Is ACT for America really a grassroots organization?

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Isabelle Canaan recently completed her MPhil in Politics (Comparative Government) at the University of Oxford. Her Masters thesis explored social movement trajectory, employing a case study of ACT for America. Using interview and primary source data, Canaan argued that the dual-hatted nature of ACT’s protest cycle explains the group’s attempts to maintain a grassroots presence while simultaneously functioning effectively as a lobby group. The Bridge Initiative spoke with Canaan regarding her thesis on Act for America and social movement theory.

1) What is social movement theory?

Economists, political scientists, sociologists, and psychologists, to name a few disciplines, have all articulated theories of social movements and collective action. There are many different questions that academics ask about social movements, ranging from initial formation, duration, role of elites, termination, organizational capacity, etc. For my work, I mainly used political science and political sociology scholarship on social movement evolution. I engaged with three main theories under this umbrella: resource mobilization, political opportunity, and protest cycle theory, using the latter as my guide. The theory of protest cycle, by Sidney Tarrow, illuminates how groups move and change between identifying as a traditional grassroots group and a professional lobby group that looks much more like an interest group.

2) ACT for America describes itself as a grassroots organization. However, in your thesis you claim that ACT’s been partly institutionalized from the beginning. Could you elaborate on this? Why do you think ACT continues to present itself as grassroots?

Not only is ACT not formalizing, it seems that they are selecting strategies that indicate an attempt to maintain a grassroots façade. For example, during 2017, they pivoted from operating within state houses and legislatures to holding marches, which are huge disruptive forms of mass participatory mobilization. They planned two marches – one of which happened, and one of which did not following Charlottesville. The first, on June 10, 2017, the March Against Sharia, which was held in 23 cities and 18 states and was the first nationwide march that ACT has ever held, indicated a tactical shift. In September, they planned the America First Rallies. Because of the weak turnout for the March Against Sharia, the tragedy at Charlottesville, and the fear of being outflanked and embarrassed by hordes of protesters, ACT eventually cancelled these America First Rallies, instead holding an online Day of ACTion. The organization of marches was atypical for ACT. Some scholars refer to this as a more insidious form of islamophobia since they are not going out and marching and making themselves known. Instead, they are doing their work in a very efficient way under-the-radar. However, it makes sense for ACT to try to flex its muscles, especially since its whole brand is that it speaks for the masses and represents thousands of Americans. The group needs to be able to show that, especially post-Trump when, being able to take up space and show your might matters.

Brigitte Gabriel, founder and director of ACT for America, announces the cancellation of America First rallies on Twitter. Source: Brigitte Gabriel’s Twitter page.

I believe ACT continues to present itself as grassroots to remain unique in its own space, to legitimize why it exists and why people should continue to flock to it, and to remain relevant. It does not appear that ACT has tried to schedule more rallies after these two misses and it is also increasingly clear that ACT’s self-reported member and chapter numbers are highly inflated. For my research, I reached out to over 25 chapters and only received responses from 6 chapters. It is possible that the other chapters were ignoring me as ACT national has directed chapters not to speak to media or to take interviews. Regardless, it seems clear to me that these chapters are not as sophisticated or as big as ACT wants us to think. For example, a member of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) in Ohio told me that her local ACT chapter is actually made up of only two very diligent members. Especially as groups like the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) investigate the veracity of ACT’s self-reported numbers, ACT recognizes that it must demonstrate that it indeed does represent the populace and, thus, cannot be ignored by the media and politicians.

3) Can you describe what the “bodyless heads” theory is and how this applies to ACT?

The “bodyless heads” theory is a characterization of a type of social movement. When we think of social movements, we think of a spectrum between a traditional grassroots group, which is horizontally organized and based on a loose network of activists who input money, resources, and time. On the other end of the spectrum, you have a professional lobby group that looks much more like an interest group, with internal formalization, professional staff, and top-down administration. In these types of groups, decision-making and budgetary considerations are tightly controlled. The ambitions of this type of group are much more institutional. Unlike a grassroots group, which is trying to wrestle back power from politicians who they believe have lost the plot, professional lobby groups purposely target those institutional actors. However, this is not a perfect binary. There are many ways that groups can look and function in between these two poles.

The theory of protest cycle, by Sidney Tarrow, illuminates how groups move and change between these two binaries. One of these hybrid categories that groups can take is a “bodyless head” originally theorized by Michael Ganz. In a “bodyless head,” a group appears formal, but can maintain many informal characteristics. While these groups have a large membership base, if members are involved at all, it is mostly through irregular messages and asks for monetary contributions. Rather, professional staffers who focus on media, lobbying, and raising money run the group.  Unlike institutionalized groups, “bodyless head” groups retain the appearance of a grassroots organization while simultaneously pursuing a professionalized strategy. These groups are institutionalized and formalized, yet take pains to preserve a grassroots appearance, attempting to do one thing while looking like another. This typology most closely captures a group like ACT, which entered the protest space mid-cycle. ACT maintains a membership base, but does not give the power to the people in the way a traditional grassroots group would. ACT is working really hard to maintain some semblance of a membership base, but decisions are made by the few in charge in the DC office. The administration of ACT is very centralized, messaging and strategy are directed from the top-down. Individual members, many of whom I spoke to, mentioned to me that they were not given a say and were only contacted by the national for funding.

4) In your thesis, you state that “ACT is both an anti-Muslim group with institutional ambitions and a network of grassroots activists. This hybridity is a result of different protest cycles.” What are these protest cycles and how did they impact ACT’s formation and character? What is the group’s initial entrance position?

ACT is a combination of two components; it is an anti-Muslim grassroots group. Each vertical in its dual-hatted nature is motivated by a different protest cycle. I consider ACT in its current incarnation as a spinoff of the protest cycle initiated after 9/11 and reanimated in 2009 by the Tea Party. ACT began in 2007, a lobbying arm outgrowth of the American Congress for Truth, an educational non-profit set-up by Ms. Brigitte Gabriel in 2002. The first protest cycle began with 9/11, which opened up a space for anti-Muslim and national security organizations to take advantage. ACT emerged following the initial activity of Pamela Geller, David Horowitz, and other first movers who, seeing the opportunity, moved in as “terrorism experts.” The anti-Muslim protest cycle was institutional from the beginning, promoted by think tanks and policy-makers focused on changing national security policy.

Brigitte Gabriel stands with Ryan Mauro, an analyst at the Clarion Project, and Pamela Geller, an anti-Muslim activist. The three appeared on Sean Hannity’s “Rise of Radical Islam” in 2015. Photo source: Brigitte Gabriel’s Twitter page.

The Tea Party, which began as a bottom-up, grassroots movement, initiated a second protest cycle that prompted ACT to embrace and emphasize its grassroots character. Emerging in the spring of 2009, the Tea Party’s goals were broadly anti-progressive and anti-Obama. Conservative, older people, an atypical activist demographic, turned out in droves to heckle politicians, found their own chapters, and attend marches. However, initial Tea Party fervor was quickly harnessed by major conservative donors and incorporated by the mainstream Republican Party. Following its quick electoral victories, the Tea Party audience shifted to elites. Indicative of this transition, there was a decline in turnout for the rallies that had originally made the Tea Party unable to be ignored. With representatives in power, the Tea Party could no longer position itself as anti-establishment. Thus, Tea Party masses went from anti-government protesters to legislative watchdogs. When the rare rallies were held, they were less focused on demonstrating the power of the people, and more geared towards providing a backdrop for spokespeople to engage with the media. Despite the movement’s rapid institutionalization, the initial grassroots activity of the Tea Party had a major impact for groups like ACT. Specifically, the Tea Party activated a demographic of older, white, middle-class conservatives, unfamiliar with grassroots activity.

5) You claim the anti-Muslim movement is inherently institutional. Could you elaborate on this?

The anti-Muslim protest cycle began with 9/11. Tarrow describes how ‘great events’ alter the landscape and create new opportunities for later movements. Following 9/11, Muslim identity became visible in ways it had not been previously. At the time of the attack, most Americans surveyed had little to no knowledge about Islam and had never met a Muslim. Despite an initial post-9/11 increase in positive opinions about Islam due to President George W. Bush’s initial attempts to distinguish between extremist groups and mainstream Muslims, existential fear of Islam has become the status quo.

A ‘great event’ creates fertile soil for first movers. In the case of the anti-Muslim protest cycle, Pamela Geller, David Horowitz, Robert Spencer, and Frank Gaffney, among others, all began organizing, forming a dense anti-Muslim network intent on changing national policy they believed was partially to blame for the attacks. These individuals did not initially organize large grassroots groups, but instead formed think tanks and non-profits. For example, ‘The American Freedom Defense Initiative’, a joint-enterprise by Mrs. Geller and Mr. Spencer, is a registered non-profit, that courts public and private grants. Mr. Gaffney’s Center for Security Policy is a Washington DC think-tank that pushes out policy papers and promotes respected academics. The anti-Muslim movement also immediately had access to national-level media, positioning themselves as terrorism experts and, thus, legitimizing their anti-Muslim claims. Finally, the anti-Muslim movement always had legislative objectives. The network has long fought for ALAC (American Laws for American Courts), a draft anti-sharia bill, as well as a bill intended to designate the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organization.

6) Where would you place ACT in the US landscape of anti-Muslim organizations? How does the group interact with other anti-Muslim groups?

Generally, ACT is a very particular type of interest group and hate group, indicative of neither the majority of interest groups nor the majority of hate groups. The group is highly representative of the new model of social action, utilizing popular tactics of campaigns and civil rights movements in pursuit of different goals.

ACT is unique within the anti-Muslim “national security” arena. As coined by Nathan Lean, the Islamophobia Industry is rife with groups like the Center for Security Policy (CSP), the David Horowitz Freedom Center, and the Clarion Project, which are typically Washington DC-centered lobby firms that present their affiliates as experts on the existential threat posed to the US by Islam (SPLC).

When working with other anti-Muslim organizations, ACT is seen as the muscle of the operation, directing its membership to letter-writing campaigns, petitions, and, specific Twitter hashtags. For example, as Christopher Bail and Nathan Lean remark, in 2010, the CSP rolled out an anti-sharia law campaign. The group partnered with the American Public Policy Alliance, a right-wing non-profit advocacy group, and ACT. Each player in the joint venture brought a certain type of expertise. ACT’s job was to provide the bottom-up momentum to convince legislators that the people were behind the campaign. The collaboration successfully brought anti-sharia legislation to public referendum in Oklahoma. ACT spent more than $60,000 on telephone campaigns and petitions, propelling the referendum to an easy victory.

The HAAS Institute at the University of California, Berkeley developed the United States of Islamophobia Database, which includes detailed information on 216 bills introduced in 43 state legislatures since 2010 that sought to ban “Sharia law,” or a set of guiding principles, from being considered in US courts. Accessed at https://haasinstitute.berkeley.edu/new-database-exposes-anti-muslim-legislation-across-us.

Even critics recognize the salient specificity of ACT’s role. The New York Times, in a 2011 profile on Ms. Gabriel, acknowledged ACT’s uniqueness, mentioning how she has built an organization that claims thousands of members and hundreds of chapters.

7) How (if at all) have ACT’s positions changed with the election of Donald Trump?

Under Obama, ACT was mostly focused on local and state level initiatives. They recognized that the White House was not receptive to their agenda, so they focused on local and state issues. They still had their national-level ambitions, but they did most of their work and they made most of their gains in local communities and state houses. The election of Donald Trump catapulted ACT into a new arena because they now have a whole new level of access to the federal government and influence over federal policy. Brigitte Gabriel has been to Mar-a-Lago and has met Trump. Former congressional allies, like Mike Pompeo and Ted Cruz, are in much more powerful positions than they were under Obama. Donald Trump’s policies also reflect ACT’s agenda, notable by the Muslim ban and anti-refugee rhetoric. Very quickly, ACT went from being an organization focused on local impact, to having a seat at the table at the national-level. Not only are their policies reflected in Trump, but their talking points are now part of the mainstream discourse.

Brigitte Gabriel, founder and director of ACT or America, met with then Republican presidential candidate, Donald Trump, at Mar-A-Lago in 2016. Photo Source: ACT for America’s Facebook page.

On the other hand, the Trump election exposed this politically active, right-wing base. Previously, ACT was much more narrowly focused within the anti-Muslim vertical. Following the Trump election, they have expanded their base to absorb more of the recently activated Trump voters. We can see this through their rallies. The first rally they had last year was the “March Against Sharia.” From the name, you can see this is very within the ACT canon. The “America First” rallies, scheduled for Sept. 11, really tried to capitalize on the Trump brand. The name itself evokes Trump, and the organizers involved were activists within the Trump universe. If you go on their website now, alongside their traditional positions, ACT is now broadening to absorb other Trump-affiliated positions. Furthermore, the 2017 ACT conference keynote was Katrina Pierson, a Trump campaign consultant, demonstrating how ACT continues to strategically align itself with Trump.

Brigitte Gabriel, founder and director of ACT for America, visited the White House in March 2017, describing her visit as “very productive”. Photo Source: The Guardian.

8) Based on your interviews with former ACT members, how would you describe ACT’s membership? What views do they hold? What issues do they care about?

The average age of ACT membership is 50+, with many retirees and Tea Partiers. The ACT members I spoke to fit this bill, with all of the male members or former members also being veterans. Members of groups working to oppose ACT were hesitant to call ACT member’s activists, seemingly because they do not fit the typical criteria. The director of the Cleveland Immigrant Support Network who has protested many ACT events told me that the ACT membership does not seem prone to activism. The people that show up at ACT events are, in his words, “harmless old people. A CAIR member told me that the membership “does not really look like they would be activists” and are mostly older, Christian, right-wing suburbanites. These characteristics refer to a particular segment of the ACT activist base – those that are committed enough to show-up to meetings and marches.

ACT members strongly overlap with Tea Party members. Like Tea Partiers, ACT members are largely Evangelical and socially conservative. Many of the former chapter leaders I spoke to were motivated by their Christian faith, and were increasingly frustrated by ACT’s hesitancy to have a religious debate on the merits of Christianity versus Islam.

9) Can you explain what “ethnic authority” means? How does ACT use individuals identified as “ethnic authorities”? How has ACT membership reacted to ACT national’s utilization of ethnic authorities?

An ethnic authority, often employed in a tokenistic manner by a group, is someone with first-hand experience about a phenomenon that can provide legitimacy to a claim and insulate it from criticism. For ACT, an ethnic authority is a former or like-minded Muslim, like Raheel Raza, Zuhdi Jasser, Asra Nomani, or Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who can speak from personal experience about the dangers of Islam. These types of speakers are more palatable for mainstream audiences, and are often painted by media as Muslims trying to promote a reformation within Islam.

2017 ACTCON continued the trend of highlighting national-level politicians, presidential advisors, and ethnic authorities by including Hazem Farraj. A 2017 ACTCON attendee told me that conspiracy theories were not voiced by Ms. Gabriel or any other easily identifiable members of ACT leadership. He also told me that patently bigoted quotes were outsourced to ethnic authorities. This sophisticated evolution of language, especially the use of former Muslims, has helped insulate ACT from Islamophobia claims. Highlighting ethnic authorities provides legitimacy to ACT’s claims.

However, the inclusion of more ethnic authorities has startled some original ACT members. A few chapter leaders I spoke to told me that, when Raheel Raza was announced at 2016 ACTCON, the audience was shocked. Ms. Gabriel apparently tried to sugarcoat the shift, saying that she only brought in these speakers to quiet critics who say that ACT hates Muslims. Yet, many of the original members who believe, keeping with original ACT literature and Ms. Gabriel’s own past statements, that moderate Muslims do not exist and, thus, feel betrayed and startled by the increased use of ethnic authorities.

Canadian anti-Muslim activist, Raheel Raza, spoke at ACT’s 2016 national conference. Photo Source: CSPAN.

10) Can you tell us how ACT’s language has changed or evolved particularly when it comes to Islam and Muslims? What is the explanation for this change or evolution?

In line with the expectations of institutionalization, ACT has carefully begun to use more acceptable language to maintain connections with established actors. Ms. Gabriel always used to unveil ACT’s major policy positions in her conference opening speech. While anti-Muslim talking points still abounded at 2017 ACTCON, an attendee told me that these theories were disassociated by ACT leadership, often outsourced to ethnic authorities.

My discussions with members of various progressive, civil liberty organizations underscored how ACT has changed their outer appearances. Jingostic and nationalistic rhetoric has replaced religious rhetoric, with speakers avoiding bringing up “Islam” or religion at all. Instead, speakers now emphasize national security, patriotism, and pro-Trump talk. ACT and like-minded organizations often wink at their true anti-Muslim intentions by covertly using national security language.

While Ms. Gabriel and ACT initially invoked “Islam” as a stand-alone word, “radical” is now always included as a qualifier in ACT materials. This re-working of message has helped Ms. Gabriel and ACT gain access to national media platforms, an ambition of institutionalized groups. The public changes in language are also reflected internally in ACT’s 990 forms, demonstrating that the group’s institutionalization is not solely cosmetic. In 2010, the first year for which I had access to a 990 form, ACT’s self-reported organizational mission is: “We aim to establish a means for all American citizens to provide a collective voice (I) for the democratic values of western civilization and (II) against the threat of radical Islam.” The organizational mission remains the same in 2011 and 2012. However, in 2013, the organizational mission changes. Notably, point (II) “against the threat of radical Islam” is replaced with “against the threats to our national security.” Replacing “radical Islam” with “national security” is a marked change from inflammatory and divisive language intended to turnout a very specific demographic to a more palatable statement.

11) What role does ACT’s founder Brigitte Gabriel play in the organization? From your interviews, how did former members view Gabriel? What were the reasons for there departure from the organization?

ACT could not have existed without Brigitte Gabriel. Her life is the founding story and raison d’etre for the organization, her charisma draws people in, and her fire and passion command attention. She is the founder and face of the organization, as well as the main recruiter. However, many of the former members I spoke to dismissed her skill as a leader and manager. They painted her as competitive and self-obsessed, often referencing the rumor that Brigitte is only using ACT to enhance her personal wealth.

One former chapter leader told me that, when he tried to bolster the chapter mentorship network, Brigitte purposely undermined his project because she was threatened by his growing power. I also heard multiple anecdotes of how, when Ms. Gabriel goes to speak on a local radio program, she does not shout-out the corresponding local ACT chapter. Members of her staff apparently tell her to do so, but she refuses. Dislike for Brigitte and a frustration with her management style certainly played a role in local level attrition.

12) In your thesis you claim ACT puts on the appearance of formalization, which is a natural trend for groups that are institutionalized, but in reality this is not the case. Can you elaborate on this?

ACT national is institutionalizing, but it is not making the same transition from grassroots to lobby tactics. Because ACT emerged as an inherently institutional, hybrid social movement, ACT’s trajectory is not following the typical protest cycle. If ACT is institutionalized, we should see it pivoting towards more established audience, prioritizing national level initiatives, mainstreaming its language, diversifying its audience, and focusing on national level funding opportunities. ACT is fulfilling these institutional objectives and, at a glance, seems to be going through the accompanying formalization. The number of ACT employees has increased every year per their 990 forms, with the number of ACT volunteers plummeting. ACT has also established a headquarters close to the White House and changed their language to prioritize lobbying activities. Most notably, the relationship between ACT chapters and the national organization also appears to be highly bureaucratic. The 2015 Art of Chapter Leadership, a how-to guide by the former Executive Director, Kelly Cook, presents how the organization claims to work. According to the document, ACT national provides various types of support to both budding and existing chapters. The document makes it appear as if the support and resources provided by ACT national are very structured.

Yet, ACT’s promises of formalization appeared hollow to me. Since 2014, there has been lots of confusion and redundancy when it comes to who is in control of the national network, with Kelly Cook, Chris Houlton, Greg Walsh, and J. Craig listed in various types of development positions. Furthermore, many of ACT’s recent hires are not lobbying veterans and do not appear to be prioritizing chapter support. ACT promotes a robust mentoring program, with the 2015 Art of Chapter Leadership referring to the regional chapter collaboration. However, the guide’s appendix further explains the legal relationship between ACT national and its chapters. The association between the two is much less formalized than previously appears; “the affiliation between ACT Inc. and its chapters is a ‘licensee’ relationship and not an ‘agency’ relationship.” If ACT were organized in conjunction with the agency model, each agent (each local chapter) would have to conform to a certain set of requirements. The network would be formalized, “highly centralized and controlled from the top.” The ACT licensee model is the opposite. Chapters are given “broad latitude” when it comes to project and tactical selection. It is clear from the guide’s language that ACT national favors a hands-off, “decentralized” approach. The ACT support infrastructure was the oft-cited reason that the chapter leaders I spoke with left ACT. They told me there was no national oversight and no financial support at all. If and when instances of chapter support occur, it is because of the dedication of certain local individuals, not national level support.

13) How (if at all) is ACT membership evolving with the growth and reach of social media?

Technology lowers the threshold of participation by eliminating the costs associated with in-person activism, helping groups maintain a grassroots appearance. Using online metrics to measure outreach and membership makes it easier for groups to claim mass participation. To be counted as an activist by ACT, all you have to do is submit a form that includes email and geographic information.

Furthermore, ACT has begun employing younger organizers with large social media footprints and name recognition in the Trump world. Scott Presler, an activism strategist with 228K followers on Twitter, organized the June 10, 2017 nationwide “Marches Against Sharia.” In his mid-20s and a vocal, gay Trump supporter, Mr. Presler is a notable because of how different he is from ACT’s membership profile. His influence is associated with online activism and it remains unclear if he has any direct experience operating a large network like ACT.

Scott Presler is a lead strategist for ACT and has over 246K followers on Twitter. In 2017, he organized the nationwide “Marches Against Sharia.” Photo Source: Brigitte Gabriel’s Twitter page.

Thomas Hern’s hiring also indicates ACT’s pivot to younger, more media-savvy employees with grassroots experience. The former Director of Field Operations for Turning Point US, which holds youth conferences to mobilize and educate young adults on conservative issues, 25-year old Mr. Hern was hired in January 2018 as ACT’s grassroots director. While he is credentialed, his youth and experiences are again very dissimilar to both his predecessors and the typical ACT member. It is clear that these two new hiring’s do not square with the typical ACT member. While, as of right now, the makeup of ACT’s visible membership appears unaltered, it is very difficult to measure how and to what extent the membership profile is actually changing, especially as the group does not plan on any large-scale public protests in the near future.

For more information regarding the individuals and organizations mentioned in this interview, see The Bridge Initiative’s factsheets on ACT for America and its founder Brigitte Gabriel