A House Republican colleague returned to Washington circa 2009 to tell us how he was going to survive the Tea Party. He was just back from holding a series of Obamacare town halls in his deep red part of Georgia. He said that he had learned how to handle the rabble-rousing crowd from a meeting that had gotten off to a bad start. The people were mad at him and mad at the world. Halfway into the meeting he found a pivot. He told the crowd that he got it — that they just want him to go to Washington and 'raise some hell."
The crowd roared their approval. He became an active Tea Partier that day and, subsequently, a full-throated Trumper.
Perhaps I should have learned from my friend’s example. It might have saved my seat in the United States Congress. I had had one of those raucous meetings. A man had risen in great anger to tell me that, President Barack Obama is so unpatriotic, he doesn’t put his hand over his heart when the national anthem is played or the Pledge of Allegiance is recited. (Apparently, he’d been surfing on some isolated internet island.)
Standing there in front of that crowd, I knew what I could have said, “What do you expect from a secret Muslim ... non-American ... socialist?” Any one of those responses would have done just fine at that moment.
“That’s our Bob!” the deep red crowd would have said.
Fan the flames to reelection
I couldn’t do it. I thought of my five kids and wouldn’t do it. “I have been with President Obama,” I said to the man, “I have seen him put his hand over his heart. What you’ve just said is simply not true.”
Sensing the importance of the teachable moment, I continued, “President Obama is a loyal, patriotic American who loves this country, loves his wife, loves his children. I just disagree with him on most every thing.”
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Afterwards, a Republican operative came up to me with advice: Don’t give him that.
Had I taken that advice, I suppose I might have joined my House colleague from Georgia in surviving, even thriving, in the Tea Party. As it was, I was uninvited to the party. The Tea Party didn’t want to hear civility, and they sure as hell didn’t want to hear my message about climate change in the 2010 cycle. (Thankfully, that latter part has changed. As the sea level rises and septic tanks stop working, even the most ardent disputer of science realizes that he or she has a problem!)
I lost an election in 2010, but I didn’t lose my soul. And I didn’t fan the flames that blew up into an insurrection at the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday.
That insurrection could have happened earlier.
Protests at the Capitol
It could have happened when there was a mob — a huge mob — near the Capitol in 2009, angrily protesting against Obamacare. “Kill the bill! Kill the bill! Kill the bill!” they thundered. From the members’ porch on the second floor of the Capitol, House Republicans egged them on, calling back to them, amping them up.
It could have happened on another occasion when the astroturf had been rolled out for a huge Tea Party rally on the West Front steps — the steps that the Trump mob stormed on Wednesday. Our leadership had encouraged us to go out to speak to that crowd — rev ‘em up.
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I remember feeling ill as I walked out toward that crowd — through one of the doors that the Trump mob smashed on Wednesday. I can’t remember whether I spoke and bombed with civility or whether I shrunk back into the Capitol, speechless. I remember being sick to my stomach, listening to a House colleague (now a senator) who did a particularly good job of revving up that crowd.
Either of those crowds could have stormed the Capitol. All they needed was an inciter in chief to light the fire. That inciter in chief struck the match on Wednesday, and the mob did what mobs do.
The fire rages, and as Utah Sen. Mitt Romney said so powerfully on the Senate floor on Wednesday night, only truth can extinguish it. Speaking truth, he said, “is the burden, and the duty, of leadership.”
Oh, that my party had taken a path illuminated by truth rather than one darkened by useless conspiracy theories. Oh, that my party had chosen more leaders of character willing to speak truth to our own people. Oh, that we might learn from our mistakes and bear the fruit of repentance.
Bob Inglis, a Republican, represented the Fourth District of South Carolina from 1993-1999 and again from 2005-2011.
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Bob Inglis: How the Tea Party turned into Trumpism and violence