Coronavirus and Rightwing Rebellion: Retreading a Tired Narrative

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Significant national media attention has focused in the last week on a slew of right-wing protests, in states like Ohio, Idaho, and Michigan (among others), demanding that the country reopen in the midst of the worst pandemic in modern history. But we should understand what forces are driving these protests, and how they differ radically from demonstrations organized by individuals on the front-lines of the Covid-19 crisis who are engaged in their own progressive rebellion against corporate power and neoliberal politics.

To be clear, these recent right-wing demonstrations are largely a reiteration of old populist campaigns in support of “limited government” rhetoric and “free market” politics. They provide cover for reactionary efforts to enhance corporate power and profits via massive business bailouts during times of crisis, coupled with opposition to policies with the potential to benefit the many. The emerging right-wing protest narrative is a repetition of protest narratives about citizen empowerment that draw momentum from the saturation coverage that was afforded to the Tea Party movement and the Trump “rebellion.”

First things first. The economic and health-related protests that have occurred across the country are motivated by very real concerns for the lives of those on the frontlines of this crisis. The worker walkouts at Instacart, Amazon, and Whole Foods are driven by two primary concerns: a lack of sanitation and safety in workplaces amidst facilities with Covid-19 outbreaks, and the lack of adequate compensation (hazard pay) for working-class and working poor Americans who are risking their lives to provide vital goods and services to the public.

The protests and demonstrations that health care workers have engaged in across the country are motivated by a lack of access to adequate personal protective equipment (PPE) for medical professionals, who are the worst exposed in fighting the Covid-19 outbreak, and who have received little to no support from the Trump administration in terms of providing for potentially life-saving medical equipment.

Those engaged in rent strike activism throughout the country are demanding political action and rent moratoriums out of a direct concern with being evicted, through no fault of their own, in a time of rapidly rising unemployment, and when millions of Americans worry about not being able to pay for basic necessities such as food and shelter. All of the above motivations are substantively different from what we’re seeing in protests demanding to reopen states and end stay-at-home orders.

News outlets like the New York Times are repeating clichés about how right-wing shutdown protests are another manifestation of working-class resentment against the system. For example, the paper speculated on April 17 about Trump’s efforts to foment dissent among Republicans in states with shutdown orders: “openly supporting those who challenge the stay-at-home orders could help the president re-energize the coalition of conservative Republicans and working-class populists who agree with the anti-government sentiment that helped power Mr. Trump’s election victory in 2016.” This narrative persists, despite a comprehensive review of the research on Trumpism demonstrating that his “working-class” base was never financially insecure, and is not motivated by concerns with poverty and economic vulnerabilities.

The Guardian and Associated Press have now published detailed profiles on the political actors involved in these protests. These news outfits have spotlighted three types of groups at the forefront of the campaign to reopen American states: 1. Astroturf national pro-business groups, including Freedom Works and Americans for Prosperity; 2. Radical quasi-fascist and white nationalist groups, including the Proud Boys and militia activists; and 3. Conservative-Republican citizens groups that are primarily concerned with enhancing corporate power and promoting “small government” principles, rather than with helping those suffering most from Covid-19. I provide a detailed investigation of the groups below.

Astroturf National Groups

Faux “citizens” groups have been active for decades hoping to build support for a pro-business political agenda. For example, Americans for Prosperity (AFP) and Freedom Works both played instrumental roles in the Tea Party rebellion of the late 2000s and early 2010s. But as I’ve documented at length, the Tea Party was an anemic movement. There was little evidence of active mobilization across the nation in local chapters, even at the height of the movement in 2010. Rather, pro-business groups like AFP and Freedom Works, operating under the billionaire Koch activist umbrella, were the primary face of a movement with goals of promoting “free market” politics and corporate power, and limiting potential government efforts to combat poverty and inequality.

Now these groups are leading the “reopen America” movement. AFP’s motivations are clearly profit-related, as the group explicitly draws on concerns with lost economic activity, which are its primary motivation for trying to end state stay-at-home orders. As AFP argued in a recent press release: “rather than blanket shutdowns, the government should allow businesses to continue to adapt and innovate to produce the goods and services Americans need, while continuing to do everything they can to protect the public health.” Notice that concerns with public health were cited as secondary to profit interests, in AFP’s own words.

As another Koch-network plutocratic business group, Freedom Works has adopted a similar approach. Its website laments state shutdown orders, which it argues contradict longstanding conservative principles of profit-making and limited government. “Freedom of assembly,” they argue, “has been under attack” due to the shelter-in-place orders. “We’ve essentially seen civil and economic liberties suspended in response to Covid-19.” As Freedom Works argues: “States must begin to reopen their economies and this disregard for civil liberties must end. One thing past crises have taught us is that when government – whether it’s federal or state – exerts new powers, it’s very difficult to wrestle them away. It’s a question that comes up after every crisis, but some have wondered what America will look like after Covid-19.”

That these groups have become some of the most visible political actors in the “reopen America” movement speaks poorly of these protests as a representation of citizen-based grassroots empowerment. AFP and Freedom Works have one primary goal: creating a suitable political environment that’s conducive to private investment, profits, and unrestricted corporate power. By their own admission, they are not seeking to represent the interests of Americans – including health care workers and low-paid service workers – who are being hardest hit by the Covid-19 crisis.

Reactionary State Citizens Groups

Operating as an appendage to the larger plutocratic movement to reopen state economies are highly visible right-wing citizens groups. These groups are comprised of residents of the individual states affected by the stay-at-home orders. But their fringe views about reopening the economy, which are not shared by the vast majority of Americans (Republican or Democratic), are being strongly amplified by the heavy news coverage devoted to these protests. And these groups are primarily speaking on behalf of wealthy business interests, not the public, considering that the Covid-19 crisis will intensify if states reopen with a business-as-usual approach.

Among the groups most active in the push to reopen states, as the Guardian and AP report, are the Idaho Freedom Foundation, the Michigan Freedom Fund, and the Michigan Conservative Coalition, among others. These groups, like AFP and Freedom Works, value economic profits, growth, and a “free market” personal freedom agenda over concerns with public health and safety. In its press release against Idaho’s initial three-week stay-at-home order, Idaho Freedom Foundation (IFF) lambasted the “shutdown” as imposing “counterproductive government burdens that hurt individual rights and hamper economic growth.” Residents of Idaho were being “forced to surrender their freedom for the notion of security.” Among the main points of protest against the shutdown, IFF includes that it was “too sudden,” “too vague,” “too sweeping,” that it “overrides local control,” and that it offers “no exit strategy.” Notice that concerns with the public health, with the dangers faced by health care workers, and with the rising desperation of poorer Americans who have been worst hit by Covid-19, are nowhere to be seen in this list of grievances. Rather, IFF’s interests lie elsewhere, as seen in this declaration of principles, which is attached to its protest letter about Idaho’s Covid-19 shutdown: “free market principles work and have served our state and country well. We maintain that our God-given rights, protected under the state and U.S. Constitutions, matter – especially during a crisis.”

The politics of other business-front citizens groups match those of IFF. The Michigan Freedom Fund (MFF) announces as part of its mission statement that it “fights to champion conservative policies on behalf of Michigan taxpayers. We are committed to the principles of limited government, transparency in government, and the freedoms found in the Constitution.” As related to Covid-19, the group has served as a sounding board for reactionary activists who were involved in the spearheading of the recent protests in Michigan, labeled “Operation Gridlock,” against Governor Gretchen Whitmer’s stay-at-home order. In a new interview posted on MFF’s website, Operation Gridlock organizer and Michigan Conservative Coalition Chairwoman Meshawn Maddock explained the motivations behind her protest effort, which sought to spotlight Michigan’s “managed economic disaster.” The word “managed” is revealing, not only because it conspiratorially implies that the state governor is actively working toward destroying the state’s economy, but also because it runs contrary to widespread recognition among economic experts that, without stay-at-home orders that are needed to get the Covid-19 crisis under control, a return to normal economic activities is effectively impossible.

As a self-described “small business owner,” Maddock is motivated by concerns with the costs that the Michigan shut-down has imposed on economic activities, and the alleged threat it poses to personal freedoms – the freedom to move around freely, for example, rather than the freedom not to contract or infect others with Covid-19. She attacks Governor Whitmer for putting a “boot on the head of Michigan residents” and for engaging in “tyranny” by “restrict[ing] the movement of healthy people” in the state. And her attacks on Whitmer’s shut down order are clearly not informed by any careful reading of the guidelines being issued by medical experts and the CDC. This much is apparent from her attack against medical professionals tracking the rapid spread of the virus, and her statement that it is “not worth shutting down our economy based on a line graph.” Rather than public health, Maddock is primarily concerned with the effect of the shutdown on business, as reflected in her warning that “businesses right now are being bankrupted by bureaucrats here in Michigan.”

As an outgrowth of Maddock’s agenda, the Michigan Conservative Coalition (MCC) also operates as a pro-business group that opposes the state shutdown. MCC declares in its mission statement support for “the principles that our Founding Fathers had laid out in the Constitution,” and for “shaping policy” by “helping to elect more conservatives to local elected positions and to the Michigan legislature,” while openly allying with groups like “Michigan Trump Republicans,” who bill themselves as “Trump loving Americans who are sick and tired of the political establishment and the political machine that is solely focused on tearing down our President and his agenda.” MCC’s own advertisement for Operation Gridlock targets Governor Whitmer for “driving” the state “out of business,” while spotlighting concerns with “economic health,” as related to “local businesses” which are “going broke” due to the shutdown. Governor Whitmer, MCC announces, is practicing “tyranny” via her “radical” and “progressive agenda” against the people (Covid-19 mitigation efforts are now apparently a “radical-progressive” agenda), and in blatant violation of state residents’ “constitutional rights.” Notice, again, that the primary concerns MCC lists emphasize business profiteering and highly abstract concerns with personal freedoms, based in right-wing principles of limited government.

White Nationalists and Militia Groups

A final front in the “reopen America” movement includes reactionary fringe groups committed to a variety of causes that are widely shunned by the vast majority of Americans. In Michigan, these include the Michigan Proud Boys and the Michigan Liberty Militia. There is little evidence that right-wing extremist groups are driven by concerns with economic insecurity. As I’ve shown in previous research that draws on national polling data, self-described supporters of the “alt-right” white nationalist cause are not more likely to be economically insecure in their backgrounds, so income insecurity is not driving their political agenda. Rather, I show that these individuals are piped into radical right-wing media echo chambers, which appear to be the primary force that is fueling and reinforcing their extremism.

There is little reason most Americans should take the quasi-fascistic agendas of these fringe groups seriously, particularly in a time of public health crisis. As reports of the Proud Boys have documented, the group is an openly white nationalist/white supremacist force, notorious for its Islamophobic, racist, and misogynistic rhetoric. The group reinforced its fascist politics in Michigan, as news reporting documented their role in ambulance-blocking and shutting down other traffic in the state’s capitol of Lansing in protest of the state’s shutdown order. Similarly, the Michigan Liberty Militia is also an extremist group that, according to its own Facebook page, is primarily committed to protecting the unimpeded American “right” to assault weapons, amidst other positions including the promotion of xenophobia and racism, and support for violent rebellion and vigilante actions against government.

The rapidly rising salience of right-wing protests fits an established pattern that has played out repeatedly over the last decade in the U.S. news media: radically exaggerate the significance of the protests of a very small number of people, who reflect extremist and pro-business opinions that are rejected by most Americans, but who claim to speak in the name of the people. This narrative has been quite harmful to American political discourse, because it obscures the role that pro-business faux citizens groups have played in creating the false impression of a mass uprising against the status quo. The overlap of these right-wing protests with the Covid-19 economic crisis means that many journalists are likely to embrace the lazy argument that economic insecurity fosters right-wing political values. But as the review above suggests, the groups that are leading this small protest movement are not organizing in the name of the vulnerable, poor, or disadvantaged. They’re mobilizing in favor of elitist principles of profit-making and corporate power, while embracing extremely general philosophical rhetoric about the need for small government and liberty. They do not represent the interests of the large majority of Americans, who embrace state-wide shutdowns to curtail the spread of Covid-19, and who are calling for massive federal intervention to provide financial assistance to Americans due to the Covid-19 crisis. Recognition of the fringe nature of these protests is vital moving forward, as we hear a constant drumbeat from the reactionary right about how Americans want “free market” and limited government responses to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Anthony DiMaggio is Associate Professor of Political Science at Lehigh University. He is the author of Rising Fascism in America: It Can Happen Here (Routledge, 2022), in addition to Rebellion in America (Routledge, 2020), and Unequal America (Routledge, 2021). He can be reached at: A digital copy of Rebellion in America can be read for free here.