In the wake of Trump's victory, thousands of protesters crowded the streets of Manhattan (where Trump got fewer votes than he did on Staten Island, where the population is a third smaller) outside Trump Tower. It's hard to know how many were there, but let's assume it was 5,000 people. That would mean that a fraction of a percent of the city took time to ride the train in and make their voices heard, assuming no one came in from anywhere else. Protests of thousands of people in New York really aren't that uncommon, which could have been a reasonable thing to point out if you wanted to brush the event away.
That's not the angle that Trump and his supporters took. Instead, the president-elect and his backers decided to dismiss the protests in New York and other cities — cities that contain hundreds of thousands of people who mostly voted against Trump — as being the work of “paid protesters.” In a tweet, Trump decided that the “professional protesters,” in his formulation, were also “incited by the media,” which doesn't make much sense.
Before we debunk the sketchy rumors about anti-Trump protesters being paid, let's be up front about why this is a useful argument for Trump and his supporters to make.
Donald Trump will enter the White House with very few checks on his power. He has a Congress controlled by members of his own party, save for a clutch of Democrats in the Senate who can use the filibuster to stand in his way — unless the filibuster is eliminated. The executive branch has gobbled up more power for itself over the past decade and a half, and Trump will find little disincentive to maintain and expand that process. Unless Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) suddenly feels stunningly magnanimous toward the outgoing administration, Trump will get to appoint a Supreme Court justice in the first few months of his presidency, reestablishing a conservative majority on the bench that will, in most cases, presumably side with Trump's political philosophy.
The main obstacles to Trump are twofold. The first is the plurality of voters who opposed his candidacy and view him skeptically. The second is a news media that reports accurately on the conflicts between what he says and reality. And that's why Trump wants to undercut them.
In his interview with CBS's "60 Minutes” broadcast Sunday, Trump dismissed the fact that Hillary Clinton won the popular vote by insisting that his victory was a cakewalk, that he “won it easily. I mean I won easily. That was big, big.” That same day, he tweeted repeatedly about how badly the New York Times was losing subscribers because of its “BAD coverage” of him. (In reality, the Times gained subscribers at a rapid clip.)
But let's return to the protests. The idea that the protesters were paid has been a recurring theme among Trump backers, pointing to various, nebulous reports as proof. RT.com, the outlet founded by Russian President Vladimir Putin's press secretary, cites a news release from the liberal political activist group MoveOn as proof of a link back to billionaire George Soros (who has funded the group). Others have pointed to Craigslist ads suggesting jobs to “STOP TRUMP.” A story at the pro-Trump site ZeroHedge that was picked up by the Drudge Report shows a video recording a line of buses in Chicago, suggesting that the buses were used to bring people in from Wisconsin to protest Trump.
Think about that. Trump won Wisconsin. Someone needed to bus people in from Milwaukee (population: 600,000) to protest in Chicago (population: 2.7 million)? There's no evidence offered that the line of buses has anything to do with the protests, mind you. And a quick glance at Google Street View, captured in October, reveals that there's always a line of buses in that same place.
There was one report from last spring suggesting that people from MoveOn were behind a protest in Chicago and that protesters had been paid $16 an hour to attend. That unsubstantiated report came from longtime Trump ally Roger Stone, who has been known to share misinformation in the past.
There are clearly progressive organizations that are hoping to use Trump's election as a tool for organizing. Advocacy groups often hire staff to help organize activities around elections, which appears to be what those Craigslist ads are for. The phone number on several that were passed around link back to the Community Outreach Group, which was mostly hiring for campaign work. MoveOn is certainly hoping to leverage the current moment to its advantage, which includes trying to raise funds from Trump's win, as its main webpage suggests. Yes, it supports the protests and encourages its members to participate; that's organizing. That said, the idea that money pours into progressive groups so that they can hire folks to dispatch around the country lacks any grounding in reality.
But it has captured the imagination of the right, bolstered by websites friendly to the president-elect. Trump benefited over the course of the campaign from the idea that the mainstream media wasn't trustworthy and that conspiracy theories articulated by friendly websites and distributed by the Drudge Report reflected reality. It has been enormously helpful to him, increasing people's uncertainty about what is and isn't true — helpful for a politician who doesn't always embrace accuracy.
There's simply no credible evidence that the opposition to Trump is spurred by anything other than legitimate concern about what his presidency might entail. Such concern could and does stem from accurate reporting by objective media outlets.
Trump has a choice: He could accept that a large chunk of the country — including his own hometown — is frustrated at the prospect of his presidency, and work to build their trust and respect. Or he could wave it all away as being contrived and part of a grand conspiracy against him. Which path he chooses moving forward will define what sort of leader he hopes to be.