That protests against President Donald Trump that began just days after his upset electoral victory in November shouldn’t have been too surprising to right-wing media outlets, given Trump’s historically divisive rise to the presidency. Still, many leaned on an update to a well-worn conspiracy in order to delegitimize the protesters: that billionaire activist George Soros and his liberal friends wanted total control of the United States, and former President Barack Obama had joined the effort in order to create a “shadow government.”
President Donald Trump was asked about such an effort in an interview that aired Tuesday.
“Can we talk about President Obama?” Fox News’ Brian Kilmeade asked Trump. “It turns out his organization seems to be doing a lot of the organizing [for] some of the protests that a lot of these Republicans are seeing around the country, and against you. Do you believe President Obama is behind it? And if he is, is that a violation of the so-called unsaid President’s code?”
“I think that President Obama is behind it,” Trump said. “Because his people are certainly behind it.”
Of course, George Soros has denied funding protests. And the fearmongering in the far-right blogosphere certainly isn’t leading Organizing for Action, the 501(c)4 group made up in large part of alumni of the Obama campaigns, to shy away from its mission—the group recently hired 14 field organizers to focus on health care, and more than 1,800 people also signed up for the group’s Spring community engagement fellowship, according to NBC News.
“OFA is a non-profit group dedicated to grassroots organizing. We have volunteer-led chapters around the country who are working to engage fellow members of their communities and enact positive change on key issues,” Jesse Lehrich, the group’s communication director, told TPM in an email. “Needless to say, the notion that OFA is orchestrating some sort of nefarious shadow government is pretty far-fetched.”
Murmurings that Obama didn’t plan to “fade away” into the history books arguably began with Ed Klein, known for his outlandish and critical writing on the Clintons and Obamas. Speaking to Fox News in December, the conservative author pointed to the Obamas renting a house in Washington, D.C. as proof. (It was first reported in May that the family rented the house so that daughter Sasha could finish high school in the District.)
“In that house, there’s enough room for Valerie Jarret, as well as Michelle and the kids, a place for ten cars to park. They are setting up what they are calling a shadow government,” Klein said.
“He’s setting up almost an insurgency,” he continued. “He’s picking people in foreign affairs, labor, abortion, union matters. He’s setting it up to start appearing on television, making speeches, doing op-ed pieces. For the next four years, you’re going to see not only the Trump administration, but you’re going to see a shadow government opposing a Trump administration.”
It’s a common trope to use in claims of a “shadow government:” blurring the lines between “seditious” or “insurgent” activity and plain old political activism.
When Trump said that recent protests against the repeal of Obamacare at town halls across the country had been “planned out by liberal activists,” he was partly right. Thousands of people across the country have attended town halls on their own accord or at the urging of friends and relatives, while others have linked up with political advocacy groups. The co-founder of Indivisible, the guidebook for local political organizing from former congressional staffers that went viral after Trump’s win, has said that he hasn’t collected a paycheck for his work, telling Politico that blaming protests on astroturfed organizing was “a fantasy.”
Conservative commentators, however, have tried to pin activism by citizens upset at the prospect of losing health care onto a billionaire-backed coup of sorts.
That’s what Paul Sperry did in an op-ed for the New York Post on Feb. 11. Sperry pointed to Organizing for Action.
“OFA activists helped organize anti-Trump marches across US cities, some of which turned into riots,” Sperry wrote. “After Trump issued a temporary ban on immigration from seven terror-prone Muslim nations, the demonstrators jammed airports, chanting: ‘No ban, no wall, sanctuary for all!’”
A few days later, Fox Business’ Lou Dobbs said “many claim” that Obama “will be creating a shadow government to frustrate the policy goals of this administration.”
“We’re looking at something that’s coming very close, it seems to be, to sedition,” Dobbs said. “When you start working against the interests of the United States government, whether it’s in the person of Donald Trump or whomever, and conspiring and organizing to frustrate the policies that he intends to execute, I think that that really takes us to a whole ‘nother level.”
The Obama “shadow government” bogeyman kept evolving from there. “Trunews” Christian radio host Rick Wyles said on his show that “we are witnessing a full-blown Marxist-communist resistance movement, a revolution in America.” He also made reference to “The Purple Revolution,” an apparent allusion to the purple lapels Hillary Clinton wore in her concession speech (and which appears to be a whole different conspiracy theory unto itself).
“The chief banker funding the Purple Revolution is billionaire George Soros and the chief community organizer directing the insurrection in the streets is none other than Barack Hussein Obama,” Wiles said.
“This is outright sedition,” he continued, explaining: “An organized effort encouraging people to resist and overthrow a legitimate government.”
Sperry appeared on Fox News on Feb. 14 and told Sean Hannity, “these other protests against Trump, and also Republicans in these town hall meetings, Obama and his organizers, it turns out, are behind those protests. They’re not spontaneous.”
“These are being organized by a group founded by Obama, called Organizing for Action,” he continued. “It’s a radical Alinsky group, it’s got a lot of money. And they’re training an army of agitators to sabotage Trump and his policies while at the same time protecting Obama and his legacy.”
Days later, Kilmeade echoed that language to Trump, who agreed with him.