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Inside Story on Town Hall Riots: Right-Wing Shock Troops Do Corporate America's Dirty Work

How the health-care industry, the GOP and one media mogul made common cause with the anti-government fringe.
 
 
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An update to this story appears on the last page, before the video.

The recent spate of town hall dustups may look like an overnight sensation, but they've been years, even decades, in the making.

Since the days in the late 1970s, when the New Right began its takeover of the Republican Party, it has cultivated a militia of white people armed with a grudge against those who brought forth the social changes of the '60s.

These malcontents have been promised their day of retribution, a day for which they are more than ready. Few seem to understand that they are merely dupes for a corporate agenda that will only worsen the conditions in which they live.

Why, you may ask, would men of power and fame shake the rough, unmanicured hands of gun enthusiasts, conspiracy theorists, gay-haters, misogynists and racists?

Because somebody's got to do the dirty work. Magnates don't like to soil their French cuffs, and it's hard for a bunch of rich guys to garner sympathy for threats to their bottom lines. It's the classic inside-outside game that the right wing of the GOP has played for the last two decades.

The Health-Care Industry Executive

Imagine you're an executive at a pharmaceutical company. Your U.S. operations are your cash cow; they earn you wild net profits because, unlike in other industrialized nations, you do not experience the price controls of a government-administered program in which the government negotiates for the best price on prescription drugs and devices.

Along comes a government plan for health-insurance reform that includes a public, government-financed plan. The public option, they call it. As part of the plan, you will be required to negotiate with the government for the price of medications and devices to be distributed within the plan.

Now that could really screw up your massive profit margins. Private plans might then insist on prices more like those the government is getting.

Instead of increasing your profit by double digits in the worst year the economy has seen since the Great Depression, as did an outfit called The Medicines Co., your shareholders may have to settle for profits more in line with the overall growth of the economy. And wouldn't that just stink?

Meanwhile, polls show a clear majority of Americans -- you know, regular Americans, the kind who don't want to own an AK-47, or who do accept the president's citizenship status -- favor the public option. In fact, in June, CBS News found that majority to be 72 percent.

So, whaddaya do? Well, if your lobbying firm counts former Rep. Dick Armey, R-Texas, as its senior policy adviser, you don't have do much. Dick will take care of the rest through FreedomWorks, the ostensibly grassroots, nonprofit organization of anti-taxers, cold warriors and affirmative-action opponents, which he chairs.

Need to make it look like regular Americans oppose the health-insurance reform bills now being considered by Congress? Make sure a handful of those angry white people turn up at the town hall meetings now being conducted by members of Congress throughout the country. Make sure they disrupt the meeting and rattle the congressperson.

Capture it all on amateur video and put it up on a faux, amateur-looking Web site, and try to kid the media into thinking there's a widespread rebellion happening. After all, the media are gonna want that dramatic footage.

The Republican Member of Congress

Now, suppose you're a Republican member of Congress. Your party got totally throttled in the 2008 election, and if you don't derail this health care thing, it's going to be a big win for your Democratic opponents, as millions of underinsured and uninsured Americans finally have some health care coverage -- one bright spot in a largely dismal economy.

Meanwhile, you get a lot of your campaign cash from health-care-related industries and from the Wall Street bankers and brokers who want to keep those profits soaring.

A public option is going to stink for you, too. So, while Armey's army of taxphobes is useful to you, it would be great to get some really hard-core types to further stoke the fires -- especially if marshaled by guys who know how to really tar Democrats with racist imagery and slurs of unpatriotic behavior.

That's where Grassfire.org and its brother networking site, ResistNet, come in. Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., who promised to make health-care reform President Obama's " Waterloo," is a big fan. Says so right there on the Grassfire Web site. ResistNet is yet another right-wing hub for organizing the disruption of health-care town hall meetings.

The Media Mogul

Okay, now put on the hat of a media mogul, one who rails against the minimal restrictions the U.S. has on multi-outlet ownership, and one for whom the bottom line is everything. In fact, you actually own the Wall Street Journal.

If you can nip this health care thing in the bud, you could stand in the way of a president who wants to rein in Wall Street's worse excesses and who may depress the profit margins of health-care companies in which your readers invest with his dastardly public option. What's a mogul to do?

Why not hire a guy known for riling the discontented to host a show on your cable news channel, and empower him as an organizer? Let him create a little project pegged to fear and nationalism -- something, say, like 9/11 -- through which he mobilizes bands of those aggrieved by the fact of a black president to disrupt town hall meetings.

That's exactly what Rupert Murdoch did when he hired Glenn Beck to host a Fox News Channel show and to put together a little organizing site called The 9-12 Project.

Although Beck's stated goal is to bring America back to where it was on Sept. 12, 2001 -- a nation pulled together in the wake of the terrorist attacks the day before -- he draws together only those who embrace the goals of the right.

But his project site is shaped like a social-networking tool, and activists in Florida credit the Tampa 9-12 chapter as turning them out to a town hall they helped turn into a ruckus.

Put these three scenarios together, and you have the phenomenon that has become the summer of the town-hall scuff, a heated season of right-wing disruptions of civic fora.

Add to that an oppressed-white-people narrative that has its roots in the origins of what used to be called the New Right, and you have a confluence of interests ready to elevate to prime-time status a disgruntled and paranoid minority with a penchant for misplaced blame.

FreedomWorks and the K Street Lobbyist

In Washington's K Street corridor, Dick Armey is a very important man -- so important, in fact, that he was scooped up, upon his retirement from Congress, by the lobbying firm DLA Piper.

It's been widely reported that Piper lobbies on behalf of health-care industry interests, including Bristol-Myers Squibb, but its top health-care-industry client, according to OpenSecrets.org, is The Medicines Co., a small, below-the-radar firm that has paid Armey's lobbying firm nearly $2.4 million since the beginning of 2008 -- nearly 15 percent of DLA Piper's overall lobbying income for the period.

I called The Medicines Co., requesting an interview with someone on staff who could spell out the company's position on the pending health care bills, and I got back a rather empty, generic statement via e-mail from the company's public relations firm, FD:

The Medicines Co., a small biotech company, was founded on and continues to follow our mission of saving lives, improving patient outcomes and reducing health care costs. Any suggestion that the Medicines Co. has opposed or retained anyone to oppose the pending health care reform bills is entirely mistaken.

I sent an e-mail back, asking for the company's position on the health-care bills what it spent $2.4 million to lobby for, and received no response by press time.

The Medicines Co. operates so below the radar that it is not even listed as a member on the Web site of the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturer's Association (PhRMA), which opposes the House bill because it empowers a non-elected panel of experts to oversee cost-containment in public programs.

PhRMA also claims the House plan will raise premiums on senior citizens enrolled in the Medicare prescription drug plan, a plan, as currently construed, largely seen as a giveaway to the pharmaceutical companies.

Last year, The Medicines Co. saw net earnings on its major product, the anti-coagulant Angiomax, increase 17 percent over the course of a single year.

Because of The Medicines Co.'s tight lips, we may never know whether it feels it's getting its $2.4 million worth out of Piper, or its senior policy analyst, Armey, in his effort to derail health care through the FreedomWorks astroturf site.

Go to the site, and you'll find a Health Care Action Kit (PDF), complete with talking points and Armey's "ObamaCare translator" of key terms in the health care discussion, laced with Armey's own witticisms. There's even a mock " ObamaCare insurance card" (PDF) you can print out and pass around at town halls. It promises, among other things on a bulletted list, "Rationed health care" and "Anxiety, pain, risk of death."

At the risk of mixing messages (a big public-relations no-no), Armey also advises health-care protesters to raise their opposition to the energy-reform provision called " cap and trade" in the health-care town halls.

Coincidentally, DLA Piper's lobbying portfolio includes a number of oil and energy companies.

Then, there are the actual members of FreedomWorks, who leave the most enlightening comments on the Web site:

This, from Constantine Ivanov:

June 27, 2009 -- 3:40pm
The problem is that no matter how passionately we are here condemning the socialized (better to say "Socialistisized") Medicine, "die eisernen Stiefel" (the iron jackboots) of Obamistas are methodically and systematicly destroying the very core of our country.

And I recall German troops who at a steady gait moved as close as 10 miles to Moscow in 1941.

Or, this, from Joe Massana:

June 27, 2009 -- 4:00pm
[Obama] and his socilist party are ruining this country ... I know that if I was a black man right now, I would be able to get help from the government with my construction business and household bills.

If an entity providing 15 percent of the lobbying income at Armey's day job took objection to any of this, do you think Armey would be overseeing the FreedomWorks outfit?

DLA Piper also earned $300,000 since early last year lobbying on behalf of the American Council of Life Insurers, which opposes the long-term care provisions in the House bill, which it sees as competition.

Grassfire and ResistNet

The FreedomWorks commenters are tame by comparison with those found on ResistNet, a project of Grassfire.org. Using a social-networking platform, Grassfire claims some 400,000 members who are dedicated to "resisting" the "Democratic agenda," which, by their lights, includes "open borders" and "taxpayer-funded abortions."

A 501(c)(4) nonprofit, Grassfire has been named as a " stealth political action committee" by Public Citizen. Its founder and president, Steve Elliott, has held up MoveOn.org as a model for where he would like to take his organization.

ResistNet, has become a major hub for turning out hard-core right-wingers to health-care town hall meetings. The organization took in $1.5 million in 2007 (the most recent year for which information is publicly available).

It's difficult to find out much of anything about Elliott; he manages to keep a very low profile. But SourceWatch and Public Citizen report that Grassfire is represented by the Washington public relations firm Shirley & Bannister, whose principal is Craig Shirley, the man who gave us the Willie Horton ad of the 1988 presidential election.

Shirley promoted the movie, Stolen Honor, a Swiftboat-style smear piece made about 2004 presidential candidate Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass. Today, Shirley's clients, according to the Shirley & Bannister Web site, include the National Rifle Association, author Ann Coulter, religious right co-founder Richard Viguerie, and other religious right figures.

But Shirley & Bannister retains ties to GOP establishment figures; its Web site bears an endorsement from William Kristol, who served in the administration of the first George Bush, who happens to be the candidate whose campaign reaped some of its victory from Shirley's Horton ad.

The firm also promotes the books of former Rep. Joe Scarborough, R-Fla., (now of MSNBC) and former George H.W. Bush speechwriter Peggy Noonan (who promised us a "kinder, gentler nation") -- books published by Rupert Murdoch's HarperCollins.

The site also lists several other major publishers as clients for the promotion of books by right-wing authors.

I called Shirley & Bannister on Friday morning, asking if Grassfire/ResistNet was its client, since it is not listed on the Web site. I was told that Amy Haas, the person who could answer my question, was on the phone, and would get back to me. She did not.

On its introductory page, Grassfire.org complimentary words from Rep. Mike Pence, R-Ind., and Sen. DeMint.

"Grassfire has done a great job and has done a great service to the American people," reads the DeMint quote.

Grassfire makes the point often that it will show the president respect and refrain from personal attacks, as ResistNet, which touts a " no tolerance policy" (they can't say "zero tolerance," since "Zero" is the nickname by which many of their members call Obama -- a play on the first letter of his last name) for "personal attacks, lewd or profane language, or militancy against Barack Obama or others."

Yet a boxed statement on the opening page of the ResistNet site offers this: Welcome to the online community for patriotic citizens who are opposing the Obama-led socialist agenda …"

ResistNet is full of comments and blog posts that violate its purported "no tolerance" policy, including those calling for social insurrection and even the death of Obama. It promises that such comments will be removed by a moderator, and yet they live on the site for months.

Here's a comment that appears below a letter one ResistNet member named Joel wrote to his congresswoman:

Comment by RBJ 1 day ago
Joel, I hate to be the one to tell you this, you remember the old saying about "Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me."

Well that is all that we are doing here, just throwing words at the crowd of Socialist in D.C., aka "D.C.Terrorist"…

As we all know, when words fail, reach over and get a 2 X 4 and get after it. Words don't hurt, but a good solid A$$ Whooping will get there attention everytime!

Once you have their attention, then you can talk.

Or check out this one, posted by George and Pat Wilkins on Aug. 6, in which they close a long post warning that "the statists will pass socialized medicine in September" by wishing for the death of the president:

Waiting lines will be long, those waiting will find operable conditions be found to be inoperable, Hospice and palliation for comfort will be their fate. Others will die. Why is this being done? back door reparations. I pray that God will strike Obama dead, and all who stand with him they are evil.

And those just two recent examples. Posted on July 2, and still living on the ResistNet site as I write is a video by the Rev. James David Manning, who warns that "white folks are gonna riot in the streets, and I'm gonna join them." Throughout the video, Manning, an African American, refers to Obama as a "half-breed Mack Daddy" -- slang for a kind of megapimp.

Then there's this charming bit of propaganda, Obama = Hitler (which you can view at the bottom of this story), which dubs video of Obama delivering a speech with the voice of Adolf Hitler, and interposes swastikas and Obama's campaign logo; Obama is shown wearing a swastika armband; Hitler is shown with the Obama logo as a belt buckle.

Footage of Obama supporters, most of them African American, is run side-by-side with Hitler's adoring crowds. As Obama waves and moves his mouth, the dub is Hitler yelling, "Sieg Heil!"

The ResistNet site is also peppered with posts touting the birther conspiracy, and other right-wing favorites. After Thursday's scuffle at the Tampa, Fla., health care town hall, Eric Erikson ( cross-posting from RedState) blamed the violence on "SEIU thugs," an emerging right-wing theme reported earlier by Steve Benen.

I tried to contact Grassfire President Steve Elliott to ask him about the conflict between ResistNet's "no tolerance" policy and the vitriol I found on his site. I also wanted to find out if there are health-care interests among his donors. Elliott, said Tina, the woman who answered the phone, was traveling, and his spokesman, Ron DeJong, was on vacation. She promised to text Elliott with my contact information, but I never heard back.

Glenn Beck and the 9-12 Project

Which brings us to Glenn Beck. There's little I can add to what's been reported (click here for AlterNet's Tana Ganeva writing on Beck's racism), except that when I went to the Web site of Beck's 9-12 Project, another hub of organizing for disrupters of health-care town hall meetings, I found that the comments section had been shut down.

The message left by someone named "Editor" bore no time stamp, only a date: August 6, the date of the infamous Tampa brouhaha at which anti-health-care protesters, according to the St. Petersburg Times, said they had been inspired by Beck and his project.

Each of these organizations have this in common: They're all promoting a march on Washington for Sept. 12. Others in the mix include TeaPartyExpress.org, and the Our Country Deserves Better PAC, which was founded by Howard Kaloogian in the heat of the presidential campaign.

Kaloogian was the chairman of the "Recall Gray Davis Committee," which succeeded in unseating the Democratic governor of California. Our Country Deserves Better ran the "Stop Obama" bus tour during the 2008 presidential election, and was faulted by Fact Check.org for airing misleading anti-Obama advertising.

The Inside-Outside Game

The right wing of the GOP has long played this kind of inside-outside game, from the earliest days of the founding of the religious right by Richard Viguerie, Howard Phillips and the late Paul Weyrich. All were veterans of the 1964 Barry Goldwater campaign, and all had experience within the establishment Republican Party.

Viguerie, following a model pioneered by Morris Dees for the 1972 Democratic primary campaign of Sen. George McGovern, D-S.D., harnessed the power of direct-mail solicitations to land Ronald Reagan in the White House. Weyrich founded the Heritage Foundation, which became a fax-generating spin and policy factory for the Reagan administration.

Phillips took the game outside, organizing on-the-ground misanthropes, and eventually founding his own political party, the U.S. Taxpayer's Party (now the Constitution Party) to exert pressure on the GOP from the outside.

The strategy firmly established the right's foothold in the GOP, leading to the party's takeover. Any remnant of the old establishment of the Republican Party was crushed in 1996, when defeated presidential candidate Patrick J. Buchanan, now a MSNBC commentator, threatened to walk the delegates he had won in his primary war against Sen. Bob Dole, R-Kansas, out of the Republican National Convention and into the arms of Phillips' U.S. Taxpayer Party if the GOP platform did not firmly enough oppose abortion. He also insisted the platform incorporate a host of other right-wing demands, such as a condemnation of the United Nations.

The GOP forked over the writing of its platform to Phyllis Schlafly (another veteran of the Goldwater campaign) and Buchanan's sister, Bay, and the takeover was complete. The right wing became the Republican establishment.

All of the narratives today embraced by the ResistNet, FreedomWorks and the Glenn Beck crowd find their legs in the one-man clearinghouse that is Howard Phillips.

Through his Conservative Caucus, Phillips disseminated the "birther" theory that Obama is not an American citizen, gave right-wing operative Cliff Kincaid an award for researching Obama's alleged socialist roots, and for years has railed against "socialized medicine" -- even arguing that Medicare is unconstitutional and warning darkly of a time when the government might determine who shall live and who shall die.

"[W]hen the supply of medical care is controlled by politicians and bureaucrats," Phillips told a 1997 gathering of his Conservative Caucus Foundation, "and the demand for that care exceeds the supply, then individual human beings created in God's image become price factors in the eyes of medical gatekeepers -- they're not even medical, they're bureaucratic gatekeepers -- who determine medical decisions not on the basis of medical needs, but on the basis of bureaucratic priorities."

Phillips' disdain for feminists is palpable, and his language about LGBT people, routinely labeled on his Web site as "perverts," "homos" and "sodomites" is contemptible. He refers to Planned Parenthood as "Murder Incorporated."

I called Phillips for comment on this article, but he was en route to Mexico where he has convened a press conference to protest the nonexistent North American Union, another right-wing conspiracy theory. (Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, is an invited speaker.)

Phillips advanced the career of Randall Terry, founder of the militant anti-aborton group Operation Rescue. At one point, it seemed that his U.S. Taxpayer's Party was to Operation Rescue what Sinn Fein is to the Irish Republican Army -- the political wing of a movement steeped in violence. (In Terry's case, the violence was in rhetoric and obstruction designed to incite others to act.)

Conspiracy of Silence

On Aug. 4, Terry, who is seeking to make a comeback with his new organization, Operation Rescue Insurrecta Nex, sent out an e-mail blast urging followers to attend health care town halls convened by members of Congress.

Trotting out the trope the that health-care reform bills provide for taxpayer-funded abortions, he urges his followers:

Stir up some dust!

Be "unreasonable!"

In fact, you might want to be a little noisier and a little more intense than you might normally be.

I put it this way: If you were in danger of being murdered, and I could possibly save you at a town hall meeting, how would you want people to behave in a town hall meeting?

At a July press conference, Terry warned of "random acts of violence" that would occur if the health-care bill passed. There would be violent "reprisals against those deemed guilty," he said.

Think Terry's too out on the fringe to matter? Think again. When AlterNet reported that the Supreme Court nomination hearing of Judge Sonia Sotomayor was being disrupted by Terry's followers, not one Republican senator condemned him by name.

When Terry staged a demonstration outside the White House featuring men in Obama masks "whipping" him, not a distancing word was placed between him and the GOP establishment.

And now he is promulgating the false Republican claim that health-care reform will mean socialized euthanasia for the aged.

Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin also has links to Phillips; for seven years, her husband, Todd, claimed membership in the Alaska affiliate of the Constitution Party -- the secessionist Alaska Independence Party, whose convention Palin addressed last year via video.

Every other day, it seems, I receive an e-mail from one right-wing organization or another, warning of the grave consequences of health-insurance reform.

The subject line in an e-mail from Human Events magazine screams at me "Grandmas and babies exterminated by Obama 'health' plan," even as another of its e-mails asks, "Obama birth certificate destroyed?" The anti-gay American Family Association warns: " Liberals seek to silence and demonize those who oppose their socialism."

Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council sent a plea for money to finance a television ad that features an elderly couple complaining of the government's denial of surgery for the man while financing abortion with taxpayer dollars.

Think these organizations are not the Republican establishment? Consider that the annual Values Voter Summit sponsored by the Family Research Council's PAC will feature former "moderate" GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney as a keynote speaker.

In the corridors of Washington's K Street lobbying offices, in the district offices of Republican members of Congress, and in the executive suite of one singular mogul, the men of power must be well-pleased with themselves, watching YouTube videos of the mayhem they have unleashed on the rest of us. But they may just get their pound of flesh.

UPDATE : This and other reports shone a light on the apparent conflict of interest in work done by former House Majority Leader Dick Armey in his roles as a senior policy adviser for a lobbying firm that represents drug companies and other stakeholders in pending health-care reform legislation, and as chairman of FreedomWorks, a non-profit astroturfing outfit that organizes ill-behaved mobs to disrupt town-hall meetings on health-care reform legislation.

My reporting led me to The Medicines Company, a small pharmaceutical firm that uses DLA Piper, the lobbying firm that until August 14 employed Armey, to represent its interests on Capitol Hill.

When I called The Medicines Company for comment on its position on the health-care reform bills (and for information on any bills for which DLA Piper advocates on the company's behalf), I received only a tepid and vague response via e-mail. This led me to ask whether Armey's astroturfing operation enjoyed The Medicine Company's tacit support, since the company's business accounted for 15 percent of DLA Piper's lobbying income.

I heard nothing more from The Medicines Company until August 13, days after the piece had posted. Mary Kathryn Covert of FD, the public relations firm that represents The Medicines Company, clarified the lobbying activities for which The Medicines Company retained DLA Piper.

Covert said that The Medicines Company did not lobby at all on any of the pending health-care bills, instead focusing its efforts on patent law. For further explanation, she recommended this story from the business site, BNET.

I still find myself scratching my head, though, trying to figure out why a company with the clout held by The Medicines Company within its chosen lobbying shop would simply sit on its hands -- taking no position -- while Armey organized the mobs that target town-hall meetings on health-care reform.

Adele M. Stan AlterNet's acting Washington bureau chief.