Notes From the Margins…

Stuck Inside a Lockdown With the Paranoid Blues Again

  • May 15, 2020
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Conspiracy is an overused and often misused word.   At its most basic dictionary level, it refers to a group of people who conspire together.  Nothing controversial about that.  History is filled with examples of actual conspiracies, from the assassination of Julius Caesar, to Contragate or the 9/11 hijackers.

Historical conspiracies are one thing; it’s  quite another to argue that history itself is the result of a conspiracy.   To make that conceptual leap requires a shift from rational fact-based analysis to a world of emotion and belief that is often shaped by prejudice and steeped in fear, loathing, and paranoia.

This is where conspiracies become ‘conspiracy theories’, in which the ‘theorist’  makes tenuous connections between the real, the unreal, and the flat-out barking, between what people claim to be and what they actual are, between the words they use and their concealed intentions, all of which become part of an overarching explanation for why bad things happen.

This kind of thinking is not exclusive to the right, but as Richard Hofstadter famously observed, there has always been a fringe element in the conservative far-right imagination that is peculiarly attracted to a ‘paranoid’ conspiratorial worldview that depicts historical events in these terms.  Masons, Jesuits, the Catholic Church, witches, the Illuminati, Jews, Muslims, all these ingredients have featured in right-wing ‘theories’ in which the absence of evidence only confirms the ‘truth’  of the conspiracy.

In the early 1990s, the American ‘patriot’ movement was steeped in wild fantasies of the ‘new world order’ in which the UN or China and maybe Nicaragua was going to invade the United States to complete the work of the ‘Zionist Occupation Government.’

Some of these ‘theorists’ claimed to have seen black helicopters flying over America to scout out the terrain, while others warned that traffic signs had been changed to guide the incoming Chinese/UN army.   We might hold such crazed nonsense in contempt, and we should, but crackpot theories can also be lethal, as Timothy McVeigh proved in Oklahoma.

As Hofstadter argued, the absurdity of  paranoid ‘style’ does not detract from the invocation of  a demonic and all-powerful enemy that ‘wills, indeed he manufactures, the mechanism of history, or tries to deflect the normal course of history in an evil way. He makes crises, starts runs on banks, causes depressions, manufactures disasters, and then enjoys and profits from the misery he has produced.’

The coronavirus pandemic is perfect material for those who see the world in these terms, and it has already generated a shopwindow of  fantasies that Hofstadter would have recognised.  Was the virus ‘created’ in lab in Wuhan as a ‘bioweapon’ in order to facilitate Chinese world world domination?  Is the lockdown a liberal conspiracy to reverse Brexit?  Or is the quarantine actually  perpetrated by ‘Never Trumpers’ in order to undermine the president’s re-election and force ‘communism’ down the throats of the American people?

Take your pick, and you’ll find someone who can prove it to you, even if they can’t.    In the last few weeks I’ve seen anti-lockdown protesters in the UK warning that Covid-19 is the product of 5G (a ‘war weapon’), that the lockdown is leading us into a ‘dystopian version of Nazi Germany’, and that the ‘Scamdemic’ is intended to bring about a ‘new world order.’

Elsewhere, you can find people seriously arguing that the pandemic was deliberately created by Bill Gates so that he could make money by manufacturing the vaccine.  In March Piers Corbyn attributed the pandemic to ‘mega-rich control freaks Bill Gates, George Soros+cronies’ in order to produce a ‘world population cull…by their mass vaccination plan containing poison.’

In Pakistan, the rightwing commentator Zaid Hamid recently argued that Bill Gates created the virus in order to inject Muslims with a vaccine that will ‘destroy Islam’ and – wait for it – force the imposition of a New World Order.

It’s easy to mock such outrageous and malicious claptrap, and we should never stop doing that.  But millions of Germans once voted for a party which believed that Jews controlled the world and were trying to enslave and destroy their country, and that Germans were a ‘master race’ descended from Hyperborean Gods.  Ideas like this can percolate through the fringes, until a concatenation of historical events brings them to centre stage.

This week the United States crossed a small but potentially ominous milestone, when the government of Michigan cancelled its legislative session after armed protesters converged on the state capital for a ‘Judgement Day’ protest against Governor Gretchen Whitmer’s shutdown orders.  Before the protests Facebook groups called for her to be hanged, shot, beaten, and beheaded.’   Other posts denounced Whitmer as a ‘Soros puppet’, a ‘Nazi’, and a ‘baby killer tyrant.’

This toxic combination of conspiratorial fantasy and rightwing rage is not limited to what Trump called the ‘fine people’ who forced the Michigan state government to shut itself down.  In Germany last weekend, protestors across the country took part in ‘anti coronavirus protests’.  Their participants included ‘ anti-vaxxers, conspiracy theorists, left-wing extremists, neo-Nazis and hooligans, and others with no particular political affiliation’, some of whom espoused 5G conspiracy theories with an antisemitic content and/or stigmatised migrants as virus-spreaders.

The same ‘cross-pollination’ is evident in the anti-lockdown protests unfolding in the UK, as the far-right seeks to transform the pandemic into another ‘culture war’ that doesn’t quite speak its name – yet.  Tomorrow, anti-lockdown protestors in the UK are calling for demonstrators in various cities to say’ no to the new normal and no to the unlawful lockdown’ and also to condemn ‘mandatory vaccinations’.

Should these demonstrations take place, expect to hear a great deal about 5G, ‘liberty’, ‘Covidcops’, Nazism, vaccinations, and Bill Gates.  For now, these demonstrations are likely to be small, but they are a logical continuation of the political forces that brought us Trump, Brexit, Salvini, Bolsonaro and all the other populist gargoyles who have come to power in the last decade.

Beyond the whackjob conspiracy theories, there is the same selfishness, the same oafish sociopathic libertarianism, the same me-first nationalism, the same hatred of ‘libtards’ and ‘cultural Marxists’ and immigrants, the same belief in an invisible and utterly evil enemy that only they can see.

When people are angry, confused, disorientated, and afraid, they will look for scapegoats and explanations of all kinds that seem to make a kind of sense, however spurious,  and there will always be those on the right who will seek to provide them.

So the anti-lockdowners may seem like a paranoid, selfish, and contemptible minority for the time being, but as the world grapples to cope with the socioeconomic impact of the pandemic, certain politicians and governments will seek to detract attention from their own failings, and there is always the danger that the fantasies and pseudo-explanations now spilling out into the streets may prove to be more toxic than many of us would like to believe.


Photo by:  Becker1999 from Grove City, OH – IMG_0066a, CC BY 2.0,

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  1. Mike

    16th May 2020 - 6:57 am

    Hello Matt, an interesting podcast dealing with misinformation might be of interest and supports your argument with several stories from the Covid-19 world of fear and confusion:
    Hope all is well

  2. Andreu

    18th May 2020 - 9:49 am

    In Madrid, Spain, hundreds of far-right supporters (PP, VOX, CS) from the Salamanca posh neighborhood, came out banging pots and pans shouting “Freedom!”, breaking all anti-Coronavirus measures such as social distancing. All with the collusion of police officers who effusively saluted them instead of denouncing them.
    Luckily for them, they were not Catalan voters..

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About Me

I’m a writer, campaigner and journalist.  My latest book is The Savage Frontier: The Pyrenees in History and the Imagination (New Press/Hurst, 2018).  The Infernal Machine is where I write on politics, history, cinema and other things that interest me.

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