SHIRLEY DE VILLIERS: Meet the Covid crazies
Effluent from the outer edges of rationality is seeping into the mainstream
In a time of plague, the crazies rise to the surface.
Last weekend, an agglomeration of anti-science, anti-government and anti-vaxx adherents descended on the US state of Georgia for the Red Pill Expo – named for the pill in The Matrix movies, which shows you the world “as it really is”.
It was a curious collective of the dangerous and the deranged.
Stewart Rhodes, of the far-right extremist militia Oath Keepers, presented the keynote address, exhorting attendees to undergo firearms training ahead of next month’s US election and, the Guardian reports, “organise yourselves in the next 30 days in your towns and counties. We have members in every state in the union and we are standing them up right now.”
Two days of backing vocals were supplied by, among others, Plandemic producer Mikki Willis, Kerri Rivera (“How I Helped 1,500 Children Recover from Autism” — all hail industrial bleach), Andrew Wakeford praise-singer Del Bigtree (“It’s True. We Are Winning the War Against Forced Vaccinations”), and one Tim Ray, apparently opining on the limitation of rights and the agenda of the banking cartel.
Oh, and anti-Semite David Icke, beaming in from the UK to tell “red-pillers” that a Covid vaccine created by a “cult” of elites is in fact a “sterilisation agent” to destroy life as we know it.
Entertainment came in the form of Patrea Patrick’s two-part documentary, The Titanic Never Sank!
“As someone who’s been studying militia manoeuvring and conspiracy theorists, it’s disconcerting to see these various groups uniting under a common banner of mistrust about coronavirus,” observer and author Betsy Quammen told the Guardian.
Disconcerting, perhaps, but hardly novel. If anything, the Covid-19 pandemic has provided fertile ground for the fevered imaginations of the fringe.
As Leah Sottile writes in the New York Times Magazine, protests against lockdowns in the US have drawn in “anti-vaxxers, internet trolls, gun nuts, Proud Boys, hate groups, antigovernment militias and any other Americans who interpreted social-distancing and face-covering regulations as an infringement of their constitutional freedoms”.
And so the effluent from the outer edges of rationality has found its way into the mainstream — helped, in no small part, by the dog-whistle politics of US President Donald Trump.
Ready for action
Take the Proud Boys. It’s a glorified far-right street gang — or “pro-West fraternal organisation” — propelled into the international limelight when Trump, in a presidential debate with Joe Biden, refused to call its members to heel.
“Stand back,” he said, “and stand by.”
And, boy, are they. Proudly, apparently.
As Martin Belam and Adam Gabbatt write in this Guardian explainer, the Proud Boys is “one of a sheaf of far-right groups with ready access to legal firearms in the US and with overtly pro-Trump or libertarian stances, and an affinity for presenting as vigilantes and paramilitaries”.
It’s like a mash-up of prep school and Fight Club. Members wear black Fred Perry polo shirts with gold trim (the company has stopped selling the shirts as a result) and MAGA caps.
Entry-level membership apparently requires the recitation of an oath to be a chauvinist, writes James Astill in The Economist’s 1843 magazine.
Second-tier membership requires Proud Boys to “forswear masturbation and permit themselves to be beaten up by fellow Proud Boys for as long as it takes them to recite slowly the names of five breakfast cereals. This is believed to demonstrate the soldierly virtue of ‘adrenaline control’.”
Disappointingly, after that, the next level of membership requires the relative banality of being inked with a Proud Boys tattoo.
The juvenile undertone belies the fact that this is a dangerous organisation. It is misogynist, anti-immigrant, anti-Semitic, Islamophobic, and violent.
And it’s succeeded in mainstreaming itself by currying favour with Republican elites such as Trump ally Roger Stone, according to the New York Times, “in part because its members wrap themselves in libertarian values”.
But the Proud Boys are one small group in a growing far-right coalition that has used the uncertainty and economic straits brought on by the pandemic to “radicalise, recruit, and inspire plots and attacks”, Blyth Crawford wrote for The Conversation back in April.
It has taken advantage of the flood of misinformation around the virus and government responses, mobilised online at a time where people were forced to shelter at home, and embedded itself among the disaffected citizens of the “Reopen” movement.
Hawaii called; it wants its shirt back
Of particular concern is the terror threat these groups pose.
On the very day that Trump put the Proud Boys on standby, the FBI released an intelligence report warning of a “violent extremist threat” from far-right militia in the Dallas area — particularly in the period running up to the inauguration of the next US president in early 2021.
That report, obtained by The Nation, says: “Boogaloo adherents will likely expand influence [in the Dallas area] ... due to the presence of existing anti-government or anti-authority violent extremists, the sentiment of perceived government overreach, heightened tensions due to Covid-19-related state and local restrictions, and violence or criminality at lawful protests”.
The reference here is to the Boogaloo movement, or Boogaloo Bois, a cammo and floral shirt-attired group of gun nuts who are agitating for a second American civil war. It’s already alleged to have killed law enforcement officers, and has been linked to a terror plot to kidnap Michigan’s Democrat governor Gretchen Whitmer.
The New York Times Magazine’s Sotille traces the origins and the trajectory of the Boogaloo Bois in this fascinating long-form article.
Sotille offers more than just a handle on an amorphous group intent on breaking and remaking society; hers is a layered analysis of the environment in which such groups find a foothold, and how they exploit it.
It’s worth reading alongside this New York Times piece, in which Nathan Taylor Pemberton looks to understand the jarring juxtaposition of lurid flower-print dad-shirt, and customised assault rifle and body armour.
Don’t be fooled by the Boogaloo Bois’ innocuous-sounding name, nor by the friendly florals — it’s imagery that’s designed to confuse.
As the Brooklyn Institute for Social Research’s Patrick Blanchfield tells Pemberton: “It’s important to keep an eye on the big picture or what’s in front of you. If you see an image of a man wearing tactical gear with a gun and a Hawaiian shirt, the most salient thing there is that the guy has a gun and tactical gear.”
*De Villiers is the features editor of the FM
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