Tea Party 2.0: ‘Reopen’ Protests Have a Familiar Vibe

A scene from the “Open Our Ohio” rally at the Ohio Statehouse in Columbus on April 18, 2020. Photo by Flickr user Becker1999.

Americans remain deeply worried about opening up shops, restaurants, and other stores too soon amid the coronavirus pandemic, according to a new Washington Post-University of Maryland poll, but a relatively small, loud group of protesters in states across the country have grabbed headlines, demanding lawmakers ease stay-at-home restrictions and business closures. For those who studied and reported on the Tea Party, the parallels are everywhere.

Protests have erupted in nearly every state, with protesters wielding homemade signs, Trump paraphernalia, and guns, attracting some who have called the crisis fake, others who want to go about their normal routines, and far-right groups like the Proud Boys. Confederate flags and Gadsden flags, now a symbol of the Tea Party, are frequent sights.

Beyond the familiar imagery, these reopen protests have ties to groups and figures who funded and helped organize the Tea Party movement. The first Michigan protest was organized and funded by the Michigan Conservative Coalition and the Michigan Freedom Fund, two organizations with long ties to the DeVos family. The New York Times reported that Stephen Moore, a fellow at the Heritage Foundation, a Koch ally, and a Trump adviser, had secured a funder to pay the legal fees of protesters in Wisconsin to challenge the state’s health rules. Mark Meckler, a founder of the Tea Party with longtime connections to Koch world, and his Convention of States have promoted the protests online via “Open the States” and advised protesters on “optics.”

Right Wing Watch spoke with Lisa Graves, executive director of the watchdog group True North Research, who has studied the Koch network’s involvement in aiding the Tea Party. She wrote about these parallels in a New York Times op-ed, where she noted these protests were not fully spontaneous. The following conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.


Kristen Doerer: Are these protests more of a homegrown phenomenon or is this big political groups organizing these protests?

Lisa Graves: Like I said in the op-ed, it’s both real and manufactured. You have these brush fires emerging of people who are angry or afraid or don’t understand the science and the idea of flattening of the curve and what’s necessary to try to prevent this contagion from spreading so widely in our states and cities and towns. And then you have some bigger, well-established groups, well-funded groups tied to big funders like Betsy DeVos or Betsy DeVos’s righthand financial man who are helping to guide those protests, giving them advice on optics, on how to appear in the media, helping to organize and shape the public relations components of these events. There are obviously real people who are out there protesting, and then there are also obviously some real well-funded special interest groups that are helping to direct this and fanning those flames.

Kristen Doerer: How similar is this to the beginning of the Tea Party?

Lisa Graves: It is sort of a Tea Party, 2.0. There’s real and manufactured anger, and there’s an effort to direct that anger toward political opponents or toward a political objective versus things that perhaps ought to make people angry.

So back in 2009, just weeks after President Obama was inaugurated, when people were facing exceptional uncertainty over the collapse of Wall Street in September of 2008 and whether government was going to help people or help corporations, suddenly there’s a Tax Day protest. Along came this effort to try to blow that fear and anger—and I would say documented racism by some—into a movement to attack President Obama and the government instead of dealing with Wall Street, which had caused that meltdown, and instead of demanding that the government be more responsive to the bailout needs of Main Street than the big banks.

And here you have a situation in which people are facing uncertainty in the current crisis. People react to these circumstances with fear and anger and worry about their economic future, and there’s an effort to redirect those feelings toward attacking states, attacking government. Some states are trying to save people’s lives—and deal with the reality that the federal government has failed to adequately secure the life-saving equipment and provide the support we need to address this crisis—and deal with the economic uncertainty that human beings are facing versus the demands of big corporations, like the oil industry. So I think that’s a significant parallel.

Then you have the parallel of some of the groups helping to orchestrate it or helping to shape it and grow it like Mark Meckler’s Convention of States. And Meckler is obviously a common denominator in both.

Kristen Doerer: In your piece, you mentioned that the Convention of States often recruits activists from gun shows. And here, you have the gun activist Dorr brothers who started a few of those popular reopen Facebook pages and Trump tweeting, “LIBERATE VIRGINIA” and claiming gun rights are “under siege.” So what’s the connection between gun rights activists and these reopen protests?

Lisa Graves: I know from the research that I did with my team when I was at the Center for Media and Democracy back in 2015, 2016 that COS expressly recruits from gun shows. And it’s consistent with the other things we were seeing at the time in 2015, 2016, 2017 about that being a target audience for these efforts to have these constitutional conventions. One of the other groups, co-sponsored by the Koch-aligned ALEC, even held a machine gun shoot to raise money, and they were targeting gun rights activists, saying they were the caretakers of our government and a Constitution they “will” keep—which was underscored with a blood-red line. At their event at a shooting range, they auctioned off a rapid firing assault weapon, and some of them even sang a song calling their opponents socialists. This was very anti-Obama stuff.

And so we know that gun activists have been a prime target of theirs, and part of that is built on the continuing ways in which the NRA operates both as a membership group and as an industry-financed group funded by the gun industry to try to keep people at a heightened state of fear that their guns are going to be taken away when that just not a realistic threat. But it’s a great fundraising tool for them. 

Now, fast forward to the present moment, Meckler and his Convention of States people have been telling these protesters not to bring your guns, because optics are everything. I don’t know that they’ll be successful in encouraging that—some people may well leave their guns at home, and others may not—but these Meckler groups are trying to control the optics or shape the optics.

Kristen Doerer: So, gun activists are a key target audience. What are other recruitment strategies?

Lisa Graves: It’s a key audience for Convention of States in recruitment, and during the Obama administration, there were a lot of communications from Convention of States about Obama, the deficit, and having a balanced budget amendment. That’s been a long-standing goal of Charles Koch and ALEC. The right wing has been trying to use BBA since the late 70s as a weapon to reduce the size of government, to reduce the power of our government. But what you can see in looking at these groups, in particular Convention of States, is when Trump wins and pushes through massive tax cuts for big corporations and some of the richest people, including Trump, the Trump family, the Kochs, the Mercers, and others, Mark Meckler does not push his followers or these activists to go out and protest Trump, Congress, Mitch McConnell, or the White House about these massive deficit-ballooning tax cuts. They weren’t urged to protest him at all. Meckler wasn’t instigating and trying to blow into a bigger movement these followers who purportedly were part of this operation because of their supposedly abiding opposition to deficits, to deficit spending.

In that sense, I think you can see that the convention façade is really just another vehicle for this Tea Party organizer Meckler to have a perpetual sort of standing army of grassroots activists to deploy on the political things they want to deploy on—not on the principle, not when it was inconvenient for them to have a Republican president who makes the deficit bigger. But instead, now in the middle of this health crisis, in the face of this deadly, very contagious disease, that’s where they’re going to put their energy, getting those people out to protest these commonsense protocols to try to mitigate the number of people who die from this.

Kristen Doerer: You noted that part of the idea behind the balanced budget amendment was Koch and ALEC’s desire to reduce the size of government. So, is that part of the motivation that we’re seeing now as businesses are shut down and government needs to step up to help people?

Lisa Graves: At other times, the insider folks like ALEC and the outside folks have touted federalism and states’ rights against the federal government. And now you have a situation where you have the practical abdication of a key role of government by this president to really marshal resources quickly and get enough protective equipment for health care providers and to save people’s lives. Instead of fully deploying those powers, we have a president who has allowed and, in some ways, even spurred this competition between the states of these this vital equipment and thwarted their ability to get it at a low price—even allowing the federal government to drive up the costs by competing with the states.

And so, states have had to step up and do more coordination that otherwise we might have reasonably expected the federal government to do to through the Defense Production Act. You have state governors who are attempting to contend with the reality of this disease by trying to flatten the curve, and you have these groups, attacking those efforts to try to flatten the curve saying it’s about government overreach. That’s their claim, obviously, but this is an almost unprecedented deadly pandemic scenario with more Americans dead in three months than in the entire Vietnam War.

Kristen Doerer: So, in some sense, are they just trying to help Trump by attacking mostly Democratic governors? 

Lisa Graves: I don’t know that. First of all, they appear to be organizing in every state. It is the case that Trump has particularly targeted Democratic-led states with his “liberate” tweets and more. And Democratic-led states have had some of these early protests that have been aided by some of these groups. But it’s beyond those states. The organizing is in virtually every state. And I think that it is political organizing, and Trump, in essence, has encouraged it in that way to basically attack the governors and to put pressure on them to reopen. He has made it clear at numerous points that he’s chomping at the bit to reopen even as pandemic experts are saying that would be a total disaster and result in more dead Americans. And you could see his desire to rush ahead obviously in the threats to reopen by Easter, which was at the time just a couple weeks away, and then he had to walk that back, saying that was just his aspiration.

He is skilled rhetorically at putting up these trial balloons and then distancing himself from them. But as president, those trial balloons aren’t just bullshit at the bar. Those trial balloons have an impact on real people’s lives and also set expectations by his fans and followers and then create pressure to advance the objectives that he’s stated sometimes in theory and sometimes as actual policy.

Kristen Doerer: The Koch’s Americans for Prosperity says they’re not supporting the reopen protests, but what do we know about whether or not Koch is involved? 

Lisa Graves: I’m skeptical of the claims coming from Koch world, because we’ve seen this playbook before, where they denied repeatedly that they had anything to do in any way with funding the Tea Party efforts in 2009 and 2010. And then we know that history shows that in fact Koch groups were significantly involved even before the Tea Party launch, as Jane Mayer documented in “Covert Operations.” For example, “The Tea Party Talking Points” was the name of the document that was being promoted by Americans for Prosperity before the Tea Party protests happened that were supposedly spontaneous. They weren’t set up under Bush the previous year and organizing protests against a Republican president on Tax Day. Suddenly, when Obama was president, and they have lost that election so badly, suddenly, there was a motive and a desire to stir up anger about taxes when the president, I don’t think, had even passed a tax bill in those first 100 days. 

I certainly understand that AFP has stated publicly recently that it is not actively promoting these protests of the states and is working on pushing policymakers to open the economy inside the beltway, through inside strategy efforts. But, you know, we won’t know the truth and the real truth until after we see the filings and other documents that come out from this period from the array of groups that Koch and his network have funded. And we know that Koch world spent time in 2009, 2010, and beyond denying they had any role, only to later brag about their role in helping the Tea Party. Meckler has also said in an interview with Politico that they’re not there now, but they may be soon. So, who knows?

But also, and this is significant, Koch’s Americans for Prosperity followed its denials with a legal brief it filed in Wisconsin attacking the power of the governor and his administration to issue health orders in this pandemic. That is, Koch’s political arm is using its power to try to destroy the stay-at-home pandemic orders that the protesters are protesting. That is active and substantial assistance to the GOP in Wisconsin and to backstop the protests that they tried to spin the press about. The fact is that Koch’s Americans for Prosperity is actively trying to strike down the rule in Wisconsin, so quite frankly the recent claims of Koch operatives from AFP on the supposed misgivings about previously helping the Tea Party seem awfully convenient and have an effect of manipulating readers. They have made a display of touting that they are not urging the protests against the pandemic rules, and yet they have rushed into court to try to strike down the rules the protests are attacking. Actions speak louder than words. 

We also know that some of these groups and operatives have long ties to the Kochs. Stephen Moore is a longtime Koch ally, and has had his writings in some publications funded by the Koch fortune including his “Rich States, Poor States” report that was produced by ALEC. Moore is also part of Heritage Foundation, which has long-standing Koch support. That’s not the same, of course, as Koch supporting this particular set of claims by Stephen Moore at this time.