In Willingboro, Rep. MacArthur goes to town hall hell

Outside U.S. Rep. Tom MacArthur’s town hall event Wednesday in Willingboro, a guy in a papier-mâché Donald Trump mask watched people who carried placards shaped like tombstones lie down for a die-in on the pavement.

Sing-alongs, chant-a-thons, scathing messages on hand-lettered signs (“Tom MacArthur makes me sick”), and a smattering of pink "pussy hats" energized a diverse crowd of many hundreds.

While the vibe in the eclectic gathering beneath the bright blue spring sky was downright festive, not so the atmosphere inside the township’s John F. Kennedy Center, which was tense, testy, and sometimes ugly in spite of the handsome setting.

Hundreds of people were dying for a chance to confront the Third District Republican, whose American Health Care Act amendment recently clinched a narrow win for the prospective Obamacare replacement legislation.

That success has catapulted MacArthur, a self-made insurance millionaire and relative GOP moderate from Ocean County, who strategically bought real estate in what is now his congressional district -- hence the “carpetbagger” taunts -- into a national 15 minutes of renown/infamy.  

Thus the media armada along three sides of the room, documenting a demonstration of American anger far too raw to be contained by calls for civility from a resolutely composed member of Congress.

Even MacArthur’s heartfelt attempt to paint himself as something other than a destroyer of America’s well-being  (“if you think I don’t care about health care”) fizzled before a crowd that was in no mood for platitudes (other than its own).

“You’re going to let other babies die!” a woman shouted just after MacArthur movingly described his love for his severely disabled daughter, who died at age 11.

“We’ve heard that story!” someone else yelled. “Canned responses!” screamed another.

And when MacArthur insisted that his amendment -- widely seen as potentially harmful to millions of economically or medically vulnerable Americans -- will mean that “nobody with pre-existing conditions will be declined coverage or priced out,” a wave of derision drowned him out.  

As someone who has carried a trusty notebook into many hundreds, maybe thousands, of events all over South Jersey for nearly 40 years,  I’m hard-pressed to remember anything quite like what went down Wednesday afternoon and evening in Willingboro.

Outside, the communal solidarity among the fluorescent-haired hipsters and white-haired hippies, flamboyant radicals and reserved suburbanites, was exhilarating. A giant inflatable chicken that had been customized into a Trump caricature was a totally fun photo-op.

Democracy is in the streets! Or perhaps, the parking lot.

“I did this on the [U.S.] Capitol steps in the ‘60s,” said die-in participant Cindi Kammer, 70, a retired counselor who lives in Glassboro.

Standing inside the Kennedy center, however, I was struck by the fury in the audience of otherwise ordinary people, many of them middle-aged or older, neatly dressed and gathered in a civic building that Willingboro attempted to rename for Barack Obama in 2014.

For holding his town hall in an overwhelmingly Democratic town where fewer than 10 percent of voters cast ballots for Trump, MacArthur deserves respect. 

The man kept his cool under sometimes withering fire, and most people, including me, would have exploded listening to the sort of truly cruel tone that emanated from the audience as he shared his family’s experiences with illness and death.  

But much of the emotion was directed at the president. Outside, there was New York actor Elliot Crown and his entertaining mask; inside, there was Edgewater Park resident Paul Ziegler, who identified himself as “a concerned citizen” and seemed to vibrate with rage.

“I’m concerned that I have a president who praises Vladimir Putin. I’m concerned that I have a president who attacks the free press and calls it an enemy of the people. I’m concerned that I have a president who attacks independent members of the judiciary [who don’t] go his way … a president who does not know American history,” he said.

Thank you, Mr. Ziegler.

I couldn’t have said it better myself.