Madison Elmer got the offer shortly after she and some friends started organizing a protest to oppose Wisconsin's coronavirus stay-at-home order: An outside group wanted to chip in some money to help pay for the rally she plans this week.
Concerned about the strings that could be attached, Elmer turned it down.
"We felt like it had a political agenda behind it,” said the Wisconsin native, who declined to name the group. “We didn’t want to be pawns in somebody’s else’s game.”
As protesters across the country plan to challenge statewide coronavirus orders, they fiercely resist a growing narrative that they are aligned with or funded by national groups, gun rights organizations or entities supporting President Donald Trump’s reelection – even as some of those groups take part in the events.
The protests, focused on rolling back stay-at-home orders to slow the spread of coronavirus, snarled traffic in Michigan, blocking a hospital entrance. Thousands of cheering, flag-waving drivers cruised around Pennsylvania. Some demonstrations feature Trump campaign flags, but homemade signs – such as one in Tennessee that encouraged Americans to "fear your government," not the coronavirus – are more prevalent.
They have continued even as some states tentatively began reopening businesses and easing distancing guidelines. More than 46,000 Americans have died from the disease, according to Johns Hopkins University. Trump encouraged states with fewer cases and deaths to begin bringing their economies back online.
Wisconsin had more than 4,800 confirmed cases of the virus by Wednesday and had recorded 246 deaths, according to the state health department.
Elmer said she started organizing a protest for Friday after hearing from friends who were struggling, not because they are sick but because they are running out of money. Friday was the day that Gov. Tony Evers' social distancing restrictions were initially set to lift.
Instead, they have been extended to May 26.
"I was listening to all these concerns, and I was sick of not doing anything about it," she said. "There are people suffering on both sides of this."
Republicans divided by orders
Much like the tea party movement that sprang up a decade ago, the coronavirus protests are a cultural eddy of conservative ideologies, from gun rights advocates to religious groups. Though many organizers insist the "gridlock" events and protests are nonpartisan, many have taken on the flavor of Trump rallies – including a smattering of campaign signs and the president's trademark red "MAGA" caps.
The events underscore how efforts to contain the virus have divided millions of Americans along familiar political battle lines.
Nearly 60% of the nation’s voters say they are more concerned about additional deaths from the virus than they are about the economic impact, according to an NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll this week. That sentiment is more prevalent among Democrats than Republicans. GOP respondents are divided – almost half are more concerned with the economy.
Alvin Tillery, a political scientist at Northwestern University, sees the protests – and Trump’s exhortations – as an attempt to rally his base when he has faced intense criticism from Democrats for his early handling of the crisis.
“It’s directed toward the blue states. It’s meant to distract from Mr. Trump’s incredibly poor performance in managing the crisis,” Tillery said. “It distracts but also gives them an issue that activates their desire to vote against the Democrats.”
Trump has encouraged the groups, including from the podium of the White House briefing room. Friday, in a series of tweets, he suggested it was time to "liberate" Michigan, Minnesota and Virginia. He has been less clear about what he'd like those states to do, and he has batted away questions about whether the protesters flout social distancing guidelines he and his aides promoted.
The first item in those guidelines is to "listen and follow" directions from authorities. The guidance goes on to encourage Americans to work from home, cancel unnecessary travel and avoid gatherings of more than 10 people.
"Look, people – they want to get back to work, they got to make a living," Trump said late Tuesday. "They have to take care of their family."
Trump took a different approach a day later, saying he disagreed "strongly" with Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp's decision to move toward reopening parts of that state's economy. Kemp, a Republican and Trump ally, is pushing to reopen gyms, barber shops and other businesses as soon as Friday.
Trump said Wednesday he thought it was "just too soon."
National groups involved?
Elmer stressed that she took no money or help from outside interests, but she's aware that a group called Wisconsinites Against Excessive Quarantine plans an event Friday at the same place and at roughly the same time as the rally she organized. That entity is associated with a national gun rights group.
"Cool – if they’re supporting our mission, which is reopening Wisconsin,” she said.
Similarly, organizers reached by USA TODAY in Virginia, Tennessee, Indiana and several other states denied working with national groups but said they were inspired by protests elsewhere. Some tapped into guns rights or tea party organizations to help spread the word but claimed no formal affiliation with wider networks.
There is some overlap: In addition to Wisconsin, rallies in Pennsylvania, Ohio and Minnesota were promoted by Facebook pages started by brothers – Chris, Ben and Aaron Dorr – who have a network of gun advocacy organizations in multiple states.
Pennsylvanians Against Excessive Quarantine, which was launched by the Pennsylvania Firearms Association and led by Chris Dorr, was among a trio of groups that helped organize Monday’s rally in Harrisburg.
"A government that is powerful enough to make unilateral decisions that close down the means of production, well, they’re also then able, in a future school shooting or another Pittsburgh shooting, to reinvoke that same power and say we’re going to ban constitutional freedoms to bear arms,” said Dorr, the firearms association’s director.
Dorr downplayed the amount of money and coordination involved.
“These Facebook groups, they are completely free," Dorr said. "All I did was start the page and then invited about 10 or 15 friends into it, and it spiraled out of control from there. There’s not even 5 bucks behind this whole thing."
Tea party echoes
Several national groups that fueled the tea party movement during President Barack Obama's administration said they are helping but not leading the groups. Many of the same charges about "AstroTurf" organizing were leveled against that movement, which sprang up partly in response to the Affordable Care Act.
"There is no central person organizing everything," said Adam Brandon, president of FreedomWorks, a conservative group that focuses on economic issues.
Brandon said 25,000 people took his group's "grassroots training program," and many of them work with groups to stage the demonstrations. The training includes coaching organizers on how to promote their events, such as through writing news releases and contacting reporters.
Jenny Beth Martin, co-founder of the Tea Party Patriots, said the real organizers are "people who are fed up."
Martin described the events as an organic movement that relies on social media. National groups such as hers, she said, blast out announcements posted to social media by local organizers to help spread the word.
"We want to make sure our supporters are aware events are happening," Martin said.
Organizers dismissed claims of national organization.
"It’s nonsense," said Robert Hall, a longtime conservative figure in Indiana who helped promote a protest in Indianapolis. "It’s all grassroots."
Stephen Moore, an outside economic adviser to Trump, applauded the events but said he declined invitations to speak at them because he doesn't want organizers to be seen as swayed by national interests. Moore cautioned protesters against wearing MAGA hats and other Trump merchandise, arguing it could turn off some supporters.
"It really has been a spontaneous combustion," he told USA TODAY.
'We’re winging this'
In some cases, the organization of the protests borders on chaotic.
Teo De Las Heras created a "ReOpen PA" Facebook page last week after spotting a similar effort in North Carolina. The tech company employee from Langhorne, Pennsylvania, told USA TODAY that the page quickly grew to more than 60,000 members. Within days, other members of the group organized a protest he attended but didn't help to stage.
“We’re basically a grassroots thing right now,” said De Las Heras, a registered Republican, who said he abstained from voting in the 2016 election. "All the admin and moderators are basically just small-business owners and people impacted by this."
He said an individual reached out to him about having a conversation about "some kind of national organization," but he didn't know the specifics nor the person's group. "They're contacting all the different influencers out there on social media," De Las Heras said. He agreed to talk, but the meeting was canceled.
De Las Heras said his Facebook group was initially filled with people looking to impeach Gov. Tom Wolf, a Democrat, but he’s sought to keep it focused on the economy.
Keeping protesters on message – and avoiding an association with some of the hate speech that has cropped up – has been a challenge for organizers. Some protesters have reportedly flashed anti-Semitic signs. Organizers have rebuked that behavior, which has been rare, and said it distracts from the intended message.
In Virginia, David Britt, a spokesman for the Reopen Virginia “gridlock” rally, said the support keeps getting "exponentially bigger" since the event was organized last Thursday. He said his group is "not getting a dime” in outside funding or other help.
A self-described "constitutional conservative" and "political big-mouth on Facebook," Britt said he was driven to action after watching last week’s rally in Lansing, Michigan. He proposed on Facebook that Virginians do the same thing.
"We’re winging this and flying by the seat of our pants,” said Britt, a mental health counselor from Fairfax, Virginia.
Virginia organizers are particularly upset about the length of Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam’s stay-at-home order, which is to run through June 10. They said it’s too extreme and will lead to unemployment and other unintended consequences, from homelessness to domestic violence.
Virginia had more than 9,600 confirmed cases of the virus as of Tuesday and recorded 324 deaths, according to state health officials.
Britt said organizers discouraged people from turning an event planned for Wednesday into a Trump rally or a protest over Second Amendment rights and instead urged them to stay "laser-focused" on their message about getting Virginians back to work.
"We're trying to discourage that as much as possible," Britt said, who described himself as a supporter of the president. "This isn’t a Trump rally. This isn’t a Republican rally."
Contributing: Jorge L. Ortiz, USA TODAY; Lansing State Journal; Milwaukee Journal Sentinel