The "Defeat the Mandates" rally on Sunday in Washington D.C. was not exactly the blockbuster event, size-wise, organizers had hoped to turn out. The event's planners had predicted 20,000 people, but more reasonable estimates suggested it was fewer than half that who actually showed. But despite the paltry turnout, the event was deeply troubling to experts who monitor the far-right.
The tone and tenor of the occasion were so hyperbolic and self-aggrandizing, creating exactly the sort of conditions that will further radicalize ordinary Republicans and stoke more right-wing violence. Disgustingly, one of the main speakers was Robert F. Kennedy Jr., the son of the Democratic scion who was assassinated in 1968. Kennedy has spent the past few years becoming an increasingly unhinged anti-vaccine activist — but his presence on Sunday was even more alarming considering the role that the Kennedy family plays in the imaginations of the QAnon cult.
Many QAnoners believe that JFK and JFK Jr. — Kennedy's deceased uncle and first cousin, respectively — are still alive and secretly supporting Donald Trump. Simply by showing up, Kennedy validated these kinds of fringe beliefs. The situation got much worse when he actually spoke and told the crowd that anti-vaxxers have it worse than Jews did during the Holocaust.
"Even in Hitler Germany (sic), you could, you could cross the Alps into Switzerland. You could hide in an attic, like Anne Frank did," Kennedy said. "I visited, in 1962, East Germany with my father and met people who had climbed the wall and escaped, so it was possible. Many died, true, but it was possible."
Kennedy's analogy is incoherent for obvious reasons — does he think East Germany was a Nazi state or not know that Frank died at the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp? — and was widely criticized for being offensive. The Auschwitz Memorial responded with a tweet describing Kennedy's speech as "a sad symptom of moral & intellectual decay."
But the speech wasn't just offensive — it's also dangerous.
It doesn't matter that Kennedy didn't come right out and call on people to commit violence. It's inciting to tell anti-vaxxers they are victims of oppression worse than what the Jews faced under the Nazis. It justifies violence as a form of self-defense. This is why experts on far-right organizing and violence were alarmed. Ben Collins, an NBC reporter who has been covering the rise of American fascism, was especially concerned.
Most people are wildly underestimating how both large and rhetorically violent this anti-vaccine movement is.\n\nThey are a gigantic, one-issue political movement that will eventually coalesce behind one candidate and make extreme demands before 2024.\n\nBuckle up.— Ben Collins (@Ben Collins) 1642970298
Kennedy was just one of many who made the comparison Sunday, both onstage and in the crowd. There was also a lot of comparing the plight of anti-vaxxers to that of Black Americans living under segregation. Meanwhile, rally organizers pretended theirs was a message of diversity and tolerance. Prominent anti-vaccine activist and rally speaker Del Bigtree insisted this "is a movement of unity," and "if you have any problems with race, or religion, or sexual preference then I don't think you're truly representing this movement."
In reality, however, as Will Carless of USA Today wrote, hate groups and far-right activists are using the anti-vaccine movement to recruit, both online and off. Brian Hughes of the Polarization and Extremism Research and Innovation Lab at American University explained to Carless that the far-right sees "anti-vaccine sentiment and COVID denialism as a market that they can exploit for views, for clicks and for merchandise sales." Indeed, these kinds of groups were heavily represented in the crowd at the rally. As Salon alum and current Daily Beast reporter Zachary Petrizzo noted, "Far-right fanatics were out in full force, from the extremist members of the hate group Proud Boy to rank-and-file supporters who consume everything that conspiracy theorist Alex Jones utters."
But it was also true that more ordinary Republicans also showed up. There were even people claiming to be disillusioned Democrats, although this is a common enough lie on the right and should always be taken with a grain of salt. Either way, what is crucial to understand is that the far-right and hate groups are plugging into the anti-vaccine discourse to lure conservatives into becoming even more fascistic and more supportive of the violent rejection of democracy. (Similarly, fascists have also been using anti-abortion demonstrations to recruit.)
For the past year, being anti-vaccine has been an easy — if often deadly — way for ordinary Republicans to express their hatred of President Joe Biden and to spite Democrats. Fox News and GOP leaders have encouraged their followers to reject the vaccine as a way to show solidarity on the right and make life harder for those who voted against Trump. It's ugly and dangerous behavior — but it has been effective at meeting the liberal-triggering goals.
Biden's approval ratings have been dropping as a result of the prolonged pandemic. Democratic voters, who are more likely to make personal sacrifices like mask-wearing or social distancing to curb the pandemic, have been made to suffer the indignities stemming from a prolonged pandemic, even if their vaccinated status has largely prevented them from being the ones filling up hospitals. Republicans are three times as likely to be unvaccinated as Democrats. That's why anti-vaccine ideology makes a perfect recruiting ground for fascists.
There are a lot of Republican voters whose hatred and desire to spite Democrats has led them to gamble with their own lives by refusing vaccines. It's not much of a leap to believe such folks are open to taking things to the next level, to reject democracy and embrace an authoritarian ideology for the same vindictive reasons. The anti-vaccine discourse is a perfect space to blur the lines between being a petty partisan who is mad about losing an election and being an outright fascist who no longer believes in holding free and fair elections.
In the past, Barbara F. Walter — author the new book “How Civil Wars Start, and How to Stop Them” — served on an advisory panel for the Central Intelligence Agency, she helped CIA agents identify signs that a country is facing serious political instability and the potential for widespread conflict. Now, in 2022, Walter is pointing to her own country, the United States, as a country with that potential.
Walter, in an op-ed published by the Washington Post on January 24, compares the political tensions in the U.S. to what she observed in other countries in the past.
“I will never forget interviewing Berina Kovac, who had lived in multi-ethnic Sarajevo in the early 1990s, when Bosnia and Herzegovina (were) moving toward independence from Yugoslavia,” Walter recalls. “Though militias had begun to organize in the hills and former colleagues increasingly targeted her with ethnic slurs, Kovac continued to go to work, attend weddings and take weekend holidays, trusting that everything would work out.”
“One evening in March 1992,” Walter continues, “she was at home with her infant son when the power went out. ‘And then, suddenly,’ Kovac told me, ‘you started to hear machine guns.’ The civil war that followed, however, was not surprising to those who had been following the data. A year and a half earlier, the CIA had issued a report predicting that Yugoslavia would fall apart within two years and that civil war was a distinct possibility. One reason, the agency noted, was that citizens were organizing themselves into rival ethnic factions — which tends to occur in societies that political scientists call ‘anocracies.’”
Walter goes on to explain what an “anocracy” is and why the Center for Systemic Peace (CSP), at one point, considered the U.S. an “anocracy.”
“Anocracies are neither fully democratic nor fully autocratic,” Walter explains. “Their citizens enjoy some elements of democratic rule, e.g., elections, while other rights — e.g., due process or freedom of the press — suffer. In the last weeks of Donald Trump’s presidency, the respected Center for Systemic Peace (CSP) calculated that, for the first time in more than two centuries, the United States no longer qualified as a democracy. It had, over the preceding five years, become an anocracy. That rating improved to ‘democracy’ just this month, but to put it in perspective, the current U.S. score is the same as Brazil’s 2018 rating — the most recent available for that country — which was two points below Switzerland’s.”
When Trump “attempted to halt the peaceful transfer of power” following the United States’ 2020 presidential election, Walter notes, the CSP believed the U.S. had slipped into “anocracy” territory.
“Anocracy, not autocracy, is our most immediate threat,” Walter warns. “Anocracy is usually transitional — a repressive government allows reforms, or a democracy begins to unravel — and it is volatile. When a country moves into the anocracy zone, the risk of political violence reaches its peak; citizens feel uncertain about their government’s power and legitimacy. Compared with democracies, anocracies with more democratic than autocratic features are three times more likely to experience political instability or civil war.”
When Walter appeared on Joy Reid’s show, “The ReidOut” on MSNBC on January 11, she laid out some reasons why — as someone who has studied civil wars around the world — she finds the United States’ political divisions so troubling. The modern-day Republican Party, Walter told Reid, is obsessed with White “identity” politics rather than “ideology,” and White Americans on the far right fear becoming a minority in the future.
“If experts like those who prepared the CIA report on Yugoslavia had assessed the United States at the end of Trump’s term, they would almost certainly have deemed us at ‘high risk’ of instability and political violence,” Walter writes in her Post op-ed. “The United States was an anocracy, the CSP found, with parties increasingly organized around identity-based grievances. These underlying forces are not going away. We could easily slip back into anocracy. This is what average citizens should be thinking about when they hear that America’s democracy is declining. They are being led, unaware, into a downward spiral of instability, in which extremists and opportunists spread fear — and then grab power by force.”
Former Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Monday denied reports he had reached a deal with prosecutors that would force him to quit politics, and vowed to remain leader of his Likud party.Netanyahu, who served as prime minister from 2009 to until last year, is on trial for bribery, fraud and breach of trust, allegations he has denied.
His legal team has been negotiating a plea deal with Israel's attorney general that, according to Israeli media reports, included an admission to the offence of "moral turpitude," which would have carried a mandatory seven-year ban from politics.
"In recent days, false claims have been published in the media about things I allegedly agreed to, for instance the claim I agreed to moral turpitude. That is simply incorrect," Netanyahu said in a statement.
"I will continue to lead Likud," he added in comments that may dampen speculation about his potential looming exit from the political stage.
Netanyahu, currently the opposition leader in parliament, is accused of accepting improper gifts and seeking to trade regulatory favours with media moguls in exchange for favourable coverage.
His trial is expected to last several more months. An appeal process, if necessary, could take years.
The coalition government that ousted him in June, led by Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, was largely forged through common antipathy towards Netanyahu among a group of ideologically disparate parties.
Political experts have said that Netanyahu's departure from politics, and right-wing Likud's election of a less controversial leader, could spell trouble for the coalition, as it would struggle to hold together in the absence of its main unifying force.