The White House and some GOP lawmakers have dismissed the uproar at town hall meetings this month as the work of “professional protesters” and “liberal activists.” The rhetoric suggests that individual protesters are accepting cash to berate members of Congress in public.
The reality is a lot less nefarious.
Those making the allegation point to links between activist groups organizing the protests and the progressive nonprofits supported by George Soros. But the liberal megadonor denies any direct connection to the growing tide of anti-Trump protests.
“There have been many false reports about George Soros and the Open Society Foundations funding protests in the wake of the U.S. presidential elections,” a spokesman for Soros’ foundation said in a statement. “There is no truth to these reports.”
That burgeoning fixation on Soros, a favorite whipping boy of the right since he poured millions into a failed attempt to defeat then-President George W. Bush in 2004, echoes Democrats’ Obama-era accusations that libertarian magnates Charles and David Koch were fueling the tea party. And like Soros now, the Kochs in 2010 denied underwriting the anti-Obama protests then.
But that hasn’t stopped conservatives from pointing to what they call signs of coordination. Specifically, they note past grants from Soros’ foundation to groups associated with last month’s Women’s Marches and Indivisible, the upstart clearinghouse for local anti-Trump protesters founded by former House Democratic aides. Breitbart News has published several posts accusing Soros of pulling the strings of grass-roots demonstrators, and Family Research Council CEO Tony Perkins wrote Wednesday that outrage over Trump is “manufactured” in part by Soros.
Asked where Perkins’ charge came from, a spokeswoman for the evangelical leader pointed to a post on the conservative Daily Signal website that cites “indirect ties” between Soros and Indivisible board members.
Indivisible co-founder Ezra Levin countered that he has yet to collect a paycheck for serving as the group’s executive director. Just as Democrats were wrong for believing the tea party was politically ginned-up Astroturf, Levin said, Republicans are misguided for dismissing this year’s anti-Trump sentiment.
“They’re not learning the lessons of eight years ago,” Levin said in an interview. “I see why it would be attractive to them to believe there’s this world where everybody is pretty happy with the way things are going, and any negativity you hear on the ground is just the product of dollars coming in from above. But that’s a fantasy.”
Some Republicans have pointedly declined to blame professional activist groups for fomenting the rapid and often combative political involvement of Indivisible chapters and other grass-roots anti-Trump efforts. And others have urged fellow conservatives to take the burgeoning protests seriously.
Michael Duncan, a partner at the powerhouse GOP consulting shop Cavalry who previously spearheaded the tea party group FreedomWorks’ digital strategy, tweeted on Thursday that “liberal groups are scooping up thousands of emails by organizing and providing tools to activists.”
“This was my job at FreedomWorks in the early tea party years,” Duncan added. “The Internet was the only way to scale services to activists. FreedomWorks went from 30,000 activists to millions in the exact same way.”
Perhaps the most prominent Republican to suggest that demonstrators are being compensated is Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), the House Oversight Committee chairman, who told the Salt Lake Tribune that he perceived “a concerted, national effort, some of which was paid,” behind the jeers that greeted him at his Feb. 9 town hall.
Chaffetz’s rhetoric also referred to organized activist groups. The list of nonprofits supporting grass-roots, anti-Trump protests this winter also includes MoveOn.org and the Working Families Party — both of which have received Soros grants — and Organizing for Action, which employs 14 paid field organizers as part of its recently launched campaign to defend Obamacare.
“There’s no doubt that people around the country are fired up right now — they want to get involved, they want to make their voices heard, they want answers about what’s going to happen to their health care,” OFA spokesman Jesse Lehrich wrote in an email. “It’s a very organic phenomenon.”
White House spokesman Sean Spicer used the same phrase earlier this month to contrast the “very organic” tea party with “very paid, very Astroturf-type” anti-Trump activism. Less than a week later, Bernie Sanders made the opposite charge, insisting that this year’s protests are “a spontaneous and grassroots uprising” different from the Koch-funded tea party.
Another Republican who suggested paid protesters were stoking furor in his district, Texas Rep. Louie Gohmert, waded into a separate controversy with a Tuesday statement that warned of “groups from the more violent strains of the leftist ideology, some even being paid, who are preying on public town halls.”
In that statement, Gohmert noted that former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.) “was shot at a public appearance.” Giffords pushed back on Thursday through the gun control group she co-founded, Americans for Responsible Solutions.
“I was shot on a Saturday morning. By Monday morning my offices were open to the public,” Giffords said in a statement. “To the politicians who have abandoned their civic obligations, I say this: Have some courage. Face your constituents. Hold town halls.”