After midnight, long after his wife and kids have gone to bed, Rep. Dana Rohrabacher can often be found hunched over his iPad, tapping out a message on Twitter.
Sometimes he's calling President Obama a fascist or accusing "liberal racists" of muddying public policy with consideration of skin color. Other times he's squabbling with global warming "alarmists" or debating the finer points of America's policies abroad.
More than perhaps any other member of Congress, Rohrabacher has dived, keyboard first, into the back-and-forth fray of debating anonymous Twitter users. His habits make the conservative Republican from Orange County, Calif., either the country's most responsive social-media congressman or an argument-junkie in need of a quick, online fix—or both.
He's the chairman of the Trolling Caucus, a man whose Twitter page resembles many of the more quarrelsome corners of the Internet—except that it's curated by a congressman. Rohrabacher loves it. His life's motto, carved into a wooden plaque in his congressional office and printed on his Twitter background, reads "Fighting for Freedom and having fun."
"If I'm up and about or whatever and I find myself awake, I'll just sit down to relax and go through my twitters," Rohrabacher tells National Journal.
He has penned more than 6,000 tweets, but unlike most in Congress who seek a wide audience for their thoughts, Rohrabacher aims the vast majority of his micro-missives at particular followers, engaging in days-long, meandering debates that are a mix of name-calling and policy disputes.
For Rohrabacher, Twitter harkens back to his days as a youth at Long Beach State in the 1960s, when he leafleted conservative literature and, outnumbered, spent his time shouting down leftist and Marxist students in the campus quad. "I never had a better time in my whole life," he says.
The 66-year-old Republican, who served as a speechwriter for President Reagan and has been in Congress since 1989, says Twitter has been the closest thing he's come to that '60s experience ever since. He compares the 140-character combat to the thrill of a chess player juggling 10 matches in the park at once.
"Intellectual competition," as he calls it, in the public square, though many of the threads are far from that.
"U R looking in a mirror," Rohrabacher tweeted at a user named @organikbeaver, after the person called the congressman a "#Fartknocker" this January.
@organikbeaver U R looking in a mirror. I have meaningful & rewarding discussions with people with whom I disagree all the time— Dana Rohrabacher (@DanaRohrabacher) January 8, 2013
Rohrabacher says he prefers "Twitter debates by far" to those in the House of Representatives because the microblogging site ensures the kind of brevity his congressional colleagues are loath to embrace. Twitter, he says, "forces the discipline of people to focus on the central issue, and in debates in Congress, they're dancing around on periphery issues all the time, wasting time."
Rohrabacher is at it at all hours--during the workday, in the middle of the night, and the weekend. "You're there doing it sitting the middle of your house, waiting for everybody, getting ready for the clock to strike 12 in order to start the New Year's celebration," he says.
That is not an exaggeration. He was tweeting throughout the night last New Year's Eve.
The odd hours have spurred accusations that he's been drunk. Not so, he says. "I may be a little groggy from waking up in the middle of the night and being awake for a half an hour and doing a tweet or two, but it's nothing to do with alcohol," he insists.
His wife, and staff, would just as soon prefer he cut himself off.
"She has to grab me by the arm and say, 'Come on now, get out the door and get the kids to church,' " says Rohrabacher, who is the father of 9-year-old triplets.
He spars online over just about everything, but tends to gravitate toward abortion, global warming (he's on the science committee), and Pakistan (he's on the foreign affairs panel too). This January, he got into a five-day bout about the definitions of socialism, and of fascism--which he insists is close to the policies pursued by Obama. (It was this thread that included the "#Fartknocker" rejoinder.)
"Obama & cronies= classic Fascism minus patriotic jingoism," wrote Rohrabacher during the debate.
He went on to liken the current American Left to Hitler's Nazi Germany. "Trying to ignore Hitler's economic statism won't make it's similarities to today's lib/left big gov agenda disappear," he wrote. The tweet was time-stamped 11:48 p.m. on a Friday, California time.
"First fascism intertwines gov & nation, then expands & centralizes power of gov. Obama's $ trillion bailouts good example," he added three days later.
Rohrabacher stands by his tweets. "Fascism is when you have the government control of everything and then you have cronyism at the top. I stand by that--that is exactly the right analysis of what currently we see in the Democratic Party," he says.
Most of his controversial tweets fly past unnoticed. Unless someone goes spinning through his archives, his tweets are only seen by the particular people he's messaging and those who already follow both the congressman and the recipient of his tweets.
Last month, for instance, Rohrabacher tweeted, "I don't think about race when formulating policy. I will leave that to liberal racists."
He did get some unwelcome attention this summer for writing that he would "defund white trash" in a discussion about immigration. He says he was simply using the same language of the person who messaged him. He took to Twitter, of course, to defend himself, writing in one message, "'trash' not word I use 2 describe people. used lib questioner's words in my answer. typical leftist misrepresentation."
@ga_bree_ella would defund white trash, but not our vets , seniors & other deserving Americans 2 provide benefits 2 those here illegally— Dana Rohrabacher (@DanaRohrabacher) August 6, 2013
Among those debating with Rohrabacher, name-calling often ensues, as it did during the fascism debate. "You sir are a [expletive] idiot," wrote @organikbeaver, at one point.
Rohrabacher doesn't withdraw at such language but responds with lectures. "Ur vulgar language & personal attacks take away from any point U wish to make and does not speak well of your intelligence," he wrote back.
He appears to relish the holier-than-thou card.
"Frankly, about half my job on the Twitter is to point out to people that they are not making their case and that by calling names they actually call into question their own intellectual capabilities and not mine," Rohrabacher says. "I would say I've reached quite a few people that way."
Lately, climate change has been the hot topic. "Global warming has been one of my favorites because I'm up against people who have religious fervor about something they haven't really studied about and have just taken clichés and run with them," Rohrabacher says.
Earlier this month, for instance, he separately sent 28 people a link to a blog post on climate change entitled, "Leftarded Alarmists Continue To Demonstrate Their Utter Stupidity In Linking Everything To Global Warming! And They Owe An Apology To Rohrabacher!!!"
"What do you think about this?" he wrote to each of his Twitter combatants.
"I don't think I was egging them on," he says of his message. "That article had an enormous amount of documented information about the frequency of fires, the rainfall, and temperatures of California."
Rohrabacher, who hasn't amassed much influence in his 25 years in Congress, says he's energized by the constant chance to engage "not just a bunch of politicos but ordinary people."
"If you let the meanness and the name-calling get to you, well, then you wouldn't stay around long," he says.
He was back tweeting about his voting record and health benefits a few hours later.