'To defy Trump's wishes is to defy God's plan': The scary truth about modern right-wing misinformation
U.S. President Donald Trump appears on stage at a rally in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, U.S. April 29, 2017. REUTERS/Carlo Allegri

Death threats will change a person. During previous testimony before a Senate panel, the nation’s top infectious disease expert was calm and deferential. This week marked a break from the past. Enough is enough, apparently. Dr. Anthony Fauci was no longer in the mood.

Senator Roger Marshall of Kansas kept pressing the question of financial disclosures, implying that Fauci was benefiting from the effort to vaccinate the country against the covid pandemic.

Fauci, as head of the White House pandemic response, is a public servant. By law, he must disclose financial information. So of course he didn’t understand Marshall’s question, because his “financial disclosure is public knowledge” and has been for more than three decades.

Two things. Marshall knew this and was pretending not to or he didn’t know this, which should be embarrassing for a sitting senator. Either way, Marshall said his staff could not find the document. Well, it’s here. Ultimately, he was pandering to believers of rightwing misinformation.

After a heated exchange in which Marshall kept insisting Fauci was hiding something and Fauci kept insisting he’s not – “all you have to do is ask” for the disclosure – Fauci said, “What a moron! Jesus Christ!” (He said this to himself, obviously, not realizing his mic was still on.)

Is Fauci showing us how to handle rightwingers? That’s what I asked Sara Aniano on Wednesday. She’s a Monmouth University graduate student studying rightwing rhetoric and conspiracy theories on social media. She co-authored a new report for the Global Network on Extremism and Technology analyzing QAnon trends a year after J6.

She said Fauci’s pushback felt good, but in the end, it probably doesn’t help. “The reality is pretty dire,” she said. Propaganda, conspiracy theory and misinformation have “already infected the population.” It’s too late even for the Washington press corps to do much about it.

The way Anthony Fauci talked to the Republicans is how everyone should talk to rightwing extremists. Am I on to something?

Absolutely. For a lot of people on the left, Fauci's pushback was refreshing. People are tired of the pandering, and of watching misinformation be lumped into the category of “free speech.”

While Fauci’s “moron” comment was indeed a great moment of transparency, we should also consider his ability to humanize the situation with the anecdote about his own harassment.

The left is often considered "soft” in contrast with the alleged "hard truth" attitude of the GOP. While Fauci's position is not about partisanship, anti-vaxx movements have unfortunately aligned with the right and the far-right. So it feels like Fauci is speaking for us, even though he's really speaking on behalf of everyone.

It seems to me speaking for everyone is often interpreted as soft. In other words, acting for the benefit of the common good immediately marks you as an enemy by rightwingers.

For a party that increasingly demonizes collectivism, it's in their best interest to continue promoting "individual responsibility,” as it works for their messaging politically. But for the extreme far-right, it's more sinister. In their minds, there is a war going on between good and evil. And if you're not on their side, their black-and-white thinking places you into the "enemy" category.

The irony is that they are actually collectivists, too, no?

I hear that a lot. In comparison to other countries, America is not a collectivist culture. In my opinion, anyone who pushes extreme nationalism here is also pushing extreme individualism.

As a leftist researcher of far-right misinformation, I admit to a certain level of bias. But January 6 marked a clear turning point in how we view partisanship, I think, and we can't discard that.

Why is it a turning point? We turned from what to what?

For a lot of us studying far-right extremism and misinformation, we couldn't help but feel this collective "we told you so" when January 6 happened. For the first time, we had a visual manifestation of far-right conspiracism that wasn't limited to social media or fringe news programs. In other words, everyone saw people act on the ideologies that misinformation researchers sift through every day.

Of course, how people interpret what they saw is what's shaping their opinion now.

Which is where misinformation comes back, right?

Here's something I tweeted on the anniversary of the insurrection: “By the end of January 6, 2021, Americans were left with the most damaging relic of all: Yet another unfathomable event, born of hate and delusion, for far-right conspiracy theorists to contort into a self-serving narrative that unfairly demonizes the innocent.”

I want to cry.

A lot of us can relate to that.

To what extent is anti-vaccination about purity of blood? To what extent is anti-vaccination cover for plain old white supremacy?

It's interesting, because even if anti-vaxxers don't realize it, the "pure blood" characterization of the unvaccinated has roots to eugenics, which of course has roots to white supremacy.

But to go back to the idea of "infiltration," I think vaccine skepticism ties into that too.

Please go on.

I've been thinking about what types of infiltration the far-right finds most threatening. So far I've come up with three categories: 1) member infiltration, 2) spiritual infiltration and 3) bodily infiltration.

Member infiltration seems to stem from a fear of the "other" hiding in plain sight, trying to live among them but with heinous intentions. We see that a lot with paranoia about Antifa, the feds, Jews or journalists "posing" as patriots.

Spiritual infiltration has a lot to do with "demonic forces" among us. Satanic panic stuff. With QAnon, we see allegations of Satanic rituals in Hollywood or even reptilians wearing skinsuits to pass as humans.

Physical infiltration is a lot about co-opting "my body my choice" messaging to push back against the vaccine, which many think is the mark of the beast or a 5G transmitter or radioactive or a microchip. A lot of crossover with pseudo-science.

There is so much overlap that it's hard to make exclusive categories, but you get the idea.

We haven't talked about religion. What does your research say?

Yes, religion or spirituality is inextricable from far-right narratives overall. My thesis, currently in progress, focuses on QAnon Instagram comments in the week leading up to J6.

Rhetoric that pushes a higher power is always mixed in with far-right narratives, and overwhelmingly, that's Christianity. A lot of people who believe election fraud theories in QAnon circles genuinely think that Donald Trump was anointed by God – he is the chosen leader to usher in "the storm" and defeat the evil Democrats, once and for all.

In their minds, to defy Trump's wishes is to defy God's plan. I wouldn't say that this is ubiquitous across the right, to be clear. That's a pretty extreme version. But religion presents itself across far-right rhetoric in general, even when it doesn't involve Donald Trump.

Trump abruptly hung up on Steve Inskeep after the host of NPR’s “Morning Edition” challenged him repeatedly on the big lie? Are such challenges what a democratic republic needs?

I think Inskeep did a great job, although many were upset with NPR for bringing Trump on in the first place. Your question is a hard one. People asked the same thing during and after the 2020 election when Trump alleged fraud on TV before the ballot counting was even complete. Some networks cut his speech off, while others aired it.

Any time we platform misinformation, especially when we can see it coming, we must provide context and a good reason for showcasing it. If we can shut it down in the meantime, then yes, we should.

But if I'm being honest, I think that ship has sailed.

I don't know if it matters anymore if we cut off conspiratorial rhetoric from Trump and others when it's already infected the population.

Are you suggesting the press can’t really mitigate the spread?

Once Trump normalized discourse that was hateful, xenophobic, conspiratorial and sexist, he made it more mainstream. People who previously self-censored those thoughts felt free to not only think them, but say them – particularly on social media, where anonymity removes accountability. That hasn't really changed.

I guess my point is – the press should do what it can to mitigate misinformation, of course, but the reality is pretty dire.

There's a serious epistemological crisis going on, and that's gonna require systemic change.

Again, I want to cry.