Rep. Ted Lieu gets an enthusiastic welcome at Santa Monica town hall

By Beige Luciano-Adams

While lawmakers across the U.S. are getting pummeled at town hall meetings — that folksy standard now trending, a few months into the Trump presidency — at least one is riding the wave to giddy heights.

Rep. Ted Lieu, the Southern California congressional delegation’s premier Trump antagonist, walked on stage at Santa Monica High School’s Barnum Hall last Thursday and got a standing ovation. That’s literally all he had to do: Without him saying a word, the house erupted in applause.

The crowd was home-game, the media was bare; Lieu’s office said they didn’t send out any press releases. (We found out via Twitter).

Hundreds in attendance cheered him on through a speech peppered with biographical notes, Trump jabs and calls-to-action; audience members prefaced questions with, “I fell in love with you a little harder” and “You’re my hero.” A small tambourine joined the crescendo of applause.

There were a few pointed demands — about Palestinian rights, in a rare example, and some “define that!” and “why don’t you call it fascism?” peccadillos — but still a far cry from the heckling old-guard centrist Diane Feinstein weathered at a town hall a few days prior.

On the Trump-Russia probe, Lieu said he’s called for a special prosecutor and promised, “If it’s collusion, Donald Trump is going to get impeached.”

The former active-duty Air Force colonel currently sits on the House’s Foreign Affairs and Judiciary committees, and has been a rare voice taking on international law and human rights issues — including U.S. tactical support for Saudi-backed assaults on civilians in Yemen’s long-running civil war.

Lieu’s resistance messaging last week focused on the macro, such as seats up for grabs in California that could help Democrats to take back the House, as well as the micro, such as urging people to get involved with organizations that support a free press as well as women’s, minority and environmental rights.

A practiced politician who has managed to add a touch of satire to otherwise rote rhetoric, Lieu buttresses progressive world views with military pragmatism, offsetting his statesman swagger with airy self-deprecation. In a well-timed gag at the end of the event, prompted by cue cards from an aide in the front row, the congressman complained he was tired and hot and took off his button-down to reveal a T-shirt reading “Trump-Putin 2016.”

Lieu appears to be enjoying the spotlight that comes with a tremendous media cycle. Pithy verbal missiles aimed unrepentantly at Donald Trump have earned him monikers like “the king of Twitter” and “rockstar.”

“I never intended to be in this position,” Lieu said after the event, backstage. “It was something that happened when I started to realize that the president of the United States was taking a series of actions that were dangerous to our republic. And I wanted to highlight and expose those actions. I also realized he would do tweets that were false or just bizarre, and being able to fight back on that same medium [is important].”

Asked if his colleagues in Congress could take a page from his book, Lieu said resistance takes many forms.

“Different people fight back or resist in different ways. There are some people for example who have very, very good Facebook accounts. There are people that Snapchat.”

What, really? In Congress? (Yes).

There is a cuteness to this populism, in which sympathetic anti-Trump politicians are engaging millennial sensibilities (e.g., Rep. Maxine Waters “throwing shade” and “staying woke”).

“I happened to discover a particular skill for writing in 140 characters or less,” Lieu told me. “I’m not exactly sure how that happened, but I’ll continue to fight back on Twitter and other social media platforms, as well as introducing legislation and making speeches on the floor of the House.”

Tackling Trump without humor would be “just too dark,” Lieu said. “One of my favorite literary works of all time was Jonathan Swift’s ‘A Modest Proposal.’ And I think there are ways you can use satire effectively. …  Sometimes it works; sometimes it doesn’t.”

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