In Blackstone, Virginia this week, Dave Brat wrote the final chapter of his book on how NOT to hold a constituent town hall. If your sole measure is an absence of violence or property damage, or the speaker not bolting early under police escort, then the event was a resounding success. But it was a decided failure in terms of meaningful dialogue with constituents, which is not the former professor’s strong suit. Here are the lessons learned about what not to do, in case Brat feels compelled to step up his game for the next one – which better be scheduled soon if he plans to keep pace with the “over 500 meetings” he now claims to have had during his first full term in office.
- Dodge constituent requests for an in-person town hall for months after a historically volatile election, while surreptitiously planning a trip to Arizona to appear at a Tea Party crony’s town hall.
- When appearing at an invitation-only event outside your district, mock your concerned female constituents from the stage to get a laugh from your mostly-male audience.
- When steps one and two enrage your constituents, attempt to placate them with a Facebook Live town hall. Disregard the fact that not all your constituents use social media or even have internet access. Have your assistant water down the questions to give you more leeway for rambling, non-specific responses.
- Have your staff attempt to defuse anxious constituents in the most populous parts of your district by assuring them that you are planning an in-person town hall within the month.
- Hold a second Facebook forum, and dilute the effectiveness even more by choosing questions ahead of time that did not necessarily come from the constituents in attendance. When you do field a complex question, ironically encourage the audience to ask you detailed questions via Facebook or email, to which you will be happy to respond. Ignore the commenters typing in all caps, “WE ARE ON FACEBOOK NOW, ANSWER THE QUESTION.”
- Announce that the long-awaited in-person event will be held in a tiny town over an hour away from the population center of your district, in a venue that only seats 150 people. Pat self on back for ironclad excuse that this county gets dibs because they were just added to your district.
- Attempt an apology of sorts for disparaging remarks you have been making to the media about your constituents by claiming you never said what you said, or at least, you didn’t mean what you said.
- Within 24 hours of the “apology,” which was accompanied by assurances that you are a nice guy who never speaks ill of anyone, release a fundraising email to your conservative base that repeats the same baseless claims, painting your concerned constituents as paid leftist thugs.
- Within a week of the “apology,” continue the derogatory narrative on conservative talk radio.
- Refuse to consider a larger venue for the in-person event, even in the face of growing evidence of significantly larger turnout than the venue will hold.
- Announce that signs will not be allowed inside the venue, earning a reprimand from the ACLU.
- Squelch any naively lingering notions that actual dialogue might take place, by announcing that attendees must submit questions on an index card, which the moderator will select “at random” ; ) and read aloud.
- Wait until the doors open to hand out the coveted yellow index cards, despite people having been in line for hours. Do not accept questions written in advance on white index cards, because “it has to be on the yellow card.”
- Diminish the already-limited seating by admitting the entourage that followed you up the block as you glad-handed the queue, and by having others ushered in through the back door.
- Kick off the event with a long-winded and obviously unnecessary self-introduction that covers several of the squares on the cheeky ‘Brat Bingo’ sheets that circulated earlier through the crowd, now chanting “QUESTIONS, QUESTIONS!” in lieu of the less respectful, “We only have an hour, shut the hell up and answer the damn questions.”
- Be flippant (and demonstrate a fundamental misunderstanding of fourth-grade science) when asked, “Do you deny climate change?” by exuberantly answering, “No, the climate changes all the time!” Weave your completely unrelated PhD in Economics into the answer in such a manner as to leave people wondering if you are starting to embrace your own caricature.
- Exhibit a complete disconnect with reality by blaming the desperate chaos in the first month of the Trump administration on “the obstruction in DC,” garnering perhaps the loudest booing of the night.
- Contradict yourself by answering that there is “no evidence of wrongdoing” on the part of short-lived National Security Advisor Michael Flynn when asked if you support an independent investigation of the administration’s involvement with Russia, despite the fact that just a few days ago on Facebook Live you cited the shared concern of your House Freedom Caucus colleagues, saying, “We will be taking a look into oversight and address that breach of Flynn and others.”
- Attempt to convince the audience that Bernie Sanders is your “buddy” by doing a really bad impersonation of him as the other half of your bipartisan, anti-corruption Dynamic Duo.
- When asked how you are guided in your work by ethics, demonstrate that the reality is probably ‘not so much,’ by answering with a shameless plug for your book. Unintentionally dissuade anyone from actually buying the book by rattling off a stream-of-consciousness synopsis that contains so many personal catchphrases that several cries of “Bingo!” are heard throughout the crowd.
- Attempt to fill a lull by asking if anyone knows a good joke, which will leave the audience split as to whether to shout “YOU!” or “Dave Brat!”
- Compare the “boisterous” attendees to Trump, making it sound like a compliment.
On the other hand, the warm hospitality of the Town of Blackstone was greatly appreciated. Mayor Coleburn listened attentively to numerous 7th District citizens who called him over the preceding week with logistical concerns, and did his best to make sure the event was safe and that all who made the effort to drive there could at least hear what was going on. The block was closed to traffic; there was ample, congenial police presence; and the outside sound system was better than anticipated.
There was one issue on which everyone, including Dave, agreed, raised by a resident of nearby Crewe: improving internet access in the rural parts of the 7th District. That may mean we are in for more Facebook forums and fewer in-person, but if we are just going to keep hearing the same stock non-answers time after time, why leave the comfort of our couches?
To be fair, Brat did say a few things I had not heard from him before, both equally appalling:
- He was asked, “Do you believe in the separation of church and state?” The crowd chanted “Yes or no, yes or no!” as Dave stumbled through a response that included “God could have made robots!” (to explain free will) and “Johnny and Mary should ask, ‘Where did my rights come from?’” (to justify religious education in public schools). As Kelley Marlin so aptly puts it, “He doesn’t seem to know the difference between God and our Founding Fathers.”
- When asked, “What is your stance on the 2nd Amendment?” Brat responded, “100%!” That is not the thoughtful answer of someone who wants to have a serious policy discussion on responsible gun ownership. Rather, it exhibits a complete disregard for the deeper question of how, in the 21st century, do we appropriately interpret a centuries-old amendment written when muskets firing 2 – 3 rounds per minute were the extent of personal firearms technology?
Blackstone was the third forum of Brat’s that I have participated in over the last month, and I have come away feeling bludgeoned repeatedly by cold, empty ideology. He accuses “the left” of not wanting to discuss policy, but that false claim is really a projection of his own inability to participate in meaningful, two-way conversation on a level deeper than a regurgitation of the Republican Creed and the Judeo-Christian, Free Market yada yada.
Dave Brat clings to an impersonal credo that emphasizes principles over people. He’ll gleefully tell you he has “200 pages of principles,” in a thinly-veiled reference to his aforementioned book, but has yet to move beyond the abstract to connect on a human level with his constituents. There is a difference, Dave, between espousing principles and being principled.