Last Wednesday, thousands of Michiganders left their houses to jam the streets of downtown Lansing and protest on the Capitol lawn during the statewide stay-home order.
Two days later, President Donald Trump tweeted: “LIBERATE MICHIGAN!”
He also posted similar tweets directed toward Minnesota and Virginia, two other states that had anti-quarantine protests last week and have Democratic governors.
However, it was just the beginning of what is now a national trend of anti-quarantine protests, despite the COVID-19 pandemic sweeping through the world that’s killed 2,700 in Michigan and more than 45,000 across the country.
Governors in 42 states have ordered statewide stay-home orders. Many Republican leaders, business groups and conservative activists in many states are now demanding the orders be lifted and economies be reopened.
Public health officials, however, are urging states only open back up once it is safe to do so, and say that social distancing measures are the best chance to fight off COVID-19.
Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, who has clashed with the GOP president in recent weeks over coronavirus relief, this week compared the efforts the state is taking to slow the spread of COVID-19 to wartime sacrifices on Monday.
“To all the people that have disagreed with the actions that I’ve taken or feel their rights are being infringed, I want to say this: We are taking a limited action for a limited amount of time to save people’s lives,” She said. “President Trump called this a war, and it is exactly that. So let’s act like it.”
The protest in Lansing last week was the largest and one of the first protests of its kind, drawing groups like the Proud Boys and Michigan Militia and turning into a de facto Trump rally. Other events are in the works, including a protest Wednesday.
The demonstrations that followed in other states like Pennsylvania, North Carolina and Arizona were similar in many ways. Some people toted guns and waved Confederate flags. Some people called for the resignation of their governors.
Similar to how the large conservative organizations like the Koch brothers-funded Americans for Prosperity helped fuel the tea party protests during President Barack Obama’s first term, groups backed by right-wing donors are backing anti-quarantine protesters, too. FreedomWorks, for example, has been involved in both. When big groups are behind efforts and try and make it appear as though they come from grassroots activists, that’s known as “AstroTurfing.”
Several national media, including the New York Times, NBC News and the Guardian U.K., have been tracking the connection between big donors and the recent protests, as well as similar online domain names for groups.
Fox News has also played a role in the protests’ growing attention. A study from Media Matters, a progressive nonprofit that fact-checks conservative media, found that between April 13 and April 20, the network devoted 91 segments and six hours of coverage to the protests, similarly to how it hyped tea party protests. With more national attention, it’s likely events will get bigger.
The network also hosted protest organizers and some Michigan sheriffs who said they wouldn’t be strictly enforcing the stay-home order, shared false information about Whitmer’s executive orders that’s been debunked and shared the time and locations of protests around the country.
Whitmer has largely been seen as a front-running governor in terms of taking action against the disease. But she also has a significant target on her back from Republicans, she is on the vice presidential shortlist for likely Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden.
Trump also has been very public about his disagreements with Whitmer, calling her “unpleasant” and referring to her as “that woman in Michigan.”
Melissa Ryan, the editor of the Ctrl Alt-Right Delete (CARD) newsletter and CEO of (CARD) Strategies, a Boston-based consulting firm that helps organizations understand the threat of extremism and online toxicity, said Trump bashing governors could simply be “pettiness.”
“Governors are receiving high praise and they’re doing well in popularity. Their approval ratings are sky-high right now,” Ryan said. “And I think there’s some jealousy and pettiness there.”
Trump’s Michigan approval rating for handling the COVID-19 pandemic sits at 44% positive and 50% negative, according to poll data from the Chicago-based Glengariff Group for the Detroit Chamber of Commerce. Whitmer’s approval rating for the pandemic is 57% positive to 37% negative.
Trump has publicly backed social-distancing guidelines from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) that are in place until April 30, which is when Michigan’s stay-home order expires. But also has vocalized support for the protesters and said they are being “responsible.”
“Some governors have gone too far. Some of the things that happened are maybe not so appropriate,” Trump told reporters Sunday. “I think, in the end, it’s not going to matter because we’re starting to open up our states. And I think they’re going to open up very well.”
Ryan said Trump’s statements about the protests and his string of tweets calling on states to liberate “amplified and validated these protests.”
“Up until now, a lot of reporters were grasping with how much to cover it without over-amplifying it, because it didn’t seem like a big movement,” she said. “And then once, of course, the president amplified it, it’s obvious it’s going to become a much bigger thing, because he has sort of tacitly endorsed it.”
Although the protests are getting national attention, they don’t reflect where most Americans are at. A Politico/Morning Consult poll found 81% of voters believe we “should continue to social distance for as long as is needed to curb the spread of coronavirus, even if it means continued damage to the economy.” A super-majority of both parties agreed, with 89% of Democrats and 72% of Republicans on board.
Pew Research Center reports that a narrow majority – 53% – of conservatives say they’re mostly concerned the restrictions won’t be lifted quickly enough, but about 60% of moderate and liberal Republicans say they’re more concerned they’ll be lifted too quickly.
In total, 66% of Americans say they are more concerned that the restrictions will be lifted too soon and 32% of Americans say they are concerned it won’t happen quickly enough.
Organizations behind protests
Michigan saw its fair share of tea party events during 2009 and 2010, like Tax Day protests at the Capitol, where last week’s rally took place.
“There’s always been a lot of right-wing funding in Michigan,” Ryan said. “So I’m not surprised that Michigan groups got resourced very quickly and very openly.”
The Michigan rally was organized by the Michigan Conservative Coalition (MCC). The group was founded by state Rep. Matt Maddock (R-Milford) and his wife, Meshawn Maddock, chair of the 11th district GOP and a member of the national organization “Women for Trump.” MCC partners with some of the state’s most conservative political organizations, such as Michigan Trump Republicans, Battle Cry and Women for Trump, according to its website.
The DeVos-funded Michigan Freedom Fund, which is headed by Greg McNeilly, also was listed as a host. McNeilly, a longtime family adviser, was campaign manager for Dick DeVos, the husband of U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, during his 2006 gubernatorial run. The DeVoses also were big proponents of Right to Work, which then-Gov. Rick Snyder, a Republican, ended up signing in 2012 after declaring several times it was “not on my agenda.”
Whitmer last week said that it was “really inappropriate for a sitting member of the United States president’s cabinet to be waging political attacks on any governor, but obviously, on me here at home.”
There are a number of other protests that appear to be in the works in Michigan in upcoming days, even two more “traffic jam” style protests. But MCC posted on Facebook to say it’s not hosting them.
“WE WANT TO MAKE IT VERY CLEAR – these are NOT our events. Our mission to get the Governor’s attention has been successful. Now we wait to see how she will react,” the organization wrote.
Meanwhile, Facebook groups and events are popping up in nearly every state calling for protests, and each one seems to be backing a similar message.
“If you search for ‘against excessive quarantine’ [on Facebook], like hundreds of groups come up. And they all have the same about language and they’re all doing the same thing,” Ryan said.
She compared these pop-up, call-to-action events to similar events aimed at President Barack Obama in 2009 and 2010 from the tea party.
“It was organizations, like American prosperity and other organizations, that sort of put everything together. And they resourced these local groups to form chapters quickly and they provided all the talking points,” Ryan said.
“I think for those of us who were politically active during the tea party years it’s like, oh my god, it’s the same thing. And the language was particularly comical to me, because it’s just all about tyranny and liberty and they didn’t even bother to change up the language; they just added Trump’s name.”
Ryan said the protests and the division they create could be good for Trump in the November election, especially in swing states like Michigan.
“Trump is never politically going to be able to bring people together. He’s made the decision years ago that the only way he can win is to divide and conquer by shoring up his base as much as possible,” Ryan said. “So whether or not these protests are coming from Trump’s political organization, they certainly benefit where he feels he needs to be to win his reelection.”