One carried a sign with Patrick Henry’s famed Revolutionary-era quote — “Give me liberty or give me death!” — and parked herself in front of a shuttered Baskin-Robbins to show her determination to risk everything for the freedom to go down that Rocky Road one more time. Nearby in the conservative California enclave of Huntington Beach, a fellow protester covered himself head-to-toe in safety gear for the utterly incongruous message that “COVID-19 is a lie.”
In state capitals from Annapolis to Minneapolis, protesters honked horns in slow-rolling motorcades or flaunted social distancing rules on crowded sidewalks, streaming from their homes in a new movement to protest the economic lockdown by the … dozens? That’s right, dozens, or maybe — to be fair — 100-200 at the largest of a dozen or so such right-wing protests since the middle of last week.
“I don’t fear a potential pathogen,” a 46-year-old barely-employed-any-longer bartender named Dave Litrell, who brought his daughter (both unmasked) into the small clump of demonstrators in Austin, Texas, told The New York Times. It seems to me that a virus that’s killed nearly 40,000 Americans has already lived up to its potential. But then statements like these — and the man-bites-dog quality of these protests to open up America when pandemic deaths were peaking at more than one 9/11-sized loss every day — are partly why the Times, cable news and social media found these protests irresistible.
I’d be something of a hypocrite to criticize the fact that people are writing about or broadcasting these protests because a) I’m here this morning writing about them and b) a decade ago I was so fascinated by a right-wing protest movement with similar, sometimes irrational demands and similar nebulous origins — the tea party — that I wrote an entire book about it, “The Backlash.” But what I learned back then is why I’m troubled by the way the Times, cable TV and other outlets are covering 2020’s “spontaneous” right-wing rallies, because the real story is who stands behind them, and why.
The everyday folks who were out there in Lansing, Mich., or Columbus, Ohio, last week — and yes, in Concord over the weekend — were largely there to serve the interests of the (mostly) rich and powerful people who used their influence to shoo them out there. Their agendas weren’t always the same. Most notably, President Donald Trump — who promoted the rallies and even the right to carry weapons in an even-stunning-by-Trump-standards series of tweets — desperately wants to shift blame away from his multiple failures on the coronavirus and instead onto public-health-minded governors. Right-wing special interests, like the billionaire family of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, are terrified that the 22 million unemployed will demand a social welfare state. Fox News is eager to make folks forget its dangerous ignore-the-virus punditry.
But the endgame and the shared interests are very much the same. Distraction, and a diversion of anger in the heartland — an anger with legitimate and understandable roots — away from them, and hopefully onto the political enemies who threaten their power. If it all sounds painfully familiar, it should. This is the tea party redux, except this time with the added thrill of a seeming death wish among the participants. Maybe we should call this one the Ventilator Party, or maybe the Branch COVID-ians.
I know this story well because I saw it firsthand in 2009-10, when I traveled from Massachusetts to Arizona — risking my eardrums at the Knob Creek Machine Gun Shoot in Kentucky, listening to Sarah Palin wow a tea party convention and getting Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s business card — to understand the right-wing political backlash after Barack Obama became the 44th president. I met — and sincerely listened to — dozens of people very much like the folks who last weekend protested the coronavirus shutdown.
And here’s the thing: In the early days of the Great Recession, some of the working-class anger was in fact directed toward the big banks (and the government’s overly generous bailout) and corporations that give money to both parties, but really give a lot of money to the GOP. The tea party was in reality a very top-down, billionaire-backed effort to steer that rage away from them and onto Obama and even the folks who voted for him.
It’s telling that the term “tea party” was invented in a rant by a capitalism-on-steroids CNBC host not against those banks but against “the losers” (i.e., working people but especially black and brown ones) forced into their terrible mortgage deals, as rich commodities traders standing behind him cheered. Soon, Fox News (owned by Rupert Murdoch, today worth $16.3 billion) was promoting where its viewers could attend “tea party” rallies, the Americans for Prosperity — largely funded by oil gazillionaires the Koch Brothers — paid for the buses to get there, and GOPers on Capitol Hill like Sen. Mitch McConnell adopted tea party language to serve their corporate masters.
There’s two ways to remember the tea party. In one sense, its size was probably vastly overinflated. When Murdoch decided by early 2011 that the tea party (and its 5 p.m. avatar, Glenn Beck) was becoming bad for business, Fox News stopped promoting it and the movement disappeared overnight. But also, in a world of media-driven fantasy where perception becomes reality and a reality-TV star becomes president, the tea party had already accomplished its mission in the 2010 midterms, ginning up enough outrage to lead a surge in GOP voter turnout that took back the House and essentially shut down the Senate with filibusters. The effect on state legislatures was even worse.
No wonder that — with an even more difficult 2020 election just months away, and with the Trump presidency on the line — they’re trying to reunite the band. It’s not all the same puppeteers, but just like in 2009 you don’t have to look hard to see the strings, either.
Of course, this time the far-right has an incumbent president to lead the charge, and Trump is performing the task with an authoritarian heavy-handedness that makes the Kochs and McConnells of this world seem subtle. “LIBERATE MINNESOTA!” or “LIBERATE VIRGINIA!” (with an added Second Amendment shout-out to the gun-toters of that former Rebel state) our commander-in-caps-lock tweeted as he watched the rallies, probably in his 11 a.m. bathrobe, on — where else? — Fox News. It was a briefly shocking moment for those of us still naive enough to believe that inciting an anti-government rebellion is an impeachable offense. But Trump’s motive is clear. He won’t be reelected if voters focus on the credible news reports that thousands of Americans died needlessly because his White House ignored the scientists and the tough decisions for months while the virus festered.
Fox News, which like Trump has been a fountain of lethal misinformation about the virus and which is rightfully terrified now of wrongful-death suits, hasn’t just covered the protests but used its massive megaphone to promote them in advance so viewers know where and when to go. In Michigan, where one of the larger protests occurred (and whose Democratic governor Gretchen Whitmer is touted as a possible running mate for Joe Biden), the protest was backed by the Michigan Freedom Fund, which is heavily funded by the billionaire DeVos family and run by one of their longtime political aides.
These right-wing groups certainly want to reelect Trump (and keep the wretched DeVos in her Education Department post), but what they’re really afraid of is that both the public health catastrophe and the growing economic meltdown will lead to a political, economic or even social revolution in the United States that will threaten the status quo — i.e., them.
The coronavirus has exposed the everyday disaster that is America’s employer-based health care system and the broader fragility where millions were just one lost paycheck away from a mileslong line at a food bank. The conservative movement in America, therefore, will die a deserved and overdue death unless the oligarchs can change the political conversation around to your God-given right to buy plant seeds and Baskin-Robbins — and fast.
It’s also worth noting (and probably worthy of a separate column) that these billionaires and millionaires have zero moral qualms about working with some of the worst white supremacists or neo-fascists in order to make sure a crowd turns out, which would explain how swastikas and the like turned up at the DeVos-sponsored protest in Lansing. In Pennsylvania, the protest Monday in Harrisburg by a rapidly growing Facebook group called Pennsylvanians Against Excessive Quarantine was led, curiously, by (ahem) a gun activist from (double ahem) Ohio. And just last August, that so-called gun activist, Chris Dorr, was investigated in Ohio after a Facebook rant in which he vowed that, after any effort to restrict the right to bear firearms, “there will be political bodies laying all over the ground … we gun owners will pull the trigger, and leave the corpses for the buzzards.”
Dorr’s alarming words speak to one of the real risks here — the kind that experts call stochastic terrorism, in which a movement leader’s incitements, such as the president of the United States urging gun activists to “LIBERATE” Virginia, are translated into specific acts of violence by low-level and possible unhinged followers. If it sounds familiar, we’ve already seen it play out from El Paso, Texas, to Germany, and now the danger in this time of coronavirus is very, very real.
Trump, of course, is a vainglorious narcissist incapable of understanding how his hateful words affect other humans, but the fact that so many other conservatives are willing to amplify this dangerous message should give you some insight into what’s really happening here. The right-wing movement is so used to what it now feels is its entitlement to wield power in America that it is willing to risk many lives — both among its political friends and foes, either from the suffocation of COVID-19 or even from a hail of bullets — in its pathetic need to hold on by its fingernails.
That is the real story here, and it’s the story that The New York Times and other journalists ought to be covering. Polls that show what Americans actually think are finding that an overwhelming majority, even a narrow majority of Republicans, are worried that businesses will open back up too soon, not too late. These protesters outside state capitols are not a mass movement, but merely the hundreds most easily manipulated by a kleptocracy that values power over human life. And yet this coalition fooled all of us once with the tea party. We can’t get fooled again.