The Lockdown Backlash May Be the New Tea Party Movement

Anti-lockdown protesters in Lansing, Michigan, look a lot like refugees from a tea party rally ten years ago. Photo: Jeff Kowalsky/AFP via Getty Images

At first it was just random resistance from rural or Mountain West areas hardly affected initially by the coronavirus pandemic. But now it’s spreading to places near COVID-19 hot spots where some people think restrictive measures to stop the spread of the coronavirus have gone too far, or are willing to take their chances (and force others to do the same) with deadly infection in order to keep their businesses, their jobs, or their “freedom” as they understand it.

By now it’s clear that there is an organized national effort to fight extended lockdown orders. It has already helped generate loud public protests in Michigan, Ohio, and Kentucky. And it’s probably going to spread nearly as rapidly as the coronavirus itself in the rich soil of anti-government subcultures where it’s widely accepted that “tyrants” are exploiting the emergency to impose their godless socialist views on freedom-loving but fearful Americans.

The protests often look spontaneous, as my colleague Adam K. Raymond noted:

On Wednesday, opponents of Governor Gretchen Whitmer’s stay-at-home order in Michigan held a car-bound protest dubbed “Operation Gridlock …”

Despite organizers asking protesters to remain in their cars, groups gathered in front of the capitol waving pro-Trump and anti-Whitmer signs. One reporter tweeted that he heard chants of “recall Whitmer,” “U-S-A,” and “lock her up.”

Similar scenes broke out in Frankfort, Kentucky:

 Demonstrators are marching around the Kentucky Capitol as Gov. Andy Beshear gives his daily coronavirus briefing.

People held signs saying the governor should “reopen Kentucky,” chanting “We want to work.” Beshear responded to the protests, saying he was not going to reopen the state.

And there was this arresting scene of defiance in Columbus, Ohio:

But there’s no question these protests are organized. The anti-Whitmer action was stirred up by a group called the Michigan Conservative Coalition. Conservative legislators joined and regaled the Kentucky crowds. Veteran militia leader Ammon Bundy was at the center of civil disobedience in Idaho. And as the Washington Post reported earlier this week, a much broader effort to fight restrictive orders is under way with a powerful group of conservative actors in charge:

[C]onservative groups, meanwhile, are pushing for the White House and GOP lawmakers to push back against health professionals who have urged more caution.

The outside effort from conservative groups is expected to be led by Stephen Moore, a conservative at the Heritage Foundation who is close with White House economic officials; Jenny Beth Martin, co-founder of the Tea Party Patriots; Adam Brandon, president of FreedomWorks, a conservative advocacy organization; and Lisa Nelson, chief executive of the American Legislative Exchange Council, a conservative organization with ties to the Koch brothers, according to the three people, who were granted anonymity to reveal details of an effort that had not been publicly revealed.

Moore waxed prophetic:

“There’s a massive movement on the right now, growing exponentially. In the next two weeks, you’ll see protests in the streets of conservatives; you’ll see a big pushback against the lockdown in some states. People are at the boiling point,” said Moore, who declined to comment on the group. “If this were Hillary Clinton doing these things, you already would have riots in the streets.”

The fact that someone so close to the White House is in the middle of a cabal to organize protests against lockdown guidelines encouraged by the president’s public-health advisers and endorsed (however tardily and grudgingly) by POTUS himself is instructive, as are the MAGA hats and pro-Trump emblems of so many protesters. The president is notoriously chafing against public-health constraints on “reopening” the economy, which he desperately needs in order to reclaim his reelection mojo. At this point it’s unclear whether Trump will try to quash the kind of protests we are seeing this week, or decide to begin leading them and directing their ire at his Democratic and media enemies (plus the occasional RINO).

What is clear is the likelihood that in the anti-lockdown protests we are beginning to see a resurgence of the angry anti-government strain of right-wing political activity that broke out in the tea-party movement and then found expression in Trump’s vengeful 2016 presidential campaign. Politico’s John Harris suggests it may last much longer than the pandemic, much as the tea-party movement long outlasted the bailouts and “welfare” initiatives that inspired Rick Santelli’s hateful foundational rant about “losers” in 2009:

The absolutist nature of the country’s shutdown and the economic rescue package have democratic consent — enacted by a bipartisan roster of governors and overwhelming votes in Congress — but it was the kind of consent achieved by warning would-be dissenters, Are you serious? There is no choice!

Many people concluded that for now there is nothing to do but suck it up. It won’t be surprising if some of those people eventually have an intense desire to spit out.

As Harris notes, it’s not just the lockdown that is likely to feed a right-wing backlash: All of this emergency federal spending, which dwarfs the relief measures that created the original tea-party movement, is bound to be privately (and soon publicly) horrifying people who believe God Himself made America a limited-government paradise via the inspired teachings of the Founders. The big questions are whether the backlash is limited to cranky ideologues or assumes the proportions of a mass movement — and whether its leader is Donald J. Trump.

The Lockdown Backlash May Be the New Tea Party Movement