How To Work A Coronavirus Protest Con

“Blow up the bags of sham” — Jean Arp

Protest organizers and right-wing media portray this week’s anti-shelter-in-place protests as organic dissent led by ordinary people with no other agenda than pursuit of liberty, want of work, and blah blah blah. Yeah, right.

By now, mobs of people waving Trump/Pence signs, clad in MAGA gear, and using the same messaging (on “homemade” signs) should be a clue that there is nothing in these protests that is spontaneous or apolitical. They are well organized, coordinated, and originate from state Republican parties and affiliates.

Here’s a fun lockdown project to do with the kids: Find a news article on the protests. Zero in on the name of an organizer or spokesperson. Search the person’s name with keywords “Trump,” “conservative,” “Republican” or “Tea Party.” Good chance that you will find that the person sits on a local or state Republican Party committee. You will also find names like “Idaho Freedom Foundation” and “Michigan Freedom Fund.” Dig deeper and you will find that the Idaho group is funded by the Koch’s and the Michigan gang has ties to Betsy DeVos.

Jason Wilson, of the Guardian, discovered that the protests are also driven by far right militias and fascist groups such as the Proud Boys, Michigan Liberty Militia, and Patriot Prayer, as well as people linked to Ammon Bundy. These people a joined by anti-vaxxers and Christian fundamentalists. Pay attention to far-right politics and the names of the same far right activists pop-up at plenty of right-wing media events.

Though these protests are days old, pundits are comparing them to the Tea Party movement. Two things are wrong here. First, two days of protests don’t make a movement. Second, the Tea Party comparison. While the Tea Party rose organically from Ron Paul’s presidential campaign, it quickly was taken over by Republican operatives. This week’s shelter-in-place protests were started by Republican operatives and established far right groups with the intention that they be mistaken as organic.

When operatives took over the Tea Party, they did away with the disorganized, multi-issue, Libertarian-thrust of Ron Paul and focused it on President Obama and the Democratic Party. The Tea Party became an anti-Obama electoral “movement,” the “outside” pressure group to Mitch McConnell and his “most important” goal, “[making] sure [Obama] does not succeed.” The Tea Party activists who hit town halls with talk of “death panels,” “free choice,” and the “socialist threat” were highly coordinated, well coached, and working off of scripts. Many of these protests were funded by the Republican National Committee, a longstanding practice of right-wing organizers.

Tea Party paid-protests were very successful in watering down the Affordable Care Act and the main reason why the ACA has no public option. The Tea Party also gave Republican obstructionists in Congress cover. When Mitch McConnell blocked the Supreme Court nomination of Merrick Garland and dozens of nominees for federal judgeships, he framed the Tea Party as concerned citizens. The Tea Party con was propagandized by Fox News and legitimized by the mainstream media, even while print reporters exposed the Tea Party as astroturf activism.

Though the anti-shelter-in-place activists are unsure how to brand themselves — the choice seems to be Liberate or Disobey — they do have a familiar M.O. Start in Republican-dominated Congressional districts and counties, where politicians and party leaders are free to take fringe political positions and babble insanity without consequence (think Iowa’s Steve King or Texas’ Louie Gohmert). Safe in a bubble, the unreasonable is framed as reasonable, something like “opening our country” is worth X-number of deaths or, as TV doctor Mehmet Oz told Fox News, a 2–3% death rate among kids is a fair exchange.

Once political operatives have manufactured “local bases of support,” it is time to present them as a state-wide movement. Use established state parties and their affiliates to organize a series of protests and rallies. Reach out to an extended network of pro-Trump right wing groups. Oh, but come up with aliases! Keep identifiable names out of the press, no established leaders or groups. Everybody involved must be portrayed as “average American.” Why be Michigan Liberty Militia leader Phil Robinson when you can be concerned citizen/suburban viking “Phil Odinson.” Don’t want that pesky word Republican around here, so goodbye to Michigan Trump Republicans, Hello! Michigan Conservative Coalition.

And the Michigan Conservative Coalition (AKA Michigan Trump Republicans)? It’s run by two longtime Republican activists. MCC’s partner in the “protests” is the Michigan Freedom Fund, a group funded primarily by Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’ family. The Idaho goes to the Idaho Freedom Foundation, part of the State Policy Network, which works with the notorious pro-corporate lobby ALEC and is funded by the Koch brothers.

Since the Koch brothers are firmly established in Wisconsin let FreedomWorks, the Koch training ground for right-wing activists, organize a show. The Committee to Unleash Prosperity, run by Trump economic advisors Stephen Moore and Art Laffer, can help them.

Now, coordinate with activists in other states in order to give the impression that what is happening is a nationwide movement. Maybe use a trio of brothers and longtime gun-rights activist to set up Facebook groups for different states. Set a protest date or two and find a good target. Shelter-in-place orders are issued at the local and state level. Ignore the local. No right-wing group will draw a sizable local crowd in Seattle or Detroit, and national press won’t pay attention to protests in Spokane or Hillsdale. Grab every right-winger from around the state and hit statehouses. Get ten from whats-it-called, fifty from over-there, and ten from wherever and soon you have five hundred people (or in Michigan, 1,000 to 3,000 depending on who is counting).

Numbers are important. Lack bodies? Time for some stage craft! Increase your presence by having people “protest” in cars and trucks. Three car family? Great. One person in each vehicle. This is all about filling space. Event organizers plan for 6 to 10 square feet of space per person. The max square feet per person at protests I’ve been to is about 3 square feet. The average car is 14 feet long and 6 feet wide, or 84 square feet. Those big trucks are more than 18 feet long and about 7 feet wide, or 126 square feet.

Math time! Assuming that at a protest, 1 person takes up 3 square feet. How many can stand in the space taken by a car or truck? Take X and divide it by Z now carry the Q and thingamajig the unified zeta squared multiplied by the doohickey, Albright Theorem applied, we have: One car equals 28 people standing in protest, one truck equals 42 standing people.

Say the “protest” draws 500 people from around the state and that each protester occupies one car or truck (50% in a car/50% truck). In vehicles, those 500 people occupy the space of 17,500 standing people. Throw in a few semi-trucks and you not only take up more space but you have some low air horns to accompany a chorus beep-beep-beeps and the inevitable cha-ooga.

Staging done, let’s talk props. Nearly every pro-Trump protest features guns. Open-carry state or not, there will be men in military gear carrying around an arsenal of weapons, often unloaded. Despite the rhetoric, guns at protests are militia cosplay intended to show the non-gun world that these “patriots” are “serious.” The guns are also trolling tools aimed at liberals fearful of mass shootings. The fear is unfounded. Gun play at protests is extremely rare, almost always one-sided, and usually initiated by the police.

I’ve been to right-wing rallies where “guns” were present. Police tend to check weapons to see if they are loaded. The gun owner doesn’t scream about the 2nd Amendment. He politely complies with the inspection. Often, the assault rifle slung to the back of one of these “patriots” is more dangerous as a club than a firearm. If violence breaks out between gun-toting right-wingers and anti-fascists, the danger is fists, sticks, and trudgens, not bullets. The guns are a bully’s bluff that never gets called.

The fascists and militias dress in military, ninja, and Road Warrior costumes. The visual impact of one beer-bellied man in camo with a gun is worth ten slobs holding signs that say “Liberty or TRANNY.” Matching outfits give right-wingers the air of ominous unity and power, things that they lack in real life.

Important to know that the far right is neither big or mainstream. They know this so they use costuming, guns, and social media to “maximize their numbers.” In real life, these people occupy the fringe. Study the far right and few things become apparent: 1) The same names appear over and over. 2) Few organizations stay with one name for more than a year or two. 3) Most “new” organizations are led or backed by a familiar name. 4) Far right groups misrepresent their numbers. Subtract their contact lists and few of these organizations have active memberships of more than ten people.

Numbers or not, the far right is a threat. In 1995, at least four people took down the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City. One-hundred-sixty-eight people died and many more were injured. In Charlottesville, one Nazi in a car rammed a crowd. He killed one person and injured others. Violent rhetoric and militia cosplay certainly inspire deadly action; however, it is important to put violent acts into context and not to frame unique events as ongoing, coordinated campaigns. Threat of violence are not violence. Danger afoot is danger afoot. Militia cosplay at protests is political theater, not armed insurrection.

I offer similar clarity when it comes to these anti-shelter-in-place protests. Yes, there are people who are upset that they cannot go to the hardware store to buy lawn fertilizer (please, someone tell these suffering people about “internet commerce” and “delivery services”), but no matter how loud they yell, how many cars they drive, how many insane signs they wave, or how zombie-like the protesters appear, the context of these “protests” matter.

The “protests” are being organized by well-funded right-wing groups with ties to the Republican Party and the Trump campaign. There is a direct rhetorical line from Trump’s constant babbling about “opening our country” and the demands of the “protesters.” The “protests” are festooned with Trump campaign signage and MAGA gear. The “protests” were timed to happen after two-weeks of Trump kabuki where he asserted “absolute authority” and then granted states power that they already possessed, all the while complaining that the states were wrong to enact shelter-in-place orders and telling people to shelter-in-place.

The “protests” also come after Trump’s failed attempt to get corporate America to back his “Open Our Country” campaign, a fiasco that was met with harsh backlash. (Not what Trump intended. He was looking for a “united front” of “concerned citizens” and the “business community.” Lacking that, he created his own reality.)

The stated goal of the “protests” is to pressure governors to “open our country.” The “protest” organizers know that is not going to happen. While they are happy to smear Democratic governors, the governors are also a prop. These “protests” are not real protests, but de-facto campaign rallies.

Trump is unable to surround himself with a crowd or hear live cheers, so he holds daily TV rallies. Now he is joined by remote rallies masked as protests. Trump encourages his cult to gather together from afar, well more than six-feet of social distance from their Dear Leader. While Trump prefers bareback adoration, Trump the Showman is fine with the remote ego-pump as long as it appears organic and that it is reported as such. Trump and his people know that if they can get these rallies framed as protests, the reporting will be uncritical. News accounts will present this as a citizen’s movement and the motives of the “protesters” or their “demands” will not be scrutinized. The media will cover the spectacle.

Republican operatives know that protest news stories will be popular on social media. They want Democrats and leftists to share these stories, even with a sneer. Every share inflates the importance of the “protests.” Every Darwin Awards reference reinforces the idea that “real people” are behind these things.

If Trump’s operatives are successful, these manufactured rallies will live as organic protest events organized by legitimately concerned citizens. “Legitimately concerned citizens” being “legitimate concern,” of course we must listen! Cynical lunacy (or lunatic cynicism) now has a mainstream voice. Once that happens, Trump’s insane crusade/campaign con gets reasonable cover and, more important, he is framed as the rational leader, a president worthy of re-election.

As noted, these “protests” are not about shelter-in-place, or what a governor is or isn’t doing, or even the people attending them. As with all Trump rallies, they are about Trump. They are tools to build and retain support for Trump’s re-election. The target is not statehouses but a few subsections of American voters.

Trump’s people are targeting the 10–15% of the country who for some reason has “no opinion” about the last 3+ years. They are focusing on the Obama-Trump voter as well as those whose support for Trump is softening. They are trying to strengthen their hold on the far right, people who are Trump loyalists, but also unreliable voters that tend towards cynicism. They are also trying to escape their media ghetto. Fox News and other right-wing media are only so effective in reaching people.

For these “protests” to “succeed,” Trump not only needs the mainstream media, he needs us to help his campaign. One social media share by a Trump opponent, even one prefaced with “Oh lord!” or “Hello Darwin…”, has an outsized effect much like one person protesting in a Chevy Eldorado. Every share also helps extend the story past one news cycle. Continued attention begets more attention and, as Trump’s operative hope, more participation.

The best possible outcome for Trump is that these things jump from cult performances to mass events with real people, and with legitimate counter-protesters. Republicans are hoping that this morphs into a new Tea Party, a bunch of low-information everyday foot soldiers guided by political operatives and big money men.

I am very much aware that what I just described is a serious mindfuck, a troubling tale of how people are trying to manipulate you. That is one way of looking at this. Here is another:

The protests are an act of desperate people, oh no, not people out of work and struggling. Trump, his operatives, and his supporters are the desperate ones. They are desperate because their man is drowning in the polls. His approval rating dropped to the low forties and he gets low marks in how he has handled the crisis. Over 60% of Americans do not want to “open our country.” Trump’s two-hour drone-athons are do the opposite of what Trump intended. His campaign has pivoted from “Trump is doing Great!” to attacking China and the governors, governors whose approval rations are double Trump’s. If Trump had a handle on the crisis, practically or politically, his people wouldn’t be organizing these protests and he wouldn’t be tweeting “LIBERTATE” in support, only to get another FU from governors.

This essay is an act of catching desperate conmen in the act and then deconstructing the con so that it is easier to see the next con coming. This is a challenge, an invitation to play a useful political game. Deconstructing propaganda is public service puzzle solving. It’s fighting dis- and misinformation as well as an exercise to sharpen the mind. And it can be done by anyone who has the capacity to think critically and an interest in discovery.

When people talk about “gaslighting,” they tend to neglect one key thing: To be gaslit, a person cannot know that someone is trying to gaslight them. Identify the gaslighting and the deception dies. Same with propaganda. Rev up the bullshit-detector and when someone tries a con like these “protests,” we can blow up the bags of sham in real life. Free from the lie, we are free from anxiety seeded by the lie. As long as we can think, we are not powerless.

As Heather Cox Richardson writes, “Being concerned is half the battle. It means you’re paying attention, and that, in turn, means you can stand up for what you believe in. It’s when no one is paying attention that we are helpless to change the course of events.” We are paying attention, we are not helpless, we can change the course of events.

This essay originally appeared in the April 11, 2020 issue of Soriano’s Comment. Free Subscriptions available here. Become a patron here.

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