Politico co-founder John F. Harris last week delivered a dire warning about the right-wing anti-lockdown protests that were then just beginning to spread across the country. “The wake of the coronavirus will be a powerful boost to the animating spirit of libertarianism: leave me alone,” he wrote. “Ideology hasn’t been suspended. It has been forcibly suppressed—in ways that inevitably will come roaring back, sometimes in highly toxic ways.”
In Michigan, a few thousand people protested outside the state’s capitol building. In other states—Kentucky, Utah, New York, and others—the protests were significantly smaller. The coverage, however, was outsized, with mainstream media outlets heralding the arrival of a new Tea Party. Writing in The Guardian, Cas Mudde wrote that the protests have provided President Trump “with visible popular support for his Covid-19 strategy.” Fox News egged the protesters on. The New York Times, Politico, and The Washington Post identified shadowy conservative groups as the puppet-masters behind the rallies, pulling the strings of protesters for their own ends.
In the anti-lockdown protests, you had everything: the (not so) hidden hand of Fox News and right-wing influencers, the president’s political future, and the arrival of a seemingly frightening backlash to the quarantine regime. The visuals—masks, guns, nutty signs—made the protests irresistible.
But there is good reason to believe that these protests have been significantly overhyped—and that credulous media reporting has boosted the profile of right-wing organizations that have done very little of note. Far from a new Tea Party, this movement is tiny, disconnected, and not reflective of public opinion in any meaningful way.