The emails played to fear. “Entire police departments are being overwhelmed by mobs of criminals bent on violence, robbery, arson, and more,” read one sent in June, as demonstrations against police brutality rocked the country. “Minnesotans have seen our peaceful streets turn violent overnight with riotous mobs,” read another, sent not long after the burning of Minneapolis’s Third Precinct. “Radical leftists … are looting in our streets, lighting buildings on fire, terrifying citizens, and murdering cops,” intoned a third. Antifa is in the streets, coming for your guns, and did you know that Nickelodeon is removing the police dog character from the hit toddler show “Paw Patrol?” (It isn’t.)
For right-wing fringe activist Ben Dorr, who sent the emails, outrage about Black Lives Matter was an easy pivot from another cause he’d been promoting. With his brothers Aaron, Chris, and Matthew, Ben Dorr helped launch protests to reopen states across the country shut down amid the coronavirus pandemic this spring. Alone or together, the four Dorr brothers started a slew of Facebook groups, joined by hundreds of thousands of members, that have helped to fuel skepticism about health precautions and pushed for states to open prematurely. In a country where the simple act of wearing a mask has become a political statement, the people who organize against masks are worth watching.
The Dorr brothers, who range in age from 29 to 40, have ties to tea party figures like Michele Bachmann and Ron Paul and have been dismissed by people on both the right and the left as astroturfing hucksters who are more interested in profit than policy. Even the National Rifle Association has denounced them as scammers. Before they began railing against public health measures, the brothers started gun rights and anti-abortion groups in multiple states, registering them as nonprofits and then paying out some of the money that they raise from donations to a for-profit direct mail company that they themselves control, according to IRS tax forms required to be filed by nonprofits.
But the Dorrs’ network shouldn’t be discounted. At a moment when the Republican Party is struggling to deal with President Donald Trump’s declining poll numbers and the unchecked spread of Covid-19, the reopen activists offer conservatives new energy, as tea party supporters once did. “The Dorrs are really important because they have their finger on the pulse of what’s happening in the conservative grassroots,” said Devin Burghart, president of the Institute for Research and Education on Human Rights, which tracks right-wing extremists. “The hope among conservatives now is that they can somehow shape that into a mobilizing force.”
“The Dorrs are really important because they have their finger on the pulse of what’s happening in the conservative grassroots.”
By the institute’s count, Facebook groups promoting the reopen cause have 2.7 million members. At least 325,000 of those users belong to Dorr-affiliated groups. “My suspicion is that the Dorrs have flourished because of social media and whatever it is that makes people both trusting and suspicious,” said Sally Jo Sorensen, a South Dakota-based blogger who has tracked the Dorr family for decades. “These guys have flourished because of people’s willingness to believe someone is out to harm them.” The paranoid atmosphere around reopen protests has, in some cases, led to attempts at violence. In May, a reopen protester in Colorado was arrested after investigators found four pipe bombs in his home. In June, federal prosecutors charged three Nevada men for conspiring to blow up or set fire to U.S. government buildings during Black Lives Matter protests in Las Vegas. Their plot had taken shape in April, in connection with anti-lockdown demonstrations in Nevada.
While the Dorr brothers have not been directly tied to particular violent incidents, they are adept at inciting rage and collecting donations with petty insults, racist dog-whistling, and silly stunts. They have made a career out of skewering mainstream Republicans. They are, in short, the perfect people to stoke hate in a Trump presidency during a global pandemic. And in true Trumpian fashion, by paying themselves and promoting hate they may end up spawning a movement.
Paul Dorr’s activism shifted with the times. As the year 2000 approached, he became a Y2K prepper, stockpiling goods in an Ocheyedan store he called the Back Dorr Friends Pantry. And more recently, in 2018, he checked out books on LGBTQ issues from the public library in Orange City, Iowa, then lit them on fire on Facebook Live.
Between Y2K and book burnings, Paul Dorr focused on defunding public schools. He and his wife homeschooled their children, a decision that he described in the email to The Intercept as a “Biblical duty,” and he felt that other parents should do the same. He hired himself out as a consultant to Midwestern towns that had school district bond referenda on the ballot, working with the large landowners in the area to defeat any increases in funding for education. According to Board & Administrator, a newsletter for school superintendents, his tactics included running emotional radio advertisements, arranging “ghostwritten letters to the editor,” and placing public records requests, then accusing officials of hiding records when they didn’t swiftly respond. The newsletter also accused him of using his children in ads. Dorr responded, in an interview with the newsletter, that he used “paid actors whose identities, as minors, I will not disclose.” Dorr told The Intercept that the claim about fictitious letter writers was false, though he said he had reviewed letters written by others.
The Dorr brothers learned from their father about the politics of outrage. They also got a taste of national politics in 2005 when George W. Bush appointed their uncle, Paul’s brother Thomas Dorr, as undersecretary for agriculture despite accusations of improperly obtaining farm subsidies and making racist remarks.
The Dorr brothers learned from their father about the politics of outrage.
In 2007, Paul Dorr became the Iowa field director for the Ron Paul campaign, which had strong ties to the conservative direct mail movement. That movement was sparked in the 1960s, when conservative activist Richard Viguerie copied by hand from House of Representatives records the names and addresses of 12,500 early donors to Barry Goldwater’s presidential campaign. Viguerie realized that the names represented a particularly impassioned voter and that by reaching out directly, he could both mobilize people and line his pockets. As he wrote in his 2004 book “America’s Right Turn: How Conservatives Used New and Alternative Media to Take Over America”: “That list was my treasure trove, as good as the gold bricks deposited at Fort Knox.” By 1980, Viguerie purportedly had 25 million names. According to historian Rick Perlstein, only 10 to 15 percent of what Viguerie collected from his mailing lists went to the purported beneficiaries. (Viguerie did not respond to a request to comment for this article.) He also trafficked in fear — of communists, anarchists, integrated schools. The Dorrs would later follow this example. “Unless you are politically feared, you will not be politically respected,” reads the description for a 2017 political leadership seminar given by Aaron Dorr.
As their father got to work organizing for the libertarian candidate, the younger Dorrs pitched in to help. The campaign’s mailings were overseen by Mike Rothfeld, a direct-mail veteran who had worked with Viguerie and who appears to have been a crucial influence on the Dorrs. His organization National Association for Gun Rights would go on to work with Iowa Gun Owners, the Dorr brothers outfit. Aaron Dorr later boasted that he and his brother Chris were “‘graduates’ of numerous Rothfeld schools.” Through an intermediary, Rothfeld declined to comment for this article.
In an hourlong video about their work, the Dorrs explain that they initially stuffed envelopes for their organizations over pizza and soda with other home-schooling families. Then, Aaron Dorr said, they realized that they could save money by keeping their mailing expenses in-house and created their own direct-mail company, Midwest Freedom Enterprises, registering it as an LLC in Carroll, Iowa. (The Dorr brothers are now scattered throughout the Midwest. Ben Dorr set up in Northfield, Minnesota, which happens to be my hometown.)
From 2016 to 2018, Iowa Gun Owners spent $167,235 on management fees paid to Midwest Freedom Enterprises and $187,040 on direct-mail expenses paid to an undisclosed vendor. The two sums together amount to over one-third of the revenue the organization generated over that period. (A recent investigation by The Trace and the Daily Beast detailing the Dorrs’ controversial role in the gun rights movement arrived at a similar conclusion.) The flow of nonprofit funds to a for-profit organization controlled by the Dorrs is unusual, said Scott Hubay, an attorney in Cleveland who specializes in campaign finance law. “They set up their own business, and their nonprofit funds goes to that business, which seems like a clear conflict of interest,” he said. “That’s something I’d expect the IRS to take a look at.”
Tax returns for other Dorr organizations show no payments to Midwest Freedom Enterprises but raise other red flags. Hubay examined 990 tax filings from Dorr organizations registered in Iowa, Minnesota, and Ohio for The Intercept. Minnesota Gun Rights amended three years of 990s earlier this year, after a report from Cleveland.com highlighted an abnormally high proportion of revenue spent on fundraising. “They were spending 90 percent on fundraising,” Hubay added. “That’s insane.” The amended returns show significantly lower fundraising expenditures but raise the question of why the forms were corrected, he said.
On behalf of his brothers, Ben Dorr declined to comment on their organizations’ finances or political tactics, instead sending a statement that they had previously sent to The Trace. “We apologize for nothing, and to be attacked by the same socialist, fake-news blogs that hate President Trump means we are doing our jobs fabulously,” it read. (A sign on Ben Dorr’s office in Northfield says, “Members of the media are not allowed to enter this premises without prior permission.”)
For a while, the brothers were deeply involved with tea party candidate activities. Chris Dorr worked on Michele Bachmann’s 2012 presidential campaign, while his brother Aaron maintained ties with Ron Paul’s outfit.
The brothers’ campaign work almost landed them in hot water. In October 2011, Aaron Dorr allegedly wrote a lengthy memo in which he proposed that an Iowa state senator, Kent Sorenson, switch his endorsement from Bachmann to Paul in exchange for monthly salaries for Sorenson and for Chris Dorr, as well as a $100,000 donation to a political action committee that the Dorr brothers would administer. Sorenson made the switch just before the 2012 Iowa caucuses, and Bachmann cried foul. In 2013, Aaron Dorr’s memo and several incriminating emails were obtained by Open Secrets, which tracks campaign contributions, and the Iowa Republican, a political blog. An independent counsel retained by the Iowa Senate Ethics Committee concluded in a report that he could not verify the authenticity of the memo. But he added that Chris Dorr did not deny its authenticity in an interview.
In typical Dorr fashion, part of the drama centered on a mailing list. A Bachmann campaign staffer accused Chris Dorr of downloading a list of homeschooling families from her computer without permission. Chris Dorr claimed to an independent investigator hired by the Iowa Senate Ethics Committee that he had downloaded the list accidentally. Sorenson resigned from office and pleaded guilty to obstructing justice and violating federal election law in connection with the scheme to receive compensation from the Paul campaign. Aaron and Chris Dorr were not charged — and for the most part retreated from national political work. Instead they focused on expanding the reach of their advocacy organizations.
“The concern is that this is not a legitimate group. They’re misleading people and taking their money and not doing anything.”
The Dorrs have lately ventured into new areas. In 2017, they raised $7,900 through GoFundMe to provide relief to victims of Hurricane Harvey. They subsequently launched Six Brothers Disaster Relief, claiming on their website that “every penny goes directly to relief efforts.” That statement is impossible to check; the organization is registered as a 501(c)(3) but has not yet filed 990 tax disclosures for 2019, its first year of existence. Ben Dorr also got involved with the Minnesota Natural Resources Coalition, which presents itself as pro-farmer and rails against “radical environmentalism.” (The website lists the president as Chad Lange, but an email obtained by The Intercept was signed by “executive director Ben Dorr.”)
“The concern is that this is not a legitimate group,” said Paul Stark, communications director for Minnesota Citizens Concerned for Life. “They’re misleading people and taking their money and not doing anything.” The state Republican Party joined in the effort with the website mnscammersexposed.com, which cautioned people about Minnesota Gun Rights and Minnesota Right to Life. “There are groups out there that just have their own interests in mind; they just want to raise money, and they deceive people,” state Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka said in a video posted on Facebook. “And we eventually had enough.”
The brothers needed a new cause. Then came the coronavirus.
The effort appears to have been designed primarily to expand their mailing lists. Reopeniowa.com, for example, redirects to a page that collects addresses for Iowa Gun Owners. The Facebook groups bar members from posting other petitions. But many people who joined the groups were genuinely angry over Covid-19-related closures — and felt that the United States needed to be liberated from public health measures.
Throughout April and May, this new constituency blocked roads and staked out its State Capitol buildings. The protesters were overwhelmingly white. They bore American flags and signs that read “SACRIFICE THE WEAK” and “WAKE UP SHEEP.” Some brought their children. Others carried assault weapons.
The chaos brought on by the pandemic gave the Dorrs new momentum. They reportedly talked with well-connected organizers of other reopen protests. On his personal Facebook page, Ben Dorr posted increasingly strident diatribes, at one point railing against immunocompromised people. “When people tell you to ‘Stay Safe,’ just reply with ‘Stay Free,’” he wrote. Aaron Dorr, meanwhile, hinted at a larger purpose. “Just bought 2 more web domains that I can’t wait to use in the general election!” he wrote. The Dorrs run pro-Trump groups that appear to be unaffiliated with the campaign.
Facebook, which has cozied up to hard-right media figures and done little to block disinformation from right-wing groups, has in fact only amplified the Dorrs’ reach.
In late April, after Redditors noticed the slew of domain names tracing to a single source, the Dorrs were thrust into the national spotlight, with commentators on the left accusing them of astroturfing. Glenn Beck invited Ben Dorr as a guest on his podcast, asking him, “Are you George Soros?”
“That’s been the question we’ve been getting from frankly left-wing media for the last 48 hours,” Dorr answered. “Who’s funding this big cabal? What puppet masters are behind this? Is President Trump paying you to putting on these protests? Who’s doing this?”
When tea party supporters burst onto the scene in 2009 wearing Uncle Sam hats and waving the Gadsden flag, commentators on the left were quick to dismiss the protests as astroturfed spectacles. There was truth to this interpretation. Local activists received money and significant other support from Americans for Prosperity, an advocacy group funded by the Koch brothers. But the tea party also built on real ground-level outrage — economic populism, as well as anti-immigrant sentiment and racist backlash against the Obama administration — and had a real impact on the political process. “They were able to build up a massive grassroots army that impacted not only federal politics, but state legislatures around the country,” said Burghart, who has studied the tea party. In some instances, tea party activists drew on tactics that had been pioneered by the progressive organization MoveOn.
What made the tea party a potent political force was not just dark money, but also the emergence of a new constituency that had previously been left out of the electoral process. The anti-lockdown protests have clear parallels to that earlier movement. Tea party funder FreedomWorks has backed the demonstrations, placing a $50,000 digital ad buy in May. (Americans for Prosperity declined to openly support the protests.) But as with the tea party, the anti-lockdown effort draws from a group with real energy, whether driven by job losses or blatant nativism.
The risk of repeating the mistakes of the past and dismissing activists like the Dorrs is “tremendous,” said Burghart, noting that leaders of the decentralized reopen movement tend to focus on state and local political races where they can actually make a difference. “For progressives, that continued miscalculation led to a decade of tea party dominance in our political discourse and our political trajectory.”
By July, the Dorrs’ reopen crusade had taken on a life of its own. Covid-19-related restrictions were now only sometimes the focus. As Black Lives Matter demonstrations swept the country, dwarfing the reopen protests, many anti-lockdown activists had shifted to overt racism. In the Dorrs’ Facebook groups, members called for law enforcement to use lethal force and water cannons against protesters. They branded Black Lives Matter a terrorist group, extolled the significance of statues of Confederate generals, and pilloried NFL player Colin Kaepernick. In a group called Reopen MN, one member claimed that George Floyd had not actually died. “He was at his own funeral,” the person wrote.
The Dorrs declined to comment on the groups’ evolution, but the statement sent by Ben Dorr echoed members’ racism and intolerance. “At a time when armed thugs are rioting in our streets, murdering police officers, looting stores and burning down private businesses, we Dorr brothers could not be more proud of the aggressive, vicious fighting we do for law-abiding gun owners and pro-lifers all across America,” it reads.
Their groups now see dozens of posts a day, pushing hoaxes, plugging political gatherings, and organizing maskless gatherings. More broadly, pro-reopen groups have provided a forum for far-right actors to organize counterdemonstrations, including some violent ones. What the movement has not done is disappear.
Correction: July 17, 2020, 1:20 p.m. ET
This story originally misspelled the last name of Sally Jo Sorensen.