Sen. Ben Sasse, a freshman Republican senator from Nebraska, earned accolades from many in his party (and elsewhere) over the course of the 2016 campaign cycle thanks to his principled opposition to Donald Trump's presidential candidacy. A long Facebook note he wrote in February describing why he wouldn't support the man who went on to become his party's nominee included quotes from Trump that cast him in an unflattering light. Sasse's opposition continued through the general-election campaign.
On one point, though, Sasse and Trump appear to be in agreement: Those protesting out in the streets are there because they are being paid.
On Thursday morning, Sasse had some questions about the whole thing.
Thank you for writing, Senator! I'm happy to answer some of your questions.
“Why don't we have more reporting on paid rioting?” Well, it's probably important that we take a step back and point out that there isn't any good evidence that the people who are protesting (and who shouldn't be called “rioters,” save that crew of self-described anarchists in Portland, Ore.) are actually being paid to do so. There's plenty of questionable evidence and tons of bad “evidence" -- but nothing to suggest that Sasse's core assumption is accurate.
Yes, I've seen the bus video. Yes, I've seen the Craigslist posts. Yes, I've seen the James O'Keefe videos. I've seen all of the same little wisps of smoke that Sasse and others have, and I've written about them. The bus video is of a street where there are always buses, and there was no evidence that they were used for protests. The Craiglist posts are either fake or advertising organizing jobs. The O'Keefe videos show individual people who don't actually say that they paid anti-Trump protesters.
The wisps exist because some people are certain that there's a fire. The initial assumption is that the protests must be manufactured — the fire — and so signs that this is the case are hunted down and tacked on. Sasse's question is a bit like asking why we don't have more reporting on the fact that the moon is preparing a superweapon with which to annex Antarctica.
Now, it is absolutely the case that there are progressive organizations — MoveOn, labor unions — that help organize protests and opposition to any number of things. That's what organizers do. Those groups hire people to help coordinate political action, which can include protests. The organizing aspect of that is creating fliers and calling folks to try to turn them out. Often, no one shows up. Sometimes, these organizations glom onto already successful actions to take credit for them. Their goal is to make manifest existing political attitudes by getting sympathetic people to take action. That's organizing, and organizers who try to get volunteers to take those actions are paid. (Most of the Craigslist ads I saw were for these sorts of jobs, and it's mostly this work that the O'Keefe targets appear to be describing in those out-of-context comments.)
The people participating in mass action don't get paid, except maybe with a T-shirt. Why? A few reasons. First, there's no need. The tens of thousands of people outside Trump Tower in New York last week were part of a city of 8 million that voted against Trump by a 3-to-1 margin. You don't need to pay people in large Democratic cities to protest; there will always be people willing to do so. Second, paying all those people would be expensive, and despite this idea that these groups are rolling in cash, they're nonprofit groups. A grant of $1 million sounds like a lot (assuming such a grant exists; this is just an example), but when you figure that organizations need rent and salaries and Internet connections and so on, there's not a lot left over. Third, paying people to attend would be fairly easy to uncover and undermine the protest in precisely the way that Trump and his allies hope to undermine last week's.
The idea that Donald Trump can get 20,000 people to roll up to a rally in Alabama without raising Sasse's eyebrow but that the left would have to pay to get 10,000 people to protest Trump in Manhattan is goofy.
So. Back to the senator's questions.
“Who pays for it?” No one.
“How much?” Nothing.
“Why?” Like asking why the moon wants to invade.
“Through what orgs?” None.
“Who are the 'workers'?" They are “regular people.”
“Who recruits?” The Internet, mostly, based on what I heard when I talked to people at the protest I covered last week.
This is admittedly a bit flip. I can't say definitively that no person received any money to protest Trump, because I haven't investigated every single person who attended every single rally. They say you can't prove a negative, which is both true and generally applicable here: I can never completely satisfy those who believe that the protests are insincere and willing to grasp at wisps of smoke as evidence of it.
What's the news media's responsibility in situations like this? Should we set aside everything else and focus on an idea for which there's no immediate evidence besides rumors and innuendo? Reporters frequently spend hours and days chasing down leads that end up nowhere; I have had that happen half a dozen times this year alone. Sometimes you strike gold, such as when The Washington Post's David Fahrenthold began poking around on the Trump Foundation. Often, you come away with nothing.
A slew of conservative websites have worked to dig up evidence of protesters being paid, without any luck beyond what's articulated above. Would the resources of The Post have more luck? Perhaps. But the more likely determination is that there is nothing to be found. An absence of evidence makes it less likely, not more, that a media outlet will throw resources at something.
That Sasse calls the protesters “rioters” sort of tips his hand on this whole thing. That's the lens through which he wants to depict the almost-entirely-peaceful demonstrations that flared up after Election Day. Sasse may have opposed Trump in the primary and in the general election, but by reinforcing Trump's inaccurate (but intentional) framing of the people who have taken to the streets to express their frustration with his victory, Sasse is doing Trump a big favor now.