By Renny Simone
Are the ‘Reopen America’ protests the start of a new conservative movement, a cynical political ploy, or something in between?
America’s unprecedented economic shutdown, meant to slow the spread of coronavirus, has spawned protests in various US cities against social distancing measures. Many of the protesters are fans of President Donald Trump, a Republican, and Democratic governors have drawn much of the ire.
One protest this week, dubbed ‘Operation Queen’s Castle’, was the third directed against Democrat Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer. Demonstrators gathered on Thursday outside the Governor’s Mansion, demanding that she begin reopening the economy.
Connections to big-name conservatives (and their wealthy foundations) have prompted some outlets, such as the New York Times, to describe the ‘Reopen America’ protests as examples of ‘astroturfing’. A play on the concept of ‘grassroots’, or bottom-up, organising, ‘astroturfed’ movements are defined by The Times as artificial, top-down affairs ‘that are manipulated by Washington conservatives to appear locally driven.’
Whitmer supports this hypothesis.
‘This group is funded in large part by the DeVos family,’ Whitmer said of the Michigan protesters, reported The Daily Beast.
Betsy DeVos, an influential Republican and native Michigander, is currently serving as Trump’s Secretary of Education. DeVos has been linked to the Michigan protests by way of the Michigan Freedom Fund, a group that helped organize the protests and which has received over $500,000 from DeVos’ family, according to Al Jazeera.
DeVos is not the only prominent Republican implicated in the protests. Stephen Moore, an economic adviser to President Trump, talked about his role in planning ‘Reopen’ protests in Wisconsin on a conservative YouTube show. In addition to a controversial remark comparing the protesters to American civil rights icon Rosa Parks, Moore divulged details of the political power behind the demonstrations.
‘We have one big donor in Wisconsin, I’m not gonna mention his name, and … he said Steve, I promise I will pay the bail and legal fees for anyone who gets arrested,’ Moore said.
The astroturfing theory leads some experts to conclude that the protests do not reflect a genuine movement. Harvard sociologist Theda Skocpol, who has written books on the Tea Party movement and the anti-Trump resistance movement, says that the “Reopen America” protests are not in the same league as these heavyweights.
“I suspect we’ve got a similar combination of top-down influence from high-dollar organizations and some genuine energy at the grassroots level,” Skocpol told Vox’s Sean Illing. “But I also suspect this is mostly being pushed and promoted from above.”
Skocpol’s theory may help explain why these protests have gotten so much attention, despite the fact that only 10 percent of Americans want to end social distancing to stimulate the economy, according to a POLITICO/Morning Consult poll. In the absence of widespread support, powerful voices – from Fox News personalities to President Trump himself – have helped to raise the profile of the ‘movement.’ But Skocpol says these tactics have their limits.
‘I don’t think it’s going to morph it into anything on the scale of … the Tea Party back in 2010. I just don’t see the conditions for that,’ Skocpol said.
‘But I expect it to bubble on, because I think Donald Trump will continue to encourage his hardcore supporters to show their support for him publicly until such time as he can hold big rallies again.’