To a remarkable extent, our current political moment is a sort of funhouse mirror version of the events that followed the inauguration of Barack Obama. Now, as then, a charismatic president whose opposition feels he is unduly influenced by shadowy foreign elements has been swept into power. A populist rabble has emerged to challenge the new regime, and the president’s supporters are certain the new movement is fraudulent, paid for by shadowy billionaires. Except for the fact that what’s happening now is almost completely unprecedented, we’ve seen it all before, to an eerie extent. If the 2009 chart-topper “I Gotta Feeling” starts playing on the radio irritatingly often, we’ll know that a hole has opened up in the space-time continuum, and it is time to make your peace with God.
On Wednesday, outside an invitation-only speech by Texas Congressman John Culberson, those resonances played out on two sidewalk curbs near the gate of Lakeside Country Club, in west Houston. Culberson is a nine-term Republican rep whose wealthy district voted for Clinton in the general election, which means he’s got a target on his back.
Culberson, like every other Republican member of the Texas congressional delegation, isn’t holding public town halls with his constituents during the February recess, as is tradition. Democrats and some moderate Republicans had many disastrous town halls in 2009 and 2010, when agitated tea party types swarmed public events. Footage of those confrontations fed the perception that those in power were losing control.
So Culberson and all of his colleagues are holding private meetings instead — very private — to minimize what people in politics call “bad optics.” If you’re a constituent who’d like to meet Culberson and ask him about health care policy, you’re S.O.L. But on Wednesday, he spoke to the Village Republican Women, a local party group. Only members of the Lakeside Country Club and those on the group’s “waiting list” were allowed past the security guards and a platoon of Houston police officers.
It was a security regimen closer to the one a presidential candidate gets. I’ve been to more of these events than I’d care to admit, and never once have I been unable to attend a speech by an elected official at a Republican club. It was stranger still to see the country club’s rules enforced by dozens of cops. Clearly, things have changed.
But that’s not the only way Republicans have learned from 2009. Knowing that Culberson’s appearance would be protested, the Harris County Republican Party and other groups sent out an official all-points bulletin to local conservatives: “We have seen time and again these protest [sic], usually attended by paid protesters funded by liberal elites like George Soros, get hijacked by far left extremists and escalate to highly inappropriate behavior.” So the party organized a group of Culberson supporters to stand outside the event as a “counter-resistance.”
This “counter-resistance,” which consisted of a few dozen conservatives, stood on the sidewalk to the north side of the entrance to the country club, while the “resistance,” about three times larger, stood on the sidewalk to the south. Some in the conservative group said they had become involved with politics because of Trump, but many were old-school tea party folk, who once would have been protesting events like this.
Bob Hall, a retired small businessman — and no relation to the state senator of the same name — said he was in with the tea party from its earliest days in 2009. He wanted to come out, he said, because his activist circle was intent not to fade away. “We are all about supporting our Republican candidates. We are team players,” he said. “They’re trying to do the work of the people and we should support that.”
Hall thinks there’s an important difference between his group of activists and their group — the tea party, he says, strove to be civil. (At the very moment he says this, the “resistance” is chanting the refrain from the hippie anthem, the “Na Na, Hey Hey” song.) The other folks are loud and uncivil, so there’s no point in holding town halls. “They should go talk to their group, and we’ll talk to our group.”
One of Hall’s friends shouts at the protesters. “Go get a job so we can pay these cops!” A woman near him, with a sign that marks her as a “Latina for Trump,” starts yelling too, alternating “Unamerican!” and “Communists!” The protesters start chanting “First Amendment,” so Hall’s friend yells “Second Amendment!”
On the other side, there’s Elena Diiorio, a retired lawyer. “I’m a constituent of Congressman Culberson’s. I’ve lived in his district since 1983,” she says. “I’m not being paid. I’ve never protested before this election.” Her baptism in protest was the inauguration weekend women’s march, and this is her follow-up.
Diiorio describes herself as most interested in defending the Constitution, and she wants an opportunity to hear from her member of Congress. “I would like a town hall. I would like a chance to ask questions about why we’re giving guns to mentally ill people,” she says. “Why we’re in such a rush to repeal the ACA when we don’t know what we’re replacing it with.”
Culberson, she says, is representing his party’s base and has forgotten about his district and his constituents. “Texas is the No. 1 import/export partner of Mexico. We’re the ones that are going to get hurt” by a trade war and a border wall. “Culberson needs to answer for why he’s voting for things that are going to hurt us.”
For two hours, the protesters faced off. Looked at one way, it was a refreshing example of civic participation. Looked at another, it reflected the political moment in a discouraging way. Inside, the powerful lawmaker speaks. It is unclear what he is saying. He is kept from the public by the police and blazer-wearing security staff. Outside, two groups of protesters square off. But they self-segregate, on opposite corners. They talk only among their own groups.
As in 2009, the protests have the potential to prove politically potent. The Republican strategy clearly is to deny them visibility when possible, but also to aggressively delegitimize them. “Counter-resistance” sounds like what the Marines did in Fallujah. It is exceptionally unpleasant that official Republican Party groups are spreading the fiction that George Soros is personally orchestrating anti-Trump protests, not least because Soros is the modern embodiment of the ancient anti-semitic trope of der internationale Jude.
But Culberson supporters also seemed genuinely united in the belief that the people across the driveway were being paid, a fiction the Harris County Republican Party is also spreading. They joked about it among themselves, and they taunted the other side with it. That’s a common way to dismiss protesters — but it’s most often deployed in places like Russia and Egypt, where pro-democracy activists are often jailed because of the lie that they’re being financed and manipulated by foreign powers, and, often enough, George Soros himself. Its quick adoption by Republicans of all stripes, and its appearance on an ordinary street in west Houston, is a pretty bad omen.