In the great American tradition of grassroots protest, demonstrators are marching in state capitals, calling on governors to lift the pandemic restrictions that have forced bars, shops and nearly everything else to close for weeks.
“Give me liberty or give me COVID-19,” one protester’s sign demanded in Olympia, Wash. He may end up with both.
The wrinkle, of course, is that these supposed insurgents have a powerful ally: President Donald Trump. The president fairly bellowed his support on Twitter, urging them to “liberate” Michigan, Virginia and Minnesota, all states with Democratic governors.
And since a single spark can start a prairie fire, the result was the dramatic birth of a vast national movement, right?
Wrong. So far, the anti-quarantine movement is pretty much a dud. The demonstrations, ballyhooed in advance on Fox News, attracted a few hundred protesters at best, although most were smaller. They got outsize media coverage because they were different and photogenic. There’s no mass movement here.
Some sympathizers may have stayed home because there’s a pandemic going on. But opinion polls have found that most Americans don’t want restrictions on public gathering lifted yet. They’re more worried about the danger of catching the virus than of missing another day of work.
An NBC-Wall Street Journal poll released this week found a solid majority, 58%, who said they were worried about the government loosening the rules too fast. Only 32% said they were more concerned that the government isn’t moving fast enough to restart the economy.
There’s a predictable partisan division behind those numbers. Democrats overwhelmingly want to wait longer. But even Republicans are divided: 48% want to move fast, but 39% want to go slow.
A groundswell, this isn’t.
That helps explain why most governors ignored the demonstrators — many of whom weren’t exactly mainstream Republicans in any case.
In Lansing, Mich., the protesters included a delegation of the Proud Boys, a violence-loving far-right sect with ties to white nationalists. In Austin, Texas, they included Alex Jones, impresario of the conspiracy-mongering InfoWars website. In Boise, Idaho, they included Ammon Bundy, leader of a 2016 insurrection that seized a national wildlife refuge in Oregon.
In Olympia, they were addressed by a state legislator, Robert Sutherland of rural Granite Falls, who warned Washington Gov. Jay Inslee: “We’re starting a rebellion…. You send your goons with guns, we will defend ourselves.”
What’s the president of the United States doing in such company? “They seem to be protesters like me,” Trump explained.
That puts the president in the position of not only inciting citizens to violate state orders, but encouraging them to protest his own administration’s guidelines for how states can safely open up. Even some Republican governors say that’s crazy.
“To encourage people to go protest the plan that you just made recommendations on … just doesn’t make any sense,” said one of them, Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan Jr. “We’re sending completely conflicting messages.”
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Trump wants it both ways. He doesn’t merely want the economy to recover (as do we all); he desperately needs it to recover before November, so he can keep his job.
So he’s putting not-very-subtle pressure on governors to ignore his administration’s carefully crafted guidelines to keep restrictions in place until adequate testing shows it’s safe for people to return to work. For now, the testing is anything but adequate. But he’s also said the results are the governors’ responsibility, so if the pandemic comes roaring back he has someone to blame.
There’s a larger truth in his seemingly casual comment that he considers himself a “protester” like the marchers outside the state houses. Trump has never been interested in policy. He flees from the burdens of management. What he enjoys is campaigning — rallying his supporters and excoriating his critics.
But he’s taking a big risk here. He’s making it harder for his own administration’s policies to work. If governors open their states too quickly, people almost certainly will die.
He can try to blame the governors, but it’s too late. The president has made it clear that he wants them to go as fast as they dare.
Republican governors in South Carolina, Georgia and Tennessee have taken the bait and announced the easing of restrictions soon. Like Trump, Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp assigned responsibility to others.
“The private sector is going to have to convince the public that it’s safe to come back to their businesses,” Kemp told a press conference Monday.
Those protesters in Olympia, Lansing and Austin have every right to take to the streets, of course — as long as they wear masks and stay six feet away from each other. Many of them didn’t, even though Trump claimed, absurdly, that they did.
And there’s a legitimate debate over how tough social distancing rules should be, and how soon they should come off.
Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer should probably loosen her state’s prohibition against buying garden care products. Hiking, hunting, fishing, even golf ought to be thinkable.
But a word to the demonstrators, too. Refusing to wear a mask on a city sidewalk isn’t civil disobedience; it’s an act of aggression against your families and your neighbors. Even if the president is cheering you on.
Doyle McManus is a columnist for the Los Angeles Times. Readers may send him email at email@example.com
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