WASHINGTON – Extremists are using websites like this to try to take advantage of the coronavirus crisis to recruit new followers. (Haleigh Whisted/Capital News Service)

WASHINGTON – As the coronavirus pandemic continues to cause a severe economic slowdown and, among some people, distrust of the media and government, white supremacists across the nation are attempting to capitalize on the crisis to take advantage of the scared and confused in hopes of recruiting new followers.

One white nationalist in particular, Tom Kawczynski, 39, currently hosts a podcast called “Coronavirus Central” on multiple sites, including Apple Podcasts, that is among the most popular podcasts under the health and fitness category.

Kawczynski ranks just below NPR and BBC’s podcasts on the virus and is currently more popular than “PBS NewsHour – Novel Coronavirus.”

He is among many extremists who see a major public health crisis as fertile ground for fomenting political unrest and spreading conspiracies, according to human rights advocates and academic experts.

“It does seem like an attempt to take advantage,” Cassie Miller, Southern Poverty Law Center senior research analyst, told Capital News Service in an interview. “When everyone is concerned by coronavirus, it gives them the opportunity to put out their own white nationalist perspective.”

Before Kawczynski’s rebranding as a COVID-19 expert, the podcast host used to be the town manager of Jackman, Maine. The town forced him to resign in 2018 after learning that he advocates for segregation through a fictional white ethno-nation called New Albion.

Kawczynski’s resignation drew attention to many racist remarks that he posted using his now private account on Gab Social, a social media platform similar to Twitter.

For example, Kawczynski wrote in 2017, “you don’t have to hate to see cold hard statistics and realize in a significant way that the average black in America has less intellectual aptitude,” according to the Anti-Defamation League.

About a month before his first podcast, which went live on Feb. 10, Kawczynski posted a video on Facebook welcoming viewers to New Albion. In this video, Kawczynski states that America is going through a time of financial and political insecurity and that New Albion will be rooted in the people rather than in the systems.

During multiple podcast episodes, Kawczynski has continued to preach about the American government’s incompetence to his listeners and has also suggested that there is truth to some conspiracy theories related to the virus.

The podcast host claimed that “there is a high probability that this was a manmade disease,” a conspiracy theory that many other social media platforms also have advocated, but scientists have debunked.

In a recent SPLC article, Miller explains how white supremacists are hoping that chaos from the virus will drive people toward more extreme political positions.

“These far-right extremists are arguing that the pandemic, which has thrown into question the federal government’s ability to steer the nation through a crisis, supports their argument that modern society is headed toward collapse,” Miller wrote.

Kawczynski, who declined to be interviewed but responded to an email from CNS, said “what I am doing is not about me, but rather about helping to keep people safe.”

He claimed that he is “literally helping people figure out how to survive this horror.”

A 2015 study found that major financial crises lead to a rise in support for far-right groups.

Right-leaning parties tend to benefit more after financial downfalls because “people blame elites for failing to prevent them,” which “opens the door to political entrepreneurs who try to set ‘the people’ against the ‘ruling class,’” the researchers wrote in an article about the study. The authors were Manuel Funke and Christoph Trebesch of the Kiel Institute for the World Economy, a German non-profit think tank, and Moritz Schularick of the University of Bonn.

Miller told CNS that people need to be more concerned about what right-wing extremist efforts could mean down the line. She said she worries about young white men, the extremists’ target group, being stuck inside looking online for answers about the virus and finding advice from white supremacists.

“They are going to try to recruit as many as possible,” Miller said.