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OPINION

Don’t believe the hype

While surely most every American is sick of social distancing rules, there is little evidence that these scattered protests reflect anything more than a tiny minority.

People take part in a "reopen" Pennsylvania demonstration on April 20 in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Hundreds of people, including lawmakers, gathered to protest measures that are urging most of the nation to stay home due to the coronavirus pandemic. The "Patriots Rally" demonstration in state capital Harrisburg follows similar protests -- cheered on by President Donald Trump -- elsewhere in the United States, including in Michigan, California and Ohio.
People take part in a "reopen" Pennsylvania demonstration on April 20 in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Hundreds of people, including lawmakers, gathered to protest measures that are urging most of the nation to stay home due to the coronavirus pandemic. The "Patriots Rally" demonstration in state capital Harrisburg follows similar protests -- cheered on by President Donald Trump -- elsewhere in the United States, including in Michigan, California and Ohio.NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP via Getty Images

Americans are mad as hell (about being stuck at home) and they’re not going to take it anymore.

Or are they?

Over the past several weeks, demonstrators have gathered at state houses around the the country to protest stay-at-home orders issued to slow the spread of the coronavirus.

In Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, more than 2,000 people gathered at the state capitol. In Columbus, Ohio, Phoenix, Arizona, Denver, Colorado, Minneapolis, Minnesota and Frankfort, Kentucky, the numbers were in the hundreds. A few of the protesters wore masks, but practically none of them abided by the social distancing rules to maintain six feet of distance from each other.

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The protests are being organized by a coterie of pro-gun groups, deep-pocketed right-wing ideologues, Tea Party activists, and are being promoted by conservative Facebook groups that traffic in misinformation and conspiracy theories.

But it is President Trump who is perhaps having the biggest impact — firmly aligning himself with the protesters. Over the weekend he tweeted out demands to “LIBERATE” the states of Virginia, Minnesota, and Michigan (each state coincidentally has a Democratic governor). Not surprisingly, the demonstrations were rife with Trump flags and posters.

These rather small protests are capturing a disproportionate share of news headlines and media attention. The New York Times has even gone so far as to suggest that the protests — and Trump’s support for them — “could help the president re-energize the coalition of conservative Republicans and working-class populists who agree with the anti-government sentiment that helped power Mr. Trump’s election victory in 2016.”

But the hype doesn’t match the reality. While surely most every American is sick of social distancing rules, there is little evidence that these scattered protests reflect anything more than a tiny minority.

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Indeed, according to a Politico/Morning Consult poll, 81 percent of Americans want to see social distancing measures continued “even if it means continued damage to the economy.” Other polls show slightly lower numbers but the trend is clear — Americans understand the necessity of staying home to help slow the spread of a virus that has already taken the lives of almost 45,000 Americans as of Wednesday.

Even for those who are chafing at government regulations, demonstrators sporting Confederate flags, displaying high-powered firearms, and embracing anti-vaxxer and other conspiracy theories are unlikely to capture the imagination of the country. The image from a recent demonstration in Denver in which a woman hanging out of an SUV, donned in a “USA” sweatshirt, holding a “Land of the Free” sign, berating a nurse in scrubs is far more likely to generate support for health care workers than the people yelling at them.

A woman protesting social distancing rules in Denver, Colorado is blocked by a nurse in scrubs.
A woman protesting social distancing rules in Denver, Colorado is blocked by a nurse in scrubs.Alyson McC/Reuters

If only one person in these crowds has COVID-19, chances are good that many more of those in attendance will soon test positive for the virus. Already, both Ohio and Kentucky reported their highest one day increase in COVID-19 cases after the protests took place. The actions of the protesters are putting many more at risk — a fact surely not lost on Americans fearful of being afflicted by COVID-19.

Rather than tapping in to populist sentiment, Trump is playing almost exclusively to not even his base of supporters, but instead a smaller fringe element. In doing so, he is playing a dangerous game — both risking lives, but also putting himself into a political box.

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After an initial burst in March, the president’s approval ratings have slowly begun to slide as the scope of his mismanagement — and the toll of the pandemic — has become evident. By aligning himself with people who are quickly becoming laughingstocks to much of the country — and whose views are extreme even for the modern GOP — Trump is at risk of further hastening his decline.

Already a majority of Americans view Trump as untrustworthy when it comes to ending social distancing. Recent polling shows a significant drop in support among older voters for the president’s coronavirus response, which is the group most in danger. Even among rural and white working-class voters — Trump’s most solid base of supporters — there is anxiety about lifting social distancing orders too soon, albeit at lower numbers than urban and college educated voters. Even in states where Trump has been publicly attacking the governor, polling done since protests erupted last week show more than 80 percent support for maintaining stay-at-home orders for at least a month and 58 percent for as long as possible.

While it’s certainly possible that these numbers will eventually shift in the president’s favor, things could also move in the opposite direction.

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Indeed, for all the coverage of these protests, the bigger and more optimistic story of this deadly pandemic is the willingness of hundreds of millions of Americans to embrace the sacrifice of quarantine and isolation to protect themselves, their families, and their communities. These Americans represent a “silent (overwhelming) majority” united in common purpose. There is far more political gold in them thar hills than embracing a small, largely insignificant band of extremists who are putting a return to normal — and our lives — at risk.


Michael A. Cohen’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Follow him on Twitter @speechboy71.