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Eroding trust, spreading fear: The historical ties between pandemics and extremism

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 2/14/2021 Marc Fisher

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.

[QAnon reshaped Trump’s party and radicalized believers. The Capitol riot may be just the start.]

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.

New insecurities and fears loosed by the pandemic fed into an existing erosion of trust in leaders and institutions, according to those who have studied how people react to rampant, uncontrolled disease.

Some of these insecurities predated the pandemic: Many of those arrested in the Capitol riot owned businesses or worked white-collar jobs, and a Washington Post analysis of public records found that nearly 60 percent of people facing charges had prior money troubles, including bankruptcies and unpaid taxes. But many got involved in politics only after virus-related shutdowns clobbered their personal finances.

a man holding a sign: Yvonne Donat of Whitehall, Mont., joins an anti-mask protest in Bozeman in October, saying she’s protecting the Constitution and her “God-given rights.” © Louise Johns for The Washington Post Yvonne Donat of Whitehall, Mont., joins an anti-mask protest in Bozeman in October, saying she’s protecting the Constitution and her “God-given rights.”

Between that economic wallop and the disease’s lethal punch, covid-19 has “reminded Americans of their own mortality” and created a sense of “social dislocation and a loss of confidence in all institutions,” said Richard Land, president of Southern Evangelical Seminary outside Charlotte and a longtime evangelical leader.

The result, he said, is a surge of extremism on the right and the left, including widespread embrace of counterfactual versions of current events.

“In a healthy society, the government and the church would say, ‘This is nonsense,’ and people would believe them,” Land said. But during the pandemic, he said, that check on extremist impulses has failed for some people who crave connection with others: “God created us as social creatures, and when we isolate from other human beings, we tend to malfunction.”

Over the past year, the pandemic was a constant undercurrent as Americans took to the streets to protest racial injustice, police brutality and President Biden’s victory in the 2020 election. As much as they were motivated by the causes themselves, many who participated in street actions were probably also eager for human contact, according to psychologists who’ve studied the effects of social isolation.

By that view, the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol was both an insurrection plot and an impromptu meetup, an assault on the infrastructure of American democracy and a social gathering for people who believed they were defending their idea of nationhood.

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[41 minutes of fear: A video timeline from inside the Capitol siege]

“In the wake of covid-19, it appears that far-right extremists have discovered the extent of people’s fear of social control and loss of liberty and have realized how easily they can manipulate citizens who may not normally subscribe to extreme ideology,” University of Maryland social psychologist Arie Kruglanski concluded in a recent study on the link between covid and extremism.

The pandemic undermines trust — trust in government and science to curb the spread of the disease, trust in neighbors and strangers who might carry the infection, Kruglanski said. And “in the absence of trust, people need to believe in something.”

With many houses of worship, schools and workplaces closed for much of the past year, millions have sought community online. Some found and adopted baseless fantasies about conspiracies in government and among the nation’s elites: Election fraud, the QAnon theories about a malign “deep state,” false assertions of blame for the origins of the coronavirus.

“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.”

a group of people standing in front of a crowd: Supporters of Reopen Maryland recite the Pledge of Allegiance during a protest of state coronavirus restrictions in Annapolis in May. © Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post Supporters of Reopen Maryland recite the Pledge of Allegiance during a protest of state coronavirus restrictions in Annapolis in May.

Bayne, 47, had worked in electoral politics for years but thought he’d left that phase of his life behind. Before the pandemic hit, he was selling real estate and attending an online law school. Then the virus brought him back to activism.

“I would not be involved in politics if it wasn’t for covid,” said Bayne, vice chair of No Mask Nevada. As the virus spread, he became convinced that covid wasn’t terribly dangerous, that the shutdowns and mask orders amounted to a government power grab, and that Americans finally were being liberated to speak openly about their suspicions of powerful elites.

“A lot of people say covid’s just the flu,” he said. “Nobody believes wrapping a sock around your face is going to stop a deadly disease.”

Bayne, who said his 72-year-old mother got covid and recovered within three days — “better than she ever was” — added that his activism has made him feel better able to stand up to the government and take control of his life.

The pandemic has tapped into long-standing anxieties and let people band together in their search for answers, experts said, whether about the disease, or about immigration, or about globalism or socialism, or about any of the other bugaboos that have animated fringe movements in the past year.

“Pandemics create insecurity, while extremism offers a kind of certainty,” Kruglanski said. “Especially now, when trust is low in government, in Congress, in science, in medicine, the church — there’s nobody you can trust, so you trust your friends, your tribe.

“Extremists offer a black-and-white view,” he said: “There’s a culprit responsible for some evil plan to destroy the nation, and they have a plan for restoration that will bring back greatness.”

text, letter: A May protest against coronavirus restrictions in Annapolis. © Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post A May protest against coronavirus restrictions in Annapolis.

In the current pandemic, white supremacist and neo-Nazi groups have used shutdowns and mask mandates to recruit followers, offering a unified belief system that blames the other — from the Chinese to Jews to socialists — and proposes to resolve anxieties by attacking the existing power structure.

American extremism is not limited to hard times; it has been present in every generation. But it has mainly stayed on the fringe, lunging into the mainstream during periods of rapid, unsettling change, such as during the buildup to World War II, during the social revolution of the late 1960s, after the 9/11 terrorist attacks and today, amid radical technological change and a deadly pandemic.

Pervasive, epidemic diseases — and especially plagues such as AIDS, Ebola, SARS and covid that are perceived to have come from some foreign place — crystallize and exacerbate the core fears of their time, Susan Sontag said in her influential 1988 essay, “AIDS and Its Metaphors.” “Plagues are invariably regarded as judgments on society . . . as a sign of moral laxity or political decline,” she wrote.

From the Black Plague of the Middle Ages to the 1918 “Spanish flu” pandemic, epidemics have been interpreted as engines of a raw, fierce justice. When the 1918 flu killed about 675,000 Americans, many Christians argued that succumbing to pleas from public health officials to wear masks “represented a lack of faith,” Fea said.

Then as now, the rebellion against mask-wearing led to a debate about whether scientists could be trusted, as some evangelical groups viewed government health mandates “as an effort to curb the spread of the Gospel,” Fea said.

“There’s a lot of continuity between the anti-intellectualism of 1918 and the anti-science attitude of 2020,” he said. “In both cases, people said, ‘No, God will protect us.’ ”

a person holding a kite: QAnon supporters in Washington on July 4. © Evelyn Hockstein/For The Washington Post QAnon supporters in Washington on July 4.

As a professional skateboarder, gamer, musician and model, Crigler had developed an online following before the virus hit. But last year, when he shifted the content on his daily YouTube and Twitch shows to focus on mask mandates and baseless allegations of election fraud, his audience mushroomed.

Crigler, 36, attributes his booming popularity — he now has nearly 200,000 YouTube subscribers — to the pandemic.

“People have a lot of time on their hands,” he said. “Covid put a lot of people on the Internet more, seeking community.”

Politically uninvolved for most of his life, Crigler, who lives in Maryland, tended to vote for Democrats. But if asked what party he aligned with, “I’d say ‘I don’t know’ because I didn’t pay attention, I didn’t care.”

Crigler had been a frequent guest on his friend Tim Pool’s online show, mostly talking about pop culture. Then last summer, “because of covid and the riots, it became a political show, and I felt I was slacking,” Crigler said. “So I started doing my own research.”

His online explorations led Crigler to believe that the presidential election was stolen from Trump. But he also says the “Stop the Steal” campaign, the summer’s demonstrations against police brutality, and the nationwide protests against masks probably would not have happened — or would not have drawn as much support — if Americans had not been stuck at home.

“People just weren’t used to being alone so much,” he said. “People want to belong.”

Land, who served on Trump’s evangelical advisory board, said modern society has left people desperate for community. “There are increasing numbers of Americans, left and right, who feel unheard,” he said. “Significant numbers of Americans have no close friends. We have more people living alone than we’ve ever had in our history.”

To that portrait of a lonely nation, the pandemic adds a hefty dose of angst about life itself. “We have been reminded,” Land said, “of the transitory nature of existence.”

Pandemics often inspire a resignation or fatalism — a belief that the disease is so pervasive as to be unstoppable by human action, historians said.

Before he contracted the virus and died last year of covid-19, Bishop Gerald Glenn of New Deliverance Evangelistic Church in Chesterfield, Va., asked his congregation to consider why God let the pandemic happen. “Is this virus a sign of the end times?” he asked.

While some embrace surrender to the disease, others find comfort in rejecting the reality of the threat.

“Believing the virus is a hoax suggests you are smart, that you are not being duped,” Kruglanski said. “Finding someone to blame is human nature. For every plague, there’s a culprit.”

Several studies of responses to pandemics have found that the more trauma people suffer, the more likely they are to turn to extremist ideas. In the years immediately following the 1918 flu pandemic, areas of Germany that experienced the highest death toll saw dramatic increases in voting for the Nazi party, according to a recent analysis by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York.

Like pandemics, spasms of extremism eventually end. Some historians warn that those endings do not necessarily arrive in lockstep, but Kruglanski argues that the process of easing away from extremism begins with the approach he sees in the Biden administration, which appears to have adopted a strategy of “cooling down the temperature, attending to the issue, bringing concrete, visible results.”

If the pandemic is brought under control, “that will cool the enthusiasm for conspiracy theories,” Kruglanski said. “And people will return to their daily concerns.”

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