Justice Morath: Fear in a pandemic leads to right-wing radicalization

People gather during the Utah Business Revival rally, calling for Utah's economy to be re-opened, Saturday, April 18, 2020, in Salt Lake City. Utah will aim to reopen restaurants and gyms and resume elective surgeries in early May under a plan unveiled Friday by Gov. Gary Herbert to gradually reopen the economy that has been decimated by the coronavirus pandemic. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

“It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.”

— Upton Sinclair

Stay-at-home orders have caused a massive loss of salaries, so it’s no surprise people are angry and fearful. We are now two months in, at a time where most Americans couldn’t afford to have emergency savings and the CARES Act falls woefully short of offering substantive help to individuals and small businesses.

So it’s also no surprise that protest groups against these orders have been popping up across the country. That includes the Utah Business Revival in Salt Lake City on April 18, led by Eric Moutsos, a former police officer with a history of publicly protesting government’s demands on him.

Most of the rally attendees were there to express their concerns about the economy and government overreach. And there is no doubt I support the people’s right to protest. After all, I started with a quote from a famous figure in the worker rights movement, an economic movement severely oppressed by the government for exercising their rights of free speech and assembly.

The night before the rally in Salt Lake City, I told some colleagues that I had been watching these groups online and knew that the rally was going to be much bigger than most expected and it was going to get worse. Because from the beginning, the rally was clearly about more than the people protesting economic struggles.

Their keynote speakers included Ammon Bundy, who has orchestrated two armed standoffs with federal agents so far, and a man in an outdated anti-Clinton shirt ranting strange conspiracies about the origin of COVID-19. Another rally-goer was arrested shortly thereafter for making terroristic threats against the mayor of Salt Lake City.

I have been continuing to follow these groups online, including interacting with them (until they ban me, that is). At their second rally in Vineyard on May 2, their most notable attendee was Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes, who publicly showed his support for these groups breaking state law.

The next one of these rallies is rebranded as a Spiritual Revival to take place on May 16 at the Utah State Capitol. What started as economic concerns turned into religiosity.

There are tomes of research on the psychological stages of radicalization, extremism and conspiratorial thinking. Every person is at risk. And in these groups I see a perfect storm brewing. These groups are spiraling deeper into antisocial rhetoric using stronger out-grouping language and making more and more vaguely threatening remarks towards those they disagree with.

The conspiratorial thinking has been growing to include Moutsos publicly promoting outlandish conspiracy theories about how the government created COVID-19 for the purpose of mass enslavement. Other noteworthy ideas floated about this group include Bill Gates wanting to recode your RNA with mandatory vaccines and how cell phone towers are somehow involved in the pandemic.

Furthermore, their group has recently been taking aim at another power structure, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

With radicalization comes a complete disdain for anyone thinking differently than the in-group. Because key figures in Utah policy, such as Gov. Gary Herbert, are practicing members of the church, this creates a problem for people who are using Christian and LDS doctrine to justify their grievances with the public health orders. So Moutsos is now promoting the idea that there are “secret combinations” (nefarious secret societies) amongst church leadership.

This prevents them from considering opposing views and further confirms their belief that everyone else is plotting against them. Include economic hardship and a belief that one’s safety and security is threatened, and you have the perfect storm for extremism, whether its Afghan farmers turning into jihadists, peaceful hippies into the Weather Underground or concerned business owners into right-wing extremists.

We Americans all want safety and prosperity, even though we have different beliefs about what that looks like. But the leaders of these groups (not to mention our own state attorney general), have a responsibility to society and themselves to prevent their groups from falling further into the trap of radicalization and extremist violence.

You can go to www.lifeafterhate.org to learn about de-radicalization and the prevention of extremism in all its forms.

Justice Morath

Justice Morath, Salt Lake City, is a tenured professor of psychology at Salt Lake Community College and executive director of STEAMpunk Academy, a local science outreach organization. The views expressed here are his own and not necessarily those of either organization.