On Friday, President Trump tweeted his support for those protesting coronavirus stay-at-home orders in three states led by Democratic governors. He wrote in a series of tweets “LIBERATE MINNESOTA!” “LIBERATE MICHIGAN!” and “LIBERATE VIRGINIA, and save your great 2nd Amendment. It is under siege!”, making reference to new gun control measures signed into law by Virginia’s governor, Ralph Northam, last week. The protests come as most states have now issued stay-at-home orders to try to curb the spread of COVID-19. The protestors are generally believed to be conservatives, and have included far-right groups and white nationalists. Many carry guns.
The former Texas congressman, Beto O’Rourke, who made an unsuccessful bid for the Democratic nomination last year, responded on twitter: “Republicans will turn a blind eye [and] too many in the press will focus on ‘tone’. But history books will say: in April of 2020, when the pandemic had already claimed 35,000 lives, the President of the United States incited people to storm their statehouses with AR-15s and AK-47s.”
Trump’s incendiary language, calling on Virginians to “save your great 2nd Amendment. It is under siege!”, is arguably inciting violence. Moreover, his support for those protesting threatens the application of social distancing and stay-at-home measures. His actions could potentially lead to violence and an increased spread of COVID-19, resulting in preventable fatalities.
On 16 April, the administration unveiled new federal guidelines for a three-phased approach to reopening the economy, once there was a significant reduction in cases. Now, Trump seems to be going against his own guidelines. When asked during a White House briefing about the potential that the protesters themselves could spread COVID-19, Trump responded: “These are people expressing their views.” He told reporters, “I see where they are and I see the way they’re working. They seem to be very responsible people to me, but they’ve been treated a little bit rough.” Trump showed similar support to far-right groups in 2017, when Heather Heyer was murdered by a white nationalist in Charlottesville, Virginia. Trump drew criticism by claiming that during the clash between white nationalist and counter-protesters there were “very fine people on both sides”.
Although protesters across the country have the right to protest, their actions are potentially making things more dangerous for others and increasing the likelihood that the virus will spread. Trump, therefore, should respect their right to protest but take this opportunity to inform them about the importance of social distancing and the responsibility they have to those around them. Trump should also make clear his support for the governors’ implementing stay-at-home measures in order to unify the country behind them, instead of fuelling more resistance. However, his actions thus far display an unwillingness to put divisions aside and unify the country in a time of crisis.
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