This isn’t the apocalypse pop culture prepared us for.
We were promised fire and panic and blood in the streets, shambling hordes of zombies and cities disappearing in mushroom clouds. We were promised leather-clad biker gangs and the ruins of famous monuments and the Statue of Liberty half-buried on the shore. We were promised the collapse of civilization’s flimsy veneer and a resurgence of humanity’s underlying savagery, a world where the most ruthless would rise to the top.
Instead, what we got was quieter, more subtle and more slow-rolling than anyone could have guessed. It’s an apocalypse of sheltering at home and baking bread, rainbows in windows and long walks in spring and Lysol.
And it is an apocalypse, make no mistake about that. The word has come to mean a world-ending catastrophe, but the original Greek really just means a revelation, an unveiling of what was previously hidden. This pandemic certainly qualifies. It’s laid bare the fragile global supply chains and the invisible, underpaid armies of service workers we depend on. It’s exposed the tenuousness of a social safety net that was designed in the hope no one would use it and the deadly danger we put ourselves in when we elect game-show leaders who disregard science and sneer at expertise.
For most of us, this is a valuable reminder that a real crisis doesn’t have to look like Hollywood’s dramatized disaster imagery. However, there are those who refuse to accept this. They were eagerly anticipating the end of the world, and they’re angry that it hasn’t unfolded the way they planned. They’re determined to force reality to conform to their script.
That’s the lesson of the ugly spectacle in Michigan this past week, where armed right-wing protesters tried to storm the statehouse and threatened elected officials:
They carried guns and demanded that state police let them on the House floor, effectively storming the Capitol with firearms in order to threaten their local politicians. This morning, Michigan representatives went to work wearing bulletproof vests — all because they chose to try and protect their citizens during an unprecedented pandemic.
…Rally-goers have generally been fairly open about their right-wing sympathies. Many wear Trump MAGA hats. Confederate flags have been displayed at rallies across the country, including in Michigan, a union state.
As you’d expect, the Trumpism and Confederate sympathy on display at these rallies shades by indistinguishable degrees into white supremacy. Racist groups across the country are trying to use the coronavirus as a recruiting tool. They variously disparage the virus as a government plot to bring about totalitarianism or as a plague brought by immigrants, but either way, they’re convinced it will bring about the civil war they seek:
One subculture known as “accelerationists” lives in constant expectation of a race war that will topple the federal government. The pandemic became the latest in a long line of possible igniters.
Some label their expected second civil war “the boogaloo,” and experts have tracked a spike in interest in the term on social media… It went through various mutations and emerged sometimes as the “Big Igloo” or the “Big Luau.” That is why adherents sometimes wear Hawaiian shirts, say those who track them. Many such shirts were in evidence when armed protesters stormed the state capital in Lansing, Mich., Thursday and they have appeared in rallies across the country.
Some white supremacists have even suggested deliberately spreading the coronavirus as a form of crude bioterrorism, according to an intelligence brief from the Department of Homeland Security:
According to Yahoo News, white supremacists used the secure messaging app Telegram to discuss their plans to spread the virus and suggested targeting law-enforcement agents and “nonwhite” people. But they were also open to targeting some “public places in general,” the brief said.
The report said that to carry out their plans, white supremacists floated options like leaving “saliva on door handles” at local FBI offices, spitting on elevator buttons, spreading the virus in “nonwhite neighborhoods,” and being in public with their perceived enemies.
Whether it’s Trump cultists raging at health-care workers or neo-Nazis licking doorknobs, all these gun-toting tough-guy wannabes (I like “ammosexuals“) were looking forward to the apocalypse because they believe they would be the survivors on top of the heap if civilization collapsed. They were thrilled at the prospect of finally getting to shoot people consequence-free. They really do picture themselves as Mad Max-esque heroes who mow down the opposition, reforge society in their own image and rule as kings. This thread on Twitter sums it up:
Do you know why the "preppers" are losing their shit?
Because this wasn't the apocalypse they were promised. They were promised a wasteland; a sudden destruction of everything; with bodies littering the streets and a massive power vacuum, which they would get to fill.
— T Karney (@pecunium) May 1, 2020
And as you can tell by the participation of white supremacists, there are overtones of race war to their macho fantasies. When they imagine themselves defending their homes and their women with guns blazing, you can be sure that the “us” they have in mind is a band of heroic white gun owners, and you can be equally sure that the faceless enemy they’re picturing is a horde of dark-skinned invaders coming to loot and pillage.
But, as I said, reality has disappointed them. The crisis they’ve dreamed of has finally arrived – except it can’t be solved with guns. The coronavirus will pass, but it will take PPE, ventilators and hand sanitizer. It will take medical students and retired doctors volunteering to help those already on the front lines. It will take scientists in many countries sharing knowledge to create a vaccine. It will take rent and mortgage suspensions, a stronger social safety net, paid sick leave for essential workers, and more companies allowing employees to work from home.
In short, it will require common sense and compassion, cooperation and collaboration – all the best parts of civilization, and everything the far right hates. Their temper tantrum in Michigan arose from the realization that this isn’t the apocalypse they wanted, and that they have nothing to contribute to the one that’s actually happening.
To be clear, I’m not saying that everyone who’s upset or frustrated right now must be a Trump-loving white supremacist. While the pandemic is raging, the lockdowns are necessary to keep hospitals from being overwhelmed (in which case it wouldn’t just be COVID-19 patients who’d die, but everyone who has a heart attack or gets in a car crash or has a medical crisis that could otherwise have been treated). But they cause immense economic damage – unemployment, business failures, hunger, homelessness – not to mention the psychological toll of isolation and depression, so they should be in force for the absolute minimum amount of time and in the least restrictive way possible (for example, there’s probably no good reason to close parks).
These tradeoffs are real, and difficult to make. But again, the right wing has nothing to contribute but rage and spittle. A good rule of thumb is that people wearing MAGA hats and Confederate flags and toting assault rifles aren’t the ones we should turn to for a rational evaluation of the tradeoffs between peak hospital capacity and the economic harm of mass unemployment.