The Straw Protester

"Paid protesters" aren't a total myth -- authoritarian governments use them all the time.

Darwin Yamamoto / Flickr

The shadowy cabal of evildoers who covertly fund every boycott, picket line, and demonstration are at it again.

“The protests at the airports are bought and paid for by George Soros,” Rush Limbaugh told his listeners last week. “Protesting has become a profession now,” lamented White House press secretary Sean Spicer. “It’s not these organic uprisings that we’ve seen through the last several decades.” Most recently, Republican Utah representative Jason Chaffetz said that the angry people who swarmed his town hall were a “paid attempt to bully and intimidate,” and were not even from his state.

It couldn’t be the fact that a historically unpopular president has promised and enacted a series of reckless, revanchist policies that have energized people who would never have hit the streets otherwise. Rather, it’s the same nefarious and ever-changing lineup of wealthy protest-funders who have been bankrolling demonstrations since time immemorial who are to blame for the last two weeks of near nonstop direct democracy.

The “paid protester” trope is a tired one that has been around almost as long as protesting itself. It typically serves two purposes: it delegitimizes the protests in the eyes of the supporters of those on the receiving end of the protests; and it plays into a comforting fantasy that reassures those same people that what they’re doing isn’t really being opposed by any significant share of the population — just people who are getting checks to do so.

In 2011, at the height of Occupy Wall Street, Fox News claimed OWS was being partly driven by the now-defunct community organizing group ACORN, which was also paying homeless people to show up to the protest. A host of right-wing blogs doggedly traced the protests back to George Soros and, mistaking a run-of-the-mill canvassing job advertisement for a proposal of paid protesting, accused the Working Families Party of orchestrating the movement.

The irony appeared to have been lost on the Right, given that only a few years before that, they themselves had been accused of the same thing when the Tea Party was widely charged with being an “astroturfed” — or fake grassroots — movement. There’s no doubt that the money of wealthy backers played a role in helping conservative activists get organized. It always has. Yet many went (and continue to go) further than this, entirely writing off the importance of grassroots conservative discontent.

Ironically, one Tea Party activist was indignant about comparisons between his movement and OWS, claiming that Occupy protesters “are paid to be there,” while “we’ve never had people who were paid to be at events.”

The “paid protester” attack is often used by those in power, typically authoritarians. Egyptian state television spread rumors during the anti-Mubarak uprising in Tahrir Square that a “foreign element” was paying protesters. When the Kremlin was rocked by massive anti-Putin, anti-corruption demonstrations the same year, Putin told reporters that he knew “that young people were paid for coming,” and claimed the others had been manipulated by foreign agents, including Hillary Clinton and the State Department. After Mohamed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood took power in Egypt, Human Rights Watch reported that anti-Morsi protesters were accused of “being paid by opposition leaders,” a baseless charge that the new president repeated on television.

The charge has no geographic boundaries. When Iran’s Green Movement shook up the country in 2009 and 2010, one of the country’s top clerics said, “When the US, Britain, and the Zionist regime officially support the protesters, certainly these countries have paid protesters to combat the Islamic Republic.” In 2006, Belarus’s authoritarian president accused those protesting the country’s rigged election of receiving $500 each from an unnamed opposition source that poured a total of $12 million into the effort. And when Coca-Cola faced protests in India by locals in 2003 for depleting groundwater and causing devastating droughts — which it continued to do for more than a decade — these local families were, of course, also paid protesters.

That doesn’t mean that the concept of paid protesters is a total myth. There are plenty of examples of people being paid to demonstrate — except those paying tend to be many of these same authoritarian governments.

While Putin was complaining about students being paid to demonstrate against him, Time reported that it turned out he was paying people to make up the massive, adoring crowds at his inauguration, which millions of households watched on TV. And for all Putin’s complaints about foreign agents directing the protests against him, the Kremlin itself provides support to Russian emigres who pay protesters in the United States. Meanwhile, widespread reports uncovered that Mubarak paid Egypt’s rural poor to attack protesters and counter-demonstrate in Tahrir Square.

In fact, when it comes to paying protesters, Western, democratic governments are no slouches either, funding the infiltration of protesters by their own agents who then often escalate peaceful demonstrations in an attempt to discredit these same movements. The Mexican government has a history of doing this very thing: A plainclothes officer was caught on tape in 2014 masquerading as an anti-government vandal amid peaceful protesters. In 2009, it came out that British police were using hundreds of paid informants to gather intelligence on protesters and allegedly incite them to violence.

In the United States, the FBI similarly spent decades infiltrating various left-wing movements, with some of the bureau’s informants urging and trying to supply protesters with the material to carry out bombings, vandalism, and murders of police. More recently, Chicago residents were paid to turn up to protests and school board meetings and speak out in support of Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s closing of certain schools — payments partly organized by a man who received money from the city.

So just as Spicer, Limbaugh, and others on the Right have long suspected, there truly is a sinister junta that has covertly funded protests of all kinds over the years. But it’s not Soros sitting at the head of this conspiracy — left-leaning billionaires like him have historically used their money to deradicalize rising social movements. Rather, those pulling the purse strings tended to be those in power, particularly authoritarian governments.

Given all this, it’s actually somewhat surprising that the Trump administration hasn’t resorted to this same tactic — perhaps, say, to fill up the somewhat lackluster audience that turned up to the president’s inauguration. Then again, give it time — it’s only been three weeks.