IN THE NEWS: Washington Examiner

April 19, 2020

Could Anti-Lock Down Protests Be New Tea Party Movement?

Growing discontent with stringent state-level restrictions imposed to mitigate the coronavirus is pouring out into the streets near state capitols in ways reminiscent of the last decade’s conservative activism.

“They have a very Tea Party feel,” said Tea Party Express co-founder Sal Russo of the demonstrations. 

“The current protests are because of government overreaching and infringing on our rights,” said Tea Party Patriots founder Jenny Beth Martin. “The protests are an extension of what the Tea Party movement has stood for the last 11 years — constitutionally limited government, personal and economic freedom. In the time of crisis and to remain on solid ground with those whom they represent, elected officials should lean on the Constitution, not abandon it.”

President Trump lent his encouragement Friday, sending three separate tweets calling on protestors to “LIBERATE” a trio of 2020 battleground states, Michigan, Minnesota, and Virginia, each with Democratic governors whose approaches to slowing the pandemic are seen in some quarters as draconian. 

One of these chief executives, Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, has been locked in a feud with Trump and is a co-chairman of presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden’s campaign. She is frequently mentioned as a possible Biden running mate. Trump also used the occasion to blast gun control policies signed into law by Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam, urging the state’s residents to “save your great 2nd Amendment. It is under siege!” 

The protests may be an early sign of burgeoning conservative sentiment in favor of reopening businesses that have been shuttered to manage the spread of the coronavirus. While polling still shows broad public support for social distancing, some partisan fissures are beginning to appear over the massive job losses. In a recent Morning Consult poll, 51% of Republicans said the public health impact was more important than the quarantines’ economic consequences to 43% who said otherwise. The split among all voters was 64-29.

Conservative activists and commentators may be a leading indicator. Talk show host Rush Limbaugh has cheered the protests and accused Democrats of wanting economic ruin to deny Trump a second term. “How many of those who urged our govt to help liberate the Iraqis, Syrians, Kurds, Afghanis, etc., are as committed now to liberating Virginia, Minnesota, California, etc?” asked Fox News’ Laura Ingraham on Twitter.

“So far, this hasn’t been as a big a reaction as the Tea Party,” said Rep. Andy Biggs, chairman of the Freedom Caucus, critic of Trump coronavirus adviser Anthony Fauci, and a proponent of unlocking the economy. “We’ll see if this catches on.” But the Arizona Republican added the protests were “reflective of a lot of what I’m hearing from my constituents. They’re fed up and feel their rights are being abused. People are losing their life savings, losing their businesses.”

Many complain that churches are closed, but liquor stores and marijuana dispensaries remain open. “There’s really no constitutional or statutory authority for a lot of what they’re doing,” Biggs said of some governors’ executive orders, expressing surprise there haven’t been more legal challenges. 

“It is intriguing to see that these movements have certain states where they are very strong, some where they are modestly active or just organizing or considering organizing, and some where they are completely inactive,” said Michael Johns, a former George H.W. Bush speechwriter who became a Tea Party leader. “There appear to be six states, in my view, where they are a legitimate force: Kentucky, Michigan, North Carolina, New York, Ohio, and Virginia. The strength of our Tea Party movement, however, has always been that it is a national movement, active in even the bluest of states, and sometimes especially in the bluest of states. That offered the opportunity for some degree of national coordination and messaging.”

Russo said the protests were like the Tea Party in that they were “spontaneous” and “not very organized,” but different in that they were motivated by a short-term crisis rather than long-term policy objectives. 

“Obviously, with 35,500 Americans dead in a matter of weeks, this virus is very real, and it is very dangerous. Acknowledging that may seem counterproductive, but it isn’t,” Johns said. “To be effective, these activists need to reject extreme or conspiracy views … And they should be very specific about what liberalization measures they want taken and then be prepared to explain why doing so is not a public health threat.”

Trump’s election was seen as the culmination of the Tea Party’s protests against the Republican leadership, but also a rejection of their small-government activism. He joined leaders in both parties in rebuking Rep. Thomas Massie’s efforts against the massive economic rescue package. In recent days, Trump has vacillated between deferring to governors on stay-at-home orders and asserting the power to make them reopen their economies.

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