A long time ago, in a time so distant that it now seems like ancient history, I wrote a post entitled Why are antivaccinationists so at home with Libertarianism? (Actually, it was only a little over eight years ago.) The springboard (if you will) for my musings (such as they were) about the affinity between libertarians and antivaxxers was an article on an antivaccine blog that had noted a libertarian backlash against a stand by Ronald Bailey over at the online home of libertarian propaganda Reason entitled Refusing Vaccination Puts Others At Risk, which was subtitled, A pragmatic argument for coercive vaccination. It was an uncommon example of the magazine actually living up to its name in that it recognized that individual rights are not limitless and those “who refuse vaccination for themselves and their children are free-riding off herd immunity.” He even cited Oliver Wendell Holmes when he said, “The right to swing my fist ends where the other man’s nose begins,” calling that principle “particularly salient in the case of whooping cough shots.” At the time, I concluded that Bailey was likely “fighting a losing battle” because libertarians are “all too prone to denying science when it inconveniently clashes with their worship of the free market and individual freedom above all.” With the rightward shift of the antivaccine movement in the intervening time, I now find myself going even further rightward with that shift to ask the same question about fascism.
What prompted me to revisit this question in a different form? I’ll answer with some of the protesters who showed up at the antivaccine “Defeat the Mandates” march last Sunday, the one where Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. invoked Anne Frank and the Holocaust:
Nor was this the first time that the Proud Boys and other fascists have appeared at antivaccine rallies. For example, in July Proud Boys showed up at an antivaccine rally in Los Angeles at which antivaxxers were protesting at a breast cancer clinic, where they harassed patients, as well as the doctors, nurses, and other staff who were caring for them. Violence broke out, some of which involved attacking a cancer patient. Besides Proud Boys, the Boogaloo movement, a loose affiliation known for wanting to spark a second Civil War, and various other paramilitary far right wing militias have become involved, while Proud Boys were spotted throughout 2021 at a number of antivaccine rallies in several different states. Nor has this happened only since the pandemic started. A few months before the pandemic, antivaxxers had already started openly consorting with right wing paramilitary militia groups, such as the California State Militia, whose online chats were repeating common antivaccine misinformation.
Meanwhile, there were all manner of fascistic displays, as described by David Neiwert:
As this Sunday’s “Defeat the Mandates” march in Washington, D.C., however, showed us, there’s no longer anything even remotely left-wing about the movement. Populated with Proud Boys and “Patriot” militiamen, QAnoners and other Alex Jones-style conspiracists who blithely indulge in Holocaust relativism and other barely disguised antisemitism, and ex-hippies who now spout right-wing propaganda—many of them, including speakers, encouraging and threatening violence—the crowd at the National Mall manifested the reality that “anti-vaxxers” now constitute a full-fledged far-right movement, and a potentially violent one at that.
The inherent antisemitism of the anti-vaxxers’ conspiracism was also on full display: A large bus pulled up to the protest area blaring music with lyrics pronouncing “It’s God Over Government,” festooned on its side with mock “Wanted” posters featuring the anti-vaxxers bogeymen, notably Dr. Anthony Fauci, Microsoft founder Bill Gates, and attorney Jacob Rothschild—the latter of whom has no known connection to the vaccine or mandates whatsoever, but whose last name conjures up Hitler’s antisemitic conspiracy theories that identified the family as one of the primary components of the Jewish cabal that Nazis believed secretly controlled the world.
How did we get here? What are the reasons why there now appears to be such an affinity between the antivaccine movement and people who can only be described as out-and-out fascists? Why do the antivaccine movement and fascism now appear to fit together so disturbingly well, with the far right basically on the verge of completely swallowing the antivaccine movement as one very motivated monomaniacal component of its anti-public health, anti-conventional government agenda? I’ll try to explain, but first will note that the idea for this post hit me during my week off between Christmas and New Years as I read How Fascism Works: The Politics of Us and Them by Jason Stanley, the Jacob Urowsky Professor of Philosophy at Yale University. (I highly recommend the book.) As I read, it hit me: Several (although admittedly not all) of the characteristics of fascism that Prof. Stanley describes also apply to the ideology of the antivaccine movement.
Let’s start with a brief recounting of how right wing antivaccinationism went from being a strain in the antivaccine movement being in essence the entire movement. If you’re familiar with this history, you can skip this section. Either way, buckle up. This post is considerably longer than even the average Orac post.
Before the attraction to fascism: The antivaccine movement finds a winning message with the right
Given how tight the association has become between the antivaccine movement and the Republican Party and even far right wing groups like Proud Boys, it’s hard to forget that it wasn’t so long ago that the stereotype of antivaxxers was very different. Back when I first started writing about the antivaccine movement in 2004, there existed an exaggerated if not outright false stereotype that antivaxxers tended to be hippy-dippy crunchy lefties, particularly suburban moms, in liberal enclaves like Marin County or Manhattan. To be sure, there was such a contingent of a “back to nature” crowd, but in reality that stereotype was very wrong in a number of ways. There has always been a libertarian right wing component to the antivaccine movement, for example, General Bert Stubblebine III’s Natural Solutions Foundation, far right libertarians, and others with extreme distrust of the government, including government-recommended vaccine schedules.
Antivaxxers using the rhetoric of “freedom” vs. “oppression” is nothing new, as this letter from 1907 demonstrates:
And this cartoon from the 1880s also shows:
And one more from the same time period:
Years ago, I routinely used to point out that support for vaccination was pretty similar on the right and the left. (At least, it was then.) I also used to suggest that, back in Jenny McCarthy‘s heyday as the celebrity face of the antivaccine movement 14-15 years ago, it was the heavy representation of celebrities among famous antivaxxers that contributed to the public perception that the antivaccine movement was predominantly left wing, Hollywood celebrities like Rob Schneider (admittedly, I’m probably being generous in my definition of “celebrity”), Mayim Bialik, Alec Baldwin, and Robert De Niro, among others. It’s also true that areas with a lot of affluent people on the coasts, whose politics tend to lean heavily liberal, have suffered outbreaks of vaccine-preventable illnesses in recent years leading up the pandemic due to low vaccine uptake. Then, of course, there was (and, alas, still is) Robert F. Kennedy, Jr.
Even then, though, with relatively few exceptions, the most motivated antivaxxers still tended to be conservative, with right wing media giving voice to antivaccine views. As early as 2011, Fox News was airing sympathetic segments on Andrew Wakefield, interviews with Dr. Bob Sears, SafeMinds’ anti-vaccine PSA campaign, and Louise Kuo Habakus (who was virulently anti-vaccine herself and politically active in New Jersey advocating for more easily obtained “philosophical exemption” laws). Politically, some of the most rabid anti-vaccine activists in government were conservative, for instance, Rep. Dan Burton (R-IN). Moreover, as was the case for anti-evolution beliefs, fundamentalist and evangelical Christianity was not uncommonly a motivation for antivaccine views, and, if anything, has become much more so.
I’ve been documenting the increasingly tight association between the right and the antivaccine movement, going back to when the political party formed by antivaxxers, The Canary Party, founded in 2011, started working with Tea Party-affiliated groups in California. Not long after, the Canary Party became known for sucking up to Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA), with one of its major financial backers Jennifer Larson contributing a lot of money to Issa’s campaign (indirectly, of course) in order to buy influence and win a hearing by his committee examining autism and focused on vaccines as one potential cause. Around the same time, at the right-wing Libertarian FreedomFest in 2012 I was privileged to watch a debate between Julian Whitaker and Steve Novella about vaccines. At the debate, vaccine pseudoscience flowed freely from Whitaker in a most embarrassing fashion, and I couldn’t help but note that FreedomFest that year featured two screenings of Leslie Manookian’s antivaccine propaganda piece, The Greater Good and had featured antivaccine talks in previous years. I was there, too, and amazed at the merchandise and conspiracy theories being touted, although in retrospect, in the era years before the rise of QAnon, conspiracy theories about the gold standard and New World Order now seem almost quaint.
This movement rightward by the antivaccine movement appears to have been turbocharged in 2015 during the debate about SB 277, the California law that banned nonmedical exemptions to school vaccine mandates. That was when antivaxxers pivoted from messaging that was primarily about “toxins” in vaccines and the false claim that vaccines caused autism, autoimmune disorders, sterility, and death to messaging that primarily emphasized “vaccine choice,” “freedom,” “parental rights,” and resistance to government mandates. It was a winning message that attracted those of a conservative/libertarian bent, and many of the groups formed in the wake of that political struggle were clearly conservative, such as Texans for Vaccine Choice, Empower Texans, Michigan for Vaccine Choice, and others. (Notice the common thread in the names of these groups?) It is there where the politicization of school vaccine mandates really took off, particularly after Donald Trump entered the mix. By 2015-2016, even Republican presidential candidates like Chris Christie, Ben Carson, and, of course, Donald Trump—Rand Paul, too, but I leave him out because he was always antivaccine—were invoking the same language to pander to the antivaccine movement under the guise of supporting personal and parental rights.
By 2018, I was personally observing this rightward shift and infiltration of conservatism, including the Republican Party, in my neck of the woods, when a candidate for the Republican nomination for my district’s Congressional seat held an antivaccine “vaccine choice roundtable” that I attended incognito and documented, and openly antivax candidates were running for state governor and other offices. By 2019, Republicans in Oregon were openly opposing anything resembling tightening school vaccine mandates, and the Ohio Statehouse was rife with antivax legislators, to the point that antivaxxers were bragging about them. Also, to bring it around, antivaxxers in California were openly marching with the California State Militia, specifically the California State Militia, First Regiment, California Valley Patriots and the State of Jefferson.
Then came the pandemic, and the rest you know. Antivaxxers quickly allied themselves with antimaskers, anti-“lockdown” protesters, and QAnon, with fascists being a common sight now at antivaccine rallies and antivaccine rhetoric becoming increasingly violent. Even “liberal icon” Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. (hint; he’s not a liberal any more, if he ever was) was addressing fascist groups without a hint of irony. Meanwhile, in the wake of the “Defeat the Mandates” rally on Sunday, a number of journalists have been noting the increasingly tight association between the antivaccine movement and the far right, with reports about how far right extremists have “jumped on the antivaccine bandwagon” are recruiting antivaxxers and how prevalent far right groups were at the rally.
Which brings us back to my question: Why do antivaxxers have such an affinity for fascism? I used to joke about how antivaxxers had attracted the right with their message, quipping about the right wingers joining antivaxxers, “Come for the ‘freedumb,’ stay for the antivaccine conspiracy theories.” However, I’m no longer certain that it’s the antivaxxers driving this clown car any more; rather, they seem to have been completely subsumed into the larger right wing ideological movement, drafted as a bunch of particularly fanatical foot soldiers.
Fascism vs. the antivaccine movement, compare and contrast
How Fascism Works is all about the defining traits of fascism. Stanley is far from the first author to have taken on the task of defining fascism, and I’ve read a number of others over the years, which made a lot of what Stanley writes familiar to me. He discusses each major characteristic of fascism in a chapter, the characteristics being:
- The Mythic Past
- Law and order
- Sexual anxiety
- Sodom and Gomorrah
- Arbeit Macht Frei
Some of you will immediately recognize how closely #1, 2, 3, 4, and 6 track to the antivaccine beliefs and rhetoric. Others, such as #8 and 9, seem not to apply at all, but that’s not entirely true, as you will see. You might also ask, what the heck is #10? When I explain, you’ll understand, and you’ll understand it also fits. I’m going to hit the high points of these similarities, after which I’ll look at differences. I am not arguing that all—or even most—antivaxxers are fascists or that the antivaccine movement is a form of fascism. Rather, I am arguing that the commonalities between fascist ideology and the ideas undergirding the antivaccine movement result in a natural affinity between antivaxxers and fascism that makes fascism attractive to antivaxxers and antivaccine ideas attractive to fascists.
Let’s begin with the most prominent aspect of any fascist movement, as discussed by Prof. Stanley, the “mythic past” that has been lost:
It is only natural to begin this book where fascist politics invariably claims to discover its genesis: in the past. Fascist politics invokes a pure mythic past tragically destroyed.
Depending on how the nation is defined, the mythic past may be religiously pure, racially pure, culturally pure, or all of the above. But there is a common structure to all fascist mythologizing. In all fascist mythic pasts, an extreme version of the patriarchal family reigns supreme, even just a few generations ago. Further back in time, the mythic past was a time of glory of the nation, with wars of conquest led by patriotic generals, its armies filled with its countrymen, able-bodied, loyal warriors whose wives were at home raising the next generation. In the present, these myths become the basis of the nation’s identity under fascist politics.
While it is obviously true that the antivaccine movement is not a nationalistic movement and debatable whether it is patriarchal (although the vast majority of the charismatic leaders of the movement are, in fact, male), one can see how antivaxxers are attracted to the fascist idea of a mythic past destroyed by modernity, in this case represented by vaccines. In that past, parents decided how to raise their children, and children acquired “natural immunity” to diseases through suffering through them, rather than through the “artificial” means of vaccination. How often have you seen antivaxxers express the idea that vaccines make you weak, while “natural immunity” is a sign of strength (and, of course, to antivaxxers so much better than that “vaccine-induced” immunity)? Meanwhile, those horrible “liberals” assault formerly sacrosanct “parental rights” in order to indoctrinate children in the cult of vaccination. (I exaggerate, but not by much. Oh, never mind. I don’t exaggerate.)
Indeed, in discussions of “natural immunity,” you’ll often see claims that vaccines are a “depopulation agenda” and, because they violate the mythic past of natural immunity, will lead to ever more virulent variants that will ultimately kill far more people than just letting the virus rip through the population. This is not a new idea, either. Pre-pandemic, Andrew Wakefield was saying the same thing about measles and the MMR vaccine.
Speaking of MMR, the claim that vaccines cause autism can be viewed as part of this idea that vaccines are an assault on the “mythic past.” Back in the day, it was commonly claimed that autism barely existed before the expansion of the childhood vaccine schedule in the 1990s. In this view, vaccines “stole their real child” in the same way that there was a myth of the “lost child” that the parents try desperately to reclaim through all manner of “autism biomed” quackery. (This is basically the modern incarnation of the changeling myth.) The mythic past that antivaxxers pine for was a time when supposedly children were all medically pure, free from all the “toxins” in vaccines and, of course, lots of other things produced by modern science, such as pollution, GMOs, and the like. Indeed, RFK Jr., for example, has portrayed the current generation of children as the “sickest generation,” a clear echo of the fascist view of a mythic past, in RFK Jr.’s conception, when nearly all children were healthy and free of chronic disease, a past that he seeks to reclaim.
Also integral to the lost mythic past in fascism is the concept of purity. In the case of fascism, it’s national, ethnic, and racial purity. Indeed, last year one antivaccine meme that was widely recognized as explicitly fascist was that of the “pureblood,” antivaxxers who bragged about the “purity” of their blood because they were not vaccinated and who dismissed the vaccinated as somehow “unpure.” This concept came from the Harry Potter books and movies, in which wizards uncontaminated by “non-magical blood” were “purebloods,” and considered themselves far superior to those whose ancestors had intermarried with “muggles,” or nonmagical people, for whom the “purebloods” had coined the derogatory term “mudblood,” a word considered as foul among most wizards as the n-word is in real life. This whole aspect of the Harry Potter novels and movies was an obvious allusion to fascism of the Nazi variety, in which “pure Aryans” with “pure blood” were viewed as the height of humanity.
This obsession with purity among antivaxxers can go to extremes, too. I have only to point to the example of Del Bigtree almost dying from bleeding hemorrhoids because he refused transfusion if the doctors couldn’t guarantee that it was only “unvaccinated blood.” (Ultimately, Bigtree’s supporters covered the cost of a flight to Cancun, where he got his transfusion of “unvaccinated blood” at a quack cancer clinic, but at the time his hemoglobin was so low that he risked his life in flying there.) Also part of this ideology is the false claim that mRNA- and adenovirus-based COVID-19 vaccines can “permanently alter” one’s DNA or even be transhumanism. (Before the pandemic, vaccines in general were also portrayed as “transhumanism” that could alter your DNA and subvert natural evolution.) Before the pandemic, most quack treatments for “vaccine injury” involved some form of detoxification as a form of ritual purification.
This affinity towards the “mythic past” that all fascist movements embrace is one large reason why antivaxxers are so commonly also associated with New Age movements, alternative medicine, and various other mystical beliefs. Indeed, here I can’t help but cite Umberto Eco’s classic 1995 essay Ur-Fascism, in which he discusses in the context of traditionalism and this sort of mythic past, the concept of syncretism:
This new culture had to be syncretistic. Syncretism is not only, as the dictionary says, “the combination of different forms of belief or practice”; such a combination must tolerate contradictions. Each of the original messages contains a silver of wisdom, and whenever they seem to say different or incompatible things it is only because all are alluding, allegorically, to the same primeval truth.
As a consequence, there can be no advancement of learning. Truth has been already spelled out once and for all, and we can only keep interpreting its obscure message.
One has only to look at the syllabus of every fascist movement to find the major traditionalist thinkers. The Nazi gnosis was nourished by traditionalist, syncretistic, occult elements. The most influential theoretical source of the theories of the new Italian right, Julius Evola, merged the Holy Grail with The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, alchemy with the Holy Roman and Germanic Empire. The very fact that the Italian right, in order to show its open-mindedness, recently broadened its syllabus to include works by De Maistre, Guenon, and Gramsci, is a blatant proof of syncretism.
If you browse in the shelves that, in American bookstores, are labeled as New Age, you can find there even Saint Augustine who, as far as I know, was not a fascist.
No, he most definitely was not. However, in this concept of syncretism you can find why antivaxxers don’t really have a problem with all the mutually inconsistent “theories” of how vaccines cause autism and all the other health issues for which they blame vaccines. As long as the “truth” that vaccines are bad is at the core of these “theories,” antivaxxers accept them, no matter how mutually contradictory they are. For antivaxxers, the “truth” has already been spelled out.
Propaganda and anti-intellectualism
Anyone who starts following the antivaccine movement will soon note the extreme anti-intellectual bent of the movement. First, let’s see what Prof. Stanley has written:
Fascist politics seeks to undermine public discourse by attacking and devaluing education, expertise, and language. Intelligent debate is impossible without an education with access to different perspectives, a respect for expertise when one’s own knowledge gives out, and a rich enough language to precisely describe reality. When education, expertise, and linguistic distinctions are undermined, there remains only power and tribal identity.
This does not mean that there is no role for universities in fascist politics. In fascist ideology, there is only one legitimate viewpoint, that of the dominant nation. Schools introduce students to the dominant culture and its mythic past. Education therefore either poses a grave threat to fascism or becomes a pillar of support for the mythical nation. It’s no wonder, then, that protests and cultural clashes on campuses represent a true political battleground and receive national attention. The stakes are high.
I’m not going to spend too much time on this aspect, for the simple reason that it is so obvious how much antivaccine rhetoric is anti-intellectual at its core. One only has to go back to Jenny McCarthy dismissing the science and scientists concluding that vaccines did not cause autism and that the “autism biomed” quackery antivaxxers commonly used to treat their autistic children did not work (and is dangerous) with a haughty, “Evan is my science” to see examples. (Evan is her autistic son.) The entire culture and ethos of the “autism biomed” movement rests on the assumption that parents know better than pediatricians and scientists. Meanwhile, a common characteristic of the antivaccine movement is to elevate fake experts like Dr. Peter McCullough, Dr. Robert Malone, and the like over real experts on COVID-19, all to reinforce their viewpoint.
It can get even more ridiculous than that, as a recent article from the COVID-19-minimizing and now antivaccine “spiritual child of the Great Barrington Declaration” think tank, the Brownstone Institute, demonstrates:
Sadly, the difficult-to-counter ‘iT WoULd hAvE BeEn WoooOrSe’ response has become the reliable Branch Covidian go-to when attempting to defend their useless interventions. But would it have been, really?
Enter Ian Miller, an entertainment industry content manager who, like many of us, quickly began questioning the establishment Covid narrative when it didn’t seem to line up with the actual facts on the ground. But instead of surrendering to defeat, Miller promptly put his day job experience dabbling in data analysis to work creating and distributing eye-popping charts that soon made him a Team Reality celebrity and a Branch Covidien foil.
Because my go-to guy for reliable scientific information about a deadly pandemic due to a novel coronavirus would always be an “entertainment industry content manager” who “dabbles in data analysis” and has a knack for producing “eye-popping charts.” Also, I note that a very common denialist tactic is to falsely label science a religion or cult and scientists priests or cult leaders.
As for propaganda, you need look no further than the “Defeat the Mandates” rally and to Joe Rogan for how the antivaccine movement now skillfully uses propaganda that conflates “freedom” with antivaccine beliefs, to the point where I’ve adopted the dictum: Scratch an anti-mandate protester, and you’ll almost always find an antivaxxer beneath. Only very rarely have I ever found exceptions to this rule.
This chapter is primarily about the conspiracy theories that fascism uses to attain and maintain influence and power. Prof. Stanley notes:
The task of defining conspiracy theories presents difficult issues. The philosopher Giulia Napolitano has suggested that we should think of conspiracy theories as “aimed” at some out-group, and in the service of some in-group. Conspiracy theories function to denigrate and delegitimize their targets, by connecting them, mainly symbolically, to problematic acts. Conspiracy theories do not function like ordinary information; they are, after all, often so outlandish that they can hardly be expected to be literally believed. Their function is rather to raise general suspicion about the credibility and the decency of their targets.
Conspiracy theories are a critical mechanism used to delegitimize the mainstream media, which fascist politicians accuse of bias for failing to cover false conspiracies. Perhaps the most famous twentieth-century conspiracy theory revolves around The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, which was at the basis of Nazi ideology. The Protocols is an early-twentieth-century hoax, supposedly written as an instruction manual to Jews as a plot for world domination. Scholars have discovered that it was liberally plagiarized from Maurice Joly’s 1864 book, A Dialogue in Hell Between Machiavelli and Montesquieu, a political satire set as a debate in hell between Montesquieu, who makes the case for liberalism, and Machiavelli, who makes the case for tyranny. Machiavelli’s arguments for tyranny are transformed, in The Protocols, into arguments made by the “Elders of Zion,” supposedly Jewish leaders bent on world domination. It appears to have been published for the first time as an appendix to the Russian author and religious mystic Sergei Nilus’s 1905 book, The Anti-Christ. In 1906, it was published serially in a St. Petersburg newspaper under the title “The Conspiracy, or The Roots of the Disintegration of European Society.” In 1907, it appeared as a book, published by the St. Petersburg Society for the Deaf and Dumb. It sold millions of copies throughout the world in the 1920s, including in the United States, where half a million copies were mass-produced and distributed by Henry Ford, the automaker, by 1925.
According to The Protocols, Jews are at the center of a global conspiracy that dominates the most respected mainstream media outlets and the global economic system, using them to spread democracy, capitalism, and communism, all masks for Jewish interests. The most prominent and influential Nazi leaders, including Hitler and Goebbels, firmly believed this conspiracy theory to be true. Throughout Nazi writings, we find denunciations of the “Jewish press” for failure to denounce or even mention the international Jewish conspiracy.
Just last weekend, we saw an example of fascist rhetoric from an antivaxxer in plain sight when Del Bigtree said this:
There’s nothing like invoking a modern day version of the lügenpresse (“lying press,” Adolf Hitler’s favorite way of describing the press when it looked into the corruption and violence of the Nazi Party before he became Chancellor and then a favorite propaganda point after he attained power) to echo fascist rhetoric from the past, particularly when coupled with a demand for retribution that goes beyond even the “Nuremberg” fantasies of antivaxxers who want a tribunal to “punish” vaccine-advocating scientists and doctors.
I once coined the phrase “the central conspiracy theory of the antivaccine movement” because the antivaccine movement is rooted in variations of a single conspiracy theory, as is all science denial. The idea behind the central conspiracy theory of the antivaccine movement is, obviously, that vaccines are harmful (and don’t work) but also that “they” (some combination of the CDC, FDA, federal and state governments, big pharma, and the medical profession) are “covering up” the evidence for this harm, all in the service of an agenda that is very similar to the sort of agenda attributed to Jews in The Protocols, namely control and world domination—even, “depopulation.” (I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve seen the claim that “vaccine passports” and mandates are about “control,” not public health.) Simpsonwood, the antivaccine conspiracy theory first pushed into the mainstream by RFK Jr. in 2005 was a version of this conspiracy theory in which the CDC met at the Simpsonwood conference center in suburban Atlanta in 2000 to “hide” supposedly “inconvenient data” showing that mercury in the thimerosal preservative used in several child vaccines at the time was associated with a hugely elevated risk of autism. (It wasn’t.) Six years ago, Del Bigtree and Andrew Wakefield’s propaganda film disguised as a documentary (VAXXED) told the story of the “CDC whistleblower,” who supposedly revealed that the CDC had in 2004 “covered up” data showing that the MMR vaccine produced a four-fold increased risk of autism in African-American boys. Then, if you want, you can get into even more bizarre conspiracy theories in which the “global elite”—cough, cough, Jews—are conspiring with aliens to depopulate the world, after which they would reap wealth and power ruling for our alien overlords. (I kid you not.) Unsurprisingly, it’s a conspiracy theory that’s been updated for COVID-19.
There’s also the antisemitism. For example:
I’ll just finish this section by noting that I’ve lost track of the number of times that antivaxxers have mistakenly assumed from my name that I’m Jewish and directed antisemitic conspiracy-laden rhetoric at me going way, way back.
In his chapter on this aspect of fascism, one that’s exemplified by the “stab in the back” mythology promoted by the Nazis that claimed that Germany would have won World War I if not for being “stabbed in the back” by Jews and Bolshevists, who undermined the war effort and led to their defeat.
Prof. Stanley writes:
Fascist propaganda typically features aching hymns to the sense of anguish that accompanies loss of dominant status. This sense of loss, which is genuine, is manipulated in fascist politics into aggrieved victimhood and exploited to justify past, continuing, or new forms of oppression.
It really doesn’t take very long to see examples of just how much antivaxxers share this sense of aggrieved victimhood and how eager they have been to claim the status of “victims.” It might be easy to laugh when they portray themselves as “bullied,” the “new civil rights movement” fighting against a new Jim Crow, and the victims of “othering” of the sort that led to the Holocaust, the Rwandan genocide, and the like, but they really, really believe it. That’s why they have long likened vaccines and vaccine mandates to slavery (even likening pre-pandemic laws on vaccine mandates to the Fugitive Slave Act), rape, segregation and Jim Crow, human trafficking and sex slavery, and child grooming. To further their message as victims, antivaxxers have co-opted holidays commemorating the end of oppression (e.g., Juneteenth, which commemorates the end of slavery) and symbols of oppression (e.g., the Yellow Star of David used by Nazis to identify Jews in Germany and their conquered territories) and declared themselves to be like abolitionists.
Worse, the “oppressors” are often shared between fascism and the antivaccine movement, in particular “liberal” governments, atheistic scientists who dismiss mothers’ cries that vaccines “ruined” their children or families’ claims that the COVID-19 vaccine killed their loved ones. Again, the ends of this “oppression” often very much resemble the ends of the Jewish elders in The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion or coded representations of Jews, such as the “global elite.”
Of course, the flip side of this sense of victimhood is that everyone is a “hero.” Returning to Eco’s classic Ur-Fascism:
In such a perspective everybody is educated to become a hero. In every mythology the hero is an exceptional being, but in Ur-Fascist ideology, heroism is the norm. This cult of heroism is strictly linked with the cult of death.
Those familiar with the antivaccine movement will have come across such rhetoric from antivaxxers before. For the “autism biomed” movement, it comes in the form of the “never give up, never surrender” culture when it comes to quackery to treat autism. I have discussed antivax fantasies consistent with this aspect of ur-fascism before, such as antivaxxer Kent Heckenlively’s taking inspiration from J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings to envision himself, Walter Mitty-like, as Aragorn, the returned King of Gondor, marching on the Black Gate of Mordor in what he knew to be a suicide mission, but a mission that he and the heroes who followed him were willing to undertake in order to distract the Dark Lord Sauron and give the hobbits Frodo and Sam a chance to reach Mount Doom to destroy the One Ring. In his fantasy, Heckenlively even quoted Aragorn’s rousing speech to his soldiers as the battle was joined:
I see in your eyes the same fear that would take the heart of me. A day may come when the courage of men fails, when we forsake our friends and break all bonds of fellowship, but it is not this day. An hour of wolves and shattered shields, when the age of men comes crashing down, but it is not this day! This day we fight! Then I jump off my horse, and with the setting sun behind me, a reckless, almost manic glint in my eye and a crooked grin, I am first to charge into the enemy army.
That was but one example, and I could easily recount many more of antivaxxers envisioning themselves risking their lives and even dying heroic deaths as “freedom fighters.” It’s a rhetoric that has only gotten more extreme since the pandemic and is shared by Proud Boys and other neofascist groups.
To quote Umberto Eco again, fascism demands that its followers “must feel besieged” and “humiliated.”
Arbeit Macht Frei
Arbeit Macht Frei (“Work sets you free” or “Work makes one free”) is a Nazi slogan famous for appearing on the entrance to Auschwitz and other Nazi concentration camps. You might ask: What does this slogan have to do with the antivaccine movement? Your puzzlement would be understandable, too, as I was initially puzzled as I read Prof. Stanley’s book; that is, until I hit this passage:
In fascist ideology, in times of crisis and need, the state reserves support for members of the chosen nation, for “us” and not “them.” The justification is invariably because “they” are lazy, lack a work ethic, and cannot be trusted with state funds and because “they” are criminal and seek only to live off state largesse. In fascist politics, “they” can be cured of laziness and thievery by hard labor. This is why the gates of Auschwitz had emblazoned on them the slogan ARBEIT MACHT FREI—work shall make you free.
In Nazi ideology, Jews were lazy, corrupt criminals who spent their time scheming to take the money of hardworking Aryans, a job that was facilitated by the state.
Upon reading that and the rest of the chapter, I was immediately reminded of a video that Del Bigtree made early in the pandemic, before there were even vaccines against COVID-19, in which he argued (and I’m quoting a lot of his rant):
What is the group that is really at risk? Let’s be honest about this and say something that might get me some trouble here, but let’s be honest. That group is very well known. It’s people over the age of 65—not just because you’re over the age of 65, but you’re sick with other diseases. You have heart disease. You have COPD. You have diabetes. You have issues, many of those issues coming from the fact that you didn’t treat your body very well while you were on this planet. And I want to talk about this for one minute as we close this down. That 0.26% are the most sick among us, and I have nothing against you. Go ahead and bubble wrap your house. Lock yourself in your basement. Go and do what’s necessary.
But here’s the problem. When you were my age, you were most likely eating food and fast food and Doritos and drinking Coca-Cola, which you’ll never find in my home. You were eating that all the time. You probably were drinking a lot of alcoholic beverages and really liked to party and enjoyed your cigarettes and said to yourself, “You know what? It’s more about the quality of my life right now. I don’t care if I live to be 100 years old. I want to enjoy my life right now. I like the finer things in life. I like good rich food. I like smoking a cigarette once in a while. I like to drink my drinks.” And you know what? Good on you! That’s the United States of America. No problem, that, some of my best friends think like that. It’s great, and they’re fun to hang out with. That’s perfectly OK.
But here’s what’s not OK. When you reach that point in your life where now your arteries are starting to clog up, your body is shutting down, and the alcohol is eating up your liver, and you have diabetes, or you have multiple COPD, you have asthma, you can’t breathe, all the cigarette smoking has finally caught up with you, you have heart disease because of the way you decided to live your life in the moment, here’s what you are now. You are pharmaceutical-dependent. You did that to yourself, not me. You decided that the moment mattered, and now you find yourself pharmaceutical-dependent, which is really what that 0.26% is, and that’s OK too. Thank God there’s drugs out there! There’s drugs that allow you to eat the Philly cheesesteak even though your body knows it hates it, but, go ahead, take the Prilosec. What difference does it make? Drug yourself! Drug yourself! Get through the day! Don’t exercise! Maybe just attach an electrode and see if a little electricity to the stomach will give you the abs you want.
Come on! Grow up! You made choices! And now that you’re pharmaceutically dependent, here’s what you don’t get to do. You don’t get to say I have to take a drug to protect you. That’s what this is. You don’t get to say I have to wear a mask and suck in my own CO2 to protect you. You don’t get to say I have to lock myself in a basement and destroy my career and take away my own ability to feed children because you are pharmaceutical dependent. You lived your life. You made your choice. And thank God we live in the United States of America so you don’t have to worry about grocery police standing outside a grocery store saying, “Really? You really need four liters of Coca-Cola? You really need four bags of Doritos or Chitos or Fritos or whatever the heck it is, little cupcakes with synthetic icing on them? You really need all that?” Because we could go there. We could go there. If we’re really going to get into each other’s schiznit, that’s what we could do.
Or could we live and let live? Eat all the Twinkies you want! Drink all the bourbon you want, and smoke as many cigarettes as you want, and when you find yourself pharmaceutical-dependent I will go ahead and say thank God the drug companies are there for you, but you do not get to make me pharmaceutical-dependent. You do not get to put me in the way of Heidi Larson, who wants to eradicate natural health and natural immunity and make us all pharmaceutical dependent.
In other words, even before there even was a vaccine against COVID-19, Del Bigtree was arguing that you shouldn’t be able to make him take a “drug to protect me” and thereby make him “pharmaceutical-dependent” just because you had been lazy and irresponsible and hadn’t done the hard work when you were young to keep yourself healthy, having chosen instead to party. It’s not his fault, Bigtree said, that you now scheme (like Jews) to protect yourself from COVID-19 by forcing upstanding health freaks like him, who presumably had been “hard working” and therefore “worthy” and morally deserving all his life in terms of his health, to become “pharmaceutical-dependent.”
None of this is new to the pandemic, either. Longtime readers might remember my writing about Bill Maher so many times back in the day. My favorite example of this sort of thinking is still a 2008 episode of Real Time With Bill Maher, during which Maher told his guest Bob Costas about influenza and the flu vaccine. During that interview, Maher claimed that because he lived right and ate a healthy diet he “never gets the flu” and “wouldn’t get the flu” on an airplane even if several people with the flu were coughing on that same plane. To his credit, Bob Costas’ reply was hilariously spot-on, “Oh, come on, Superman!”
Without a doubt, antivaxxers do often believe that diet, exercise, and living the “right way” will make us all supermen and superwomen, able to resist the nastiest of vaccine-preventable diseases without actual vaccines. In their worldview, only those who are “lazy” and don’t do the hard work of keeping our body’s internal “terrain” sufficiently “pure” fall victim to diseases like COVID-19 or the flu. It’s a belief system that goes back centuries, if not millennia, to religious ideas about purity and will that have long been interwoven in “natural” or “alternative” medicine. Indeed, there’s a reason why diet gurus are so attracted to antivaccine beliefs as well, and it’s this idea that diet alone is a magic bullet against disease.
Come to think of it, there is more resemblance between antivaxxers and fascists in this aspect of fascism than I had previously thought as I started writing this.
Why antivaxxers are attracted to fascism and fascists to antivax beliefs
Obviously, despite the large areas of similarity between fascism and antivaccine beliefs, there is nowhere near a perfect confluence between the belief systems, which is why I leave the rest of Prof. Stanley’s components of fascism for the end. For example, I haven’t found that “law and order” are necessarily a huge chunk of antivaccine beliefs, unless you mean “natural law.” On the other hand, antivaccine fantasies about putting provaccine advocates, physicians, and scientists on trial for their “crimes” and labeling them as “criminals” could be viewed as fitting, although it is an imperfect fit. Similarly, the idea of strict natural hierarchies is another “sort of” fit, with antivaxxers viewing themselves as inherently superior due to their “purity” and their “goodness” and “worthiness” that makes them supposedly healthier to the point that they don’t need vaccines.
Finally, Prof. Stanley’s categories of “Sodom and Gomorrah” (the fascist fear of cosmopolitanism and sexual freedom, as represented by women’s rights and acceptance of LGBTQIA people) and sexual anxiety (fear of interbreeding and race-mixing) are related and relevant, just not as much as many of the other aspects of fascism. For example, one can arguably view antivaxxers’ longstanding obsession with false fears that vaccines contain “aborted fetal tissue,” “sterilize our young womenfolk,” and turn boys into homosexuals in this light. Similarly one could also view the way antivaxxers have weaponized transphobic memes to mock trans people and vaccination as fitting into these aspects of fascism, as they had long blamed vaccines for homosexuality before that.
I will conclude by emphasizing that, contrary to how this post will no doubt be characterized by antivaxxers, I am not arguing that antivaxxers are fascists. What I am doing, based on Prof. Stanley’s book describing components of fascism, is describing the commonalities between fascism and antivaccine beliefs that might account for why, right here, right now, in 2022, swaths of the antivaccine movement too large to be dismissed as mere aberrations have eagerly embraced outright fascist politics and why, in turn, the far right has eagerly embraced antivaccine beliefs under the guise of opposition to vaccine mandates.
Again, I’m not saying all—or even most—antivaxxers are fascist, but…
Antivaxxers participate because there is considerable overlap in the Venn diagram of their belief systems and worldview and that of the actual fascists, and fascists are attracted to the antivaccine movement for the same reason. The match doesn’t have to be exact, just enough, because, as Eco observed:
This is not because fascism contained in itself, so to speak in their quintessential state, all the elements of any later form of totalitarianism. On the contrary, fascism had no quintessence. Fascism was a fuzzy totalitarianism, a collage of different philosophical and political ideas, a beehive of contradictions.
To Eco, fascism was an “all-purpose term because one can eliminate from a fascist regime one or more features, and it will still be recognizable as fascist,” a characterization that applies with respect to the antivaccine movement.
In the end, it matters less to me who embraced whom first. I used to think that antivaxxers had succeeded beyond their wildest dreams after having enticed the right to their cause with messages of “freedom,” “parental rights,” and resistance to government vaccine mandates, that they have “taken over the right,” but now I’m not so sure. These days, I’m starting to come around to the idea that it is the far right that, because of the commonalities between fascism and antivaccine beliefs, has “turned the tables” and absorbed the antivaccine movement whole, turning it into a tool to radicalize mainstream conservatives (e.g., mainstream Republicans) by attacking COVID-19 mandates. Either way, now that vaccines and vaccine mandates have been hopelessly politicized, I fear very much for public health in the future, particularly given that I’m rapidly approaching what I hope to be my golden years and will, sooner than I’d like to admit, be one of the elderly “vulnerable” people so completely unvalued by antivaxxers.
It’s almost enough to make me miss those libertarian antivaxxers from the ancient history of less than a decade ago.
ADDENDUM May 18, 2023: Here’s an instance of an antivaxxer inadvertently demonstrating the accuracy of this post.
Here’s the full Tweet: