Oops, They Did It Again: Crowd Bowls Over Rep in Beery Alley

Pace, Florida

The dapper dude in a dark suit entered with a surrounding shield of so many uniformed cops that he looked like one of those football coaches who can’t cross the field at game’s end to shake the opposing coach’s hand without a body guard of troopers. But this dignitary appeared more like a frat boy who might actually need protection in this setting.

It was Oops bowling alley and bar in Pace, just over the bay from Pensacola in the Florida panhandle’s 1st congressional district, and freshman representative Matt Gaetz was making his final stop in a day of public meetings on February 23. The others had been in smaller, more dignified settings and even there Gaetz, like his colleagues across the country, had faced some sharp questions from chanting, sign-wielding protesters. But this site was cavernous, loud and beery. Several hundred people, none of them wearing business attire like their representative, jammed into an eating area between pool tables and the bar. 

Gaetz was the menu. In the competing racket around the back of the crowd most of the comments and questions fired at Gaetz were a garble. What you heard was a voice not his asking a question in the form of a mini-speech punctuated by cheers, then his voice in response accompanied by boos.

He did clearly say several times that he’s a “constitutional conservative.” Boo! Boo! The constitution says nothing about any Environmental Protection Agency, which should be abolished. Boo! Boo! (An explosion at a nearby paper mill last month showered noxious goop on its neighbors.) Nor about any Department of Education, which should also be abolished. Boo! Boo!

Although the constitution never authorizes an Air Force, he neglected to advocate abolition of the Air Force. It happens to have a large base in his district. Nor did he call for the termination of non-constitutional NASA and its huge space launch operations at Cape Canaveral, Florida.

But he does approve of the wall sealing the Mexican border. Boo! Boo! And of almost everything else Trump has done or proposed, as shown by Gaetz going to central Florida a week earlier to join the president at a rally and posing for pictures of these two pols giving each other thumbs-up smiley salutes. Boo! Boo!

From Tragedy to Farce

Marx believed the tragedies of history are often followed by farces with similar themes.

Before Hitler perfected his methods he launched a failed coup from a beer hall. And now as Hitlerian shadows swirl around Trump one of his ambitious underlings enters the beer wing of a bowling alley not only with a squad of police guards but also, as Hitler used to deploy, a contingent of rough irregulars whose presence conveys a sense that spontaneous undisciplined violence with official blessing might erupt from them at any moment.

These were the Bikers for Trump. They had surfaced in Washington to discourage disruptions during his January inauguration, and they stayed to protect him from the menacing women’s march the next day. When congressman Gaetz announced his district meetings the bikers offered to beef up his security, and he did not decline.

They were not visible at some of the smaller daytime events, but their expected arrival at the large nighttime bowling bar venue kept some locals away out of frankly expressed fear over the trouble that could erupt. Citizens who did come to speak with their representative had to pass through a gauntlet of these irregulars clustered around the entrance. They were large and glowering, with jackets bearing Bikers for Trump insignia. This sight likely kept some people from entering.

But enough went in anyway to jam the place with a loud crowd that didn’t even accept the congressman’s attempt to end the session as scheduled. He had not arrived on time from the previous meeting and the people, wanting to lob further questions at him,  broke into a spontaneous chant: You were late, you were late, you were late.

Hitler at least had the beer hall mob with him before the army squashed his coup. But this was the beer hall uprising turned into farce. The mob was scolding the leader for tardiness.

Gaetz hustled through a couple more questions, then signaled to the police guards, who had hovered near him throughout. They formed a cocoon around him, while the bikers at the back of the room thrust themselves into the crowd, creating a corridor for Gaetz, and he exited inside a double-walled security bubble of cops and bikers.

This was protection against a threat that didn’t exist. If Gaetz and his protectors had truly been worried about his safety, they would have had some sort of security scan at the entrance. There was none. Anybody could walk in without question or inspection. And the exchanges between Gaetz and the crowd, although vigorous and spirited, were not angry or threatening.

Non-partisan Taint

He was in no more danger than the coach with a police escort on the football field. In both cases the security squad is a ceremonial unit to display the exalted status of the special personage, who is not to be approached or touched by lesser beings without permission. For the congressman to be wearing a suit while all others wear work or casual clothes makes the same point.

In this farce nobody is Hitler. The tragedy has degenerated into a third worldly banana republican scene where the leader with derisive followers sustains himself by the theatrics of rule and reminders of the random violence that might befall anybody who resists.

This is happening abruptly, even to Republicans like Gaetz who won elections by large margins just a few months ago. Something similar happened to Democrats when the Tea Party rebellion sprang up against them. They held secure majorities in congress and controlled local politics in large portions of the country. Now that dominance has mostly dissolved. But as soon as the Republicans take their turn atop the heap, it begins to collapse beneath them.

Some of this is due to un-president Trump, whose behavior has been so exceptional that even a country priding itself on being exceptional can’t quite cope. But some is due to America’s faltering ways. Domestic problems don’t get solved, they just get patched a bit and shuffled along. Wars abroad aren’t won, they aren’t even lost so the waste of lives and resources would stop, they just grind on and on.

Anybody of any party holding office in these circumstances becomes tainted with failure—and acquisition of the taint seems to be accelerating. The throngs who show up to berate their representatives and senators at public meetings in bowling beer halls and wherever else know these things and want them to change.

It’s a messy and unpredictable process. But it’s better than doing nothing while worse turns worse.

DAVID UNDERHILL lives in Mobile, Alabama. He can be reached at drunderhill@yahoo.com