The Meaning of Today’s Political ‘Street Theater’

Jeff Kowalsky / AFP / Getty

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.
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  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.