Editorial: The End Is the Beginning Is the End: Conspiracies and the Right in a Post-pandemic World, by Brandon J. Cordeiro

Brandon J. Cordeiro

I am tired. It feels like the pandemic has lasted an eternity, yet it also feels like we have not moved forward. The pandemic has us running on a hamster wheel. We are moving but motionless, seemingly engaged in a Sisyphean struggle. It’s exhausting.

The deeper we go into this pandemic, the more difficult it seems to be to remember a time before Covid-19. It’s hard to remember all the different ways the pandemic has altered our lives. There were the big changes: lockdowns, the implosion of economic activity, political tensions, riots, mass deaths in seniors’ homes and hospitals, and many more disturbing events. But Covid-19’s smaller impacts had just as much influence on our lives. Covid-19 made us all operate differently. It made us question our everyday lives and, sometimes, even our habits of thought. It rendered the ordinary into the strange and even the dangerous.

Even more: the pandemic made us question our values and our social order. As the pandemic found the flaws in our social institutions, people from both the left and the right challenged a neoliberal order predicated on the conventional liberal triad of liberty, formal equality, and property, supplemented since the 1970s by governments reconceived as facilitators of globalized market relations.

“Left” and “right,” once commonsensical terms for relatively well-defined tendencies, often seemed more perplexing than clarifying in the pandemic. In what sense, for example, was it a “left” position to advocate the imposition from above of harsh lockdowns – when the chief victims of any such development, in societies with shredded social safety nets, were bound to be the working people for whom the left traditionally has sought to speak?[1]

This political tension is playing out, online and in real life, as politicians and everyday people draw political lines. Particularly worrisome are the radicals and extremists who see opportunity in our disorder. Fascist and white-nationalist groups are on the rise, as are instances of political and racial violence. Livestreams and videos show countless confrontations between fascists and antifa members at events and protests across the world. Indeed, post-pandemic society may be ordered socially and politically different. What that new order will look like has yet to be discovered. The terms of reconstruction remain unclear.

These tensions are not new phenomena. They have been building for the last decade. The 2008 financial crisis decimated society and sparked new questions about the liberal order. While the twenty-teens saw economic growth and a measure of recovery, they also witnessed untold class disparities and an enveloping planetary environmental crisis. Identity politics became mainstream. Reality TV, Twitter and a host of other social media platforms, and the decline of public education, combined to create a culture addicted to sensationalism and instant gratification. Politics more than ever became theatre – filtered down to sound bites and tweets.

The very idea of reality came to be contested. Fake news, misinformation, twitter bots, deep fakes, and journalistic superficiality all infected social and political discourse. Pundits of all stripes crossed the line between journalism and theatre. And online echo chambers, fueled by the social media platform’s algorithms, allowed misinformation to spread. Amy Fried and Douglas B. Harris describe this practice as the “weaponizing of distrust.”[2]

Such long-brewing changes became painfully obvious during the pandemic. Few times in recent memory has information been questioned with such vitriol. Consensus in the internet age seems a chimera. To every person their own ‘facts.’

The dangers of this transformation are real. The past few years has seen an increase in violent social and political altercations. Stoked by larger civil unrest and economic instability, by greater fear and anxiety, and by conceived threats of disorder, people are clashing, even physically clashing, in the name of politics.

Covid-19 created a vacuum of disorder and chaos and fostered questions and disbelief in the system. More than ever, people questioned democracy, freedom, science, education, and even the legitimacy of the state. Backed by a clearinghouse of anti-establishment ‘facts,’ right-wing politics has contrived an alternate reality to fit their agenda. The cry of ‘Fake News’ became a cover-all against any and all criticisms. Rightists then developed a multitude of arguments and conspiracies against Covid-19, vaccines, and the pandemic itself.

Moreover, the pandemic has further driven the factionalism of right-wing politics around the world. Populists, nationalists, conspiracy theorists and crypto-fascists have successfully embedded themselves within mainstream politics. In a time when the liberal economic order stands in disarray, argue Tamir Bar-On and Barbara Molas in a recent study, “increasing fear and uncertainty generated by restrictive lockdowns and isolation have been used by the radical right globally to advance their political agendas in unprecedented ways.”[3]

Covid-19 was not the reason for the emergence of the far right, but it did ignite new anger and energy within its base. Right-wing politics has, since the 2008 financial crisis, evolved and splintered into new forms. As working-class people lost jobs, homes, and savings, they looked for answers. Rightists provided them, or so it might have seemed. Stronger borders, more military spending, protection of industry – here were some of the themes of the new right.

Post-internet politics fueled the fires of this new political rhetoric. Sound bites and tweets have far-reaching influence in the new political era. Political divisions have intensified. If politics has always been theatre, never has such discourse felt so constant and intense. Pundits like Tucker Carlson have even argued in court that any “reasonable viewer ‘arrive[s] with an appropriate amount of skepticism’ about the statements [Carlson] makes.”[4] News channels began prioritizing entertainment and ratings over providing accurate news. At times they came to seem like propaganda arms of political parties. All the while, people continued to tune-in to the sideshow, enjoying politics as kayfabe, the satisfying pantomime of the commercialized wrestling world, which tellingly engaged Donald Trump himself in 2007. 

Outside of traditional media, the online world has become a battleground for political and economic debate. It is now the crude twenty-first-century equivalent of the eighteenth-century salon. The wrestling matches there between leftists and rightists proceed non-stop. Everyone – famous pundits, ambitious politicians, and anonymous profilers – is after the knock-out blow, the decisive retort, the crushing rebuke. Courtesy has largely vanished, as have reasoned arguments and a willingness to listen to opposing viewpoints.

This intensified political moment is being energized by a confluence of conspiracy theories. Donovan Schaefer describes our time as their “golden age.” He argues that “confronting conspiracy theories requires understanding the feelings that make them so appealing.” People are drawn to them because such frameworks provide them a sense of being ‘in the know’ or having access to ‘alternative facts.’ There are also those who see them as elements in an elaborate game: decoding subliminal messages, symbols, and gestures in everything offers them solace and amusement in a disquieting time.[5]

Some conspiracy aficionados focus on “the Great Reset.” They think a global elite (exemplified by the World Economic Forum) are preparing for a monumental event that will usher in a new social-economic order.[6] Such conspiracy theorists see slogans like “Build Back Better” and “Green New Deal” as code for a socialist/globalist revolution, even the beginnings of a new version of the Communist International.

Another notable conspiracy theory has been QAnon, which has intensified the atmosphere of weaponized doubt like few other social forces. Q – the mysterious online entity that began this movement – purportedly leaves cryptic messages that expose how the elites are part of occult, sometimes satanic rituals. Many of these conspiracies involve accusations of kidnapping, pedophilia, and infanticide. Hollywood, academia, and the liberal elite are allegedly all part of a cabal of abuse. More recently, QAnon members attempted to decode messages of when President Trump would return to the White House and re-assume the Presidency. In November 2021, other QAnon members rallied in Dallas, Texas awaiting the resurrection of the late John F. Kennedy Jr., whom they believed would return as Trump’s running-mate. John John, unfortunately, did not show up.[7] Many Q followers attended the 6 January Capitol Riots, including the ‘QAnon Shaman,’ who brought along his furs and bison horns. In Canada, the Freedom Convoy, generously funded by American rightists and also well-populated with conspiracy theorists, occupied Ottawa for just over one month. Some protesters called for the dissolution of Parliament; others demanded that the Governor General force Mr. Trudeau out.[8]

We have seen other forms of conspiracy theory evolve out of the far right. Most notably, science and medicine has been attacked. Anti-vaxx sentiments challenge Big Pharma, state-mandated vaccines, and vaccine passports (equated with Chinese-style authoritarianism.) Sickness, science and the state intersect in this way of imagining the pandemic. Their combination portends, on this reading, the end of individual liberty. Others focus on vaccines said to contain microchips and 5G technologies for tracking citizens. Although the anti-vaxx movement began well before Covid-19, the pandemic has influenced many more people to question modern medicine, and rightists have scoured medical journals and articles in search of dissension.

This complex of conspiracies – Q-Anon, antivaxxers, not to mention those propounded in the US by the pervasively influential religious right – makes it more difficult to approach the new far right with one formula. Right-wing politics has moved from Reaganism, through the ‘Compassionate Conservatism’ of George W. Bush and through the libertarian anti-tax ideology of the Tea-Party movement, into untested and choppy political waters. Flavoured with twenty-first century populism, the new far-right is a carnival midway of conspiracies, with varying sideshows and plenty of grifters.

Yet the carnivalesque air of contemporary rightism should not obscure its deadly seriousness. Membership in white-nationalist groups and right-wing militias has been steadily increasing. Groups like the Proud Boys, the Oath Keepers, the Soldiers of Odin, and the Boogaloo Boys began recruiting people, mostly young, alienated white men. Online forums and social media websites gave extremist groups visibility and the ability to find each other. Many groups promote the “Great Replacement Theory” and promote xenophobic beliefs like limiting immigration and disenfranchising non-whites.[9] These groups use symbols and codes not only to identify themselves amongst others but also to clandestinely display their messages of hate in public. Others blatantly decorate themselves in fascist regalia. Many members have police or military backgrounds, which makes their rise all the more alarming. Speed, violence, military, power, and the reclamation of a folk identity: there are echoes here of Italian futurism of the 1920s, and more than a few analysts have raised the spectre of fascism.[10]

Even Clio has been challenged by the fake news era. Right-wing pundits and think-thanks have gone on the offensive to discredit historiographical approaches that challenge conventional narratives. In both the US and Britain, rightists have attacked efforts to examine the consequences of slavery and colonialism.[11] Statue wars have erupted around the world. As Alex von Tunzelmann writes in Fallen Idols, “right-wing Republican and Conservative administrations took [statues] as an opportunity to stoke a ‘culture war.’ They positioned themselves as the champions of American and British Civilization: the last defense against barbarism and ‘political correctness.’”[12] What might seem from one perspective a welcome revision to received historical wisdom, subject to the normal give-and-take of debate in a democratic society, seems to a rightist like an attempt by an amorphous group of “cultural Marxists” to destroy Western culture altogether.

Events like the Capitol Riots and the Ottawa Trucker Convoy should not be taken lightly. Not only were they co-ordinated attempts to overthrow democracy, but they highlight new frontiers in our political experience and suggest a future of greater civil and political unrest. It would be the wishful thinking of tired people to imagine the rightists behind such movements are soon going to exit the stage. They seem anything but exhausted.

As Nils Ringe and Lucio Rennó suggest, Covid-19 exposed some of the contradictions and fallacies of far-right governments: “On the one hand, populists tend to thrive in times of crisis…On the other hand, the nature of a public health crisis such as the Covid-19 pandemic may conflict with basic features of populism and standard populist approaches to crisis politics…”[13] In the United States, the pandemic threatened President Trump’s image as a strong leader. Brazil’s strongman Jair Bolsonaro, who himself contracted a serious case of the virus, continued to downplay Covid-19’s risks, while the pandemic brutalized Brazil. Other places, like India, offered more demonstrations of the difficulties confronting authoritarian rightists in power. Teun van Dongen and Eviane Leidig’s study of right-wing responses to the pandemic finds that “while some groups and individuals have seized upon the opportunity to protest against government restrictions, such as in the case of US, Germany, UK, Australia, and Belgium, on the other end of the spectrum, the extreme right in India have actively taken steps to enforce government mandates on lockdowns, mask wearing, and social distancing.”[14]

Other rightists see the pandemic as an opportunity to fulfill right-wing policies and to assume power in the vacuum of a crisis. Alain de Benoist, founding member of the Nouvelle Droite (New Right) party in France, presents an essay for the philosophy journal Telos in which he writes that “the health crisis is ringing (provisionally?) the death knell of globalization and the hegemonic ideology of progress…This is not the end of the world, but it is the end of a world.”[15] Others, like Pierre Poilievre in Canada, seemingly influenced by the same ideas, proposes cryptocurrency and the comeuppance of “political elites.”[16]

Why is the far right gaining traction? In part, because its supporters and intellectuals are appealing to widespread fears and hatreds in time-honoured, atavistic fashion. But the movement’s opponents should also realize that it has seized on genuine issues. The “neoliberal end of history” has not gone well. It has offered an unstable and unforgiving world for working people. The pandemic has worsened the plight of many of its victims. Their future, as governments inevitably invoke austerity measures and the claw-back of pandemic protections, is highly uncertain. Rightists offer them something that looks like a solution to their problems.

The quandary confronting those who oppose the right is to somehow re-set the parameters within which such debates are taking place. Fake news, misinformation, conspiracy theories, and talking points have distorted how we conduct ourselves in the salon. Yet name-calling, public shaming, sloganeering and the left’s own versions of conspiracy theory merely add fuel to this toxic fire. Debate comes to be whittled down to baseless claims, what-about-ism, and personal attacks.

These issues will only be further compounded as new crises challenge global patterns. Catastrophic climate events, for example, will influence supply chains, food crops, migration patterns, and job opportunities. The global advent of monkeypox suggests that the scope for further pandemics has grown. The outbreak of a major war in Europe offers more evidence of destabilization. It does seem, often, like the end of a world.

Combatting this new right requires new thinking and understanding about how we arrived at this moment. If we are to survive this era in one piece, we will need to grasp that our current social order is crumbling and must, somehow, be transformed. Only then can we re-imagine ourselves in a new, less exhausting time.

We are all tired. Giving up in exhaustion, though, would likely mean a future even bleaker than the present. The future should not be consigned to the conspirators. Weary as we are, the stakes are too high for that. Only through perseverance and self-discipline, and a coherent strategy, can we imagine something better than their bleak dystopia. As Albert Camus remarked: “One must imagine Sisyphus happy.”[17]

[1] A question raised powerfully by Nora Loreto in her interview in this issue.

[2] See Amy Fried and Douglas B. Harris, At War with Government How Conservatives Weaponized Distrust from Goldwater to Trump (New York: Columbia University Press, 2021).

[3] See Tamir Bar-On and Barbara Molas, Responses to the COVID-19 Pandemic by the Radical Right (New York: Columbia University Press, 2020), 22.

[4] “A judge uses Tucker Carlson’s own words against Fox News,” The Washington Post, 9 March 2022. https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/2022/03/09/judge-uses-tucker-carlsons-own-words-against-fox-news/

[5] Donovan Schaefer, “Buying into conspiracy theories can be exciting – that’s what makes them dangerous,” Salon, 6 July 2022. https://www.salon.com/2022/07/06/buying-into-conspiracy-theories-can-be-exciting–thats-what-makes-them_partner/.

[6] See Klaus Shwab and Thierry Malleret, Covid-19: The Great Reset (Geneva: World Economic Forum, 2020).

[7] “QAnon Rally Fails to Revive JFK Jr. From the Dead,” New York Mag, 2 November 2021. https://nymag.com/intelligencer/2021/11/qanon-rally-in-dallas-fails-to-revive-jfk-jr-from-the-dead.html.

[8] “Governor General’s office inundated by protest supporters demanding the PM be fired,” National Post, 4 February 2022, https://nationalpost.com/news/politics/governor-generals-office-inundated-by-protest-supporters-demanding-the-pm-be-fired.

[9] National Immigration Forum, The ‘Great Replacement’ Theory, Explained (2022), https://immigrationforum.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/12/Replacement-Theory-Explainer-1122.pdf See Also Leah Scottile, “Out West, we know the right-wing extremist threat just keeps rising,” Washington Post, 29 June 2022, https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2022/06/29/right-wing-extremism-rising/.

[10] See Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, The Futurist Manifesto (1909) https://arthistoryproject.com/artists/filippo-tommaso-marinetti/the-futurist-manifesto/. For one left analysis linking contemporary rightism to fascism, see Henry Giroux, Race, Politics, and Pandemic Pedagogy: Education in a Time of Crisis (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2021).

[11] “1619 Project,” New York Times, 14 August 2019. https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2019/08/14/magazine/1619-america-slavery.html.

[12] See Alex von Tunzelmann, Fallen Idols: Twelve Statues That Made History (London: Headline Publishing Group, 2021).

[13] Nils Ringe and Lucio Rennó, Populists and the Pandemic How Populists Around the World Responded to COVID-19 (Milton Park, UK: Taylor & Francis, 2022), 22.

[14] Teun van Dongen, Eviane Leidig, “Whose Side Are They on? The Diversity of Far-Right Responses to Covid-19,” International Centre for Counter Terrorism, 18 August 2021. https://icct.nl/publication/whose-side-are-they-on-the-diversity-of-far-right-responses-to-covid-19/.

[15] Alain de Benoist, “After COVID,” Telos, 10 April 2020. www.telospress.com/after-covid/

[16] Bob Hepburn, “Pierre Poilievre is Canada’s most dangerous, appalling politician,” Toronto Star, 29 June 2022. https://www.thestar.com/opinion/star-columnists/2022/06/29/pierre-poilievre-is-canadas-most-dangerous-appalling-politician.html.

[17] Albert Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus, trans. Justin O’Brien (New York: Vintage, 2018), 160.