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3 Jun, 2020 13:18

Right-wing protests or left-wing riots: Covid-19 is just a weapon in a street war of ideologies

Right-wing protests or left-wing riots: Covid-19 is just a weapon in a street war of ideologies

Over the space of a month, America’s polarized extremes, galvanized by differing narratives of outrage, have created the conditions for a second wave of coronavirus infections and fatalities.

The scale of the widespread protests in the aftermath of the death of George Floyd are immensely larger in proportion to the earlier demonstrations by factions on the right in relation to intrusive government and social distancing. However, the antagonisms and triggering events standing as symbols or proxies for a larger sense of ideological threat are very similar.

A month or so ago, a fringe of the American right, encompassing a loose coalition of libertarians, Trump acolytes, gun activists, vaccine opponents, and disgruntled business owners, began to congregate outside governors’ mansions in major cities, demonstrating in defiance of what they interpreted as a governmental imposition in their lives.

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Irate at what they considered the heavy-handedness of social distancing and stay-at-home orders, and the un-American notion of being mandated at the municipal, state and federal levels as to how to behave, they milled about, without masks on, in close proximity to one another, holding up placards saying: “My constitutional rights are essential,” or “Practice media distancing.”

At an ideological level, they saw the restrictions enacted around the world as inherently un-American, and that abiding fully by similar measures in the United States would allow a symbolic undermining of the notion of American exceptionalism. Wearing masks and meekly following government dictates was not “culturally” American. 

They also maintained that the threat of the pandemic was exaggerated by a histrionic and exaggerating media, who were prepared to wilfully distort the scale and duration of the threat, in order to increase ratings and cast the Trump administration as reacting inadequately to an escalating crisis. 

In wilfully defying edicts to maintain social distancing at their gatherings outside state landmarks across the country, they increased the possibility of the contagion spreading further, and of prolonging the length of time the virus would remain a threat. 

Just as it would be a month or so later on the left, with groups such as Antifa, sinister far-right groups began to appear amid the anti-lockdown demonstrations. These included the self-identified Western-chauvinist Proud Boys group, and the Oath Keepers, a group bound by a pledge to “defend the constitution against all enemies, foreign and domestic,” even if that means defying the government.

In another dynamic, to be repeated on a much larger scale just a month later by frustrated demonstrators on the left, many right-wing protesters in Michigan, carrying guns and wearing military gear, shouted and chanted at police officers, wearing protective face masks, as they entered the state capitol. 

Another extreme on both sides, in largely unrelated contexts, has been the theme of disruptive resistance justified by a sense of oppression. The Long Island branch of a right-wing militia group declared that the state’s orders to shut down businesses, churches and public gatherings were the acts of “an overbearing government acting under the guise of benevolence,” and had created “an untenable situation” that justified resistance. “Any government, or governing representative which acts in such a manner, attempts to act outside of the constitution, and must be put on notice as doing such,” they said. 

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Among extreme, and even frustrated voices in the mainstream of the ongoing protests over George Floyd, there is rhetoric about resistance, of organizing and mobilizing.

In the surge of demonstrations on the right, then on a larger scale on the left, there has been a similar sense of outrage at a repressive “system,” with wildly different interpretations of the nature and source of that system. For the right, it is cultural “elites” and a “deep state” undermining and encroaching on liberties, and entrenched bias in the media. For demonstrators on the left, reacting to police violence, it is privileged white economic “elites” and entrenched racial bias. 

These extreme views, and the razor-sharp divisions in America, have resulted in public demonstrations on both sides, on a different scale, placing the need to express ideological outrage and defiance above the threat of a lethal pathogen transmitted by social proximity. The common threat of Covid-19 has been superseded, for many, by specific allegiances, and the sense of a larger social “moment.” 

Similar, too, are the emphases placed on the respective surges of protest by partisan media. During the demonstrations by the far right a month ago outside state capitals, the emphasis, for the left-wing media, was the dangerous health implications of the protesters not wearing masks or maintaining social distancing, as opposed to the ideological views driving the turnout. Right-wing media emphasized the frustrations of the protesters and linked them to national ideological tensions and national politics. 

A month later, the priorities of the two sides were proportionally switched, with the mainstream media placing less emphasis on the health implications of tightly-packed demonstrations and partial use of masks, attributing the breakdown of public health guidelines as a consequence of passionate emotion, and wider ideological and societal stakes.

Starting with the extreme right, and now, a month later, a left-leaning mainstream of protesters, America has witnessed a breakdown of public health guidelines, which may very well culminate in a resurgence of the coronavirus, just when it seemed like the pathogen, which has thus far claimed the lives of over 100,000 citizens, was beginning to recede.

Such is the extent of the US’ social divisions and entrenched problems, that to a great many Americans, the dominant concerns right now are ideological, not viral. 

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The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.