Magazine | October 29, 2018, Issue

A Very Passionate Place

A protester is removed from the Brett Kavanaugh hearing, September 4, 2018. (Chris Wattie/Reuters)

When historians looked back at the Democratic sweep of 2020, they wondered: What turned so many conservatives and moderates into hard-left partisans? Was it the shrieking? Or was it the crying? Could it have been the restaurant attacks, the elevator harangues?

As it turns out, it was all of these things. Presented with a horde of emotionally volatile individuals yelling like monkeys who’d been dipped in turpentine, millions of Americans thought: “That’s the group I want to join. They seem fun.”

We have some interviews from the period that describe how effective these displays could be. Here are some remarks from Bob G., an insurance salesman who had voted GOP all his life, until he heard the ululating lamentations from the Senate gallery when Brett Kavanaugh was confirmed to the Supreme Court.

“It sounded like a hundred sheep having their entrails pulled out slowly and winched around a hot pipe,” the witness said. “Persuasive as that sounds, it was the chanting that really turned me around. I realized that they’d managed to express themselves through meter and rhyme. I mean, sure, ‘Hey, hey, ho, ho,’ gets your attention, gets you thinking, but then they said, ‘Rule of law has got to go.’ The ‘go’ rhymed with the ‘ho.’ It really made you think.

“I went home a bit shaken, because I hadn’t really considered this before. The rule of law, I’m sure they meant to say, was really a fig leaf for corporatist fascism, a tool of the oppressing class, the enabler of the prison-industrial complex. Previously I’d thought it was an invaluable bulwark against chaos and arbitrary application of state power, but when you hear an implied critique screamed out with assonance, you have to consider whether you’ve been wrong all along.”

It wasn’t just the sounds that were so convincing. For some, it was the simple imagery of people expressing their carefully reasoned beliefs. Said one former Reagan adviser who switched parties in 2020:

“There was a news story about protesters trying to claw their way into the Supreme Court building. Some of them were beating their fists on the door, which you’d think would be a fruitless waste of time — and heck, I used to think like that, too! But what if the door symbolized something for them, like injustice, or the job market, or the way their dad looked when he handed over the allowance with that expression that said he expected them to earn it?

“Then you realize these people are coming from a very passionate place. I didn’t know what they intended to do if they got into the building, but you have to respect their energy. From then on I thought, Well, if they’re emotionally involved to the point of bruising their hands, they must be right.”

A senator found his mind changed as well, after the 432nd confrontation in a D.C. restaurant.

“I’ll admit it, the first 300 times people came up to my table and shrieked, their hands trembling with fury, their eyes bulging out, and the veins on their forehead looking thick as pencils, I was unmoved — and frankly a tad annoyed, because they spat all over my food. I guess I asked for that, because I sent out a tweet about how they yelled so loud their spittle hit my steak. Now I realize my steak was a symbol of privilege, as many people pointed out. But then someone tweeted back that they should spit on my wife, since she was enabling my efforts to embolden free-roaming rape gangs.

“At this point I was wondering just when I’d signed off on the rape gangs — was that in an omnibus bill? So I’m on the fence now, but the wife starts getting the loogies in the kisser every time we go out. I kept telling her, ‘C’mon, they’re passionate, let them spit, and then we’ll order,’ but she wouldn’t have it. Eventually I thought, Well, if I’m not listening to my wife, how many men in this world aren’t listening to women as they should?

“I began to understand the protesters’ rage, and that’s when I switched to the Democratic party. Now I vote the right way and they let me eat without spit, except when I cast a vote tabling a measure to make the Senate proportional, like the House. Boy, did I get spit on for that one!”

The surprising effectiveness of untrammeled shrieking affected the presidential campaign of 2020 as well. The Democratic field spent the debates wailing and rending their garments, pounding their heads on the podiums, and consoling one another. Donald Trump coasted to renomination against John Kasich, whose platform — “As the son of a mailman, I can deliver, and also, I’m the son of a mailman” — failed to resonate. Trump would go on to win the popular vote but lose the Electoral College to Kamala Harris, who spent both presidential debates rocking back and forth, keening, and pulling out her hair.

“I didn’t like the high, whining wail she made when asked about the proper position to take against China’s assertion of force in the Pacific,” said one undecided voter. “But her wordless sobs in response to the question about using the interstate-commerce clause to regulate speech on the Internet was refreshing in this day and age.”

Harris’s inaugural speech — “I Have a Scream” — was notable for its lack of crying and wailing. She dedicated her administration to preserving the Electoral College, calling it a bulwark against tyranny.

Several hundred conservative protesters later filled Senate office buildings to hold a silent vigil. All were arrested. One protester made a small cry of pain when cuffed.

She was charged with disturbing the peace.

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