People protest against Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s stay-at-home order due to the coronavirus outbreak Wednesday in downtown Lansing, Michigan, at the State Capitol. Matthew Dae Smith/ Lansing State Journal via AP

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 farther.

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.)

Resistance to the stay-at-home orders has grown fastest in Michigan, for two reasons: Whitmer has issued especially strict limits on movement and commerce, and she is increasingly being discussed as a running mate for Joe Biden. One week ago, the governor restricted in-person shopping at outdoor supply stores, the use of motorboats for recreation, and most recreational travel inside the state. The state had absorbed some of the highest infection numbers and the highest job-loss numbers; all of a sudden, it had the toughest regulations on how residents could behave.

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.”

But the buzz around Whitmer’s political future heightened the tension. An image of American flags in the closed-off section of a store fueled the rumor that Whitmer had banned Michiganders from buying flags. (The restrictions require some products to be sold at curbside or online, not banned altogether.) It was just a taste of what was coming for Whitmer, as conservatives used their media platforms to decry her as a political climber and would-be autocrat.

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%, maybe lower,” conservative radio host Steve Gruber said on the live stream. “Gretchen Whitmer is putting Michigan back in Donald Trump’s win column for 2020.”

Whitmer’s approval rating actually had surged since the start of the pandemic, with two-thirds of Michiganders approving of how she was doing her job, though no poll had been released since she ordered the new restrictions. North Carolina’s Roy Cooper and Ohio’s Mike DeWine, a Democrat and a Republican, had also seen big boosts to their personal popularity, right before facing protests outside their offices this week. Even less draconian stay-at-home advisories were leading to business closures and layoffs, sparking a backlash from people who said politicians were sacrificing the economy to tackle a waning threat.

“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.

“They want to keep us away from churches and synagogues. They want to make sure we don’t go back to work,” Fox News personality Jeanine Pirro said on Wednesday. “What happened in Lansing today, God bless them, it’s going to happen all over the country.”

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% had been laid off since the start of the pandemic and 20% 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.”

And while states have begun putting together plans to reopen businesses, some Republican elected officials have also started freelancing, asking whether places with few or no reports of the coronavirus could return to normal. Some it echoes the refrain from last month, when conservatives such as Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, R, argued that at-risk people might be willing to risk infection if it meant their children and grandchildren could open the economy more quickly. Some of it’s more speculative, asking whether some businesses could return in limited capacities, enough to stave off layoffs and despair.

“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, R-Texas, said Wednesday.

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.

Democratic governors, already facing anger that their orders have shut down religious gatherings and businesses, have highlighted the most extreme forms of opposition. Colorado Gov. Jared Polis became emotional this week when a reporter asked about protesters comparing his restrictions to Nazi policies.

“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.

“It wasn’t really about the stay-at-home order at all,” Whitmer said on MSNBC on Wednesday night. “It was essentially a political rally, a political statement that flies in the face of all of the science.”

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