Investigative reporter Robert Evans: "We're on the edge of an authoritarian nightmare"

Podcaster and journalist on the grave dangers of this pandemic — and the opportunity it offers for a better world

By Chauncey DeVega

Senior Writer

Published April 3, 2020 9:35AM (EDT)

The world is shattered by the coronavirus pandemic (Getty Images/Salon)
The world is shattered by the coronavirus pandemic (Getty Images/Salon)

The novel coronavirus pandemic is a stress test for American society and government — one that the country is failing in spectacular fashion.

Donald Trump's administration has shown itself wholly incapable of properly responding to the human and economic devastation being caused by the pandemic. Nearly four years ago, Trump's incoming team was warned multiple times by national security and other experts about the likelihood of a devastating global pandemic. Instead, at almost every moment of key decision-making, Trump's regime has chosen to ignore the impending crisis and prioritize its corrupt, authoritarian crusade against the Constitution, the American people, multiracial democracy and human decency.

Trump's right-wing propaganda media have provided cover for his malfeasance. As such, they have made the crisis worse by circulating lies and disinformation to their gullible, ignorant audience. In many ways, the coronavirus plague is a perfect metaphor for the overall harm that Trump, his Republican Party and their minions have done to the American people and American society.

On Wednesday, The editorial board of the Boston Globe perfectly described this state of affairs:

"Things fall apart; the center cannot hold," wrote W.B. Yeats in 1919. A century later, it's clear: The epicenter cannot hold. Catastrophic decisions in the White House have doomed the world's richest country to a season of untold suffering….

While the spread of the novel coronavirus has been aggressive around the world, much of the profound impact it will have here in the United States was preventable. As the American public braces itself for the worst of this crisis, it's worth remembering that the reach of the virus here is not attributable to an act of God or a foreign invasion, but a colossal failure of leadership….

What we have instead is a president epically outmatched by a global pandemic. 

America's health care system has been hollowed out by decades of tax cuts and other government policies that have transferred money to the richest corporations and individuals at the literal expense of the public. The private insurance industry has failed to allocate the necessary and humane amount of resources to its customers — the American people. Now our patchwork system is on the verge of collapse because of the coronavirus pandemic.

While doctors, nurses and other health care personnel — as well as unsung heroes such as home health care workers, maintenance staff, food and nutrition workers, delivery drivers and others — are doing their best to deliver essential services in the face of an unprecedented public health disaster, the larger medical system has failed to match their sacrifice and dedication.

On Wednesday, the Chicago Sun-Times profiled the doctors and patients at Northwestern University Hospital who are fighting the coronavirus pandemic. One patient shared his experience:

Dolan was crying because, after spending hours at the downtown hospital's outdoor triage tent listening to gasping patients all around him, he had just witnessed the first signs of what he believes is the health care system collapsing. It was "an entirely preventable human disaster" caused not by the hard-working health care professionals, but by failed policies, he says.

This didn't happen at a poorly resourced or rural hospital, either. This was one of the nation's best medical centers.

And despite 15 days of serious symptoms, including a 105-degree fever, Dolan still hasn't been tested for COVID-19….

Doctors also shared their experiences:

Dr. Robert Murphy, executive director for the Institute for Global Health at Northwestern University, said testing is ramping up but blamed the "incompetence" of President Donald Trump and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for a delayed and flawed response to the crisis.

"The whole system sucks," Murphy said. "You should see these poor guys in the emergency room. All they see is coronavirus patients. COVID, COVID, COVID, COVID, everywhere. They're all exposed. Dozens of them have gotten infected themselves.

"The whole thing is insane, but don't blame the health care workers," Murphy said. "It's the system's fault."

How have the American people responded to the coronavirus pandemic? It's too early to reach a verdict. There has been hoarding and panic buying, along with disturbing acts of racial hatred directed against Asian immigrants and Asian-Americans. There has also been cooperation, mutual support and volunteering. To this point in the coronavirus crisis it is not the American people who have failed, but rather their so-called president and his incompetent regime. 

I recently spoke to investigative journalist Robert Evans, who has reported from conflict zones in Iraq and Ukraine, as well as on far-right extremist groups in the United States. His work is featured at the website Bellingcat. He is the host of the podcasts "Behind the Bastards" and "It Could Happen Here." His new podcast, available at iHeartRadio, is "The Women's War."

In our conversation, Evans explains how the average person can better navigate the challenges of life during the coronavirus pandemic and prepare for what comes next. He also discusses how the coronavirus pandemic has exposed rampant social inequality and how this version of capitalism has failed the American people and others around the world — and how from this crisis a new and better society can be created.

Evans also offers a dire warning: The coronavirus pandemic may usher in a global surveillance society and authoritarian nightmare almost beyond comprehension.

You can also listen to my conversation with Robert Evans on my podcast "The Truth Report" or through the player embedded below.

How are you feeling in this moment of the coronavirus plague? Surveying the state of the world right now, and especially this country, how are you making sense of it emotionally and cognitively?  

I actually feel OK. To an extent that is because of the selfish reason that I have been trying to warn people about what could be on the horizon for some time. I did a podcast series last year about a second civil war in America. I repeatedly advised people that they should get a reasonable stockpile of dried food and start thinking about ways they can have a small amount of water stored. People should have a disaster plan. I was also advising people that they should develop skills that will be useful in a time of societal crisis or collapse.

Now it is happening. I don't think 9/11 holds a candle to what is happening with the coronavirus pandemic. We are not sure what the final outcome will be, of course. Hopefully it will not be as bad as some experts are predicting.

The immediate change to our daily lives is much more pronounced than 9/11. What we are dealing with in terms of the pandemic is very scary, of course, but I don't feel alone in confronting it. The fact that everyone around me is dealing with this at the same time, and with the same emotional tenor, makes it a lot easier to handle. Moreover, because we are confronting this crisis together it also gives me some hope that the worst injustices of this moment with Donald Trump and the global new right may actually have a better chance of getting remedied.

The kids in cages at the U.S.-Mexico border — yes, it is easy to get people angry about that horrible situation, but at the end of the day, most people focus on what is happening outside their front door. If a problem does not impact them directly then it is really hard to get them to take serious direct action to remedy it. When an injustice hits the entire working class at once — such as what is happening with bailouts for the rich and layoffs, furloughs, and that a huge number of Americans and other people in this country are suddenly not able to support themselves — that means there is actually a better chance than I've seen in my lifetime to get real justice. I'm trying to be cautiously optimistic.

Power always pushes back. But right now, as the coronavirus pandemic is really starting to hit the United States and destroy the economy, it feels like something is going to break in the extreme. But when will that happen? When will the empire strike back internally? How do you make sense of this moment of crisis?

The single best line I've heard to define our time is that "everything is teetering on the edge of everything." There is an opportunity for a wider expansion of an understanding of not just labor rights, not just workers' rights, but of the necessity for a robust safety net that we do not chisel away at. We are becoming more aware of how, at a fundamental level, we are dependent on each other and our collective health. Such understandings can lead to policy changes that will make life better for unthinkable numbers of people, both in the United States and possibly around the world.

At the same time, we are also on the edge of an authoritarian nightmare, the likes of which we can barely comprehend. China has massively ramped up surveillance measures and introduced new systems and apps to track people, and there is a lot of talk about doing that in the United States in response to the novel coronavirus.

Power will push back even though it is reeling right now. The people who have been on the top of the economic pyramid are terrified because the type of collapse we are seeing because of the coronavirus pandemic is the kind that even they were not ready for. The bottom of the system has fallen out, and it is those people at the bottom of the economic hierarchy who the rich sit on top of.

Right now, the elites are offering concessions out of panic and out of a hope that it can be like a tourniquet. They can stop the bleeding and the system can get back on track. But eventually the powerful, the elites, will push back, and it will be with social monitoring. I worry that many people will embrace being monitored and tracked. The ability of an authoritarian regime to co-opt that technology — some of which is already in use by Google, for example — is very frightening.

I think most frightening of all is my worry that the Trump administration might figure out that one of the ways to stay in power is by turning around the public perception by creating the social programs which the left has been advocating for many years. Trump will try to take credit for those social programs and rebrand himself as some type of FDR-type figure — but one who is an authoritarian and with much more ability and power to crack down on political dissent and to monitor the public, as a result of some of the political and social changes that are going to be made in this country in the aftermath of the coronavirus pandemic.

The coronavirus is a system shock. In the course of two weeks or so, baseline expectations about the economy, jobs, food, health and safety, and freedom have all been turned upside down in the United States. How do we make sense of these elements of the crisis?

The coronavirus can be turned into a positive because it has laid bare the contradictions and flaws in our economic, social and political systems. There is no hiding the flaws of capitalism in a pandemic. You can hide the flaws of capitalism as they apply to global warming. It is very easy actually to hide those flaws because there are still cold days and snowstorms. There are mild spring days. Most people have a hard time thinking about climate change in a way that really highlights the existential danger to them.

But the coronavirus and the shortcomings of capitalism are very different. 

The fact that more than half of Americans had less than $500 in savings when this disaster hit, the fact that we have no social safety net, that the vast majority of American workers can't even rely on unemployment because of the nature of the gig economy, that shows in a personal way how capitalism is deeply flawed.

The fact that people do not have proper health care in America and couldn't go in to get screened because they couldn't afford it — and therefore they kept going to work and being out and about and spreading the virus.

There were waiters and other people in the restaurant and hospitality industries, and the service industry more broadly, who were asymptomatic and spreading the disease. If even a few weeks ago if you had explained what the coronavirus pandemic would do to the economy and society, many people would have said that you were a conspiracy theorist or some type of crazy alarmist. Now, it does not seem that those voices were so crazy after all.

Those "alarmist" voices were not so hysterical when we see how so many people have lost their jobs and are losing their homes. We on the left have been sounding the alarm for a very long time about the many problems in America's economy and how these serious vulnerabilities needed to be addressed.

If we are smart, diligent and compassionate — and if we fight like hell — there can be a positive outcome from the coronavirus pandemic here in the United States because, hopefully, more people will then wake up to the fact that our system needs massive, fundamental, ground-level change.

Global warming is a slow-motion crisis in many ways. The coronavirus pandemic is a sudden shock. The food and other shortages at the supermarket and elsewhere have really shattered most peoples' sense of what is normal in the United States.

It is not a problem where there is not enough food. What's freaking a lot of people out is that we have gotten so accustomed to what I would call the only truly great work of art that capitalism has put together: the variety of foods from around the world, and products from around the world, that are available to even those of us on a modest budget at all times.

And that has changed because people are panic-buying very specific things. And so suddenly folks are going in and there's only one thing available. And now certain congresspeople are talking pictures at the supermarket of bare shelves and announcing, "This is what it's like under socialism!" Such stunts are not helping. They are in fact frightening people and making matters worse.

The grocery store near where I live was picked clean. But there were also still enough calories to survive from the food left on the shelves. There were not a lot of comfort items and other items the public has gotten used to. It is harder for folks who got used to being able to easily shop gluten-free, or easily do a carnivore diet, or easily do a vegan diet. That has all gotten more difficult. Such a reality is shocking to people because it is a crack in the firmament of this system. Most people never owned stock on Wall Street. Most people never had a real hope of becoming a millionaire. Most people are not business owners. But most people were able to go to the supermarket and get the items they wanted. These food shortages at supermarkets have shattered the base level of our reality.

Have people reached out to you and said they wished they had listened to your warnings about society-wide disruptions and other crises?

Some folks have reached out. The biggest thing is that I've got a lot of friends who are very anti-gun. I'm very pro-Second Amendment. I think it's one of the things the founders got more or less right. However, I do support changes in the laws to make it harder for mass shooters. I'm supportive of the right to bear arms, and I have had an awful lot of friends who would argue with me about guns who have recently reached out to me wanting to know what type of gun they should buy. I don't take any satisfaction from folks reaching out and being, "You were right about this."

What I do take satisfaction in is the hundreds of people who to this point have reached out and told me, "Hey, because of your podcast 'It Could Happen Here,' when this hit I had a month of dried food on hand. I had water and food supplies. I had a go-bag ready. I had survival equipment ready and I didn't have to freak out and rush to the store and contribute to the panic." That is what I am grateful for. It makes me feel good that I had some positive impact on peoples' lives. 

How do we separate conspiracy theories from being reasonably prepared?

I think everyone in the country should endeavor to have a one-month supply of nonperishable food and a two-week supply of water. Obviously going out and buying it all at once is not going to work for many people's budgets. But it is surprisingly affordable to build up that supply by just buying an extra two or three dollars of canned food each trip to the grocery store.

Over time, you build up the stockpile. Emergency services across the country are now recommending two weeks to a month of dried foods. That is a reasonable thing.

In general, the difference between reasonable prepping and unreasonable prepping is that reasonable prepping is being prepared to take care of yourself and then the people around you, with the understanding that the only real security is community security and the only real self-defense is community self-defense.

Unreasonable prepping is seeking to have a bunker alone in the woods somewhere so that you can survive the apocalypse alone or with your wife and kids. The security you gain from hiding alone like that is illusory, it's not real. It will not last. Real security comes from having enough food to share with your neighbors, setting up cooking rotations, delivering food to each other's houses, taking care of each other, doing training in skills such as foraging and hunting small game, and setting up food kitchens in order to help people who don't have the resources to do so during this time.

We can better take care of ourselves by building up community resiliency and a productive sense of belonging. This sense of belonging leads people to build something together and to make it better and more resilient over time. That's true prepping to me. That's really being prepared for a disaster and I think everybody should seek to be more prepared by doing these things.  

On the conspiratorial thinking, I do think one of the most important things to keep mind is never to attribute to malice what can be attributed to incompetence. Of course there are these theories that the novel coronavirus is some type of bioweapon that originated in China. Or, in the case of Alex Jones, that the virus is a bioweapon from the United States government that Obama sold to the Chinese. When you have to make it really complicated in your head in order for it to work out, that is one of the main signs that you are lost in conspiracies.

You are an expert on right-wing extremist groups. How are they going to take advantage of the coronavirus pandemic?

No one had a plan for this really. I have been talking with members of center, right and left-leaning militias over the last week or two. These are folks who were prepared for a disaster, who had been prepping, and are kind of more paranoid. They're all blindsided by this too. I don't think there's a great deal of preparation, but they absolutely will attempt to use it to their advantage. The main thing I am worried about right now is how fascist groups are positioning themselves much closer to the mainstream right wing. They are trying to co-opt the mainstream right. This is a different threat than right-wing extremist groups which are "accelerationists," that want to destroy all of society.

I'm worried more about these right-wing groups that are seeking to mainstream fascism, who are going to see Trump talking about the "Chinese virus" and other racial dog whistles. Those groups are going to double down on pushing a narrative that "China destroyed your life and your economy with this virus." They will also say things such as, "This is why we've been saying all immigration is bad. This is why we've been saying you have to keep nonwhite people out of this country."

The right-wing fascist groups are also going to be engaging in flyering and stickering campaigns and other types of propaganda to recruit new members. There is a very real possibility that such groups can use the coronavirus crisis to massively expand their membership. Times such as these tend to radicalize people. In total, these extremist right-wing groups will use this as an opportunity to push racial hatred, to get more people involved in these fascist organizations and to participate in fascist political actions.  

These right-wing extremist groups and individuals, and those sympathetic to them, have infiltrated the police, the military, Homeland Security, ICE and other parts of the government, including the highest levels of the Trump administration. What do we know about the nature of the threat they pose to the country right now?

There's a lot of debate as to how coordinated they are. There are a number of very wealthy financiers who have put money into supporting these groups as part of the resurgence of a fascist movement in the United States. Richard Spencer's group is founded by a millionaire for example.

One of the things that makes it so dangerous is that there's no head, there's no center to it. It's just a series of more or less isolated independent groups with some different connections between them carrying out a mix of propaganda and direct-action campaigns.

And one of the things that's very worrying is there are a lot of explicit fascist activists who are not personally violent but who seek to use the violence of the state to advance their goals. Many of these people are in Homeland Security and the White House. Some of them have been throwing up little coded messages like that Homeland Security memo with the Nazi codes of the "14 words" and the use of the number "88."

White House senior adviser Stephen Miller is an example of such a person. There are a lot of them in law enforcement. The fact that a whole Border Patrol class was caught giving the Nazi "Sieg Heil!" salute wasn't a joke. I will tell you that right now. We've seen other examples of that behavior. There have been been a number of cops busted participating in and coordinating with right-wing extremist marches and groups. A number of military people have also been caught there. But I'm less worried about the military than I am about the police because the United States military is at least an extremely diverse organization. While it has a lot of white nationalists and white supremacists, I don't think those people tend to have a huge amount of influence within the structures of the military.

Whereas within police nationwide, right-wing extremists do have a great deal of influence. Here we're mainly talking about sheriff's departments and local city police departments. That is the area at which these types of white racist extremists can do the most damage.

What is Russia's role in terms of providing resources and support to fascist and other right-wing extremists in the United States?

I think Russia's role in this is mainly disinformation and misinformation. Russia absolutely has a documented history of pushing, inciting and providing oxygen to these fascists in the United States. I do not believe it's based on ideological affinity. They are doing it because they want to spread division and violence and chaos in the United States because it weakens the country as a geopolitical power and gives Russia more of a free hand to do what its leaders want to do.

My primary concern about Russia is their disinformation campaigns. They recognize that aiding and providing oxygen to these movements contributes to the breakdown of American society and American power. That having been said, there are many good questions that need to be asked about how extensive Russia's aid to these fascist groups in the United States really is.  

What advice would you give the average person about navigating life during the coronavirus pandemic and what comes next?

Don't panic. There is no benefit to panicking. Fear will not help you through this. Seek to build resiliency. On my podcast "Worst Year Ever: The Reasonable Person's Guide to Prepping," I provide free guides for foraging and urban foraging. For example, there is an app called "Falling Fruit" that helps a person to find food in your neighborhood.

Do you have extra money? Work on getting a 30-day supply of dried food that you don't touch and then work on some other survival necessities.

Start building ties with your local neighborhood, get involved in mutual aid. There are so many mutual aid projects springing up around the country. Get involved in some of them. Meet members of your community. Work with them to make this a better place. Maintain those ties once the pandemic passes and build on those ties. And don't let this opportunity pass. We have a chance here.

One way or the other, on the other side of this quarantine, on the other side of this pandemic, every one of our lives is going to be different than it was before. There is no going back to baseline. It is our decision now whether or not what happens after the pandemic will be better or worse. Whether or not the world that emerges from this will be more equitable, one where people are more secure and safe. Or will that new world be one where people are less secure and less safe and less free? The decision we have is whether to be an active participant in making that decision.

By Chauncey DeVega

Chauncey DeVega is a senior politics writer for Salon. His essays can also be found at He also hosts a weekly podcast, The Chauncey DeVega Show. Chauncey can be followed on Twitter and Facebook.

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