Saturday, April 25, 2020

At the "Reopen America" Protests, Vilifying Health Care Professionals to Protect the New Robber Barons

After the Trump administration's delayed and ineffectual efforts at containment failed (see relevant coverage here, here, here, here), the curve of exponentially increasing coronavirus cases and deaths may finally have started flattening due to social distancing.  The first responders, health care professionals and hospitals in the reddest zone, New York City, may be slightly less besieged.  But the pandemic is hardly over.

Vilifying Health Care Who Objected to Prematurely "Reopening" the Country

Nonetheless, supposedly popular protests, albeit very small, broke out calling for the end of onerous social distancing measures, ostensibly to let the economy recover.  President Trump then jumped in, suddenly called for the "liberation" of multiple states from these  measures. As the Washington Post reported on April 17, 2020

President Trump encouraged protesters in Minnesota, Michigan and Virginia who are defying social distancing orders to rally against the states’ safety measures intended to stop the coronavirus spread.

In back-to-back tweets Friday morning, Trump wrote: 'LIBERATE MINNESOTA' and then, 'LIBERATE MICHIGAN' and then, 'LIBERATE VIRGINIA, and save your great 2nd Amendment. It is under siege!'

It’s unclear why Trump seems to be siding with the protesters given that the states in question have imposed restrictions that follow the recommendations laid out by Trump’s White House coronavirus task force last month that go by the name 'The President’s Coronavirus Guidelines For America.'

When the guidelines were released, Trump urged all Americans to follow them for the sake of the country.

Never mind that prematurely ending pandemic suppression efforts would mainly liberate the virus to infect people at exponentially increasing rates.

The protests to "reopen" the states were met by small, peaceful counter-protests by health care professionals.  For their pains, they were vilified.

Four examples follow, in chronological order by the dates of the relevant reports:

Colorado

Per the Guardian, April 20, 2020

As protesters gathered outside the capitol steps and others assembled in their automobiles to ask the city to reopen for business, healthcare workers stood in the middle of the road in their scrubs. After having spent the last weeks treating Covid-19 patients, they staged their own demonstration: they wanted to remind the protesters of why the shutdown measures are important.

One protester in particular did not like it. She leaned out of her car window, wearing an American flag T-shirt, holding a placard that read 'land of the free'. Then, she yelled to the protester wearing scrubs: 'This is a free country. This is the land of the free. Go to China!'

She appeared to be expressing the view that closing down non-essential services in the US is equivalent to the actions of a communist state, as she continued: 'If you want communism, go to China. Now open up and go to work.'

Pennsylvania

Per the Pennsylvania Post, April 20, 2020

Armed with nothing but signs and science, half a dozen medical workers from across the state showed up near the capitol in Harrisburg on Monday to counter the message of hundreds of 'ReOpen PA' protesters calling for an end to coronavirus restrictions.

The small group of health care workers told people participating in the larger rally to go home to keep their loved ones safe. But they made their point from a distance.

However,

Anti-shut down protesters yelled at the nurses and physician assistants as they drove by. Some held up American or Gadsden flags to block the medical workers’ signs. Some angrily reminded the health care workers that they were lucky they were working.

'You have a job!' one protester screamed at Katrina Rectenwald, a 36-year-old registered nurse who works at a Pittsburgh hospital.

North Carolina

Per the Charlotte News-Observer, April 22, 2020

Tuesday morning, about 1,000 people converged on downtown Raleigh to protest in an effort to get Gov. Roy Cooper to reopen the state. North Carolina has been closed since March when he issued a stay-at-home order and closed schools and non-essential businesses due to the spread of the coronavirus.

[Amber] Brown, an oncology nurse practitioner, was there as the opposition.

Then

Brown arrived in Raleigh wearing a mask, goggles and a blue protective gown with the phrase 'Rally Together and Die Alone' written on it. As she maneuvered through the crowd of protesters, the hostility and heckling started when another counter-protester grabbed her arm and said, 'You’re with us.'

In front of the Legislative Building, other medical professionals dressed in scrubs, masks and lab coats awaited the ReOpen NC protesters. So Brown found a spot and stood there in a silent protest.

Protesters converged on her, first attacking her weight. Some called her a strain on the healthcare system, saying obesity kills more people than the coronavirus. But she stood strong.

'I didn’t say anything,' Brown said. 'I had a message, and I think it was pretty clear. I didn’t think I needed to say any words. When people are in a mob like that and they are angry and screaming, there is no reasoning with them. I wasn’t going to change their mind. I wasn’t there for them, I was there for my patients.'

She said she felt threatened. There were Raleigh police officers there, but Brown said there were not many counter-protesters. A dispute could have escalated quickly.

Arizona

Per the Arizona Republic, April 22, 2020

On Monday, [ICU nurse Lauren] Leander showed up at the Capitol, to serve as a counterweight to the hundreds of protesters demanding that Gov. Doug Ducey immediately reopen the economy.

To serve as a reminder that though jobs are at stake and that’s certainly important, so, too, are lives.

As The Republic’s Richard Ruelas described it, 'She would spend the next few hours standing silent, her facial expressions partly hidden behind her medical mask. Her body standing rigid in surgical scrubs.'

For that, she was insulted, scorned and generally screamed at by flag-waving protesters, some of whom carried signs about an overblown crisis and a 'pretend-demic'.

Note that not only was Ms Leander vilified at the protest, she was vilified on the internet by the Arizona State Republican Party Chairwoman

And, of course, by state GOP Chairwoman Kelli Ward, whose go-to response to anything with which she disagrees is to cry 'fake'.

Cue her Tuesday morning tweet, responding to nurses showing up to counter protests across the country: 'EVEN IF these 'spontaneously' appearing ppl at protests against govt overreach (sporting the same outfits, postures, & facial expressions) ARE involved in healthcare - when they appeared at rallies, they were actors playing parts. #Propaganda #FakeOutrage'

I’m guessing Leander, after a few 12-hour shifts working to save patients struck down by COVID-19, would tell you that her outrage at the prospect of reopening the state too soon is anything but fake.

In four states over a few days health care professionals were vilified by protesters calling for the premature "reopening" of the country.  A nurse was personally vilified by a local political notable, the state Chair of the Republican Party.  Why would people supposedly advocating for relaxing social distancing specifically to improve the economy and help working people and small businesses be so hostile to the health care professionals who would help them were they to get sick?

The answer appears to be that these protests were driven by political extremism more than worries about the economic misfortunes of working people and small businesses.

Trump and His Allies Had Previously Suggested the Acceptability of Attacking Health Care and Public Health Professionals

In the days leading up to these events, Trump and his enablers had pointed the ways towards the vilification health care and public health professionals.

Public Health Experts Who Created Statistical Models of the Pandemic Accused of Being Part of a "Deep-State" Plot

On March 27, 2020, the Washington Post published an article stating

In recent days, a growing contingent of Trump supporters have pushed the narrative that health experts are part of a deep-state plot to hurt Trump’s reelection efforts by damaging the economy and keeping the United States shut down as long as possible. Trump himself pushed this idea in the early days of the outbreak, calling warnings on coronavirus a kind of 'hoax' meant to undermine him.

Note that the notion of a "deep state" is a commonly heard conspiracy theory that members of the government bureaucracy are pursuing a independent agenda that includes a political vendetta against Trump and his followers. Trump then went on to validate the notion that the epidemiologists' models were "hoaxes"

On Thursday night, Trump cast doubt on experts’ projections on those as well. 'I have a feeling that a lot of the numbers that are being said in some areas are just bigger than they’re going to be,' Trump told Fox News host Sean Hannity in a phone interview. 'I don’t believe you need 40,000 or 30,000 ventilators. You know, you go into major hospitals, sometimes they’ll have two ventilators, and now all of a sudden they’re saying, ‘Can we order 30,000 ventilators?’'


Trump Accused Physicians Protesting the Lack of Personal Protective Equipment in Hospitals as  Seeking Media Fame

On April 11, the (UK) Independent reported that at his daily coronavirus press conference, Trump confronted CNN reporter Jim Acosta who had asked about physicians' complaints that they lacked sufficient testing and equipment, including personal protective equipment (PPE):

Acosta referred to doctors and other medical officials who have vented their frustrations about the dearth of essential equipment on CNN.

The president hit back: 'A lot of it is fake news.'

Acosta said: 'Doctors and medical officers come on our air and say ‘we don’t have enough tests, we don’t have enough masks’.'

Mr Trump chipped in: 'Well yeah, depending on your air they are always going to say that because otherwise, you are not going to put them on.'

Trump directly accused  health care professionals of lying about the lack of equipment and supplies merely to get media attention.  However, there are many easily found examples for all over the US about the inadequacy of such supplies and equipment.

So given this atmosphere, maybe it should not be a surprise that the "reopen" protests were also attended by political extremists.

The Extremists at the "Reopen" Protests


Presumably, the vilification of health professionals at the "reopen" protests had nothing to do with medicine and public health.  It was likely to be about political extremism, as exemplified by the participation of political extremists at the protests.  Reports suggested the involvement of several groups. 

The Proud Boys

The Anti-Defamation League describes the Proud Boys thus:

Misogynistic, Islamophobic, transphobic and anti-immigration. Some members espouse white supremacist and anti-Semitic ideologies and/or engage with white supremacist groups.

The  Guardian reported on April 17, 2020

Placards identified the Michigan Proud Boys as participants in the vehicle convoy.

The Proud Boys also showed up at the Colorado protest, according to Vice News, April 20, 2020:

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.

Finally, the Proud Boys showed up in Ohio, per the Cleveland Plain Dealer, April 21, 2020:

On Monday, at least one protestor at the Ohio Statehouse wore a Proud Boys T-shirt. The group is described as misogynistic and Islamophobic.

Michigan Liberty Militia

Again according to the Guardian:

Near the state house, local radio interviewed a man who identified himself as 'Phil Odinson'.

In fact the man is Phil Robinson, the prime mover in a group called the Michigan Liberty Militia, whose Facebook page features pictures of firearms, warnings of civil war, celebrations of Norse paganism and memes ultimately sourced from white nationalist groups like Patriot Front.

Ammon Bundy and Associates

Again via the Guardian, April 17, 2020, Bundy was tied to the Idaho protest, which

was also being promoted on a website dedicated to attacking [Idaho Governor] Little for his response to Covid-19. That website was set up by the Idaho businessman, pastor and one-time Republican state senate candidate, Diego Rodriguez.

Rodriguez launched the website at an Easter service held in defiance of the governor’s orders on Easter Sunday, which was also addressed by Ammon Bundy, the leader of the militia occupation of the Malheur national wildlife refuge in 2016 that become a rallying point for the anti-government right in the US.

Bundy has been holding similar gatherings for weeks in Emmett, Idaho, where he now lives. On Sunday, he repeated his opposition to the Idaho orders, writing on Facebook: 'We all have a duty to defend what is right and to make sure, that what God has given, man does not take away. Especially that great gift of agency, YES freedom!'

The Dorr Brothers' Gun Rights Groups

An article in the Washington Post on April 19, 2020 stated:

A trio of far-right, pro-gun provocateurs is behind some of the largest Facebook groups calling for anti-quarantine protests around the country, offering the latest illustration that some seemingly organic demonstrations are being engineered by a network of conservative activists.

The Facebook groups target Wisconsin, Ohio, Pennsylvania and New York, and they appear to be the work of Ben Dorr, the political director of a group called 'Minnesota Gun Rights,' and his siblings, Christopher and Aaron. By Sunday, the groups had roughly 200,000 members combined, and they continued to expand quickly, days after President Trump endorsed such protests by suggesting citizens should 'liberate' their states.

The Dorr brothers manage a slew of pro-gun groups across a wide range of states, from Iowa to Minnesota to New York, and seek primarily to discredit organizations like the National Rifle Association as being too compromising on gun safety. Minnesota Gun Rights, for instance, describes itself as the state’s 'no-compromise gun rights organization.'

In addition,

'Wisconsinites Against Excessive Quarantine' was created on Wednesday by Ben Dorr. His brother Christopher is the creator of 'Pennsylvanians Against Excessive Quarantine,' as well as 'Ohioans Against Excessive Quarantine.' A third brother, Aaron, is the creator of 'New Yorkers Against Excessive Quarantine.'

Various Unknown Anti-Semites

Per Channel 4 in Detroit on April 16, 2020 at the Michigan protest:

Nazi, swastika imagery used just days before Holocaust Remembrance Day


And,

The Jewish Community Relations Council of Detroit (AJC) has publicly condemned the behavior and signage of protestors that participated in 'Operation Gridlock' on Wednesday.

The Cleveland Plain Dealer reported on April 21, 2020:

A photo from Saturday’s stay-at-home protest at the Statehouse is gaining traction on Twitter for its anti-Semitic message.

The photograph captured two men in a minivan. One held a sign with an illustration of rodent with the Star of David on its side and the words 'The Real Plague.'

Participation by white supremacist, neo-Nazi, and extreme gun rights supporter at the "reopen" protests strongly suggests that these protests were more about extremist politics than working people and small businesses concerned mainly with maintaining their livelihoods.

The Plutocrats and Trump Donors Behind the "Reopen" Protests

Furthermore, numerous reports also suggested that the protests were products of political organizations tied to the Trump administration and some of its very rich donors which provided major funding and organizational help.




Michigan Conservative Coalition/ Michigan Trump Republicans

The Guardian reported on April 17, 2020 that the protest in Michigan:

was organized by the Michigan Conservative Coalition, which Michigan state corporate filings show has also operated under the name of Michigan Trump Republicans.

The Washington Post added on April 19, 2020:

Its founders are a Republican state lawmaker and his wife, Meshawn Maddock, who sits on the Trump campaign’s advisory board and is a prominent figure in the 'Women for Trump' coalition.

Michigan Freedom Fund

According to the Guardian, the Michigan protest:

was also heavily promoted by the Michigan Freedom Fund, a group linked to the Trump cabinet member Betsy DeVos.

The Washington Post (April 19) added that:

the Michigan Freedom Fund, ... is headed by Greg McNeilly, a longtime adviser to the DeVos family. He served as campaign manager for Dick DeVos, the husband of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, when he ran unsuccessfully for governor of Michigan in 2006.


Idaho Freedom Foundation

Again, according to the Guardian April 17, 2020 article, the protest in Idaho

has been heavily promoted by the Idaho Freedom Foundation (IFF), which counts among its donors 'dark money' funds linked to the Koch brothers such as Donors Capital Fund, and Castle Rock, a foundation seeded with part of the fortune of Adolph Coors, the rightwing beer magnate.

Convention of States

The Washington Post reported on April 22, 2020:

The ads on Facebook sounded populist and passionate: 'The people are rising up against these insane shutdowns' they said. 'We’re fighting back to demand that our elected officials reopen America.'

But the posts, funded by an initiative called Convention of States, were not the product of a grass-roots uprising alone. Instead, they represented one salvo in a wide-ranging and well-financed conservative campaign to undermine restrictions that medical experts say are necessary to contain the coronavirus — but that protesters call overkill and whose economic fallout could damage President Trump’s political prospects.

A network of right-leaning individuals and groups, aided by nimble online outfits, has helped incubate the fervor erupting in state capitals across the country. The activism is often organic and the frustration deeply felt, but it is also being amplified, and in some cases coordinated, by longtime conservative activists, whose robust operations were initially set up with help from Republican megadonors.

The Convention of States project launched in 2015 with a high-dollar donation from the family foundation of Robert Mercer, a billionaire hedge fund manager and Republican patron. It boasts past support from two members of the Trump administration — Ken Cuccinelli, acting director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, and Ben Carson, secretary of housing and urban development.

Citizens for Self-Governance

The Washington Post also documented

Citizens for Self-Governance, [is] the parent organization of the Convention of States project.

A longtime associate of the conservative activist Koch family, [Convention of States board president Eric] O’Keefe helped manage David Koch’s 1980 bid for the White House when he served as the No. 2 on the Libertarian ticket.

Also,

In 2014, the year before it launched the Convention of States initiative, Citizens for Self-Governance received $500,000 from the Mercer Family Foundation, a donation Meckler said helped jump-start the campaign. Mercer declined to comment.

DonorsTrust

Furthermore, per the Washington Post April 22, 2020 article:

The Convention of States project, meanwhile, has received backing from DonorsTrust, a tax-exempt financial conduit for right-wing causes that does not disclose its contributors. The same fund has helped bankroll the Idaho Freedom Foundation, which is encouraging protests of a stay-at-home order imposed by the state’s Republican governor, Brad Little.

'Disobey Idaho,' say its Facebook ads, which use an image of the 'Join or Die' snake woodcut emblematic of the Revolutionary War and later adopted by the tea party movement.

Texas Public Policy Foundation

The April 22, 2020 Washington Post article also documented:

One of the most vocal groups opposing the lockdown in Texas is an Austin-based conservative think tank called the Texas Public Policy Foundation, which also hails the demonstrations nationwide.

'Some Americans are angry,' its director wrote in an op-ed promoted on Facebook and placed in the local media, telling readers in Texas about the achievements of protesters in Michigan.

The board vice chairman of the Texas Public Policy Foundation, oil executive Tim Dunn, is also a founding board member of the group promoting the Convention of States initiative. And the foundation’s former president, Brooke Rollins, now works as an assistant to Trump in the Office of American Innovation.

The Uihleins

On April 23, 2020, the Guardian reported:

One of Donald Trump’s most fervent billionaire donors is lobbying against strict stay-at-home rules in the election battleground state of Wisconsin, raising troubling new questions about how the president’s rightwing financial supporters may influence the US response to the pandemic.

Liz Uihlein, the billionaire behind Wisconsin’s Uline shipping and packaging company – who with her husband, Richard, has been dubbed the most 'powerful conservative couple you’ve never heard of' – is using her clout to try to force Wisconsin’s Democratic governor to relax stay-at-home rules, claiming that the crisis has been 'overhyped' by the media.

Her actions – from lobbying Republican legislators in the state to circulating a petition to employees to have the governor, Tony Evers, removed from office – come as two protests have been organized against the Democratic governor on Friday.


Note that:

Uihlein, who said she and her husband 'loved Trump' and is believed to have a net worth of about $4bn, laughed off suggestions that she might influence the president.

'You honestly think that money influences Donald Trump, are you kidding me?' she said.

But Uline, she and her husband’s privately held company, has already donated $1.5m to Trump’s Super Pac, America First Action, and $20m to other Republican groups so far in the 2020 election cycle. In the past, their donations topped $90m, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

In summary, the "reopen" protests, ostensibly about protecting working people and small businesses from the economic effects of social distancing, were organized to an extent by a network of Trump cronies, including multiple people currently serving in the executive branch of the government, and were funded by plutocrats including the Koch brothers, beer magnate Adolph Coors, the Mercer family, oil executive Tim Dunn, and the Uihlein family.

Why Are the Plutocrats Promoting Protests Against Social Distancing?


Why are plutocrats  suddenly interested in public health, or worried about the plight of the little people who have lost their jobs or otherwise suffered from the economic dislocations due to the shutdown of much of the economy?  Why are such people willing to comport with extremists like the Proud Boys to do so?

The answer is not known, but there are some disturbing theories.

One formulation from columnist Will Bunch in the Philadelphia Inquirer

These right-wing groups certainly want to reelect Trump (and keep the wretched DeVos in her Education Department post) but what they’re really afraid of is that both the public-health catastrophe and the growing economic meltdown will lead to a political, economic or even social revolution in the United States that will threaten the status quo — i.e., them. The coronavirus has exposed the everyday disaster that is America’s employer-based health-care system and the broader fragility where millions were just one lost paycheck away from a miles-long line at a food bank. The conservative movement in America, therefore, will die a deserved and overdue death unless the oligarchs can change the political conversation around to your God-given right to buy plant seeds and Baskin-Robbins — and fast.

It’s also worth noting (and probably worthy of a separate column) that these billionaires and millionaires have zero moral qualms about working with some of the worst white-supremacists or neo-fascists in order to make sure a crowd turns out....

Another from Theda Skocpol, Professor of Government and Sociology at Harvard, interviewed by Sean Illing in Vox.  She first asserted that the "reopen" protests arose from:

combination of top-down influence from high-dollar organizations and some genuine energy at the grassroots level. But I also suspect this is mostly being pushed and promoted from above.

Prof Skocpol cited this example:

There’s FreedomWorks, a right-wing advocacy group that also helped turn the famous CNBC television rant into dozens of rallies across the country in February of 2009 — that was the origins of the Tea Party. The people at FreedomWorks are egging this anti-lockdown protest on and providing encouragement and models for these events and helping to select cities.

Now, that doesn’t mean FreedomWorks or any one person is in control of all this. But groups like this provide email lists, help organize activists around the country, and facilitate these things as much as they can. And of course Trump himself is using his social media feeds in the same way, which is just an amazing resource if you want to coordinate and target protests. So that’s what I mean when I say a lot of this is driven from the top down.

"The money quote" re the plutocrats' motivation:

For the elite conservative groups sponsoring this stuff behind the scenes, I think it’s driven by a firm belief that if Americans become used to trusting government and relying on social benefits from government, then that’s dangerous to the victory they think they have almost won in destroying the New Deal and the Great Society reforms in this country.

That is,

I think they see this pandemic and the government response to it as a potentially dangerous moment for their vision of the American economy and people’s place in it. They don’t want people to see how helpful government can be, they don’t want them to change their minds about the role of government in society. So this is a dangerous moment for their ideological worldview.

Summary

Health care professionals confronted with a pandemic of a potentially deadly disease want to be able to help patients as best they can, avoid if possible sacrificing their own health and lives, and promote the greater public health.  Many health care professionals are not very interested in health policy, much less politics.  But most are interested in education. Seeing people protest the very public health measures that may enable their survivial inspired health care professionals to try to educate the protesters about the risky tradeoffs that reopening the economy would entail.

However, their relatively innocent and public health spirited counter-protests landed them within a hornets' nest.  They found themselves not leading an educational dialog, but insulted, if not intimidated. 

The protests were not just about the economy, particularly protecting the livelihoods of working people and small businesspeople.  They were about an extremist political agenda, the power of the Trump administration, and likely about a long term project that had been "destroying the New Deal and Great Society reforms," that sought to restore the power of the Robber Barons and maintain a new gilded age.



Therefore, for us to get through this pandemic, we now have to confront the plutocrats who would rule us - even at the cost of sacrificing many of us.  This may be about educating the public.  However, it will also be about going up against some very rich and powerful people who saw the world within their grasp, and now may be seeing it fade away.  They will lash out to try to protect their money and power.  As some health care professionals discovered in the last few weeks, this will be a difficult, if not brutal and dangerous task.

But lives are hanging in the balance.  Courage!

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