In April 2020, the German radical right party ‘Alternative for Germany’ (AfD) lost more than 4% in the opinion polls compared to January. Its popularity this month was at the level of 9-10% (down from a record of 18% nationally in 2018 and 25% in the eastern state polls). There are two reasons for this that are directly related to the Covid-19 pandemic.
The first is that the populist radical right and eurosceptics have received much of what they have been pursuing for years (i.e. strict measures have been introduced in EU countries to restrict borders crossing, and migration flows to Europe have been suspended due to recent lockdowns). Moreover, many emigrants, fleeing the epidemic, are now trying to return to their homeland, where, in their opinion, the danger – away from Europe as the epicenter of infections – is not so obvious. As a result, we have seen the syndrome of the UK Independence Party writ large, with the AfD’s chances dwindling also. Secondly, voters’ interests have now shifted to the sphere of health care and the State’s ability to impose anti-crisis measures – a field where the radical right feels less confident than in matters of immigration, refugee policy and the rate of EU integration. One way or the other, the radical right parties and groups are no longer able to dominate the discourse of politics and legitimacy in the new conditions.
As Johannes Hillje, a Berlin-based political consultant and expert of the AfD’s communication strategy, remarks: ‘This crisis is not like the other crises that the AfD has benefited from, the euro crisis and the refugee crisis. Both crises had an enemy which was an outsider…but now it’s a virus, and it’s spreading from within. The default populist narrative — us versus them, insiders versus outsiders — doesn’t work anymore. ”
Other populist radical right parliamentary parties, such as the Austrian Freedom Party, the Italian League, the French National Association, the Latvian National Bloc, etc., have found themselves in a similar situation, and this points to perhaps a deeper truth that this disaster has brought people together and the world is becoming more tolerant against this background, but is it really?
From Political Parties to Direct Action Movements: Radical Right Narratives in the Era of Covid-19
During the Covid-19 pandemic, all populist radical right parties have tried to find new arguments for returning to leading positions in the political discourse. And, although each of these parties has its own parochial nationalist agenda, the following four areas of their activity can be distinguished:
1) Criticism of government measures aimed at combating the pandemic;
2) Calls for their own nation states to withdraw from the EU due to lack of solidarity while at the same time criticizing the authorities for trying to help their neighbors;
3) Accusation that minorities are spreading the virus – especially from East Asian backgrounds;
4) The (connected) geopolitical charge that China infecting the World with Covid-19.
Thus, Austria’s Freedom Party has demanded the abolition of fines for violation of quarantine conditions, urged the Austrians to leave the European Union, and, at the same time, insisted to ban all national holiday celebrations in order to reduce the number of Covid-19 cases. Roughly the same requirements were put forward by the Italian Lega. In addition, its leader, Matteo Salvini, has widely disseminated the well-known conspiracy theory that coronavirus was invented in Chinese laboratories. For example, in a Facebook video on January 31, 2020, Salvini demanded ‘to tell the Italians the truth’ about the ‘Chinese conspiracy’. Added to this, Salvini, along with the leader of the extreme right party, Brothers of Italy leader, Georgia Meloni, accused the European Union leadership of Italy’s betrayal.
Moving further East, the former Minister of Justice of Latvia and member of the parliamentary far-right National Block, Dzintars Rasnachs blamed the Russian linguistic minority of spreading Covid-19. On March 30 2020, for example, he wrote on Twitter: ‘Until there is an emergency regime in Russia, consumers of Russian television propaganda will hang around [the streets] and spit on all self-isolation events in Riga. Tonight, the children’s playground was full of non-Latvian speaking teens and children of irresponsible mothers. Does this happen all over Imanta (Riga’s region)?’ Moreover, a month later (on April 24), he repeated his thoughts about the Latvian Russians, who, in his point of view, are dangerous potential carriers of the virus, because they are apparently in the information space of Russia, not Latvia. As for non-parliamentary and small right-wing radical groups, their activity in this difficult period, at first glance, has largely the same same goals. First of all, these parties, working “on the ground”, using the pandemic to win the sympathy of the population. They do seemingly “necessary” things – informing the population about the quarantine rules compliance and deliver food to people with low incomes. True, they deliver products in their branded packages, but the intention here is clear: to replenish their ranks, as well as accusations of “enemies of the nation”, which usually include immigrants and colored people, as the sole instigators and distributors of the Covid-19 virus.
Such actions are typical for example, of the military-political organization of the neo-fascist type “Azov” in Ukraine, CasaPound Italia (CPI) in the Apennines, the German “Die Rechte” (Rights), and (formerly) the community-based activism of the British National Party. As CARR Policy and Practitioner Fellow, Michael Colborne, noted in a recent Fair Observer article: ‘The pandemic is a great opportunity for the extreme right-wing movements to intervene and try to impersonate a “real” defenders of the people, the only ones who really care and can save the country from ruin’.
Like their “elder brothers”, who are gaining an ever-growing presence in European national parliaments, smaller radical right-wing groups accuse the authorities of ill-conceived measures to counter the pandemic. They also demand that they close their borders, accuse China, Jews and illegal immigrants of distributing Covid-19. A recent article in The Guardian Newspaper quoted Louis Brook, executive director of the Zinc Network’s disinformation and propaganda communications Agency, as saying that: ‘these extremist groups are using the coronavirus as an opportunity to further their ideological objectives by spreading fear and division and exacerbating social tensions.’ I would posit that this is characteristic almost of all of the Radical Rights parties and groups of European countries.
Russian radicals follow in the context of the pan-European agenda. So, back in March 2020, they, for example, called in messaging on social networks to close the borders with neighboring Kazakhstan, since “thousands of illegal immigrants who infect Russians with coronavirus infiltrate from there”, and in April they actively objected to the presence of labor migrants from the post-Soviet republics of Central Asia in the Moscow Subway, because they are allegedly carriers of the disease.
However, other smaller extremist groups do not stop there. Unlike their counterparts in the ultra-right camp sitting in the legislative bodies, they are free from parliamentary ethics, they are more ideologized and aimed at practical work and direct action stunts within the population. Therefore, they go further – they call for a “national uprising” and for a revolution against ‘immigrant dominance’ and even call for a massive terrorist attack to destroy the ‘enemies of the nation’, to which they include not only immigrants, colored people and Jews, but also police and other representatives of the state.
Radical right actors accuse China of distributing COVID-19, but at the same time they pay tribute to the tough measures that the Chinese authorities have taken against the Pandemic. Because of that they conclude that ‘authoritarian regimes’, as Louis Brooke has already mentioned, ‘are superior to Western liberal democracies in overcoming the health crisis.’ Another, more generalized conclusion follows from this: ‘modern liberal states are on the verge of collapse and their decline can be accelerated by armed action or by a serious crisis.’ The theme of “national rebellion” has become one of the main topics in the radical right discourse. Thus, the neo-Nazi organization Northern Resistance Movement (NRM), based in Scandinavia, has welcomed the Pandemic as a necessary step towards creating a so-called “New World Order”. ‘[The virus] may be exactly what we need in order to trigger a real national uprising and strengthen revolutionary political forces,’ wrote Simon Lindberg, leader of the Swedish branch of NRM, on the movement’s website. “We cannot build a millennial society of the future based on the rotten foundation of today, we must build it on ruins.”
Other radical right groups see the pandemic as an opportunity to further promote xenophobic and overtly racist messages. So in Ukraine, a representative of the “Azov” movement said in a Telegram message that white people were not to blame for the spread of coronavirus in Europe – ‘only the ethnic minorities of Italy are to blame.’ The same position is maintained in the same annex by supremacists, who include representatives of various radical right-wing groups. From their point of view, everything connected with Covid-19 as a conspiracy led by the New World Order, George Soros and the Jews, the government of China and other villains seeking to “destroy the white race.”
Telegram’s encrypted group channels and “freedom boards,” such as 8Kun, which are often visited by extremists, have witnessed significant progress in promoting the theory of Eastern domination of ‘White People by using Covid-19 as a weapon.’ Accordingly, these communities advocate for the white population to take up arms so that the “white order” triumphs. ‘Telegram’s neo-Nazi channels have increased their calls for destabilization and violence related to Covid-19,’ said Joshua Fisher-Birch, a researcher at an American-based Counter Extremism Project, in an interview with Al Jazeera. ‘These channels view the current situation … as an opportunity to try to exacerbate tensions and advocate violence.’
About the same thing, only with a different sign, is happening among Islamic radicals. Al-Qaeda’s central media released a Statement last month in English and Arabic, stating that the pandemic is a “sign of God’s rage” towards humanity for its sins and non-observance of God’s rules. Al-Qaeda called on Muslims to repent and fight against the “enemies – the crusaders.” Shiite groups, including Hatball Kataib in Iraq and the Hussites in Yemen, as well as their social media supporters, have accused the US government of using the coronavirus as a biological weapon. At the same time, ISIS encourages its members to stay away from Europe and constantly wash their hands in the hope of avoiding infection.
However, the difference between activities in the network of Islamists and radical right activists is not only this. The Washington Post quotes Rita Katz, executive director of SITE Intelligence Group, a private firm that tracks extremist activity on the internet that: ‘Practically speaking, these groups’ directives largely remain the same: continue attacking the enemy,’ she said. ‘The far right has gone much further in directly exploiting the Covid-19 pandemic [for their own purposes].” Right-wing extremists are actively discussing the situation, believing that this may be “their time”, they seek to derive strategic benefits from what they call the “potential collapse of society.”
In recent months, we have witnessed obvious provocations by the radical right directed both against minorities and political opponents. So, through the Telegram channels there have been several waves of distribution of fake documents made in such a way that they look like real medical messages. According to Zinc Network monitoring, Telegram played an important role in distributing a fake scan of the positive COVID-19 test to former Democratic vice president and presidential candidate Joe Biden. Fakes about the overestimated number of victims of the pandemic were discovered in several cities in the UK. These fake messages – masquerading as environmental groups – also proclaimed: ‘The Crown is a medicine, and the people are a disease.’ Moreover, as a rule, hints were made that immigrants and Jews made people sick.
From Brave Words to Terrorist Actions? Covid-19 Bio-Terrorism and the Radical Right
As it turns out, provocations are not the worst thing that right-wing extremists are preparing at this moment. The internet has gradually become filled with threats of deliberate infection with Covid-19. In March 2020, the FBI told police agencies in New York that supremacists intended to spray Jews and police officers with sprays where they planned to add virus-infected human fluids. At the same time, extremists urged their supporters to carry out such attacks ‘in any place where they [Jews and police officers] can be gathered, including markets, political offices, enterprises and places of [religious] worship.’ Michael Masters, head of the Secure Communities Network, an umbrella group that coordinates security for Jewish organizations and synagogues around the the United States, reports that its staff have recorded the dynamics of hatred messages on the internet – ‘From pushing the idea that Jews created the coronavirus virus to sell vaccines to encouraging infected followers to try to spread the illness to the Jewish community and Law enforcement’.
This is not unique to America only. On April 21 2020, Belgium’s Internal Security Service (Veiligheid van de Staat (VSSE)) published an online brochure entitled “Hidden Danger Covid-19,” in which it reported, for example, that the internet resource Indymedia, which VSSE called an “anarchist website”, “urged to use the Covid-19 epidemic to commit violent acts against the police and prison officers. ”
Many do not consider this threat seriously, continuing to talk about harmless trolling. However, experts urge that this problem must be taken with full attention, since “someone may succumb to these calls and commit a terrorist attack.” For example, in March, a man from New Jersey (USA), 50-year-old George Falcone, was charged with creating a terrorist threat after he intentionally coughed near a supermarket employee in Manalapan and informed her that he had coronavirus. On the same day, authorities said the Department of Justice had warned of similar threats to the spread of the virus. In return, white supremacists called Falcone ‘sublime to holiness.’ In fact, we can already talk about a new type of biological terrorism – the deliberate infection of a serious disease. Rita Katz, already mentioned, warns of this: “Ultimately, we need to start thinking about terrorism in these new contexts: public health, disinformation,…”
However, we are talking not only about the new danger of deliberate infection with Covid-19, but also about the new risks of traditional terrorist attacks associated with coronavirus. Everyone knows the case of Timothy R. Wilson, 36, who was popular in ultra-right-wing US circles. He was recently killed in a shootout with FBI agents in Missouri/USA. Wilson planned to attack a hospital serving patients suffering from Covid-19. According to reports, Wilson was the administrator of the neo-Nazi channel Telegram, well known for in calling for acts of violence. He advocated attacks and circulated anti-Semitic conspiracy theories about the outbreak of Covid-19 on the channel, arguing that the pandemic was ‘an excuse to destroy our people.’
An analysis of all these facts and circumstances allows us to conclude that an objective system of indirect interaction between the agendas of radical right-wing parties, groups and individual extremists that are not directly connected with each other is developing gradually in the world. While parliamentary radical right-wing populist parties, being in the pursuit of lost popularity, create a public backdrop of fear and dissatisfaction with the government’s anti-virus measures, small extreme right-wing groups, are using the internet to spread fake news and disinformation against the government, minorities and political opponents, then some “activists” call on their infected supporters to act as biological weapons to infect the “Enemies of the Nation”, to which they include representatives of national minorities and state authorities too. All this, I would argue, grows into a common system of threats to the broader population and the system at large.
Does it affect society and the balance of power therein? As for society, the answer is unequivocal “yes”. ‘Imagine the guy who just lost his job,’ writes Levy West, Director of terrorism studies at Charles Sturt University in Canberra. ‘He can’t get work, and finds himself in a queue with people he perceives as ‘migrants’. It doesn’t take much for him to think that ‘the system is structured against people like me’… This is gold for [right-wing extremist groups]’. Moreover, a simple analysis of news articles presented above shows that the number of victims of radical provocations is growing.
As for the authorities, here one also cannot fail to notice certain trends. For example, the US President Trump and Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, repeat the fiction of right-wing radicals that Covid-19 is a product of a laboratory in Wuhan, although US intelligence agencies cannot confirm this. This version is also repeated by British officials. Only later did another point of view appear, based on the fact that China was to blame over claims that it hid the real timing of the outbreak of the epidemic, as well as the real number of victims.
As for the EU leaders under pressure from the virus, they took not only unprecedented steps to close the borders, but some of them expressed claims to Brussels at the beginning of the pandemic for insufficient assistance to certain affected countries. Today, countries such as Germany, the Netherlands and even Malta object to the issue of a so-called “coronabond” to help countries affected by the pandemic. Also, and in a clear undermining of European democratic values, Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orban has appropriated, on the pretext of combating the coronavirus, unlimited executive powers and virtually outlawed transgendered citizens because of measures imposed.
Finally, many European leaders are secretly or explicitly implementing President Trump’s slogan, “America First!” in relation to their own countries. It is not difficult to connect this with radical right-wing propaganda, but it can also certainly be connected with the mood of voters.
All this, unfortunately, leads to the conclusion that the risk of radical actors after the pandemic will not become less – but instead more. Therefore, in response to the question posed in the title, it is worth noting that “hatred did not go to quarantine”. It will continue to sow separation and chaos throughout the world. Alas, the trouble did not bring us closer, as many had hoped, it created us even more problems in relations with our own kind.
Dr Valery Engel is a Senior Fellow at CARR and President of the European Center for Democracy Development (Latvia). See his profile here.
© Valery Engel. Views expressed on this website are individual contributors and do not necessarily reflect that of the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right (CARR). We are pleased to share previously unpublished materials with the community under creative commons license 4.0 (Attribution-NoDerivatives).