Thousands of Americans backed by rightwing donors gear up for protests

Conservative activists to demand governors lift stay-home orders -- and movement has been driven by wealthy conservative groups

SOURCE:, 2020-04-18

Thousands of people are preparing to attend protests across the US in the coming days, as a rightwing movement against stay-at-home orders, backed by wealthy conservative groups and promoted by Donald Trump, continues to take hold.

Conservative activists are demanding governors lift orders designed to stop the spread of the coronavirus, despite the recommendations of public health officials. Trump, who has clashed with Democratic governors over how soon to reopen the US economy, tweeted his support on Friday, in an unprecedented endorsement of civil disobedience by a sitting president.

Many of the planned rallies have been inspired by a protest at the Michigan state capitol on Wednesday, which was attended by thousands.

Yet while organisers claim the protests are grassroots-driven and people-driven, a closer look reveals a movement driven by traditional rightwing groups, including one funded by the family of Trump's education secretary, Betsy DeVos.

The rallies have drawn comparisons to the Tea Party movement, which sprang into life in 2009 following the election of Barack Obama and was driven in part by Americans for Prosperity, a group founded by rightwing donors Charles and David Koch.

As with the Tea Party, the anti-stay-at-home movement has been promoted by a rightwing media eager for the economy to reopen, including FOX News which on Friday aired a segment on protests in Virginia, Michigan and Minnesota. Two minutes later, Trump tweeted to his 77.4 million followers the need to "liberate" those states.

A majority of Americans support the lockdowns, with a Pew Research Center poll finding that 66% are concerned state governments will lift restrictions on public activity too quickly. But protests, helped by media coverage, have spread around the country.

The two groups behind the "Operation Gridlock" rally in Michigan on Wednesday have ties to the Republican party and the Trump administration.

The Michigan Freedom Fund, which said it was a co-host of the rally, has received more than $500,000 from the DeVos family, regular donors to rightwing groups.

The other host, the Michigan Conservative Coalition (MCC), was founded by Matt Maddock, now a Republican member of the state house of representatives. The MCC also operates under the name Michigan Trump Republicans, and in January 2020 held an event featuring several members of the Trump campaign.

"Absolutely the Michigan event was a huge inspiration and it was a huge success," said Evie Harris, organizer of a ReOpen Maryland protest planned for the state capitol on Saturday.

"That was the model for our event."

Thousands drove to the Michigan state capitol in Lansing, while the Michigan Freedom Fund purchased Facebook advertising to promote the rally. Protesters, many waving Trump campaign signs, honked their horns and chanted for Governor Gretchen Whitmer to end the stay-at-home rules.

The protest was covered exhaustively by the rightwing media. Harris said her Facebook following grew from "700-800 people" to more than 15,000 members following the Michigan rally, inspiring her to organize "Operation Gridlock Annapolis" for Saturday.

Harris said her group had support from some elected officials in Maryland, but declined to name them.

While ReOpen Maryland might not have funding from rightwing advocacy groups, it appears to be linked to at least four other "reopen" organizations.

"Government mandating sick people to stay home is called quarantine," ReOpen Maryland said. "However, the government mandating healthy citizens to stay home, forcing businesses and churches to close is called tyranny."

That text is identical to text on Facebook pages calling for rallies in Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Virginia. ReOpen Virginia aims to hold its own "gridlock" rally on Wednesday -- again inspired by the conservative-funded Michigan event.

Despite ReOpen Virginia billing itself as a "grassroots group of people and small business owners," founder Kristen Lynne Hall said the idea for the protest came from the organizers of the "Lobby Day" demonstration earlier this year.

That demonstration was organized by the Virginia Citizens Defense League, a gun rights group that has donated tens of thousands of dollars to politicians.

Kristen Lynn Hall, who said Candace Owens, a rightwing activist and favorite of Trump, had been in touch to discuss the event, said the president's tweet about "liberating" Virginia was "great".

"It could be spreading the movement," she said. "Any support is appreciated right now."

A decade ago, the Tea Party movement billed itself as "grass roots," despite receiving money from the Koch-backed Americans for Prosperity and the conservative organization FreedomWorks.

Jenny Beth Martin, who founded the Tea Party Patriots group, promoted this week's Michigan protest. The Tea Party Patriots also supported the protest, in messages to its 200,000 Twitter followers.

Matthew Gertz, a senior fellow at Media Matters for America, a progressive media watchdog, said the similarities between the Tea Party and ReOpen movements went further, with rightwing media boosting both.

FOX News ran favorable coverage of the Michigan rally and hosts including Laura Ingraham and Jeanine Pirro endorsed the protest.

"FOX gave the Tea Party a phenomenal amount of attention and promotion," Gertz said. "It really sort of boot-strapped it to another level, and made it a political force, and we see something similar happening with these anti-stay-at-home order movements."

Gertz said he was not "simply" concerned with "the conservatives having a strong election the next time out." "It's a real chance for devastating consequences with regard to the coronavirus," he said.

Return to