Anti-Lockdown Protests Backed by Conservative Organizations With Trump Ties

“My rights don’t end where your fear begins,” read a sign at a rally in San Diego on Sunday.

“FREE HUGS,” read another in Tampa, Florida. 

Chanting and waving American flags, extremists across the nation (scratch, across the world) continue to storm state Capitols, march or drive to rage against the COVID-19 shelter-in-place orders.

The protesters—this week, armed—argue that they must go back to work, that wearing masks is overkill, that they are losing their God-given rights.

And they’re backed by GOP support—with one Republican politician even suggesting wearing scrubs to the rallies to mock healthcare workers, most of whom understandably worry about a premature reopen.

“Planning protest to #ReOpenAmerica? EVERYONE wear scrubs & masks – the media doesn’t care if you are really in healthcare or not – it’s the ‘message” that matters!'” Sen. Kelli Ward, head of the Republican Party in Arizona, tweeted.

And that Republican support goes all the way to the top: In the U.S., at least, these protests have not come about organically, but are rather carefully organized by local and national conservative organizations—many with connections to the Trump administration.

The New York Times reports,

“Similarities in online organizing efforts behind different protests have sparked accusations that they are not, in fact, organic grass-roots campaigns, but ‘astroturfing’ efforts that are manipulated by Washington conservatives to appear locally driven.”

So who are these organizations?

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Nationally, the Reopen America PAC fights to open up the country as a whole, with individual states adopting the “Reopen” language.

(One of the group’s administrators, Audrey Whitlock, ironically tested positive for coronavirus after helping to organize an April 21 protest in North Carolina. When asked whether she attended the protest, Whitlock replied, “No comment.”)

Some groups focus organization efforts regionally. For example, the April 16 “Operation Gridlock” event in Lansing, Michigan, was hosted by the Michigan Conservative Coalition and Michigan Freedom Fund—two groups that often voice praise for the president.

The Save Our Country “Task Force” is much larger than those previously mentioned—propped up by conservative groups like the FreedomWorks Foundation, the American Legislative Exchange Council, the Tea Party Patriots and the Committee to Unleash Prosperity. An “activity map” is featured on the “task force’s” website so viewers can find local protests to join. The individual organizations also include lists of protests and events.

Stephen Moore, a conservative economics commentator in close relations with White House officials, has been closely working with the Save Our Country extremists. 

Facebook has pushed back against these groups, taking down some (but not all) protest advertisements, since they encourage breaking social distancing guidelines.

In contrast, the president has expressed support for the protesters, calling them “very good people,” and encouraging Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer to “talk to them” and “make a deal.”

Historically, too, Trump has propped up the organizations—even complimenting Turning Point USA (TPUSA), one conservative group that focuses on “turning” young university students and has been tweeting support of the ongoing protests.

Ms. reported in its Winter 2020 issue on TPUSA’s close ties to Trump:

As a 501(c)(3) organization, TPUSA is required to be nonpartisan … but with the list of speakers at its annual conference and featured on its website—including Donald Trump Jr. and Lara Trump, Eric Trump’s wife, among other Trump-associated figures—it appears to be anything but. The group’s president, Charlie Kirk, spoke at the Republican National Convention in 2016 and campaigned for then-candidate Donald Trump. Moreover, TPUSA’s Campus Victory Project brochure says its goal is to “target … over 100 critical universities in ‘swing states’ before 2020,” including Florida, Ohio, Arizona, North Carolina, Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania.

Further, the ideologies fueling these protests align with the president’s coronavirus response, like anti-Asian rhetoric, as well as his more general conservative points—and could very well be impacting discussions decisions coming from the White House.

White protesters waving Confederate flags and dancing in blackface also reveal the blatantly racist aspect of these events, with ideology rooted in white supremacy.

This perhaps explains how protestors can ignore that re-opening states too early will ultimately hurt the most vulnerable communities, like immunocompromised citizens and black Americans, who are dying from the disease at higher rates than other racial groups.

The protestors’ eagerness to get back to business as usual is understandable: Over 30 million workers have filed for unemployment since the pandemic began, and the U.S. economy struggles to stay afloat in the midst of a pandemic.

But, safety comes first. Listening to scientists—and calling out alt-right hate groups—is the only way we can even begin to heal.

The coronavirus pandemic and the response by federal, state and local authorities is fast-movingDuring this time, Ms. is keeping a focus on aspects of the crisis—especially as it impacts women and their families—often not reported by mainstream media. If you found this article helpful, please consider supporting our independent reporting and truth-telling for as little as $5 per month.


Fiona is a journalism student at the University of Southern California. When not in the office nor in class, she is often found photographing her friends, attending local concerts and eating sourdough toast.