The pandemic has changed all of our lives, leaving many of us scared and confused. But if the weekend’s angry lockdown protests reflected real pain in the community, they also showed how, in a complicated international emergency, right-wing con artists seized an opportunity.
If you search for the truth about Covid on Telegram and Gab, you’ll find the online equivalent of a crowded open-air market, dominated by screaming stall vendors.
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The turmoil is evidently coming from right-wing “welfare” advocates, people long accustomed to merging conspiracy and commerce. In recent years, Qanon has spread like a disease in the New Age milieu, so the “natural health” entrepreneurs who once might have hailed the Rise of Aquarius are now equally fervently attacking George Soros and the Great Reset.
But the distinctiveness of the so-called freedom movement also reflects a broader evolution of conservatism, a political philosophy degenerating into an overt racket.
In a now classic essay for the Baffler, Rick Perlstein traces the sensibility of the modern to the direct mail fundraisers of the 1960s, who recognized the financial potential of the paranoid style after Barry Goldwater’s presidential nomination.
They found they could generate huge revenues for conservative clients by using “robotic” machines to target far-right believers with grim warnings of Communist plots, UN takeovers and the persecution of Christians, calamities which could apparently be avoided with a small donation.
Solicitation technology has improved, mailing lists have grown, and money has poured in.
In 1992, the far-right gambler Pat Buchanan addressed the Republican National Convention telling delegates they were embroiled in a titanic struggle.
“It is,” he said, “as critical a cultural war for the kind of nation we will be as the Cold War itself. Because this war is for the soul of America.
The speech marked a new strategy for Republicans, in which tear gas calls for conservative values would win over voters dismayed by the neoliberal economy.
“We have to let them know that we know how much they are suffering,” Buchanan said. “They don’t expect miracles from us, but they need to know that we care about us. “
The culture war injected the techniques of mail-order solicitation (where miracles and performative empathy had long coexisted) deep into the veins of the ruling right. The gambling and the political game have become, according to Perlstein, two facets of the same operation, as evidenced by the arguments “in which the ideological and the transactional share exactly the same vocabulary, the same moral claims and the same cast of heroes and villains ”.
Consider channels like Alex Jones’ Infowars, where presentations of doomsday conspiracies seamlessly turn into plugins for Infowars Life Brain Force Plus, Infowars Life Super Male Vitality, Infowars Live Liver Shield, and an array of similar potations.
Mainstream Fox News may not market its own branded snake oil, but it uses the same methods, convincing confused Baby Boomers that only Tucker Carlson stands between them and the New Black Panthers and then sells advertisers access to a loyal following of terrified commuters.
On some level, the neoliberal turn has made all of us entrepreneurs. Nowadays, progressive activists are also touting podcasts. But because the right openly advocates capitalism, it is much more suited to the monetization of everything, as the emergence of Donald J Trump – a president of Brain Force – has proven.
In 2016, Republicans showed they could eventually unite behind a candidate who made no distinction between his economic and political interests. In a sense, the American right got the leader it deserved: As Paul Waldman puts it, Trump’s presidency has revealed that “so many people at so many levels within the Republican Party [were] crooks, lunatics or both.
The Conservatives around the world have taken notice.
After Trumpism, every far-right conspirator sees himself as a booming entrepreneur, controversial about founding his own Infowars or Breitbart.
It’s not just the bangs either.
In the past, ambitious young Tories could have joined the Liberal Party, lobbied assiduously for the preselection, then toiled anonymously for decades behind the scenes, hoping to one day win Cabinet positions.
Today, these people can ditch Bob Menzies for PT Barnum, grow their subscribers on YouTube or Facebook, and land some pretty gigs on Sky News.
There is no real downside. In 2021, right-wing media figures wield more influence than most MPs.
Better yet, the new experts don’t feel responsible for anything. Why would they do it? Their success does not depend on the provision of solutions but on the shattering, by all necessary means, of the conservative base.
The mind-blowing culture war they are deploying probably cannot deliver electoral majorities. But it doesn’t matter. It reliably generates online engagement upon which media monetization is built.
The Covid crisis suits these hucksters down to the ground. Medical emergency highlighting scientific expertise, it allows them to reuse all the old tropes of climate denial. They can brag about quack cures, mock vaccinations, and blame the know-it-all doctors.
By denouncing the coercion of confinements, the authoritarians can pass themselves off as libertarians. Without any need to maintain consistency, they may imply one day that Covid does not exist and the next day blame China for creating it.
Their patter is their product – and they will say anything to the desperate and delusional as long as they can make money doing it.
Most of these people understand very well what is at stake. They know that when they spread misinformation and fantasies some of us may die.
But it is a sacrifice that they are prepared to make.
Nothing personal, you know, it’s just business.