His opposition to the shutdown is driven more by philosophy than personal circumstance.
“Our civil liberties – our freedom of assembly, our freedom of speech, our property rights are being trampled on,” says Duke, who describes himself as a conservative Republican. “The government is picking winners and losers by allowing certain businesses to remain open while others shut down.”
Instead of draconian regulations, he says governments should trust individual citizens to do the right thing – even if it risks an increase in COVID-19 cases. “A resurgence is possible, I’m sure,” he says.
One nation, two realities
The Annapolis protest was just one of dozens of anti-shutdown events that have broken out in recent weeks across the US. The demonstrations have had a distinctly conservative flavour, with many attendees waving Trump 2020 flags and wearing red “Make America Great Again” hats.
Some of the protests signs have included: “Social distancing = communism” and “Give me liberty or give me death”. Gun rights advocates have organised several protests and free market groups have helped to promote them.
The protesters do not speak for a majority of the country: just 12 per cent of Americans believe the restrictions they are living under have gone too far, according to an Associated Press poll released this week.
But they do reflect a fundamental divide in how Americans of different political persuasions – and different media habits – are responding the the pandemic.
“Because of the deep polarisation in the US, partisanship has become the wide-angle lens through which everything is distorted,” says Morgan Marietta, the author of One Nation, Two Realities: Dueling Facts in American Democracy. “The connections between partisanship and the pandemic are remarkably tight.”
According to a Morning Consult poll released this week, Republicans were five times as likely as Democrats to say that Americans should stop social distancing to stimulate the economy – even if it means increasing the spread of coronavirus.
The difference is similarly stark when you look at which media outlets Americans rely on for information.
A poll by The Wall Street Journal and NBC this week found that 45 per cent of Fox News viewers were worried the government would re-open the country too slowly – twice as many as those who get their news from more left-leaning cable networks MSNBC or CNN.
Deeply obsessed with Fox
When Donald Trump sent out a series of all-caps tweets on Friday, April 17 – “LIBERATE MICHIGAN!”, “LIBERATE MINNESOTA!” – they seemed to come out of nowhere. But not to Matthew Gertz, a senior fellow at the progressive watchdog organisation Media Matters.
Gertz’s focus is untangling the feedback loop between Trump and Fox News – specifically the relationship between Trump’s tweets and Fox programming. Last year Gertz identified 657 Trump tweets in which he was reacting to segments aired on Fox.
“Trump is deeply obsessed with Fox News – he watches it constantly, he responds to it in real time,” Gertz says. “It gives the network a huge amount of influence over US and global affairs.”
Trump’s “LIBERATE MINNESOTA” tweet – widely interpreted as a message of encouragement to anti-lockdown protesters – came just two minutes after Fox aired footage of protests organised by a group called Liberate Minnesota.
“He was very obviously watching the network and taking his cues from it, which led him to promote quite a dangerous movement against social distancing,” Gertz says.
Images of anti-lockdown protests have appeared across all media networks. But the coverage on Fox has been far more extensive and positive, reminding many of the station’s crucial role popularising the Tea Party movement in the early days of Barack Obama’s presidency.
“They are promoting future protests, telling people when and where they are happening,” Gertz says. “They are ginning up support for what is really a small and unpopular movement.”
Hosts on left-leaning MSNBC, meanwhile, have responded to the protests with alarm, and have tended to be relentlessly critical of Trump’s handling of the pandemic.
The difference an hour makes
While Fox’s coverage has been overwhelmingly friendly to Trump, it has not been monolithic. In the early days of the pandemic, there were noticeable differences in approach between Tucker Carlson and Sean Hannity, whose shows air each weeknight at 8pm and 9pm respectively. It’s a difference researchers believe cost lives.
Both Hannity and Carlson are big supporters of Trump. But while Hannity initially downplayed the threat of the virus, Carlson portrayed it as a major threat. He even travelled to Trump’s Florida Mar-a-Lago resort in early March to urge the President to take the virus more seriously.
Carlson’s stance was influenced by his hawkish views on China, where the virus is believed to have originated.
On February 25, Carlson warned his viewers about the deadly risks of the virus, saying that it could kill up to a million people in the US.
Two days later, Hannity was favourably comparing the virus to the common flu and car crashes.
“Carlson continued to discuss the subject extensively throughout February while Hannity did not mention it again on his show until the end of the month,” economists from the University of Chicago and Harvard wrote in a working paper published this week titled Misinformation During a Pandemic.
They examined whether viewing one show rather than the other led to different behaviours and health outcomes. Their finding: yes, it did.
The economists found Hannity fans began changing their behaviours to minimise the risk of contracting the virus five days later than viewers of other Fox shows. Carlson fans changed their behaviours three days earlier, a difference that had significant consequences.
“Greater exposure to Hannity relative to Tucker Carlson Tonight leads to a greater number of COVID-19 cases and deaths,” they wrote.
“A one-standard deviation increase in relative viewership of Hannity relative to Carlson is associated with approximately 30 percent more COVID-19 cases on March 14, and 21 percent more COVID-19 deaths on March 28.”
They concluded: “Our findings indicate that provision of misinformation in the early stages of a pandemic can have important consequences for health outcomes.”
A very special thing
Viewers of Trump’s daily White House briefings have seen him repeatedly hype up hydroxychloroquine, an anti-malaria drug, as a potential coronavirus cure.
“It’ll be wonderful, it’ll be so beautiful, it’ll be a gift from heaven if it works,” Trump said earlier this month, even as his top health advisers cautioned that its benefits were unproven.
Trump’s enthusiasm was strongly influenced by Fox News – in particular host Laura Ingraham, whose show follows Hannity’s each weeknight.
According to Media Matters, Ingraham made 84 promotional mentions of the drug between March 23 and April 6 – more than any other presenter on the network.
At the start of April, Ingraham reportedly met privately with Trump at the White House to sell him on the potential benefits of the drug. Two days later, at his daily briefing, Trump called the drug a “very special thing” and said a lot of people were recommending people take it.
“What do you have to lose?” he said on April 4.
This week a study of hundreds of US veterans found that those who used hydroxychloroquine were no less less likely to need mechanical ventilation and had higher deaths rates compared to those who did not take it.
It followed studies from France and Brazil that found no statistical benefits from taking the drug and dangerous side effects for many patients, including heart rhythm problems.
Populism and pandemics
Political scientist Morgan Marietta says the divergent coverage on networks like Fox and MSNBC reinforces and amplifies the partitioning of American society.
Dramatic government intervention into societal and economic life is especially confronting to conservatives like Hunter Duke, who attended the Reopen Maryland protest.
“Individualists want to see individual decisions as effective and a large government role as unnecessary,” Marietta says. “Resistance to the government response of shutting down the economy fits with their previous support for free enterprise and distrust of government.”
Equally important, he says, is the newer populism that defines Trump’s presidency.
“Populism argues that the common person is being exploited by the snobbish but undeserving elites in academia, media, and government,” he says. “The populists of the new Republican Party have very little faith that the alleged experts have a true sense of what is going on and what should be done.”
Partisan responses to the pandemic may have broken down had the virus affected Democrats and Republicans equally. But it hasn’t.
Coronavirus death rates have been highest in densely-populated and racially-diverse cities like New York and Chicago where Democrats dominate. Meanwhile, rural white voters who tend to support Trump have emerged relatively unscathed from the virus – even as their local economies have been essentially shut down.
“This is a case,” Marietta says, “where personal interests and political beliefs tend to coincide.”
Matthew Knott is North America correspondent for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.