Last month, before Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-La.) held a town hall meeting in the town of Breaux Bridge, a man nobody recognized walked into a meeting of Lafayette Indivisible. The group, one of hundreds to take its name and tactics from the “Indivisible Guide” put together by former Democratic congressional staffers, had advertised the meeting on Facebook. James Proctor, its founder, didn’t realize that the stranger was recording, or that he’d told someone at the door he was representing the conservative news site, Hayride.
“Camera people, especially — they’re looking for b-roll and quotes,” said Proctor as the tape rolled. “People waving signs, going ‘aaaah!’ And then they’re on to the next story. So we’re going to give ’em the coverage they want.”
On Feb. 23, Hayride published an edit of the tape, which included a joke Proctor would come to regret about whether Breaux Bridge “could afford a plainclothes cop.” Local radio station KPEL got the tape, too, and Proctor called in to discuss it.
“A friend called me to say ‘buddy, you’re about to be famous,’ ” said Proctor, 48, who was laid off from his job at an oil field last year.
But the town hall went off as planned, with Cassidy buffeted by hostile questions, and a CNN reporter interviewing Proctor when it ended.
“I wasn’t politically active until the election, and I won’t deny watching a man who I consider completely unethical get elected has influenced my desire to be politically active,” Proctor said to CNN’s camera.
The story could have ended there, but as the recess ended, there was an appetite for stories about how the town halls that had rumbled Republicans were, in some way, illegitimate. On Feb. 27, the Daily Caller reported that “leaked audio from an anti-Trump protest group” found Indivisible “plotting how to best manufacture a hostile environment at a town hall.” The group had never pretended otherwise, but the framing — “leaked audio” — carried the story to more than 24,000 Facebook shares.
From there, the story was viral. Fox News published a column by commentator Todd Starnes focusing on how the protesters had booed a prayer that opened the meeting; Fox Business hosted the chaplain who had led the prayer and played him the “leaked” audio.
For days, Proctor was the unwitting face of the protest movement. More important, he was being cited as evidence that the protests were fabricated and that Republicans might do better to ignore them. (The Hayride advised Republicans to manage the invitations to cut down on strategic protesters.)
The backlash, luckily, was less than Proctor expected. “I thought my life was about to be over,” said Proctor. But he got only a few emails — all negative, but none threatening. What worried him more were the missives on Facebook from people who he could tell lived in his community.
“They were mostly from local people,” said Proctor. “Nobody wants to think they’re going to run into someone that has the level of hate and delusion I saw in those messages.”
By Friday, a week after the town hall, Proctor’s face had been dropped from TV broadcasts. He’d been contacted twice by Fox News to confirm the tape, but as far as he could tell, segments about it were cut for breaking news.
“Turns out, it’s not that big a deal,” he said. “I guess they’re moving on to other things, like the Jeff Sessions mess.”