In the five years since Joe Biden debated President Trump in Cleveland (at least it feels like five years), America has been bombarded with grim, bizarre and — in hindsight — predictable news about the coronavirus now plaguing Trump, his wife, a wide swath of his inner circle and staff, and some key GOP senators. Even more strange, my search for a happier place to write about takes me to ... Pennsylvania politics? Meanwhile, did someone forward you this email? Sign up to receive this newsletter weekly at inquirer.com/bunch.
The most vivid memory I have from that dark, seemingly endless Election Night of 2016 isn’t about Donald Trump. It was getting in my car near the Inquirer newsroom around 2 a.m., dazed and in a state of shock, and hearing Pat Toomey claiming a narrow victory in the Pennsylvania Senate race. I was furious, not at the GOP senator but at myself — for not writing more in the prior year about why six more long years of Toomey’s populism-for-billionaires would be so bad for the state.
Over the weeks and months that followed, I learned I was not alone. In South Philadelphia, Carolyn Stillwell, a graphic designer, now 50, said she felt a sense of shame for not getting more involved in an election in which both Trump and Toomey carried Pennsylvania by a small margin. When I asked her this week about that time four years ago, she said: “There was a sense of despair and a sense of... honestly for me it was a can-do thing. ‘OK, get out there and do something about this.’”
She joined the weekly gathering called Tuesdays with Toomey — started when seven women showed up at Toomey’s Philadelphia district office the week after the 2016 election, asking to meet with the senator — by late November. She was delighted by the crowds that kept growing in those early weeks, by the camaraderie, and by the focus on education and getting people involved in often-local issues that Toomey and his GOP colleagues were either ignoring or somehow making worse down on Capitol Hill.
The Tuesdays with Toomey effort brought me back to one of my all-time favorite movie monologues, when Jimmy Stewart in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington reminds his wayward mentor that he’d once believed that lost causes are “the only ones worth fighting for.” Taking on a U.S. senator the week after he’s been re-elected to a 6-year term — that’s 312 Tuesdays — feels like the ultimate lost cause, right? But somehow Tuesdays with Toomey — part street theater, part teach-in — made it work, week after week after week.
They didn’t always get what they wanted — Toomey never held a Philadelphia town hall, nor did he honor his 2016 pledge to occasionally serve as a check on Trump’s extremism — but they got what they needed. The senator wouldn’t change for them, so they showed the senator how Pennsylvania was changing away from him.
On Monday, the Keystone State’s junior senator stunned the political world by announcing he’ll leave the Senate when his term ends in 2022 and that he also won’t run for governor, as many had assumed he would. His announcement was par for the course, admitting that he was declaring his intentions early for the sake of the people he really works for, his fat-cat donors. Toomey would never, ever admit that the protests affected his decision.
But Tuesdays with Toomey (or as the group billed itself after many weeks of rejection, Tuesdays With(out) Toomey) surely must have gotten inside the senator’s head, by showing him that voters like them — mostly women, educated and engaged in a way that they hadn’t been before 2016 — wouldn’t be fooled again by Toomey pretending to be “a moderate” every six years. And yet with women, college grads and suburbanites leaving the GOP, Toomey also might not be Trump-y enough to lead the whack-job Republican Party that remains. The world that Tuesdays with Toomey helped create was one where their bête noire noir no longer had a home.
“I think we showed him that he no longer had that road in front of him anymore,” said Stillwell, who added she thought their protests — which had spread to Toomey’s other offices across the state — had come to define him ahead of any potential run for governor, that voters would think, “isn’t he the guy that people are angry at all the time?”
For a long time, I’ve used this space to argue that — while voting may be the most important task in a democracy — it will take more than the ballot box to change America for good. Protests, marches, calling your representative, writing letters to the editor, sending postcards and knocking on doors — all of it matters, in ways that are sometimes clear but often intangible. What Tuesdays with Toomey has done is your living proof.
And it’s far from over. One of the first calls Stillwell got after Toomey’s announcement came from Ohio, wondering how they can do this with their Republican senator, Rob Portman.
Question: What’s your top policy priority if Democrats flip a legislative chamber in PA? — @jjabbott on Twitter
Answer: I wouldn’t normally pick a question from Gov. Wolf’s former press secretary but he raises a point here that’s so important: The overlooked state legislative elections mean so much this year, especially in Pennsylvania. Here’s two things. First, with the climate threat growing, Harrisburg needs to reverse its pro-fracking bias and go large on alternative energy. The second thing is fixing democracy: It’s time to end gerrymandering in the upcoming reapportionment and to make it easier to vote and for those votes to be counted. These things won’t happen with the GOP in charge.
With apologies to the late, great Jimmy Breslin, on Monday night America witnessed a small(-fingered) man in search of a balcony. When a visibly gasping President Trump climbed the White House stairs — the grand finale of an escape from Walter Reed Medical Center via his Marine One helicopter — and took off his mask, he showed the world the unblinking, burnt-orange face of his strongman ambitions. Trump’s foolhardy attempt to prove that a deadly virus can somehow be defeated by the power of positive thinking was accurately described by MSNBC’s Joy Reid as his “Mussolini moment.” But the comparison to the 20th century Italian fascist was also made by a Trump supporter, Nicholas J. Fuentes — so apparently the argument has shifted from whether the American president is a dictator to whether that’s really so bad.
Spoiler alert: It’s bad. Many of us have been warning for five years that Trump’s narcissism and his contempt for democracy were a clear and present danger — but this was before he was given a dangerous cocktail of experimental drugs including the steroid dexamethasone, known for side effects that include “mood swings, aggression and confusion.” It’s a situation that screams out for removing the president, at least temporarily, through the 25th Amendment — an outcome that will never happen when it’s up to Trump lackeys like Vice President Mike Pence. Anyone who says they know where Patient Zero is taking America these next three months is lying.