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If you didn’t have the stomach to sit through the more than four hours that was Eagle River Republican Sen. Lora Reinbold and company’s covid-19 townhall last Monday, I don’t blame you. I certainly didn’t have it in me—both because I figured it’d be predictable and because giving them attention is just what they’re looking for. At least that’s what I thought until I read Alaska Public Media’s coverage by Lex Treinen (really, big credit to the entire Alaska Public Media team for their excellent coverage of these kinds of meetings over the past weeks and months).
There, it’s abundantly clear that the rhetoric on the extreme right is only growing more extreme—and doing so quickly—even as cases of covid-19 continue to fall.
Per Treinen’s coverage, the hearing was a platform for just about everything imaginable: conspiracy theories about the origin of the coronavirus (Fauci did it), that the vaccine is a “bioweapon designed for population control,” that doctors are intentionally killing people by denying them ivermectin (naming a local doctor who had the courage to raise concerns over ivermectin). It was all awash in biblical imagery with warnings against trusting “people who take the Hippocratic oath in front of double serpent,” which would be the Caduceus a long-running symbol in medicine that’s pretty much used everywhere (and apparently a satanic symbol we’ve all, including the U.S. Army Medical Corps, have been missing).
Sure, much of this conspiracy theory stuff is par for the course, but there’s something particularly alarming about the tenor of comments like this one from Rep. Christopher Kurka in defending the Holocaust comparison.
“Sometimes we draw parallels to what preceded the evils that happened in Nazi Germany. And people accuse us of being salacious and hyperbolic,” he said. “But when you’re dealing with extreme evil, and when you’re dealing with authoritarian tyranny, I mean, what do you compare it to?”
That’s how Kurka is telling his followers to view the efforts of those working to curb the pain and suffering caused by covid-19 infections. It’s an alarming way to look at the health care system, especially in a climate where folks are already confronting health care workers with threats and violence. To him, it’s quite literally a battle between good and evil.
It should be an alarm to everyone else.
Reinbold also stoked that fear, too, but couched it with a “No violence, please,” which is probably not the kind of thing most elected officials would need to caveat their statements with, but this is Reinbold after all.
“I think we’re headed for totalitarianism and authoritarianism if we don’t, I mean — we’ve seen the warning signs,” Reinbold said. “We have to encourage one another and be positive. No violence, please. Let’s just be positive, peaceful, persistent and insistent.”
But the message was abundantly clear to the audience. “They do not deserve God’s mercy,” said the massage therapist, Mariana Nelson, who warned about the Caduceus. While Reinbold may preach positivity and peace, escalation is at the heart of it. After all, what else is there to do when your entire worldview is based on the fundamental belief that health care workers and public officials are “extreme evil” intent on killing you and your loved ones? What other course of action is there?
While the article doesn’t mention the QAnon conspiracy theory, so much of this language is right out of that playbook. Borne out of the troll-y parts of the Internet, the QAnon conspiracy theory has flourished wickedly over the course of the pandemic as a means of explaining, well, pretty much everything but specifically why Donald Trump is so great. This movement—perhaps better described as a cult—seems to increasingly integral to the extreme right side of the political spectrum. Its fingerprints are all over the Jan. 6 insurrection or, geeze, a father who took his two children into the wilds of Mexico and murdered them with a spear gun because the was convinced that they would “grow into monsters” and needed to save the world.
So what’s the exit ramp from all of this? How do we de-escalate when the extreme right’s leaders like Reinbold and Kurka are so intent on continuing to whip things up? There’s no easy answer as we’ve seen efforts to debunk and decry the movement met with resistance, essentially confirming their existing scorn of the media and strengthening their dedication to what seems so deeply illogical to the rest of us.
Some important context to keep in mind with all of this is that believers in conspiracy theories—particularly this flavor of conspiracy theory—are generally Not Doing Great. There’s some research that links the tendency to believe in covid-19 conspiracy theories to a whole bunch of negative outcomes over the course of the pandemic. That includes a higher likelihood of flouting public health measures, a general reluctance to get tested for covid-19 and a higher chance of testing positive for covid-19 when they actually do. What’s perhaps more enlightening about the whole situation is that conspiracy-believing participants also reported a higher likelihood of experiencing economic loss as well as alienation from friends and family.
“Besides the implications for (personal and public) health, the study also examined if conspiracy beliefs would prospectively predict other aspects of people’s well-being. We propose that conspiracy beliefs are associated with decreased social resources necessary to cope with the pandemic. Specifically, conspiracy beliefs carry a social stigma, and publicly spreading conspiracy theories therefore makes people prone to social exclusion,” explained researchers behind a paper published in October that tracked conspiracy and non-conspiracy believers through the course of the pandemic. “Moreover, Covid-19 conspiracy beliefs are associated with self-centeredness, as for instance reflected in hoarding behavior or a decreased concern for other’s safety, which may deteriorate social relationships. Conspiracy beliefs hence are likely to be associated with decreased levels of social support, which has numerous implications for well-being.”
This is playing out in real time as is the case for a significant number of hardcore QAnon believers who’ve spent the better part of the last month and a good chunk of their personal savings camping out in Dealey Plaza awaiting the return of JFK, JFK Jr., Michael Jackson and a slew of other celebrities to help put Trump back in the White House. In just that movement, parents have abandoned their families and burned through their savings for what is an ever-shifting and ever-escalating movement.
When we grapple with the conspiracy theories and their seeming invulnerability, it speaks to the overwhelming power of belonging. While these people may be estranged from their family, they have a network that will readily fill their heads with lies and justification for their actions. It’s not you who are crazy, it’s everyone else… and, by the way, they’re also they’re lizards, haven’t you seen the Caduceus?
It’s a self-reinforcing system where belonging to an in-group overrides anything else we might like to tell ourselves about critical thinking and the truth.
Admitting they’re wrong and turning away from the movement would also mean conceding that their entire world view is warped, rejecting what connections they have left and, frankly, admitting that their actions have directly led to the pain and suffering of those around them. It’s why hopes that personal cases of covid-19 and even deaths of loved ones might change minds are continually dashed. There may be cases around those edges, but for the vast majority of folks they’ve only doubled down.
Deaths of people who waited too long to get treatment for covid-19 are the fault of the doctors who refused to prescribe ivermectin, in their view, not the advanced covid pneumonia that had already destroyed their lungs. It’s why all the phony claims about the vaccine seem to trump the very-real risks of actually contracting the virus.
I don’t know how we can move on from this as long as it proves to be an effective tool of politicians and other figureheads to rile up the base whether it be for power or personal profit. As repulsive as it may seem, some suggest that engagement and offering a place in alternative, healthy in-groups is a way to pull people from the brink. That’s a tall order when, after all, it’s not like everyone else is Doing Great.
If anything, I’d hope that this kind of rhetoric would be a wake-up call for those who quietly back these types of politicians because they’ve got friendly opinions about corporate taxation and oil policy. You can be pro-business and pro-development without also calling health care workers “extreme evil.”