Eroding Trust, Spreading Fear: The Historical Ties Between Pandemics And ExtremismBreaking News
tags: conspiracy theories, public health, pandemics
Adam Crigler used to feed his YouTube following a politics-free diet of chatter about aliens, movies, skateboarding and video games. Then came the pandemic. Now, he devotes much of his talk show to his assertion that mask mandates are an assault on personal freedom and that Democrats somehow stole the 2020 election from Donald Trump. Result: a much bigger audience.
“The pandemic has made more people want to blame someone else because they’ve lost their jobs or they’re lonely,” Crigler said.
Ian Bayne, for years a campaign professional, had sworn off politics and launched a career in real estate. Then covid hit, and he helped launch No Mask Nevada, organizing a dozen rallies against masking because he said the government was inflating the danger of the coronavirus.
“People are isolated, alone, and they need to express their true selves,” Bayne said. “I don’t know why we’re surprised that there’s more extremism now. People came to our rallies because they craved the human interaction.”
Since ancient times, pandemics have spurred sharp turns in political beliefs, spawning extremist movements, waves of mistrust and wholesale rejection of authorities. Nearly a year into the coronavirus crisis, Americans are falling prey to the same phenomenon, historians, theologians and other experts say, exemplified by a recent NPR-Ipsos poll in which nearly 1 in 5 said they believe Satan-worshipping, child-enslaving elites seek to control the world.
As shutdowns paralyzed the economy in the first months of the pandemic, Americans sharply increased searches for extremist and white supremacist materials online, according to Moonshot CVE, a research firm that studies extremism. The United States was not the only country affected: A British study found that the pandemic boosted radicalization globally, as people found more time to delve into extremist arguments.
2020 was a perfect storm,” said John Fea, a historian at Messiah University, an evangelical Christian school in Mechanicsburg, Pa. “You had many evangelicals believing that this strongman president was protecting them from secularization. You had this belief in a God-ordained president who was not doing anything against the pandemic, who was feeding this ‘Don’t tell me to wear a mask’ attitude. It’s an incredibly explosive mix that led to the Jan. 6 attack — and now this almost Lost Cause mentality that ‘we have to fight on for Trump.’ ”
“Plagues,” Fea said, “have always led to apocalyptic thinking.”
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