Anti-Lockdown Protests Originated With Tight-Knit Group Who Share Bigger Goal: Trump 2020

The driving force behind Michigan's anti-lockdown protests — and their connections to the family of Betsy DeVos — is even more complex than we initially thought.

  • Published 20 May 2020
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Organizers of “Operation Gridlock,” the first significant protest against the lockdown measures issued by state governments in response to the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic, urged participants to remain in their vehicles as they halted traffic around the Capitol Building in Lansing, Michigan, on April 15, 2020. Two weeks later, alongside many of the same people who promoted those actions, protesters not only left their cars but entered that building, flanked by armed militias demanding that Gov. Gretchen Whitmer open the government and allow residents the freedom to return to work.

Competing narratives have emerged surrounding this anti-lockdown movement, which has spread across the country and increasingly come to embrace anti-government conspiracy theories, dangerous pseudoscience, and occasional threats or acts of violence. To its supporters, the movement represents a grassroots expression of patriotic discontent over unconstitutional measures that infringe on liberty and cause economic hardship. To its detractors, the movement inflates perceived opposition to life-saving public health measures with help from dark money tied to the family of U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. Several media reports have previously linked Operation Gridlock to the influential DeVos family through an organization tangentially funded by them, which purchased $250 in Facebook advertisements to promote the April 15 event. While this connection is largely factual, it is quantitatively negligible and, more importantly, misses the bigger picture.

By combining a sometimes second-by-second chronology of which users shared Facebook invites to the protests with hundreds of pages of campaign-finance records and local news reports, Snopes demonstrates that this anti-lockdown movement was originally pushed by a small circle of fervent activists who have been protesting almost constantly since well before the onset of the pandemic. Furthermore, they have benefited from a political action infrastructure originally created to support the DeVos-funded, anti-union “right-to-work” movement. These methods have apparently created the perception of widespread discontent with public health measures largely supported by the American populace and are part of a campaign playbook self-evidently resulting in an increasingly radicalized base of Trump supporters as the 2020 general election approaches.

The DeVos Political Machine and the Michigan Freedom Fund

Betsy DeVos’ family — whose wealth stems from father-in-law Richard DeVos’ success in creating and running the multi-level marketing company Amway — has financed libertarian political causes with an influence comparable to the Koch brothers’ for decades. The children of Richard DeVos, Sr. and their families, through at least five separate foundations, generally provide much of this financial support in a coordinated way as a family unit. To get a sense of the scale of their political involvement, note that in 2015 and 2016 the DeVos family made $14 million in political contributions, including substantial funding to the Michigan state Republican Party and other county-level GOP chapters.

The link between the DeVoses and the Operation Gridlock event stems from the former’s support of an independent PAC, the Michigan Freedom Network, which received a combined $250,000 from five members of the Devos family on March 18, 2020. The Michigan Freedom Network owns and operates the website of the Michigan Freedom Fund, a political non-profit. The Michigan Freedom Network shares staff, finances, and other resources with both the Freedom Fund and with the DeVos-funded Great Lakes Education Project, which is an “advocacy organization supporting quality choices in public education.” The Michigan Freedom Fund, whose executive director is lobbyist Tony Daunt, was a co-host of the first Operation Gridlock event on Facebook. By email, Daunt told us the fund spent only $250 on Facebook ads to promote the protest.

DeVos family spokesman Nick Wasmiller told us by email that the purpose of the DeVos family donations to the Michigan Freedom Network, which occurred in the same amount in 2016 and 2018, has always been to support candidates for state-level office, and that the money has always been earmarked for that and no other purpose:

“Like the Michigan Freedom Network, the DeVos family advocates for policies that support a fair and open economy, accountable government, strong individual rights and opportunity for all. These shared principles have inspired DeVos family members – like many other Michigan residents – to periodically make contributions to MFN with the latest coming earlier this year. These contributions are restricted to support of state house candidates who are seeking office in the coming election cycle.”

Since 2015, the Michigan Freedom Network has participated in at least 60 different state-level campaigns, but the assertion that the DeVos money does not go toward the fund — which received $51,032 from the Network between 2015 and 2018 — is unverifiable. In terms of direct financial support for this protest, however, the most one could reasonably argue might have come from the DeVoses via the Network would be $250 for Facebook ads. The Freedom Fund itself has minimized its connection to the Operation Gridlock protest as well. “The April 15 Operation Gridlock protest in Lansing was organized by a different organization — one unaffiliated with the Michigan Freedom Fund — called the Michigan Conservative Coalition,” Daunt told us.

The Michigan Conservative Coalition is a collection of former Tea Party-aligned groups and pro-Trump organizations whose purpose is to recruit and train an “army of conservative activists,” most notably the groups Michigan Trump Republicans, Women for Trump, and the Lakes Area TEA Party. The people who run the coalition have deep ties to the Michigan GOP and to Trump campaign surrogates, and the coalition was founded by Meshawn Maddock and Marian Sheridan. Maddock is the wife of Republican state Rep. Matt Maddock and serves on the national advisory board for the group Woman for Trump. Sheridan is grassroots vice chair of the Michigan Republican Party and was a founding member of the Lakes Area TEA Party. Another Coalition leader, Rosanne Ponkowski, has served as co-chair of the Oakland County (Michigan) Republican Party.

The separation between the Michigan Freedom Fund and the Michigan Conservative Coalition is not as clear as Daunt has claimed. Individuals from both organizations frequently collaborate on shared goals. Members of both organizations, for example, have been deeply invested in getting conservative members on the Michigan redistricting commission, which was created to limit political gamesmanship in the process of drawing new congressional districts in that state. Daunt, of the Michigan Freedom Fund, and Sheridan, of the Michigan Conservative Coalition, were both involved in a (failed) legal challenge against the Michigan secretary of state that criticized rules barring several individuals linked to the Michigan Conservative Coalition from serving on that redistricting commission. Eric Doster, a lawyer for the plaintiffs in that case, is the husband of Mary Doster, who is the treasurer of the Michigan Freedom Network.

To test the theory that grassroots leaders connected to or trained by these organizations were responsible for the bulk of the early promotion of the Michigan anti-lockdown protests on Facebook that helped launch a nationwide movement, we created a database of all of the people and Facebook pages who shared invites to early Michigan lockdown protests. This research revealed a tightly knit community of political activists that has been protesting since well before the COVID-19 pandemic. This activist cohort uses a political action infrastructure linked to the 2012-era, anti-union right-to-work movement in Michigan, which occurred principally due to massive political spending by the DeVoses.

The Activists Boosting Michigan’s Lockdown Protests on Facebook

We used the analytics tool Crowdtangle to collect a database of information on nearly 1,000 separate instances in which a Facebook account shared a lockdown-protest event page to a Facebook group in April 2020. We collected information from 39 different lockdown events across the country identified by key search terms, Facebook-recommended related events, and a list of protests advertised on the website of the libertarian-aligned group FreedomWorks (which has previously been supported by the DeVos family). The resulting report here concerns only data derived from Michigan, but the entire raw dataset, which includes other states, can be viewed here.

The information produced by this process aligns with previously reported aspects of the lockdown protest’s suspicious social media behavior. For example, the largest and most frequently used groups to spread these events were ones created by the Dorr brothers, four pro-gun activists. They created several anti-quarantine groups and associated websites — including Michiganders Against Excessive Quarantine — days before Operation Gridlock, which attracted hundreds of thousands of people, as reported by the Washington Post and NBC News.

What our dataset adds to this discussion is an intricate chronology of the Michigan lockdown movement’s promotion on Facebook, allowing for the identification of a small group of activists who first pushed the protests’ online promotion and who subsequently received a disproportionate amount of media coverage. Our first step was to sort all instances of people sharing protest event pages chronologically. Doing so allowed us to view “bursts” of shares — times when a Facebook user either copy-and-pasted several invites to multiple groups manually, or times when, some of these Facebook users later told us, they used a recently allowed method for automatically posting to multiple Facebook groups at once.

Joan Donovan, an online extremism expert and the research director of Harvard’s Shorenstein Center, told us that Facebook groups have been the backbone of protest movements going back to the Occupy Wall Street movement of the 2010’s, and that this multiple-post feature can be a powerful messaging tool for activists. “It works really well in memetic warfare campaigns because you can post the same meme to a bunch of different groups,” she told us in a phone interview.

We term these multi-posters “boosters,” which we defined as an account that shared the same event to at least four groups separated by no more than 60 seconds. In our dataset, these instances are highlighted in yellow. The first two boosters who met this criterion were Rob Cortis and Cindi Holland. Via Facebook messenger and email, we reached out to Holland, who asked us to send questions by email but provided no response to our questions when we did. Via his website, we reached out to Cortis, who told us by email to contact him by phone but provided us with an incorrect number. A follow-up email with a list of questions had not been responded to as of this writing.

Cortis is a well-known figure in Trump circles. One could argue he is equal parts activist and self-contained traveling side show, who since October 2016 has toured the country with a parade-style float dubbed the “Trump Unity Bridge.” A literal bridge on a trailer, this float is adorned with various Trump slogans and American flag iconography. Cortis and the bridge have become a fixture of Trump rallies and protests. Though he mostly supports his unity tour through donations, at least one political campaign has paid him. In 2017 and 2018, Cortis received $6,398.20 from the (unsuccessful) gubernatorial campaign of former Michigan state Sen. Pat Colbeck as reimbursement for “rental equipment.”

Rob Cortis (Right) posing with Donald Trump Jr. on the Trump Unity Bridge (Facebook)

Holland, the second person in our database to promote Operation Gridlock to multiple groups, is the campaign director for a current political campaign, Mike Detmer for Congress. Detmer organized one of the caravans that traveled to Lansing for Operation Gridlock. This fact was noted in several publications because he briefly went viral for appearing in a photograph with a very non-social-distanced group of people that included a member of the Proud Boys flashing a “white power” symbol during the caravan meet-up. As of this writing, his campaign has received endorsements from two individuals: former Milwaukee County sheriff and current Trump surrogate David Clarke, and the aforementioned Cortis benefactor Colbeck.

Another frequent booster of several Michigan lockdown protests was Londa Gatt, who serves as the grassroots director for the Detmer campaign and also as Midwest regional director for the pro-Trump organization Bikers for Trump, a massive organization with actual influence in the Trump administration. We asked Gatt about her Facebook promotion of the lockdown protests via Facebook messenger, and she responded with a voice recording asking us “Who are you really?” As part of her work on the Detmer campaign, and also in several instances that predate it, Gatt has frequently appeared at media spectacles that included Cortis and his Trump Unity Bridge. In 2017, for example, Gatt organized a Bikers for Trump event, which Cortis attended, that was meant to provide a “barrier wall” of protection between Kid Rock and a group of anti-Trump protesters at one of his shows.

Londa Gatt with President Donald Trump (Facebook)

Our database of boosters included other Cortis collaborators as well. In an event held a week after Operation Gridlock, Cortis and the Trump Unity Bridge were the featured attraction at a second lockdown-related protest outside of Gov. Whitmer’s house. This event, which protesters dubbed “Operation Queens Castle,” made national news despite its meager turnout. The event was pushed to several Facebook groups at the same time by Brandon Hall, who was also listed as the event’s host on Facebook. Hall is a self-described “lifelong political nerd,” a former Michigan Trump Campaign volunteer, and a felon somewhat infamously convicted of election fraud in 2014. “Gretchen Whitmer is tyranny, this is like a third world country. It’s like V for Vendetta and Idiocracy hooked up and they produced this baby that is 2020,” Hall told local news outlet Up North Live from outside Whitmer’s home.

Brandon Hall and President Donald Trump (West Michigan Politics)

Hall pushed the Queen’s Castle event to many of the same groups used by Cortis and Holland, including Auto Workers for Trump 2020. Brian Pannebecker, who was described in a September 2017 report as “a go-to source for reporters seeking comment from Trump backers in Michigan,” runs the Auto Workers Facebook group. Indeed, Pannebecker has been quoted as the voice of Michigan Trump supporters on a host of issues in a wide range of venues, including CNN and the Wall Street Journal, and has himself penned several opinion pieces lauding Trump published by his local newspaper. He has also attended multiple events with both Cortis and Hall.

Brian Pannepacker and President Trump (Facebook)

Some combination of these above individuals, all of whom were involved in the promotion of the lockdown protests on Facebook, are disproportionately represented in past media accounts regarding pro-Trump demonstrations in Michigan. In September 2019, for example, Pannepacker, Cortis, and Gatt were each quoted or discussed in the Macomb Daily’s coverage of a “flash mob” meant to “counteract illegitimate attacks on the president.” Explaining her reason for attending this flash mob, participant Darlene Doetzel asserted to that newspaper that “fake news is out there every day, seven days a week telling lies.” Doetzel, it bears mentioning, is also one of the boosters identified in our database. She did not respond to requests for comment we sent by  Facebook messenger and email.

These observations do not demonstrate some elaborate and centralized pro-Trump conspiracy. Instead, they are notable because they suggest that the major impetus, when it comes to the people who promoted the lockdown events on Facebook and had their voices amplified in national or international media reports, was not so much the specific public-health measures meant to counter COVID-19. Rather, it was support of Trump in general. Their dedication to the anti-lockdown cause specifically is somewhat undermined by their history of supporting several attention-grabbing, pro-Trump causes dating back to 2016. In other words, they would likely still be holding protests and demonstrations in a non-pandemic reality. Furthermore, these observations make clear that a supposedly massive grassroots movement was — at least at its conception — principally the result of a much smaller number of activists who know how to create a media spectacle.

How the DeVoses Indirectly Aid These Protests

“If Betsy DeVos is reading this,” Hall wrote to us on Facebook messenger when we asked about financial support for his activism, “Girl, I have NOT gotten the check the Twitter people and other radical liberals are saying I received.” Every protest organizer or promoter we contacted similarly denied receiving funds from anyone for their activism, and in most cases this is consistent with the evidence available to us via public records and campaign disclosures.

Attempting to tie the DeVoses to these protesters or the movement they represent through the Michigan Freedom Fund’s $250 Facebook ad buy misses the substantial role played by the political action machine the DeVoses birthed in the early 2010s, which turned Michigan into a right-to-work state. The passage of right-to-work legislation in Michigan, an anti-union cause banning mandatory union dues as a condition of employment, was a major political coup. It almost certainly wouldn’t have occurred, according to many of the politicians involved, without the significant financial and political pressure applied by the DeVoses and the political action network they created to promote it.

Following a 2009 victory that defeated a pro-union bill in the Michigan legislature, Dick DeVos, Jr. (husband of Betsy DeVos) and Ron Weiser, a former Michigan GOP chair, U.S. ambassador and “political guru,” began to strategize a path toward passing full right-to-work legislation. This path included recruiting from and fostering the grassroots activism of the Tea Party movement, financing candidates in local elections while promising support to candidates who faced tough reelection battles for their support of right-to-work, research on messaging, and lots of ad buys. The Michigan Freedom Fund — the same one that bought $250 worth of ads for Operation Gridlock — was explicitly founded to fund one of those ad buys.

Deleted photo of Brian Pannebecker (left) with former Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (center) and Ron Weiser photographed at the 2013 Mackinac Republican Leadership Conference.

Many of the activists we connected to the Facebook promotion of the early Michigan lockdown protests were also activists associated with the DeVos-Weiser push to get right-to-work legislation passed in Michigan. Pannebecker, of the group Autoworkers for Trump 2020, for example, has repeatedly referred to himself in media reports as a “spokesperson for Michigan Freedom to Work.” He has attended at least one Mackinac Republican Leadership Conference — an event historically financed in large part by organizations connected to or funded by the DeVoses — where he was photographed with DeVos associate Weiser. We asked Pannebecker on Facebook messenger if any connection existed between the freedom-to-work movement and his auto workers Facebook group and its use in promoting anti-lockdown measures, or if he has been paid by or supported by outside money. He simply replied “no.”

While many of the people we identified as pushing these protests to multiple Facebook groups used Pannebecker’s Auto Workers for Trump 2020 group, several boosters — Cortis, Doetzel, and Hall — all used the Facebook group Lakes Area TEA Party for that purpose as well. While the Lakes Area TEA Party as an organization was founded by current Michigan Conservative Coalition leaders, the Facebook group was created in 2013 by Tim Bos, who rose to prominence as a former union worker who became “a vocal proponent” of the right-to-work movement. His Facebook profile states that he attended the Leadership Institute, described by the campaign finance watchdog OpenSecrets as “a decades-old nonprofit that provides training for conservative activists.” It receives significant funding from the conservative dark-money group DonorsTrust, which itself receives significant funding from the DeVos family. Bos did not respond to our request for comment.

Former Michigan State Sen. Colbeck, whose campaign for governor paid funds to Trump Unity Bridge owner Cortis, is intimately linked to the DeVos political machine via right-to-work legislation. According to the Michigan Campaign Finance Network, his rise as a Tea Party politician was heavily funded by DeVos money, and when he held elected office he advocated fiercely for their policies. As senator, he was one of the co-sponsors of the successfully passed Michigan right-to-work legislation. Colbeck, often as part of the Mike Detmer for Congress campaign, is a frequent speaker at pro-Trump events. He and Detmer were also all in attendance at Operation Gridlock and the later protest, the American Patriot Rally, that received widespread coverage due to the armed militias in the Michigan Capitol.

Finally, as previously mentioned, Detmer’s campaign for Congress is currently run by Facebook booster Holland. Holland, who has appeared at several events with both Colbeck and Cortis and has worked closely alongside protest booster Gatt, is on the board of the Michigan Conservative Union. This organization appears to share a phone number, email address, and contact person with the group Michigan Freedom to Work — the same organization that Pannebecker has stated in past media reports to have been a spokesperson for.

Again, this does not suggest a massive, centralized conspiracy orchestrated by the DeVos family to activate a past network of right-to-work activists to oppose restrictions on COVID-19 public health measures. What these connections instead show is that a small group of zealous activists identified by our database do not credibly represent the voice of grassroots citizens untouched by political influence. These individuals (as evidenced by their past activism) and the infrastructure they control (as evidenced by its creation for another political purpose) mobilized not for their objection to lockdowns specifically. Instead, the primary effect of their efforts by design seems to be energizing Trump’s base in an election year.

Screenshot of Rob Cortis (center) in front of the Trump Unity Bridge with GOP Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel (left) and Trump Campaign Manager Brad Parscale (right) from a photo album on the website of the Michigan 10th Congressional District Republicans (district10gop.com)

 

“It’s Patriots Like You Who Are Going to Stop Them”

On June 11, 2019, a local Republican organization, the Michigan 10th Congressional District GOP, hosted its annual Ronald Reagan Dinner — a fundraiser headlined that year by National GOP Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel and Trump Campaign Manager Brad Parscale. None of the attendees could have possibly known that a pandemic would be declared nine months later, necessitating a global wave of stay-at-home orders that would grind the global economy to a halt and fundamentally transform daily life in America and across the world. Yet virtually everyone identified in our dataset as boosting the anti-lockdown protests on Facebook, or associated with the Michigan Conservative Coalition, was in attendance at that dinner.

Present were flash-mob attendee and protest booster Doetzel, Detmer campaign director protest booster Holland, Operation Queen’s Castle organizer and protest booster Hall, Trump Unity Bridge driver and protest booster Cortis, and Autoworkers for Trump’s Pannebecker. The Michigan Conservative Coalition’s Maddock, Sheridan, and Ponkowski were all there as well. So was Matt Seely, the current president of the Michigan Conservative Coalition. In his keynote address, Parscale accused Democrats of a litany of offenses related to immigration, healthcare, and environmental policy, telling the roused audience that, “It’s patriots like you who are going to stop them.”

At the Michigan lockdown protest dubbed the “American Patriot Rally” less than a year later — attended by many who were in the audience of the Ronald Reagan Dinner — an armed militia entered the Michigan Capitol Building demanding the revocation of laws that health officials and epidemiologists say remain necessary to prevent further catastrophe. Another group organized an event that day alongside the Michigan Conservative Coalition’s efforts, and this second group may have been the one responsible for the armed protesters. But for many of the activists — armed or not — among the crowds gathered at the Patriot Rally, Operation Queen’s Castle or Operation Gridlock, these demonstrations were evidently a single battle in a years-long war whose previous fronts have included flash mobs, billboard-painting parties, anti-impeachment rallies, and Kid Rock concerts.

To be sure, hundreds of people attended both Operation Gridlock and the American Patriot Rally. Many likely had no connection to previous activism and were motivated to attend out of a genuine frustration at the stay-at-home measures and a fear of economic uncertainty. Anti-lockdown sentiment has been “generated by people who are really angry and scared [and who] really see their governors and mayors as the problem behind this,” Vanessa Williamson, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institute and co-author of the book “The Tea Party and the Remaking of Republican Conservatism,” told us in a phone interview.

On the other hand, as we have demonstrated in this investigation, the spark that ignited the movement owes itself in no small part to a small coterie of activists whose messaging appears to have been honed — at least in in some cases — in conservative activist training programs, and whose use of a political action machine exists thanks to millions of dollars of funding from a handful of billionaires. This “mixture of grassroots and top-down organizing” is what made the Tea Party movement of the early 2010s such a success, Williamson told us. “I am worried about that,” she added, “especially for the upcoming election, because if this movement basically generates more enthusiasm, they could become a force politically well beyond this one particular issue.”

Whether the anti-lockdown movement will become a force to be reckoned with is unclear. Polls suggest a majority of Americans support the lockdown measures and oppose the lockdown protests, even when only people who have lost their jobs and are suffering economic hardship are polled. What is clear, though, is that the movement has already expanded well beyond one particular issue, and those issues are becoming dangerously divorced from reality.

The Michigan Conservative Coalition’s website, at the time of this reporting, showcases the objectively false anti-vaccine conspiracy video “Plandemic.” The Facebook groups dedicated to the anti-lockdown cause are a fever swamp of conspiracy theories ranging from Bill Gates’ desire to track the global population through microchips in COVID-19 vaccines to the notion that a cohort of patriots under the leadership of someone referred to as “Q” will overthrow the “deep state.” A $250 Facebook ad buy from the DeVos-linked Michigan Freedom Fund did not create this coalition, nor did it single-handedly launch the anti-lockdown movement.

The well-connected political action machine that originally created the Michigan Freedom Fund, however, has been objectively successful in presenting the fringe views of that movement as having widespread grassroots support in national media coverage. This increasingly radicalized base, and the tactics that gave rise to Operation Gridlock, will no doubt become a potent messaging tool as the 2020 general election approaches. Reporters seeking the views of Midwest conservatives will need to be aware, among many other things, that Trump supporters other than Pannebecker and Cortis exist in Michigan.

Operations Editor Jordan Liles contributed research to this story.