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Tue 11 August 2020
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CJ Werleman on the ‘liberation’ protests being held in some American states demanding an end to social distancing measures to help combat the COVID-19 pandemic.

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It turns out there are two viruses ravaging the United States simultaneously: COVID-19 and MAGA-20. 

Whereas the former is spread by person-to-person contact, the latter is transmitted across the airwaves of the right-wing media ecosystem. Whereas COVID-19 is causing a wartime level of death and destruction, MAGA-20 is sowing unnecessary chaos and confusion which, in turn, will be contributing to even more death and destruction. Whereas COVID-19 can be contained only by science and sacrifice, MAGA-20 is constructed entirely on anti-science and selfishness.

As the country approaches 40,000 deaths and one million Coronavirus infections, an umbrella of conservative far-right groups, commonly known as the pro-Trump “MAGA [Make America Great Again] movement” are holding protests in growing numbers all over the US, demanding an end to stay-at-home and social distancing measures.

From Austin, Texas, to Huntington Beach, California; from Lansing, Michigan, to Baltimore, Maryland, the MAGA mob is demanding that the country be reopened and its top infectious disease expert fired, while chanting “COVID-19 is a hoax”, “where are the bodies?” and other conspiracies that question the reality of the pandemic.

These protests haven’t sprouted up organically, but rather with the backing and mobilisation of white supremacist groups, right-wing militias, religious fundamentalists, and anti-vaccination groups – and now enjoy the support of the President.

“LIBERATE VIRGINIA, and save your great 2nd Amendment. It is under siege,” tweeted Donald Trump on Friday evening, before adding, “LIBERATE MICHIGAN!” and “LIBERATE MINESOTA!”

If you read this as the President urging American citizens to violate the laws of their home states and violently overthrow their elected leaders in the middle of a global pandemic, then you read this right. It constitutes a flagrant violation of his oath of office and further illustrates how Trump has become the country’s number one security threat.

It would be one thing were Trump’s moments of madness universally dismissed as the ramblings of a madman, but it is another thing entirely when his every destructive whim is given life and legitimacy on the country’s most watched cable news channel – Fox News.

“How many of those who urged our govt to help liberate the Iraqis, Syrians, Kurds, Afghanis etc. are as committed now to liberating Virginia, Minnesota, California, etc?” tweeted Fox News host Laura Ingraham a moment after Trump’s “Liberate” tweet storm.

Sticking with this “war” against Democratic-held states, Alex Jones, founder of the far-right conspiracy website InfoWars, compared stay-at-home orders to Nazism, calling this a “21st Century war” against “tyrants”. While Stephen Moore, a senior economic advisor to the President, compared protestors to legendary African American civil rights activist Rosa Parks.

On the same day as more than 4,500 Americans died of COVID-19-related causes, Fox News rolled out America’s favourite crank television doctors – Dr Phil and Dr Oz – to downplay and minimise the deaths and compare the virus to non-contagious risks, such as drowning and automobile accidents, while urging a relaxation of social distancing measures because – wait for it – the deaths of 2-3% of American children is an acceptable price to pay to restart the economy.

The network is now putting its full support behind the protestors, including giving regular updates to its audience regarding the location and dates of future protests.


‘Patriotic Heroes’

It is now almost impossible to foresee how the US recovers from this pandemic. COVID-19 has exposed the strengths and weaknesses of countries. Nations with highly effective leaders, robust healthcare systems and high degrees of social cohesion are meeting the challenge, but those without are collapsing before our very eyes in real time.

Social cohesion is arguably most critical in fighting a pandemic, but it can only be attained and maintained when people trust their government, scientists and experts, while sharing a collective respect for the community. 

For Americans, the problem here is multifaceted.

Firstly, the US is a ‘me’ country, not a ‘we’ country; a nation where “rugged individualism” is lauded in folklore, but notions portending to collective responsibility are derided as European or a sneaky form of socialism. Secondly, and from a cultural perspective, the US isn’t a singular country. It is four countries pretending to be one. Your typical Manhattan-based New Yorker has more in common, politically and socially, with a Londoner or Melbournian than a typical Texan.

Moreover, Americans rarely, if ever, experience the collective joy of uniting behind a singular patriotic cause. For instance, when Britons, Europeans, Australians, Asians, Africans and South Americans dream of holding aloft the World Cup in football, rugby or cricket, they imagine a contest between Germany and Brazil; Australia and New Zealand; or England and France. For Americans, a “world championship” is a contest between the Los Angeles Lakers and Boston Celtics, or New Orleans Saints and Baltimore Ravens. 

It is for this reason that pro-Trump and Confederate flag-waving protests against social distancing measures – which are meant to keep the nation safe from a deadly virus – are taking place in the US. Placards reading “Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death” reveals much about the ingrained selfishness in the American psyche.

These self-destructive, anti-social distancing protests would never have gathered momentum, however, had the Republican Party not spent the past two decades making anti-science and anti-intellectualism a cornerstone of its messaging strategy. Through the party’s media arm – Fox News – the right has waged a concerted war on truth, giving voice to those who question the science behind vaccinations, climate change, evolution, and COVID-19 – at the same time as amplifying an array of racist and xenophobic conspiracies.

It is not for nothing that studies show that Fox News viewers know less about current affairs than those who watch no news at all; and that Republican Party voters are twice as likely to believe COVID-19 conspiracies than Democratic Party voters.

It is difficult to imagine that these protests won’t gather steam over the summer, given that Trump and Fox News are praising the protestors as “patriotic” and “heroes”, which will increase turnout and put pressure on governors to reopen states prematurely. It is likely that, the longer this pandemic runs, the more unhinged and reckless Trump will become.

“Trump wants to reopen the country because he cares about the economy more than public health,” writes Windsor Mann, USA Today’s editor-in-chief. “But he cares about the economy only because he cares about his re-election. And he cares about his re-election because he cares about not going to prison.”

According to Harvard University, the Trump Administration will have to increase the rate of COVID-19 testing by a factor of three to four before it is in a position of even considering a nationwide relaxing of social distancing measures and stay-at-home orders, with another study finding that the US will need to conduct two million tests per day before life can return to normal. Currently, the US is conducting only 130-150,000 tests a day – a rate that hasn’t increased in weeks.

New cases are also exploding in the US ‘heartland’ states, places that have resisted implementing stay-at-home orders, mostly because Trump declared them “safe” from COVID-19 as a result of their “large open spaces”. But, in the last week, Oklahoma has seen a 53% increase in cases, with Arkansas, Nebraska, Iowa and South Dakota registering a 60%, 74%, 82% and 205% increase, respectively, according to John Hopkins University.

The longer Trump can’t control the narrative, can’t create an alternate reality, can’t control the governors, can’t control the slumping economy, can’t control his crashing poll numbers, and thus his political fate in November, the more likely he will return to fermenting violence, repeating calls to “liberate” blue states. It is worth remembering that the US was in the midst of a MAGA-led domestic terrorism crisis in the years leading up to the COVID-19 pandemic, as evident by the fact that all 51 terrorist attacks on US soil since end of 2017 were carried out by right-wing extremists.

The MAGA virus is likely to be around long after the threat of COVID-19 has passed and long after Trump has left the White House. Right-wing media sites are already rehearsing conspiracies to explain Trump’s possible defeat in November at the hands of a Democratic Party-led ‘deep state’ plot or coup. How the United States escapes both of these deadly viruses is anybody’s guess.


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