It was recently revealed that right-wing organization Turning Points USA bussed as many as 3200 Trump fascists (“80+ buses”) to the Capitol for his event on January 6th and arranged for their accommodation in Washington D.C. to a degree that is still unknown. Now its founder, Charlie Kirk, is wiping his record of support on Twitter and backtracking. It’s a cliché, but one worth repeating here: rats are the first to jump ship. It is also worthwhile to use this moment to correctly measure this political movement’s grassroots credibility and get a sense of what is really at work.
TPUSA, from what can be gathered by leaks and public disclosures, has been funded by large infusions from right-wing megadonors like the Uihlein family (logistics magnates) and Bruce Rauner (former governor and private equity executive), and got its seed money from Foster Friess (investment manager and major donor to Christian conservative causes). We saw the same thing ten years ago with the Tea Party movement–the acronym standing for Taxed Enough Already–a new branch of the Republican party whose actions were largely backed by the now-infamous Koch brothers and their friends. Koch-linked lobbying firms and think tanks (Freedomworks and Americans for Prosperity in particular) provided the logistics, organizing, and funding for their summer of protest in 2009, but the movement was treated as a true grassroots affair in the press until the whole scam was revealed.
These political action groups are often mixed with communications and media. Outside of last week’s bussing effort, TPUSA uses its megadonors’ cash to target young people through media, organizing events on college campuses and posting content on Facebook, Twitter and the like directed at them (it’s been shown that TPUSA mainly resonates with much older men). Koch Brothers money has similarly been distributed across a vast network of right-wing media outlets ranging from Prager U to the Ayn Rand Institute. Oftentimes the true source of funding is disguised by a couple of degrees: perhaps the media outlet holds a legal status that doesn’t require revealing its donors, or the donor is itself a bundler of high-net-worth patrons that it keeps anonymous through similar loopholes, like Donors Trust (a Koch brothers favorite).
So, we have a pipeline from right-wing media hooking people in with extremist sensationalism to political organizations sounding calls for action, both of which in reality share funding from the same sets of people. This dynamic begs the question: What would that wave of protests in 2009 have been like without big-money backers? What would the storming of the Capitol have been like without the generous helping hand of TPUSA (and God-only-knows who else)? The answer is: a helluva lot smaller.
You can get folks riled up through sensational media, but when it comes to real action for which they have to take days off, travel great distances, arrange accommodation etc., most would likely decline because it’s just not worth the hassle for something that they’ve only been taught to hate by media. Right-wing protest action is so often built on ginned-up outrage that has little connection to people’s everyday reality, and it takes a big helping hand covering those costs and labor to get people to go to those lengths. And that helping hand makes all the difference: the Koch brothers effectively pressured Republicans and the Obama administration with the Tea Party movement, and magnates who have hitched their wagon to Trump just showed just how far their help can go. What we experienced last week the result of class warfare psychological operations inflicted on the American people.
What matters now is to break this cycle. Corrosive right-wing media got its foot in the door through President Reagan doing away with the fairness doctrine in the 80s, was furthered with President Clinton deregulating telecommunications in 1996, and has grown all the more powerful as government has not kept up with significant changes to the media landscape since then (expansion of the Internet, democratization of media production etc.).
The events of January 6th have shown definitively that having a laissez-faire attitude to regulating media and political spending is a serious threat to the public interest, and that we need more aggressive government institutions. TPUSA, Prager U, and the galaxy of right-wing media and political action organizations are not charitable organizations, despite their 501(c)3 status under US law. They are fungible front-groups for billionaires with a singular focus on manipulating the passions of the American people for their interests. We need new laws and aggressive federal agencies with the stones to protect the American public from their chicanery.