Quaintly, they are called surgeries in Britain, those days when Parliament is dark and members return home to ask constituents what ails them, bandages and salve in hand. In America, naturally, they are bigger affairs – town halls, they call them – but the purpose is the same. It’s a time to listen and reassure; to give voters the sense they will actually be represented.
As Republicans fled Washington on planes and trains this week, they might have imagined their listening tours this year would be more victory laps, both the White House and Congress now in their thrall. Senator Chuck Grassley was surely itching to begin his annual meander through all 99 counties in Iowa; Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell beaming – and he does beam – at the mere thought of so many back-slaps in community halls across Kentucky.
Ah well. The reception that greeted them hasn’t been quite like that. No blood has been spilled although some members opted either to cancel events or declined to schedule any in the first place out of fear for their safety. Surgeries indeed, but it’s the Republican lawmakers needing tourniquets. A pig farmer named Chris Petersen actually did hand a battle of heartburn tablets to Senator Grassley. “You’re going to need them,” he offered, to which the Senator attempted a joke about the indigestion he suffers after eating ice cream before bed.
There were chuckles when one woman assailed McConnell on topics that included the plight of the coal industry in his state and quipped: “If you can answer any of that I'll sit down and shut up like Elizabeth Warren”. You may recall him recently muzzling the good senator from Massachusetts during debate about Jeff Sessions becoming America’s Attorney General.
Humour has otherwise been in short supply, however. Republican Congressman David Brat of Virginia couldn’t make himself heard above the heckles and hissing after he attempted to defend President Donald Trump. In Tennessee, Congresswoman Marsha Blackburn was met with calls of “Tell the truth” and “We’re not stupid, you have to do better” when she ventured praise for Betsy De Vos, the new Education Secretary who has no experience of educating.
Similarly raucous scenes played out at Republican town halls across the land with voters grumbling about everything from Trump’s opaque courtship of Russia, his other cabinet choices, his assault on environmental protections and, above all, the Republican howitzer aimed at Obamacare. The immigration crackdown has also bubbled through. “Who is going to save me?” a Muslim veteran demanded of Mr Grassely. “I am a person from a Muslim country and I am a Muslim. Who is going to save me here? Who is going to stand behind me?”
Trump has noticed and is not happy, questioning where the Disgusted of Des Moines are coming from. “The so-called angry crowds in home districts of some Republicans are actually, in numerous cases, planned out by liberal activists,” he said in one of his evening Tweets. “Sad!” That earned a surprise rebuke from Justin Amash, a Republican member of Congress from Michigan. “They are our fellow Americans with legitimate concerns,” he fired back, also on Twitter. “We need to stop acting so fragile. I'm proud to defend liberty and the Constitution.”
It may be most of those doing the heckling are not Republicans nor Trump voters and that progressive political action groups are helping to drive turn-out to the town halls. But that doesn’t make this moment any less powerful. What Republicans are meeting is a determined wave of resistance to the Trump agenda that started with the Women’s March on Washington the day after the inauguration and has continued to grow. This Saturday will see 100 rallies across the country to protest the Republican assault on Obamacare. The main force behind them is Senator Bernie Sanders who is encouraged by the town hall disruptions. “We’ve seen unprecedented grassroots energy at Republican town hall meetings across the country this week,” he said. “The American people are fighting back. As the only major country on earth not to guarantee health care for all, we are not going backwards. We're going forwards.”
Some believe that what’s taking shape is a Tea Party of the Left. It is a tempting notion. The Tea Party movement that swept away Democrat control of the House of Representatives in 2010 was born in the aftermath of Barack Obama’s election to the White House and first evidenced itself at town halls similar to those we have seen this week. But this is different. The Tea Party was waging a war not just with Democrats but also with the establishment of its own Republican Party. Sure, the Sanders-Warren flank has some grievances with the current Democratic leadership, but their ire is focused on their irksome threesome: Trump, McConnell and Ryan.
It is a mistake, meanwhile, to read this as a ruckus only of the left. There are signs also of frustration starting to simmer even among some on the right, including voters who did back Trump. The reasons are different, of course. Above all, they are wondering why Obamacare was not rescinded on Day One as the President promised and why no one in Washington seems to have a clue how health care insurance will work after it's gone. And where is the plan to reform the tax code? When will the first blocks of the wall on the border be laid? And what is the president doing to deliver on his promise to get the miners back to the coal seams again?
The Distractor-in-Chief will do his best to change the subject. But those depending on him to improve their lives will one day wake up and see that the mills are still silent, the coal mines still sealed. Nor are they likely to have derived the satisfaction they expected from the slaying of Obamacare. What replaces it is likely either to be even more unwieldy and expensive or so spindly that the things many of them have actually grown to appreciate - like, for instance, having coverage for the first time, whether or not they have pre-existing conditions - have vanished.
That is the day Republicans will really balk at returning to their districts. Anger will be shared by the left and the right and the town hall disturbances of this week will look like, well, a tea party by comparison.
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