Mike E takes a look at the pro-Trump rally in Michigan this past week, arguing that they were both medically and politically dangerous, and that the left must fight against both the right and the establishment Democrats.
Sometimes your home state’s political pathologies burst out to horrify a national audience. This was the case on Wednesday, April 15, when a coalition calling itself “Michiganders Against Excessive Quarantine” organized “Operation Gridlock” outside the state capitol in Lansing. The protest was against Democratic Governor Gretchen Whitmer’s executive order intended to slow the spread of COVID-19, which includes the closure of non-essential businesses and bans on unnecessary travel. Protestors were supposed to remain in their cars and drive in a slow procession, but a few dozen—openly violating social distancing rules—protested on foot in front of the capitol. The protesters were mainly white and male, so police did not zealously enforce the law against them.
The protest featured most of the familiar signs of a Trump-era far right protest, from the laughable—misspelled signs about “RIGHS” and “THE PEOPE”—to the scary—open carrying of automatic weapons; the flying of Confederate flags and even a swastika; crude effigies of the enemy. Needless to say, MAGA hats and Trump banners were in evidence, as were the far right Proud Boys, who distinguished themselves by blocking the entrance to a hospital.
It would be wrong, however, to laugh off the protestors as stupid or dismiss them as a far right fringe. If the claimed figure of 3,000 is correct, this was a sizable turnout. Perhaps more significantly, the protest had powerful backers in the pro-Trump wing of the Republican Party. The Freedom Fund, one of the groups behind the action, was founded by an adviser to the family of billionaire Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.
Governor Whitmer, the target of the protests, is no champion of those most in need of healthcare. Her election campaign was heavily funded by the health insurance industry, and she is—unsurprisingly—opposed to Medicare for All. Had her Bernie-supporting primary opponent Abdul El Sayed won the nomination, we would have a doctor and public health expert as governor, not somebody who put a Blue Cross Blue Shield executive on her transition team. However, it would be utterly wrong for the left to join in these attacks on Whitmer. Trump’s invective against “that woman from Michigan” and chants of “lock her up” at the Lansing rally show this is a right wing, misogynist smear campaign. Activists opposed to the far right can still look for ways to build on the solidarity most people feel with frontline nurses, and work with healthcare workers and others on social media and in the hospital to oppose and counter the right wing propaganda, without just supporting the status quo of Whitmer.
The protest needs to be seen in the context of Michigan politics. This is a sharply divided state: formerly part of the Democratic Party’s solid Midwestern base, Michigan went to Trump by a tiny margin in 2016, after Clinton barely campaigned in the state. The GOP controls the state legislature (albeit by gerrymandering) and arguments between Whitmer and Republicans over extending the lock-down formed the background to Wednesday’s protest. The decline of industry (accelerated by the neoliberal policies of the Bill Clinton years) has shrunk the unions that used to deliver working class voters to the Democrats. Today, state politics are balanced between progressive and minority Democratic voters in the urban South East and a whiter, more rural, and more conservative rest of the state.
If we leave aside the hard right groups, the typical attendee at “Operation Gridlock” appears to have been a white, male small-business owner from a conservative area. While it’s true that the Democrats’ neoliberalism has alienated working class voters, this was not a rally of disillusioned workers—it was small-time capitalism demanding that profits take precedence over people’s health (and complaints that people aren’t allowed to launch their boats or drive to their vacation homes say a lot about the class basis of the movement). As some commentators have pointed out, the narrative “why should we be locked down when it’s only a problem in Detroit?” is racist and anti-working class, given that Detroit is a majority poor and Black city.
DeVos and Trump’s business supporters in Michigan and beyond know that skyrocketing unemployment has the potential to lower Trump’s popularity before the election. It is in their interests to get the right wing petit-bourgeoisie out on the street, pushing the narrative that it’s the lock down by the Democratic Governors that is creating unemployment, not the pandemic Trump did so much to ignore. The far right can be used in this, but also use the broader milieu to build and mainstream themselves.
Events such as Wednesday’s seem to fit the narrative that states like Michigan are innately conservative. Democratic Party strategists and their media sock-puppets like to say “progressive ideas will never win in the Midwest” to push bland corporate politicians like Joe Biden. But the death-cult that is “Operation Gridlock” does not represent Michigan, the state that elected Rashida Tlaib and voted for Bernie Sanders in 2016. Nor does it represent the Midwest, the region that gave us Eugene Debs. As the GM strike showed last year, another Michigan is possible.