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How Trump Turned the Pandemic Into Identity Politics

Forget the people dying. Forget the economic collapse. Trump, Republicans, and Conservatism Inc. have turned COVID-19 into just another front of the culture war.
April 20, 2020
How Trump Turned the Pandemic Into Identity Politics
Demonstrators gather in front of the Colorado State Capitol building to protest coronavirus stay-at-home orders during a "ReOpen Colorado" rally in Denver, Colorado, on April 19, 2020. - Hundreds protested on April 18 in cities across America against coronavirus-related lockdowns -- with encouragement from President Donald Trump -- as resentment grows against the crippling economic cost of confinement. (Photo by Jason Connolly / AFP)

No one really knows where the arc of history is bending these days, but this weekend we got a good look at where the arc of conservative activism is heading.

The death toll in the United States from the coronavirus has now topped 40,000 but, egged on by presidential tweets, packs of flag-waving, maskless protesters across the country defied stay-at-home orders to demand that the country reopen quickly.

Let’s stipulate here that some of their grievances are legitimate: some of the restrictions seem to overreach and the legal arguments against some of the orders are not trivial. It’s also important to reaffirm that the right to protest and object to government policy is a fundamental American right.

But, of course, there were alternatives to the in-your-face acts of performative defiance. It’s too early to know whether the protests will become vectors of disease. But it’s already abundantly clear they have become vectors of stupidity in an already exceptionally stupid time.

And Trump World and the GOP are both all-in on them.

At first blush, the protests were reminiscent of the Tea Party uprisings from the Obama years. There were the usual “Don’t Tread On Me” flags and chants of “freedom” but the target here wasn’t a giant government bailout package.

“For heaven’s sakes, open the barber shops. Open the hair salons. We need haircuts okay?” one protester complained.

That’s quite a slide from “give me liberty or give me death” to . . . “we want haircuts.”

But even that infantilism wasn’t the worst part. Many of the protests devolved into festivals of recklessness and crackpottery, complete with conspiracy theorists, Confederate flags, gun-wielding cosplay, and chants of “lock her up.”

Here’s a scene from Saturday’s protest in Brookfield , Wisconsin:

Needless to say, Wisconsin was not, and never has been, part of the Confederacy. So there can’t be any “heritage” cover story here: There’s only one reason someone in Wisconsin would fly the Stars ‘n’ Bars. (And, no, the photo was not doctored in any way.)

The messages at other rallies was similarly incoherent. In Texas, demonstrators chanted “Fire Fauci,” and carried a sign demanding “Deliver up the treasonous men,” including “Bill Gates, Mike Pompeo, Deborah Birx, Steve Menuchan [sic], and George Soros.”

Of course, if advisers such as Fauci, Pompeo, Birx, and Mnuchin have misled the country, then Trump himself is the dupe-in-chief. Or worse! But such contradictions are not a problem for a movement that picks and chooses its slogans and principles to suit the moment. Which is how Trump can be both the Great Man who is the only one with the strength to save America and a helpless naif being manipulated by the devious Deep State. (And by the way, if Mike Pompeo is part of the anti-Trump Deep State, then he deserves every Best Actor Oscar for the rest of all time.)

At other times, the zombie Tea Party events took on an anti-vaxxer affect, with its contempt for science and insistence that personal preference and ignorance should take pride of place over public health. In Madison, one demonstrator held up a sign reading:

No tests
No vaccine
No masks

Ironically, the sign does not appear to be intended as a description of Trump’s failures, but rather a declaration of quasi-libertarian defiance. Go figure.

Until recently, the GOP gave a wide berth to the anti-vaxxers, and with good reason: they are not just merely nut jobs, but also represent a real and present danger to the families and communities conservatives claim they want to protect. They are quite literally anti-social in the sense that they demand exemptions from practices essential to social well-being.

But this cultivated insensitivity was a theme of all of the protests: people will die, but we demand our right to take the risks. “We understand there are still many sick and dying,” Jeanine Pirro said on Fox news. “But what about the rest of us?”

At the protest in Brookfield, Wisconsin, a woman told a reporter: “And if you come down with it and you die, well then that’s on you. It’s a decision that you have to make. If I die because I came here today, well, I guess…”

And then she just shrugged.

All of this was urged on by the president, who last Friday tweeted “LIBERATE MICHIGAN!” and “LIBERATE MINNESOTA!” and “LIBERATE VIRGINIA, and save your great 2nd Amendment. It is under siege!”

As the New York Times explained, Trump has given up “any semblance of national leadership on the pandemic, and is choosing instead to divide the country by playing to his political base.” His calculation is both cynical and obvious:

By embracing the backlash to the coronavirus restrictions, Mr. Trump is tapping into a powerful well of political energy as he seeks re-election this year. The president is also trying to deflect anger about his response to the virus away from him and toward Democratic governors, who he hopes will shoulder the blame for keeping the restrictions in place and for any deaths that occur after states reopen.

It’s easy to write off the uprisings merely as fringe phenomena, or isolated incidents of astroturfing. The Washington Post reports that “A trio of far-right, pro-gun provocateurs is behind some of the largest Facebook groups calling for anti-quarantine protests around the country, offering the latest illustration that some seemingly organic demonstrations are being engineered by a network of conservative activists.”

And polls show that nearly 60 percent of American voters say they are more concerned that a lifting the stay-at-home restrictions would lead to more deaths than are concerned that the restrictions are hurting the economy.

But it’s important to understand that the protests are not isolated one-offs. Trump has mobilized much of the right-wing infrastructure that was built over the last 20 years by Conservatism Inc. to get behind this open-it-up campaign and he quickly turning the response to the pandemic from a question of managing a public health and economic catastrophe into just another front of the culture war.

That’s some trick.

Of course, he’s had help. At the sound of their master’s voice, Trump’s media toadies pivoted once again. Stephen Moore declared that the protesters were “modern-day Rosa Parks—they are protesting against injustice and a loss of liberties.” (The idea of a modern-day Rosa Parks waving a Confederate flag is . . . interesting.)

“We’re going to see a lot more of [the protests],” Moore declared on a Youtube video. “So, this is a great time, gentleman and ladies, for civil disobedience.”

Fox News host Laura Ingraham pushed the analogies even harder.

On Friday, Trump retweeted right wing grifter Charlie Kirk 11 times. Earlier in the day, Kirk had endorsed the calls for protests and referred to the Democratic governors as “these marxist tyrants” who needed to “be recalled and resign.”

The vast majority of protesters ignored Kirk’s suggestion they wear masks while displaying their anger and rage. Because #MAGA. Or #winning. Or #something.

There is no indication that there will be any pushback from either the main body of the Republican party or what now passes for the conservative movement. Indeed, Wisconsin is a good example of the way the GOP has gone all-in on the campaign for “liberation.”

In the video where he compared the protesters to Rosa Park, Stephen Moore also announced plans for protests to shut down Wisconsin’s state capitol later this week. He claimed that a well-heeled donor promised to “pay the bail and legal fees” for anyone who was arrested during the April 24 rally.

He did not name the donor. But it’s no secret that Wisconsin’s conservative politics have increasingly been shaped by a handful of activist donors, some of whom have been vocal in their opposition to social distancing initiatives.

But whatever the impetus, virtually every conservative group in the state has gotten in line.

The MacIver Institute bills itself as the “Free Market Voice For Wisconsin,” but spent much of the weekend touting the protests in Brookfield and Madison.

The group’s chairman, Steve Fettig, accused Democratic Governor Tony Evers of “destroying our future by putting predictions and guesses ahead of what we know to be the truth. We must fight for our future. We must fight for our Wisconsin.”

“The best way to unshackle Wisconsin from this nightmare is for Wisconsinites to take back our rights and to take back our freedom to care for our own families and communities.”

Other conservative groups also mobilized. Usually, Wisconsin Family Action sticks to cultural issues. Its mission statement says the group’s goal is “To advance Judeo-Christian principles and values in Wisconsin by strengthening, preserving, and promoting marriage, family, life, and liberty.”

But last week, the group announced that it had “launched a statewide online petition calling on Governor Evers to stop extending the time Wisconsin is shut down.”

The state’s largest business organization is also demanding a quicker reopening. The president of Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce, Kurt Bauer declared that “There is a groundswell of support from every corner of the state and every industry to begin the process of restarting our economy.”

Legislative Republicans also seem to be all-in. Earlier this month, they forced in-person voting in the state. They have now gone to court to block the extension of the state’s shutdown. Last week, Assembly Speaker Robin Vos retweeted a link to story headlined “Shutdown Could Kill More Americans Than COVID-19.”

Wisconsin may turn out to be a leading indicator of another emerging narrative: the pandemic was a problem for other people, not for us.

At the protest in Brookfield, one man explained that it was time to reopen the state because the coronavirus was limited to urban areas. “This isn’t common throughout the state. It’s common in Milwaukee. It’s common in Madison. Lock them down. I don’t need to be locked down.”

A similar sentiment was expressed in an email to the editor of Right Wisconsin (a publication I used to edit.). A man from Iron River, a town in northern Wisconsin, wrote:

THE AFRICAN AMERICAN IN THE WOODPILE (notice how politically correct i am) Am i the only one who has noticed where most covid 19 cases and deaths have occurred? every large city with a black or minority population. why is this. Are rural americans supposed to give up our rights and freedoms to support the slums? i’m more worried about bubonic plague in the homeles s population. give us a break and start treating
rural and urban populations differently. i am from a county with no covid deaths. opens us up. [Sic throughout, obviously.]

As Right Wisconsin editor James Wigderson notes, Iron River is in Bayfield County. On Friday, the county reported its first death from the disease. “The individual was 78 years old, had no known contact with a lab-confirmed positive COVID-19 case, nor had traveled out of the area,” county health officials said in a statement.

The victim’s race was not identified.

Charlie Sykes

Charlie Sykes is a founder and editor-at-large of The Bulwark and the author of How the Right Lost Its Mind. He is also the host of The Bulwark Podcast and an MSNBC contributor.