In an attempt to perpetuate the politics of grievance essential to Donald Trump’s political brand, right-wing groups have been orchestrating protests against Democratic governors who have implemented stay at home orders to control the spread of the coronavirus pandemic. These protests, which in past days have included obstructing health care workers and assembling without regard to social distancing, are irresponsible and politically tone deaf. They pose a direct risk to public health and — more important to a president who thinks only of his political well-being — are sorely out of step with public opinion.
The protesters’ playbook should look familiar, because we’ve seen it before. A decade ago, right-wing money fueled astroturfed protests that amplified grassroots Tea Party sentiment and created a national anti-government moment, culminating in the Republican wave election of 2010. Today’s protests have been promoted by conservative groups linked to Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. Just like ten years ago, the demonstrations are magnified by social media, a complicit conservative media ecosystem, and mainstream reporters drawn to irresistible images like protesters blocking an ambulance in front of a Michigan hospital. The intent is to create the impression of a broad social backlash to the mostly Democratic governors who are insisting on closing their states until health professionals tell them it is safe to do otherwise.
In fact, the demonstrators are small in number and represent a radically individualistic perspective that is rejected by a vast majority of the country. Polling shows that most people are more worried about their health and the health of their loved ones and are willing to accept involuntary restrictions in order to remain safe. Three in four people believe a complete shutdown of the country is needed to stop the spread of the virus, and almost six in ten say the government should have acted sooner. The public does not support Donald Trump’s efforts to re-open the economy in two weeks, and they trust public health experts and their governors more than Trump.
The original Tea Party protests were effective because they amplified a message that people were primed to believe. In 2010, people were angry that government used taxpayer money to bail out the financial institutions responsible for the 2008 crash, and many were unhappy with what they viewed as government overreach behind the newly created and still unpopular Affordable Care Act. Attitudes about government in the present crisis are different. There is a reason why the public is firmly behind governors who are trying to use government resources to fight the spread of the disease, and it is the same reason why even some of Donald Trump’s strongest allies are advising him to abandon the unhinged daily briefings that are coinciding with a steady decline in how the public views his management of the crisis.
Anti-government protests may temporarily gratify those who for several weeks have been deprived of the primal fulfillment of Trump rallies, but the protesters and their deep-pocketed promoters are confronting three immutable elements of reality. One: the virus doesn’t care what they believe. By congregating, they are putting themselves and others at risk, something that may become more clear to them in a few day’s time. Two: the public doesn’t agree with them. In a crisis, people look to government for help. They reward leaders who take efforts to promote their safety and punish the inept and incompetent. Three: no amount of spin or bluster can change points one or two.
The longterm ramifications of how people are coming to view the government during the pandemic are profound, because they represent a wholesale rejection of the anti-elite, anti-intellectual underpinnings of Trumpism as well as the “government is the problem” ethic that has guided our politics since Ronald Reagan. Those who see Trump as the last line of defense against rule by multicultural elites will celebrate his tirades against the experts and embrace the radical individualism of the protesters. Everyone else just wants to survive this harrowing and unprecedented moment, and is looking for expertise and informed leadership to get us through. They understand the need to pull together in a crisis and rebel against Trump’s essential impulse to divide. The pandemic is reminding people that there are things we want government to do — and do well — for everyone.
This last point will be critical to shaping the politics of the world we will inhabit when the pandemic is over. Community was devalued during the Reagan era and is the enemy of Trumpism, but it is an essential element of survival in a crisis. By living through a traumatic moment when the contrasts are so stark between an administration bent on dividing us and governors of both parties trying to protect us, the time is coming when we will begin to decouple healthy self-interest from destructive greed and rethink the value of community and its companion, enlightened governance. Much depends on how the crisis unfolds, on how long our lives are upended, on the toll it takes on our health and economy, and — not insignificantly — on whether next year brings us a competent administration that successfully navigates us back to physical, emotional and economic health. Especially if that happens, it is hard to envision returning to the greed-is-good mantra of the past forty years when this is finally over.