August 7, 2009 Op-Ed Columnist The Town Hall Mob By PAUL KRUGMAN Thereâs a famous Norman Rockwell painting titled âFreedom of Speech,â depicting an idealized American town meeting. The painting, part of a series illustrating F.D.R.âs âFour Freedoms,â shows an ordinary citizen expressing an unpopular opinion. His neighbors obviously donât like what heâs saying, but theyâre letting him speak his mind. Thatâs a far cry from what has been happening at recent town halls, where angry protesters â some of them, with no apparent sense of irony, shouting âThis is America!â â have been drowning out, and in some cases threatening, members of Congress trying to talk about health reform. Some commentators have tried to play down the mob aspect of these scenes, likening the campaign against health reform to the campaign against Social Security privatization back in 2005. But thereâs no comparison. Iâve gone through many news reports from 2005, and while anti-privatization activists were sometimes raucous and rude, I canât find any examples of congressmen shouted down, congressmen hanged in effigy, congressmen surrounded and followed by taunting crowds. And I canât find any counterpart to the death threats at least one congressman has received. So this is something new and ugly. Whatâs behind it? Robert Gibbs, the White House press secretary, has compared the scenes at health care town halls to the âBrooks Brothers riotâ in 2000 â the demonstration that disrupted the vote count in Miami and arguably helped send George W. Bush to the White House. Portrayed at the time as local protesters, many of the rioters were actually G.O.P. staffers flown in from Washington. But Mr. Gibbs is probably only half right. Yes, well-heeled interest groups are helping to organize the town hall mobs. Key organizers include two Astroturf (fake grass-roots) organizations: FreedomWorks, run by the former House majority leader Dick Armey, and a new organization called Conservatives for Patientsâ Rights. The latter group, by the way, is run by Rick Scott, the former head of Columbia/HCA, a for-profit hospital chain. Mr. Scott was forced out of that job amid a fraud investigation; the company eventually pleaded guilty to charges of overbilling state and federal health plans, paying $1.7 billion â yes, thatâs âbillionâ â in fines. You canât make this stuff up. But while the organizers are as crass as they come, I havenât seen any evidence that the people disrupting those town halls are Florida-style rent-a-mobs. For the most part, the protesters appear to be genuinely angry. The question is, what are they angry about? There was a telling incident at a town hall held by Representative Gene Green, D-Tex. An activist turned to his fellow attendees and asked if they âoppose any form of socialized or government-run health care.â Nearly all did. Then Representative Green asked how many of those present were on Medicare. Almost half raised their hands. Now, people who donât know that Medicare is a government program probably arenât reacting to what President Obama is actually proposing. They may believe some of the disinformation opponents of health care reform are spreading, like the claim that the Obama plan will lead to euthanasia for the elderly. (That particular claim is coming straight from House Republican leaders.) But theyâre probably reacting less to what Mr. Obama is doing, or even to what theyâve heard about what heâs doing, than to who he is. That is, the driving force behind the town hall mobs is probably the same cultural and racial anxiety thatâs behind the âbirtherâ movement, which denies Mr. Obamaâs citizenship. Senator Dick Durbin has suggested that the birthers and the health care protesters are one and the same; we donât know how many of the protesters are birthers, but it wouldnât be surprising if itâs a substantial fraction. And cynical political operators are exploiting that anxiety to further the economic interests of their backers. Does this sound familiar? It should: itâs a strategy that has played a central role in American politics ever since Richard Nixon realized that he could advance Republican fortunes by appealing to the racial fears of working-class whites. Many people hoped that last yearâs election would mark the end of the âangry white voterâ era in America. Indeed, voters who can be swayed by appeals to cultural and racial fear are a declining share of the electorate. But right now Mr. Obamaâs backers seem to lack all conviction, perhaps because the prosaic reality of his administration isnât living up to their dreams of transformation. Meanwhile, the angry right is filled with a passionate intensity. And if Mr. Obama canât recapture some of the passion of 2008, canât inspire his supporters to stand up and be heard, health care reform may well fail.