If all the Trump-loving, liberal-hating rhetoric, and the yellow “Don’t Tread on Me” flags, and the signs denouncing “tyranny,” and the belligerent behavior accompanying the anti-government protests hitting state capitals around the nation—20 and counting so far—have a familiar look and sound to them, they should. We first knew them as tea partiers, then as Oath Keepers and Three Percenters, more recently as Proud Boys, American Guard, and Patriot Prayer.
It’s beginning to become clear that they are going to be Donald Trump’s reelection vanguard—potentially a violent one. And it will all be with Trump’s blessing.
Former FBI assistant director Frank Figliuzzi remarked on MSNBC on Monday that the nation has entered an extremely dangerous phase, primarily because Trump appears to be deliberately encouraging this behavior. “The president has linked this stay-at-home issue to the Second Amendment,” he said. “Remember that tweet? ‘LIBERATE VIRGINIA, and save your great 2nd Amendment. It is under siege!’ That’s going to motivate the crazies amongst us to do some very ugly things. And law enforcement’s gotta hunker down for that.”
Washington Gov. Jay Inslee earlier called out the behavior. “The president is fomenting domestic rebellion and spreading lies even while his own administration says the virus is real and is deadly, and that we have a long way to go before restrictions can be lifted,” Inslee said on Friday.
“To have an American president to encourage people to violate the law, I can’t remember any time in my time in America we have seen such a thing. It is dangerous, because it could inspire people to ignore things that could save their lives,” Inslee told ABC’s George Stephanopoulos later.
These are the same people who have been showing up for street brawls with antifascists and black bloc in places like Charlottesville, Berkeley, Portland, and Seattle. They all are prone to paranoid conspiracy theories, all peculiarly immune to logic, facts, or reason, all of them eager consumers of far-right propaganda.
On Saturday, hundreds turned out in Olympia, Washington, to protest Inslee’s stay-at-home directives. A typical tweet from a protester used all the classic “Patriot” movement tropes, including an absurd inflation of the crowd’s size: “Fuck the tyrannical government action! Power hungry democrats have in office have put us under a quasi martial law! So today we say fuck you to Inslee’s stay at home order and social distancing! Three thousand strong today!”
One of the speakers—a state legislator, Rep. Robert Sutherland of Granite Falls, made explicitly violent threats. “We’re starting a rebellion in Washington, we’re not listening to this governor, we’re taking our state back,” Sutherland told the crowd, with a pistol tucked in his pants.
“When we go fishing, they’re going to send their guys with guns, and they’re going to write us tickets,” added Sutherland. “Governor, you send men with guns after us when we go fishing, we’ll see what a revolution looks like.”
Pennsylvania’s protest in Lancaster on Monday had a similar tenor, with Republican state Sen. Doug Mastriano providing the verbal fireworks. “It heartens me to see my brothers and sisters across the state here, coming together here to fight this tyranny, this overreach,” said Mastriano. “Never before in the history of this commonwealth has a governor exercised so much power…It’s time to roll that back.”
In Texas, conspiracy theorist Alex Jones of InfoWars joined the crowd and shook hands with the participants. “Don't let them tell you, like the Nazis did, that you are not essential," Jones told protesters. "Whether you are old, whether you are young, whether you are black, whether you are white, you are essential.”
After Michigan’s large protest last week effectively shut down the state capital, organizers elsewhere began scrambling to create similar events around the country. So far, there have been anti-lockdown protests in Nashville, Tennessee; Austin, Texas; Phoenix, Arizona; Annapolis, Maryland; Raleigh, North Carolina; Sacramento, California; Boise, Idaho; Salem, Oregon; Denver, Colorado; Salt Lake City, Utah; Oklahoma City, Oklahoma; Albany, New York; Trenton, New Jersey; Richmond, Virginia; Tallahassee, Florida; St. Paul, Minnesota; Concord, New Hampshire; and Lexington, Kentucky.
The day after the Lexington protest, Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear announced that the state had just experienced its largest single-day spike in COVID-19 infections.
Trump himself has openly encouraged the defiance, beginning with tweets he posted on Friday encouraging people to follow the example of the Michigan protesters, including the tweet cited by Figliuzzi: “LIBERATE VIRGINIA, and save your great 2nd Amendment. It is under siege!”
This tweet was an undisguised wink and nudge in the direction of the same far-right protesters who descended on Richmond in January to protest impending gun-control legislation, and who continue to whip up “constitutionalist” pro-gun hysteria in rural Virginia counties. Despite those protests, much of the legislation passed and was signed into law April 10 by Gov. Ralph Northam.
However, Trump has denied that he has been whipping up potentially violent responses to efforts by state governors to bring the pandemic under control.
"Some governors have gone too far," Trump said during a press briefing Sunday. He defended the protesters, claiming they appeared to be adhering to social-distancing measures.
“No, I am not,” he responded to a question about whether he was inciting violence. “I've never seen so many American flags. These people love our country. They want to get back to work."
His defense had a familiar ring, insisting the protesters were “great people.” He added: “It was a very orderly group of people. … They've got cabin fever. They want their lives back.” Any similarity to his remarks defending the Charlottesville protesters in 2017 as “very fine people” was probably intentional.
As for whether he has any concern about the possibility that these rabid supporters might die as a result of expanding their exposure to COVID-19 at these rallies, Trump also gave a clear answer when, on Monday, NBC’s Yamiche Alcindor asked him about one of his admirers whose entire family caught the virus after following his advice.
“A lot of people love Trump, right?” he said. “A lot of people love me. You see them all the time. I guess I’m here for a reason.”