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The movement against coronavirus lockdowns is still going — and still angry.

This isn’t an astroturf movement. These populists deeply distrust elites for leaving them behind.

- August 6, 2020

As U.S. coronavirus cases break daily records this summer, anti-lockdown protesters maintain that the prevention is worse than the disease. Michigan has been one hot spot for these protests. They began in April after Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer issued a “stay at home” order on March 23, and continued through June 1. Those protests built on a network of populist organizing dating from the tea party and continuing through the 2016 Trump campaign.

Michigan’s coronavirus case count declined during the shutdown, and the governor has lifted many restrictions. Despite the mounting evidence about public health measures’ effectiveness at limiting the virus’s toll, the anti-lockdown movement continues. Currently, opponents are circulating a petition to repeal the state’s 1940s-era Emergency Powers Act and limit Whitmer’s power to continue restrictions.

What lies behind this steadfast opposition? My research suggests that anti-lockdown protesters are motivated by long-standing distrust of elite institutions and policy, which informs their populist identities.

How I did my research

From 2016 through 2018, I interviewed and observed 170 supporters of left and right populist movements and leaders in northern Michigan and Buenos Aires. Despite quite different ideologies and national cultures, participants described their beliefs similarly. They came to realize that information from the media, politicians and schools could not be trusted, because they were run by powerful elites with interests opposed to those of ordinary people. Several aspects of the populist identity identified in my research are also prominent in the Michigan anti-lockdown movement.

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The Michigan anti-lockdown movement

In mid-April, a number of people opposing the Michigan shutdown launched Facebook pages. One prominent page was Michiganders Against Excessive Quarantining, started by Garrett Soldano, a chiropractor who owns his practice. At its peak, it had 380,000 followers sharing stories about how the shutdown adversely affected their businesses and mental health, as well as petitions and information about protests.

After Facebook removed the page for violating community standards, Soldano created Stand Up Michigan, a new political group with its own Facebook page, podcast, the Unlock Michigan petition, and a series of “Freedom rallies” supporting small businesses’ ability to operate without restrictions.

Another small business owner, jeweler Anthony DiMaggio, organized the first major protest at the state capitol, called “Operation Gridlock,” which was promoted by several pro-Trump Republican groups. Similarly named pages and protests spread to other states and on April 17, President Trump tweeted “LIBERATE MICHIGAN!”

Conservative groups and activists joined in. The anti-government Michigan Militia helped barber Karl Manke reopen, defying shutdown orders. Activist Rob Cortis, who in 2016 drove his spangled 30-foot Trump-themed float to rallies in dozens of states, became a regular fixture at anti-lockdown protests.

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Are powerful conservative elites behind the movement?

Some media analysts have argued that elites are behind the protests, especially Trump, conservative media and well-funded conservative organizations. But that doesn’t explain why organizers such as Soldano and DiMaggio remain so deeply involved, or why thousands of people regularly comment on the movement’s Facebook pages.

Here’s what does: These protesters’ populist political identities. First, populists believe that elite rhetoric and policy are hypocritical, leaving behind the interests of everyday people and benefiting the wealthy and well-connected. Second, populists believe that the media and society at large deride their values — in this case, conservative, rural, Christian values — giving their identities a transgressive quality.

Populists believe that elites are hypocrites

Many posts on the movement’s Facebook pages have complained that Michiganders were mandated to stay home without a plan to protect workers or small businesses. Meanwhile, the rich and powerful got their money.

Consider a post from the now-shutdown Michiganders Against Excessive Quarantining Facebook page, written as a dialogue between the “Government” and the “People.” After being asked to stay home, the People say: “Uh, ok. We don’t want people to die. But we have bills to pay. Our businesses are going to be destroyed.” Later, the People say that they are still awaiting their unemployment and were denied small business loans, adding, “Weird, it seems like a lot of the businesses that got relief were already really big companies.”

This criticism of the Paycheck Protection Program and the coronavirus relief bills echoes similar discontent over the bailout of big banks and homeowners after the 2008 economic crisis — discontent that helped prompt both Occupy Wall Street and the tea party. Populists interpreted these policies as evidence that no matter what politicians say, they’re really serving the wealthy and powerful.

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Populists believe the culture is biased against them

To many conservatives, Whitmer’s initial shutdown orders seemed to dismiss their interests, with bans on such things as attending church, fishing and selling gardening supplies. Those frustrations are visible on protest signs saying things like “Nature is Essential” and “Churches are Essential.”

After politicians, medical professionals and the media critiqued anti-lockdown protests as ignorant and irresponsible, protesters were incensed when Black Lives Matter protests were praised, often by the very same critics. A promotional video from Stand Up Michigan features audio clips of Whitmer expressing her “disappointment” in those that attended “Operation Gridlock,” overlaid on images of her shoulder-to-shoulder with activists at a local BLM protest.

Protesters view the removal of anti-lockdown Facebook pages, posts and YouTube videos as yet more evidence that elites silence conservatives. In addition, organizers warn of nefarious intruders, like members of rival Facebook page “Michiganders Against Michiganders Against Excessive Quarantining,” which reposts and mocks postings from the original group.

All of this makes some involved in the movement feel transgressive, as when Hillary Clinton’s “deplorable” comment invigorated some supporters of Trump’s 2016 campaign. When Facebook shut his page down, Soldano posted a video declaring that “this just threw a tremendous amount of gasoline on the fuel of my liberty.”

What does this mean?

The populist features of the anti-lockdown movement suggest that convincing skeptical Americans to follow government health directives will be difficult. People whose identities are strongly based in distrust of elites who don’t seem to act in their interests are not likely to begin to trust voices telling them to make hard sacrifices in a crisis.

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Rachel Meade is a lecturer in American politics at Boston University.