Hundreds of Rhode Islanders braved the inclement weather on Sunday afternoon to make their voices heard at a gathering of the Rhode Island congressional delegation at the East Providence High School auditorium. Senators Sheldon Whitehouse and Jack Reed and Representatives David Cicilline and Jim Langevin fielded questions from a growingly impatient and sometimes outright hostile crowd of citizens who seemed more and more unwilling to listen to excuses for accommodating the Trump administration in any way.
Rather early in the afternoon’s proceedings, the question was posed whether Senators Reed and Whitehouse would be voting against Trump’s five remaining cabinet nominees. Senator Reed said he would be voting against three of the remaining cabinet members. Regarding Linda McMahon—the co-founder of the WWE who donated $6 million to a pro-Trump Super PAC— Reed said that he was “still considering” her for head of the Small Business Administration. Reed also expressed confidence in Ben Carson to head the department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), saying that he had received a “commitment from [Carson] to enforce the Fair Housing Act.” In a speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), Dr. Carson said, “It really is not compassionate to pat people on the head and say, ‘There, there you poor little thing, I’m going to take care of all your needs, your healthcare, your food, and your housing, don’t you worry about a thing.’”
Throughout Senator Reed’s discussion, many constituents could be heard booing, and at the end of the Senator’s response, many passionately shouted in unison, “Just say no!”
Reed and Whitehouse have both voted for Mike Pompeo to head the CIA, John Kelly to head the Department of Homeland Security, Elaine Chao to head the Department of Transportation, Nikki Haley to be the U.S. Ambassador to the UN, and Mattis to head the Department of Defense.
Perhaps the most powerful moment of the afternoon came when a man whose parents and grandparents came to the United States as refugees from Nazi Germany spoke. “What I learned from my family’s experience,” he said, “is that every day a fascist leader is in power, it becomes harder and harder to dislodge them.” This received resounding applause and a standing ovation from the large gathering at the auditorium. There were overt calls for Trump’s impeachment and resignation. “Get him out!” someone shouted. “Shut it down!” yelled another.
Not every question centered around the Trump administration, though. Two members of Providence Democratic Socialists of America took the opportunity to voice their concerns over the direction of the Democratic Party, asking about support for a $15/hour minimum wage and what the Democrats plan to do about the fact that 51 percent of millennials—a generation currently on a trajectory to be less well off than their parents’—don’t support the capitalist economic system.
Near the end of the afternoon, a woman took the floor representing Indivisible, a grassroots organization dedicated to resisting the Trump agenda. She made a zealous plea to the delegation. “I think we’re wondering where the outrage is,” she said, before going on to talk about the nomination of Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court. “We cannot possibly afford to give up that fifth seat. And it’s a stolen seat!” She asked the delegation “to oppose and resist at every juncture.” And if Democrats fail to resist, “they will pay the ultimate price.”
Senator Whitehouse’s response was a technocratic apology for deference to old standards of judgment and protocol, but the democratic mood of the gathering left little room for excuses. There was no patience for appeasement and no desire for compromise. But to the incessant, powerful drumbeat of passionate public dissent placed on full display, the congressional delegation’s responses felt tepid, as though these representatives lacked the tools to navigate this territory of direct democracy. Indeed, there is more and more a sense that it won’t be our politicians and leaders at all who will be navigating the path forward but the people themselves who will be paving it.