The culture wars have come for coronavirus, and a mixed buffet of right-wingers — including armed militias, Proud Boys, QAnon conspiracy theorists, anti-vaxxers, and Infowars — are helping to drive the conversation.
Over the weekend, thousands of protesters in at least 22 states defied stay-at-home orders to rally outside government buildings and demand that officials reopen their economies. There are protests planned in nine more states this week.
While a lot of the protesters are frustrated Americans reacting emotionally to the soaring unemployment numbers resulting from lockdown measures, their numbers are bolstered by some conspiracy-oriented groups bringing fringe messaging into the conversation.
Patriot or militia types have claimed that lockdown measures are an encroachment on their civil liberties, and anti-American, since the coronavirus crisis hit the U.S. That idea has since been dominant at several protests.
At a nearly 1,000-strong protest in Salt Lake City, organizer and former cop Eric Moutsos told the crowd “We have to let government officials know, with our voice, that it’s ‘We the People’ and not ‘They the Government.’” One protester, a stay-at-home mom, was holding a poster that said “Give me liberty or give me death,” according to KSL. “I believe liberty is worth dying for,” she told the local news station.
Fringe right-wingers have also been fear-mongering around impending martial law, or that lockdowns are the first sign of fascist control. The Pentagon has tried to stay ahead of some of these conspiracies. Last month, they set up a dedicated “rumor control” page on the Department of Homeland Security website to debunk or explain conspiracies through answering FAQs like, “Is FEMA deploying the Military?”, “Is FEMA seizing medical supplies” or “Is DHS deploying the national guard.”
Still, protesters across the country brought out signs that likened lockdown measures to fascism. At the #OperationGridlock protest in Michigan last week, some protesters had signs that compared Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer to Adolf Hitler.
Anti-vaxxers have also played a central role drumming up distrust and confusion around coronavirus. Bizarre claims about 5G causing COVID-19, or that evil government forces (or Bill Gates) will use the crisis as an excuse to launch a mass-vaccination campaign, have made their way from the fringes. A pair of anti-vaxxers were also behind the viral #FireFauci hashtag, calling on Trump to get rid of top infectious disease expert Dr. Anthony Fauci and replace him with Dr. Shiva Ayyadurai, a conspiracy theorist known for peddling unscientific remedies.
At a protest in Austin, Texas on Saturday, which was organized by Infowars host Owen Shroyer, people chanted “Fire Fauci.” One woman held a sign saying “Make Texas great again! Please open everything!” according to the New York Times. Her seven-year-old daughter held a sign saying “Bill gates can keep his poison — I’m homeschooled! No Mandatory vaccines.”
Infowars chief Alex Jones, who was put on notice by the FDA earlier this month for peddling fake coronavirus cures, was also in attendance.
Anti-vaxx messaging has been a mainstay of other protests across the country. At a protest in Ohio on Friday — the second there in the space of a week — people carried signs saying “No forced vaccinations.” One person in the crowd shouted, “Today it’s stay in your homes, tomorrow it’s take this vaccine or go to jail,” the Daily Record reported.
Members of Proud Boys, a far-right street-fighting gang, were spotted at a protest in Denver over the weekend, and at last week's protest in Michigan where they were seen flashing the “OK” sign in photos with a Republican candidate for state office.
And QAnon signs were also hoisted at some protests, including an event on Sunday in Olympia, Washington, which drew thousands out of their homes.
Mainstream Republicans aren’t exactly helping matters — in fact some, including the president, appear to be directly encouraging this rebellion. Conservative interest groups linked to Education Secretary Betsy Devos’ family spearheaded the #OperationGridlock protest in Lansing, Michigan last week. A trio of right-wing gun activists have helped organize protests in Wisconsin, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and New York, according to the Washington Post. Some elected officials or candidates for political office have even joined the fray. A city commissioner is under pressure to resign after she joined protesters in Michigan last week. A state lawmaker in Maine plans to join a protest Monday.
Trump gave an explicit thumbs up to the movement from the Oval Office after he apparently watched a segment on Fox News about the protests on Friday. He sent out three tweets calling to “LIBERATE MINNESOTA” and other states that had participated in demonstrations that week.
Fringe extremists saw his tweets as a call to arms. According to NBC, tweets mentioning QAnon conspiracy theories or the term “boogaloo” (used by the far-right to refer to an uprising or civil war) skyrocketed after Trump’s tweets.
By Monday, the social media crackdown on anti-lockdown events was already in motion. Facebook removed pages for protests in California, New Jersey, and Nebraska after consultation with state governments, CNN reported.
Over the weekend, the coronavirus death toll in the U.S. surpassed 40,000 with nearly 755,000 confirmed cases.
Cover: Hundreds gather to protest the state's stay-at-home order, at the Capitol building on April 19, 2020 in Olympia, Washington. Washington state Gov. Jay Inslee instituted the order last month in an effort to slow the spread of the coronavirus (COVID-19). (Photo by Karen Ducey/Getty Images)