President Donald Trump is playing with fire. Just 24 hours after he told the nation's governors, "You are going to call your own shots," when it comes to reopening the economy, the President posted a series of incendiary messages on Twitter that seemed to incite his followers to revolt against the current orders to stay at home.
"LIBERATE MICHIGAN!" one tweet shouted in capital letters. He issued similar tweets calling for the liberation of Minnesota and Virginia, including a disturbing addendum for loyalists to "save your great 2nd Amendment," adding, "It is under siege!" It is unclear why Trump brought up gun rights in apparent references to pandemic mitigation measures, but the language is familiar. Who can forget his comments at a rally in 2016, when he considered the possibility that Hillary Clinton might win the presidential election? "If she gets to pick her judges, nothing you can do folks," Trump said before adding, "Although the Second Amendment people -- maybe there is, I don't know."
When he talks about "liberating" a state, he's calling for a reprise of what occurred in Michigan on Wednesday, when thousands of protesters, many of them carrying Trump signs, wearing MAGA hats and chanting "Lock her up!", protested stay-at-home orders issued by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer in a life-and-death effort to slow a pandemic that has already killed thousands in her state, one of the worst-hit in the country.
What exactly is Trump trying to do? This is not an out-of-range dog whistle. We can all hear it. Trump is calling for open revolt in three states -- all of which are potentially competitive in 2020 and run by Democratic governors. The three states are also home to thousands of people diagnosed with Covid-19, a disease that has killed tens of thousands of Americans, with the potential to kill millions in the US if allowed to freely run its course in the population.
Even judged against Trump's own record, these incendiary messages are beyond the pale for many reasons.
First, the president is undercutting the guidelines he personally announced a day earlier. None of the states meet the requirements he outlined from the podium on Thursday for starting to reopen the economy. The step-by-step approach requires careful consideration before restrictions are loosened, to avoid a resurgence of the relentless coronavirus. By contradicting his own guidance, crafted with the help of public health experts, the President undercut the credibility of the entire mitigation effort. Mass protests can spread the virus while sending the message that it's safe to ignore stay-at-home orders. Trump's tweets, if heeded, are likely to cause more deaths.
Second, Trump is calling for disobedience during a most unstable time. People are understandably feeling tense and unsettled; for many, their incomes are vanishing. Anger and frustration lie just below the surface. It wouldn't take much for peaceful protests to turn violent. Trump's allusion to gun rights makes the prospect of violence more ominous.
Third, Trump may discover that once he incites his supporters, he may not be able to rein them in should they decide to act. These are times unlike any we have experienced. Emotions are running high. That is a tempting canvas for a demagogue seeking to design his own version of reality, but there's no guarantee Trump can control what he sets loose.
Washington Gov. Jay Inslee accused the President of "fomenting domestic rebellion." He wasn't the only one who saw that as the message. After Trump's string of tweets, right-wing extremists questioned whether the President was calling for a "boogaloo" -- a term derived from 4chan that extremists use to describe an armed insurrection.
Why is Trump undercutting his own message just 24 hours after issuing it? Why is he risking a resurgence of the virus that could threaten his reelection?
Trump, understandably, is anxious about what the shutdown is doing to the economy and to his political future. He hates that the experts are telling him that reopening too soon would lead to an even greater disaster. The experts tell him one thing, but some corporate executives, along with the hosts on Fox News, have a different message: Reopen and don't believe the scientists.
The Michigan protests were organized by a pro-Trump political group and praised on Fox. Prime time hosts, including Tucker Carlson, Sean Hannity, Jeanine Pirro and others gushed about the protesters' love of freedom. Laura Ingraham exulted, "Time to get your freedom back!" Pirro told Hannity that "The American spirit is too strong, and Americans are not going to take it," predicting that protests would spread across the country.
Trump appears to be torn. In the White House, he hears Dr. Anthony Fauci and Dr. Deborah Birx tell him to move slowly on reopening. On television, his ego massagers tell him that's a mistake.
But there's more. Trump has a populist's sixth sense for exploiting the frustrations of the masses. The shutdown has already destroyed tens of millions of jobs, leaving countless Americans bereft of income and afraid for the future. Trump doesn't want to be held responsible for any of it. By inciting unrest in battleground states with Democratic governors, he is telling people where to lay the blame for their woes, while carving out a path for his reelection.
It's a crafty ploy, but one doomed to fail. He remains President. He will be held accountable. His desperate effort to shift responsibility could make the situation worse. By waving a lit torch in the midst of a disaster, he may just start a fire on the wreckage.