Last week’s big story were the protests against state-level stay-at-home orders — and Trump’s tweets about them on the morning of April 16:
“LIBERATE VIRGINIA, and save your great 2nd Amendment. It is under siege!”
The media has been on fire ever since. A president advocating a violent overthrow of three states with Democratic governors is unprecedented and quite possibly illegal—Mary McCord, acting US assistant attorney general for national security from 2016-2017 pointed out that “advocating overthrow of government” is a federal crime. It is also a state crime in Minnesota, Michigan, and Virginia.
What is behind these tweets? After all, just last evening, Trump announced that it was not yet time to open state businesses and that state governors should make their own decisions about when to restart their economies during the novel coronavirus pandemic. So why is he now telling people to overthrow those governments?
It is, in part, diversion. The response of the Trump administration to the pandemic crisis has been bumbling, inadequate, and quite possibly corrupt—the apparently political distribution of crucial medical supplies and now the Payroll Protection Program loans designed to help small businesses is drawing scrutiny. The economy, on which Trump pinned his hopes for reelection, is in free fall. As his approval rating drops, Trump wants to energize voters to focus not on his handling of the coronavirus, but instead on blaming Democratic leaders for the economic crisis.
But there is a larger story behind Trump’s incendiary tweets. Since the 1980s, the Republican Party has retained power by insisting that its leaders were defending America from dangerous “liberals,” who wanted to redistribute wealth from hardworking, religious, usually white, taxpayers, to “special interests.” In the years since President Ronald Reagan, there has been less and less nuance in that narrative and, by the time of President Barack Obama, no room to compromise. The division of the nation into “us” versus “them” has come to override any attempt at actual problem solving; Republican lawmakers simply address national problems with what their ideological narrative requires: cuts to taxes, regulation, and social welfare programs.
The coronavirus pandemic requires us to unite for our own safety, but members of the Republican Party can only see the world in partisan terms. Boston College political scientist David Hopkins notes that “The contemporary Republican Party has been built to wage ideological and partisan conflict more than to manage the governor or solve specific social problems.” Republicans remain so consumed by their war on Democrats and liberals they cannot fathom working together to fight the pandemic.
Instead, they have continued to prioritize “owning the libs” over public safety. After first calling concern about the virus a Democratic hoax, then refusing to shut down states, Republicans are now calling Democratic governors trying to limit social contact authoritarians. Acting Director of National Intelligence Richard Grenell, the man who oversees our entire intelligence community– the community that repeatedly tried to get Trump to take the novel coronavirus seriously in January and February– tweeted a picture of the US Constitution with the heading: “SIGNED PERMISSION SLIP TO LEAVE YOUR HOUSE.”
Trump’s tweets are part of this larger political narrative, one that the Fox News Channel is instrumental in driving. The protest this week against Democratic Governor Gretchen Whitmer in Michigan was not organic; it was organized by a political group, the Michigan Conservative Coalition, and it garnered attention far beyond its small numbers thanks to right-wing media. FNC personality Jeanine Pirro said of the Michigan protesters: “God bless them, it’s going to happen all over the country.” FNC personality Laura Ingraham tweeted a video of it, saying: “Time to get your freedom back.” FNC personality Tucker Carlson interviewed a representative of the MCC on his show; the person got another interview on “Fox & Friends” the next day. Indeed, Trump’s “LIBERATE MINNESOTA!” tweet came just after a program on the Fox News Channel ran a story on protests at the Minnesota governor’s office by a group called “Liberate Minnesota.”
The goal of this enterprise is to keep Republicans in office in 2020. The latest filing for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s (R-KY) leadership committee shows that four of the top five donors are executives for the Fox News Channel. Lachlan Murdoch, Rupert Murdoch, Viet Dinh, FNC’s Legal Adviser, and Policy Director, and the president of 21st Century Fox all gave $20,600.
Like Republican policies in general right now, though, the attack on physical distancing is not popular. Polls show that at least two-thirds of Americans are worried that states will lift restrictions on physical distancing too quickly, while only 32% worry they will reopen too slowly. While no one wants the economy to crash, we are generally in agreement that lives should come first, and that to reopen the economy we need widespread testing, low case numbers, and sufficient hospital capacity, just as Trump himself said yesterday.
Without those conditions, getting people to reengage in the public sphere is going to be a hard sell. But we don’t have the tests we need, and the federal government has abdicated its role in obtaining them. (A call on Friday with Vice President Mike Pence about the lack of testing left Senate Democrats “livid.” And even-keeled Independent Maine Senator Angus King reportedly said: “I have never been so mad about a phone call in my life.”)
And so we are back to Trump’s central political problem: the pandemic requires a party and a president that can unite with Democrats and can implement policies to solve a deadly crisis. That is not today’s Republican Party or its current leader.
Stirring up violence against Democratic governors would address the problem by feeding the culture wars that stoke base Republican voters. The nation would appear bitterly divided, and the need for a strong leader to restore order would seem apparent to those who might otherwise be sliding away from the erratic president. As any powerful person does, Trump wields influence over certain of his supporters, and his words are terribly dangerous. When he repeatedly called CNN “the enemy of the people,” for example, someone sent bombs to CNN’s studios.
Former Republican governor of New Jersey Christine Todd Whitman tweeted: “This [president] is now truly getting out of control. In talking about “liberating” the states, he is using language that could well lead to rioting. No one has done more to undermine our constitution and destroy our country’s values than [Trump].”
But while Trump’s supporters are trying to hold on to power by sparking a dramatic struggle with Democratic leaders, it may be that the coronavirus has the last word. While cases are leveling off in states that shut down, new hotspots are emerging in states that do not have stay-at-home orders. In the past week, cases in Oklahoma rose 53%. Arkansas cases went up 60%, Nebraska’s 74%, and Iowa’s 82%. South Dakota’s cases went up by 205%.
Heather Cox Richardson is Professor of History, Boston College. This was originally published in her Substack newsletter on January 17, 2020. Subscribe for free here.