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Protesters against Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s “Stay Safe, Stay Home” executive order gathered in Lansing, Michigan, on April 15. As of April 18, there were more than 30,000 confirmed Covid-19 cases in the state.
Jeff Kowalsky/AFP/Getty Images

What the anti-stay-at-home protests are really about

They’re part of a Trumpian strategy from some conservative groups to reshape public opinion.

Anti-social distancing and anti-stay-at-home order rallies are cropping up across the country, reminiscent of the early days of the Tea Party, when well-funded right-leaning groups lit a fire under an already outraged Republican base and helped ignite a political movement.

In fact, Adam Brandon, president of FreedomWorks, a right-leaning advocacy group that helped support the Tea Party movement back in 2009, said in an interview that “this has the same DNA [as] the Tea Party movement.”

The events — some, like in Michigan, featuring thousands of attendees — are organized largely by conservative groups calling state-based measures too draconian. Some of the groups have posted links and images on Facebook that downplay the seriousness of the virus. And other leaders have advocated against following guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, like a ban on big gatherings and the recommendation to wearing face masks in certain public settings (because wearing them would be “counterproductive”). Some of the protests have taken on the feel of 2016 Trump campaign rallies, with participants wearing Make America Great Again hats and waving flags emblazoned with the president’s face.

Hundreds of protesters gathered outside the Minnesota Governor’s Residence to protest Gov. Tim Walz’s stay-at-home orders on April 17. As of April 18, there were more than 2,000 Covid-19 cases in the state.
Star Tribune/Getty Images
Protesters wearing Trump t-shirts hold a flag bearing an image of President Donald Trump on a tank in front of an American flag. They’re standing on the steps of the Texas State Capitol building on April 18, 2020 in Austin, Texas, where protesters have gathered to call for the country to be opened up despite the risk of COVID-19.
People gather at the Texas Capitol building for a protest organized by Infowars host Owen Shroyer on April 18. As of that date, there were more than 17,000 confirmed Covid-19 cases in the state.
Sergio Flores/Getty Images
Protesters with the group “Reopen Maryland” rally, near the State House in Annapolis, against the stay-at-home order on April 18. As of that date, there were more than 11,000 confirmed Covid-19 cases in the state.
Drew Angerer/Getty Images

And Fox News is helping to get the word out about the protests, even promoting the protests on air. President Donald Trump spent part of Friday tweeting about them, just minutes after a protest segment aired on Fox News’s America’s Newsroom.

The displays are tapping into Trump’s main message on the coronavirus pandemic: Governors are to blame for the crisis, not him. As the president ratchets up his reelection efforts, his argument is an effort to simultaneously put the brunt of responsibility for the coronavirus catastrophe on the shoulders of his political opponents while maintaining that he holds “total authority” over the pandemic and the states facing it.

It’s an argument that resonates best in rural, redder parts of the country, which have not yet been hit as hard by the pandemic as blue, urban areas. Trump himself has said, “We’ll be opening some states much sooner than others,” despite pushback from legislators and business leaders alike about the current lack of mass testing.

And it’s a message of division, designed to pit Republican-voting areas of states against their Democratic-voting neighbors, even rural Republicans against urban Republicans. All this is to activate white rural voters who supported Trump in 2016 and who he’ll need again in 2020.

For some on the right, the plan seems simple: vilify Democratic governors and agitate for the end of shutdown orders. Then “reopen the economy” and spur a massive turnaround in the nation’s economic prospects just in time for Trump to be reelected in November. If the pandemic recedes, he can claim he was entirely responsible; but if people continue to die, he can place the blame on Democratic governors.

Theda Skocpol, a professor of government and sociology at Harvard University, put it this way: “That’s ... Trump’s entire strategy, and you can see it in the way he talks about this.” Skocpol is the editor of the book Upending American Politics: Polarizing Parties, Ideological Elites, and Citizen Activists from the Tea Party to the Anti-Trump Resistance.

She added, “I think there really is popular anger among middle-income people, particularly living in whiter, less metropolitan parts of these key states,” about stay-at-home orders, but “it’s being goosed along by some of the same advocacy groups on the free market right.”

But there’s a problem for Trump: The public, including the vast majority of Republicans, largely supports social distancing measures, and new polling shows that half of Republicans are concerned stay-at-home orders and social distancing measures will be lifted too quickly. Research shows that many Americans began social distancing before they were urged to do so by the government, and likely wouldn’t stop even if such orders were lifted. In short, the anti-shutdown-order protests don’t mirror public opinion. And in order for Trump to benefit from their potential impact, they need to — and coronavirus needs to spare rural America (which it isn’t).

Coronavirus has now become part of the fabric of Trump’s 2020 reelection campaign — one aimed largely at dividing Americans along sociopolitical and cultural lines. But the biggest question remains: Will it work?

Trump’s strategy: Blame the governors

Trump’s primary objective in 2020 is to win the White House, and he hoped to do so using a strong economy as an ally. But the coronavirus has put that effort in jeopardy. About 22 million Americans have filed for unemployment, and expected GDP has dropped at least 10 percent, leading to Trump arguing earlier this month that the pandemic “artificially stopped” his administration’s forward economic progress.

The case for Trump’s response to the pandemic is thin at best, particularly early in the pandemic when Trump admittedly downplayed it because, in his words, “You know I’m a cheerleader for the country.” While states hold the primary responsibility for public health under the aegis of the Constitution, the federal government, and Trump, repeatedly ignored opportunities to mitigate the virus’s spread through extensive testing. Rather, Trump said of the virus in early March, “It will go away. Just stay calm. It will go away.” Polling indicates that most Americans disapprove of Trump’s response to the pandemic.

With little federal success in stopping the virus on which to lean politically, Trump has shifted to another tactic: putting the blame for the pandemic on Democratic governors, many with higher approval ratings than the president. Skocpol told me, “The anger is being directed at the governors, and Trump is trying to put the governors front and center as targets.”

The shift is taking place as states like Michigan and New York work with other governors in their regions to develop their own plans to fight the coronavirus and plan for an economic reopening.

As my colleague Aaron Rupar wrote in late March, Trump’s ire at Democratic governors has been a major facet of his daily interactions with the press:

When Trump isn’t attacking Democratic governors — already this month he’s described Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer as “failing,” accused Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker of “blaming the Federal Government for [his] own shortcomings,” and smeared Washington Gov. Jay Inslee as “a snake” — the president has been insisting that it’s up to them to procure the supplies they need to prevent their hospitals from being overwhelmed.

“They have to get that gear themselves,” Trump told Fox News on Tuesday, referring to Democratic governors, adding that “they shouldn’t be hitting us.”

But Michigan isn’t just a state with a Democratic governor (and a potential vice presidential candidate, at that) — it’s a state Trump won in 2016 by a slim margin, the first Republican to win there since George H.W. Bush in 1988. And in order to win reelection in 2020, Trump will likely need to claim the state’s 16 electoral votes once again, with the coronavirus and the federal government’s failed response standing in his way.

To win Michigan, Trump needs to not only gain the support of the same rural and suburban voters who elected him in 2016, he needs to depress support for Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, who currently enjoys high approval ratings for her response to the coronavirus.

Skocpol told me he could take advantage of in-state tensions that have festered for decades by vilifying the governor and pitting the state’s residents against one another. The Detroit area is not only more heavily populated and less white than the north and west of the state (77 percent of Detroit residents are black) but is being hit far harder than the rest of the state by the coronavirus pandemic, with more than 580 deaths reported as of April 18.

But when I spoke with Michigan Conservative Coalition president Rosanne Ponkowski about the situation in Detroit and the city’s surrounding counties, she told me, “Okay, let’s talk about people that live in Traverse City [a city in the state’s less populated north]. Let’s talk about people that live north of Lansing. That’s a whole other half of the state.” Grand Traverse County, which includes Traverse City, currently has 18 cases of coronavirus.

“Trump always knows how to get at exactly the fault lines of class and ethnic tension,” Skocpol said, “and there’s plenty of tension in Michigan between the middle part of the state and the Upper Peninsula and even some of the western parts of the state and Detroit.”

And that’s where the rise of anti-stay-at-home-order protests comes in, protests that don’t necessarily reflect the will of the vast majority of Americans, or even conservatives, but do reflect the intentions of the president of the United States and some of his biggest supporters.

Some conservative groups also want to reelect Trump

As I wrote earlier this week, the protests in Michigan originated in part from the extension of Michigan’s stay-at-home order in response to the coronavirus:

Conservatives in Michigan were already growing agitated with Whitmer’s aggressive response to the virus when she took another step that seemed nonsensical: Big-box hardware stores (larger than 50,000 square feet) were told they must close off aisles dedicated to paint supplies and lawn care until the end of April. They can still sell other goods deemed essential. “If you’re not buying food or medicine or other essential items, you should not be going to the store,” Whitmer said in a press conference earlier this month.

Some rally attendees complained to Fox News that Whitmer’s order seemed arbitrary. They can’t buy lawn fertilizer from Home Depot, visit siblings, or get their hair done, but lottery tickets are still for sale and liquor stores remain open. Seely told Vox, “Do you want people to leave their homes and risk infecting themselves and other people to get a lottery ticket? But I can’t go to the hardware store and buy grass seed for my lawn, buy a gallon of paint so that I can find myself doing a home project so I don’t go absolutely insane being locked at home. I mean, none of that makes any sense.”

But many of those involved in the protests are connected not by mere concern regarding Whitmer’s policies, but by their efforts to reelect the president.

Take the Michigan Conservative Council, for example. As the Associated Press detailed:

The protest there was organized by the Michigan Conservative Coalition, a group founded by a pro-Trump state representative and his wife, Meshawn Maddock, who is on the advisory board for an official Trump campaign group called “Women for Trump” and is also the co-founder of Michigan Trump Republicans. Their daughter is a field organizer for the Michigan Republican Party.

Another in-state group helping organize protests against the shutdown order is the Michigan Freedom Fund, led by Greg McNeilly. McNeilly is a longtime Republican operative (formerly serving as executive director of the Michigan GOP) and a friend of the powerful DeVos family. He worked as campaign manager for Republican Dick DeVos’s 2006 gubernatorial campaign; Betsy DeVos, Dick DeVos’s wife, currently serves as US secretary of education.

In Wisconsin, the main anti-shutdown group, Open Wisconsin Now, was organized by the Committee to Unleash Prosperity and FreedomWorks. The Committee to Unleash Prosperity was founded by Arthur Laffer and Stephen Moore, co-authors of Trumponomics: Inside the America First Plan to Revive Our Economy. Moore also served as president of the Club for Growth and was nominated by the president to serve on the board of the Federal Reserve before withdrawing after misogynistic remarks Moore made in the early 2000s were surfaced by reporters.

In an interview with the Washington Post, Moore spoke of the protests his group was helping to organize, saying, “There’s a massive movement on the right now, growing exponentially. In the next two weeks, you’ll see protests in the streets of conservatives; you’ll see a big pushback against the lockdown in some states.”

When I spoke with Brandon, he said FreedomWorks’ involvement with anti-shutdown protests was similar to that of the group’s involvement in the Tea Party protests; he said it “just so happened a lot of our activists were organizers.”

“We’re not organizing any of these events, but we do know a lot of people who have come through our training and who are part of our community,” Brandon said. In response to questions about the group’s involvement in Wisconsin, FreedomWorks’ Peter Vicenzi told me that while they supported those protests, they were not providing funding.

I spoke with Angelo Carusone, president and CEO of Media Matters, a left-leaning group that tracks right-leaning media. To him, the anti-shutdown protests bear striking similarities to the early days of the Tea Party movement, with smaller events promoted by radio hosts and local conservative figures that are then “heavily promoted and amplified by Fox News and the rest of the right-wing echo chamber,” in his view.

While he told me many of these groups were “very real” — “they’re not being driven by sophisticated operatives, necessarily” — they are receiving additional amplification through Fox News, “throwing some kindling” on the protests, in his words.

Carusone told me that in contrast to how Fox News reports on left-leaning protests (for example, this 2017 Fox News report that blames a Black Lives Matter effort to encourage black Americans to shop only at black-owned businesses on billionaire George Soros), the anti-stay-at-home-order protests are being covered approvingly, with any extremism (or violations of social distancing taking place) minimized.

Telling me that we’re in the “proto stage” of these protests currently as they gain wider attention, Carusone described the effort as a three-step process for Fox News: “Raise awareness about it to make it into like a broad national movement, a cauldron of energy. Carry some of the water for [the protests]. And don’t mention any of the extremist ties.”

Michigan’s protests, for example, featured militias and members of the Michigan chapter of the Proud Boys, an extremist group whose former leader made a series of anti-Semitic and racist statements. (When I spoke with an MCC spokesperson, he said he had asked the police to remove the Proud Boys and militia members from the protests.)

Protests in Texas have featured conspiracy theorist Alex Jones, who recently settled a defamation lawsuit after repeatedly claiming that the Sandy Hook school shootings were a hoax. And the website for protests against Idaho’s stay-at-home order links to a site for readers to learn “what is really going on” that compares the coronavirus to “white racists” (arguing that both are the creation of “propaganda”) and claims the coronavirus is the “scam of 2020.”

Infowars host and conspiracy theorist Alex Jones at the Texas Capitol building on April 18. Infowars broadcast the rally on its livestream.
Sergio Flores/Getty Images

And Carusone told me, “The other thing that [Fox News] does that I think is more important in some ways is they provide the narrative framework” for the protests — making them about liberty in the face of “martial law” or a “police state,” for example.

There’s no silent majority

But these protests aren’t reflective of public opinion — far from it. The vast majority of Americans are continuing to support social distancing policies and are more worried about stay-at-home restrictions being lifted too soon. As conservative writer Matthew Continetti wrote in the Washington Free Beacon:

Americans are not avoiding unnecessary physical proximity to people outside their household for the fun of it. Nor have they radically altered their daily routines because Gretchen Whitmer said so. They have seen the rate at which the coronavirus spreads. They have read or watched the virus kill young and old, black and white, rich and poor. They do not need Hobbes to remind them of their fear of violent death.

It was not media-induced panic but common sense that modified American behavior. The public is split on whether to trust the media. It is united in its embrace of social distancing.

In fact, many Americans would continue to avoid crowded events and social gatherings even if stay-at-home orders were lifted, “police state” or no. In a recent poll by Seton Hall, 72 percent of Americans, for example, say they will not attend sporting events until a vaccine for the coronavirus is identified. The coronavirus, not “martial law,” is guiding how people act. As Alan Blinder wrote in the Wall Street Journal, “Swaths of the economy—restaurants, travel, retail shops—were already shrinking before governments ordered them shut, because people were afraid to dine, travel or shop. These fears will abate gradually, with the pace dictated by the course of the virus, not by anybody’s decree.”

When I spoke to conservatives about the issue, even those who have voiced some support for the protests said the fight against the coronavirus was more complicated. For example, I talked to Dana Loesch, a conservative radio host and a former spokesperson for the National Rifle Association who interviewed GOP Chair Ronna McDaniel about the protests.

When we discussed rural conservatives arguing that their regions remained unaffected by the pandemic, she said, “They can’t really necessarily discount that this is just a Detroit problem or just a New York problem because it really isn’t. It will affect them. So everyone is dependent upon each other. I know that they want to get back to work and maybe they’re not affected. And maybe there’s a way that that can be figured out.”

But even in rural areas where the economic impact of the pandemic shutdown may be more searing than the disease itself, cases of the coronavirus are beginning to escalate. States like South Dakota and Idaho are beginning to see increasing infection rates and deaths, and in many rural areas, even a relatively small number of coronavirus cases could stretch rural hospitals and health networks to their limits.

Trump’s political gambit requires that the coronavirus becomes a pandemic of Democratic governors and the fault of blue states while other states get right back to business as usual, but the virus refuses to listen — and so do the vast majority of Americans.

That doesn’t mean the efforts to further spur division will stop, particularly from those who believe such a strategy will lead to a Trump victory in November. Skocpol told me, “I think we’re in for a hellish period in this country. I think the attempts to stoke the ethnically and racially charged geopolitical divisions that are built into American federalism are going to be off the scale for the next six months.” And a deadly pandemic will continue to kill Americans, regardless of political party.

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