Republican Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas tried hard to avoid made-for-TV confrontations at his first Trump-era town hall Wednesday night.
So much for that.
Even the Pledge of Allegiance was politicized, as the raucous crowd crescendoed to emphasize the final words “for all” — a clear dig at President Donald Trump, who critics have said has been far more nationalistic than inclusive in the early days of his presidency.
The assembled Arkansans repeatedly roared their disapproval and shook hundreds of sheets of red construction paper to express their anger. For two hours, Cotton stood with his hands clasped or arms tucked behind his back, a tight-lipped and limp smile on his face, as his constituents interrupted him with a wide variety of boos and chants, including “Do your job!” and “Tax returns!”
“All those civility talks didn’t stick,” Caitlynn Moses, the head of the local chapter of the progressive group Indivisible, told VICE News.
Cotton tried to appease the crowd, but again and again his olive branches were used against him, especially when policy questions came up. He said he didn’t agree with President Trump’s recent tweet that some members of the media were “enemies of the American people.” Still, the crowd was more concerned with 25-year-old Kati McFarland, who said she suffers from severe Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome and said that without the Affordable Care Act “I will die.” Chants of “ACA” soon reverberated throughout the auditorium, and the crowd refused to let Cotton move on until they felt he had satisfactorily answered McFarland’s question.
There were a few “Make America Great Again” hats in the audience. But it was a largely angry crowd at the performing arts center of Springdale High School on Wednesday.
Such scenes of political acrimony have become standard at Republican town halls across the country over the past several weeks. Fearful of the Trump administration’s policies on health care, climate change, Russia, immigration, and education, liberals are adopting the tactics the Tea Party used eight years ago, packing town halls across the country. These progressive grassroots forces also raised the ire of President Trump this week:
In response, the majority of congressional Republicans are not scheduling in-person town halls this recess, fearful of becoming the next viral meme.
But after weeks of passionate lobbying efforts from activists, Cotton relented and decided to wade into the politically charged waters of the town hall. He did his best to avoid the fate of his fellow Republicans and endear himself to the 2,000-plus standing-room-only crowd, some of whom drove over three hours from Little Rock to this more conservative region in the Northwest of the state. Trump won just over 60 percent of the vote in Arkansas in November, and Cotton himself defeated an incumbent senator two years before with 56 percent of the vote. Even so, the minority was the majority Wednesday evening.
The senator kicked things off by bringing Moses up to the stage and offering her the first question of the evening. Cotton had personally called Moses last month to promise he would hold a town hall after she and other local activists had lobbied his office for weeks.
She surprised him by giving her question to someone she felt was more affected by the Trump administration.
Cotton told the crowd he would stay for an additional half hour to answer more questions. Then Jeff Rich, who’d traveled to the event from Springdale, used that extra time to tell the senator that “you seem more interested in building your brand with Mitch McConnell and Washington Republicans” than with Arkansans. Cotton, Rich pointed out, has voted the party line 95 percent of the time.
Cotton said he didn’t care if the attendees were paid protestors — a claim put forth by other Republicans without evidence when confronted at their own town halls — because “you’re Arkansans and I care what you have to say.” But the crowd seemed to want an answer about why a deficit hawk like Cotton thought it was okay to spend tens of billions on a border wall. The red sheets again came out when Cotton answered that the border wall was a matter of national security.
The attendees had organized to produce camera-ready confrontations like these. Almost all of the nearly two dozen people VICE News interviewed had typed up or handwritten their questions before the town hall. If they hadn’t, there were sheets floating around the hall with suggested questions.
The swath of red cards wasn’t accidental either. The red paper was a symbol of unified demonstration of resistance, chosen by Indivisible members at their pre-town hall meeting two weeks ago, according to Ozark Indivisible organizer Shannon Simons.
As organizers hoped, some clips from the event quickly spread online and became grist for cable news. Local media outlets also covered the event extensively. But the question still remains what Cotton and other congressional Republicans will do when they return to Washington next week.
Cover: Constituents hold signs in disagreement with U.S. Congressman Leonard Lance (R-NJ 7) during a town hall event at a community college in Branchburg, New Jersey, Feb. 22, 2017. REUTERS/Dominick Reuters.