Considering the shocking success of Donald Trump’s political rhetoric, it’s no surprise that other Republicans have started to echo him. After a boisterous and humiliating town hall meeting last week, Utah Representative Jason Chaffetz dismissed the jeering crowd as “paid protesters,” a claim that Trump, Kellyanne Conway, and Sean Spicer have all used before, most recently in regards to the opposition of the Muslim ban. Like most of Trump’s other inflammatory accusations — of 3 million fraudulent votes in the election, of dangerous and un-vetted refugees flooding our borders, of the media ignoring terrorist attacks — this one is equally baseless, malicious, and manipulative. However, it also speaks to a broader sense of entitlement over what qualifies as “authentic.”
When Trump first made the “paid protesters” argument, reporters quickly debunked the evidence presented: namely, that a website called DemandProtest.com had posted job ads in more than 20 cities offering hirees $2,500 a month to demonstrate in D.C. Though such a website did exist, along with a contact number based in San Francisco, Snopes, an online fact-checking site, found no companies registered under “Demand Protest, LLC.” After originally reporting that Donald Trump “may have a point about paid protesters,” The Washington Times later retracted the story: “The polished Demand Protest website, the Backpage.com ads recruiting paid protesters for the Trump inauguration: Apparently it was all a hoax.”
After Chaffetz made the same claim, that the town hall was a “paid attempt to bully and intimidate,” the press were similarly skeptical. A Utah newspaper asked Chaffetz who would pay for outside agitators, to which he responded, “do some reporting” — somewhat ironic, considering that one of the crowd’s favorite chants was “do your job.” Like Trump, Chaffetz produced no evidence, and reporters at the event were unable to unmask any foreign provocateurs. “[For what it’s worth], I spoke to around a dozen people,” tweeted The Atlantic‘s McKay Choppins, “and almost all said they lived in Chaffetz’s district.” Proving that something doesn’t exist, however, is difficult to do — and in this case specifically, it’s impossible.
In a fantastic piece in California Sunday Magazine, Davy Rothbart went inside Crowds on Demand, which “provides fake paparazzi, pretend campaign supporters, and counterfeit protesters.” As opposed to recruiting participants en masse, the company strategically uses its actors. For example, a small group pretended to interview Freemasons as they attended their annual world conference in San Francisco. The Georgia grand lodge had just passed an edict prohibiting gay members, and the faux journalists pushed the attendees to respond: Did they agree with the edict? If not, why didn’t they stand up and say so? Didn’t they worry that others would think they’re bigots? “There’s 15 of us and a thousand of them,” the company’s CEO said after the stunt, “but we changed the conversation tonight.”
It’s not unfathomable, then, that a well-organized group could have discretely hired actors with the skills and preparation to come off as legitimate Utahans. However, such professionalism would certainly come at a high price. Crowds on Demand charges $25,000 to $50,000 for a prolonged campaign of protests, which is a steal compared to the $1.25 million Demand Protest would’ve charged for just a quarter of the town hall crowd. Consequently, the accusation of “paid protesters” is both presumptuous (of the 435 congressional districts, why was Utah’s third the top choice?) and preposterous. But, if we really stretch and interpret Chaffetz’s comments as figurative — as a way to say that the demonstration was choreographed, influenced by outside forces, and not necessarily representative of his constituents — then he’s absolutely correct. In that sense, they are not “authentic.”
Commentators are already comparing the current anti-Trump town halls with those overrun by Tea Partiers during Obama’s presidency. Both had the same overflowing crowds, the same “you work for us” chants, and the same righteous boos. This is not a coincidence. Before last month’s inauguration, a “practical guide for resisting the Trump agenda” was uploaded to Google. Called Indivisible, it was written by “former congressional staffers who witnessed the rise of the Tea Party,” and it repurposes their successful tactics: spread protesters throughout a town hall to project broad consensus, look friendly or neutral so campaign staffers choose you to ask questions, refuse to give back the mic until the representative has given a substantive answer.
Which brings us back to the issue of “authenticity.” The dirty secret behind the Tea Party was that their influence was vastly disproportionate to the size of their membership. Indivisible claims that only one in five self-identified Tea Partiers contributed money or attended events, and even Gallup polling shows that, at their peak, just a third of the country supported the group. As the left has pointed out, this is not the case for the anti-Trump movement. Not only did Hillary Clinton win almost three million more votes, but Trump’s approval ratings are also at 40%.
However, in deep-red areas like Utah’s third congressional district, where Chaffetz beat his 2016 opponent by a margin of almost three-to-one, it’s unlikely that the 2,000-person town hall was an accurate representation of his 710,000 constituents. Sadly, engaging in local politics is a priority for so few people that those who make the effort often have an axe to grind, and they, like politicians, understand that optics matter. The demonstrators at Chaffetz’s town hall planned ahead using Facebook, demanded the venue be filled to capacity, and heckled when their representative dodged questions as basic as “Do you believe in science?” In that regard, Chaffetz is right to say that their goal was to intimidate — as the Tea Party demonstrated, that is, unfortunately, one of the most effective ways to demand accountability. Instead of open forums, Chaffetz’s peers in Utah, Democrats and Republicans alike, have already opted for teleconferences, where callers are pre-screened, muted after asking a question, and not allowed to follow-up.
For Chaffetz, his constituents’ passion and organization are clear evidence of outside interference and inauthenticity, a level of contempt only outdone by Bill Atkins, who lied about the existence of “death panels” under Obamacare and was booed by a roomful of adults, whom he then called “children.” Such disdain isn’t particularly surprising, but Chaffetz’s rhetorical response is. Of the many contentious town halls in 2009, the one that provoked the most heated response was from David Scott (D - GA).
During a meeting about a proposed highway, a doctor asked Scott why he voted for the ACA. Scott dodged the question, the audience booed, and Scott told them that his priority was the people who live in the 13th Congressional District. After the crowd yelled “that’s us!” he changed tactics: “That’s everybody with different opinions. So, what you’ve got to understand is, those of you are here, who have taken and came and hijacked this event. . . this is not a health care event.” Then, and during a follow-up interview with NPR, Scott criticized the crowd’s choice of forums but never suggested that the protesters were illegitimate, a crucial difference explained by two factors.
The first is that the narrative of “paid protesters” works far better against Democrats. The largest demonstrations happen in overwhelmingly liberal cities, which, in the Bible Belt’s imagination, already exist as centers of unrest, violence, and immorality. Likewise, it’s no surprise that George Soros is often identified as the mastermind and bankroller of such protests. Besides being a prodigious donor for liberal causes, he’s also an immigrant and a Jew, and accusations of him furtively pulling strings dovetail nicely with other, more overtly anti-Semitic conspiracy theories about global domination.
The second is that, sadly, the core of the Republican Party — which is to say, older, white, religious voters— still holds a monopoly on American authenticity. They are Main Street, the Heart of America, a Thomas Kinkade painting. They’re respectable folks from old families with deep roots. As such, the decline of fifth-generation farmers and former factory workers is lamented more than, say, a city that hasn’t had drinkable water for over 1,000 days. For Rep. Scott to dismiss his hecklers as paid shills, radicals, or trouble-makers would’ve been political suicide, a supposed attack on America itself.
That said, President Trump will continue to use this rhetoric and use it successfully. He campaigned on a platform of vitriolic disdain for news, polls, and dissent, and protesters will never have the opportunity to confront him directly — to “bully and intimidate him.” As for Chaffetz, it’s tough to maintain the narrative that the gilded Washington elites could never understand the workingman’s concerns while he pats protesters on the head and shoves them out the door. Though he’s (somewhat) backpedaled since, outraged Utahans have already sent him fake invoices for their services. Shauna Ehninger billed $1,070 for her wait time, being condescended to, spreading untrue information, and acting as an out-of-state radical. Should he decide to pay, Chaffetz can make her check out to “Demand Protests, LLC.”