How Authoritarian Movements Are Exploiting COVID Restriction Protests

"Freedom" rallies protesting COVID health measures are uniting conspiracy theorists and anti-democracy forces behind a common cause: undermining the liberal democratic order.
Anti-lockdown rally at Trafalgar Square, London &#8211; September 19, 2020. (By <a href="">Steven.Eason</a>, licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0)

Anti-lockdown rally at Trafalgar Square, London – September 19, 2020. (By Steven.Eason, licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0)

Dr. Chamila Liyanage is a Policy and Practitioner Fellow at the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right (CARR) and a Researcher/Content Developer at Radical-R: Radicalisation Research, UK.

Since 2020, during the pandemic and the lead-up to the tightly-contested US presidential election, people have started to gather in city centers in the US, Europe, and elsewhere, representing a phenomenon called the “freedom rally.” At first, it seemed like various lockdowns forced frustrated people to come out and vent their anger, which is understandable. However, as time passes, freedom rallies have started to show the character not just of random popular protests, but of movements driven by strong ideological undercurrents.

Current freedom rallies reveal many ideologies and interests. The rallies are mainly summoned by instant messaging apps but originate from long incubated beliefs and ideologies on the Internet. It is important to analyze the characteristics of freedom rallies and the growing movements that contribute to the ongoing protests.

Freedom rallies are significant as they tend to create a platform that effortlessly includes many ideologies despite their obvious differences. For example, these rallies have already brought conspiracy theorists out into the open, breaking long-existing social and psychological taboos, and rebranding the participants as “freedom fighters” and “truth seekers.” The rallies have hosted conspiracy theorists with New Age spiritualists, and anti-democratic political elements. With their ability to accommodate diverse beliefs, freedom rallies show a remarkable ability to adapt to wider subcultural undercurrents and steer them toward a common cause. Focusing on their protean character, this article aims to analyze the ideologies, aims, alliances, and context of freedom rallies.

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Freedom Rallies: The Characteristics

Freedom rallies are primarily aimed at downplaying the pandemic and the pandemic safety measures such as mask-wearing, vaccination, and lockdowns. An anti-pandemic stance is a result of pandemic denial and distortion based on the belief that the pandemic is a pretext for greater social control. Such beliefs naturally sit in conspiratorial thinking, correlating with all sorts of conspiracy narratives such as the evil cabal of elites, the plan for a global government, and the agenda of depopulation.

These conspiracy narratives have already associated, not any authoritarian elements, but liberal democratic establishment as the perpetrator, plotting against the people. Maligning liberal democracy creates a wider platform for anti-democratic/authoritarian elements such as the far-right, populists, revolutionary conservatives, autocrats, and ultra-nationalists. Rallies accommodate spiritualists, end-time believers, and religious denominations, creating an unlikely alliance as they appropriate their beliefs with the pandemic and the accompanying conspiracy narratives such as the plot against the people.

Who attends freedom rallies and why? This piece analyzes placards held in several freedom rallies in Trafalgar Square, London; Berlin, Germany; and Sydney, Australia during 2020–2021. According to the evidence, six broad categories can be identified as the active representation of freedom rallies.

The first and most fundamental category is conspiracies, which seamlessly links with all other categories in one way or another, Conspiracies create an alternative reality where many other thought movements can be mobilized based on fitting versions of alternative realities. A clear case of ‘unreality’ is at play in freedom rallies. This ‘unreality’ has been cultured to the extent that many no longer doubt their versions of connected unrealities. This phenomenon cannot be blamed on individual mental health, but it shows a clear case of mass social delusion, carefully crafted, and orchestrated on the Internet for a political purpose.

The second category visible in freedom rallies is pseudo-science-based ideologies such as anti-vax, 5G, alternative medicine, and alternative lifestyle circles. These people buy into the grand conspiracy theory of “the plot against the people” to endorse their pseudo-science.

The third category lives up to the name of the rallies and includes anti-lockdown freedom seekers. However, they empathize with the main conspiracy narratives, not believing the pandemic exists and branding it as a hoax.

The fourth major category comes from the current global trend of populism, anti-establishment, and anti-mainstream thoughts. This is a broader movement of counterculture, which accommodates many ideologies and beliefs under the slogan of “we are the 99%” and includes anti-democratic political elements. It is a massive political platform being steered against the democratic establishment, elites, big companies, media, and the current mainstream, rooted in neoliberalism.

The fifth category is spiritual and religious; these people buy into conspiratorial reality and the anti-establishment furor for their own reasons. They mix conspiracy and anti-establishment narratives with established spiritual beliefs, positioning current crises within the age-old end-time creeds.

All the above five ideological positions are broad and can accommodate a variety of beliefs and ideologies. The fundamental conspiratorial alternative reality is robust after germinating socio-political consciousness for long enough to mobilize and rally people against what is falsely supposed to be a coming diabolical plot against the people. This idea of a “red pill” or the “poison pill” has become a potent weapon of anti-democratic forces worldwide, who seem not to stop at anything in their quest to malign liberal democracy.

The sixth and last category obvious in freedom rallies is a streamlined version, a concoction of conspiracies, religion, spirituality, populism, pseudo-science, and pure imagination, amassed in the belief system of QAnon as a potent subcultural weapon. QAnon catchphrases such as “We are Q”, “WWG1WGA”, “We are the truth Q” cannot go unnoticed but are rare, as more placards are based on the main plotline of QAnon: the “diabolical plot against the people.”

Evidence shows that freedom rallies are fundamentally driven by a carefully crafted conspiratorial alternative reality, specifically aimed at maligning the liberal democratic establishment and the neo-liberal mainstream as diabolical. Who benefits from delegitimizing liberal democracy, branding it as something secretive and harmful for people?

The direct beneficiaries are the worldwide anti-democratic movements, fundamentalist and authoritarian elements, autocratic regimes, and their allies. The context of freedom rallies is unmissably the rise of authoritarianism. Freedom rallies can be likened to a lost cause for many of their convening subcultures.

For example, maligning and delegitimizing democracy will not deliver the wishes of the New Age creed. Discrediting democracy will not bring a better alternative for a multitude of conspiracy theorists. Democratic decay will not deliver any freedom to truth-seekers or so-called freedom fighters. That which can only come from the trampling of democratic values is nothing better but ominous authoritarianism, which is now disguised in the sheep’s clothing of freedom and tradition.

It will be the last place anyone could seek freedom. However, authoritarianism symbolizes the most fitting example where many of the current freedom seekers’ and conspiracy theorists’ worse fears can come true.

This article is brought to you by the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right (CARR). Through their research, CARR intends to lead discussions on the development of radical right extremism around the world. Rantt has been partnered with CARR for 3 years. We’ve published over 150 articles from CARR’s network of PhDs, historians, professors, and experts analyzing extremism and combating disinformation.

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