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Opinion Trump’s support for right-wing protests just got more ugly and dangerous

President Trump described protesters opposed to stay-at-home orders as "great people" during a news conference on April 19. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post/The Washington Post)

At bottom, President Trump’s ongoing support for right-wing agitators who want to own the libs by throwing off the oppression of policies limiting their own exposure to a deadly pathogen should sound unsettlingly familiar.

It’s another expression of the idea that Democratic governance is fundamentally illegitimate — an idea Trump has pushed in many different ways for years.

“Their life was taken away from them,” Trump said at Sunday’s coronavirus task force press briefing, backing protesters around the country urging governors to lift social-distancing restrictions put in place to combat coronavirus. “They want their life back,” Trump also said.

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But earlier in the day, an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll was released finding that nearly 60 percent of Americans worry more that the United States will move too quickly in loosening restrictions, leading to more deaths. Only 32 percent worry we’ll take too long.

In siding with the claim that democratically elected governors are tyrannically oppressing their constituents with these restrictions, Trump is speaking to a small minority of Americans. But this jarring juxtaposition will not disturb Trump. That’s because it’s an important feature of what Trump is really up to here.

The coronavirus pandemic is too serious to let the president hold freewheeling press briefings in real time, says Post media critic Erik Wemple. (Video: The Washington Post)

Trump’s assertion that people’s lives were “taken away” by these governors could theoretically be just a figure of speech. But, given that Trump has repeatedly called on people to “LIBERATE” states from such governors, the phrase doubles down on the idea that this “taking” was an illegitimate usurpation.

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That’s entirely in keeping with the spirit of what has been widely expressed at these protests:

  • In Washington state, organizers compared their protest to the “shot heard around the world” before the Revolutionary War.
  • Also in that state, one GOP legislator claimed an ongoing “rebellion” against Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee, while hinting that if such restrictions continued, “we’ll see what a revolution looks like.”
  • In Denver, protesters carried signs saying things such as “Dangerous freedom over gov’t tyranny.”
  • In Michigan, signs have blared messages that include “Live free or die” and “Heil Whitmer,” a reference to Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, even as some protesters toted rifles.

The parallels to the tea party have been widely noted. Organizers of this new movement include tea-party figures and have ties to the wealthy DeVos family, which at least raises the question of whether right-wing business interests are helping organize the protests, as with the tea party.

And as Matt Gertz of Media Matters for America demonstrates, Fox News has heavily promoted these protests, just as the network promoted tea-party protests.

Obviously it’s entirely within these protesters’ rights to register their opposition (however dangerously wrongheaded) to these governors’ policies. The problem is all the rhetoric suggesting that their rule is fundamentally illegitimate.

‘Second Amendment remedies'

Indeed, what we’re now hearing carries echoes of the “Second Amendment remedies” phrase that went national in 2010, when a far-right tea-party candidate used it to suggest people might violently rise up against the Democratic Congress.

What’s different now is that the president of the United States has spoken directly to this particular aspect of the nascent movement. In calling on people to “LIBERATE” the states of Michigan, Minnesota and Virginia, even claiming the latter is “under siege," he’s endorsing the idea that they are under illegitimate occupation by Democratic governors and lawmakers, and is arguably fomenting insurrection against them.

These governors, of course, were democratically elected.

‘Counter-majoritarian populism’

Underlying Trump’s suggestion that their rule is illegitimate is a kind of cross between the concepts of herrenvolk democracy and minority rule, or what you might call “counter-majoritarian populism.”

It’s the idea that the only people who constitute the true essence and makeup of the political community are Trump’s people, a standard right-wing populist trope Trump has at times expressed explicitly, but in this case, this is so even as they constitute an electoral minority.

This, too, has hidden similarities with the tea party. As Adam Serwer shows, you can draw a line from the tea party’s rage over the “takers” who illegitimately scooped up the spoils of redistributive policies instituted by leaders they elected — rendering their political compact an illegitimately corrupt bargain — straight down to Trump’s present treatment of the opposition and their voters as illegitimate and nonexistent.

In some cases, the parallels to this moment are deeply troubling. The New York Times reports that in Michigan, coronavirus is “concentrated in heavily black and Democratic Detroit,” even as the protesters demanding relaxed social distancing are “nearly all-white” and are “hoisting Trump signs and Confederate battle flags.”

The implication of the Times’s reporting is that one has to wonder whether those protesters who see these policies as illegitimate are at least somewhat influenced in this regard by who they are helping — the “takers” of the coronavirus age.

More broadly, there’s a deeper reason this sort of right-wing rhetoric so easily runs as a through line from the tea party right down to the somewhat different ideological setting of Trump’s populist ethno-nationalism. As political theorist Jacob Levy argues, this latter ideology relies on the tacitly accepted concept that his supporters are the “real” people constituting the nation, defined in opposition to excluded, illegitimate others, just as the “takers” were.

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This is the story Trump tells when he tweets that urban congressional districts are rat-infested hellholes, or when he mocks urban America as a foreign country before heartland rally crowds. We also saw this in Trump’s musing about quarantining off East Coast blue states, as if to protect virtuous Red America — often described as “Real America” by his propagandists — from getting infected by a disease exported by depraved Blue America.

All this is the true ideological underbelly of Trump’s support for these right-wing protests.

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