President Trump has blessed these operations by calling on citizens in Minnesota, Michigan and Virginia to “LIBERATE” their states, also telling Virginians to “save your 2nd amendment. It’s under siege.” Never mind that public health experts say reopening the economy too soon could have catastrophic results.
While evidence suggests that well-funded conservative groups were behind many of these protests, the rage on display has been palpable. Anger has often shaped the response to economic hardship, especially in places where reverence for hard work shaped both a sense of blue-collar identity and a nascent blue-collar conservatism. States such as Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Kentucky bore the brunt and severity of deindustrialization in the mid-20th century and have long resented economic disruptions beyond their control.
But protesters in Michigan came armed with semiautomatic weapons and Confederate battle flags. Members of the Proud Boys, a self-proclaimed “western chauvinists” group that the Southern Poverty Law Center labels a hate group, flashed the white supremacist “okay” symbol in photos with a Michigan congressional candidate. While one organizer attempted to distance the protest from its fringe elements, their presence suggested that economic anxiety alone cannot account for the depths of anger on display. Trump’s tweets gave the demonstrators the go-ahead to flaunt their fury openly, but he didn’t create it, and neither did the stay-at-home orders.
Behind these protests is an underlying rage at elites, liberals, government and the media that is part of a half-century tradition of right-wing populism.
It started a long time ago, but nothing stoked right-wing populist anger like the mid-20th century battles about desegregation. In the North and West as much in the South, and in rural areas as much as in cities, white rage followed everywhere that civil rights activists, court decisions or new legislation threatened the status quo of racial segregation. Images of snarling white students confronting the Little Rock Nine, rioting suburbanites in Levittown, Pa., and violent antibusing demonstrations in Boston became touchstones for an entire era of segregationist resistance and lingering symbols of the rage that underpinned efforts to maintain the nation’s racial caste system.
There was no shortage of populist firebrands who stoked this anger, but no one capitalized on “the politics of rage” quite like then-presidential candidate and Alabama Gov. George Wallace, who became notorious for promising “segregation today, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever,” and made a career out of tapping into the anxieties and frustrations of the white electorate.
When he lambasted the Civil Rights Act of 1964 as “fraud, a shame, and a hoax” in a now-famous speech, he not only attacked the Johnson administration’s signature piece of civil rights legislation but accused the federal government of tyranny for trying to enforce desegregation. Wallace’s sentiments were far from a regional phenomenon, and he swept predominantly white precincts in blue-collar areas of Indiana, Wisconsin and Maryland when he challenged President Lyndon B. Johnson in the 1964 Democratic primary.
But Wallace found a litany of new targets during his third-party run for president in 1968, including anti-Vietnam War protesters, disruptive student activists, and “pointy-headed intellectuals.” That grievance against intellectuals and elites, not unlike his one against a tyrannical federal government, created a long-standing enemy for the populist right who think that intellectuals and elites forced unwanted new ideas that challenged society’s traditional foundations.
The Vietnam War awarded right-wing populists an opportunity to add another enemy to the list of elites threatening the nation. The Nixon administration sought to dismiss negative coverage of its expansion of the war into Cambodia and Laos by crediting it to a now-familiar scapegoat: the so-called “liberal media.” Vice President Spiro Agnew slapped network news commentators with the alliterative epithets of “nattering nabobs of negativism” and “troubadours of trouble.” That demonization of the national news media as an untrustworthy partisan endeavor is arguably the most enduring inheritance for the angry populist right. Although polls showed that 70 percent of Americans still trusted the media when Gallup began asking the question in the early 1970s, that percentage went into steady decline in the ensuing decades before reaching an all-time low of 32 percent in 2016.
Right-wing populist rage metastasized in the last decades of the 20th century with the growth of conservative media. Since the 1980s and the national success of Rush Limbaugh’s eponymous program, right-wing radio became an incubator of populist anger by offering daily doses of outrage. Fueled by the culture wars and joined by soon-to-be luminaries such as Bill O’Reilly and Sean Hannity, Limbaugh and the radio right never found a shortage of potential threats to their listener’s livelihoods and freedom. In 2013, Limbaugh summed up the biggest threats as the “Four Corners of Deceit”: government, academia, science and media.
The conservative media’s greatest success in stoking populist anger arguably came in the last decade, when the radio right and ascendant Fox News juggernaut helped promote the tea party protests. The movement that ostensibly started in response to the threat of higher taxes became a sounding board for any and all complaints against the Obama administration and echoed the anger at big government that had been at the heart of right-wing populism for decades. Coverage and encouragement of these protests from conservative media not only amplified the tea party’s anger but helped turn it into electoral success in the 2010 midterm elections.
Conservative media has continued to sound the alarm about the dangers of tyrannical big government, intellectualism and the liberal media that had enraged right-wing populists for a generation. In the same vein, conservative media figures on the radio, Fox News and online played another central role in spurring the recent protests against stay-at-home orders. When the protests first started, Fox News host Laura Ingraham tweeted her support by saying it was “Time to get your freedom back,” while her network continued to give positive coverage to the rallies over the weekend.
If the people with assault weapons and Confederate flags at these rallies seem primed to protest, it is because they have been. Their rage has primed them to believe that a tyrannical government is always acting against their interests. Their rage has primed them to believe that the intellectuals warning them against the dangers of the novel coronavirus cannot be trusted. Their rage has primed them to believe that the liberal media is exaggerating the situation.
That same rage led many of them to Donald Trump, who not only put many of these same grievances at the center of his 2016 presidential campaign but has made daily attacks on the media a centerpiece of his presidency. Trump now promises to “liberate” the states from their government orders. In his attacks against the “deep state,” the president has lent credence to long-standing distrust of government experts. On the ground, these attacks have not only caused protesters to ignore the warnings from health experts like Anthony S. Fauci, but led to chants of “fire Fauci” at a rally in Austin.
This does not discount the real economic anxieties underlying these protests. Complicating the health crisis, covid-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, has exacerbated the economic precariousness that has long afflicted heavily blue collar areas, as has been seen by the spike in unemployment. While that uncertainty has been faced most by poor and working-class communities of color, the economic anxieties framing protests should not be dismissed. Instead, they should be understood in the context of the deep roots of right-wing populist rage.