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Since being ordered to shelter in place, I’ve watched every episode of Schitt’s Creek and have now resorted to Ru Paul’s Drag Race and Top Chef for comfort. In that world, the worst that can happen is that a joke doesn’t land, a costume fails, or someone has to go home. But those are just distractions. Most of the day, often most of the night, I fuss and worry, cataloging all of the ways in which this pandemic has, as a friend of a friend put it, turned a black light onto the semen-stained hotel bed that is America.
The Covid-19 pandemic has exaggerated the downside of neoliberalism, making its effects suddenly legible by presenting them to us in grotesque caricature. The chickens have come home to roost with a giant thud—a thud resonant enough that more than one kind of precarity is climbing the class ladder and crossing traditional racial divides. Meanwhile, the haters, the white nationalists, are totally lit over what’s going down. And they aren’t alone. The apocalyptic wing of the religious right can hear the pitter-patter of 16 hooves just over the horizon, signaling the end times.
Reports of anti-Asian violence and harassment abound, and right-wing websites, subreddits, and message boards are full of conspiracy theories and racist tropes targeting the Chinese. Incidents like those documented here, here, and here, point to a resurgence of “yellow peril” racism and remind us of the peculiar power of Orientalism to make Asians easy targets of racist conspiracy theories by casting us as forever foreign in our tastes, interests, and loyalties. President Trump’s insistence on calling Covid-19 “Chinese,” whether intended as a deflection or red meat for his base, appears to be playing an important, even definitive role here, legitimating racist right-wing conspiracy theories, and giving white nationalists permission. That permission is amplified by federal government inaction in the face of community demands to address reports of hate crimes.
The stakes are high. This country’s white nationalists aren’t just a marginal movement guided by exotic ideologies wielded by thugs and outlaws. They are a well-organized political movement that played a critical role in the election of an American president.
As a result, the far right is better positioned to wield influence than its counterparts on the left. Taken together, the theocratic Christian and the white nationalist factions of the right are supported by right-wing oligarchs; they have colleges, a law school, a major news network, and a well-organized, armed paramilitary wing. And since the Trump presidency, the white nationalists have joined the theocratic Christian right as part of the Republican coalition—giving them a direct pipeline into national politics and leadership positions on the White House staff, in the Department of Homeland Security, the Department of State, and the Department of Justice.
For white nationalists, this pandemic may be right on time. Because when it comes to sheltering in place, white nationalists are the experts. In the wake of the Oklahoma City bombing 25 years ago this week, they were driven underground. There they built on their history as early adopters of new technologies by creating a dense, sophisticated array of social media sites that they were already using as one of their primary means of recruitment, radicalization, and political education long before the rest of us were sent indoors by Covid-19. And when economic and political systems are exposed as fragile, that apparent fragility may be far more galvanizing for radical movements on the right that are already intent on collapsing government, inciting a civil war, and fomenting revolution.
The current eruptions of anti-Asian harassment and violence may just be—as author Mab Segrest described the Trump election—the earthquake before the tsunami. When we are released from quarantine, the wave may follow, bringing the real, lasting damage. Invigorated white nationalists, viewing the Chinese in Trump’s deflections and attacks as a proxy for “globalists”—a white nationalist dog whistle for “Jews”—could well emerge primed for action.
Steven Gardiner of Political Research Associates, a 40-year-old nonprofit strategy and research center that is monitoring how anti-Chinese resentment is blending with anti-globalism and anti-Semitism, sums up the current situation: “The racist right is both inciting its followers and engaging in a bigoted call-and-response with the Trump administration…. Provocateurs like Anne Coulter are consolidating every Sinophobic slur into Covid-19 currency for right-wing media consumers, while more sober seeming outlets like American Renaissance are waxing nostalgic for the Chinese Exclusion Act with unmasked white nationalism.”
This kind of bait-and-switch—in which targets of popular bigotry are used as proxies for less easily assailed scapegoats—is a tried and true tactic of the right. And it’s facilitated by a failure of vigilance against racism and other bigotries, both as social ills and as antidemocratic ideologies. Asian Americans and Jews are both easy targets in the contemporary US context, because the racism we are subjected to isn’t regarded as important, politically meaningful, or sexy media fodder. We think of racism only in terms of harm to “the most vulnerable.” We focus mainly on the most corrosive effects in terms of poverty—shortened life expectancies, mass incarceration, unemployment, etc.—which have the effect of making racism appear to be a “them” issue to mainstream white voters and not an “us” crisis of democracy, eroding our ability to see across traditional divides to our shared interest in supporting an equitable welfare state that provides, among other things, robust public health infrastructure. It is only when racism directed at soft targets like Jews and Asians takes on a certain lurid quality—when it gets exaggerated by racial terrorists—that we consider it important enough for serious consideration by the media and the general public.
I fear that this pandemic may prove to be the Reichstag fire of our time—the kind of shocking, terrorizing event that softens us for scapegoating and authoritarian appeals from autocrats. We’ve already seen authoritarians around the world—Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines, Viktor Orbán of Hungary, Narendra Modi of India—take advantage of the pandemic to broaden their powers. Here in the United States, Trump has talked of nationalizing industries and appears to have hopes of using the Covid-19 stimulus package to present himself as a benign dictator. If the white nationalist right surges as the pandemic winds down, and waves of violence result, the authoritarian opening will only grow bigger.
Identity activists left of center in the United States have a healthy dose of cynicism toward law enforcement and government. But the fight against the white nationalist movement should be viewed as a fight for the state, not against the state, making the fight against the violent wing of white nationalism a fight for police accountability—not a free-for-all. If we fail to do so, I fear the opening will become bigger still.
The state must maintain a monopoly on violence. A challenge to that monopoly from the right, as we saw in Charlottesville and other US cities in the first years of Trump’s presidency, must be met with immediate, unequivocal opposition by law enforcement. Opponents of white nationalism must demand enforcement efforts to contain white nationalist terror, seizing the high ground rather than allowing ourselves to be lured into the street brawls that white nationalists are trying to bait us into. If we fail to do so, false equivalencies can be made, and, through a post-Covid lens conditioned by a softer, gentler brand of authoritarianism posing as protection, the justification for a dramatic increase in police repression may not be far behind.
The right, as I pointed out earlier, has many advantages over the left. But one thing the left has that the right can’t match is our shared interest with the majority of Americans who oppose right-wing political agendas and terrorism. Taking advantage of this opportunity, however, will require us to ally ourselves with more centrist political factions in the most broadly based coalitions possible. Can we go beyond simply being in the majority to acting like we are the majority? That is the question of this moment. The future of democracy—and perhaps our very lives—may depend on the answer.