While most Americans are trying not to catch COVID-19—or, at the very least, pretending it doesn’t exist—one fearless pundit claims to have hugged thousands of people in order to finally contract the respiratory illness.
This week on Fever Dreams, hosts Will Sommer and Kelly Weill visit the case of Dennis Prager, the conservative media figure who is now receiving Regeneron treatments for COVID-19 because he said he actually wanted to contract the illness. “We’re so many cycles into this kind of storyline now that I think Republican figures are getting a little anxious about it and they don’t want to get owned,” Sommer says of Prager’s COVID announcement. “And so you have like Allen West, who only announced that he had COVID after he had already been on a bunch of cycles of Regeneron. And now we have Dennis Prager, who’s saying that, actually, getting COVID rocks.”
COVID isn’t the only fever spreading on the right. Later in the episode, we visit Michigan, where Trump fans are attempting to “audit” the 2020 vote, much like their doomed attempt in Arizona. What’s different this time? “Michigan is funny because unlike Arizona, where it was a line call for Biden, Biden won Michigan really handily,” Weill says. “Like it’s not even close.” Nevertheless, the audit efforts are drawing out some of Michigan’s fringiest, including a state lawmaker who wore a QAnon pin to a recent pro-audit rally. Nevertheless, former President Donald Trump has thrown his weight behind the Michigan audit efforts, calling the state’s GOP chair to ask for an audit and endorsing a pro-audit Michigan attorney general candidate.
A QAnon-fueled audit movement might sound a little cult-ish. But this week’s guest says cult-like language is all around us, from conspiracy movements to your favorite fitness influencer’s posts. Amanda Montell, author of Cultish: The Language of Fanaticism, joins the pod to discuss the rhetorical tricks that keep people believing. “We do a lot of mental gymnastics to tell ourselves, ‘No, I would never wind up in a cultish group,’” Montell says, “but my argument is that cultish influence imbues spaces that we might not traditionally think of as cults. None of us are truly above it.”
That includes outright cults like Heaven’s Gate but also conspiracy movements like QAnon, aggressive multi-level marketing schemes, and even, sometimes, fandom. “I think that’s partially because the boundaries separating business leaders, spiritual gurus, self-help star, influencer, celebrity, they’ve become really, really blurred,” Montell says. “Take Elon Musk, for example, He’s a businessman who maybe 10 or 20 or 30 years ago would not have achieved the celebrity status that he has now, but for a number of reasons, including the loss of trust in the mainstream institutions that are supposed to provide us with support, we now find ourselves turning toward these secular leaders for almost a religious kind of support and guidance.”
Elsewhere in the episode, Sommer describes his recent talk with QAnon influencer turned congressional candidate Ron Watkins. Despite outward attempts to distance himself from the conspiracy theory, Watkins can’t seem to help but show up at QAnon-themed conferences or drop references to the theory. “I don't think Congressman Ron Watkins is in our future,” Sommer says.