The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

In echoes of 2009, Republicans see ‘Astroturf’ in Democratic protests

Demonstrators protest outside City Hall in downtown Los Angeles after the election of President Trump. (Patrick T. Fallon/Reuters)
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“Fox and Friends,” which for years counted Donald Trump as a regular call-in guest, has in recent weeks become a pillar of his defense. On Super Bowl weekend, the show's hosts talked about how Trump's friendship with New England Patriots owner Bob Kraft was the sort of story he should tell more often, and how reasonable policies such as the travel and refugee bans were being badly spun. On Sunday, a “Fox and Friends” co-host asked White House press secretary Sean Spicer if “people are being paid to protest” the Trump administration.

“Protesting has become a profession now,” Spicer said. “They have every right to do that, don’t get me wrong. But I think we need to call it what it is. It’s not these organic uprisings that we have seen over the last several decades. The tea party was a very organic movement. This has become a very paid, Astroturf-type movement.”

It was the clearest endorsement yet of an idea that has become taken for granted in conservative media — that the protests hounding Republican members of Congress are fabricated by big money. The chief culprit is seen to be George Soros, a financier who has plowed hundreds of millions of dollars into progressive and pro-transparency causes since the 2004 election. That year, not only because of his money but also a speaking tour, Soros became a bête noire of the right, whose influence is seen wherever shadows loom, from the Syrian refugee crisis to the Holocaust.

"No, George Soros has not paid protesters or to transport protesters," said Soros spokesman Michael Vachon in an e-mail.

The idea that 2017's protests are Soros-backed largely came from a Jan. 10 article from the Media Research Center, headlined “Soros Gave Nearly $90 Million to Liberal 'Women's March' Partners.” The large list of Soros-aided Women's March co-sponsors, from Human Rights Watch to the Hip-Hop Caucus, was turned against the organizers — and conflated with the idea that Soros had funded the march itself. (He did not.)

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Similar stories about Soros's money ran on Breitbart and WorldNetDaily, among other sites, up to the march itself. Since then, viewers of Fox News Channel have been informed by both its hosts and by members of Congress that the protests were Soros-funded.

“What Americans have to understand is that there is an organized effort to get Donald Trump out of office,” Bill O'Reilly told viewers on Jan. 23. “This is a largely unreported story. The Women's March over the weekend, a perfect example. That wasn't a spontaneous event. It was organized by far left groups, which received millions of dollars from the liberal activist George Soros. In fact, Soros has ties to 50 of the groups that attended the woman's march this weekend. Fifty. And according to the media research center, sources pumped $90 million into those groups. Some of the top of march organizers were members of the Obama administration, Hillary Clinton's campaign, Bernie Sanders campaign.”

A week later, on “The Five,” co-host Greg Gutfield hinted that the protests — “so well-organized ahead of time, you know, to get on buses, to go places" -- might have a funding source. Other guests were more explicit. Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.), a favorite of tea party activists in 2009 and 2010, said on Fox Business that the Democrats throwing up roadblocks to President Trump's nominees were doing it to please the megadonor.

“They are winning over George Soros and his pocketbook,” Blackburn said in a Jan. 30 interview. “Because my understanding is he's the one who is funding a good bit of this.”

Fox Business host Lou Dobbs has repeatedly dashed off references to “Soros-funded” protests, too. “I've got to ask you about George Soros funding protests, demonstrations, lawsuits,” Dobbs asked Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) on Jan. 30. “At what point does he become a subversive? I'm just curious.

“I don't know,” Jordan said. “But what we do know is what we learned back during the campaign, when the Democrat Party was involved in disrupting Trump rallies. So we know what the left is capable of. We know what the Democrat Party was caught doing.”

That was a reference to a sting, carried out by James O'Keefe's Project Veritas, that found a Wisconsin Democratic operative named Scott Foval bragging about how he'd helped bring protesters to 2016 Trump rallies and hoped for reckless Trump voters to embarrass themselves by starting fights.

“We know what the national left-wing media is capable of,” Dobbs said, “and that is not covering it!”

In reality, the mushrooming protests have been organized similarly to the very first tea party rallies, by novice political activists (some with campaign experience) getting permits or crowdsourcing their tactics. The Washington Post and other outlets have reported on the Working Families Party's “Resist Trump Tuesdays,” and the Indivisible Guide designed by former Democratic congressional staffers to share effective protest tactics. (According to a Lexis-Nexis search, no Fox News Channel prime time series has covered the Indivisible Guide.)

What has been missing, ironically, has been well-funded institutional support from progressive organizations. Some is in the planning stages, but it is running behind what helped the tea party in 2009. At that time, Americans for Prosperity, founded and then chaired by David Koch, was endorsing tea party events and recruiting activists to its formerly sleepy policy forums. (Americans for Prosperity has remained a grass-roots organizing juggernaut, especially in organizing the one-on-one lobbying of state legislatures.) FreedomWorks, which had tried and failed to spur anti-tax protests before 2009, similarly helped provide speakers for tea party rallies, and connected Republican candidates to a grass-roots base.

In 2009, Democrats responded to this with the same word that Spicer used: Astroturf. “This [tea party] initiative is funded by the high end — we call it Astroturf,” then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said in an interview the morning of a wave of tea party rallies on April 15, 2009. “It’s not really a grass-roots movement. It’s Astroturf by some of the wealthiest people in America to keep the focus on tax cuts for the rich instead of for the great middle class.”

In hindsight, despite detailed reporting on the funding that helped grow the tea party, many Democrats view this framing as ineffective. (Only when the Koch network plunged more strategically into campaign funding though “dark money” did Democrats seem to win votes by attacking them.) The activists who were targeted by the “Astroturf” line remember it as not just ineffective, but immensely irritating.

“I was annoyed then about the attacks from the left, and am still annoyed,” said Brendan Steinhauser, who in 2009 and 2010 was director of grass-roots organizing at FreedomWorks. “I certainly believe that while I disagree with the left's policies and politics, I think they should organize and protest, and make their case to the voters. They certainly have the right to do that, and that's their best option now given their recent electoral defeats. I'm not going to be inconsistent and call them Astroturf or attack them in the way they attacked us.”

Greg Greene, who was a Democratic National Committee spokesman at the height of the Tea Party protests, recalled that the pushback didn't do much for his party.

"No one reacts well to hearing their sincere beliefs dismissed as the product of paid advocacy," said Greene. "If anything, that response entrenches the people who've been moved to protest in their antipathy toward the administration. That said, it's not as if Republicans might listen to any Dem saying, with experience, that this tactic doesn't work. But as Obama said on his way out of the White House, reality has a way of asserting itself."