Proponents of alternative health therapies gathered to Nashville’s Gaylord Opryland Resort & Convention Center late last month for “The Truth About Cancer,” a three-day event. At least, that’s how it seemed. While the title implied a meeting of health nuts, it was more of an anti-vaxxers, conspiracy theorists, and pseudo-scientists event.
“Reclaiming America, Health Freedom, and Personal Liberty,” read a banner on the event’s website, where tickets for the Oct. 22-24 weekend ranged from $300 for three days to $1,000 for entry to a VIP “mix and mingle” and a DVD copy of each lecture.
Ty and Charlene Bollinger, a Tennessee husband and woman who rant against chemotherapy, use terminology like “plandemic,” and publish conspiracy theories on their website with names like “The Truth About the Assassination of MLK,” hosted “The Truth About Cancer Live.” They, predictably, do not believe in Covid vaccinations.
But their keynote speaker — Eric Trump — did.
“I’m actually a guy who got the vaccine, right? There’s other people who I know who are very near and dear to me that hadn’t, and that’s their choice to make,” Trump told Charlene Bollinger during a red-carpet interview, before proclaiming to take a wait-and-see approach toward the vaccine vs. anti-vax argument. “You can make that choice. And we’ll see, ultimately, who is right.”
Trump, the second son of twice-impeached President Donald Trump, allegedly charges between $50,000 and $100,000 for public speaking engagements.
He didn’t have to work very hard to get to “The Truth About Cancer Live.” Trump used the term “cancer” precisely zero times throughout his meandering 28-minute rant, which was essentially a stump speech for his father that concentrated on denouncing Democrats for “weaponizing” all aspects of American life against populist America.
“[Democrats] weaponize the media,” Trump said. “They weaponize social media, they weaponize the military, the Department of Justice, they weaponize the FBI. They weaponize lower education, higher education. … They certainly weaponize corporate America. … This is how [the Democrats] achieve that power grab. And, guys, it’s got to scare all of us.”
The true fright for Nashvillians, however, was why this shady cast of characters was being allowed to spread misinformation and fringe theories in one of the city’s signature tourist and convention destinations, a massive hotel and arboretum known for its lush gardens, elaborate Christmas display, and nearby Grand Ole Opry.
While the venerable country music institution broadcasted its regular weekend radio broadcasts across the parking lot in the Opry House, speakers such as convicted felon Roger Stone, anti-mask pastor Greg Locke, Dukes of Hazzard actor John Schneider, and Dr. Sherri Tenpenny, an Ohio anti-vaxxer who went viral this summer with her comic misunderstanding of magnetization, were spouting off in one of Opryland’s ballrooms.
The State Medical Board of Ohio renewed the license for Dr. Sherri Tenpenny, the doctor who claimed the COVID-19 vaccine can make people magnetic. pic.twitter.com/qeUE6rqC7B
— Jeanne (@scoobidoo76) September 22, 2021
However, many of the Bollingers’ featured speakers’ opinions are likely at odds with the hotel chain’s principles, which claim that “Taking care of people and putting their well-being above all else is in our Company’s DNA.”
Right-wing figures like Trump and Stone aren’t cancer deniers, but they can’t pass up a speaking fee or the chance to stir up naive conservatives who are already punch-drunk on grievance politics. According to Oren Segal, Vice President of the Anti-Defamation League Center on Extremism and presenter of the podcast Extremely, meetings like “The Truth About Cancer Live” generate harmful notions.
“This has been quote-unquote ‘mainstream’ now for a while,” Segal says. “These narratives [have brought] what some would consider legitimate voices together with more fringe [figures] throughout the country for some time, and so obviously the big concern is the more that you have people who have a significant reach or a voice, who are giving voice to conspiracies that seek to undermine democratic institutions, the more that disinformation gets normalized and the more potential for polarization there is.”
Dr. Alex Jahangir, leader of Nashville’s Covid-19 Task Force, says there’s nothing wrong with having reservations about vaccinations. The problem, though, is in where individuals get their solutions.
“I’m worried that some of these folks try to get their answers by going to politically charged, anti-vax events, which will deceive them about what’s true and what isn’t,” he tells Rolling Stone. “That can end up really hurting them and their loved ones. We need empathy for our neighbors who still have vaccine hesitancy and we need to help them get the facts, or else they’ll only feel welcome at the kinds of events where conspiracies abound, and we’ll keep struggling to raise vaccination rates in our state and elsewhere.”
Tennessee has yet to vaccinate 50% of its population. It lead the country in Covid cases per capita in September.
Despite, or maybe because of, this, another anti-vax conference was set to take place in the state this past weekend. “Whistleblowers: On the Deceptive Agenda Behind the COVID-19 Pandemic,” sponsored by two self-proclaimed “mask experts,” set up shop at the Embassy Suites by Hilton in Cool Springs, a Nashville suburb.
Members of the Tennessee Eagle Forum Foundation, the conservative lobbying group hosting the Nov. 13 event, erupted online when Eventbrite, the San Francisco-based listings and ticketing company, discovered the event and removed the listing.
“We prohibit any events, content, or creators that share or promote potentially harmful misinformation,” an Eventbrite representative stated via email. “We notified the [Whistleblowers event] creators that we removed the event from our platform and are refunding ticket holders.” (The Whistleblowers event ended up selling tickets via the Tennessee Eagle Forum Foundation’s website.)
“I think a lot of the discussions that are being had about amplification of disinformation on social media are actually similar conversations that some people [are having] about classic brick-and-mortar venues, and their social or corporate responsibility to not allow their venues to be exploited by misinformation,” Segal tells Rolling Stone. “Private companies, whether online or on the ground, make decisions all the time about what they will and will not allow. I think it’s not unreasonable for people in communities where these events are happening, to ask these venues whether or not this meets the values of those corporations [and] the values of the community, but more importantly, whether it poses some sort of public safety risk.”
Some of those shady concepts made their way to Nashville’s most holy venue, the Ryman Auditorium. During a sold-out live event on Oct. 12 organized by recently Nashville-based conservative media firm the Daily Wire, the crowd booed when Dr. Anthony Fauci was mentioned. When panelist Candace Owens said that she was “proudly unvaccinated,” the audience erupted in applause, as if it were a possible fountainhead of Covid droplets.
A Ryman Hospitality Properties official tried to disassociate the firm from the opinions expressed during the Daily Wire Backstage: Live at the Ryman recording, claiming that such events are effectively third-party rentals. “These groups are solely responsible for the content presented by the people appearing on the stage,” added the spokesman. “Ryman Hospitality Properties does not endorse this content.”
🚨”Dear Advice King,
The Daily Wire just held an event at the Ryman Auditorium! Why? Were the people who book the Ryman unaware of what the The Daily Wire stands for?”
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— chris crofton (@thecroftonshow) October 27, 2021
According to a person with knowledge of such talks, the people at Ryman Hospitality heard those voices of dissent and found them to be compelling. According to the insider, the business is having continuous internal talks about how to properly assess potentially problematic bookings.
According to Segal of the Anti-Defamation League Center, caution is required. “Providing a vehicle to promote ideas that people’s freedoms are being trampled on by government, or that vaccine mandates are akin to efforts to put microchips in your body,” he says, “those have legit public safety concerns.”