The April 24 rally in front of the State Capitol organized by the “grassroots” group ReOpen Wyoming was mild compared to a similar demonstration in Lansing, Michigan, last week, where armed protesters confronted police and brandished rifles while staring down state lawmakers from the gallery.

The shocking images of weapons being used to intimidate legislators far eclipsed the tensest moments at the Cheyenne protest, where people merely demanded Gov. Mark Gordon reopen businesses that he had ordered closed due to the coronavirus pandemic.

But make no mistake, weapons were instrumental at the Wyoming event, too. Instead of being slung over their carriers’ shoulders, they were present behind the scenes, lurking on webpages calling protesters to action.

Anyone looking at ReOpen Wyoming’s Facebook page who clicked on a link purportedly about the Cheyenne event was redirected to a Wyoming Gun Owners page that plastered Gordon’s image with the words, “End the Excessive Quarantine!”

The text downplayed the threat of the disease while declaring that the governor’s order to close many businesses will be a “death blow” to Wyoming’s economy.

“Epidemiologists and scientists around the world are already dramatically revising their previous doomsday models downwards declaring that this disease will be far less deadly than previously thought,” WYGO stated, “and President Trump has been very clear that we must get America back to work very quickly or the ‘cure’ to this terrible disease may be the worse option!”

Wyoming is one of many states where gun rights groups have led efforts to re-open the economy. An April 19th the Washington Post story detailed the efforts of three brothers — Ben, Aaron and Christopher Dorr — to organize anti-quarantine protests around the country. Within just a few days, their groups publicized on Facebook had a combined membership of about 200,000.

Aaron Dorr is a policy advisor to Wyoming Gun Owners, an organization previously led by Anthony Bouchard, a Republican state senator from Cheyenne. How right-wing is WYGO? The group routinely blasts the National Rifle Association as too liberal and wishy-washy, willing to let the government further restrict gun rights.

The Post interviewed Zachary Elwood, a Portland, Oregon, writer who has tracked the activities of the Dorr brothers. “It’s understandable that people are upset about the difficult situation we’re in,” Elwood told the paper, “but they’re clearly being riled up by people with an obvious anti-government agenda.”

A huge crimson box declaring a “State of Emergency” headlines a recent blog post by Aaron Dorr on the WYGO website. In the post, he writes that the Wyoming chief executive’s emergency orders “has WYGO members wondering exactly how far Governor Gordon’s authority extends.”

Gordon is one of eight GOP governors who didn’t issue full stay-at-home orders as COVID-19 swept through the nation. Nevertheless, in Dorr’s eyes he is potentially an over-reaching despot who may want to ban all guns.

Dorr notes that cities throughout the country are passing anti-gun ordinances, and WYGO members are right to question Gordon’s or any other Wyoming officials’ ability to “curtail your right to own, carry, transport or use a firearm after an emergency declaration.”

After an analysis that concludes such laws or ordinances can’t be legally enacted in the state, near the end of his post Dorr admits this fact: “To be clear, we have heard no cases of any level of government in Wyoming talking about trying to curtail our gun rights at this time.”

But Dorr effectively conveyed the fear that prevails among a parade of anti-government true believers, including Tea Party members carrying “Don’t Tread on Me” flags and anti-vaccines zealots. Signs at various rallies in other states indicate support for the anti-quarantine movement also comes from Libertarians, anti-abortion marchers and Confederacy fans, with some neo-Nazis sprinkled into the mix.

Of course, in Cheyenne and elsewhere else, people wearing “Make America Great Again” caps and waving pro-Trump banners dominated the scene.

I wonder about the role the president has played in this latest outpouring of nonsensical rage against state and local governments trying to protect public health and safety. Who needs whom the most: Trump, or the voters who bought his phony “drain the swamp” promises and swept him into office?

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They are intrinsically linked, I think. One probably couldn’t exist at full strength without the other.

Which makes it maddening to try to follow any logical path to the action of either the president or protesters who have taken to the streets. Consider this: It was Trump’s administration that developed the social distancing, stay-at-home recommendations that led many governors to order schools, dine-in restaurants, bars and other businesses to close.

After he brazenly — and incorrectly — declared that he alone had the authority to “re-open America,” Trump did an about-face and said it was the governors’ role. When hundreds of protesters in the battleground states of Michigan, Wisconsin and Virginia descended on their respective capitals, the president threw his coronavirus guidelines out the Oval Office window. The head of the federal executive branch pounced on this demonstration of support for him by tweeting we must “LIBERATE” these states.

He had a special message for Virginia protesters: “Save your great 2nd Amendment. It is under siege!”

Which brings us back to Wyoming and the gun owners’ group that sparked the Capitol protest and other sparsely attended rallies throughout the state. It’s no surprise that it was the pro-gun-rights message Trump latched onto as many citizens are torn between the twin calamities of tens of thousands of COVID-19 deaths and the economic decimation of the country. Guns are always an effective political wedge.

The president saw droves of Trump signs and American flags and instantly knew that these were his people, mobs that may hold the power to stop his falling poll numbers. It remains to be seen if the ardency of his base is once again enough to carry him to victory in November. Even some of his loyal followers grew tired of his daily press briefings/pity parties. They proved a poor substitute for his bombastic rallies during the health crisis.

I don’t think any of the animosity Wyoming protesters showed toward Gordon will do any political damage. 

A University of Wyoming Survey Analysis Center poll shows that the demonstrators are in the minority, as 75% approve of the governor’s handling of the crisis. At least a portion of the quarter of respondents who disagree likely thought his orders weren’t strict enough. Meanwhile, support for Gordon’s order limiting public gatherings to no more than 10 people was 83%.

Pretending that a protest is a grassroots effort when it’s really organized by groups with a vested interest in stirring up dissent is known as “astroturfing.” It may not matter one whit to the participants that they were conned by WYGO into thinking they were part of a socially vital movement of their own making.

But the web of deceit has been exposed. The rest of us should now be fully aware that these gatherings aren’t as advertised, and the people involved are merely cogs in a right-wing machine set in motion by gun-rights activists to deliberately divide the state.

Kerry Drake

Veteran Wyoming journalist Kerry Drake has covered Wyoming for more than four decades, previously as a reporter and editor for the Wyoming Tribune-Eagle and Casper Star-Tribune. He lives in Cheyenne and...

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  1. Thank you for this. We all need to be informed about groups which seek to drive us apart in these very difficult times. I don’t believe the protesters realize it, but they are protesting their right to get Covid and to spread it to their parents, other relatives, friends, and children and then to watch them from afar as they die a gruesome death. They are actually saying, I have the right to die and I’m taking you with me. I believe that the protester’s right to contract Covid stops 6 feet away from me. This is serious stuff, and we all need to get serious about it.