As tensions mount over lockdowns, Trump courts both sides

Why We Wrote This

President Trump is trying to signal support for his base, many of whom have grown frustrated with government-imposed restrictions, while not alienating the swing voters he’ll need in November. It’s led to divergent messages.

Lori Van Buren/The Albany Times Union/AP
Demonstrators upset with social distancing restrictions protest outside New York's state Capitol, Wednesday, April 22, 2020 in Albany. Most of the protesters said that they want to go back to work.

Two ways to read the story

  • Quick Read
  • Deep Read ( 6 Min. )

With six months until Election Day, President Trump is hoping voters will see him as having done all he can to save the nation from economic meltdown – while also protecting public health in a pandemic that has so far claimed 55,000 American lives.

That has produced seemingly contradictory messages: On the one hand, Mr. Trump has been urging governors to follow science-based federal guidelines for a phased “opening of America.” At the same time, he’s been egging on protesters at state capitols who are rebelling against those same guidelines that are keeping most Americans sheltering-in-place. 

It is an apparent political effort to “have his cake and eat it too.” In a fundamental way, Mr. Trump is also tapping into the nation’s deep roots in individualism and personal responsibility, as well as a growing distrust on the right in experts and elites.

But “there’s a real risk here,” says Steven Schier, an emeritus political science professor at Carleton College in Northfield, Minn. “Public opinion is clearly not with these protests to open up now. So he has to worry that he’s associating himself with an unpopular movement that could produce some bad results.” 

In a past life – that is, before COVID-19 – President Donald Trump was banking on a strong economy to usher him into a second term. 

That calculation has largely evaporated, but not entirely. With six months until Election Day, President Trump is now asking voters to make a multi-step mental leap: Remember the once-robust economy, and then see him as having done all he can to save the nation from economic meltdown, while also trying to protect public health in a pandemic that has so far claimed 55,000 American lives.

The bifurcated approach has produced seemingly contradictory messages: On the one hand, Mr. Trump has been urging governors to follow science-based federal guidelines for a phased “opening of America.” At the same time, he’s been egging on protesters at state capitols who are rebelling against those very same guidelines that are keeping most Americans sheltering-in-place. 

Editor’s note: As a public service, all our coronavirus coverage is free. No paywall.

It is a risky gambit – an apparent political effort to “have his cake and eat it too,” as he whips up his core supporters with calls to “liberate” their states, while trying not to alienate the more mainstream voters he will need in November. The latest poll numbers in key battleground states show Mr. Trump losing to former Vice President Joe Biden. 

In a fundamental way, Mr. Trump is also tapping into the nation’s deep roots in individualism and personal responsibility, as well as the right's growing distrust of experts and elites.

“He’s been very good at building a base, which is very loyal to him, and continuing to remind the base he’s on their side,” says historian Michael Kazin, an expert on populism at Georgetown University. “As the economy gets worse, more and more people will say that while the virus might be dangerous, it’s also dangerous to have businesses close up for good.”

The political challenges are several fold. Social distancing means no campaign rallies for the foreseeable future. Online campaign events – attracting audiences in the hundreds, not thousands – aren’t the same. That forces him to rely all the more on Twitter and friendly news outlets to reach his supporters. 

Even Mr. Trump’s daily coronavirus briefings, which have attracted high viewership and given him a platform to spar with media, have gone south. Since his controversial appearance last Thursday, when he sparked an uproar by seeming to float the idea of ingesting disinfectants to treat COVID-19, he has dialed way back. On Friday he took no questions, and over the weekend did not hold any briefings at all. Monday’s scheduled briefing was initially canceled, then reinstated. 

Alex Brandon/AP
President Donald Trump watches as Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, speaks about the coronavirus in the press briefing room of the White House in Washington April 22, 2020.

The anti-lockdown rallies themselves also represent a mixed bag for Mr. Trump. On one level, they reflect the spirit of rebellion that gave rise to his presidency, and before that the tea party movement. But they also attract fringe elements. Some have featured Confederate battle flags and signs with swastikas

Some protesters bring firearms, though they have been urged not to. In Virginia, pre-coronavirus protests centered on gun rights have morphed into anti-quarantine protests. At a “drive-by” rally at the state capitol in Richmond last week, the messages contained heartfelt pleas by people eager to return to work and worried their rights are being trampled. 

“I am not a COVID-19 denier,” says Steve Walker, a self-employed mechanic from Chesterfield, Virginia, speaking by phone after the rally. “But I believe that the government’s response to this is overreaching.” 

He worries that if the closures aren’t dialed back soon, the food supply could be at risk. But when asked about the Gadsden “Don’t Tread on Me” flag his son waved out the window of their green Dodge Durango during the protest, Mr. Walker reveals a deeper sense of grievance. 

The flag, common at lockdown protests and a tea party symbol, “is a warning to the government: We don’t work for you, you work for us,” Mr. Walker says. “And if you continue on a course toward tyranny, there will be repercussions. You have a good chance of seeing armed revolt in this state.” 

Much has been made of the support some anti-quarantine protests have received from national groups and people with White House connections, such as Stephen Moore, who serves on the administration’s advisory board for reopening the economy. 

But, supporters note, no one is paying protesters or forcing them to show up. The anti-quarantine efforts are a natural outgrowth of the libertarian “less government, more freedom” ethos of groups like FreedomWorks, which has 5 million Facebook followers. 

“A lot of the people who were involved in the tea party movement have remained active in FreedomWorks,” says Adam Brandon, the group’s president. “We’re in touch.” 

In the last three years, he says, the group has trained 25,000 activists by sponsoring “fly-ins” to Washington and holding regional events.

Still, Mr. Trump’s all-caps tweets on April 17 calling to “LIBERATE” Michigan, Minnesota, and Virginia were startling. The day before, the president had released a three-phase plan to “reopen America,” guidance aimed at helping states shift responsibly toward opening their economies without inviting a surge of new COVID-19 cases.

In fact, 8 in 10 Americans support the shelter-in-place orders in effect in most states, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation, and many governors have seen a spike in their job approval ratings amid the pandemic. 

Some governors worried the president was calling for an armed insurrection. When Democratic Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz saw the tweet, he reached out to Mr. Trump. The two eventually had a “very nice call,” according to a Trump tweet. 

“The tweeting Trump isn’t necessarily the phoning Trump,” says Steven Schier, an emeritus political science professor at Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota. 

But “there’s a real risk here,” Professor Schier says. “Public opinion is clearly not with these protests to open up now. So he has to worry that he’s associating himself with an unpopular movement that could produce some bad results.” 

The three states that Mr. Trump tweeted “liberate” messages at have Democratic governors. Mr. Trump is hoping to win Minnesota in November, after barely losing there in 2016. Virginia voted Democratic by more than 5 percentage points. But Michigan is a true battleground, voting for Mr. Trump in 2016 by just a fraction of a percent – and he is fighting hard to keep it in 2020. 

It’s worth noting that the United States appears to be the only country with any significant anti-quarantine protests. Part of it is a reflection of American political culture, in which freedom of speech and freedom of assembly are enshrined in the Constitution.

“There is a lot of social media frustration over the lockdown in several European countries, including the Netherlands and U.K., but I have not seen many open demonstrations,” writes Cas Mudde, a professor in the school of public and international affairs at the University of Georgia, in an email. “Of course, what makes the U.S. so remarkable, is that the president is by and large opposing his own policies.”

Seth Herald/Reuters
Protesters against the state's extended stay-at-home order to help slow the spread of the coronavirus demonstrate at the Capitol building in Columbus, Ohio, April 20, 2020.

Professor Mudde also notes that Mr. Trump is raising expectations about a return to normalcy with his public support for the protests, but could soon be confronted with a second outbreak in states that soften their lockdowns – including Georgia, where he lives. If that prompts a renewed tightening of lockdown measures, he adds, it could turn the protesters against the president.

One protester, Tom Zawistowski of Akron, Ohio, is a longtime tea party activist, and has opposed the restrictive actions of his state’s Republican governor, Mike DeWine. The governor has won praise for shutting down Ohio early, but to activists like Mr. Zawistowski, it’s an abuse of power. 

He points to a high infection rate in some Ohio prisons but few deaths, and believes both Governor DeWine and Mr. Trump are overreacting to the virus – and doing deep harm to the economy in the process. 

“I’m going to keep asking questions,” Mr. Zawistowski said Friday, as he prepared for a protest in Columbus, Ohio, the next day. He indicated he would not wear a mask. 

Mr. Brandon of FreedomWorks rejects the “no mask” approach to the protests. 

“I know the press is gravitating toward people not wearing masks,” he says. “But that’s not the majority of people [at the protests]. That’s totally out of our control. We’re advocating that anyone who shows up, first and foremost, needs to keep themselves safe in the world of COVID.” 

Staff writer Story Hinckley contributed to this report from Richmond, Virginia.

Editor’s note: As a public service, all our coronavirus coverage is free. No paywall.

of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Unlimited digital access $11/month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.