The face mask, along with the ReOpen protests, have become cultural signifiers that have been organized and spread by the far right to advance their political agenda.
A mix of grassroots and astroturfing, the reopen protests and larger information spread of conspiracy theories have created a new culture war in the United States, Canada, Europe, and Australia.
The COVID-19 virus and the validity of its existence has become a political opinion – whether or not the virus is real, where it came from, and whether or not the numbers reflecting infection and deaths are valid are debatable.
Conspiracy theories abound about the true nature of the virus, of the true nature of government leaders who have taken action to prevent its spread, and also cycle dangerous xenophobic rhetoric that has resulted in the rise of anti-Asian hate crimes.
But the most visible consequence of this disbelief, these conspiracy theories, and the turn of the COVID-19 crisis into a matter of political opinion has been the armed protestors at protests in states like Michigan, North Carolina, Kentucky, among others.
The images have become familiar to people all over the world – protests, particularly in the U.S., featuring citizens who refuse to abide by government stay-at-home orders, videos that go viral featuring people refusing to wear face masks to enter stores, and tragically, even deaths and violent attacks as a result of enforcing mask policies.
Most notably, armed white men stormed the Michigan capitol building, screaming and demanding entry into the chambers of the Governor of Michigan and to the state senate floor.
Many of these ReOpen protests are attended by men carrying assault rifles, wearing military uniforms, bulletproof vests, and in one case, one man was seen carrying a rocket launcher. Amidst signs that say things as banal as “I want a haircut,” the protests not only feature armed protestors but confederate flags, protestors carrying nooses, and swastikas abounded.
These reopen protests not only reveal the inner workings of the far right’s political agenda and the right-wing psyche, but also reveal much about white masculinity.
Indeed, it is no surprise that these protests occurred in places where the top offices are held by left-leaning women – Michigan’s governor is Democrat Gretchen Whitmer, and Attorney General Dana Nessel – a Jewish lesbian.
Women leaders, minority leaders, LGBTQ leaders, and especially women of color leaders, are dangerous “others” who need to be removed and taught their “rightful place,” for they are existential threats to white men.
These angry white men, outraged at the overreach of the government whom they perceive as taking away their liberty, are exercising their so-called freedoms and attempting to reclaim something greater than just abolishing face masks and reopening businesses: they are trying to reclaim their manhood from those they perceive to be taking it away.
To exercise and reclaim their power, they then rely on symbols of masculinity like guns, the military, and rugged individualism and self-reliance. But since masculinity in the U.S. is understood in relation to the racial hierarchy, they are also deploying rhetoric and discourse that reflects the aggrieved entitlement used to mobilize white men by helping them understand and identify their plight – and more importantly, identifying who is to blame for their subjugated masculinity.
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ReOpening the portal to white male domination
Far-right groups and militias are seizing the chaos and anger in the ReOpen movement to recruit, to make themselves appear more mainstream, and to insert themselves into the broader COVID-19 narrative.
By positioning themselves as “freedom fighters” who are trying to prevent a takeover of the country by a “tyrannical” and “authoritarian” government, they don’t market themselves as white supremacists and misogynists, but as “Pro American,” “Pro-Family,” and “Pro-Tradition.”
To militarize COVID-19 rhetoric and mobilize around the shared notion of “fighting for freedom” mobilizes these groups and helps them to recruit others – fighting an invisible attacker (the virus) means that the targets for their vitriol manifest in whom they perceived as the enemy all along – women, minorities, and liberals.
More importantly, the origin of the virus from Wuhan, China, factors into this identification of the enemy other: Asians, and more broadly immigrants and globalization (which is believed to be a Jewish conspiracy), are seen as threats to the white nation.
The connection between these dangerous “others’ and disease rhetoric, particularly in the midst of actual pandemics, is used to advance nationalist agendas and to justify violence against the “diseased” group – which we have seen in increased hate crimes against Asians, Jews, and the LGBTQ community.
The ReOpen protests and the militarized discourse surrounding the COVID-19 crisis not only continues the masculinist project of sexualized militarism but gives a simulated power to the protestors themselves. The refusal to wear masks, for instance, by many of these male protestors is linked to the perception that masks make them look weak.
The connection between emasculation and appearing “sickly” and “weak” demonstrates the greatest fear for heterosexual men in a patriarchal society – to be called weak, or perceived as such, is the greatest insult, for men are supposed to be the defenders of the nation. Being forced to wear a mask and stay at home insults and violates their masculinity.
Stay-at-home orders and wearing masks are the most visible and pervasive examples of subjugation that many of these male protestors have latched on to as signifiers, but the relationship between patriarchal masculinity and nationalism are closely intertwined, particularly among the far-right.
Nationalism in the modern era, is a masculinist project – men are the defenders, purveyors, and force that drives the nation. Militias, 3%ers, the Ku Klux Klan, and many other right-leaning groups ground patriarchal masculinity, the man as protector, into their ideologies.
The idea of the self-made, self-reliant, hypermasculine American man is invoked not just by these militias but by white supremacist groups, both of whom use their masculinity and threats to it as mobilizing factors. The presence of guns and guns rights activists at these protests is not a coincidence – the connection between guns and the protection of hegemonic masculinity boils down to the defense of gun ownership is the defense of masculinity, and the defense of the “heroic masculine.”
Tropes like the soldier and blue-collar workers are examples of “exemplary masculinities” and are presented as defenders of [white, male] “American Values” and are all a part of the masculine fantasy that keeps white men at the top of the hierarchy in the West; even if many of the men participating in these protests have never been a part of the romanticized working-class man or military so often invoked in right-wing rhetoric.
Defying stay-at-home orders, refusing to wear masks, and storming Capitol buildings while holding assault rifles are all ways that these white men deploy the symbolic capital of masculinity. This reveals something significant about the nature of the white male psyche: the only way they can understand their plight is through this narrow lens of masculinity, which is also a fruitful way of enticing others to join their efforts.
For example, they deploy rhetoric that implies (implicitly and explicitly) that to threaten and subjugate the white man is simply “Un-American,” and is a violation of what they believe to be their fundamental right to remain morally and politically dominant.
In The Anatomy of Fascism, Paxton brings attention to the fascist fantasy of revolution meant to bring about the nation’s rebirth – militias and other far-right groups are treating these ReOpen protests and the COVID-19 crisis as a chance to recreate the nation in their image, by spreading dangerous conspiracy theories, perpetuating extreme xenophobia and racism, and at the most extreme, neo-Nazi accelerationist groups have used the crisis to plan attacks. These protests are not simply disgruntled protestors tired of staying at home, they are acts of terrorism and should be treated as such.
The stay-at-home protests have been seized as an opportunity by white supremacists, racist militias, and other hyper-masculine and racist groups like The Proud Boys to advance their own agendas and to reclaim their entitled masculine dominance.
Their entitlement, privilege, and virulent rage toward their enemies are mobilizing forces during a crisis that aims to continue the dominant position of white men in America and in the West more broadly.
Right-wing elites have seized the opportunity of the pandemic to push forth legislation in multiple countries that allows for mass surveillance, indefinite detention, and halting immigration and increasing deportation. White supremacists are calling for the coming “boogaloo,” that they believe will finally bring forth the rapture of a race war and a fascist future.
These ReOpen protests aren’t about freedom. They’re what happens when the toxic mix of American exceptionalism, hyper-individualism, masculinity, and racism all coalesce together and create social mobilization.
The extent to which right-wing organizations will mobilize these grassroots movements is yet to be seen, and their outcomes will have political and social consequences long after the current COVID-19 crisis.
In the cover picture: Protests against lockdown. Photo Credit: Paul Becker via Flickr
Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed here by Impakter.com contributors are their own, not those of Impakter.com