The Memo: Culture war hits coronavirus crisis

President TrumpDonald TrumpTrump announces new tranche of endorsements DeSantis, Pence tied in 2024 Republican poll Lawmakers demand changes after National Guard troops at Capitol sickened from tainted food MORE stoked the culture war on Friday with a series of fiery tweets calling for what he termed the liberation of three states, all of which have Democratic governors.

Trump was apparently backing protesters in Minnesota, Michigan and Virginia who have bridled against restrictions put in place in response to the coronavirus crisis.

His tweets were the latest — and starkest — example of how even the debate over the deadly virus is increasingly being strained by the centrifugal forces of a polarizing president and a polarized media.


The tweets were, even by Trump’s standards, a remarkable intervention by a president in the middle of a national emergency. In a four-minute stretch just before 11:30 a.m., he sent three all-caps tweets urging people to “LIBERATE” Minnesota, Michigan and Virginia.

Adding a further twist, Trump linked the situation in Virginia to gun rights. “LIBERATE VIRGINIA, and save your great 2nd Amendment. It is under siege!” the president urged.

Virginia’s governor, Ralph Northam (D), signed several new gun control measures into law a week before.

“They did a horrible thing, the governor,” Trump added at his White House press briefing on Friday.

Trump’s tweets drew immediate outrage from Democratic politicians and liberal commentators.

Washington Gov. Jay InsleeJay Robert InsleeWashington state officials warn providers offering VIP vaccine access Legislators go after governors to rein in COVID-19 powers Inslee rebukes hospital over vaccine appointments for donors MORE (D) — whose state was the first to bear the brunt of the virus’s spread within the United States — accused Trump of “fomenting domestic rebellion” and giving encouragement to “illegal and dangerous acts.” 


MSNBC anchor Joy Reid linked to a screenshot of Trump’s tweets, commenting, “So I guess we're just skipping directly to the Second Civil War chapter of this horror novel, huh?”

Chris CuomoChris CuomoAs Trump steps back in the spotlight, will Cuomo exit stage left? The Hill's 12:30 Report - Presented by ExxonMobil - FBI director testifies on Jan. 6 Capitol attack Chris Cuomo criticized for hypocrisy after he says he won't cover brother's controversy MORE, the CNN anchor who is himself suffering from the coronavirus, asked, “Is this trump ‘helping country heal’?”

The largest demonstration so far occurred on Wednesday in Lansing, Mich., where several thousand protesters rallied in “Operation Gridlock.” They were expressing their dismay with the strict social distancing measures put in place by Gov. Gretchen WhitmerGretchen WhitmerCapitol Police asks National Guard to extend deployment 'SNL' envisions Fauci as game show host, giving winners vaccines Two men charged with making threatening calls to Michigan officials MORE (D), who has recently found herself in Trump’s rhetorical crosshairs.

The Wolverine State had, at the time, around 27,000 confirmed cases of the coronavirus. The total had swelled to more than 30,000 by Friday, according to the COVID Tracking Project.

For many, both for and against the protests, the demonstrations have called to mind the Tea Party rallies that arose during former President Obama’s first term. Among the many parallels, charges and countercharges have been leveled about whether the Lansing protests were an authentic expression of popular discontent or an effort ginned up by conservative groups.

In addition, news reports said that some of the protesters in Michigan chanted “Lock her up!” — the slogan with which Trump supporters assailed Democrat Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonHillicon Valley: China implicated in Microsoft breach | White House adds Big Tech critic | QAnon unfazed after false prediction Jill Biden redefines role of first lady QAnon supporters unfazed after another false prediction MORE in 2016 — in relation to Whitmer.

“They seem like very responsible people to me,” Trump said about the protests when asked about the demonstrations at his Friday press briefing.

Tobe Berkovitz, a Boston University professor who specializes in political communications, said that "the model for how coronavirus has infected the political environment is Lansing. It’s sort of the perfect test case."

"You have people who are upset and a governor who is trying to govern, and maybe those people have been riled up by outside forces, or maybe they are being wrongly accused of being riled up by outside forces. The bottom line is, again, everything is so politicized," he added.

Polling indicates that — for the moment — there is widespread acceptance of the need for social distancing measures in response to the coronavirus. 

A Morning Consult poll on Friday asked whether people believed it was more important for government to address the spread of the coronavirus or the state of the economy. Seventy-five percent of Americans — and 65 percent of Republicans — said that the priority should be on fighting the virus.

A Monmouth University poll conducted earlier this month asked respondents whether the federal government's response to the spread of the virus had been appropriate, had gone too far or had not gone far enough. 


The numbers who believed it had gone too far were tiny across the board — 8 percent of Republicans, 8 percent of independents and 4 percent of Democrats.

Meanwhile, a Gallup poll earlier this week underlined the degree to which a return to normalcy will be determined as much by citizens’ attitudes as by pronouncements by the president or by governors. 

Asked how soon they would return to their normal activities after the government lifts restrictions on social contact, only 20 percent of Americans said “immediately.” Seventy-one percent said they would “wait to see what happens.”

On that particular question, however, there was a partisan split that could be a sign of things to come. 

Only 11 percent of Democrats in the Gallup poll said they would resume their normal lives right away. The figure among Republicans was almost three times as high, at 31 percent.

There is obvious potential for that kind of schism to be broadened, especially in a partisan media environment. 


Tucker CarlsonTucker CarlsonThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Lawmakers face Capitol threat as senators line up votes for relief bill Tucker Carlson bashes CNN, claims it's 'more destructive' than QAnon Former Trump officials eye bids for political office MORE of Fox News on Wednesday interviewed New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy (D) and asked him by what authority he could “nullify the Bill of Rights” by imposing social distancing rules on religious services.

“The science ... says people have to stay away from each other,” Murphy responded.

The media divides are, as always, even more evident on social media than on the airwaves themselves.

On Friday, Fox News host Laura IngrahamLaura Anne IngrahamHaley isolated after Trump fallout Tucker Carlson to produce video podcasts for Fox Nation Rush Limbaugh dead at 70 MORE tweeted her support of the president’s call for supposed liberation of certain states by drawing a comparison with the liberation of Iraq, while MSNBC’s Lawrence O’Donnell called Trump “a sociopath.”

Those divisions seem much more likely to widen than narrow in the days ahead.

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage, primarily focused on Donald Trump’s presidency.