As U.S. lawmakers return to their home districts for recess, weeks into the new Trump administration, McClatchy news service predicts rancorous meetings, writing, “Everyone seems angry as Congress heads home.” It’s gotten so bad the Utah GOP just told Republican congressional leaders to postpone townhall meetings because of the threat of “acts of intimidation and violence.”
Indeed, earlier this month, about 1,000 people crowded the Brighton High School auditorium in Cottonwood Heights, Utah, heckling Republican Rep. Jason ChaffetzJason ChaffetzSpicer blames Obama for Flynn’s security clearance Cummings: White House 'covering up' for Flynn Chaffetz to have surgery, will miss several weeks in Washington MORE. “Angry town hall crowd jeers Chaffetz in packed auditorium,” the local newspaper, the Desert News, reported, quoting the lawmaker lamenting, “So little decency here.” CNN reported a network of nonprofits was involved, just to “help” with the “grassroots organizing.”
Now, in the latest iteration of a hashtag rebellion, the rallying cry is #ResistanceRecess and #ResistTrump. The self-described strategy is “bird dogging,” a deliberately aggressive strategy designed to hound and heckle a political candidate or legislator into answering pointed questions.
My reporting and the research of New York City cyber sleuth Eric Feinberg reveals that this campaign is being championed by nonprofit groups and lobbying organizations connected not only by their liberal, Democratic politics but by their ideological philanthropist, billionaire George Soros, one of Hillary ClintonHillary Rodham ClintonDemocrats must have a better response on net neutrality than simply 'no' Obama shamefully lines pockets with 0K for Wall Street speech Dem senator fears Russian election interference could be ‘normalized’ MORE’s biggest donors in her failed 2016 bid for the presidency.
In the smoke and mirrors behind the campaign, ThinkProgress, a Democratic, anti-Trump media arm of the Center for American Progress, another significant Soros “grantee,” attributed the early Utah protest to “grassroots groups.” The founder of the Center for American Progress? Clinton campaign manager John Podesta. And in an email, released by WikiLeaks, a Clinton campaign official told Podesta and others that “Dreamers,” undocumented youth who had won the right to stay in the U.S., “have been been bird dogging Republican presidential candidates” on immigration policy.
According to an analysis in progress I’m compiling of leaked documents from the Soros philanthropy, Open Society Foundations, and other open-source material, at least six of the organizations involved with leading, organizing or training #ResistTrump #ResistanceRecess protesters — MoveOn.org, the Working Families Party, the ACLU, the National Immigration Law Center, United We Dream and Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement — have received funding over the years from Soros.
Other groups, like People’s Action, lack clear funding from Soros, but nonetheless have virulently anti-Trump messages, like #ResistTrumpTuesdays. Hashtags they and other Soros-funded groups have used in recent weeks to send anti-Trump protesters into the streets and airports include #WomensMarch, #NoBanNoWall and #MuslimBan.
One group, United We Dream, which received at least $1.55 million in 2014 from Open Society Foundations, promoted #HereToStay and #DayWithoutImmigrants this week, to oppose Trump administration policies on illegal immigration. #NoBanNoWallNoRaid also started trending.
This isn’t to say that protesters are being paid to show up public meetings, or even that Soros is directly funding the protests (the funding dollars on the protests isn’t publicly available). And I should note, a spokeswoman for the Open Society Foundations said to me today via email: "Multiple fact checkers have said that George Soros and the Open Society Foundations have not and are not paying or directing anyone to protest. What we have done is for more than 20 years, along with other philanthropic funders, supported groups across the United States that work on a vast range of social issues—from criminal justice, voter participation and immigration policy reform, to studying the future of work. We are proud of the organizations we support and their good work to make American democracy stronger.”
But to me, as a scholar of propaganda, it is important to be educated about the intersection of money, politics and agitation.
Following the cyber breadcrumbs, Feinberg, founding member of GIPEC, a New York-based cyber intelligence company, traced the first use of #ResistanceRecess to a woman who, on Jan. 21, one day after President Trump’s inauguration, invited Americans across the border to Canada for a “#ResistanceRecess.”
The next day, #ResistTrump took off when MoveOn.org, a nonprofit and lobbying group that donates millions to Democratic politicians and candidates, hosted a first #ResistTrump meeting with, it said, 60,000 listeners.
“Welcome! Welcome! Welcome!” Victoria Kaplan, organizing director at MoveOn.org, cheerfully said, opening the hour-long “Ready to Resist emergency call” to “prepare to stop Trump” in a “strategic” way. The group provided a recording of the call online in a Ready to Resist archive.
It was just Day 3 in the new president’s term.
Kaplan advised the listeners to tweet out messages with the hashtags #ResistTrump, #Indivisible and #ResistTrumpTuesdays.
On the “emergency call” were “the best organizers and trainers out there,” she said: Ezra Levin, a former deputy assistant to President Obama in the White House, and Angel Padilla, health policy analyst at the National Immigration Law Center, both co-founders of a new group, Indivisible, a guide for “resisting Trump.” The final host was Nelini Stamp, then-membership director for the nonprofit Working Families Party and “creator of #ResistTrumpTuesdays,” to protest every Tuesday at the “doorsteps” of congressional representatives during Trump’s first 100 days.
Two days later, it lay claim to 200 protests, with #DraintheSwampCabinet as a mantra.
The next week, on Jan. 29 — just Day 10 of the new administration — the call included a plan to include a dramatic strategy: “bird-dogging.” Mehrdad Azemun of People's Action directed listeners to be a “pain in the neck” to politicians, opposing Trump “fiercely.” An activist wrote on Twitter: “@MoveOn loving the #readytoresist conference call! I’m in and look forward to #birddogging”
In another Sunday phone call hosted by MoveOn, on Feb. 12, Hugh Espey, executive director at Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement, led listeners through a PowerPoint tutorial, “Bird dogging elected officials.” The presentation included tips for attending political events, asking legislators (and candidates) “specific questions” and “pinning them, to get specific answers.”
The goals reflect the agitprop element of the strategy: “get our issues covered by the media/press,” “elevate the profile of our organizations,” “build our power” and “create ‘Corporations are People’ moments,” a reference to a political gaffe former Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney said in response to “Iowa hecklers,” from Espey’s organization.
“Bird dogging tips” include: “bring people — essential ingredient;” “spread out — don’t sit all together;” “ask your question(s) early, and often.”
Significant is this suggestion: “create tension, be visible/noticeable.”
And, driving home the point that this is agitprop, and not a sincere effort at civil discourse, the “tips” include “take video — push it out on social media,” “talk to press — make your story public.” Finally, all pretenses of civility aside, the “pitfalls,” or “things to avoid,” include “don’t get trapped in the ‘let’s be nice and polite’ mindset.”
On Valentine’s Day, protesters hit the district offices. The next morning, MoveOn.org re-purposed #ResistanceRecess for the first time on Twitter for its current campaign, according to Feinberg’s analysis.
This week, MoveOn.org published a bulleted tipsheet on its website, “Bird-Dogging: Make Them Talk!” with a guide to “bird-dog” “members of Congress (MoCs).” It explained the goal is to “force” them to answer “tough questions,” so that they “can’t escape” questions. It cheerfully advises protesters: “Bird-dogging is fun and easy!”
Some of its tips: “Don’t give yourself away. Do not wear clothing or wave signs that will let people know that you are coming to bird-dog your MoC.” It added: “Take pics, or it didn’t happen,” noting, “Be sure to tweet using the hashtag #ResistanceRecess.”
Whether done by conservatives or liberals, Republicans, Democrats or independents, the staged incivility of tactics like “bird dogging” is something that we are well-served to understand, so that we do not fall prey, in the media or in the public, to these tricks. One of the “things to avoid” in the tip sheet is “don’t ever give up.”
We would be better served as a nation if we eschewed strategies like “bird-dogging” and rather choose the path of civil discourse.
Asra Q. Nomani is a former Wall Street Journal reporter and the author of “Standing Alone: An American Woman’s Struggle for the Soul of Islam.” She is a former professor in the practice of journalism at Georgetown University. She can be reached at email@example.com and @asranomani on Twitter.
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This post has been updated at the author's request.