Protests in the United States against COVID-19 social distancing and lockdowns have captured the world’s attention. New research from the United States Studies Centre reveals the political and strategic underpinnings of the LIBERATE protests, concentrated in states won by Trump in 2016 but with Democratic governors, are likely critical for Trump’s re-election in November.

Mass protest movements are a hallmark of recent US politics – from the civil rights and anti-war protest movements of the 60s and 70s, to Occupy, Black Lives Matter and the Tea Party movements of recent years.

The study’s author, United States Studies Centre Research Associate Elliott Brennan notes that mass gatherings and marches have been the definitive act of protest movements throughout American political history. Brennan says, "What sets these actions apart is that they not only protest a government directive, they directly defy it. This adds intensity to the LIBERATE protests."

The study finds that the tension between federal and state governments during the COVID-19 crisis is the catalyst for activism in states with a Republican majority and Democratic governor. Kentucky, Wisconsin, Michigan and Louisiana all make the top 10 list of states with the largest increase in protesting between March and April 2020.

“President Trump has leaned into these protests at the exact moment other presidents may have tried to quell them. The call to ‘LIBERATE’ Democratic-governed states was an attack on political foes with measurable results,” Brennan explains, “While already increasing, after the ‘LIBERATE’ tweets, the number of protests in the United States shot higher than the July 2019 protests against the conditions children in border detention camps faced.”

Though small numbers of right-wing activists have been quick to take to the streets in protest, different factors on the left are keeping voters on the other side of the spectrum at home.

Brennan concludes, “Recent polls show there is broad support for social distancing. This is keeping most activists home, but not dormant. They are mobilising new digital strategies and expanding their platform, which will likely increase their intensity in the long-term, particularly as the pandemic has a sharp economic toll and has exposed inequality in American society.”

Key points

  • The number of individual protests in the United States decreased at the beginning of the lockdowns, increased in mid-April and surged following President Trump’s LIBERATE tweets on April 17.
  • The biggest increase occurred mostly in states that voted for Trump but which have Democratic governors.
  • The pandemic and economic downturn have already created new protest movements and stand to embolden already simmering progressive and conservative movements.
  • With younger generations of Americans bearing a heavy economic burden while facing the lowest health risk during the pandemic, this crisis could politically activate this otherwise famously politically lethargic demographic.

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