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On Saturday in London, more than 10,000 people gathered – bare-faced and packed perilously close – in Trafalgar Square to protest against what event posters branded the “new normal” under coronavirus: masks, lockdown restrictions, and the spectre of mandatory vaccination and privacy-obliterating health passports.
The messaging leaned towards US-style libertarianism, asking marchers to “Unite for Freedom” from state control, but the mood was decidedly conspiratorial. Headline speakers included doctors and nurses suspended by their governing bodies for claiming coronavirus was a globalist hoax, Piers Corbyn, a long-time anti-vaxxer and climate-change denier, and the last-minute addition of David Icke, a fabulist famous for his books rejigging classic antisemitic conspiracy theories to include reptile people originating from the fourth dimension.
Among the marchers were a similarly random assortment of endorsements. There were anti-vax and anti-5G placards. Several T-shirts and signs alluded to QAnon, a recent US conspiracy movement already too baroque to neatly summarise, but whose central premise is that Donald Trump is waging a clandestine war against an all-knowing globalist paedophile conspiracy from his rebel stronghold in the White House. Much was made of men unfurling a British Union of Fascists flag at the crowd’s edge. At a similar protest in Berlin the same day, drawing nearly 20,000 people, a far-right contingent attempted to storm the Reichstag.
It would be easy to dismiss these events as a random mishmash of the merely selfish with assorted cranks, pushed together under the pressure of lockdown. But this is not the case. If you’ll indulge a bit of conspiratorial thinking of my own, these protests are more calculated than they appear, and aren’t just a symptom of understandable-but-misguided public frustration with the events of the past few months. Rather they represent the continuing abstention of large swathes of the public from what could be termed our shared reality, or public sphere, and suggest that the recent tendency of fringe and conspiracist positions to rapidly seed and burst into mainstream politics won’t be ending any time soon.
The seemingly disparate groups that attend these protests are part of a shifting coalition of conspiracist and far-right groups. One of the primary organisers of Saturday’s protest is a UK-based anti-5G movement known as Stand Up X (or by the unbeatable acronym “SUX”). According to Hope Not Hate, the group has previously backed smaller protests by a US-linked, QAnon-friendly outfit in Manchester and other UK cities. They say the groups are part of a growing number of conspiracy outfits “willing to sideline differences in belief” in order to collaborate. And previous investigations by journalists in the US have found far-right organisations behind Facebook groups arranging lockdown protests.
All of this is part of a recent blending of multiple strands of conspiratorial thinking and far-right politics. Conspiracies have always had points of overlap, but over the past few years the anti-vax movement has become more pointedly right wing, while mainstream far-right and right-populist parties have become more conspiratorial.
The Italian Five Star Movement and Northern League have recently questioned vaccine effectiveness, as has France’s Front National. In Hungary, Viktor Orbán regularly suggests the Jewish financier George Soros is about to swamp the country with migrants. And Trump this week claimed his opponent Joe Biden was “controlled” by “people that you’ve never heard of. People that are in the dark shadows.”
Conspiracy theories generally have an anti-authority component: they are against the state, or the illuminati that control the state, or the lizards who control the illuminati. But in these cases they might best be understood as part of what the academic Mark Davis has termed “anti-public” discourse. The public means the public sphere, and in the case of the far right, right populists and conspiracists, their cause is helped, Davis says, by anything “radically flouting the ethical and rational norms that underpin democratic discourse”, in effect undermining rational debate, and trust in the institutions and elite expert knowledge that used to go a long way towards determining our consensus reality.
For some, this anti-public discourse comes from a sense of alienation from traditional institutions. In recent years rising inequality and crises have shaken the system. The direct causality implied by shadowy actors pulling strings to determine global events is easier to grasp than the complex financial and political systems that determine our lives.
For those in power, such as Trump, conspiratorial thinking allows them to obfuscate, shift blame and sow disorder, and further erode the authority of the institutions meant to constrain them. When what remains of the traditional order faces these crises of confidence – financial, political or viral – the amplification of theories that bypass scientific argument or democratic debate further exacerbates the decline of whatever trust was left.
In this way it doesn’t matter so much that it’s unlikely the large contingent of anti-vaxxers out last week will make much headway against a coronavirus vaccine. (An Ipsos-Mori poll out this week showed that 85% of Britons “agreed or strongly agreed” that they would take a potential Covid-19 vaccine, one of the highest acceptance rates in the world.) They have still taken their shot in a larger salvo against the establishment, and provided a scaffold for other movements to climb.
There’s no telling which theory will next make a leap to the newly porous centre. I wouldn’t have bet on QAnon, but earlier this month Trump offered encouragement to QAnon followers, saying he “heard these are people that love our country”, and this week the Telegraph published a stupefyingly credulous account of a favourite QAnon claim – that pizza emojis are used as a secret paedophile code on social media to abuse children. It was hoped that the coronavirus crisis had strengthened the state and traditional institutions – political extremes seemed to be in decline – but as long as a vibrant anti-public discourse is still thriving on the fringes, it will continue to crash into the mainstream.
• Stephen Buranyi is a writer specialising in science and the environment
Source: The Guardian
Keyword: How coronavirus has brought together conspiracy theorists and the far right | The far right