The 'Reopen' protests may make some people sick – but make a few others wealthy

AFP via Getty Images
AFP via Getty Images

A throng of protesters burst into the Lansing capitol building, carrying signs and demanding access beyond the building's foyer.

The crowd - mostly white, many wearing the red baseball cap that has become the symbol of the sitting US president - pressed and slammed against the doors of the state house, chanting "this is the people's house, you cannot lock us out."

Few of the people demonstrating in Michigan and elsewhere over recent weeks – who President Donald Trump defended on Twitter as "very good people" – were wearing masks, and most ignored social distancing guidelines, pressing against each other as they clamoured for further access into the building.

In the capitol's senate chamber, State Senator Dayna Polehanki snapped a photo of men carrying rifles looming on a walkway above. Around her, other lawmakers donned body armour.

"Directly above me, men with rifles yelling at us. Some of my colleagues who own bullet proof vests are wearing them. I have never appreciated our Sergeants-at-Arms more than today," she wrote in a Twitter post.

Outside, scores more gathered, waving signs. Some bore messages like "Tyrants get the rope." Others were simply huge letters spelling out "TRUMP."

The protest was one of a rash of armed rallies aimed at "reopening" the state through easing restrictions placed on commerce by the coronavirus pandemic.

In addition to the demonstration in Michigan, there have been protests in Minnesota, Wisconsin, Ohio, New York and Pennsylvania calling for a return to normalcy.

Though few of the protests calling for states to "reopen" have included the armed occupation of public buildings, they all share similar elements - conservative talking points, anti-government signs and right wing sloganeering - all despite being marketed as ostensibly apolitical.

This may be because one element driving the protests is a group of brothers who use Facebook groups and websites to collect email addresses and press visitors for donations.

The groups and websites - most containing some variety of '[state name] against excessive quarantine' or 'Reopen[state abbreviation],' - are run by a quartet of political activists called the Dorr brothers.

The sites seen by The Independent do not give details as to how donations are used beyond a general 'fight back'.

Aaron, Chris and Ben Dorr are busy men. The brothers run pro-gun, anti-abortion and anti-vaccination websites in at least 11 states and are known for criticising Republican politicians from the right, arguing that the lawmakers are not conservative enough.

"Your daddy votes to kill babies, did you know that?" Ben Dorr once asked Minnesota lawmaker Josh Heintzeman's six-year-old son during a confrontation at the state capitol.

Politicians and other activists in the states that the Dorrs operate in often refer to the brothers as "scammers," accusing them of rousing political unrest among conservatives, soliciting their followers for information and donations, and then moving on to their next scheme without actually pushing for any legislation or any action beyond protest.

The brothers managed to frustrate Minnesota lawmakers and Second Amendment advocates to the extent that a bipartisan group - MNScammersExposed - built a website dedicated to the Dorrs.

"Over the last few years, several scammers have popped up in conservative politics in Minnesota. On their face, it looks like they are doing the Lord's work - advocating for Second Amendment rights, pro-life views, election integrity and even supporting President Trump," the website says on its homepage. "But a little investigation reveals they are actually just building their own brand and raising money by cashing in on unsuspecting Minnesotans sympathetic to their message."

Speaking to the Minneapolis Star Tribune about the brothers, state Rep Jim Nash complained that the men treated conservative causes as opportunities to scoop up donations from well-meaning people.

"They don't lobby. They don't interact with people. They don't send suggestions in to help make bills better," Mr Nash said. "They don't do anything other than take videos, post to Facebook and do the elaborate scheming that they do to make money off of donors who think that they're actually donating to something that makes a difference."

David Strom, a conservative political activist in Minnesota who spoke with the Star Tribune, described the Dorrs as opportunists looking to profiteer off of social unrest.

"That's their business model. They see anger boiling up, they get in front of it, collect as many names as possible, collect as much money as possible and move on," he said.

The Minnesotan Republicans behind the website aren't the only ones upset with the Dorrs; the Truth about Iowa Gun Owners Group and Dorr Brothers Scams websites both plead with visitors not to donate to the brothers, painting them as grifters rather than true-believers.

If the Dorrs are faking their convictions, they do not let on in public. Ben Dorr has called himself "the gun guy" and "the quarantine guy" and posted a video of himself giving a pep talk to protesters in Minnesota at an anti-lockdown rally.

'We're done being quarantined, we're done having our freedoms taken. It's time to open up America," he said.

The Dorr brothers rarely respond to media requests for comment, but occasionally break their silence to defend the sincerity of their positions. Speaking to The Philadelphia Inquirer, Ben Dorr said any suggestions their activities were not sincere activism were "fake news." Ben Dorr also refused a request for interview for a story with The Minneapolis Star Tribune, accusing them of "advocating for socialist policies" and suggesting they "treat great Americans with derision."

Ben and Arron Dorr did not respond to requests for comment on this story.

Despite the efforts of these groups, the Dorrs' Facebook pages cumulatively have hundreds of thousands of followers and - whether they believe in their causes or not - they've managed to activate and deploy a small but vocal group of conservatives who believe that states should ease restrictions on businesses during the pandemic, no matter the cost to public health.

It's worth noting that there are plenty of legitimately scared and struggling individuals who likely share the sentiments - if not the intentions or methods - of the protesters.

Volunteers help load food as vehicles arrive at a Los Angeles Regional Food Bank drive-thru giveaway in Pico Rivera, California on April 28, 2020. - An estimated 3,000 families are facing food and/or economic difficulties due to the COVID-19 pandemic as California processes 3.2 million unemployment claims since March 15. (Photo by Frederic J. BROWN / AFP) (Photo by FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP via Getty Images) (Getty Images)

More than 36 million Americans have filed for unemployment since the pandemic brought the economy to a halt. People have begun waiting in long lines at food banks that are increasingly struggling to keep them fed. People of colour have been dying at disproportional rates compared to white people, and the problems created by the pandemic appear only to exacerbate existing structural inequalities.

As people struggle to eat, farmers struggle to sell their food and have been forced to destroy their extra crops and livestock due to the disruption to the food chain.

People are hurting - but it isn't necessarily the ones who are protesting under the Dorr banners.

Dr Nicole Hemmer, a political historian, researcher, and author, is a scholar covering conservative and right-wing media and its evolution. She said that the people suffering most likely aren't the ones participating in the anti-lockdown protests.

"When we look at polls, the people who are hardest hit are not the ones who are agitating to come back to reopen the economy. Something like 70 per cent of white people who think the economy should open right now are people who haven't lost their jobs or haven't been harmed economically by the lockdown," Ms Hemmer said. "I think that's important to understand."

A news consumer would be forgiven for getting the impression that these protests are indicative of a larger movement. They've been a major focus of news coverage for weeks, and have produced iconic images - the Ohio "zombie" photo, the woman in Colorado screaming at a doctor from her pickup truck, and the armed storming of the Michigan Capitol - but they aren't actually representative of Americans' majority opinions.

A PBS/Marist poll earlier this month showed that the majority of Americans think it's a bad idea to rush into reopening the country.

Eighty-five per cent of respondents said it was a bad idea to reopen schools, and 80 per cent said it was a bad idea to allow dine-in restaurants to serve customers inside. Of all the questions asked in the poll, the most contentious was whether or not people should go back to work, but even then, respondents were clearly more supportive of being cautious than jumping back into 'business as usual,' with 65 per cent saying to reopen now would be a bad idea.

If these protesters aren't the distilled will of the resolute, industrious American patriot, then who are they?

Ms Hemmer, in addition to her university work, is also a co-host on a trio of history podcasts and the author of Messengers of the Right, which documents the evolution of conservative media in the United States.

She said the protests are essentially "ready made for lots of media coverage" because beyond simply being armed protests, they also feature people without face masks shirking social distancing guidelines - a violation of a very recent, temporary taboo in our society.

"The thing to remember about these protests is they're very small. They represent a small constituency," she said.


Most of the protesters - at least those connected to Dorr-run media sites - are plugged into a conservative media apparatus that has long profited from dredging up - or outright creating - fear among its white, largely middle and upper-class audience.

"It's something you can trace back to the 1940's, 1950's, this use of finding an issue, or cultivating a set of fears around that issue, and using that fear and that anxiety as a motivator towards political action," Ms Hemmer said. "You can see it in all sorts of things, from the Red Scare of the 50's to the John Birch Society, segregation, and the fears over water fluoridation."

She said the fears tied to these issues - invasion by Communists, the government putting mind control chemicals in water or some perceived racial degradation through whites and blacks living side by side - are not just effective tools for mobilising conservatives towards political action, but also serve as gateways into other conservative bugbears.

"One of the things I find really fascinating about what [the Dorrs] are doing is the way they're switching issue sets. The social networks they originally began building were based around gun rights and abortion rights, and now they're being refashioned around these lockdown issues," Ms Hemmer said. "That is actually a very important way conservative media operates."

The Dorrs' network of angry protesters, shifting from abortion legislation to gun rights to vaccinations to quarantine fatigue, is reminiscent of the evolution of the Tea Party, which began protesting obesity taxes and housing recovery efforts under the Bush administration and later fought against the post-recession auto industry bailout and the Affordable Care Act.

In this way, conservative media figures attacking Republicans from the right - like the Dorr brothers - have been able to develop communities of populist, politically activated supporters ready and willing to go to battle over whatever fight they're told needs fighting.

Where the Dorr protesters and groups like the Tea Party - or even the hyper-reactionary alt-right - appear to diverge is ambition. The Tea Party went on - for better or worse - to help shape modern Republican ideology. The alt-right, though lacking any central organisation, played an enormous role in making Mr Trump's presidential campaign palatable to the disaffected young white people that make up its core demographic.

Mitch Berg, a right-leaning political blogger from Minnesota who has covered the Dorrs for years, claims their entire operation is an attempt to build an extensive mailing list.

"Every name they can get is a potential donor. Everyone who gets sucked into this fraudulent effort will wind up getting emails from their 'gun rights,' 'pro life' and 'pro Trump' organisations, all looking for money," Mr Berg wrote in a Facebook post. "The record is fairly clear - they are hucksters who raise a lot of money but do very little. They exploit people's legitimate fear about gun control, legitimate concern about abortion and legitimate worry about the economy to make themselves wealthy."

Whether the Dorrs are true believers or not, what remains certain is that the US response to the pandemic has left many Americans scared not only for their health, but for their economic well being. And wherever there are those living in fear, there will be others waiting to exploit it for profit and power.

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