Faking Grassroots – Tea Party-Style Astroturfing in Times of Corona

By Nikolas A. Mariani

“I prefer dangerous freedom over peaceful slavery – Thomas Jefferson” read one large sign in Lansing, Michigan, as throngs of protestors gathered on April 15. Of the thousands of protestors that descended on Lansing, most arrived to protest from within their cars as part of what was dubbed Operation Gridlock, but large groups gathered in person as well, flouting stay-at-home orders as well as social distancing guidelines imposed during the corona pandemic. Many wore the familiar MAGA hats, pro-Trump signage, and waved American flags. Trump slogans were in abundance, including cries of “Lock her up!” directed at Michigan’s governor Gretchen Whitmer, echoing the same chant used at Trump rallies towards Hilary Clinton. One sign read “Heil Witmer,” displaying a swastika. The protest also attracted other strange bedfellows, with some appearing heavily armed with assault rifles and combat fatigues: the Michigan Liberty Militia and the Proud Boys were in attendance, designated by the Southern Poverty Law Center as antigovernment extremist and hate groups respectively. At a similar event in Lansing on April 30, protestors in tactical gear and carrying assault rifles attempted to enter the floor of the state capitol, with some gathering on the gallery and shouting at lawmakers below who were discussing the extension of Gov. Whitmer’s emergency lockdown regulations. At least one lawmaker expressed fears over her safety, writing on Twitter: “Directly above me, men with rifles yelling at us. Some of my colleagues who own bullet proof vests are wearing them. I have never appreciated our Sergeants-at-Arms more than today.”

While the USA finds itself the epicenter of the current global Covid-19 pandemic with the largest number of confirmed cases and deaths worldwide (83,947 people died from or with Covid-19 as of May 14), the majority of the population remains sheltered in place at home. Since mid-April, however, there has been a sudden surge of mass gatherings like the ones in Michigan in several states and often in front of state capitols, protesting what are perceived as draconian lockdown policies. Trump seemed to spur on the protestors, tweeting “Liberate Michigan!” on April 17, causing widespread criticism, including by Washington governor Jay Inslee, who accused Trump of “fomenting domestic rebellion.” The protestors demanded that the states be reopened and lockdown measures largely lifted, despite these demands going against official guidelines recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Trump administration itself.

While many protestors, both at the gatherings in Michigan and elsewhere, were there to express their frustration at being unable to go to work or go about their daily lives, these topical complaints were mostly accompanied by a general anti-government sentiment. Among the countless American flags at the recent anti-lockdown protests could also be seen “Don’t Tread on Me” Gadsden flags, a favorite amongst libertarian and far-right anti-government groups. This particular flag had previously been re-popularized by the Tea Party movement just over a decade ago.

The Gadsden flag, designed 1775 (credit: Wikipedia Commons)

Indeed, beyond the iconography and rhetoric on display, there were many facets that seemed evocative of similar anti-government protests during the rise of the Tea Party phenomenon.

Grassroots or Astroturf? The Myth of the Tea Party

The Tea Party arose almost overnight in 2009 after the nation elected Barack Obama, ostensibly in response to extreme government spending, overreach, and fears of a socialist takeover of the healthcare system in light of the Obama administration’s proposed Affordable Care Act. While largely perceived and promoted as a “grassroots, popular, diffuse, leaderless, populist, anti-establishment, nonpartisan, and insurgent” protest movement, the Tea Party phenomenon was largely an example of astroturfing, or fake grassroots (Street and DiMaggio 2011, 127). Astroturfing describes a practice by which the appearance of a groundswell of bottom-up support, i.e. a grassroots movement, is manufactured via top-down organization, whether it be for a candidate, cause, group, message, or ideology. In Paul Street and Anthony DiMaggio’s Crashing the Tea Party, they conclude it was “not an independent social movement at all” but rather a “fundamentally top-down affair” (ibid.). The Tea Party was in large part a manufactured phenomenon promoted by right-wing lobbying organizations, chief among them advocacy groups such as FreedomWorks and Americans for Prosperity (AFP), a non-profit backed primarily by the billionaire Koch brothers, Charles and David Koch. AFP’s chief goals consist largely of ensuring passage of business-friendly legislation including tax benefits for corporations and the mass deregulation of environmental laws.

Tea Party Protest in Hartford, Connecticut, 2009 (credit: Sage Ross – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0)

Street and DiMaggio found evidence to discredit several of the Tea Party’s claims. For instance, the claims of representing a “diffuse” and “popular” movement distorted the group’s actual demographics and ideological representativeness. Tea Party supporters were in fact overwhelmingly older, white, and male, and hailed mainly from middle America. Furthermore, the claimed number of local Tea Party chapters was vastly inflated, often including many that had no actual members. Turnouts to rallies were often overstated in the press, with more egregious examples utilizing footage from different protests entirely as a backdrop for news coverage in the attempt of helping them appear larger. Street and DiMaggio’s research concluded that media coverage often failed to provide adequate context on the financial backgrounds and interests of these groups. Interestingly, this behavior was not limited to the rightwing media ecosystem spearheaded by Fox News. Street and DiMaggio found that more left-leaning media outlets routinely embraced right-wing media frames as well, proliferating the myth of the Tea Party as “authentically grassroots” and representative of a popular sentiment amongst broad and diverse portions of voters. The New York Times, for example, described the Tea Party in 2010 on their “Topics” page as a “diffuse American grass-roots group that taps into antigovernment sentiments.”

Ultimately, the Tea Party protests served to facilitate pro-business legislative reforms in Congress by helping the Republicans to an overwhelming victory in the 2010 midterm elections. Two thirds of new House Republicans and five out of six new Senators were candidates The New York Times had identified as “Tea Party Candidates,” often well to the right of incumbent Republicans on most policy issues. While having largely disappeared from public discourse in 2020, Tea Party candidates now form what is known as the Freedom Caucus in Congress and hold significant influence in federal as well as state legislatures. A look at the interests facilitating and promoting the current anti-lockdown protests reveals a similar pattern of top-down organizing, as well as some familiar faces.

Déjà Vu – Right-Wing Networks Behind the Anti-Lockdown Protests

Much like during the rise of the Tea Party, the coronavirus protests are currently being aided by wealthy and well-connected Republican interests – some with direct ties to the Trump administration – in order to help pursue their own political agendas.

One example can be found in the April 15 protest in Lansing, Michigan, which was organized by the Michigan Freedom Fund (MFF) and the far-right Michigan Conservative Coalition (MCC), whose website lists affiliations with the Michigan Trump Republicans and Women for Trump. One of the latter’s board members, Meshawn Maddock, who was instrumental in organizing Operation Gridlock, also sits on the Trump campaign’s advisory board. The Michigan Freedom Fund does not disclose donors as part of its tax-exempt 501(c)(4) non-profit status, but its associated political action committee, Michigan Freedom Network (MFN), does. 2017-2019 records show it was almost entirely funded by the family of Betsy DeVos, Trump’s Education Secretary. MFF is run by Greg McNeilly, a longtime advisor to the DeVoses and former campaign manager to Dick DeVos’s gubernatorial campaign. Furthermore, the DeVoses most recently provided financial support for Gov. Whitmer’s opponent in the 2018 election.

Another example is the advocacy group FreedomWorks, which is currently holding “weekly virtual town halls with members of Congress, igniting an activist base of thousands of supporters across the nation to back up the effort” of re-opening the country. FreedomWorks, an offshoot of the Koch-founded lobbying group “Citizens for a Sound Economy,” advocates for “less government, lower taxes, and more economic freedom” and is best known for being instrumental in making the Tea Party a household name through its national protest coordination efforts a decade ago. A recent protest in Wisconsin provided a renewed example of how FreedomWorks maintains influence in such gatherings with the support of wealthy donors. Stephen Moore, who chairs FreedomWorks’ Task Force on Economic Revival and served as a Trump campaign advisor in 2016, stated in an interview that he had located a big donor for the efforts of shutting down the capital in Wisconsin in order to protest the governor’s lockdown measures. He cited the anonymous donor as saying “Steve, I promise to pay the bail and legal fees for anyone who gets arrested.”

Protestors at the “Open Our Ohio” rally, Columbus, OH, April 18, 2020 (credit: Paul Becker, Wikipedia Commons)

Multiple nation-wide protests were also organized in the past few weeks by interest groups with legislative agendas set by wealthy donors. Under the headline “Open the States,” protests were organized by a group called Convention of States. Their president, Mark Meckler, happens to have been a co-founder of the Tea Party Patriots. The Convention of States’ parent organization, Citizens for Self-Governance, “has been financed by funds connected to Koch and donors in the Koch political networks,” according to the Center for Media and Democracy, a progressive non-profit. The Koch-backed Americans for Prosperity (AFP), one of the largest promoters of the Tea Party, has been advocating against the lockdown measures as well. In 2018, AFP lobbied the Trump administration to cut the CDC’s funding by $1 billion, albeit largely unsuccessfully. Most recently, AFP put out a press release opposing the CDC’s pandemic-related recommendations put into action by the Trump administration, asking that “[r]ather than blanket shutdowns, the government should allow businesses to continue to adapt and innovate to produce the goods and services Americans need,” though they did not specify what exactly that should entail. AFP also has a history of political opposition to Michigan’s governor Whitmer, and reportedly spent $3.9 million to oppose her in the 2018 election.

The above examples indicate that the interest in organizing the current anti-lockdown protests lies less in principled opposition to these measures, and more in utilizing a politically advantageous moment to organize against incumbent Democrats and their policies. While frustrations about the economic effects of state- and nationwide shutdowns are likely widespread and even bipartisan, the coordinated efforts of Republican-backed interest groups, many with links to the Trump administration, point to a political agenda that goes beyond simply opposing stay-at-home measures. The degree of national coordination and at coordinated messaging raises doubts about the claims of the protests’ spontaneity.

Furthermore, while the protests are conducted and amplified for maximum media coverage, and supported in this endeavor by right-wing media outlets, they falsely suggest large-scale support amongst the general public. In fact, Americans are largely satisfied with governors’ actions that try to contain the Covid-19 pandemic across the US: one Quinnipiac poll from April 8 found that 74% of respondents approved of their governor’s handling of the outbreak, compared to only 46% approving of the Trump administration’s response; nearly 70% of Republicans supported a national stay-at-home order. In a HuffPost/YouGov survey from early April, 81% of respondents agreed with their state’s decisions to enact stay-at-home orders.

Protestor at the “Open Our Ohio” rally, Columbus, OH, April 18, 2020 (credit: Paul Becker)

Much like Tea Party protests a decade ago, the current protests exhibit elements of manufactured grassroots, or astroturfing. The claims of spontaneity, the organic grassroots nature of the protests, as well as the representativeness of the protestors’ views on the lockdown as a whole seem to hold little merit. The protests did provide some extraordinary footage on April 30, however, as protestors crowded inside the Michigan Capitol building, many with rifles slung over their shoulders, few with facial coverings, and none observing social distancing. As they pressed up against Michigan State Police, their preference for “dangerous freedom over peaceful slavery” on full display, they joined in a chant of “Tyranny!”

While the concerns about the lockdown’s economic fallout are legitimate and most likely shared by many nationwide, these protests neither represent the majority view of Americans nor do they constitute a true grassroots movement. Much like with the Tea Party, we would do well to view critically any claims to a “grassroots” nature, and look closely at the often opaque web of interest groups that fuel such protests for their own political aims.


About the author

Nikolas Mariani is a PhD candidate at the Heidelberg Center for American Studies. His research focuses on alternative news media from both the left and right of the political spectrum and how audiences form relationships of trust with them. You can follow him on Twitter at @Nik__Mariani.


References

Street, Paul, and Anthony DiMaggio. 2011. Crashing the Tea Party: Mass Media and the Campaign to Remake American Politics. Boulder: Paradigm Publishers.


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4 Responses

  1. Whether the Tea Party was a right-wing grassroots movement or a re-tooled corporate vehicle to re-assert the libertarian forces within the Republic Party, after the GOP’s devastating defeat in the 2008 elections, has been indeed an important research question in social science. My reading of that research beyond Street and DiMaggio’s 2011 study – and excluding research that is written in explicit support of the TP movement – is that the Tea Party is a little bit of both. As for instance Theda Skocpol and Vanessa Williamsson argue in their landmark study, TP contains elements of a bona fide grassroots movement AND big-money PACs and foundation backing plus conservative media amplification. It is very difficult to establish a national presence in the US, if you are lacking the latter, but is equally unrealistic to assume that you can have big electoral success, if the former is missing entirely.
    As a matter of fact, the short term 2010 success and the long-term failure of the TP to prevent a second term of Barack Obama in 2012 demonstrate its multi-faceted character. There is little doubt in both academia and punditry, that the Tea Party movement – irrespective of its authenticity or its ‘artificial’ character – contributed to the mobilization of the Republican base to win the 2010 midterms in an unprecendented landslide. As the NYT – certainly not a friend of the TP – in a ten-year anniversary piece on the 10th anniversary of the ‘launch’ of the movement by CNBC business reporter Rick Santelli reported in 2019, “of the 87 new Republicans elected to the House in 2010 — the most sweeping repudiation of a president and his political party (Obama and the Dems, MTh) in generations — one who has risen higher than most is Mick Mulvaney“ , Mr. Trump’s former chief of staff and budget director. But at the same time, it was an libertarian uprising based on notions of small-government libertarianism that are popular with libertarian think tanks but not so popular with most Americans. The rage that drove the Tea Party in its beginning was most likely authentic and without that politics of rage, which was embodied even before the TP by former vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin in 2008, Donald Trump’s political style might not have become ‚hoffähig‘ (acceptable), but it’s narrow libertarian focus as well as some of its racist undertone did not prove very successful with the American people. Otherwise we would be nearing the end of the second term of GOP president Mitt Romney and not gearing up for the reelection or defeat of the Donald.
    Just a few days ago, this insight was emphasized by Fox News host Tucker Carlson. He noticed that no-one in the present-day US outside libertarian think tanks like the Cato Institute ( and perhaps some economists in Germany) cares much about a key Tea Party issue: its outrage over the debt and deficit.

    I think it is too early to draw any conclusions, whether the anti-lockdown protests the author cites e.g. in Michigan will serve the same mobilising purposes for the GOP and Trump re-elections efforts in 2020 as they served for the GOP mid-term elections of 2010. Because of t he high approval ratings of lockdown-governors from both parties (GOP DeVine in Ohio has the highest), I think that armed protesters in Lansing,MI resemble a desperate Hail-Mary pass, authentic or astroturf. To win re-election in a now hostile Coronavirus environment, Trump and the GOP will need to do more, also in Michigan.

    By the way, if there was one classic astroturf campaign in the very recent past in the US: the presidential campaign of Democratic big donor Michael Bloomberg, who, I suppose, without being able to prove it beyond reasonable doubt, might have even paid the people who attended his rallies. That especially Elizabeth Warren and to some extend Bernie Sanders, who went after Bloomberg, but stopped going after Biden with gloves off during the primaries, mistook Bloomberg’s campaign as a real threat, and did not hit harder on Biden, when he was down, proved fatal for all those, who had wished for a progressive candidate in 2020 on the Democratic ticket. I assume that the author of the blog might have been among those wishers.

    • Nikolas Mariani says:

      Dear Martin Thunert,

      Thank you very much for your comments. You make some very good additions and I largely agree with your points. There was certainly a level of authentic outrage and support among real citizens in the Tea Party, without which such a phenomenon would have been impossible.
      Incidentally, I also find that, depending on the litmus test employed to accredit a movement with a “certified grassroots” status, it might be impossible for any group to ever aspire to such “pure authenticity”, whether they be on the Right or Left. It is certainly always a question of degree. I would have gladly gone a bit more into the nuances of this in the above essay, word count permitting, but given the circumstances I tried to lend most of the focus to the modern-day parallels vis-à-vis financing.

  2. Great piece!
    But “The Tea Party arose almost overnight in 2009 after the nation elected Barack Obama” is wrong. The Tea Party has its roots already in 2008 when George W. Bush was President.

    • Nikolas Mariani says:

      Dear Kai-Uwe, thank you for your comment!

      You are right to say that the roots can be traced back to before 2009. However, most accounts place the “beginning” of the Tea Party, as it were, on February 19, when Rick Santelli of CNBC, criticizing the Obama plan of refinancing mortgages, called for a “Chicago Tea Party”, leading to the clip of his rant going viral. It is common for many among the libertarian right to seek to lay claim to the origins of the Tea Party. Ron Paul, for example, used the term “Tea Party” for the rallies during his presidential run in 2008. FreedomWorks also used similar terminology prior to 2009. In any case, 2009 saw the first nationwide Tea Party protests. Ironically, in most of the rhetoric surrounding “overspending”, Bush’s role in the bailouts was largely forgotten during these protests.

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