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Trump, GOP depict opposition as an 'angry mob': Is this what democracy looks like?

Police move activists as they protest on the steps of the Supreme Court after the confirmation vote of Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, on Capitol Hill, Saturday, Oct. 6, 2018 in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)
Police move activists as they protest on the steps of the Supreme Court after the confirmation vote of Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, on Capitol Hill, Saturday, Oct. 6, 2018 in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)
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Thousands of protesters descended on Capitol Hill last week carrying banners, occupying Senate office buildings, confronting lawmakers and even pounding at the doors of the Supreme Court. Activists chanted, "This is what democracy looks like!"

Republican leaders and President Donald Trump, the primary targets of this popular outrage, responded this is what an "angry mob" looks like.

"The radical Democrats have turned into an angry mob," Trump told supporters at a Kansas rally this weekend. "You don't hand matches to an arsonist and you don't give power to an angry left-wing mob, and that's what they've become. The Democrats have become too extreme and too dangerous to govern. Republicans believe in the rule of law, not the rule of the mob."

Emotions ran high as the fight over Justice Brett Kavanaugh's confirmation and allegations of sexual assault. Hundreds of protesters were willingly taken into custody by Capitol Police in demonstrations that were intense but peaceful.

At the same time, senators began expressing legitimate concerns for their safety. Ahead of the vote, Republicans met to discuss what one GOP senator described as an "unprecedented" volume of threats. Capitol Police erected barriers around the Capitol and provided escorts to shield lawmakers from protesters.

On the fringes, activists have doxxed senators, which can be illegal. One former Democratic staffer was arrested for allegedly posting a senator's private information online. Sen. Cory Gardner, R-Colo., said his family's personal information was shared online after he voted for Kavanaugh and his wife received a graphic beheading video.

Senators have confronted them at their homes, in airports or in restaurants. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, was chased out of a D.C. restaurant last month. Protesters followed Sen. David Perdue, R-Ga., and his wife around Reagan National Airport, even shouting at him in the bathroom. Others have been met by aggressive protesters at the Capitol and at least a half-dozen Republicans and Democrats said they recently received physical threats.

There is a difference between the right to peaceful protest and activities that are incendiary, harassing or could lead to physical harm. In a volatile, politically charged atmosphere, the difference is not always clear and Republicans have found that blurring those lines has helped galvanize support ahead of a close midterm election.

After a narrow vote confirming Kavanaugh, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell declared victory over the "mob" of protesters. "We refused to be intimated by the mob of people that were coming after Republican members at their homes and in the halls," he said. Before calling the vote, protesters staged an early morning anti-Kavanaugh "confirmation kegger" in front of McConnell's Washington D.C. home.

McConnell continued that the protesters, rather than defeating the Supreme Court nominee or intimidating senators to vote against him, set fire to the Republican base with their confrontational tactics. "We finally discovered the one thing that would fire up the Republican base," he said. By the end of the confirmation showdown, polling showed Republicans had effectively closed the enthusiasm gap with Democrats who have been highly mobilized since January 2017.

This suggests that some of the tactics being used are doing more to hurt protesters message and drive support for Republicans, said Michael B. Abramson, an adviser with Trump's National Diversity Coalition. "When they see people being confronted and threatened in public, they think it's scary," he said. "And they see a party, a Democratic leadership, calling for protests that are uncivil and I think they're willing to give up a few issues to preserve American civility."

Depicting political opponents as an "angry mob" may be an effective message for Republicans to rally their base before a tight midterm election, but it is not necessarily a fair depiction of the process.

"This is not a mob or a mob mentality," said Dr. Wendy Osefo, a professor at Johns Hopkins University and political commentator. "Yes, people are angry but they're showing the ways we as a democratic nation can protest and can speak our minds."

With less than 30 days until the midterms, there is a lot at stake for both parties. To the extent it benefits them, political leaders are stoking the flames of partisan rivalries and incivility. "We are on the brink of something quite dangerous, but this is nothing new," Osefo said. "Civility; it's something we as a nation have lost but not because of recent incidents. This does not start with the nomination of Kavanaugh, civility was lost the day Donald Trump became president."

Trump regularly uses heated rhetoric to describe his political opponents. In recent days he referred to Democrats as "evil" and called them the "party of crime." In turn, Trump's opponent's have also dialed up the rhetoric and some have encouraged supporters to scale up their resistance.

This past summer, amid the fight over family separations at the border, demonstrators confronted Trump administration officials in restaurants. At that time, Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif., encouraged supporters to confront Trump officials wherever they are and "tell them telling them they're not welcome anymore, anywhere." In July, Sen. Cory. Booker, D-N.J., encouraged supporters to go to Capitol Hill and "get in the face of some congresspeople."

Conservatives, like Sen. Perdue, argued his colleagues "crossed a line" and are effectively "inciting dangerous behavior."

Bennett Gershman, a constitutional law professor at Pace Law School, explained the line is not so clear, that free speech protects speech that can be upsetting or inflammatory. "The line is crossed when you have violence or when you have people harass, threaten or vilify in a way the Supreme Court defined as 'fighting words,'" he said. "Short of harassment, threats or outright violence, pretty much everything is allowed."

According to reports, liberal and Democratic groups have also helped organize public confrontations with officials. A reporter with Vice News confirmed that Ultraviolet paid activists to create "viral moments" during the Kavanaugh protests, like a female sexual assault survivor who confronted Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., in an elevator. Other reports found a trail of money from the liberal philanthropist George Soros to anti-Kavanaugh protest groups, like the Center for Popular Democracy. It is also typical for organizations across the political spectrum to raise money for bail and legal assistance for activists arrested for civil disobedience.

The reports prompted Trump to send a confusing tweet Tuesday, claiming that the protesters "haven't gotten their checks." He tweeted, "Screamers in Congress, and outside, were far too obvious - less professional than anticipated by those paying (or not paying) the bills!"

The scenes from recent anti-Kavanaugh protests looked similar to many of the other demonstrations that have become more commonplace since President Trump took office. In the past 20 months, America has seen large-scale women's rallies, immigration rallies, health care rallies, labor rallies, white nationalist rallies.

The process can be disconcerting, messy and at times has become violent but ultimately shows a First Amendment that is thriving. "If you believe that free speech is indispensable to the functioning of a democracy then what you see is this robust access to forums and the most aggressive, oftentimes incendiary kinds of protest and speech," Gershman said. "I suppose you could say this is good for democracy."

No matter how personally offensive or uncivil the message, the government cannot stop it because they disagree with the content. "That's part of our politics," Gershman added. "It's always been there and it's never going to go away."

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