The MAGA hats and Confederate flags tell you all you need to know about most of the protestors who have showed up in state capitals around the country, placards and posters in hand, to demand an end to the restrictive measures -- shutting down schools, closing businesses, enforcing curfews -- meant to curb the spread of the new coronavirus. They usually don't wear masks -- if they do, they are intended to mock the restrictions -- and they stand very close to each other, sweating, yelling, gesturing.
They are conservative voters who are loyal to President Donald J. Trump, skeptical toward science, dismissive of experts and opposed to broad governmental authority. Unless they agree with it. (See above: loyal to Trump.)
But like other right-wing groups that have seemed to spring from grassroots activism -- the Tea Party comes to mind -- the open-up protestors didn't organize organically. They were assisted and encouraged by reactionary big shots who found a way to lure the easily led into supporting their interests. As The Washington Post and other news outlets have reported, these "grassroots" groups have received financial and logistical support from familiar names in the ultraconservative ecosystem, including organizations with ties to the family of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos and the infamous Koch brothers.
Rich Republicans want to see Trump re-elected because he caters to their interests by reducing their taxes, rolling back regulations meant to protect the environment and continuing the assault on the rights of workers. And they understand that a deep economic recession won't help the Trump campaign, so they insist that we all get back to business as usual. Trump, by the way, is pushing the protests, too.
But here's the funny thing: You don't see the rich donors out rubbing shoulders with the hoi polloi at these protests, risking getting sick themselves. They know better. They've locked themselves away at their pricey mansions in the Hamptons or Jackson Hole, Wyoming. They listen to the scientists. They respect the warnings of infectious-disease experts.
As you have no doubt heard, the truth-averse commentators of Fox News and Fox Business spent crucial weeks vigorously denying that the novel coronavirus presented a grave threat, insisting that it would be no worse than the seasonal flu and portraying it as a Democratic campaign to damage Trump. While they were encouraging a broad swath of Americans not to take the crisis seriously, though, the head of the media empire that includes the Fox cable outlets, Rupert Murdoch, was taking the opposite approach. As The New York Times' Ben Smith has reported, because of concerns about the spread of the coronavirus, Murdoch canceled his 89th birthday celebration, which would have been held on March 11 at his lavish estate in Bel Air, California.
One of the more enduring and more mystifying facets of human history is the ease with which the rich and powerful are able to con the poor and powerless into doing their bidding. American history is rife with examples. One of my favorites is the Civil War, in which dirt-poor white farmers and sharecroppers were persuaded to become cannon fodder in the Confederate Army, protecting the interests of wealthy slave-owners. (Many Confederate soldiers were conscripts, but others, rich and poor alike, were volunteers, especially at the outset of the war.) They died protecting an evil institution in which they had no stake.
Some of those joining the protests against curbs on commerce may get infected with the coronavirus, and some may become seriously ill. They may further burden hospitals already trying desperately to keep up with the demands of the pandemic. While COVID-19 struck the urban areas of blue states first, it is now spreading to redder -- and whiter -- parts of the country.
Still, reckless politicians such as the Republican lieutenant governor of Texas, Dan Patrick, have gone as far as to insist that "there are more important things than living," as he told Fox News host Tucker Carlson earlier this week. "Nobody wants to die, but man we gotta take some risks and get back in the game and get this country back up and running."
If Texas reopens soon, Patrick ought to be front and center taking those risks -- buying a beer in a packed bar, sweating it out in a crowded gym, getting a haircut in a busy barbershop. He should lead by example.