Wealthy conservative groups create smoke-and-mirrors scheme to foster anti-lockdown protests
Last week, national news outlets carried coverage of a small but disruptive protest at the Michigan state Capitol of stay-at-home orders instituted by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer. The protesters called it “Operation Gridlock,” shutting down traffic for miles in the heart of Lansing by clogging the city’s main arteries with a string of parked cars. The crowd, including armed members of the Michigan Liberty Militia, eschewed social distancing orders, brandished a smattering of Confederate flags, and temporarily blocked the entrance to the Capitol.
But despite all the hype and attention, those protesters represented a minuscule minority of the population. New polling this week showed that more than 81% of Michigan residents support continuing social distancing measures for at least one to two months, with fully 58% saying they support practicing social distancing “as long as is required.”
The polling reinforces two investigative pieces in The New York Times and The Washington Post that found there was nothing even remotely organic about the anti-distancing protests popping up in states mostly run by Democratic governors like Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Kentucky, California, and Virginia, though some efforts have also targeted Republican-led states like Ohio, Missouri, and Texas. The Times calls the demonstrations the product of an “informal coalition of influential conservative leaders and groups, some with close connections to the White House,” that are driving turnout at the protests, filing suits against the orders, and funding polling designed to kneecap the rationale for the stay-at-home orders.
One state that’s seen a nexus of that effort is Wisconsin, where a small cadre of fewer than 100 protesters converged on the state Capitol and the Republican-led legislature sued state health officials over “Safer at Home” that were recently extended through most of May.
The well-funded conservative groups helping to fan the flames of discontent include some Obama-era creations like Freedom Works and the Tea Party Patriots. But, as the Times writes, “also involved are a law firm led partly by former Trump White House officials, a network of state-based conservative policy groups, and an ad hoc coalition of conservative leaders known as Save Our Country that has advised the White House on strategies for a tiered reopening of the economy.”
The protest in Michigan, in fact, had strong ties to the Trump administration. It was mainly organized by the Michigan Conservative coalition, which also operates under the name Michigan Trump Republicans, according to The Guardian. Additionally, it was promoted by the Michigan Freedom Fund, a group with strong ties to Trump-appointed Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.
It’s little wonder that Trump shot of a series of tweets last week stoking insurrections by encouraging the protesters to “LIBERATE” themselves. Sowing division in the country is an age-old Trump strategy at this point, and the protests give his efforts to reopen the economy the appearance of aligning with popular sentiment.
But similar to the Michigan poll, national polling has reflected that by and large, risk-averse Americans are far more worried about opening too fast than too slow. In fact, a fringe element of just 14% of the public supports the protesters over the efforts of their governors.
Not to mention the fact that these protests could end up in dangerous standoffs between the activists and local law enforcement officials. If violence does break out, that is 100% the product of Trump and his conservative allies fomenting discontent.