Stark warnings from the nation's most trusted scientists led governors across the nation to lock down their economies in hopes of slowing the spread of the coronavirus that has already infected more than a million people in the United States.
But after weeks of stay-at-home orders, millions of lost jobs and trillions in emergency government spending, conservative agitators have begun to turn their ire on the scientists themselves, blaming them for overhyping a health crisis and in the process creating an economic one from which it will take years to recover.
The bubbling anger aimed at those who are perceived as elites is reminiscent of the Tea Party movement that protested the Obama administration and fueled Republican gains in the 2010 elections. It’s an anger that President TrumpDonald TrumpDeputy AG: DOJ investigating fake Trump electors Former Boston Red Sox star David Ortiz elected to Baseball Hall of Fame Overnight Health Care — Senators unveil pandemic prep overhaul MORE rode successfully to his election in 2016.
“A lot of these protesters, and a lot of specifically rural Michigan and northern Michigan frustration, stems from this idea that you people don't know what's best for you and we're just going to bring in these Harvard-educated Ivy League public health experts and they're going to know better than you and better than your family,” said Michigan state Rep. Beau LaFave (R), who has been critical of Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's (D) orders to shut down businesses even in areas where there are few coronavirus cases.
“We don't make public health experts dictators,” he added.
Early protests against lockdown orders, funded in part by conservative donors with long records in politics, have turned vitriolic and hostile. Some protesters have angrily confronted nurses and doctors standing in silent counterprotest. Men openly carrying firearms showed up at state capitols in Michigan and North Carolina.
Some Republican leaders who want to see the economy reopened have had to ask protesters to leave their Confederate flags at home, but the Stars and Bars keep showing up.
At the same time, an increasing number of Republican politicians are attending the protests.
At an event in Salisbury, Md., Rep. Andy HarrisAndrew (Andy) Peter HarrisUkraine president, US lawmakers huddle amid tensions with Russia Congress to take up marijuana reform this spring Greene, GOP colleagues call for firing of DC Corrections official who 'despises' Trump and supporters MORE (R-Md.) compared orders banning church services to communist regimes in China and North Korea. Kelli Ward, the chair of the Arizona Republican Party and a primary care physician, urged protesters to dress as nurses. Idaho Lt. Gov. Janice McGeachin (R) planned to keynote a reopen rally in her state.
All three states are under stay-at-home orders issued by Republican governors.
Trump has at times fanned the flames, even as his own public health experts express alarm. Trump tweeted support for “liberate” protesters in Minnesota, Michigan and Virginia. He retweeted a supporter who used a hashtag urging Trump to fire Anthony FauciAnthony FauciKid Rock releases anti-Biden, anti-Fauci single with a 'Let's go, Brandon' chorus Fauci: Omicron-specific vaccines 'prudent' but may be unnecessary Conservative pundit says YouTube blocked interview with Rand Paul MORE, the nation's leading infectious disease expert and the face of the scientific community.
“I think people see in their eyes the situation getting better, but we’re not going back to work,” said Kirby Wilbur, a former chairman of the Washington State Republican Party who hears from protesters calling into his conservative talk show. “The arrogance shown by some of the politicians is speeding this.”
The protests are taking place even as polls show broad support for keeping the country locked down.
A Marist poll conducted for NPR and PBS NewsHour in late April showed more than 80 percent of Americans said sending students back to school, allowing people to attend sporting events and opening restaurant dining rooms were bad ideas. Almost two-thirds, 65 percent, said having people return to work was a bad idea.
Some Republicans watching the protests say they are being fueled by anger at what they call overly broad lockdowns, including in areas where there are few if any coronavirus cases. They also point to the disproportionate impact the economic shutdown is having on workers who were already marginalized.
“I think the backlash against elites — academics, media, government bureaucrats and politicians — could be severe,” said Jim Blaine, a Republican strategist in North Carolina.
“Remember, most of the professions that led the call to shutdown haven’t had to suffer the economic consequences associated with the shutdown. There have been few or no layoffs at universities or government agencies and you don’t see politicians in America taking pay cuts like you’re seeing in other countries,” he said.
Republicans acknowledge the value of the smaller, more targeted lockdowns to contain hot spots, but even public health experts acknowledge that lockdowns are a tool with a limited shelf life.
“A regional approach would have been more reasonable. Concentrating on areas with public transit, mass transit, which seems to me to be the highest indicator of a COVID spread at this time, would have been a reasonable thing to do,” said LaFave, whose Upper Peninsula district has seen few cases even as hospital systems in far-off Detroit struggle to get the virus under control.
As the virus spreads into rural America, the backlash risks becoming a public health threat in its own right. As more rural communities begin to suffer from the virus, residents there may be less likely to see it as a threat as they watch protests against restrictions intended to curb the disease. Trump is also popular in many of these communities, and the restrictions are seen as not only harming the economy, but harming the president’s reelection prospects.
“This is the infuriating thing,” said Jeremy Konyndyk, a senior fellow at the Center for Global Development and a former director of the U.S. Agency for International Development's Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance.
“The people who most need to hear this are not the people skeptical of the president. The people who most need to hear this and who are most at risk are the people who believe the president,” said Konyndyk. “I do worry that we're setting ourselves up as a country to have like two realities about what needs to happen, and everyone can just basically pick the narrative that they find more politically amenable and go in that direction. And that's not how the science works.”
Even as the number of new cases in small towns and rural areas begins growing at faster rates, an increasing number of people in those areas are resisting stay-at-home orders at the very time when those orders could have the most impact in depriving the virus of oxygen. Already, cellphone data has showed more people moving around and leaving home.
“I can tell you that telling the public that they're going to have to stay locked in their homes for another couple months after we were told 15 days to stop the spread, that's not going to go over well and there will be riots,” LaFave said. “The people that live in my district, the 90,000 constituents I have, are going to tell you to shove that stay-at-home order right up your ass.”