President Trump, Astroturfing, and the Anti-Quarantine Protests


Jiada Valenza

Audrey Hill ’20, Editorial Columnist.

President Donald Trump moves through the world as if he is not affected by political gravity. Things that would devastate other politicians barely touch him. Lies that would ruin the careers of his peers are the bricks that he uses to construct his own world. He has been so successful because he rejects, point blank, the world as it is, and gets his followers to invest in the fictitious reality he imagines — that reality is a lie, and it’s one that he has thoroughly succeeded in selling. And as President Trump has grown more powerful, that lie has grown more dangerous, as conservative actors across the country do their best to transform it into truth. 

There is perhaps no better example than the recent anti-quarantine protests. The protests, which sprang up all across the country in late April 2020, appear, at first glance, to be an organic (if misguided) populist movement. But a closer look reveals a coordinated astroturfing campaign undertaken by a handful of powerful conservatives.

Astroturfing is the practice of masking the true origins of a movement or idea to make it appear as though it originates from and is supported by grassroots participants. While it is by no means a new phenomenon, the rise of the internet and social media have made it far more dangerous. By making it appear as if there was broad opposition to stay-at-home orders, President Trump’s allies were able to lend the anti-quarantine cause a faux legitimacy that got real people to go out and protest.

Websites following the format of “reopen (x state)” help to show that the protests were not as grassroots as their manufacturers would like you to believe. In a true grassroots movement, websites related to the cause would have popped up naturally one after another. Instead, many of the “reopen” websites were all registered within minutes, and sometimes within seconds of each other on the same day — April 17, 2020. Many of these websites were registered at the same IP Address, and shared source codes with websites owned by the alt-right siblings the Dorr Brothers. The brothers are radical gun-rights activists and ardent Trump supporters. Many of the reopen websites connected to them also feature a “donate” button that immediately connects to Dorr brothers’ gun rights organizations, such as the Minnesota Gun Rights Association. 

But the Dorr brothers are not the only ones behind the protests. The deeply libertarian organization “FreedomWorks” — known for its integral involvement in the Tea Party movement — also registered a few of the “reopen” websites, and they were behind many efforts to incite “locally driven” protests across the country. FreedomWorks has been a vocal supporter of President Trump, and in an interview with The New York Times, employees admitted that starting protests would help the administration, though denied that was their reason for doing so.

Further, the law firm Michael Best & Friedrich — which represent Trump — is also representing a group calling itself “ReopenNC,” which has also attempted to foment dissent through Facebook groups and YouTube videos. The firm’s ranks include both current and former Trump administration officials, including ex-Chief of Staff Reince Priebus and the current senior counsel to the Trump campaign, Justin Clark. 

If it were not already clear, these people all have one main thing in common — their connection to President Donald Trump. They, and the movement they manufactured, are a function of the kind of conservatism that Trump cultivates, a conservatism that so depends on division that it must literally create more division in order to sustain itself. They transcend any particular belief or cause, and they exemplify an idea that sits right at the heart of Trump’s Republican Party, that chaos and fear are profitable. The more enraged and divided Americans become, the more President Trump and Trumpism benefit. It is our job not to let them. It is our job to pull back the curtain, to not believe the lie that President Trump and his supporters are selling. 

Astroturfing is the practice of masking the true origins of a movement or idea to make it appear as though it originates from and is supported by grassroots participants.