For the past few months, when they dare venture out to the supermarket, to church, or to a climate rally, Bill McKibben, Tom Steyer, and other climate activists are being stalked by a team of GOP-trained camera operators. The so-called “trackers” with the cameras are working for a group called America Rising Squared (aka America Rising Advanced Research or AR2), and publishing the occasional “embarrassing” display of alleged hypocrisy on a website called CoreNews.org.
DeSmog first covered this new “creepy” campaign back in May, and since then, the harrassment has only gotten worse, as Bill McKibben writes in Sunday's New York Times. In his op-ed, “My Right Wing Stalkers” (the web headline is: “Embarrassing Photos of Me, Thanks to My Right-Wing Stalkers”), McKibben describes what it's like to live under surveillance, and the psychological toll that it takes on him and his family. (One particularly infuriating detail: McKibben's daughter believes that she, too, is being filmed in public.)
To be watched so much is a kind of never-ending nightmare. And sometimes it’s just infuriating. I skipped the funeral this summer of Patrick Sorrento, an important mentor to me at my college newspaper, because I didn’t want my minder to follow me and cause a distracting spectacle. When my daughter reports someone taking pictures of her at the airport, it drives me nuts. I have no idea if it’s actually this outfit; common decency would suggest otherwise, but that seems an increasingly rare commodity.
Almost as startling as the tactics of the campaign is how closely it is tied to the mainstream Republican establishment. Core News (and by extension, America Rising Squared) might have the look and feel of a Right Wing lunatic fringe campaign funded by the darkest of oil and gas money. But in actuality it's a foundational block of a prominent GOP opposition research firm, the heads of which have collectively spent decades working for big name Republicans like Mitt Romney, Marco Rubio, John McCain, and even the National Republican Congressional Commitee and the Republican National Committee itself.
Check out this network map (built on LittleSis) to see for yourself how Core News is directly tied to the Republican establishment's leading opposition researchers. And for good measure, here is DeSmog's profile of the entire America Rising family tree, with branches including America Rising LLC, America Rising PAC, America Rising Squared, Definers Public Affairs, and Core News.
As you can see, the founders of America Rising are both longtime GOP establishment insiders. Matt Rhoades has worked on presidential campaigns going back to Bush-Cheney in 2004, and was Mitt Romney's campaign director for his failed 2012 bid. Joe Pounder was Research Director for the Republican National Committee at the time, and it was out of the ashes of that campaign that the idea of America Rising was born.
Brian Rogers, the Executive Director of America Rising Squared, was a longtime staffer with Senator John McCain and—oddly enough—briefly served as research director for Al Gore's Alliance for Climate Protection.
Of the “trackers” campaign and Core News, Rogers has said his group will “hold Steyer and the Environmentalist Left accountable for their epic hypocrisy and extreme positions which threaten America’s future prosperity.” Though there's no indication yet that Rogers' trackers will be following his old boss, former Vice President Gore, around with cameras.
Who is paying America Rising Squared to stalk McKibben, Steyer, and others?
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It's hard to say, as donations to America Rising Squared needn't be declared, as the entity is incorporated as a nonprofit 501(c)4. In fact, the various entities under the America Rising umbrella give the enterprise a flexible structure that can serve different purposes. The PAC can purchase research from the LLC and can sell or disseminate it to other organizations. The nonprofit AR2 doesn't have to declare its donors. America Rising LLC is a business that can sell its services with no disclosures necessary.
According to OpenSecrets.org, the Republican National Committee spent at least $183,900 on America Rising in the 2016 election cycle, with an additional $45,000 from the National Republican Congressional Committee. All told, America Rising had a budget of $8 million for the 2014 elections and is seeking to nearly double this.
Again, for a whole lot more background on America Rising, including a list of known leadership and staff and reported funding, check out DeSmog's profile of the entire America Rising enterprise.
As Bill McKibben sums up in his op-ed, these stalkers aren't fooling anyone, and the truth is that the entrenched special interests who hired them are the ones running scared:
Merely having someone with a camera follow you somehow makes you feel as if you’re doing something wrong. My house is covered in solar panels, and I plug my car into a socket those panels power. But environmentalists also live in the world we’re trying to change: We take airplanes and rent buses for rallies; we make a living, shop for groceries. None of this should demand an apology. Changing the system, not perfecting our own lives, is the point. “Hypocrisy” is the price of admission in this battle.
And despite what the industry and its advocates insist, that does not make us all equally responsible for the climate crisis.
We’re fighting for policy changes that will make it possible for us to have better choices: utilities that offer us renewable options, electric trains that make short-haul flights obsolete, public transit. Exxon and its ilk have been fighting for decades to keep these choices out of our reach, and then claim that we are voting with our dollars every time we sit in traffic or heat our homes with fossil fuels supplied by a utility that has a monopoly. They can play gotcha as much as they want, but all it proves is how badly we need better options. And we are still going to fight like heck to make sure options are available to everyone.
The fossil-fuel industry may threaten us as a planet, as a nation, and as individuals, but when we rise up together we’ve got a fighting chance against the powers that be.
And perhaps that realization is just a little bit scary for them.