Democratic leaders don’t typically borrow from the playbook of GOP politics, but in light of last weekend’s “engineered protests,” I think they should make an exception.
The Post reported Sunday far-right militias, led by three brothers, have used Facebook to organize “anti-quarantine protests” at state capitols around the country. Tens of thousands have joined their Facebook group, giving the impression that a “populist libertarianism” sentiment is emerging more than opinion surveys would suggest.
This activity is being amplified by the president, who appeared last week on Twitter to encourage armed resistance to state-based initiatives aimed at containing the novel coronavirus pandemic with orders to stay home. The “protests” were in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Michigan and others swing states Donald Trump needs to win reelection.
Meanwhile, the Pew Center, which is the gold standard for measuring public opinion, released a new survey in which 66 percent of Americans fear their state governments will lift restrictions “too quickly.” Sixty-five percent said “Trump’s initial response” to the COVID-19 pandemic was “too slow.” Moreover, 73 percent said the worst is yet to come. (Implicit is the widespread doubt of Washington’s ability to face the challenge.)
Someone here represents America’s majority view, and it’s not the people ginning up outrage on social media and make-believing revolution for the benefit of television cameras on the steps of state capitol buildings. Indeed, the majority view isn’t getting the attention it deserves, because the majority is doing what it believes must be done in times of severe crisis: working together, as a nation, to combat a collective peril.
The majority view, in other words, is silent. That’s why I think Democratic leaders should invoke Richard Nixon. In 1969, he coined the term “silent majority” to claim a mandate from “middle Americans” who did not demonstrate in huge numbers against his prosecution of the Vietnam War but instead supported his wartime policies.
To be sure, “silent majority” is what fascists have said for decades when they need to contravene a rapidly changing view on, say, an overseas war going south. “Silent majority” is what a literal minority invokes to smash a literal majority in the face. Even so, Nixon’s words should resonate right now when 41,000 Americans are dead from COVID-19. “If a vocal minority, however fervent its cause, prevails over reason and the will of the majority, this nation has no future as a free society,” Nixon said. Individuals can’t be truly free. In the collective, however, can be found the meaning of freedom.
In this sense, the protesters have it backwards. They believe (or pretend to believe; more on that in a moment) that government coercion is the opposite of individual freedom. Stay-at-home orders infringe their liberty. If they want to risk getting sick—or dying—that’s their right. No government has the authority to tell them otherwise.
This thinking ignores the fact that one person’s right to liberty ends with another person’s right to security, and that all governments are charged with balancing all of those rights for everyone’s sake. (Whether a government is striking the right balance is usually reflected by the majority view.) For this reason, coercion is not the opposite of freedom during a pandemic. Coercion, at least for now, is in the service of freedom. Only when everyone is acting in everyone else’s interest can this crisis be overcome.
They say they stand for individual liberty. What they really stand for is disloyalty, disunion and death.
But let’s not give these people too much credit, shall we? As the Post reported, “protest” organizers were not acting in good faith. They were pretending to believe what they say they believe. Organizers knew unwitting participants (some of whom no doubt were acting in good faith) would get sick, or die, before spreading the disease. Death, even their own, is an acceptable consequence of meeting their political goals.
These “protest” organizers call themselves “patriots.” Fair enough. Equally fair, however, is calling them insurgents, or even domestic terrorists, willing to commit suicide by way of infecting themselves and others to destabilize public trust as well as the political union of these United States. They say they stand for liberty. They really stand for disloyalty, disunion and death. Americans invoking patriotism but disobeying stay-at-home orders do so with the moral justification of a suicide bomber.
If “protesters” risked harm to themselves only, it might be appropriate to characterize them as a kind of “death cult.” (It might be funny, in a grim way, to joke about “culling the herd.”) But these people do not only put themselves as risk. The World Health Organization warned today the pandemic has yet to peak. “Protesters,” therefore, threaten us all. As Nixon said: “If a vocal minority, however fervent its cause, prevails over reason and the will of the majority, this nation has no future as a free society.”
You are the real “silent majority.”
Don’t forget it.