The recent series of rallies protesting social distancing measures across the country have attracted the attention of countless media outlets. The rallies, which are reminiscent of the Tea Party movement that consumed the Republican party in the lead up to the 2010 midterms, have featured protesters sporting MAGA hates and other Trump memorabilia ―but no masks―waving American flags with President Trump’s face on them. They want their governors to lift the stay-at-home orders that were put in place to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus, arguing that the damage the orders are doing to the economy is worse than any damage the coronavirus would do if social distancing measures were lifted. While these rallies seem like further evidence that polarization has infected every aspect of American life to the point that nothing can bring us together, they offer a sign of hope upon closer inspection.
Watching footage of the protests, I was reminded of the book The Politics of Resentment: Rural Consciousness in Wisconsin and the Rise of Scott Walker, by Katherine Cramer. In the book, Cramer explores the forces that animate rural Americans when it comes to politics, using Wisconsin as a case study. Cramer finds that rural voter’s various resentments towards big government, residents of large cities, and anyone else perceived as “elite” drives them to support candidates and causes that rail against these groups. They have an inherent mistrust of the government, even for programs that are beneficial to them. They definitely don’t want the government to send them stimulus checks while they are unable to work. The protesters believe that the stay-at-home orders only benefit residents of urban areas, which have seen higher rates of infection than rural areas so far.
These protests have the look of a new grassroots movement, but looks can be deceiving. These protests are not as organic as they might seem. They are actually being organized by the same conservative groups that were behind the rise of the Tea Party. The rallies have been promoted by Fox News and other conservative news outlets, as well as Trump himself, who tweeted out messages about the need to “LIBERATE” certain states with Democratic governors. All of this in spite of the fact that the protesters are opposing policies based off of the guidelines that Trump’s own administration put out.
These rallies are all meant to promote Trump’s main message about the pandemic: it’s not his fault, it’s the governors’. Trump knows that the pandemic has put him in a precarious position as he begins to ramp up his reelection campaign. His only argument for reelection was that the economy was strong, which is no longer the case. Therefore, he believes that it is in his interest to shift the blame onto the governors so that voters don’t punish him if there is still a recession when election day arrives. This is meant to pit Americans against Americans, stoking division not just between Republicans and Democrats, but also between rural Republicans and urban Republicans. This is an incredibly dangerous strategy that puts his own political fortunes ahead of the wellbeing of the American people.
Despite all of this, this story is not a sign of democratic erosion. Trump’s strategy, aided by the conservative media ecosystem, is breathtakingly irresponsible, but the truth is that the protesters are a tiny, albeit very loud, minority. Indeed, recent polling shows that an overwhelming majority of Americans, including a majority of Republicans, support social distancing measures and believe that they should remain in place until the end of May at the earliest. In fact, Americans are more worried about social distancing measures will be lifted prematurely than they are about the measures staying in place for too long. This includes rural Americans, whose resentments have seemingly been overridden by the ongoing public health crisis.
If this situation were increasing polarization and deepening the divides between Americans, it would be an example on democratic erosion. When it comes to social distancing, however, Americans seem to be on the same page. It appears that this divide and conquer strategy has failed to stalled on the runway. Unlike the Tea Party, which genuinely represented the Republican party at the time, these anti-shutdown protests are not representative of even the rural voters it is meant to mobilize. Trump himself seems to realize that this won’t work, as he went out of his way to distance himself from Georgia Governor Brian Kemp’s efforts to reopen his state’s economy at Wednesday’s daily coronavirus briefing.
Polarization is a very real things, but it has not completely infected America’s political discourse. While it is extremely disturbing that the President of the United States and his allies in the media would even attempt such a dangerous and divisive strategy in the name of holding onto power, we should be reassured that it has failed, and that the vast majority of Americans have decided to trust medical experts over Dr. Phil and Fox News.