’s president Jair Bolsonaro scorned the “hysteria” over a “little flu”. In Italy, Matteo Salvini urged people to go on holiday, in defiance of social distancing advice from the World Health Organisation.
The denial has often been tacit. While coronavirus spread across India, Narendra Modi was silent for weeks. The British government argued that the risk of the virus to the UK was “low”, and declined to prepare for lockdown or to implement a full programme of testing, tracing and isolation.
Most governments now reject Covid-19 denialism. Nonetheless, it has inspired far-right groups, and sparked protests against lockdowns, from Michigan to Melbourne.
Why was denialism the reflex of the nationalist right? It makes commercial sense for the Koch family – billionaire libertarians threatened by a more regulated capitalism – to be against the suspension of economic life. But it is not the obvious position for authoritarian, anti-immigrant nationalists to take. The pandemic demands unprecedented restrictions, border controls and surveillance. It offers popularity to any government that takes control of the situation.
Indeed, before the pandemic, nationalists thrived on a fantasy of catastrophe: “white genocide”, immigration “invasion”, “communist” takeover. But faced with a real disaster, they have stumbled.
This is not for want of human enemies to scapegoat. Epidemics are fecund ground for conspiracism. In the Middle Ages, disease was blamed on Jews. In the 19th century, it was blamed on elites. In early American outbreaks of Spanish flu in 1918, rumours blamed it on a German plot. Today, it is Chinese people.
But far from cohering against a new enemy, the hard right is incoherent. Trump swerves between disinformation and exhortations to “liberate” states under lockdown. Boris Johnson urges people to return to work – without explaining how this can be done safely – all the while enforcing lockdown and continuing furlough schemes. Even Bolsonaro is sounding more petulant than defiant. Challenged by the media about Brazil’s soaring death rates, he huffs: “So what? What do you want me to do?”
This incoherence is only partly hidden by Covid-19 jingoism – the invocation of warlike nationalism to fight the pandemic.
Denial is often a form of affirmation. Alongside those who belittle the seriousness of the pandemic are those who admit it’s serious, but suggest that we die for the economy anyway. As Bolsonaro put it, “I’m sorry, some people will die, they will die, that’s life. You can’t stop a car factory because of traffic deaths.”
There have been subtler versions of this argument. Johnson never asked us to die for capitalism. But his government did urge the nation to “take [Covid-19] on the chin” while the medical evidence suggested that such insouciance could kill 500,000 people. The government initially refused to shut schools, citing the claim that a four-week closure would cut 3 per cent off GDP growth.
As Bolsonaro’s example suggests, governments routinely trade off lives for economic growth. Why stop now? This contemporary denialism is ideologically similar to the social Darwinism and class contempt that, as the historian Richard J Evans shows in Death in Hamburg, led to 10,000 deaths in 19th-century Hamburg from an outbreak of cholera.
But the desire to end the lockdown for economic reasons does not explain another significant right-wing trend. This is the emergence of the so-called “Branch Covidians” – those cultish figures on the American right risking death for “liberty” – who are protesting lockdowns.
There is a tendency to dismiss anti-lockdown gatherings as campaigns entirely bought and procured by rich businessmen. In the US, this idea has some truth. Denialists, 5G conspiracists, Trump fan-clubs, evangelicals and militias have enjoyed the financial backing of the American Legislative Exchange Council and even elements of the Trump White House.
In some respects, this anti-lockdown coalition resembles the ultra-conservative, anti-establishment Tea Party movement, which also received lobby money. The slogans, equating social distancing with communism, recall the paranoid vigilantism of that earlier movement. The threats to journalists, and calls to “hang” Anthony Fauci (head of the US’s coronavirus task force) recall its violent rhetoric.
However, the lockdown protesters are acting out of their own convictions. As the Harvard-based sociologist Theda Skocpol has argued, the nationalist far right is a grassroots affair. When rich patrons offer financial support, their role is to mobilise existing networks of activists.
But the concerns of lockdown protesters are not the same as their sponsors. They care less about the economy, as the New York Times delicately put it, than about “ideology”: a polite term for the toxic stew of racism and conspiracism underpinning the movement.
The desire to end lockdowns and restart economies has brought the far right and neoliberals together. This intellectual and political alliance is based on a deep suspicion of “society”; or what the political theorist Wendy Brown calls “sociophobia”. It is why, according to the anti-lockdown slogan, “social distancing = communism”, because social distancing represents a form of social solidarity.
The coalition of Covid-19 denial remains limited. Most nationalist voters support lockdown. But that could change. Test results suggest that only a small number of people around the world have been infected by coronavirus. That means more waves of infection are likely, and therefore further lockdowns. Every month of lockdown cuts growth, adds to unemployment and risks industrial scarring.
Many people are struggling, with little support. On the nationalist right, some of the ingredients are already there for back-to-work denialism. Unless a new economic model is found, the risk is that life under the pandemic will supply the rest.
This article appears in the 03 Jun 2020 issue of the New Statesman, We can't breathe