Support The Bulwark and subscribe today.
  Join Now

The Coming Populist Libertarian Rebellion

People can find a way to be anti-Nanny State but also pro-Orange God King.
April 16, 2020
The Coming Populist Libertarian Rebellion
A blanket featuring the US president atop a tank and holding a gun hangs near the Huntington Center in Toledo, Ohio January 9, 2020 (Photo by SETH HERALD/AFP via Getty Images)

And so on the umpteenth day of the Great Lockdown, the masses finally rose up. Or something:

For miles, thousands of drivers clogged the streets to demand Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer (D) ease restrictions and allow them to go back to work. They drowned downtown Lansing, Mich., in an cacophony of honking. They blared patriotic songs from car radios, waving all sorts of flags from the windows—President Trump flags, American flags and the occasional Confederate flag.

But in the massive demonstration against Whitmer’s stay-at-home executive order—which they have argued is excessive and beyond her authority—the pleas from organizers that protesters stay in their vehicles went unheeded. Many got out of their cars and crashed the front lawn of the capitol building, with some chanting, “Lock her up!” and “We will not comply!”

It’s easy to dunk on this sort of thing as just another vector of wingnuttery. But it’s important to recognize that populist libertarianism is a thing and that it is also completely compatible with Trump’s proto-authoritarianism.

In Trumpian politics there is no tension between outrage over the Nanny State and slavish devotion to the Orange God King. Although as a matter of political philosophy or logic you would think that those two things would be incompatible, as a matter of psychology they’re not. Trump knows this. And you can be sure he’s paying attention.

The stay-at-home orders from Michigan governor Gretchen Whitmer were well-intentioned, but they also generated a backlash because they didn’t all make sense. “Confused shoppers found they could buy liquor and lottery tickets on a trip to the grocery store, but couldn’t visit the vegetable seed aisle or gardening center,” reports the Washington Post. “The order required large stores to shut down plant nurseries and rope off sections where carpet, flooring and paint were sold, provisions that conservatives found both arbitrary and harmful to business owners.”

The Michigan protest had a sort of Zombie Tea Party vibe, a grassroots-like movement complete with a full-throated Don’t Tread On Me ethos.

And that ethos has deep roots, not just in conservative politics, but also in the national character. Dismissing it out of hand would be dangerous. Because if you want to suppress the virus in a liberal democracy you need the consent of the governed. All things being rational, the public will do the right thing—unless the things they’re being told to do are obviously stupid.

Think TSA Theater where we are supposed to imagine that frisking grandma somehow makes America safe.

Even in the midst of a pandemic, people have to feel that the rules make sense and have not devolved into arbitrary diktats that seem more about signaling and theater than real public safety. Some examples: orders that tell churchgoers that they can’t have drive-in church services even if they keep their windows closed. Or banning window visits at nursing homes. Or banning fly-fishing.

A colleague emails me: “My aunt’s town at the Jersey shore closed the boardwalk so no one can walk on it. And then they closed the parking along the boardwalk so no one can even pull up, park, and look at the ocean. The reasoning seems to be that ‘the cars would be too close together.’”

All of this seems horribly counterproductive. And any possible public health gains banked by preventing fly fisherman from plying their hobby seems likely outweighed by sparking a general defiance that gets transferred to guidelines that are actually important.

In a perfect world the government would create an environment where they didn’t have to enforce anything because they would already have carefully explained and justified everything so that people took up all of the social distancing in their own initiative. But if local officials opt for the picayune and the draconian, they’ll start to lose folks.

So far, polls suggests that most Americans are wiling to be patient because they worry about the pandemic more than their finances. But that may not last if officials give in to their inner autocrats.

The other danger is that these protests will play to Trump’s id. These are his people and he must lead them. As he faces slumping poll numbers, Trump may grasp at the populist cred offered by the protests, especially if they take place in swing states. We know what we reads and what he watches, and those corners of the right media are loving the images out of Michigan.

We’re already getting mixed messages from his inner circle.

As the Daily Beast notes:

Grenell’s post foreshadows a major political battle line on the horizon. Republican operatives say the burgeoning movement against coronavirus restrictions could end up stressing an already heavily stressed body politic even further, with conservative activists challenging their governors in increasingly dramatic fashion. Former Rep. Jack Kingston (R-GA), who is a close White House ally, said he felt the country was nearing a tipping point.

“I think it could be a combination of politics, misinformation, economic hardship, emotion/anxiety, and well intentioned civil disobedience,” Kingston wrote. “The liquor stores and dispensaries are open but I can’t buy gun!

How long before Trump himself starts to tweet encouragement?

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.