Donald Trump has posted highly incendiary tweets stoking protests against physical distancing and other coronavirus stay-at-home measures in three states led by Democratic governors.
“LIBERATE MINNESOTA!” the US president wrote in capital letters on Friday. “LIBERATE MICHIGAN!”
He followed up with a third tweet: “LIBERATE VIRGINIA, and save your great 2nd Amendment. It is under siege!” – a reference to Virginia’s governor, Ralph Northam, last week signing into law new measures on gun control.
Trump has repeatedly ignored his own entreaty to put partisan politics aside during the coronavirus pandemic. His latest provocative interventions followed demonstrations against stay-at-home orders in Michigan, Ohio, North Carolina, Virginia and other states that have drawn elements of the far right.
Some protesters have carried guns, waved Trump and Confederate flags and sought to frame the debate as a defence of constitutional freedoms. They have been egged on by conservative media hosts such as Fox News’s Jeanine Pirro, who said: “What happened in Lansing [Michigan] today, God bless them: it’s going to happen all over the country.”
At Friday’s White House coronavirus taskforce briefing, Trump played down fears that by crowding together, the protesters themselves could spread the Covid-19 illness. “These are people expressing their views,” he told reporters. “I see where they are and I see the way they’re working. They seem to be very responsible people to me, but they’ve been treated a little bit rough.”
In 2017 the president was condemned for reacting to a deadly clash between white nationalists and counter-protesters in Charlottesville, Virginia, by observing that there “were very fine people on both sides”.
On Friday, Trump also stood by his criticism of the Democratic governors, even though they are following his own federal guidelines. “I think some things are too tough,” he said. “And if you look at some of the states you just mentioned, it’s too tough, not only in reference to this but what they’ve done in Virginia with respect to the second amendment is just a horrible thing ... When you see what other states have done, I think I feel very comfortable.”
Asked if he believed Michigan, Minnesota and Virginia should lift their stay-at-home orders, the president added: “I think elements of what they’ve done are too much, just too much ... What they’ve done in Virginia is just incredible.”
Trump, known to watch Fox News closely, has offered mixed messages. On Monday he claimed “total” authority to order an end to the stay-at-home measures, but on Thursday issued phased “guidelines” that passed the buck to governors to make decisions on the ground about when and how to reopen. His tweets on Friday appeared to undercut his own experts’ warnings and drew sharp criticism.
Jay Inslee, the Democratic governor of Washington, tweeted in response: “The president’s statements this morning encourage illegal and dangerous acts. He is putting millions of people in danger of contracting Covid-19. His unhinged rantings and calls for people to ‘liberate’ states could also lead to violence. We’ve seen it before.”
Beto O’Rourke, a former Texas congressman who like Inslee ran for the Democratic nomination, said: “Republicans will turn a blind eye [and] too many in the press will focus on ‘tone’. But history books will say: in April of 2020, when the pandemic had already claimed 35,000 lives, the president of the United States incited people to storm their statehouses with AR-15s and AK-47s.”
Michigan has taken big hits in both coronavirus cases and job losses and will be a critical battleground state in the presidential election. Wednesday’s “Operation Gridlock”, a demonstration against strict stay-at-home policies ordered by Michigan’s governor, Gretchen Whitmer, attracted the Proud Boys and other far-right groups who have been present at pro-Trump and gun rights rallies in Michigan.
Most protesters stayed in their vehicles and circled the state capitol building in Lansing, but a small group stood on the capitol steps to flout physical distancing guidelines. They brandished signs that included “Trump/Pence”, “Recall Whitmer”, “Heil Whitmer” and “Stop the Tyranny”, and briefly chanting “Lock her up!”, echoing Trump campaign rallies’ targeting of Hillary Clinton.
Whitmer, who dismissed the stunt as “essentially a political rally”, has emerged as a possible a running mate for the presumptive Democratic nominee, Joe Biden. Ronna McDaniel, the chairwoman of the Republican National Committee, said at an online “Women for Trump” event Whitmer had “turned this crisis into a platform to run for vice-president”.
The protests have earned comparisons with the Tea Party movement of a decade ago and more are expected in coming days, with the tension between public health and economic reopening viewed through an increasingly partisan lens.
The Washington Post reported: “Uncertainty and fear over the economic impact of stay-at-home orders is fueling a sort of culture war between conservatives, whose political strength now comes from rural America, right now less affected by the virus, and liberals, whose urban strongholds have been most affected by it.”
Last Saturday, for example, the Republican senator Ted Cruz, a Trump ally, tweeted that he was going to the beach with his children. “Fortunately, I live in Texas – where we protect public safety, but aren’t authoritarian zealots – so they won’t arrest me!” he wrote.
According to Pew Research, 81% of Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents say their greater concern is that governments will lift these restrictions too quickly. About half (51%) of Republicans and Republican leaners say their bigger concern is that state governments will act too quickly.