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Activists, experts resist Trump labeling protesters 'so-called angry crowds'

Protesters in the parking lot of the Maquoketa city hall in Iowa chanted "Shame on you! Shame on you!" as freshman Republican Senator Joni Ernst quickly ducked into her car and drove away after a confrontational town hall meeting. Crowds jammed into the city hall demanding that the senator, one of the first to endorse Trump, account for her support of the president and his policies.

Across the state, Sen. Chuck Grassley faced down local critics in a packed room in Iowa Falls, where he was booed by Obamacare supporters, and directly confronted by an Afghan man who served as a translator for U.S. troops overseas and now feared deportation under Trump's travel ban.

In Kentucky Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell was shouted down by his constituents. Tires were slashed outside of Rep. Tom McClintock's town hall meeting in Mariposa, Calif. in yet another confrontational town hall meeting. Rep. David Brat (R-Va.) took more than 30 questions from constituents in a fiery exchange reminiscent of the Tea Party movement that brought him into power. In Tennessee, Rep. Marsha Blackburn assured a crowd of her constituents at the Fairview City Hall, that she was listening to their concerns, only to cut the meeting short without taking any questions.

The list of congressmen facing angry constituents is long, but even longer is the list of lawmakers (200 by one estimate) who are waiting out their stormy district work period, and refusing to hold any public events, anxiously awaiting their return to Washington next week.

Take the poll: Do you think the protests at Congressional town halls reflect the mood of voters?

The town hall demonstrations are intersecting nationwide anti-Trump protests that began on Inauguration Day, picked up momentum with the Women's March, and have continued through the Not My President's Day protests earlier this week.

Throughout all of the furor, the White House has remained skeptical of the activists who are filling town halls and city blocks in opposition to Trump's agenda.

On Wednesday, press secretary Sean Spicer suggested that the town hall protests are "not a representation of a member's district" but merely a "loud" and "small group of people disrupting" the events for media attention. Asked whether President Trump believes there is legitimate, underlying anger fueling the demonstrations, Spicer replied, there is "a hybrid" of people, some who are truly upset, but also "a bit of professional protester manufactured base in there."

Trump similarly suggested in a Tuesday tweet that the protests in Republican districts are being manufactured by the left. "The so-called angry crowds in home districts of some Republicans are actually, in numerous cases, planned out by liberal activists. Sad!"

"The only thing that's sad about the local activism we're seeing is that so many members of Congress refuse to meet with their constituents face to face," said Sarah Dohl, a former congressional staffer and board member of the activist group Indivisible.

Indivisible has dramatically expanded its membership since December when Dohl and a group of other former Hill staffers got together to produce a "practical guide for resisting the Trump agenda." The Indivisible Guide is rapidly spreading around the Trump resistance movement and includes a compilation of tactics and political actions for regular citizens and activist groups to use to lobby members of Congress and derail the Trump agenda.

Dahl and her colleagues have been overwhelmed with the interest in the Guide, with over one million people downloading the PDF and many others reaching out to the join Indivisible.

"The overwhelming story that we've heard is that this is the first time so many Indivisible group members have been politically active up until the election of Donald Trump they had never called their member of Congress or attended a town hall," Dahl said.

The idea that paid protesters are being brought in to disrupt town halls, as the White House has suggested, has been disputed by some of the Republicans who are holding those meetings and receiving the brunt of their constituents' anger.

Rep. Justin Amash (R-Mich.) defended the demonstrators who showed up in droves at his recent town halls, responding directly to Trump's tweet. "They are our fellow Americans with legitimate concerns," he said. "We need to stop acting so fragile."

Florida Rep. Gus Bilirakis, who represents the district outside of Tampa, affirmed that what he has heard during constituent meetings is genuine. "Their worries are real. And their stories are genuine," he said. "I don’t have any question that they are authentic."

Jesse Lehrich is the communications director for Organizing for Action (OFA), the new incarnation of President Obama's campaign arm, Organizing for America. OFA has taken heat from conservatives who see the well-funded group fueling a "non-stop" protest movement. With more than 250 local chapters nationwide, tens of thousands of trained organizers, and plenty of funding from big Democratic party donors, the non-profit group openly acknowledges it has played a role in centralizing some of the protest efforts.

OFA's role "is helping constituents figure out how to take meaningful action, including having respectful interactions with their members of Congress," Lehrich explained. "It's a very organic phenomenon."

Trump supporters have argued that billionaire donors like George Soros have sponsored major anti-Trump protests like the Women's March, which turned out millions of people around the globe after the inauguration. But even if groups like MoveOn.org, OFA, and Indivisible are helping coordinate and centralize national protests, one expert who has studied paid protest movements is not convinced the White House claims are true.

Dana R. Fisher is a professor of sociology at the University of Maryland and wrote the 2006 book Activism Inc., which investigated the outsourcing of political canvassing by progressive movements. Historically, movements like the anti-globalization demonstrations have employed a paid protest model, where individuals in labor unions, for example, were subsidized by their employers for a day of canvassing or protesting in lieu of work.

Other types of paid-for activism can include promises of money or free goods for people who attend a demonstration or rally. That tactic was reportedly employed last weekend by Donald Trump to bring supporters to his campaign-style rally in Melbourne, Florida after a Craigslist ad appeared offering "a complimentary gift or cash voucher" at tents located on the event premises. It's not clear whether the offer made in the ad was real.

Fisher has been watching the demonstrations in the wake of the January 20 inauguration and so far does not see any red flags. "There are no data so far to suggest that any of the claims that the Trump administration has made are true in terms of these being paid activists, and I have studied paid activism," she emphasized.

There is clearly some coordination with larger organizations, but the types of action being taken, including the town hall meetings, appear "much less centrally coordinated than we would see in any typical movement," Fisher said.

Still, the White House has insisted that the people who are attending Republican meetings and urging their congressmen not to repeal Obamacare are hijacking the events. Just last week, Trump stated, "They fill up our rallies with people that you wonder how they get there. But they're not Republican people that our representatives are representing."

These kinds of statements, Fisher noted, are an attempt by the White House to discredit the protest activities.

"The president has continuously made claims via Twitter and also through more formal White House channels to argue that the people who are protesting aren't legitimate in some way or another." She went on to cite a study she conducted at the Women's March which clearly disproved White House claims that the majority of the attendees didn't vote. Fisher continued, that Trump has proved his willingness to discredit "anybody who seems to be challenging his legitimacy by challenging their legitimacy."

Yet, according to Marshall Ganz, a senior lecturer at Harvard University and expert in social movements and activism, Trump's efforts to delegitimize his opponents could actually embolden them further.

"In some cases, considering who is trying to discredit you, it turns out to be a form of honor," Ganz said. "His discredit is credit."

As to the White House claims that progressive groups are manufacturing outrage and turnout against Trump, Ganz says, "you can't fake something like that, you can't pay for something like that." Just the latest round of protests on Not My President's Day turned out hundreds of thousands in cities across the country.

Even with the momentum behind the local and national protests, there is still a lingering question as to whether it will amount to real political change, or be a simple airing of grievances.

If the protest movement is going to transition from reacting to Trump to a real political change, there must be an electoral focus aimed at local elections, from city councils and school boards, to state and federal elections in swing states and red states and blue states.

"I think it's a question now of what it morphs into," Ganz said, suggesting a strategy that includes running candidates in primaries and general elections, essentially taking a page from the Tea Party playbook. "One thing is very clear, this is a 50 state fight."

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