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Staff Photo by Robin Rudd / Some protesters drove their cars repeatedly across the Market Street Bridge in Chattanooga last week during a "Freedom Rally" to protest governmental closure orders during the COVID-19 pandemic.

While Tennessee, Georgia, Florida and other Southern red states are running hair-on-fire toward reopening commerce in the face of a pandemic — seemingly at the sharp tips of protester signs — too few of us have been looking at who and what is actually behind these protests.

It seems we need look no further than the usual suspects of Donald Trump's re-election support, according to some fine journalistic research by The Washington Post.

The protests may appear homespun, but a deeper look shows they are stoked and sometimes even coordinated by longtime conservative activists whose operations were initially set up with the help Republican megadonors. Think Robert Mercer, Ken Cuccinelli and Ben Carson, according to research by The Post. And, yes, ads on Facebook are playing a huge role, too. Again.

Those ads, funded by an initiative called Convention of States, are populist and passionate: "The people are rising up against these insane shutdowns," one states. "We're fighting back to demand that our elected officials reopen America."

The Washington Post puts it this way: The Convention of States represents "one salvo in a wide-ranging and well-financed conservative campaign to undermine restrictions that medical experts say are necessary to contain the coronavirus — but that protesters call overkill and whose economic fallout could damage President Trump's political prospects."

The Convention of States project was launched in 2015 with a high-dollar donation from the family foundation of Robert Mercer, a billionaire hedge fund manager and Republican patron.

The project also boasts past support from Cuccinelli and Carson, two members of Trump's administration. Cuccinelli is acting director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. Ben Carson is secretary of U.S. Housing and Urban Development. The Convention of States additionally has a previous endorsement from Ron DeSantis, the Republican governor of Florida. Cuccinelli, Carson and DeSantis did not respond to The Post's requests for comment on the story published last Wednesday.

And did we mention that The Post's research found the parent organization of the Convention of States is the Citizens for Self-Governance? The board president for that group is Eric O'Keefe, a longtime associate of the conservative activist Koch family. O'Keefe helped managed David Koch's 1980 bid for the White House when he served as the No. 2 on the Libertarian ticket.

It seems quite clear, The Post continues, that the Convention of States initiative, aimed at curtailing federal power "is now leveraging its sweeping national network and digital arsenal to help stitch together scattered demonstrations across the country, making opposition to stay-at-home orders appear more widespread than it's suggested ."

Indeed. Given the media attention to the surprisingly well-decked-out protesters, many draped in yards of shining red, white and blue flag-like fabric, most of us wouldn't know that polls aren't finding much support among the public or voters for quickly reopening government right now.

Earlier this month, a Quinnipiac University poll found that 70% of voters believe the coronavirus crisis in the United States is getting worse, and 81% of voters said they would support a stay-at-home order on a national level.

In recent weeks, some pundits already had noted that the give-us-liberty-or-give-us-COVID-19 protests looked a lot like both the tea party movement and the demonstrations against the Affordable Care Act that bubbled in 2010.

Those pundits were right. All three of the movements have been manipulated — a mix of homegrown activism, propelled by shrewd behind-the-scenes funding.

Take, for instance, the Facebook ads. The Post found one reading "Heavy-handed government orders that interfere with our most basic liberties will do more harm than good." Sound familiar? Does it sound like some Trump tweets of late?

The ad was viewed as many as 36,000 times as of Tuesday evening, the Post noted. And it asks for a $5 donation "to support our fight." The "fight" refers to paid posts of an online blitz called "Open the States," which also includes newly created websites, an ominous video about the economic effects of the lockdown and a data-collecting petition.

Let's talk about the data-collecting petition. To sign on, you provide all your usual personal information and answer a how-did-you-hear-about-this pull-down question. Depending on how you click, your ads will surely become more tailored.

Doesn't this hearken your memory back to the 2016 election and Cambridge Analytica, the data firm principally owned by the right-wing donor Robert Mercer?

Cambridge Analytica, where former Trump aide Stephen K. Bannon was a board member, used data improperly obtained from Facebook to build voter profiles. In turn, those voter profiles were used to exploit the private social media activity of a huge swath of the American electorate, developing techniques that underpinned Cambridge Analytica's work on President Trump's first campaign.

So the next time you see protesters looking like they just stepped out of some central casting reality TV office with their give-us-liberty-or-give-us-COVID-19 signs, know that they may already be infected.

They've likely been bitten by a terrible virus created by a bunch of right-wing operators who fear losing political power more than they fear a pandemic that grows around us every day that we don't learn new ways to have our health, have our economy and have our freedom — all at the same time.

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