"Even If the Idea Isn't Perfect, I Can Help Massage It"
Several conservative journalists have enthusiastically participated in Groundswell's deliberations. In March, Mark Tapscott, the executive editor of the conservative Washington Examiner, sent his most recent column to group members. It focused on a theme that Groundswellers had resolved to hype: President Obama is a divider. And after a meeting that month, Tapscott wrote to the group, "Enjoyed hearing from all of you who spoke earlier today. It's amazing how much we are accomplishing on so many fronts." But Tapscott tells Mother Jones that after attending one or two meetings at the invitation of Ginni Thomas, he decided to stop participating: "The implication of attending is that you're participating in their planning, and, as a journalist, I don't think that's appropriate. Other journalists may think differently."
At another Groundswell gathering, according to the minutes, the members decided to ask Breitbart's Stephen Bannon to arrange for his media organization "to get senators on the record regarding their support [or non-support]" of the filibuster that GOP Sens. Mike Lee, Rand Paul, and Ted Cruz were threatening to mount against the gun control bill. This suggested that the Groundswellers thought they could task Breitbart News to pursue a story that would be strategically useful for the group. (Breitbart News was already covering the possible filibuster.)
"It's amazing how much we are accomplishing on so many fronts," the Washington Examiner's Mark Tapscott wrote to fellow Groundswell members.
Groundswell has forged a particularly close relationship with Breitbart. Matthew Boyle, one of Breitbart's more prominent reporters, has attended Groundswell meetings, used the group as a source for tips and a mechanism to promote his stories, and joined in its efforts to whip up coordinated bullet points to be deployed by conservative advocacy shops. In February, he tried to enlist the group to push a story he had written the year before at the Daily Caller, in which he maintained the Justice Department was in cahoots with the liberal group Media Matters to smear conservative whistleblowers and journalists. In a long note addressed to all Groundswellers—written at a time when reporter Bob Woodward was making (what turned out to be inflated) claims about the Obama White House intimidating foes—Boyle said, "Figured this might be a good time to bring this story back up and see if there's a way to drive it."
Boyle said he was hoping to prompt congressional Republicans to launch an investigation. He contended he had only revealed the "tip of the iceberg" and shared his suspicion that many government agencies (State, the CIA, the Pentagon, the EPA, and more) were conspiring with "far left wing groups" to undermine conservatives in the media: "I think we can get at the heart of the Obama admin's weaknesses here." He explained: "Any evidence obtained would be more proof of collusion between the administration and the media and far left groups, while at the same time serving as evidence of whatever ridiculously moronic big government policies they're pushing are."
The following month, Boyle sent a message to Groundswell members seeking tips and offering to help shape stories Groundswellers wanted to disseminate: "I'm saying we can get pieces out fast on Breitbart. Whenever you have an idea, email or call me with a pitch and I'll do my best to get the story out there. Keep us on offense, them on defense. Even if the idea isn't perfect, I can help massage it to get there."
A high-priority cause for Groundswellers is voter identification efforts—what progressives would call voter suppression—and when Groundswellers developed a thread on their Google group page exploring the best way to pitch the right's voter identification endeavors as a major voting rights case was pending in the Supreme Court, the coalition's friendly journalists joined right in. Dan Bongino, the ex-Secret Service agent and 2012 Senate candidate, kicked off the discussion: "We need to reframe this. This narrative of the Left has already taken hold in MD. The words 'Voter ID' are already lost & equated with racism. Maybe a 'free and fair elections initiative' with a heavy emphasis on avoiding ANY voter disenfranchisement combined with an identification requirement which includes a broader range of documents."
Sheryl Kaufman, communications director for Rep. Jim Bridenstine, chimed in: "'OBAMAGRATION'—I love it!! Communicates the similarity with Obamacare."
In response, Tapscott suggested, "How about 'Election Integrity'?" And Gaffney weighed in: "I like it." Fitton noted that Judicial Watch had an "Election Integrity Project." Boyle proposed, "Fair and equal elections," explaining, "Terms 'fair' and 'equal' connect with most people. It's why the left uses them." Then came True the Vote's Anita MonCrief: "We do a lot under the Election Integrity Banner. Does not resonate with the people. Voter Rights may be better. We really have been trying to get the messaging right."
Minutes later, Breitbart's Mike Flynn tried to change the conversation, noting that Boyle earlier in the week had reported that Obama's daughters had been vacationing in the Bahamas while the White House had suspended tours due to the sequester. "The Obama White House has never been so exposed to public criticism as they are right now, because of their decision to cancel WH tours," Flynn wrote. "Everything should be focused on that front." He declared, "We have to be willing to march to the sound of the guns." (Earlier in the week, Boyle had posted his story on the Obama daughters on Groundswell's Google group page, noting, "I think this fits in nicely with that politics over public safety theme…Enjoy.") Ignoring Flynn's missive, Engelbrecht, the president of True the Vote, wrote, "We bill ourselves as an Election Integrity Initiative and have found it strikes the right tone."
In a response to a request for comment regarding his participation in Groundswell's message-making, Flynn emailed, "We have reporters covering lots of meetings in DC, as I'm sure you do as well. As you know, it provides critical background to know what's happening on the Hill." In a subsequent email, Flynn insisted, "[N]either Boyle nor I have spent 1 minute on any messaging. We haven't spent any time creating talking points." Flynn added, "[W]e are journalists with a point of view. We are open about that. We attend meetings of conservatives. Where we are allowed, we attend meetings of leftist activists." Boyle did not respond to requests for comment.
"We All Lament the Difficulty We Have Persuading Americans"
In between the weekly meetings, Groundswellers keep on scheming, frequently using their Google group to share ideas and need-to-know information. The material is often routine: a John Bolton op-ed, a press release opposing the nomination of the EPA administrator, a call to rally support for a Rand Paul filibuster. Often the material reveals the group's ideological excesses, such as a PowerPoint supposedly proving that John Brennan, the Obama national security adviser who has become CIA chief, is soft on radical Islam. In one post, Ginni Thomas encouraged Groundswell members to watch Agenda: Grinding America Down, a documentary that claims that progressives (including Obama) seek "a brave new world" based on the "failed policies and ideologies of communism" and that an evil left is purposefully "destroying the greatest country in all of world history." MonCrief posted an email noting that the bombs that exploded at the Boston Marathon were "similar to Bill Ayers' Weather Underground nail bomb."
But Groundswellers constantly brainstorm via their Google group in search of a magic talking point, or a silver bullet of messaging. On April 24, Keli Carender, the national grassroots coordinator of Tea Party Patriots, posted a message to the Google group, writing, "We should have a unified name for the immigration bill so that as the other side is calling it 'reform,' we present a unified front against that notion. If we're all calling it different things, their 'reform' message will win. We only combat the idea that it is reform if we hammer back with one different phrase/name." She tossed out a few ideas: "Schumer-Rubio bill," "anti-security bill," and "amnesty bill." Sheryl Kaufman, the communications director for Rep. Jim Bridenstine, chimed in that she was fond of a phrase derived by MonCreif: "'OBAMAGRATION'—I love it!! Communicates the similarity with Obamacare."
When Campaign for America's Future, a progressive group, sent out an email regarding the sequester headlined "Don't let Republicans destroy the economy," Carender sent a message to Groundswell members via the Google group: "What about a 'stick with sequester' (or similar) mantra from our side?" Responding to Carender's note, Peter List of LaborUnionReport.com wrote, "Most Americans don't understand sequesters. We need to be more clever than the Left on this…Something amusing and easy for LIVs [low-information voters] to understand. Maybe a tie in to Humpty Dumpty (the economy) and all King Obama's men ('tax increases') not being able to put Humpty Dumpty back together again. (I'm open to anything…and just made that up.)"
At another point, List emailed Ginni Thomas an idea for an anti-Obama ad that he thought could go viral:
A 15 sec internet [YouTube ad] featuring ethnically diverse children on a merry-go-round [soft music]…
Two bullet points on the facts.
Call to action:
Tell President Obama & Congress not to cut our nation's defense.
Thomas posted the note for all in Groundswell to see. "Brilliant idea," she commented. "…Taker?"
Several months after Groundswell kicked off, Steven Sutton, vice president of development for the conservative Leadership Institute and a former chief of staff to several House GOPers, proposed a "strategic message development project" for the outfit. "What is needed," he wrote, "is an umbrella thematic message under which each specific issue can be magnified and maximized. For those familiar with it, this is an extension and development of the Leesburg Grid (which the Left has co-opted and now uses extensively, and the Right has ignored and allowed to fall into disuse.)"
Sutton suggested using four main themes: Obama and liberal policies fail; Obama and liberal policies make things worse; there is a lack of leadership in the White House; and Obama "puts politics ahead of people/our country/America." These themes, he contended, "are best used sequentially, rather than randomly/haphazardly/isolated…The most important thing is to think thematically and drive these messages." Sutton went on:
Issues matter. Details matter. Substance matters. But theme matters more. Substance matters only as it helps to reinforce the themes.
We all lament the difficulty we have persuading Americans. After all, we have the facts, figures, and data to prove our points. Why can't we persuade? There are many tactics we can use to help persuade (telling stories, finding victims, tempering tone). But these tactics pale in comparison to the importance of providing a context…a theme…to help people organize their thoughts and opinions.
Groundswell has set itself up as the theme lab for the true-red activists of the conservative movement. Fearing that some hydra of the left has long been running wild, vanquishing the right, and bringing the nation closer to utter ruin, the members of Groundswell have birthed a hydra of their own.
Additional reporting by Kate Sheppard.