Grassroots or astroturf, anti-quarantine protests are an American mess. Last week, protesters gathered in cities across the United States, nominally to insist that governments lift the social distancing guidelines put in place to curb the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic. While some carried the kind of signs you’d expect at a gathering meant to denounce an extended quarantine period—“Fear Is the Real Virus,” “This ‘Cure’ Is Deadlier Than Covid”—concern about the economic impact of social distancing was far from the demonstrators’ only issue. They are also concerned about gun rights, socialism, immigration, the Constitution, medical freedom, abortion. And, because white nationalists are always eager to append themselves to any group of angry (white) people, there were also a few Confederate flag-wavers talking about revolution.
As protesters hoped, media response was strong and immediate. Hosts like Fox News’ Jeanine Pirro praised the demonstrators for their gumption, even as Fox executives urged anchors to remind their viewers to practice social distancing. Mainstream outlets like The New York Times and The Washington Post charted the protests’ ties to powerful and wealthy organizations with ties to the Trump administration, suggesting that they were in part fomented by companies that stand to gain from the economy reopening, a practice known as astroturfing.
Many outlets, including WIRED, reminded readers that the groups of demonstrators are pint-sized compared to the vast majority of Americans who support social distancing and that protesters have much to gain from your attention. Further left, the anti-lockdown protests are being talked about as something that you must attend to or else risk a repeat of the Tea Party movement’s rise to power. Already, Snopes and others are having to debunk manipulated images of the protest, some which seem to show much larger crowds and others that have photoshopped the protesters into cartoonish versions of themselves, holding signs with slogans like “My Virus, My Choice” and “Defund Science.” Confusing, no? Ain’t that America.
Reality, as always, rests somewhere in the middle. In real life, the protests were small, sparse, and few. Online, particularly on Facebook, their supporters have swelled to over 1.4 million strong by the last count by the Institute for Research and Education on Human Rights. Wealthy funders are absolutely guiding and stoking the frustrations of the people breaking quarantine and turning out in the streets, but those frustrations were preexisting. People and the media shouldn’t amplify the talking points of a disgruntled, dangerous few, but you can’t exactly ignore people pulling up in pickups to shut down major thoroughfares in capital cities or staring down health care workers still in their scrubs. It’s important to understand who these protesters are and why they’re demonstrating. “They’re going to claim it’s all about freedom and Constitutional rights. People will say it’s about economic anxiety,” says Christopher Sebastian Parker, who studies American politics and social movements at the University of Washington. “That’s so much bullshit hogwash.”
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Many have compared the protests to the early days of the Tea Party movement. That comparison tracks: The anti-quarantine demonstrations are another reaction to what supporters see as inappropriate government imposition, especially in the economy, bolstered by organizations like conservative advocacy group FreedomWorks, which also aligned itself with the Tea Party. But, like the Tea Party, economic concerns are where the ideology starts, not where it ends. “I think the protests backfired on the wealthy, conservative, free-market folks who wanted to encourage this,” says Mark Naison, a professor of history at Fordham University who has studied social protest movements. “The people with the money are not in the same social networks as people with the [Confederate] flags.”
To an extent, protests always work this way: as a loose gathering of upset people with semi-related and sometimes-conflicting concerns. However, the Covid-19 pandemic is nothing if not peculiar, and that has made these demonstrations extra noisy. “Let’s face it, what we’ve been hearing is pretty vague as science goes. We don’t know a lot about the virus, or its transmission, or its impact on the human body,” says James Jasper, who studies the emotions of protest at City University of New York. “There are a lot of holes there, into which people can project their own suspicions and assumptions about how the world works.” In other words, these gatherings are Conspiracy Theory: The Protest Movement, as likely to appeal to anti-vaxxers as far-right militia members.
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That’s no accident. The uncertainty around Covid-19 pretty much actively encourages conspiracy-minded thinking. According to Pew Research Center, three in 10 Americans believe Covid-19 was cooked up in a lab. Most people who believe in one conspiracy theory believe in several, so, on the right, they have coalesced around a kind of anti-science, anti-government, pro-gun, pro-nationalism worldview that sees itself as perennially under threat. “It’s the same kind of dynamic that applies to things like climate change. It’s the same ideological playbook,” says Devin Burghart, executive director of the Institute for Research and Education on Human Rights. “That’s why they’re happening so quickly.” The protests, the demonstrators, the supportive Fox News commentators, it was all a prebaked sure bet. Naison calls them “a poor man’s Trump rally” and opines that the president’s all-caps support of them on Twitter may be as simple as him missing that positive attention, especially in an election year.
It is vitally important not to be falsely equivalent here: Most Americans will never shrug off social-distancing guidelines and take to the streets. The protests are unpopular, even among (non-MAGA-hatted) conservatives. But, after speaking with the organizers of multiple Facebook groups, Burghart found that being well-liked by the average citizen is not one of their goals. “It’s not about the public,” Burghart says. “They are laser-focused on moving legislators.” According to Naison, the main power of the “white resentment ethos” that drives events like anti-lockdown protests is to elect. Last week's events are just a modern permutation of an identity crisis with roots very deep in America’s individualist history. Finding a coherent narrative in such a layered situation is a puzzle—one that ultimately has very little to do with Covid-19 or quarantines. “They can’t take over,” Naison says. “But they’ve always been around.” Right now, they’re just around each other more than is safe.