It will come as no great surprise that I’m no fan of the Great Barrington Declaration (GBD), a document written by three useful idiot scientists brought together by Jeffery Tucker at the headquarters of the libertarian “free market” think tank American Institute for Economic Research (AIER), where he served as editorial director. Published in October 2020, the GBD advocated a “let ‘er rip” strategy for the COVID-19 among the young and healthy (and presumably low-risk) population designed to rapidly reach “natural herd immunity,” with “focused protection” proposed as a means of protecting people at high risk of severe disease and death, such as the elderly and those with chronic health conditions that made them high risk (e.g., diabetes). Indeed, not long after the GBD was published, I likened it to previous denialist documents signed by pseudoexperts promulgated to sway public opinion against the scientific consensus, such a documents casting doubt on the theory of evolution, whether HIV causes AIDS, and the scientific consensus from climate science that human activity is dramatically altering the earth’s climate, with disastrous implications. (I also called it eugenics, because it basically advocated sacrificing the vulnerable, either through death or longstanding lockdown, so that the young could continue their lives normally.)
Not satisfied with having been, as he bragged, in the “room where it happened” as the GBD was being drafted, Jeffrey Tucker left AIER a few months later to form his own libertarian think tank, the Brownstone Institute, which he himself described as the “spiritual child of the GBD.” There, he recruited the useful idiot who became the prime behind writing the GBD, Harvard scientist Martin Kulldorff, to be Brownstone’s scientific director, along with a bevy of other ideologues, COVID-19 pandemic minimizers, antimaskers, anti-lockdowners, and, yes, antivaxxers. Even before the appearance of the Delta and Omicron variants of SARs-CoV-2, the coronavirus that causes COVID-19, it was clear to public health scientists, epidemiologists, and infectious disease experts that the GBD never would have worked, but since those variants demonstrated that COVID-19 evolve to overcome postinfection “natural immunity” claims that we can ever reach “natural herd immunity” to the disease are delusional at best.
So why am I mentioning Jeffrey Tucker again? Because news stories from last month have been sticking with me, leaving niggling little reminders that I really should write about them, even if it’s been over three weeks. I’m referring to stories like this one:
Tucker also was used as a source for a story in the New York Post, Monticello is going woke — and trashing Thomas Jefferson’s legacy in the process:
“The whole thing has the feel of propaganda and manipulation,” Jeffrey Tucker, founder of the libertarian Brownstone Institute and a recent visitor, told The Post. “People on my tour seemed sad and demoralized.”
The new emphasis is the culmination of a 10-year effort to balance the historical record, officials of the Thomas Jefferson Foundation, the nonprofit that owns the estate, have said.
But visitors complain that employees go out of their way to belittle Jefferson and his life.
As a result, lots of people are comment bombing posts like this on the Monticello Facebook page with complaints about “wokeism”:
Leading me to repost this perennial meme:
How is it that I did not know these things when I originally started writing about Jeffrey Tucker and his involvement with pandemic minimization and rallying opposition to public health interventions to slow the spread and mitigate the effects of COVID-19? Let’s go to the story:
Today’s little Fox News gem was a segment on what a huge bummer it is to visit Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello these days, what with all the focus on slavery and what not at what was built as a slave plantation.
A bow-tied, bespectacled guest for the segment was billed hilariously in one chyron as a “recent Monticello visitor.” Turns out there’s a little more to the story.
The guest was one Jeffrey Tucker. Who?
Tucker is a former Ron Paul acolyte who has worked with Lew Rockwell in various capacities, including at the Ludwig von Mises Institute. But there’s a bit more to it than that. A 20-year-old report by the Southern Poverty Law Center on the Neo-Confederate movement identified Tucker and Rockwell as founding members of the League of the South:Both Rockwell and institute research director Jeffrey Tucker are listed on the racist League of the South’s Web page as founding members — and both men deny their membership. Tucker has written for League publications, and many League members have taught at the institute’s seminars and given presentations at its conferences.
We need not be drawn into a debate over whether they were in fact founding members of the League of the South. It wouldn’t be the first time a fringe organization touted ties it didn’t have to draw attention to itself. Suffice to say though, there was a lot of crossover between the League of the South and Rockwell’s Ludwig von Mises Institute. Some that cross-pollination is detailed in this 2016 piece for the Washington Post.
The League of the South faded away for a while, but in its heyday it was a racist and secessionist forerunner of the current brand of white nationalism that animates the far right.
I also note that, back in the day, Tucker was very good at destroying irony meters. For example, in 2017 he complained about a “racist threat” to libertarianism:
“I’ve been concerned about some libertarians trending alt-right, because these hard alt-right proto-fascists and neo-Nazis have been trolling libertarians for years,” said the libertarian writer Jeffrey Tucker, who has written extensively about the racist threat to the movement. “They’re doing to libertarianism what they did to Pepe the frog, or Taylor Swift — to co-opt it. They know that no normal American is going to rally around the Nazi flag, so they’re taking ours.”
Unfortunately, as we know now, a disturbing number of “normal” Americans will and do rally around the Nazi flag, or, at least, under other fascist symbols not quite famous. Also, given Tucker’s involvement with far right Neo-Confederate fringe organizations in the past, it’s really very hard to believe Tucker’s claim that libertarianism was an innocent political movement being “co-opted” by fascists and racists, like cartoon characters or pop stars.
So why even bring this up? I can just see it now, certain readers who are—shall we say?—receptive to right wing messaging complaining that this post is nothing but one massive ad hominem. The first part of my response is that it’s not an ad hominem if you point out a person’s background and also refute his arguments with science, facts, and reason, as I’ve done quite a few times with Jeffrey Tucker, the GBD, and its Tucker-founded “spiritual child” the Brownstone Institute. Feel free to peruse the lists in the links provided. What I’m interested in here is in discussion why we might see someone like Tucker rise to become so influential in the resistance to COVID-19 public health efforts to mitigate and control the pandemic, with his institute not only spreading antimask and anti-“lockdown” misinformation, but also promoting antivaccine disinformation even as it can’t make up its mind whether to label public health fascist or Communist. (Maybe it’s both!)
Six months ago (which seems like a lifetime now), I wrote at length about why there is such an affinity between fascism and the antivaccine movement. What I didn’t say then that I sometimes say on Twitter is: Scratch a libertarian, and all too often you will find a fascist underneath the veneer. That’s because libertarianism, by and large, supports privilege and white supremacy. (Seeing Tucker’s reaction to a discussion of slavery at Monticello is a great example.) It’s always all about my freedoms, which lockdowns, masks, and vaccine mandates impact but, for instance, police violence does not so much, at least not if you’re white.
John Ganz put it well describing libertarian Peter Thiel (whom we met once before when he was picking candidates to be FDA Commissioner for then President-Elect Donald Trump):
Thiel’s libertarianism is about freedom—freedom for him and people like him, the entrepreneurial elite of the capitalist class. He’s openly antidemocratic. In an essay for the Cato Institute, Thiel once wrote, “I no longer believe that freedom and democracy are compatible…” Why? Because if you empower the demos, they will eventually vote for restrictions on the power of capitalists. and therefore, restrictions on their “freedom.” He continues, “Since 1920, the vast increase in welfare beneficiaries and the extension of the franchise to women — two constituencies that are notoriously tough for libertarians — have rendered the notion of ‘capitalist democracy‘ into an oxymoron.” In that 2009 essay, Thiel imagines a kind of futurist program of utopian projects “beyond politics” in cyberspace or “seasteading,” but it’s clear now he’s returned to believing in politics, or at least an anti-political form of politics.
The brand of radical libertarianism favored by Thiel and his crony Curtis Yarvin has long looked to crackpot authoritarian solutions that would enable unalloyed capitalist domination.
This passage reminds me of, well, lots of articles on the Brownstone Institute lamenting how lockdowns harm business. Sure, they’ll throw in the sop every now and then about how lockdowns are harming the poor, but their overwhelming concern is for business owners, to the point where Tucker himself co-opted a word often used to describe payment to victims of slavery and other historical atrocities, “reparations,” to compensation to businesses harmed by “lockdowns” in an article entitled Reparations for the Business Victims of Lockdowns, although, quite pointedly, he does not mention slavery in his rant about how businesses should be compensated with “reparations”:
The damage is done. The carnage is around us all. Nothing can change that. We can hope for truth and honesty but longing for pure justice is futile. That realization makes the pandemic response even more morally objectionable.
If, however, we think of lockdown reparations as consisting of some form of compensation, there could be a path for a new crop of political leaders to pursue. There is precedent for this: the US government did pay reparations to those victimized in Japanese internment camps during World War II. Germany was forced to pay reparations after World War I (that did not end well).
The lockdowns were and are an intolerable attack on property rights, the freedom of association, free enterprise, and basic rights of trade and exchange that have been a bedrock of a thriving economy since the ancient world. They were also without precedent on this scale. We need a clear statement from the top that this was wrong, and did not achieve the aims. A well-constructed reparations package would make the point.
There is no doubt that many businesses were harmed by COVID-19 interventions, and it can certainly be argued that compensation was inadequate, but, as I like to point out, if you read the Brownstone Institute’s output, you’ll see that it’s obsessed with this sort of narrative, rather than with frontline medical workers, grocery store workers, and workers for essential businesses for whom working at home was not an option, or even police and frontline responders like paramedics for whom working from home was also not an option. All of them put their lives on the line facing the danger of COVID-19 every day, often with little choice in the matter.
As I discussed previously, support for vaccination used to be pretty similar on the right and the left. I also used to suggest that, back in Jenny McCarthy‘s heyday as the celebrity face of the antivaccine movement 15 years ago, the heavy representation of celebrities among famous antivaxxers contributed to the public perception that the antivaccine movement was predominantly left wing, Hollywood celebrities like Rob Schneider, Mayim Bialik, Alec Baldwin, and Robert De Niro, among others. Then, of course, there was (and, alas, still is) Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., who is now arguably the biggest name in the antivaccine movement and also arguably no longer liberal, given his recent palling around with fascists.
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. Politically, some of the most rabid anti-vaccine activists in government were conservative, for instance, Rep. Dan Burton (R-IN).
As far as libertarians go, at 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.
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.
There’s another interesting bit about Tucker’s background. He has a long association with the Mises Institute, named for Ludwig von Mises, an Austrian economist and historian whose writings have strongly influenced the libertarian movement. Although many of Mises’ writings are critical of fascism, Mises is also known for having been strangely laudatory of fascism on at least one occasion, for example as an “emergency” measure to protect capitalism:
As one wag wrote, it’s “easy to beat up on Mises” for this assertion, but “he’s just performing his ideological role as spokesman of the capitalist class: this rationalization of a ‘limited’ fascism as a sort of ‘custodial dictatorship’ that would fix things up for capitalism and ‘civilization’s’ sake was virtually a commonplace among the interwar bourgeoisie.”
Interestingly, Tucker similarly seems to be willing to support goals aligned to this end. Indeed, he is very big on attacking the “deep state,” namely the civil service:
In short, Schedule F — which Trump announced in an October 2020 executive order — would create a new classification of federal government workers who are deemed to have an effect on policy making. They would, consequently, be stripped of employment protections. Federal workers were spared the prospect of being summarily dismissed by Trump’s executive branch minions because of the timing: Trump pursued the policy in earnest just a few weeks before the end of his first term, and he wasn’t able to steal a second one.
Tucker is a huge supporter:
In fact, the only Schedule F-obsessed person I’m aware of who I didn’t see referenced in Swan’s piece is Jeffrey Tucker, the libertarian writer who has a long history with the racist right, and who you may remember as a recent Fox News guest. Tucker complained bitterly that the staff at Monticello, Thomas Jefferson’s historic home and plantation, was teaching the public about… the slavery part. Tucker seems to post to Twitter enthusiastically about Schedule F basically every other week.
There are several articles, by Tucker and others, at the Brownstone Institute website as well. For example, Tucker portrays Schedule F as the “people” actually controlling the government, rather than as a means for a President to eliminate pesky impediments to total power in the bureaucracy. Robert “inventor of mRNA vaccines” Malone, for his part, hates the “medical deep state” for its role in trying to keep government health policy science-based regardless of who the President happens to be.
In fairness, I have to mention that Tucker has in the past railed about fascism as being a great evil. Tellingly, however, he refers to it as a form of “right wing collectivism,” borrowing the term “collectivism” that’s traditionally been ascribed to Communist regimes. With this little rhetorical trick, he appears to be buying into the “liberal fascism” distortion promoted by Jonah Goldberg and fascist-adjacent pundits that seeks to claim that fascism is not a right-wing/conservative political movement but rather a left-wing phenomenon. It’s basically the rhetorical equivalent of, “I know you are, but what am I?” It’s a category error, a fallacy in which one compares or conflates things that actually belong in different categories.
When I discussed how the antivaccine movement and fascism have an affinity for each other, I included the history of how antivaxxers had long used rhetoric that appealed to the right, such as “freedom” and hostility to government regulations. I mentioned how that rhetoric had been very successful during the debate about SB 277, the California law that banned nonmedical exemptions to school vaccine mandates, noting how that year (2015) was when antivaxxers completed their pivot from messaging primarily focused on “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. By the 2016 federal election cycle, 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.
Then came the pandemic. 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. After I had discussed the aspects of fascism that are mirrored in the antivaccine movement (e.g., a mythic past with lost greatness, a “stab-in-the-back” conspiracy theory, a focus on “purity” versus “contamination,” and the like), I mentioned that 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 had “taken over the right.” I then said that I was no longer so sure that was the case and wondered whether, after having made common cause with antivaxxers out of convenience, particularly during the pandemic, the far right had actually absorbed the antivaccine movement into itself and turned it into a tool to radicalize mainstream conservatives.
Now that I know more of the history behind a lot of the players like Jeffrey Tucker who have glommed onto the anti-vaccine movement as well as the links between insurrectionists and antivaccine ivermectin promoters like Dr. Simone Gold, I’m more and more beginning to think that the antivaccine movement as any sort of independent movement is no more. Its members and goals have been largely subsumed into the goals of the anti-democratic right. I wonder if people like Dr. Vinay Prasad and other COVID-19 contrarians providing their writings to the Brownstone Institution know what they’re contributing to now.