“LIBERATE MINNESOTA!” “LIBERATE MICHIGAN!” “LIBERATE VIRGINIA, and save your great 2nd Amendment. It is under siege!” These Friday tweets from President Donald Trump condemning coronavirus restrictions by Democratic governors came less than a day after a press briefing that seemed to end a weeklong rhetorical standoff with the states. At Monday’s briefing, Trump had claimed “total authority” over the nation’s coronavirus response, prompting pushback from governors like New York’s Andrew Cuomo. “We have a Constitution,” he told CNN. “We don’t have a king; we have an elected president.” On Thursday, Trump essentially conceded this—first in a phone call where he reassured governors that they would be “calling their own shots,” and then at his briefing, where he finally released a set of recommendations, not orders, outlining when lifting state restrictions might be advisable.
Having lost that battle, Trump is pivoting to what he does best—inflaming his base, both to build public pressure on governors to open their state economies sooner and to misplace blame for an economic downturn made necessary by the administration’s initial failure to monitor and contain the virus. His allies in the conservative press are lending him a hand. In a Wednesday interview, Fox News’s Tucker Carlson accused New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy, whose stay-at-home order and ban on large gatherings led to the breakup of a funeral earlier this month, of violating the Constitution. “The Bill of Rights, as you well know, protects Americans’ right—enshrines their right—to practice their religion as they see fit and to congregate together to assemble peacefully,” Carlson said. “By what authority did you nullify the Bill of Rights in issuing this order?”
Bemused, Murphy replied that he “wasn’t thinking of the Bill of Rights” when the state took action to suppress the virus’s spread, a response now being pilloried on conservative websites. The next day, Fox’s Andrew Napolitano pronounced Murphy guilty of “felony of misconduct of office,” called for his impeachment, and voiced support for a general uprising against coronavirus restrictions. “The sooner we take our freedoms back, the less likely the government will be able to continue doing this,” he said. “If we don’t take our freedoms back, they might not come back.”
The long list of Fox personalities amping up attacks on the way officials have responded to the coronavirus crisis includes Laura Ingraham, who brought Dr. Phil on her show Thursday to compare coronavirus’s human toll to the deaths caused by car accidents and smoking. On his radio show the same day, Rush Limbaugh added his denunciations of the shutdowns and suggested those critical of comparing the coronavirus pandemic to lesser influenza outbreaks were elements of a conspiracy aimed at taking Trump down. “All of that designed to keep the U.S. economy floundering,” he said. “All of that is about doing what Robert J. Mueller and the whistleblower and Adam Schiff on Ukraine failed to do. All of this, politically, is about completing the dream of getting Donald Trump—and that’s why good news is taboo. That’s why intelligent, reasonable, rational comparisons are taboo.”
Meanwhile, conservative groups against the state shutdowns are popping up and staging demonstrations across the country. In Kentucky, on Wednesday, a press conference by Governor Andy Beshear was met by protesters shouting “Facts over fear!” and “Open up the church!” Similar protests have also occurred in Ohio, Minnesota, Utah, and North Carolina, and at least three new groups in Pennsylvania—ReOpen PA, Pennsylvanians Against Excessive Quarantine, and End the Lockdown PA—are planning another against that state’s restrictions on Monday.
One of the largest protests so far brought thousands to Michigan’s state capital, Lansing, on Wednesday. This was “Operation Gridlock,” a demonstration initially conceived as a traffic jam that would allow the disgruntled to protest from the comfort and safety of their cars. Naturally, many gathered in close quarters in front of the capitol building anyway. “There is no reason why she can’t be looking at some safe ways to be opening up businesses,” organizer Meshawn Maddock of the Michigan Conservative Coalition told The Washington Examiner. “Instead of talking about what’s essential and nonessential, let’s talk about what’s safe and not safe.”
Of course, as Operation Gridlock unintentionally illustrated, it is still inherently unsafe to let businesses and members of the public deal with this situation at their own discretion. When restrictions are lifted, many will heed the recommendations public health experts have laid out for social distancing and safe conduct. But many will not, thanks in part to an indifference about the virus conservatives have promoted from the beginning of the crisis. That indifference seems to have taken root among some demonstrators. “When it’s my time to go, God’s going to call me home,” ReopenNC cofounder Ashley Smith told The Daily Beast this week. “I think that to live is inherently to take risks. I’m not concerned about this virus any more than I am about the flu.”
In a column this week, Politico’s John Harris speculated that the backlash to coronavirus restrictions could be a boon for libertarianism. “The imminent libertarian surge is not a sure thing but it is more than a hunch,” he wrote. “In informal conversations, one hears the sentiment even from people I know to be fundamentally progressive and inclined to defer to whatever health officials say is responsible and necessary to mitigate the worst effects of coronavirus. It is possible both to support the shutdown and powerfully resent it—the draconian nature of the response, and the widespread perception that to voice skepticism of any aspect of its necessity is outside respectable bounds.” To Harris’s point, the coronavirus protests bear more than a passing resemblance to the Tea Party’s demonstrations a decade ago, and aspects of the crisis have proven potent triggers for conservative identity politics—from the virus’s origins in China to Democratic efforts to offer assistance to the undocumented and the homeless.
But the impulses animating the right’s coronavirus backlash are being refracted strangely—and in ways that aren’t necessarily promising for libertarians. “The government” that Fox’s Napolitano and others are assailing for having stripped away the freedoms of law-abiding conservatives is a rhetorical amalgamation of Democratic state governments, not Trump’s federal government. The president, in fact, is now a rebel and a hero, egging patriots against state and local authorities who were long seen as the more appropriate loci of power on the pre-Trump right. The Tea Party inveighed against the growth of the national debt and government spending, particularly on unemployment benefits and food stamps for Americans supposedly lazier and less upstanding than they were. Now, with precisely the same self-regard and sense of personal entitlement, nervous voices on the right are insisting the feds should spend and do more to either reopen the economy or cover workers in the interim. They happen to be right this time around, but there are reasons to be wary of the about-face.
One of the appointees to the White House’s task force on reopening the economy is Missouri Senator Josh Hawley, who has proposed having the government pay 80 percent of workers’ wages, up to the national median wage, until the coronavirus crisis has passed. Hawley is the most prominent figure in a growing faction of conservative nationalists—a cadre of Trump-inspired voices on the right for a bigger, more theocratic, and more xenophobic government; loudly against globalization and the Chinese regime. It is hard to imagine a crisis that might better facilitate their rise, but only time will tell if they’re able to successfully take advantage of it.
For now, the right’s reaction to coronavirus restrictions raises concerns closer to the ground. As public health experts have long said, and as the administration has effectively admitted in its new guidelines, reopening the economy and returning to something like normalcy won’t be a single event commanded by the president but a long, halting process that will play out differently in different places and for different sectors of American life. The next several months, and likely the next year or more, will demand strong coordination at multiple levels of government, responsible communication from public figures, and patience from the public. The president has botched the first two and is working on eroding the third. Fortunately, a Gallup poll released this week shows most people are still worried about rushing the country back to life. Moreover, 81 percent of Americans—including 69 percent of Republicans—believe they will be slow to return to normal activities even when restrictions are lifted. But if our assessments of the coronavirus protests draw anything at all from the example of the Tea Party, it should be an understanding that a small, loud minority can do a great deal to undermine policy and damage public sentiment.