Not all mobs are equal, apparently.
There was a time, less than a decade ago, when the sound of red-faced protest was music to Republican ears.
That, of course, was when Barack Obama was president, and the tea party movement was hijacking congressional town-hall meetings with shouts of “Tyranny!” There were plenty of shoving matches. Democratic lawmakers were burned in effigy. The police were regularly called in to restore a semblance of order.
Democrats tried to dismiss the significance of all this disruption. “It’s not really a grass-roots movement,” said Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., who would soon lose the majority that had made her Speaker of the House. “It’s Astroturf by some of the wealthiest people in America to keep the focus on tax cuts for the rich instead of for the great middle class.”
Meanwhile, Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., lauded the conservative agitation as a pure expression of the frustrations and values of ordinary Americans.
“You’re the people who prove the politicians wrong when they say that all this activism and unrest was crafted, somehow, in a boardroom, down on K Street,” he said. “The grass-roots movement isn’t Astroturf, as they like to put it. It’s something that started at your kitchen tables.”
Now it is the Democrats who are making the noise, and the argument is playing in reverse.
“You don’t hand matches to an arsonist, and you don’t give power to an angry left-wing mob. Democrats have become too EXTREME and TOO DANGEROUS to govern. Republicans believe in the rule of law - not the rule of the mob,” President Donald Trump tweeted Saturday about the demonstrations that erupted after the Senate voted to confirm his nomination of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court.
Other Republicans have taken their lead from Trump. “Mob rule,” Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, said of the protests. “Screaming animals,” wrote Fox News’ Todd Starnes, adding for good measure that those who demonstrated in the Senate gallery should be “tasered, handcuffed and dragged out of the building.”
As for McConnell, he declared he is “proud of my members for not knuckling under to those kind of moblike tactics.”
Just as Democrats once dismissed the outrage of tea-party agitators as having been ginned up by the Koch brothers, Republicans see the hand of George Soros behind the hundreds who showed up to voice their objections to Kavanaugh.
In the case of Soros, the conspiracy theories also carry a familiar whiff of anti-Semitism, as Trump and others suggest - with no evidence - that the foreign-born Jewish billionaire is paying demonstrators to do his bidding.
“The paid D.C. protesters are now ready to REALLY protest because they haven’t gotten their checks - in other words, they weren’t paid!” the president tweeted on Tuesday. “Screamers in Congress, and outside, were far too obvious - less professional than anticipated by those paying (or not paying) the bills!”
There can be a sort of solace in the thought that all of this anger is being manufactured by an evil genius, rather than accepting it as evidence that a significant share of the populace opposes what your party has done.
But as Democrats learned from the trouncing they received in the midterm elections of 2010 and 2014, this kind of rationalization can be dangerous to a party’s health.
Republicans also contend that there is a qualitative difference between the liberal protesters who confronted senators in the Capitol last week and the conservative ones of previous election cycles who aired their grievances at town meetings in individual congressional districts. But it was telling that during this year’s August recess, most lawmakers of both parties decided not to hold any town meetings at all, rather than face another wave of constituent fury.
The superheated media environment amplifies the volume of these protests, but the tactics themselves are hardly new. And sometimes they are the only way for the aggrieved to make themselves heard over powerful interests.
In 1989, then-House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dan Rostenkowski, D-Ill., was chased down a Chicago street by a group of seniors angry about the cost of a new Medicare catastrophic health-insurance program. When one of them draped herself over the hood of his car, the 6-foot-4 congressman escaped by dashing through a gas station.
“These people don’t understand what the government is trying to do for them,” Rostenkowski said as he fled the furious seniors.
Still, he got the message: The Medicare Catastrophic Coverage Act was repealed less than a year after it went into effect.
Sometimes the key to surviving in politics is knowing when to listen - a lesson the Republicans might learn the hard way, come Nov. 6.