“It does strike me as very strange that a group that claims to be devoted to turning power back to the states is protesting in an area where the states are leading rather than the federal government,” said David Super, a constitutional law professor at Georgetown University who has written about the Convention of States’ efforts.
Meckler pushed back against the idea that the group was acting differently. “We’ve always believed in taking power away from centralized government and returning it to the citizens. And one method for doing that is to take power away from the federal government and return it to the states. But we’ve also always promoted that people could be involved in their state politics and reclaim their power at the state and local level as well.”
This time, he added, the states were playing the role that he always worried the federal government would. “Unfortunately, the state legislatures and mostly the governors and the municipalities have overstepped their bounds and are doing things that a lot of the people really don’t like. “
The Convention of States’ efforts are among several national conservative groups, such as FreedomWorks, that have helped organize anti-lockdown protests across the country. Others, such as the Koch family juggernaut Americans for Prosperity, have declined to participate. “The question is — what is the best way to get people back to work? We don’t see protests as the best way to do that,” Emily Seidel, CEO of Americans for Prosperity, recently said in a statement.
Meckler said he and the groups he supported were not working with the Kochs, and understood why they would publicly decline to be involved, citing his early, underfunded experience in the Tea Party Patriots.
“What happens is when people see something is becoming successful, that’s when the wealthier people invest in it. They’re smart and they don’t invest in something nascent because they’re worried it’s going to go off the rails,” he recalled, adding that he wouldn’t be surprised if they changed their mind: “At some point, they’re going to take advantage of the momentum.”
At the White House, President Donald Trump has mostly backed the protesters, declining to express any concerns about the large rallies, which have not always adhered to the government’s social-distancing guidelines. He has even tweeted out calls to “liberate” certain states, like Virginia and Minnesota, that have had protests targeting Democratic governors.
“They seem to be protesters that like me and respect this opinion, and my opinion is the same as just about all of the governors,” Trump said during a recent briefing.
The medical community, including Trump’s own scientific advisers, have been less sanguine. Public health experts worry that lifting social-distancing guidelines now would result in another spike in coronavirus cases, and, ultimately, an even longer economic recovery period.
“So what you do if you jump the gun and go into a situation where you have a big spike, you’re going to set yourself back,” said Dr. Anthony Fauci, the government’s top infectious disease specialist and a main medical voice on the White House coronavirus task force, during a recent appearance on “Good Morning America.”
The Convention of States officially encompasses several tax-exempt, 501c(3) nonprofit groups that Meckler runs. It was founded with a $500,000 assist from the conservative megadonor Mercer family. Since then, the organization has received significant funding from Donors Trust, a conservative fundraising network primarily affiliated with the Koch family. And it has gathered a slate of endorsements from high-profile conservative politicians like Sens. Ron Johnson and Rand Paul, popular conservative pundits like Glenn Beck and Ben Shapiro and former Republican Govs. Bobby Jindal and Mike Huckabee, according to a recent copy of their activist handbook.
The group aims to build vast political networks in at least 40 states, across at least 3,000 state legislative districts, each captained by a district coordinator responsible for recruiting at least 100 people to their cause.
Though their regularly stated goal is to relentlessly petition their state legislatures to call for an Article V convention, the coronavirus crisis presents a unique opportunity for their movement, said Jay Riestenberg of Common Cause, who has monitored the group and its involvement with other right-wing groups focused on state legislatures.
“The Convention of States is interested in showing any type of image or anything that shows that people don’t like their government. I mean, that is their end goal, to overthrow the federal government and rewrite the Constitution,” Riestenberg said. “So this is a perfect opportunity for them to show that.”
And Convention of States repeatedly hammers home to its activists that a message goes across better with a degree of professionalism. In recent days, Meckler and his deputies have been dispersing tips on how to protest effectively and present a good image.
During a recent livestream on the Convention of States’ Facebook page, Mark Ruthenberg, executive vice president for the affiliated Center for Self-Governance, told viewers that it was crucial that they maintain a 5-foot distance from each other.
“It looks so much bigger when people are so far spread out,” he said. “So it just makes sense that we maintain our distance, that we show common sense because then the government will most likely say,‘Oh yeah, I guess these guys know what they’re doing.’”