Across the nation, the protests appeared. End the lockdowns, rallygoers demanded, or big government would strangle liberty to death with its fists. In Idaho, state Representative Heather Scott captured the tone of the protesters, complaining that the lockdown was “no different than Nazi Germany, where you had government telling people, ‘You are an essential worker or a nonessential worker,’ and the nonessential workers got put on a train.” Others claimed the pandemic itself was a hoax, or at least an exaggeration of fact. Some blamed communism, some waved Confederate flags, some blamed the Jews.
In their remarks to the press and to their own fellow travelers, rally organizers made populist claims. Egged on by President Trump, who tweeted repeatedly that it was time to “liberate” Virginia and Minnesota and Michigan and the like — states with Democratic governors who had imposed stay-at-home restrictions — rallygoers demanded a virulent freedom. They wanted to go back to their churches, their golf courses, and most of all, to their jobs. “Let us work!” they chanted in Texas.
As they crowded into public squares, gathered on roadsides and in front of hospitals, protesters risked their own lives to demand liberty and death for us all. Liberals seized on this point, with some framing the rallies as a death cult in action. They aren’t totally wrong to do so. The protesters obviously don’t understand the pandemic, or the threat it poses to them and to everyone else. If their signs are anything to go by, they think it’s a distant foe, something that happens to people in far-off New York City and not to anyone in their suburbs. Reality says otherwise. The virus is highly contagious, it is more lethal than the seasonal flu, and states can prevent many deaths by enforcing limits on public behavior.
But ignorance is not the most interesting or even the most troubling thing about the protesters. While they fail to grasp the facts of the virus, that’s not a unique problem. Few of us know anything about epidemiology, and the psychological stressors of a global pandemic can drive the most intelligent among us to bizarre and irrational conclusions. It’s not hard to understand why anyone would want to believe a plague isn’t as serious as advertised.
Nevertheless, polls say that a clear majority of Americans do support ongoing lockdowns. That they do so in spite of catastrophic unemployment, and the real inconveniences and fears that these measures inflict, suggests something deeper than ignorance led to last weekend’s protests. Most people have decided to trust public-health experts. A few have not. And they make useful, if potentially unwitting, allies for powerful interests. When conservatives like Texas lieutenant governor Dan Patrick insist that it’s time to reopen the country, even if people die, they don’t speak for the public. They speak for themselves, and for the wealthy hands that keep them fed. It may not be true that reopening the states will rescue us from economic decline, but thousands of deaths would damage the economy, along with the national conscience.
But when a politician like Brian Kemp, the Republican governor of Georgia, says the bowling alleys must open back up or else, they do so for cynical reasons. They exaggerate the popularity of last weekend’s protests for similar reasons. The rally wave wasn’t the product of widespread outrage, but a combination of zealotry and greed.
Though it’s undeniable that lockdown measures create tremendous economic pain, last weekend’s protests weren’t really the howl of a suffering public. For the most part, the public stayed home. The few who didn’t were egged on by President Trump, then amplified by Fox News, which covered events as though they signaled a new mass movement. But with the exception of a few larger-scale demonstrations in cities like Olympia, Washington, most rallies were small. Nor were they spontaneous demonstrations of populist outrage. Buzzfeed News reported on Saturday that organizers of a Michigan rally had links to the Michigan Conservative Coalition and the Michigan Freedom Fund; the latter was founded by an adviser to the family of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. Far-right militias showed up, and so did white nationalists, anti-vaccination activists, and fanatical gun-rights groups.
In this way, the events of last weekend resemble the tea-party movement in its infancy. A small but committed collection of misfits created ideological cover for an Astroturf campaign. If liberals really want to apply a religious lens to the lockdown protests, the right frame might not be “death cult,” but a crusade: zealotry in the service of profane interests. Militia leaders like Ammon Bundy, who has been holding gatherings in defiance of social-distancing orders, may truly believe the things they say. “I actually want the virus,” he told CNN. “I’m healthy, my family is healthy. I’d rather have it now so my body is immune to it.” (Unfortunately for Bundy and his followers, the virus has killed young, otherwise healthy people, and research into immunity is ongoing.) But despite his conviction, he’s just a useful stooge.
Trump doesn’t want people back at work because he cares for their financial well-being. He was a slumlord and a scam artist before he became president. His populism is a dog whistle, an appeal to prejudice and to prejudice alone. He has no redistributive impulse. He serves only his base, and that base is wealthy. He cuts their taxes. The congressional stimulus package that met his approval gave megacorporations millions; meanwhile, smaller companies and public services like the U.S. Postal Service starve. To Trump, the protesters are just tools to manipulate. “They seem to be very responsible people to me,” he said of their efforts. “But they’ve been treated a little bit rough.” By the press, one imagines, or by Democratic governors, who keep states on pause so that their most vulnerable constituents can live.
Trump and his crusaders share one crucial conviction: Their real enemy isn’t a virus, but the public itself. Its demands are too costly to bear.