Whatever the outcome of the vote to confirm Judge Brett M. Kavanaugh’s nomination to serve on the Supreme Court, it will probably be one of the closest in American history. A deeply polarized electorate and a nearly evenly split Senate has resulted in unending trench warfare, with the outcome reliant on a handful of senators yet to announce their intentions.
To influence the vote, thousands of protesters have engaged in sit-ins on Capitol Hill, confronting senators in an effort to influence the debate. One such interaction between two protesters and Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) last week as Flake tried to enter an elevator was broadcast live on cable news; some say it led to his decision to call for an additional investigation into sexual misconduct allegations against Kavanaugh.
On Thursday, Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah) was filmed interacting with another group of protesters as he boarded another elevator. Unlike Flake, Hatch waved the women away dismissively. When one took offense at the gesture, Hatch said he would be happy to talk to her “when you grow up.”
It was certainly a reflection of the temperature of the moment. Hundreds were arrested the same day for protesting in the Hart Senate Office Building, their arguments focused on the demand that those who had experienced sexual assault be heard. Photos from the scene show large crowds, carrying signs and chanting.
President Trump apparently saw something different in those protests and in the confrontation with Hatch.
To some extent, Trump and his allies are picking up on a theme central to the political moment. The ease with which the Internet facilitates organizing has led to frequent allegations that groups of vocal political actors are insincere — AstroTurf, as the saying goes, instead of grass roots. Everyone who disagrees on Twitter is a bot; everyone who attends a demonstration or rally is paid.
For Trump, though, the critique has several more significant problems.
The first is how remarkable it is that the president of the United States should accuse his opponents of being, in essence, nonexistent. The implication from Trump’s tweet is that those protesters are broadly employees of left-wing groups, not that they have an opposing point of view worthy of consideration.
He made a similar claim shortly after the 2016 election, when protests that erupted following his win were dismissed as being “professional protesters, incited by the media.” After that comment received a negative response, he claimed that he “loved” that protesters had “passion for our great country.” After the protests that greeted his inauguration, after another tweet bashing the protesters, he said that he “recognize[d] the rights of people to express their views.”
By now, though, it should be clear to the president that there’s a fervent and persistent opposition to him and his policies. Kavanaugh in particular is viewed with more opposition than support. A recent poll from NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist found that 4 in 10 Americans strongly disapprove of Trump and a third of voters strongly oppose Kavanaugh’s confirmation. The idea that a few thousand of those people might travel to Washington to express their discontent is hardly unbelievable.
More broadly, though, the repeated claims by Trump and other Republicans that their political opponents are paid are simply baseless. There are constant efforts to pick out any indicators that there’s a guiding hand pointing protests in particular directions by providing resources and money. Those efforts generally relying on vague social-media posts and photographs that then propagate through the conservative media ecosystem.
Claims that the anti-Kavanaugh protesters are paid to be there, for example, often pivot around a photograph of a woman who was arrested for protesting during a hearing being handed money by a man beforehand. It was posted on Twitter with the caption “Proof the protesters were paid off in line.” The man handing her the money, though, was an organizer with a group called the Center for Popular Democracy, which provided cash bond payments to people who risked arrest by protesting the Kavanaugh hearings with money. (Those who weren’t arrested were expected to return the money.)
The conservative Daily Caller participated in a conference call with the group in which it detailed how the process would work for another round of protests. The Daily Caller’s headline for its story?
“Soros-backed Activists Slip Cash to Anti-Kavanaugh Protesters Before Arrests.”
See, billionaire George Soros, bogeyman of the political right, gave money — however small a portion of its funding — to support the Center for Popular Democracy. Therefore the through-line is drawn: Soros money to CPD to a protester. The guiding hand is identified.
In an interview on Fox Business, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) said that he, too, believed the protesters were funded by Soros.
“I have heard so many people believe that. I tend to believe it,” he said. “I believe it fits in his attack mode that he has and how he uses his billions and billions in resources.”
Large-scale protests on both sides require organizers to get permits, arrange timing and plan tactics. They often make signs to coordinate a central message. None of this suggests that the protesters themselves are not sincere. The Center for Popular Democracy has done a lot of organizing around Kavanaugh. (The group’s executive director was one of the women who confronted Flake, but there’s no evidence that the “elevator screamer” who confronted Hatch was linked to the organization.) Most stories about the group in the conservative media, though, include a pointed mention of Soros, highlighting an obvious subtext.
Trump’s inclusion of the billionaire in his sweeping indictment of the protesters who confronted Hatch is meant to stoke conservative anger and to dismiss his opponents as opportunists who don’t really oppose Kavanaugh’s nomination. Kavanaugh, meanwhile, has so far benefited from $12 million in broadcast ads supporting his nomination, paid for by a group called the Judicial Crisis Network — and whose donors are shielded from the public.
There are sharp ironies to Trump’s criticisms here. The first is that Trump himself faces allegations of assault. In a news conference last month, he suggested that those women who had come forward to allege that he’d assaulted them had been discredited by having been paid to make the claims. This isn’t true.
Then there’s this: On June 16, 2015, he announced his candidacy for the presidency from the lower lobby of Trump Tower. As he began, he celebrated the people arrayed around the balconies above him showing their support.
Some — not all — of those people were there because they were paid to be, $50 a head. They had professionally printed signs and shirts, not signs crafted with love in their basements. Several of the actors posted photos of themselves online; the firm that organized their attendance created a video highlighting its work on the event.
The kicker? Trump’s campaign didn’t pay that firm, Gotham Government Relations, for months, leading to an FEC complaint. That was reported on the day of Trump’s inauguration.