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Opinion The tea party is back — and endangering lives

People protest on Monday in Harrisburg, Pa. (Nicholas Kamm/AFP via Getty Images)

The tea party is back. I was wondering where they had gone.

You remember them, right? When Barack Obama was in office, these self-styled defenders of limited government and individual liberty took to the streets to protest federal debt, corporate bailouts, government-sponsored health care and a president who they said governed like the king our forefathers rebelled against.

We haven’t heard from them much in the past 3½ years. Not that they shouldn’t have found plenty of fodder for outrage: record deficits and debt; an autocrat in the White House who regularly claims extra-constitutional authority; economic policies that tilt heavily in favor of the wealthy and big business.

Tea party activists have looked the other way on all of these things throughout the presidency of Donald Trump. But now they are appearing again in state capitals across the country, screaming and waving their “Don’t Tread on Me” banners to vent at the lifesaving measures that governors have taken in the face of an epidemic that has already caused upward of 40,000 deaths in the United States.

There is a legitimate — and reasonable — debate to be had about how much economic pain the country should be willing to bear to bring the epidemic under control.

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But that is not what we are hearing in their nihilistic fury. Some of them carry Confederate flags and assault weapons as they protest. Theirs is a doctrine fueled not by high-minded principles, but by conspiracy theories and populist resentment.

Tea party 2.0 is proposing a tri-cornered suicide pact: Give them liberty from stay-at-home orders and give them death. And while they are at it, endanger the lives of everyone around them as well.

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The sheer irresponsibility of gathering hundreds of people together for these protests at this moment is hard to fathom. If some of them pick up the novel coronavirus as a result of it, the price will be paid by overburdened health-care workers and by unsuspecting people with whom they come into contact.

It is perhaps overstating things to describe these protesters as a movement. Even as tens of millions are filing applications for unemployment compensation, polls show the vast majority of Americans want restrictive measures to remain in place to fight the virus.

Two-thirds of respondents in a poll that Pew Research Center released last week said they were more concerned that states would move too quickly to lift the measures, as opposed to only 32 percent who said they feared it would not happen fast enough. In an April 8 Quinnipiac University poll, 81 percent said they would support a national stay-at-home order, rather than leaving it up to the discretion of the states.

The Quinnipiac survey also showed that nearly three-quarters approve of their governors’ handling of the crisis; by comparison, only 46 percent felt positive about Trump’s performance.

But while the protesters are not representative of how most Americans view the difficult choices that their local leaders are making, they are getting a powerful signal boost from right-wing media and the president.

It does not seem to matter to Trump that his call to “liberate” Michigan, Minnesota and Virginia (all of which, not coincidentally, have Democratic governors and are potential battlegrounds in the fall election) flies in the face of guidelines that his own administration has issued with regard to when and how it will be safe for states to begin returning to normal life.

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As Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R) put it Sunday on CNN: “The president’s policy says you can’t start to reopen under his plan until you have declining numbers for 14 days, which those states and my state do not have. So, then to encourage people to go protest the plan that you just made recommendations on, on Thursday, it just doesn’t make any sense.”

Then again, coherence has not exactly been the hallmark of Trump’s response to the coronavirus. Scapegoating, blame-shifting and fomenting civil unrest are a smokescreen behind which the president can evade hard questions, such as why the capacity to test for coronavirus infection is still inadequate to what will be needed before states can start lifting their restrictions.

By encouraging the shortsighted demands of a loud but small slice of his base, the president is playing a dangerous game — one that Americans could end up paying for with their lives.

Read more:

Karen Tumulty: What a post-coronavirus commission should look like

The Post’s View: Trump’s reckless incitement to ‘liberate’ states endangers lives

Max Boot: The anti-quarantine protesters aren’t Rosa Parks. They’re more like Typhoid Mary.

Greg Sargent: Trump’s support for right-wing protests just got more ugly and dangerous

Paul Waldman: Why Fox News and Republicans are promoting a social distancing backlash

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