“Where’s the fighting spirit?” an angry Chuck Baldwin asked his assembled “Liberty Fellowship” congregation in Kalispell, Montana, in late March 2020. “Where’s the spirit of resistance…able to discern whenever the forces of tyranny would usurp our constitutional liberties?” People needed to understand, he said, “the importance that we have as a church to resist the forces of evil.”
The purported evil that so alarmed Baldwin, a prominent figure in the anti-government extremist “Patriot” movement, was what he believes are excesses inherent in the measures that federal and state governments are taking to combat the coronavirus.
To Baldwin, these measures aren’t for the benefit of public health but are actually a “pretext for civil tyranny.” Baldwin assured his congregation that he believed the virus was real, but told them he was “absolutely positive” that the “hyper-exaggeration and hyper-inflated paranoia and hysteria surrounding the virus” was actually a “conspiratorial plan against the liberties of the American people.”
In a March 17 message on Facebook to his followers, Baldwin gave the situation a name: “Medical martial law.” He reiterated the phrase a few days later, calling it “unadulterated, unabashed government tyranny.” It was a phrase that resonated with his adherents. “We are under a medical Marshall [sic] law,” one of them agreed, “and quickly losing our rights.”
In the first few weeks of April, this spirit of opposition has motivated extremists and others, including many carrying guns or wearing Guy Fawkes masks, to stage protests against coronavirus measures at state capitals in Ohio, Michigan and elsewhere. The protesters have promised ongoing resistance to virus-related restrictions.
Medical Martial Law
Baldwin is hardly alone in his conspiratorial beliefs. In the past month, anti-government extremists, conspiracy theorists and others chafing under coronavirus restrictions have led a rising chorus of angry opposition to public health measures promulgated by federal and state governments. This growing movement promotes opposition to and noncompliance with these measures, which they believe are driven by ulterior motives.
Many pandemic countermeasures oppositionists, like Baldwin, refer to the public health measures as “medical martial law,” or, occasionally, as “martial law lite.” The government may not have formally declared martial law, the argument runs, but the various federal and state policies cumulatively have the same effect.
Anti-government extremists have a long history of using pandemics to promote conspiracy theories about the government declaring martial law in order to institute tyranny. In the 20th century, the H1N1 virus, the SARS virus and Ebola have all been exploited for such propaganda. The COVID-19 virus, which has had far greater societal effects in the United States than any of these other diseases, was virtually guaranteed to revive such theories.
The conspiracy-fueled personalities were quick to weigh in: On February 4, Dave Hodges, host of “The Common Sense Show” (whose slogan is “Freeing one enslaved mind at a time”) published an article on his website declaring that U.S. citizens “are under medical martial law and your freedom can come to an immediate end.” In March, Shad Olson of “The Shad Olson Show” (which seeks the defeat of the “long-standing antihuman plot to control mankind covertly through every means necessary”) described “what amounts to an ad hoc state by state version of medical martial law.”
Conspiracy theorist Tom Corbett claimed on a March 21 episode of his show that “what we are seeing right now…is the flicking of the switch and the turning on of the apparatus for medical martial law.” In an April 6 article on the website Tactical Life titled “Martial Law Lite: Has the Constitution Been Set Ablaze by a Police State,” survivalist author Ryan Lee Price explained, “…the government doesn’t have to shout Martial Law from the rooftops.” Instead, he wrote, “It can quietly take away your rights in the light of these unprecedented times.” To Price, martial law was in place, “disguised as executive orders, police safety enforcements, and health mandates.”
On April 3, David Knight, who has a show on Alex Jones’ Infowars network, claimed in an episode titled “America 2020: Medical Tyranny, Martial Law… The Year Freedom Died” that authorities don’t want to openly declare martial law: “This is a soft tyranny. This is all being done out of fear and guidelines and recommendations. That’s how they’re destroying your life.”
Most of this extreme opposition has come from the far right, but not all of it. In March, long-time left-wing activist Cindy Sheehan titled an episode of her podcast “Covid-19 and Medical Martial Law.” Sheehan and her guest, left-wing artist and activist Anthony Freda, opposed COVID-19 measures using language almost identical to that emanating from the “Patriot” movement. COVID-19, said Freda, is George Orwell’s 1984, giving “them” an excuse for a police state. “Shelter in place is basically just putting you in a prison,” he said, “…a panopticon prison system at global scale.”
As additional coronavirus-related restrictions are enacted, more people appear to be listening to and echoing these voices of opposition. “We have a medical martial law and not enough people are challenging the reality of what’s behind all this,” claimed one Twitter user on March 26. “Many states/counties/cities are under some degree of de facto medical martial law,” claimed another. “Just because you don’t see troops on the streets doesn’t mean it isn’t so.” One Twitter user informed a prominent right-wing activist, “All Democrat states are under a form of ‘Medical Martial Law’…they planned this! No one can convince me otherwise.” On March 24, another user wrote that “it is medical martial law and house arrest. Approached slowly to give folk the opportunity to accept it. In a choice of security or liberty—what do most people choose?”
In order to persuade people that federal and state pandemic responses are tyrannical, oppositionists must first convince their audiences that COVID-19 itself is not that dangerous—and therefore response measures to it are disproportionately severe. As a result, oppositionists routinely minimize or deny the scale and severity of the coronavirus pandemic. This was easiest in early March, when COVID-19 casualties in the U.S. were very low, but required more “imagination” as deaths mounted in March and April.
Chuck Baldwin, like many oppositionists, claims that the coronavirus is less deadly than the flu. But Baldwin has also conflated COVID-19 with coronaviruses in general (which include the common cold). People may have “a” coronavirus, he claimed to his followers in a mid-March sermon, but not necessarily “the” coronavirus; the “vast majority do not have COVID-19.”
Derek Wills, host of the internet broadcast “Lone Star Gun Talk,” took a different tack in his “Martial Law Lite” broadcast in late March, focusing not on the number of people who had the coronavirus but rather the number of people who did not have it. Wills said that 99.99% of the world did not have the virus, and only 0.000215% of the “global population” has died. In the U.S., he said, 99.98686% of Americans did not have a confirmed case of coronavirus. “We’re shutting down our state,” he said, in response to a threat that has affected only a miniscule percentage of the population.
For Cindy Sheehan, the left-wing activist, pre-existing conditions were a way to deny the severity of the virus. Sheehan claimed that 99% of COVID-19 victims had pre-existing conditions, and more than 50% had three or more pre-existing conditions, implying that the virus posed little risk to the vast majority of people.
Minimizing the danger of the virus allows oppositionists to paint pandemic measures as medically unnecessary—but necessary to strip people of their liberties. “If it’s not a hoax,” Chuck Baldwin explained to his followers on Facebook in March, “the virus IS being used as a completely exaggerated, super-hyped, super-inflated psychological ops campaign against the American people—a coordinated full-court press of intimidation and fear-mongering by government, the mass media and the CDC.”
Naming the Enemy
Who is behind the tyranny of “Medical Martial Law?” Those supporting the conspiracy theory blame many sources for federal and state government pandemic measures.
“Who benefits from all this fear and panic?” Chuck Baldwin asked in one of his Liberty Fellowship sermons. “Number one,” he said, were the “international bankers”—for Baldwin, a known antisemite, a likely code word for Jews. But there were others behind the plot, including the “police state.” The coronavirus, he said in another March sermon, was “phase two” (after the 9/11 terrorist attacks) of the “globalist police-state agenda.”
“Globalists” of one sort of another are frequently blamed for the anti-pandemic measures. A March 20 article on FightingMonarch.com described the coronavirus as a “false flag attack” by the “New World Order.” Shad Olson’s website referred to it a few days later as “the designed collapse and chaos of the intentional destruction of the globalist totalitarian vision.” Globalists have taken over the world with medical martial law, complained one Twitter user. “Nobody will resist, it is a total psychological operation to bring in Global agenda by the elitist [sic].”
Many oppositionists have blamed Democrats or the political left in general. “Most of the city and state leaders issuing the orders are from Left-wing, Democrat-run jurisdictions,” claimed J. D. Heyes in an article on “leftist tyrants” published on the fringe Natural News website. “Democrats, comprised of Stalinists and Maoists,” declared one Twitter user in late March, “intend to destroy the country for a totalitarian takeover.” Another claimed that the Democratic National Committee and various officeholders created a “MEDICAL MARTIAL LAW COUP to create panic, chaos, fear & especially ‘forced isolation’ to DESTROY our GREAT economy.”
Oppositionists seem to be struggling over whether to place any blame for government measures on President Trump – a hesitation that may spring from support for the president or the fear of alienating his supporters.
Some oppositionists overtly implicate the President. “You and I both know,” Chuck Baldwin told his flock in his March 22 sermon, “if Barack Obama was in the White House and if he had said no more than 10 people gather, [evangelical churches] would be defiant in the face of Mr. Obama…they would be calling Mr. Obama a dictator and a tyrant for suggesting [churches close their doors].” However, “because they’re in the hip pocket of Donald Trump and they sit at the [king’s table], they follow him no matter what.”
Others have felt far more comfortable blaming governors for the measures. When Oregon’s government imposed a stay at home order, Chuck Baldwin told his followers, “we need to contact [Montana Governor Steve] Bullock…and let him know that we will not stand by and let the government trample our constitutional liberties during this coronavirus scare.” Even Republican governors have come under attack. “When [Republican Maryland Governor Larry] Hogan mentioned plans to restrict church gatherings,” wrote Lloyd Marcus for the right wing American Thinker website, “a chill went up my spine.” It was disturbing, Marcus continued, “that there is practically zero pushback against governors instantaneously overruling our constitutional freedoms.”
Two conspiracy theories are particularly popular among oppositionists: vaccination conspiracy theories, especially the notion that the end goal is “forced vaccinations;” and conspiracy theories that 5G, the new wireless network standard, will be used to create a surveillance state (there is another, non-oppositionist conspiracy theory that claims that 5G actually spreads the virus).
Anti-vaccination conspiracy theorists believe that vaccines are actually harmful, but a conspiracy exists to force people to vaccinate themselves and their children. Combating COVID-19 successfully requires developing and deploying a vaccine, so the virus very quickly became ammunition in the hands of so-called anti-vaxxers. The conspiracy blog Fighting Monarch claimed that the New World Order was using the virus and media hype over it to “drive us to socialized healthcare and mandatory vaccinations.” Cindy Sheehan and Anthony Freda also claimed that forced vaccinations were the goal, with Freda suggesting they wouldn’t let people back to work unless they could prove they’d been vaccinated against the coronavirus. David Knight claimed on his April 6 broadcast that “they will demand that you take their vaccine…[and] will inject you with something that will disrupt your immune system, that will modify your DNA.”
Anti-vaccination conspiracy theories have been around for a long time, but 5G conspiracy theories are much newer— and have been fueled by the outbreak. “During this coronavirus medical martial law shutdown Congress is rushing through & securing the expansion of 5G across the land,” wrote one Twitter user in March. Another claimed that the result of medical martial law would be “a totalitarian state, surveilled 24/7 with 5G.” The coronavirus, claimed a third, would be used “to enact laws to strip away our freedom…enforce medical martial law, [and] roll out 5G worldwide.”
Oppositionists also combine vaccination and 5G conspiracy theories, as one tweeted: “There is a global agenda afoot for medical martial law within a framework of technocratic communism. This means forced implementation of untested vaccine…together with nanotech/micro chip [sic] integrated with 5G.”
Whoever the enemy may be, oppositionists are sure that people must actively oppose “Medical Martial Law” and its perceived tyranny. They demand that existing measures be relaxed or revoked, and many refuse to conform to stay-in-place orders and similar restrictions, or even non-enforced guidelines such as recommendations for social distancing. “Refuse to stay home,” a Chuck Baldwin follower wrote on Facebook in late March, “They can’t arrest us all.” Baldwin replied: “If the government doesn’t stop their madness soon, that is exactly what the people will do—and much more.” On Twitter, one user urged others to “go out and enjoy your freedom and resist medical martial law.”
In early April, Idaho state representative Heather Scott posted a video to the anti-government extremist Redoubt News website encouraging people to resist pandemic measures in Idaho. In an official newsletter, she claimed that the government had no right to force businesses to close or to stop people from attending church.
Some oppositionists are disappointed or angry that more people don’t think like they do and that some even agree with the measures taken to combat the pandemic. “Sadly most are sitting on the couch and are saying nothing at this loss of freedom,” someone tweeted at conspiracy theorist David Icke. Chuck Baldwin complained in a late March sermon that “so many Christians” had lost the “fighting spirit, they’ve lost the spirit of resistance.”
And yet Baldwin’s sermon, like all his sermons of the past two months, was delivered to a live, in-person congregation in Montana, in open opposition to official pleas to stay home. Meanwhile, in Idaho, anti-government extremist Ammon Bundy—who had participated in armed standoffs against the federal government in 2014 and 2016—told followers at public meetings in March and April that “we can physically stand in defense in whatever way we need to.” Others have used even more extreme language, such as Shane Scott, a California Three Percenter (part of the militia movement), who asked “Why aren’t we rounding up ALL media personal [sic] and oath-breaking politician [sic] and hanging them!!??”
As anti-pandemic restrictions continue—and as they are imposed or strengthened in areas that have not yet seen many measures—more people may respond to the oppositionists’ conspiracy theories and calls for action. More people may decide to flout anti-pandemic measures and, in a worst-case scenario, some may even attack those charged with enforcing them.