President Trump and the Obama administration share a stance toward protests at town halls: Meh.
Here's Trump on Tuesday evening in response to flare-ups at GOP town halls in recent days.
And here's White House press secretary Robert Gibbs back in August 2009, when the tea party was starting to raise hell in town halls about the Affordable Care Act:
Q: Are you concerned at what appears to be well-orchestrated protesting of health care reform at town halls as derailing your message?
GIBBS: No. I get asked every day about the myriad of things that could be derailing our message. I would point out that I don't know what all those guys were doing, what were they called, the Brooks Brothers Brigade in Florida in 2000, appear to have rented a similar bus and are appearing together at town hall meetings throughout the country.
Gibbs added: “I hope people will take a jaundiced eye to what is clearly the astroturf nature of so-called grassroots lobbying … This is manufactured anger.”
Gibbs, it turns out, wasn't really right. We'll see whether Trump is.
Astroturfing, for those unfamiliar, is the political practice of making something appear organic — as though it's coming from the grass roots. The implication is that the protesters aren't really regular-Joe citizens, but political activists sometimes appearing at multiple town halls to cause a scene and make the movement appear bigger than it is.
Update: Now Sean Spicer, echoing Trump, says, "It is a loud group, small group of people disrupting something, in many cases, for media attention." Spicer, though, is actually more charitable to the protesters than the Obama White Huse was, saying they are a "hybrid" of activists and astroturfing.
The problem with town hall protests is that they are, by nature, defined by anecdotes and the viral nature of a limited number of heated exchanges. It's nearly impossible to know how representative this is of broader unhappiness with the president (or anything else). It's too difficult to quantify anger, where it's coming from and how representative it is of the broader populations.
Scott Jennings, a former aide to President George W. Bush who has also worked for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), made what I think is a valuable point about all of this:
Whether Tuesday's protesters in Anderson County, Ky., who told McConnell to “do your job” were actually “out-of-town malcontents" -- the same allegation Gibbs made in 2009 — is kind of beside the point. Even if these people lived in Anderson County, or anyplace in Kentucky, do their chants really represent the broader population in their county or their state? Just because a small group of people is making good TV, does that mean McConnell should really be concerned? And has there been an appreciable change in voter sentiments less than four months since the election?
Polling suggests we're in pretty much at the same position. Trump was elected as an unpopular candidate, and he's now an unpopular president. The opposition to him was extremely vocal during the campaign — calling him a racist, sexist, misogynist and Islamophobe — and it remains extremely vocal today.
But the comparison between today and 2009 is an instructive one. It's entirely possible that those protests more than seven years ago were being organized and weren't totally organic, as Gibbs alleged. But it's also clear that any such organizing was successful precisely because actual opposition to the Affordable Care Act was a strong motivator for people to turn out to the town halls. And opposition to Obama's health-care plan became such a rallying cry on the right that it spurred the Republican takeover of the House in 2010 and then helped them take the Senate in 2014. It was certainly more substantial than Gibbs professed to believe at the time; it amounted to the canary in the coal mine for Democrats in Congress.
That said, it's just so difficult to know where to draw the line between flashy protests at town halls and legitimate, game-changing shifts in the political zeitgeist. It's not that we shouldn't cover these protests and try to understand them. And it's not that these burgeoning town hall events couldn't become a sign of something bigger; they certainly could, and opposition to Trump has majority status in the United States. But we should always be aware that anecdotes can also be just that — anecdotes.