Republicans who keep a finger on reality are discovering that their voters have gone off the deep end
It's becoming much clearer why Republicans in Congress are so reluctant to acknowledge factual reality—such as that Joe Biden won the 2020 presidential fairly, or that Donald Trump incited a mob that attacked the Congress and ransacked the U.S. Capitol—and have doubled down on their embrace of anti-democratic disinformation that fueled the insurrection: If they dare admit any of it, they risk the insane wrath of the millions of GOP voters out there who have wholly swallowed all that false Trumpian propaganda.
That's become especially self-evident among Republicans at the state and local levels throughout the country in the weeks since the January 6 riot. As Hunter recently explained, the GOP at the ground level not only has fully embraced the conspiracist rot that Trump promoted after he lost, but it also has become even more openly extreme than it was before the election. Liz Cheney is finding that out.
Whenever Republicans have made any gestures toward acknowledging either Biden's win or Trump's seditionist behavior, as the Guardianrecently reported, voters at the state and local level have responded with outrage and threats.
"The evidence is overwhelming that local parties across the country, in blue states and red states, are radicalized and support extremely far outside the mainstream positions like, for example, ending our democratic experiment to install Donald Trump as president over the will of the people," Tim Miller, former political director of Republican Voters Against Trump, told the Guardian.
"They believe in insane COVID denialism and QAnon and all these other conspiracies. It's endemic, not just a couple of state parties. It's the vast majority of state parties throughout the country."
The list is long and worrisome:
- Arizona: The state Republican party last weekend re-elected Kelli Ward, a conspiracy-theory-promoting "Trump Republican" who unabashedly promoted the "election fraud" disinformation. Party officials also voted to censure Governor Doug Ducey for certifying Trump's loss in Arizona, along with Cindy McCain, the widow of Senator John McCain, and former Senator Jeff Flake, both for having supported Biden in the election.
- Texas: The state Republican Party encouraged its members to follow them on Gab, the favorite social-media platform of white nationalists, with a pro-QAnon conspiracy trope: "We Are the Storm." Even after Biden's inauguration, the party insisted that he had won fraudulently: "It took a global pandemic, a thoroughly corrupt media, and massive election irregularities for President Trump to be removed from office," the GOP said in a statement on its website.
- Hawaii: The Hawaii Republican Party's official account published a thread of tweets sympathizing with supporters of QAnon—dismissing cult's conspiracy theories that Democrats and media figures are secretly operating as global pedophilia ring, but arguing that adherents nonetheless were engaged in a form of patriotism. The same account also praised the "generally high quality" work of a Holicaust-denying YouTuber named Tarl Warwick, saying: "It is good to periodically step outside the 'bubble' of corporate commentators for additional perspective." The party deleted and condemned the tweets; the communications official who sent them resigned.
- Oregon: The state's Republican Party issued a lengthy statement stuffed full of conspiracy theories and disinformation condemning the 10 Republican members of Congress who voted to impeach Trump after the insurrection. It claimed "there is growing evidence that the violence at the Capitol was a 'false flag' operation designed to discredit President Trump and his supporters." Some 23 Republican members of the state House repudiated the statement, noting that "there is no credible evidence to support false flag claims," adding that such rumormongering had become a distraction.
- Wyoming: State activists opened up a campaign to "recall" Congressman Liz Cheney after she joined the Republicans voting to impeach Trump, and have collected over 55,000 signatures. Ten county-level parties in the state voted to censure Cheney. A state senator named Anthony Bouchard announced a 2022 campaign against the congresswoman. The Wyoming Republican state party said "there has not been a time during our tenure when we have seen this type of an outcry from our fellow Republicans, with the anger and frustration being palpable in the comments we have received."
Pro-Trump Congressman Matt Gaetz of Florida even traveled to the state to lead a rally attacking Cheney. "We are in a battle for the soul of the Republican party, and I intend to win it," Gaetz told the rally.
The sentiments in Wyoming were deep and widespread. A Gillette woman named Shelley Horn started the Cheney recall petition, and told CNN: "You just can't go, 'Oh well, I need to vote with my conscience.' No! Vote for what your people put you in there to do. You're a Republican, you're supposed to back your party regardless."
Trump supporter Taylor Haynes told CNN, "In my view, she's done in Wyoming." A poll commissioned by the Trump political operation purportedly showed the impeachment vote had hurt her popularity. "Liz Cheney's favorables there are only slightly worse than her father's shooting skills," quipped Donald Trump Jr.
Other polls, however, supported the claim. A January 27 McLaughlin poll that showed 70% of Wyoming voters believe the impeachment trial was unconstitutional; more than two-third disapprove of Cheney's vote, and 63% say they are unlikely to vote for Cheney again.
Some longtime GOP figures defended her. Gale Geringer, a veteran Republican strategist, told CNN that Cheney showed "courage" in casting the Trump impeachment vote: "I don't underestimate the anger people are feeling right now. It's huge. And Liz Cheney has become the target of that anger, but I don't think she's really the cause of it. I think it's fear of what the Biden administration is going to do to Wyoming. We're petrified. Our entire economy, all of our jobs, our tax base has been threatened. And there's nothing we can do about Joe Biden for four years. But we can take that fear and anger out on Liz Cheney."
But Politico reporter Tara Palmieri tagged along with the CNN crew, and found it nearly impossible to find anyone in the state who wasn't angry with their Congressman. Her impression was that Cheney is in serious political trouble.
Honestly, it was hard to find anyone who would defend Cheney — and I really tried to talk to as many people as I could not at the rally. I stopped at a biker bar, a gun shop, a vape shop, a hardware store, a steakhouse, a diner, a dentist's office and a pawn shop …
— At Harbor Freight Tools, when I uttered the name "Liz Cheney," an employee behind the cash register hurled a threatening epithet. Then a beefy and tattooed supervisor, Torrey Price, 48, came over mad as hell. His mask hung below his nose when he told me, "I don't think she spoke for Wyoming."
Price never votes in primaries but said he will in August 2022 — to oust Cheney. He shared more of his thoughts: the election was stolen, the U.S. Capitol raid was staged, and the number of Covid deaths were grossly inflated. He and his colleague Joe agreed on all of these points, adding that they would not be getting the vaccine.
— At the Outlaw Saloon, I envied the way a recently vaccinated NYT reporter sauntered into the biker bar maskless, when earlier, a middle-aged DJ in a cowboy hat asked me for my credentials. Likely because there were only two masks in the bar — the one on my face and another on a table, with the words "political prisoner" printed in red. The guy who threw down that mask predicted the size of the rally against Cheney, telling me the night before, "I guarantee you there will be 600 people there." I didn't believe him.
— At the steakhouse, our comely waitress said "a lot of people are fired up" about Cheney. As a lifelong native of Wyoming, she said Cheney made a grave mistake by not representing the people of her state.
Palmieri concluded: "If there was any doubt this is still Trump's Republican Party, my time in Cheyenne dispelled it."
The push to embrace Trumpism is roiling other state Republican parties. In Wisconsin, where 15 Republican lawmakers signed a letter to Vice President Mike Pence the day before the D.C. riot urging him to postpone the certification, and two Republican congressmen, Scott Fitzgerald and Tom Tiffany, objected to the electoral votes, the party is divided into two camps: in several states that Biden won.
"The Republican Party right now is relatively divided, but it's not the traditional ideological divisions that used to be in place, as much as it's between the sane and insane wings of the party," RightWisconsin editor James Wigderson told the Madison Capital Times. "I think that there's a chance of a real fracture coming."
Establishment Republicans such as former Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch, however, defended the Trumpists for their paranoia and embrace of partisan disinformation: "That is the perspective they have, that is the view that they have and it's valid; you can't say someone's opinion of a subjective matter is invalid," she said. "I mean, what gives us the right to judge someone's opinion like that?"
In Michigan, where Republicans also embraced the "Stop the Steal" campaign prior to the insurrection, the impulse to maintain their embrace of Trumpism remains largely undiminished. The Allegan County Republican party censured Congressman Fred Upton because he voted to impeach Trump.
"Not a lot appears to be changing. We have former Ambassador Ron Weiser (expected to be the new Michigan GOP chair) and Meshawn Maddock (expected to be Weiser's co-chair)," WKAR politics reporter Abigail Censky observed. "(Maddock) led 'Stop the Steal' efforts in the state and was a key part of the kind of infrastructure to overturn the state's election results, which we know from bipartisan clerks and expert testimony was a fair and safe and secure election. It's interesting to see that that's kind of beyond reproach still, and that, that leadership is still going to go into place."
And in Georgia, Republican Party officials are grimacing at the wounds being inflicted on their voter-appeal operations by the presence of QAnon-loving Congressman Majorie Taylor Greene in the state's delegation, as well as in the media as her multiple conspiracist pronouncements—such as her approval of lynching House Speaker Nancy Pelosi—have come increasingly to light.
"If you have any common sense, you know she's an anchor on the party. She is weighing us down," said Gabriel Sterling, a Georgia Republican election administrator who criticized the baseless election conspiracy theories espoused by Trump and his supporters.
"Some people are saying maybe Nancy Pelosi will throw her out" of Congress, Sterling said. "The Democrats would never throw her out. They want her to be the definition of what a Republican is. They're gonna give her every opportunity to speak and be heard and look crazy — like what came out Wednesday, the Jewish space laser to start fires. I mean, I don't know how far down the rabbit hole you go."
The unhinged behavior and conspiracism is widespread. The Oregon GOP's statement was rife with conspiracy theories, including a passage explaining why they viewed the January 6 insurrection as a "false flag" operation:
Whereas this false flag will support Joe Biden plans to introducing new domestic terrorism legislation likely placing more emphasis on themes from post-9/11 Patriot Act such as allowing those charged with terrorism to be automatically detained before trial, outlawing donations to government-designated terrorist groups, allowing electronic surveillance of suspected terrorists, letting the government use secret sources in those trials, and perhaps new provisions such as codifying putting conservatives on a secret no-fly list without recourse to due process and restricting free speech, similar to the Sedition Act of 1798, which criminalized making "false statements" critical of the Federal government.
The peculiar combination of self-righteousness, persecution complex, and projection endemic to extremist conspiracism were omnipresent. Shelley Horn, the Wyoming petitioner, blamed Cheney's impeachment vote for dividing the nation: "It's just sows more hate and division," Horn told the Cowboy State Daily, "and people are tired of it. Our country can't stand much more."
As Zack Beauchamp observed at Vox:
It's obvious that some of the party's national leaders, like Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, don't actually believe in these conspiracy theories. But for too long, the party has been comfortable letting their rank-and-file supporters believe them because it's politically advantageous. Now, true believers are rising up and capturing the leadership of state parties and local activist groups — putting pressure on national politicians to conform to extreme ideas or risk a serious primary threat.
This makes the GOP's post-Trump trajectory look even scarier. No one person or organization is in charge of the party, in a position to fix the root causes of its continuing turn toward extremism. Reforming the party requires a fight on multiple levels and in multiple arenas: reforms to the local and national party, transformations of both the party and adjacent institutions like Fox News.
This what Barack Obama adroitly describes as America's "epistemological crisis." It will not stop happening as long as there are news organs that traffic in falsehoods as a profit model, and who devote 24 hours a day, seven days a week of broadcast time using those lies to coach half of the nation how and why to hate the other half—and politicians who gleefully profit from it as well.
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