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22 April 2020updated 27 Jul 2021 12:42pm

What America’s lockdown protests tell us about the past and future of the US right

The current crisis has given a new platform to a political movement that runs on spectacle.

By Emily Tamkin

A woman stood outside the Tennessee State Capitol earlier this week at a “reopen rally”, a protest of hundreds against the state’s stay-at-home orders. “Eighty years ago, Jews didn’t have a chance,” she yelled, hours ahead of the Days of Remembrance. “We fucking do.” Protests this past weekend took place in a variety of places across the country, including in Ohio, where at a protest against restrictions a man held up a sign that read, “The real plague” and featured an image of a rat emblazoned with the Star of David.

In Michigan, a few days prior, thousands protested in the capital of Lansing against Governor Gretchen Whitmer. The protest was called “Operation Gridlock” and was reportedly organised by the Michigan Conservative Coalition and the Michigan Freedom Fund, a conservative group with ties to the DeVos family (that’s DeVos as in Betsy DeVos, Trump’s Secretary of Education). Despite the fact that the protests were taking place in Michigan, so far north it shares a border with Canada, confederate flags were spotted.

The President has appeared to encourage these protests, and others that have taken place across the US, tweeting “LIBERATE MICHIGAN” and “LIBERATE VIRGINIA”, and describing the protesters as people who “love our country” and “want to get back to work”.

While these events are unprecedented in the sense that members of the American right have not, until now, had an opportunity to endanger themselves and others by gathering in large crowds during a pandemic, they aren’t wholly new. They are in fact a reminder of other protests in the US’s recent past.

Allan Lichtman, a distinguished professor of history at American University, says he was immediately reminded of the protests around the critical recount after the 2000 presidential election in Florida.  

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“Typically, the left has kind of owned the streets,” says Lichtman, author of White Protestant Nation: The Rise of the American Conservative Movement. He points to demonstrations by the civil and women’s rights movements and anti-war protests. But in 2000, “in the recount, it was the Republicans and the conservatives who seized the streets”.

The demonstrations became known as “Gucci protests”, Lichtman says, because expensively dressed staffers working for Republican officials joined with Florida Republicans to organise the protest against the recount in the county of Miami-Dade. Another incident from that time has been referred to as the “Brooks Brothers riot” because the rioters were, in Florida, wearing tweed blazers, and so were thought to be out-of-town Republicans flown in for the occasion.

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In that case, the protesters were not only successful in that recount was stopped and George W Bush became the president, but also in that, despite the relatively small number of protesters “goaded on” by conservative leaders, the protests got “vast publicity, far beyond what the numbers should merit”, Lichtman says. The right, he says, had discovered a flair for free media coverage.

Cas Mudde, author of The Far Right in America, says the current protests “are somewhat similar to the Tea Party”, referring to the political movement launched after Barack Obama’s election, in that they combine a mixture of grassroots campaigners with “astroturf” – organised campaigning made to appear spontaneous – and “support by right-wing media”, although he adds that the anti-lockdown protests are currently “much smaller and primarily align with party politics, ie, Republicans against Democrats”.

These demonstrations also bear a certain resemblance to the 2014 Bundy standoff, according to Howard Graves, a senior research analyst at the Southern Poverty Law Center. The cattle rancher Cliven Bundy and his sons refused to to pay more than $1m in fees for using federal land, and took up arms against the US government, supported by far-right militias. Another similar standoff happened two years later, in 2016, when Ammon and Ryan Bundy seized a federal wildlife reserve in Oregon.

Those protests, Graves says, demonstrated “the appeal of the spectacle” to the far right. Other, later protests – including marches in defence of confederate war memorials – learned from the Bundys how important it is to put on a show. Ammon Bundy, incidentally, is involved in the present protests.

That the confederate flag is showing up in these protests is evidence of their political undercurrent.

“There’s a cyclical pattern of extremist communities trying to reinterpret that symbol,” Graves says. “The historical record is pretty clear: it’s the banner of a white supremacist slave project. [But] there’s been this attempt to layer over different meanings “ – including that of the rebel pushing back against tyranny. In Michigan, where black Americans make up 14 per cent of the residents but were, at the beginning of April, 41 percent of those who have died from Covid-19, a white person can wave the Confederate flag and insist that, no, they’re the injured party.

Similarly, “The legacy of Nazi Germany and the Holocaust is the easiest example of totalitarianism. It’s very easy for a person who’s not very engaged or who’s treating the subject cynically to make really bad metaphors,” Graves says.

“That sense of grievance really underscores this.”

It is this sense that the people are being wronged, even if by a policy that’s meant to keep them safe from harm, that connects the present protests to those of the past, and will connect them to those in the future.

The “dirty little secret”, Lichtman says, is that this is a rapidly disappearing part of the American electorate, trying to “leverage their shrinking numbers into exploding publicity”.

“There is a lot of passion, at least on the part of the conservative minority. They believe that the America they know and love is disappearing and they lash out against that.”

This is, obviously, a sentiment that the President has used and popularised. It’s the reason that he’s out there with the people in spirit, if at the White House in practice. It is also the reason that support for Trump will continue to be the undercurrent of protests by the American right in the near future.

“I think it is notable that this is an argument about power and control: who has power and control, who is allowed to wield it, and under what circumstances,” says Noah Arbit, founder and chairman of the Michigan Jewish Democratic Caucus. “Conspiracy theories thrive in this anti-elite environment – antisemitism being the oldest conspiracy theory – and a great portion of the President’s political power derives from his ability to engage in this conspiracy, while offering himself as the only antidote.”

Mudde agrees, more succinctly, that this rash of protests “shows that Trump dominates the US right, both in parliament and in the streets”.