April 16 at 5:46 PM
In this edition: The stay-at-home culture wars start in Michigan, “you can temporarily take away my speedboat, but you can never take away my freedom.”

The organizers of Wednesday’s “Operation Gridlock,” a protest of the strict stay-at-home policies ordered by Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer (D), had urged protesters “stay in your vehicle[s] and practice safe hygiene.” Most of the protesters did so, circling the state Capitol building in Lansing and leaning on their horns in a caravan that stretched back to the highway. “No carpooling,” the Michigan Conservative Coalition advised in an email, “since gas is cheap!”

But a few dozen protesters took it further, gathering on the Capitol steps to defy the state’s social distancing orders. They gave speeches. They held up signs — “Recall Whitmer,” “Heil Witmer” (sic), “Stop the Tyranny,” and “Trump/Pence.” For a few seconds, they broke into a chant of “lock her up!”

The Michigan protest wasn’t the first rally against pandemic restrictions. There were protests in Ohio on April 9 and 13, a protest in Raleigh organized by ReOpenNC, and more rallies planned in New Hampshire and Virginia. Republican politicians, while not in attendance in the rallies, have begun talking more openly about letting people return to work even if the coronavirus spreads further.

Uncertainty and fear over the economic impact of stay-at-home orders is fueling a sort of culture war between conservatives, whose political strength now comes from rural America, right now less affected by the virus, and liberals, whose urban strongholds have been most affected by it.

“I feel that most of America feels the way that we do right now,” said Garrett Soldano, the founder of the Michiganders Against Excessive Quarantine Facebook group, on a Wednesday live stream for its 350,000 members. “Keeping healthy people at home is tyranny.” (According to polling, the vast majority of Americans remain nervous about reopening businesses if there is a threat of spreading infection.)

Whitmer called the restrictions “absolutely necessary with the path that we are on” and continued to defend them as groups such as Soldano’s planned civil disobedience. On Wednesday, after the rally wound down, Whitmer gave her regular update on the crisis in front of a chart of infection patterns for the 1918 flu pandemic. Lifting restrictions too early, she warned, would risk another wave of infections, and another lockdown.

“I understand the frustration that people are feeling. I’m frustrated, too,” Whitmer said. “As tough as this is right now, we know we don’t want to go through this again.”

In multiple segments this week, Fox News host Tucker Carlson suggested Whitmer’s “authoritarian” orders were designed to help her in the veepstakes. During an online “Women for Trump” event, RNC Chair Ronna McDaniel, who previously ran the party in Michigan, claimed that Whitmer had “turned this crisis into a platform to run for vice president.” At Wednesday’s protest, conservatives who spoke took as given that Whitmer was angling for a bigger job and that it would backfire.

“I think her approval ratings today are about 10 percent, maybe lower,”  conservative radio host Steve Gruber on the live stream. “Gretchen Whitmer is putting Michigan back in Donald Trump’s win column for 2020.”

“We’re to the point where the state is restricting every move we make,” said Ashley Smith, a co-founder of ReOpenNC and a participant in this week’s protest in Raleigh, which was held in person outside of the building where Cooper was meeting with advisers. “We need to consider how we’ve behaved in every other viral outbreak. These decisions have been based on models, not actual data.”

The president himself, while critical of some Democratic governors, did not comment on the first waves of protests. But uncertainty over the White House’s plans, from an abandoned idea to waive restrictions by Easter to a confusing set of business advisory groups, has led to greater uncertainty about when it would be safe to work and shop again. That uncertainty has mobilized conservatives and Republicans in the states. Like the tea party protests of 2009, the “reopen” protests were heavily touted on conservative radio and Fox News, which helped fuel turnout, which then became part of the story.

Some of the same people and organizations that mobilized around the tea party have celebrated the protests — the drive-by actions, if not the in-person rallies. (“I support their First Amendment rights,” said Evan Oudekirk, one of the protesters in a car, “but that was a foolish decision.”) According to Adam Brandon, the president of the conservative grass-roots group FreedomWorks, a poll of 70,000 members found that 19 percent had been laid off since the start of the pandemic and 20 percent had seen their hours reduced, and some of them had been mobilizing in protest.

“It’s really similar to the DNA of the tea party movement,” Brandon said. “No one I know is saying this is a sham, that the virus is fake. But I do hear small-business owners say, hey, I was forced to shut down, but my business doesn’t even require me to get close to customers. And the whole idea that you can have ‘essential’ and ‘nonessential’ businesses is funny to me. Every business is essential, or else it wouldn’t exist.”

“It may be that when people go back to work that they wear a mask and gloves for some period of time, to limit the spread of disease,” Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas said yesterday.

The protests have been less measured. On his Wednesday live stream, Soldano talked to one quarantine skeptic who warned that the restrictions on Michigan’s housing supply and gardening stores were in sync with Agenda21, a U.N. plan for sustainable development that for years has been seen on the right as a plot to restrict freedom. (The caller warned of “moving people from rural settings into urban settings, and the government taking over food supplies.”) Soldano suggested that if restrictions lifted, protesters could enter “phase two” of their plan, holding rallies and campaigning to “strip not only the Michigan governor, but other governors, of the right to do this again.” There was even a push to recall Whitmer, which would require more than 1 million valid signatures collected over 60 days.

“As a Jewish American who lost family in the Holocaust, I’m offended by any comparison to Nazism,” he said. “We act to save lives — the exact opposite of the slaughter of 6 million Jews and many Gypsies and Catholics and gays and lesbians and Russians and so many others.”

In Michigan, Democrats pointed to the more jarring sights at Wednesday’s rally to stoke skepticism about the protesters’ demands. At least two protesters — one with the “Heil Witmer” sign, one with a Nazi-saluting dummy made up to look like the governor — compared the governor to a fascist. And the multitude of Trump campaign flags, signs and merchandise led to Whitmer criticizing the rally, as a distraction from the issue it was designed to highlight: when to reopen Michigan.