The populist wave that then-presidential candidate Donald Trump rode to a surprising victory in 2016 may have suffered a slight setback in the 2018 midterms, when Democrats reclaimed control of the House of Representatives and won a handful of significant state races. But it shows no signs of subsiding as the outbreak of COVID-19 disrupts the lives of Americans everywhere and sends the economy into a tailspin — just the opposite, in fact. 

Here are two significant populist trends to pay attention to as America battles an unprecedented public health crisis while heading into a high-stakes presidential election. 

Remnants of the Tea Party rising?

The first and most obvious sign of a burgeoning populist movement on the right is the series of “Open State” rallies in state capitals around the country calling on lawmakers to reopen their states’ economies. The protestors appear to be remnants of the Tea Party movement from 2009-2012 that formed in response to record levels of federal spending under the Obama administration. These “Open State” rallies received a shout-out from President Donald Trump on Twitter and were praised by Stephen Moore, an economic advisor to Trump and fellow at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank.

“This is a great time for civil disobedience,” Moore said earlier this month in an interview for the podcast “Freedom on Tap.” “We need to be the Rosa Parks here and protest against these government injustices.” 

“I call these people the modern-day Rosa Parks,” he said of the objectors. “They are protesting against injustice and a loss of liberties.”

The protests have been widely criticized by progressives and moderates, a divide driven by multiple factors including the polarizing nature of the Trump presidency and the geographical divide between liberals and conservatives (urban areas have been hardest hit by the virus and tend to be more liberal than less-affected rural areas). But there are no indications that the protests will subside any time soon as the lockdowns to contain the coronavirus linger on, dragging state economies down in the process. The protests have drawn the sympathy of free-enterprise-oriented groups like The Goldwater Institute, and some conservative lawmakers have even become actively involved in the protests or validated protestors’ concerns with legislation to reopen their state’s economy. 

At least one Tea Party-linked group, the activist network Convention of States, is working to help the protests receive better media play and create a more compelling narrative to garner public support, according to Politico. The group has launched a website, “Open the States,” which allows users to send automated petitions to their federal and state lawmakers. It is influencing protest organizers through social media in states controlled by Democratic governors. In the coming days more than a dozen rallies are being planned in states in which there is some form of stay-at-home order. 

“It kind of feels like deja vu to me,” Mark Meckler, president of the Convention of States, told POLITICO in an interview last week. “There’s all these groups independently doing their own thing, but at the same time doing the same things and taking cues from each other… That’s the very definition of a movement — that people start to pick up the same ideas, same terminology.”

COVID-19 lawsuits against China?

Another data point for understanding what could be the makings of a populist resurgence is the sudden appearance of support for suing China, where the first outbreak of the coronavirus took place. 

Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., and Rep. Dan Crenshaw, R-Texas, two lawmakers often considered to be future leaders in the GOP, have introduced legislation intended to let Americans sue China for damages caused by the “Wuhan Virus.”

“By silencing doctors and journalists who tried to warn the world about the coronavirus, the Chinese Communist Party allowed the virus to spread quickly around the globe,” Cotton said in a statement. “Their decision to cover up the virus led to thousands of needless deaths and untold economic harm. It’s only appropriate that we hold the Chinese government accountable for the damage it has caused.”

The bill is modeled after Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act of 2016. It would make legal action against China possible, proponents argue, by creating a narrow exception in the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act for “damages caused by China’s dangerous handling of the COVID-19 outbreak.”

Other Republicans have voiced support for some sort of reparations from China due to its negligent handling of the outbreak during its early stages. 

“If it were up to me the whole world would send China a bill for the pandemic,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C. Another GOP Senator, Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee, suggested that China should forgive the portion of America’s national debt it holds.

Critics argue that such lawsuits, which would face a huge hurdle in sovereign immunity, are unrealistic and would open American to more trouble on the global stage than they’re worth.

“Sovereign immunity is based on reciprocity,” John Bellinger III, a partner with Arnold & Porter and an adjunct senior fellow in international and national security law at the Council on Foreign Relations, wrote in the Washington Post. “The United States respects the principle of sovereign immunity not as a favor to other countries but because we expect other countries to respect and protect the immunity of the United States and its officials in their countries.”

Even looking at the issue from a strictly pragmatic level, Andrew McCarthy, a senior fellow at National Review Institute, dismissed the lawsuit idea because it wouldn’t actually help any Americans. 

“(N)o American victim would actually get compensation, because Beijing would, of course, ignore the lawsuits,” he wrote in National Review, “except to exploit them as a (further) excuse not to cooperate with American and foreign investigations; as a further basis not to honor its treaty obligations; as a reason to step up its aggression in the Far East; and as a rationale for retaliating by encouraging other countries to strip sovereign immunity from the United States.”


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Image Credit: Photo by Gage Skidmore under CC BY-SA 2.0.