In some ways, the only real surprise is that it took this long. Sure, the Tea Party was essentially a fake grassroots movement (aka “astroturfing”) funded by people like the Koch Brothers, but that was taking advantage of popular unrest and trying to direct it proactively toward big money interests. What we haven’t seen yet, at least not in America at any magnitude, is protesters funded directly by personal or corporate interests who are used as a weapon against progressive politicians at their rallies and events.
That changed at an Elizabeth Warren rally last week:
As The Intercept's Ryan Grim quickly discovered, this was not a ragtag grassroots group, as they tried to claim, but a product of the Walton Foundation and other billionaires who financially support and promote their efforts to antagonize for charter schools.
Warren spoke with them afterward, and Rep. Ayanna Pressley rescued Warren when she was reduced to asking “what do we do with this?”
That very question could eat at liberals and progressives for a long time. The sad truth, as Hamilton Nolan wrote in an excellent Guardian essay, is that in our current media climate, it doesn’t take much for these tactics to land:
The real lesson of this is how well even transparently corrupt tactics like this work. One of the emotional backbones of Warren’s speech was the story of the 1881 Atlanta washerwomen strike – a relatively little known incident in labor history that she was no doubt inspired to cite by the union leader Sara Nelson’s recent speech on the same topic in front of the Democratic Socialists of America convention. Yet what should be a shining example of radical ideas rising to mainstream prominence in a presidential campaign has been pushed to the bottom of most news stories in favor of the charter school ruckus. This points to the fact that astroturf campaigns don’t have to be very sophisticated, or even very secret; they just need to make enough noise to weasel their way into a 30-second TV hit to get the job done.
Hamilton makes two other key points: When you have lots of money, you don’t even need to “hire” protesters, because it’s easy enough to find “normal” people who genuinely believe in something and drown them in money. Second, aside from the issue at hand, there’s a benefit in doing this out in the open: If some protests are privately funded, it raises doubts in the public mind about every protest, and mitigates or even neuters the power of actual grassroots activism. We’ve already seen private interests veer into this territory in the digital realm with some success. (All of this, too, is another example of how outrageous conservative accusations of malfeasance tend to reflect their own strategies and desires; these are the wildly false George Soros conspiracy theories come to life.)
There are stories of Putin’s propaganda chief, Vladislav Surkov, secretly funding real anti-Putin protest movements, unbeknownst to the activists themselves, only to reveal his patronage at a critical moment to undermine them. That’s a far more Russian approach than what we see here, but it proves that undermining protests will always be the prerogative of the ultra-wealthy in societies with even a shred of democratic tradition. The tactics have advanced, as we saw in Warren’s rally, and we can expect them to grow in sophistication and organization as societal unrest grows. If the billionaires can direct our rage to their purposes, they’ve won the game before it even started.