Make America Protest Again

In recent days, there have been demonstrations across the country protesting stay-at-home orders. Most of these events have been relatively small, with dozens or hundreds of people participating. But there is something very odd about them: why are these protesters not protesting Trump?

On April 2, Trump announced his "30 Days To Slow The Spread" initiative. Among other things, the guidelines instruct people to avoid "discretionary travel, shopping trips, and social visits," and "eating at bars and restaurants." Beyond the federal guidelines, Trump says everyone should "Listen to and follow the directions of state and local authorities." 

Supposedly, this is everything the protesters oppose. Even Trump's plan for "Opening Up America Again" envisions some states maintaining stay-at-home policies for weeks after May 1. But you won't find any of the protesters bashing Trump. Instead, they are wearing MAGA hats and waving Trump 2020 flags.

These protests are not really about social distancing orders put in place by governors. They are part of an effort to make sure the COVID-19 epidemic doesn't interfere with Trump's reelection. A variety of right-wing groups with multi-million dollar budgets are working to coordinate and amplify this work, according to the Washington Post.

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.

Part of the impetus for the conservative group effort is political. Many conservatives, who had long counted on a roaring economy to lift the GOP in November, are increasingly uneasy about the party’s chances if businesses remain shuttered.

If governors refuse to immediately relax their stay-at-home orders, as these groups advocate, at least there will be someone else to blame.

There is a direct line between the right-wing groups involved in this effort and Trump. On April 14, Trump announced the "Great American Economic Revival Industry Groups," which are tasked with charting "the path forward toward a future of unparalleled American prosperity." Among the people included was the Heritage Foundation's Stephen Moore. 

Trump floated Moore's name as a potential member of the Federal Reserve, but withdrew it "after Republican lawmakers criticized his past comments about women, including that they should not earn more than men." But Moore remains an influential economic adviser to Trump. Moore told CBS News that economic activity should have returned to normal at the beginning of April — a policy public health experts say would have resulted in as many as 2 million deaths. 

Recently, Moore has been lionizing the anti-quarantine protestors, comparing them to civil rights icon Rosa Parks. "I call these people the modern-day Rosa Parks. They are protesting against injustice and a loss of liberties," Moore said

Trump has also thrown his weight behind the protesters, encouraging them on Twitter to "LIBERATE" three states with Democratic governors — Michigan, Minnesota, and Virginia. This is completely incoherent. Trump is encouraging people to protest policies that he, officially, supports. But this is Trump's new political strategy for 2020. And, as thousands of people die from COVID-19 and millions more lose their jobs, you'll likely see a lot more of it.

The Fox News factor

The anti-quarantine protesters do not represent a popular position, even among Republicans. A recent poll found 81% of Americans, including 68% of Republicans, would support a national stay-at-home order. 

The purpose of these events, therefore, is to change public opinion. This is part of the process of shifting the target of people's anger away from Trump and towards the governors. 

Right now, Americans view state stay-at-home orders from a public health perspective — an effort to protect themselves, their families, and their communities. The protests are an effort to turn the orders into a referendum on Trump. If you support Trump, you oppose the stay-at-home orders. 

That's where Fox News comes in. The network is systematically raising the profile of the protests. The April 18 edition of Fox & Friends included this map:

Fox News host Pete Hegseth, just after this graphic was shown, said that governors were "quite flippant about our founding documents," noting that "freedom of assembly" is in the Bill of Rights. 

Fox Business' Neil Cavuto wished the protesters in California, who are violating that state's shelter-in-place order, "good luck."

Tucker Carlson, one of Fox News' highly-rated primetime hosts, interviewed one of the organizers of a protest in Michigan, Meshawn Maddock. "Thank you for exercising your constitutionally protected rights as an American. Bless you," Carlson said at the conclusion of the interview. 

These are not isolated incidents. The promotion of these small protests on Fox News has been extensive. It's similar to the role that Fox News played after the 2008 election when it provided critical exposure to the nascent Tea Party movement. 

Chaos as opportunity

In addition to powerful right-wing media companies and non-profits, the protest "movement" is also being driven by right-wing provocateurs looking to raise their profile. The Dorr brothers (Ben, Christopher, and Aaron) have created a network of anti-quarantine Facebook groups that, as of Sunday, "had roughly 200,000 members combined." The groups "have become digital hubs for the same sort of misinformation spouted in recent days at state capitol buildings — from comparing the virus to the flu to questioning the intentions of scientists working on a vaccine."

The Dorr brothers were previously known as pro-gun activists that raise money for a network of non-profits by blasting "organizations like the National Rifle Association as being too compromising on gun safety." According to a former Republican state legislature in Iowa, "[t]he brothers will do anything to fan the flames of a controversial issue, and maybe make a quick nickel."

Facebook has removed "events that defy the government’s guidance on social distancing" but allowed others to continue organizing on the platform. Nevertheless, the events have found support from "pro-Trump figures — including some who act as surrogates for his campaign — as well as groups affiliated with prominent conservative donors." One such group is "the Michigan Freedom Fund, which is headed by Greg McNeilly, a longtime adviser to the DeVos family." Betsy DeVos is Trump's Secretary of Education.

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