The Meaning of Today’s Political ‘Street Theater’

Jeff Kowalsky / AFP / Getty

About the author: James Fallows is a contributing writer at The Atlantic, and author of the newsletter Breaking the News. He was chief White House speechwriter for President Jimmy Carter, and is a co-founder, with his wife, Deborah Fallows, of the Our Towns Civic Foundation.

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

On Saturday (yesterday, as I write) I mentioned Donald Trump’s tweets implicitly cheering the protestors trying to “liberate” Michigan, Minnesota, and Virginia by resisting stay-at-home orders from those states’ governors.

Mike Lofgren, a former longtime aide to Republican legislators and now the author of The Party is Over and The Deep State, writes in to say that the situation is more serious, and more disturbing, than I indicated. I have learned enough from Lofgren over the years to think it worth sharing his views. In his note, he alludes to the background of protests by the Tea Party movement soon after Barack Obama took office—and the “Brooks Brothers riot” of 2000. He has details on all these developments in his books. For those not around at the time, more context on the Brooks Brothers riot—designed to affect the recount of votes in Florida, during the Bush-versus-Gore presidential race—is available here.

And for the record, today Mike Pence offered an explanation for Trump’s “LIBERATE” tweets that differs from the one Lofgren presents, below. Pence said that, far from inciting resistance, the tweets were intended to encourage governors to “safely and responsibly” reopen their states. Read the two interpretations, and judge which sounds more plausible to you.

Lofgren writes:

Unfortunately, you didn’t emphasize the crucial point of this whole street theater.

In the standard prestige media presentation, the “spontaneous” protestors against COVID-19 restrictions in Michigan and elsewhere are presented thus: those salt-of-the-earth working folk, battered by economic hardship, who want their jobs back. However misguided, their motives generally aren’t questioned.

Wrong.

  1. Who could have imagined that they [included] neo-Confederates, NRA extremists, anti-vaxxer lunatics, and other fringe types [and that their organizers included groups that have been] funded in part by the Koch brothers and a Trump cabinet member, Betsy DeVos? Why does it take a British newspaper to make that clear?
  1. The all-too-convenient disturbances overwhelmingly resemble the totally-not-connected-to-the-GOP Tea Party demonstrations that “spontaneously” irrupted in 2009 to stymie Obamacare, with the death panels and so forth. That particular street theater was ignited by CNBC ranter Rick Santelli and largely financed by the Koch brothers. [JF note: more background on Rick Santelli’s role in the Tea Party era available here.]
  1. Street theater was pioneered by of the New Left in the 1960s, but since the Brooks Brothers riot of November 2000 it has become a mainstay of Astroturfed movements inspired by the GOP and funded by corporate moguls.
  1. Trump’s encouragement of the demonstrators is even more bizarre than commonly depicted. Past examples (Lincoln, Ike in Little Rock, Kennedy in Mississippi, etc.) represented the national head of government reining in states seeking to illegally secede or deny U.S. constitutional rights to citizens. This is a unique case: the head of the national government egging on residents of the states to illegally impede their state governors from carrying out their lawful, necessary, and proper functions to maintain public safety in a health emergency. So much for “federalism” under the GOP.
...
  1. Republican street theater, maybe even (or perhaps especially) when it threatens public safety or human decency, seems always to act like catnip to the mainstream media, who invariably trot out the well-worn tropes of “economic anxiety.” The U.S. media have done an execrable job on this one.

In a similar vein, a reader on the West Coast writes about the long-term effects of today’s elected GOP officials condoning Trump’s behavior:

I agree with your approach of keeping a record of what we know now about Trump, partly as a way to rebut future claims of ignorance. I wonder if you also considered the following variation on this approach—namely, framing Trump’s most egregious behaviors, characteristics, and episodes, and the GOP and conservative media responses to them—as things that would NOT warrant the end of a future presidency.

For example, extrapolating from the GOP and conservative media response to Trump, a future presidency should NOT be in serious jeopardy if the president fails to a) reveal their tax forms, b) divest their business or put their assets into a blind trust, and c) explicitly uses their office for personal profit.

Moreover, the following behaviors from a future president or presidential candidate are not only not disqualifying, but they would also not warrant a serious FBI investigation: a) publicly or privately asking a foreign power to intervene in an election, b) lying about contacts with such a foreign power during a campaign, c) discussing or coordinating campaign tactics … you get the idea.

By turning a blind eye to Trump’s bad behavior, the GOP and Trump's conservative supporters are implicitly establishing the criteria for ending a presidency; and what they’ve been saying, in so many words, is that Trump’s behavior and overall fitness do not warrant the end of a presidency.

In my view, the points above should be explicit. Americans should know the GOP’s stance on this, and we should have a national discussion about what warrants the end of a presidency...