The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A caravan of angry Michiganders exposes the complicated politics of the coronavirus shutdown

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer (D) tells Michigan residents to stay at home amid the coronavirus pandemic on March 23 in Lansing, Mich.

As I write, streets in Michigan’s capital of Lansing are crowded with cars and pickup trucks. It’s a protest for the coronavirus era, with attendees encouraged to stay in their vehicles, expressing their displeasure with the state’s stay-at-home order by their presence and no small amount of horn-honking.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, given the focus of the protest, not everyone is adhering to that rule. Video from the scene shows people milling around the cars, many of them sporting signs and flags supporting President Trump.

Vehicles created gridlock outside the Michigan State Capitol on April 15 to protest Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s stay-at-home policies. (Video: Kevin Whiteford via Storyful)

Trump himself has attacked Gov. Gretchen Whitmer (D-Mich.), who approved the state’s stay-at-home order March 23. After Whitmer criticized the federal response to the pandemic, Trump tweeted that “Gretchen ‘Half’ Whitmer is way in over her head,” “doesn’t have a clue” and “Likes blaming everyone for her own ineptitude.”

The irony, of course, is that what’s being protested is, in broad strokes, what Trump himself has advocated at the state level: efforts to reduce interactions and, therefore, limit the spread of the virus.

An extension of Whitmer’s order does go quite a bit further than what Trump has explicitly advocated. In an effort to curtail interactions throughout the state, it limits in-state travel and sales of things such as home improvement material. It’s that expansion which has spurred much of the frustration.

Whitmer’s extension explains the rationale.

“In the three weeks that followed [the March 23 order], the virus spread across Michigan, bringing deaths in the hundreds, confirmed cases in the thousands, and deep disruption to this state’s economy, homes, and educational, civic, social, and religious institutions,” it read.

“To suppress the spread of COVID-19, to prevent the state’s health care system from being overwhelmed, to allow time for the production of critical test kits, ventilators, and personal protective equipment, and to avoid needless deaths, it is reasonable and necessary to direct residents to remain at home or in their place of residence to the maximum extent feasible,” according to the order.

What’s noteworthy is that the original order appears to have had an effect. The goal of stay-at-home orders is to limit person-to-person transmission of the virus. Since it can take two weeks for symptoms of the virus to appear, it’s generally assumed that the effects of limiting interactions will be seen about two weeks after those limits were put in place.

Data compiled by Johns Hopkins University show that about two weeks after the March 23 order, the number of confirmed cases in the state each day began to drop. A few days later, the number of deaths from covid-19, the disease caused by the virus, did, as well. In recent days, though, those figures have moved back up.

One conservative group supporting the protest, Michigan Freedom Fund, used that drop as a rationale for rescinding the order.

“COVID-19 infection rates are rising more slowly, public health officials are talking about lights at the end of the tunnel, and models show Michigan hitting it’s viral ‘peak,’ ” a blog post from the group reads. “That’s good news and suggests that we’re moving in the right direction.”

“Meanwhile in Lansing, Governor Gretchen Whitmer has extended and expanded her lockdown order,” it continues, “keeping Michigan workers off the job site and preventing them from feeding their families.”

This is a false dichotomy. Rates of infection are dropping almost certainly because of the stay-at-home order. As we’ve seen elsewhere, the effectiveness of a measure to contain the virus is being used as a rationale for revoking the measure.

Again, such orders are the official policy of President Trump and the White House. Yet Michigan Freedom Fund is a listed host of the in-car rally and spent $250 to promote it on Facebook. It’s also sharing updates about the protest on social media.

There’s another wrinkle, too. The group was founded by Greg McNeilly, political adviser to the DeVos family, a powerful name in Michigan Republican politics who’ve also contributed to the group financially.

You’re probably familiar with the name. Betsy DeVos now serves as secretary of education in Trump’s administration.

Whitmer tried to tie Betsy DeVos specifically to the proposed protest this week. There’s no evidence that the secretary is linked to the protest; the executive director of the Michigan Freedom Fund denied that DeVos herself was at all involved in the effort.

Again, though, the politics are complicated. The DeVoses have focused on combating government interventions, particularly when the government is helmed by Democrats. In this case, they’ve targeted the Democratic governor — who’s enacting a policy that is broadly endorsed by a Republican president. The link between the DeVos family and this protest is indirect, though the political sentiment instilled in the Freedom Fund shines through. It’s similarly evident in the protesters themselves, a group broadly supportive of Trump but not of Whitmer. That despite the differences between the leaders being ones of scale and partisan identity.

This is precisely the line that Trump is trying to walk: encouraging skepticism of Democrats and boosting the idea that the shutdown should come to an end — but cognizant to at least some degree of what happens if the shutdown ends too early.

For all of his bluster about having the authority to decide what happens, the protest makes clear how the political position in which Trump finds himself is in at least one way lucky. He can advocate the policy — and see that governors get the blame.