This was the weekend that the nation broke in two, or not quite two:
Protesters gathered in several states across the country Saturday to demand an end to stay-at-home orders that were put in place to stop the spread of the coronavirus. The demonstrations took place in several states, including Kentucky, Maryland, Michigan, Ohio, Texas, and Wisconsin. Many of those who broke social-distancing rules carried signs that had phrases like, “This is tyranny, not quarantine” and “Shut down the shutdown.”
To be clear, this wasn’t a massive popular uprising. Most of the nation was appalled by this, but perhaps that was the point. These people were sending a message. Most of the nation is stupidly blind, or has been blinded by the deep date, so it’s quite their fault, but the few who are enlightened know what’s what:
One of the largest rallies took place in Austin, where some 300 people gathered with many carrying signs, flags, t-shirts, and caps that made their support for President Donald Trump explicit. Protesters chanted, “Let us work!” and “Fire Fauci!” Many did not seem to believe there was any need to keep distance from each other while they shook hands and hugged at the protest that was heavily promoted by conspiracy-theory peddling website Infowars. Some attendants were disappointed by the scene that unfolded on the steps of the Capitol. “We thought it was going to be a lot bigger than this,” a protester told the Austin American Statesman.
Alex Jones from Infowars was there – a featured speaker. He’s most famous for “proving” that the Sandy Hook massacre never happened – no school children and no teachers were killed, there was no shooter and there was no shooting. This was staged. The media interviewed “crisis actors” provided by the anti-gun forces out to end American freedom. And the Boston Marathon bombing was a “false flag” operation by the same people. When he was running for president, on December 2, 2015, Donald Trump called in to Jones’ radio show, calling from Trump Towers. Jones congratulated Trump on being right all along – local Muslims had been dancing for joy in the New Jersey streets as the World Trade Center towers across the river collapsed. Donald Trump, in turn, told Jones to keep up the good work, but was careful not to mention Sandy Hook and all the rest. Those were the days when Trump was a bit careful. Now no one was surprised that Jones was in Austin.
But there was more:
Several hundred people also gathered outside the Ohio Statehouse on Saturday to protest the state’s stay-at-home order with some chanting, “We are not sheep.”
“I believe that we’re over reacting to this. Ohio numbers are not that large for us to have people lose their businesses. It’s just not warranted,” one protester said. “I would like to see Ohio open up now! None of this is warranted for our numbers.”
In Annapolis, Md. people gathered to protest but most didn’t get out of their vehicles. The demonstrators chose to drove around in circles and honk their horns. “The face mask you were duped into wearing symbolizes you losing your freedom of speech,” one man wrote on his pickup truck.
And all of this seemed planned:
The protests have received explicit support from the White House. “LIBERATE MINNESOTA!” “LIBERATE MICHIGAN!” “LIBERATE VIRGINIA,” Trump said in a Friday tweetstorm.
White House adviser Stephen Moore even went as far as to compare the demonstrators to one of the most notable civil rights icons. “I call these people the modern-day Rosa Parks – they are protesting against injustice and a loss of liberties,” Moore told the Washington Post.
Many rolled their eyes at that, but others did not:
As the White House promoted the protests, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo called on the nation to remain united. “The emotion in this country is as high as I can recall, people are frustrated, we’re anxious, we’re scared, we’re angry,” Cuomo said. “This is no time, and no place for division. We have our hands full as it is. Let’s just stay together, and let’s work it through.”
And that seemed to be the general idea, except in the Deep South:
A Pew poll released earlier this week found that 66 percent of Americans were concerned about lifting restrictions too early while only 32 percent said they were not being lifted quickly enough. Despite the numbers the demonstrators are clearly trying to pressure governors as they try to figure out how and when to start reopening their economies. Florida allowed some beaches to reopen Saturday and South Carolina is also getting ready to reopen public beaches and retail stores next week
So the South is drifting off on its own again, but Trump’s tweets really were a call to arms – “liberate” your state using your “beautiful Second Amendment” – your guns. That’s a call by the president for these folks to overthrow their state government in an armed rebellion. He couldn’t have been clearer, so these three particular governors should fear for their lives. And someone may “take out” Cuomo and his little brother too. Remember how they hung the body of Mussolini by the heels in Milan long ago – that sort of thing.
Okay, so what’s the alternative interpretation of what Trump tweeted? That would be this:
Vice President Mike Pence on Sunday denied that President Donald Trump was trying to undermine pandemic mitigation efforts by stoking dissent against states’ stay-at-home orders.
On “Fox News Sunday” and NBC’s “Meet the Press” Pence was pressed about Trump’s comments Friday on Twitter that it was time to “LIBERATE” Minnesota, Michigan and Virginia.
“Meet the Press” host Chuck Todd asked Pence why Trump was trying to subvert guidance issued by the administration. Pence said Trump wanted to reopen the economy “in a safe and responsible way.”
“Chuck,” Pence said, “I don’t accept your premise, and I don’t think most Americans do either.”
James Downie accepts that premise:
When Donald Trump chose Mike Pence as his running mate in 2016, the obvious political benefit was that Pence, a former governor and House member who is famously Christian, could boost evangelical and conservative turnout to help Republicans up and down the ballot. But for the egomaniacal Trump, Pence had another key qualification: “He says nice things about me.”
Since being named to the ticket, Pence has repeatedly put his obsequiousness on display: Few on Team Trump are better at deploying up-is-down reasoning to spin news to Trump’s benefit. But during the vice president’s appearances on NBC’s and Fox News’s Sunday morning talk shows, it was clear that even Pence could not bootlick his way out of the lurch the president’s actions leave the rest of us in.
One cannot make sense out of nonsense:
Washington Gov. Jay Inslee (D) rightly observed Friday, “The president is fomenting domestic rebellion and spreading lies – even while his own administration says the virus is real.”
Naturally, hosts on both NBC and Fox asked the vice president to explain the president’s comments. After all, as Fox host Chris Wallace pointed out, “they’re protesting your own guidelines to stop the spread.”
On Fox, Pence focused on bragging about the White House coronavirus task force. When pressed, he assured viewers that “no one in America wants to reopen this country more than President Donald Trump” – a line he repeated on NBC.
In both interviews, he then turned to touting guidelines that Trump issued Thursday for reopening states. Pence omitted that the guidance leaves key decisions up to governors, who Trump has said should call the shots on reopening.
Mike Pence has a pleasant and calm and reassuring speaking voice. He used it. There was no actual content there, but his voice really is pleasant. So, he did his job:
The simple truth is that Pence dodged because the president’s actions were indefensible. But Pence can’t say that, both because the protests are being cheered by Fox News and like-minded outlets and because Pence wants to stay in the good graces of a president who values loyalty to him above all else.
But he didn’t matter all:
President Trump on Sunday said that people who are calling on state governments to lift coronavirus stay-at-home orders have “cabin fever” and “want their life back.”
Trump was asked by a reporter about a series of tweets he wrote on Friday, including one stating, “LIBERATE Virginia, and save your great 2nd Amendment. It is under siege!”
Trump denied that he was inciting violence, and said protesters “learned a lot during this period. They learned to do things differently than they have in the past and they’ll do it hopefully until the virus has passed.” At some protests, only a few dozen people showed up, and many remained in their cars. Still, Trump said he had “never seen so many American flags at a rally as I’ve seen at these rallies. These people love our country. They want to get back to work.”
Ah, they are true patriots screaming-mad about what I told their governors to do about the situation, which must be stopped! Reporters in the room had no more questions about that. What would be the point of asking what the hell he was talking about? There’d be no rational answer.
What was he thinking? What were these protesters thinking? Alexandra Petri tries a bit of satire about that:
I just want nothing about my life to change, including my indifference to the lives of others. So please stop demanding that I bend to the will of the people or their elected officials. The last time I checked, this was a democracy.
Have you considered that, actually, I don’t want to be safe? You think you are protecting me, but whom are you really protecting? Others? If I am willing to take this risk for myself (my top favorite person!), why do you think I would not be willing to take it for “others,” many of whom I don’t even know personally and some of whom are the very people who once asked me to escort myself out of a Red Lobster because I was making a scene? No, I don’t understand how the transmission of disease works. Does anyone? No, I don’t understand that it is not only my life that my choices are putting at risk!
It’s time we were liberated! Set me free from this prison (not a literal prison, where people are currently trapped and dying, but a metaphorical prison, where I am being asked to remain safely in my house and not buy potting soil specifically today)! If my wishes conflict with the wishes of a majority of people, that is TOO BAD! I do not understand that there are insides to other people, so my wishes are the only wishes that matter.
There is nothing beyond me and I refuse to accept that I share the universe with others. If I am willing to die, then that ought to be good enough for everyone.
That’s brutal, but some of those in the streets might not see that as satire at all. What’s happening? Charlie Warzel suggests this:
At a string of small “reopen America” protests across the country this week, mask-less citizens proudly flouted social distancing guidance while openly carrying semiautomatic rifles and waving American flags and signs with “ironic” swastikas. They organized chants to lock up female Democrat governors and to fire the country’s top infectious disease experts. At one point during protests at the Michigan Capitol, the group’s orchestrated gridlock blocked an ambulance en route to a nearby hospital.
For those who’ve chosen to put their trust in science during the pandemic it’s hard to fathom the decision to gather to protest while a deadly viral pathogen – transmitted easily by close contact and spread by symptomatic and asymptomatic people alike – ravages the country. But it shouldn’t come as a surprise. This week’s public displays of defiance – a march for the freedom to be infected – are the logical conclusion of the modern far-right’s donor-funded, shock jock-led liberty movement. It was always headed here.
And that may be because of one man:
Few demonstrate this movement better than Alex Jones of Infowars – one of the key figures of Saturday’s “You Can’t Close America” rally on the steps of the Capitol building in Austin, Tex. For decades, Mr. Jones has built a thriving media empire harnessing (real and understandable) fear, paranoia and rage, which in turn drive sales of vitamin supplements and prepper gear in his personal store. The Infowars strategy is simple: Instill a deep distrust in all authority, while promoting a seductive, conspiratorial alternate reality in which Mr. Jones, via his outlandish conspiracies, has all the answers. He’s earned the trust of a non-trivial number of Americans, and used it to stoke his ego and his bank account.
He does sell “miracle cures” for this and that but that’s just to finance his argument that we all should be paranoid all the time:
Former employees have described Mr. Jones to me as master of manipulating the truth into a convenient worldview in which Infowars and its listeners are constantly victimized by powerful institutional forces. “We kept saying ‘We’re the underdogs’ – that was our mantra,” one former employee told me in 2017. To make this work, Mr. Jones molds the day’s news into conspiratorial fables.
And now he has found exactly what he needed:
A novel virus – about which so much is unknown and where expert opinion is constantly shifting – is a near perfect subject for Infowars to fit the news to its paranoid narrative. Uncertainty over the virus’s origins in China is a springboard to float unproven theories about bioweapons. Discussions about a vaccine to end the epidemic become conspiracies about billionaire tech leaders pushing population control. Changing epidemiological models that show fewer projected Covid-19 deaths (because social distancing has worked to slow infections) provide an opening for Mr. Jones to rant about stay-at-home lockdowns. Genuine fears about deeply unfair job losses and economic recession become reckless theories about Democrat-led plans to punish American citizens by driving them into poverty.
Alex Jones is a happy man now, but then so is Donald Trump:
It’s important to note that the reopen protests have been generally small (at most, hundreds of people in states of millions of citizens responsibly staying at home) and don’t even reflect the polled opinions of many conservatives. But they fit neatly into a larger campaign playbook and take on outsize importance. They take place frequently in swing states or states with Democratic governors and are plastered across social media, reported in mainstream organizations, openly cheered on by Fox News and right-wing media, and ultimately end up amplified (tacitly or explicitly) by the president. The strategy has worked well in recent years, consolidating support among the Trump base.
As a political movement, the Make America Great Again crowd relishes turning criticism from ideological opponents into a badge of honor. Confrontation of any kind is currency and people taking offense to their actions is a surefire sign that they’re correct.
There’s something to that, but there’s that famous quip from Carl Sagan – “They laughed at Columbus, they laughed at Fulton, they laughed at the Wright brothers. But they also laughed at Bozo the Clown.”
What about common sense? E. J. Dionne addresses that:
One of the United States’ great contributions to philosophy is William James’s theory of pragmatism. Our bias is toward ideas that work and innovation by way of trial and error. This tradition acknowledges that we often have multiple goals. In the coronavirus crisis, this means beating the pandemic and getting the economy humming again.
Figure out what actually works by trial and error. It’s the American Way. But that’s not Trump’s way:
President Trump is failing because he has abandoned our commitments to favoring problem-solving over ideological posturing and to acting nationally in the face of looming catastrophe.
His own words last week underscored both deficiencies. Instead of rallying the resources required for a nationally organized testing program, Trump told the nation’s governors that the federal government will “be standing alongside of you.”
The relevant word here was “standing,” an admission of passivity. And the man who is not doing his own job had the nerve to tweet on Friday: “The States have to step up their TESTING!”
He continued his responsibility-shifting on Sunday, tweeting that “Governors must be able to step up” on the testing issue.
It’s no wonder that both Democratic and Republican governors were livid about this nonsense – not that it mattered – because he had other ideas:
Having thrown the burden of resolving the crisis on those governors, Trump might at least have encouraged his own supporters to back off their reflexive opposition to a gradual and considered approach to economic recovery, precisely the path his own national guidelines, inadequate though they are, envision.
Instead, Trump championed the extremists who continued their marches on several state capitals over the weekend demanding an abrupt and reckless end to the temporary shutdowns that have slowed the virus’s spread.
Why? “They seem to be protesters that like me,” he said gleefully.
And that was that:
Maryland’s Republican Gov. Larry Hogan pointed out Trump’s self-contradiction on CNN: “I don’t think it’s helpful to encourage demonstrations and encourage people to go against the president’s own policy.”
But there’s little hope that Trump will relent since, as Rep. David Price (D-N.C.) pointed out, the current distribution of COVID-19 spread happens to overlap roughly with red-blue divisions.
Dionne, however, invokes pragmatism:
Virtually everyone except for Trump and his apologists understands the obvious: Reopening the economy requires, first, a national commitment to a robust testing program fully backed by the federal government. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) has proposed $30 billion in new emergency funding for a national testing strategy and called on Trump to use the Defense Production Act if that’s what’s needed to mobilize the private sector to produce the required tests.
Massachusetts’s Republican governor, Charlie Baker, has created an expansive contact tracing program to track the virus’s spread. It could become a national model. In the Journal of the American Medical Association, Howard Bauchner and Joshua Sharfstein suggested giving the nation’s 20,000 incoming medical students a year off, with pay and health benefits, to contribute both to care and testing efforts. The AmeriCorps program could also be mobilized for this labor-intensive work.
What pragmatists know is that railing against formal distancing rules does nothing to solve the underlying problem. As several economist colleagues I contacted noted, the economy will not fully revive until Americans are given good reason to put aside their fears of infection.
And then there’s the painfully obvious:
Yelling at governors won’t get us there. “Even if the government-imposed social distancing rules are relaxed to encourage economic activity, risk-averse Americans will persist in social distancing, and that behavior, too, will restrain the hoped-for economic rebound,” Gary Burtless, a Brookings Institution economist, wrote me.
“Will customers return in-person to the retail or leisure-hospitality businesses anytime soon?” asked Harry Holzer, an economist at Georgetown University’s McCourt School of Public Policy. “Not if they feel unsafe, and not if their personal finances have been constricted by the downturn.”
And there are the workers:
Those who shout for opening the economy in the name of freedom don’t think much about the freedom of workers to protect themselves from a potentially deadly disease. And employers do not want to find themselves facing legal liabilities for infected employees.
If the economy is substantially reopened without adequate testing, said Thea Lee, president of the Economic Policy Institute, the most vulnerable would include “low-wage workers, women, and people of color, immigrants, and the elderly.” They are “concentrated in the riskiest jobs, with the least financial cushion, and the least likely to have employer-provided benefits or protections,” she said.
So, given all this, Dionne calls on Trump to be quite boring:
“Give me liberty or give me death” is a fine rallying cry in a war against freedom’s enemies. It’s a perilous guide to policy during a pandemic. Pragmatists may be short on stirring slogans. But when the choices are hard and the problems are daunting, they’re the ones we should want in charge.
So that’s it. Stop talking big and stop being angry at everyone, or pretending to be angry at everyone. Blame no one right now. In fact, blame no one later. This is now. Just shut up and carefully figure out what actually works by trial and error. It’s the American Way.
Ah, but there’s history. A day or two after Pearl Harbor FDR gave his “Day That Will Live in Infamy” speech to Congress and asked for a declaration of war – and got one – a declaration of war on both Japan and Germany. And then he issued a set of guidelines to the states, suggesting how each of the forty-eight states – that’s all there were at the time – might best each create its own army and navy and air force to fight on both fronts – in Europe and the Pacific. He’d “stand behind” the states. That’s how we ended up with ninety-six separate armies and navies and air forces – two of each for each state given the two theaters of war at the time – and won that war. And all the history books since 1945 have lied about this to make Donald Trump look bad this week.
It didn’t happen like that? Of course it didn’t. It’s time to be boring and just fix the problem.