An Emboldened Extremist Wing Flexes Its Power in a Leaderless G.O.P.
"As more far-right Republicans take office and exercise power, party officials are promoting unity and neutrality rather than confronting dangerous messages and disinformation.
WASHINGTON — Knute Buehler, who led Oregon’s Republican ticket as the candidate for governor in 2018, watched with growing alarm in recent weeks as Republicans around the nation challenged the reliability of the presidential election results.
Then he watched the Jan. 6 siege at the United States Capitol in horror. And then, to his astonishment, Republican Party officials in his own state embraced the conspiracy theory that the attack was actually a left-wing “false flag” plot to frame Trump supporters.
The night after his party’s leadership passed a formal resolution promoting the false flag theory, Mr. Buehler cracked open a local microbrew and filed to change his registration from Republican to independent. “It was very painful,” he said.
His unhappy exit highlighted one facet of the upheaval now underway in the G.O.P.: It has become a leaderless party, with veterans like Mr. Buehler stepping away, luminaries like Senator Rob Portman of Ohio retiring, far-right extremists like Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia building a brand on a web of dangerous conspiracy theories, and pro-Trump Republicans at war with other conservatives who want to look beyond the former president to the future.
With no dominant leader other than the deplatformed one-term president, a radical right movement that became emboldened under Mr. Trump has been maneuvering for more power, and ascending in different states and congressional districts. More moderate Republicans feel increasingly under attack, but so far have made little progress in galvanizing voters, donors or new recruits for office to push back against extremism.
Instead, in Arizona, the state Republican Party has brazenly punished dissent, formally censuring three of its own: Gov. Doug Ducey, former Senator Jeff Flake and Cindy McCain, the widow of former Senator John McCain. The party cited their criticisms of Mr. Trump and their defenses of the state’s election process.
In Wyoming, Representative Matt Gaetz, a Florida Republican, headlined a rallyon Thursday to denounce Representative Liz Cheney for her vote to impeach Mr. Trump. Joining Mr. Gaetz by phone hookup was Donald Trump Jr., the former president’s son, who has been working to unseat Ms. Cheney and replace her with someone he believes better represents the views of her constituents — in other words, fealty to his father.
In Kentucky, grass-roots Republicans tried to push the state party to pass a resolution urging Senator Mitch McConnell, the minority leader, to fully support Mr. Trump in next month’s impeachment trial. The effort failed.
And in Michigan, Meshawn Maddock, a Trump supporter who pushed false claims about voter fraud and organized buses of Republicans from the state to attend the Jan. 6 rally in Washington, is running unopposed to become the new co-chairman of the state party. While marching from the Ellipse to the Capitol on Jan. 6, Ms. Maddock praised the “most incredible crowd and sea of people I’ve ever worked with.”
Nothing is defining and dividing the G.O.P. more than loyalty to Mr. Trump and his false claims about the election.
“You’ve got 41 percent of the country, including a lot of independents, who think the election was stolen,” said Scott Reed, the former political director for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and a veteran Republican consultant. “That’s an amazing number. It takes months for a party that loses a national election to re-gel.”
There are still Republican officials who are responsible for the party’s political interests — but these people are under their own kinds of pressure, preaching unity to factions that have no desire to unite.
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Perhaps the most prominent party official right now is Ronna McDaniel, the chairwoman of the Republican National Committee and a close ally of Mr. Trump’s. In an interview on Friday, she condemned the “false flag” resolution passed by Oregon Republicans and sounded exasperated at the public brawling in her party.
“If you have a family dispute, don’t go on ‘Jerry Springer,’” Ms. McDaniel said. “Do it behind closed doors. It’s my role to call them and explain that if we don’t keep our party united and focused on 2022, we will lose. If we are attacking fellow Republicans and cancel culture within our own party, it is not helpful to winning majorities.”
At the same time, Ms. McDaniel made clear that she was not going to impose top-down decision making on the party, noting that the role of the R.N.C. was to stay neutral in primaries. She said she planned to do so in the 2022 midterm elections, barring more extreme behavior emerging.
“It depends if there’s more egregious things, if there’s a David Duke situation,” she said. “Majorie Taylor Greene is trying to distance herself from those things and there’s going to be an investigation. I trust the voters. I have a lot of faith in the voters to pick who’s best to represent them.”
For some Republicans deeply critical of Mr. Trump, the former president’s departure from Washington has not led to an improved era for the party. Rather, they see a party that doesn’t have the leadership to stand up to its most extreme and divisive factions.
“Kevin McCarthy has been more critical of Liz Cheney than he has been of Marjorie Taylor Greene,” Bill Kristol, the conservative writer and a “Never Trump” Republican, said of the House Republican leader. “That’s pretty astonishing. That’s the bottom line. It’s one thing to have party unity, but at some point there have to be boundaries.”
Senior Republicans are still figuring out exactly where those are after four years of defending Mr. Trump, who burst past boundaries all the time. Ms. McDaniel said she was concerned by some of the language that has been used by Ms. Greene, who before she was elected to Congress expressed support for executing prominent Democrats like Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
Ms. McDaniel called the comments “atrocious” and said “they need to be condemned.” She added: “They are inaccurate. They are very, very dangerous.”
But she stopped short of condemning Ms. Greene outright and gave her the benefit of the doubt for her past disturbing comments. “She has said they’re not from her,” Ms. McDaniel said. “There does need to be an investigation, and I trust that Kevin McCarthy will handle that within his own caucus.”
When pressed, Ms. McDaniel said that some G.O.P. resolutions and statements needed to be disavowed, citing Oregon’s false flag resolution. “I know our state party chairs are doing the best they can to represent their voters, but that statement goes too far,” she said.
And she expressed regret about letting Rudolph W. Giuliani, the former president’s personal lawyer and the former mayor of New York, and Sidney Powell, another member of Mr. Trump’s legal team who spread conspiracy theories, hold a news conference at the R.N.C. headquarters in Washington.
“When I saw some of the things Sidney was saying, without proof, I certainly was concerned it was happening in my building,” she said. “There are a whole host of issues we had to deal with — what is the liability of the R.N.C., if these allegations are made and unfounded?”
Despite the attempts of Ms. McDaniel, who remains closely allied to Mr. Trump, to bring the party together, many lifelong Republicans feel that there is no place for them in it.
In Washington State, Chris Vance had for years dedicated himself to the Republican movement as both a politician and as the party chairman. But in 2016, when he ran unsuccessfully for Senate, he found himself in conflict with many Republican voters in his state, who disagreed on issues including trade agreements, immigration and the role of NATO. That disconnect has only grown over the past four years, he said.
“They are intent on being a Trump cheering society,” said Mr. Vance, who has since left the party. “I don’t think the party can be saved. I think it needs to be broken up, smashed and blown to bits.”
Some Republican strategists said that when Democrats in Congress began trying to pass legislation, it would become easier for Republicans to remember they are on the same team.
“Over time, the Pelosi-Schumer-Biden agenda, in that order, will unite the Republican Party,” said Marc Short, who served as chief of staff to former Vice President Mike Pence. He called Ms. Greene an “outlier member” of the G.O.P. conference and said that “the obituaries of the G.O.P. are premature.”
Others in the party conceded that there were few levers of control: A rise in low dollar fund-raising, for instance, means that some big donors who favor more moderate agendas are losing influence in politics. Ms. Greene said Friday that nearly 60,000 small donors had given $1.6 million to her campaign account since the beginning of what she called a “smear campaign” against her by the news media.
Mr. McCarthy, people familiar with his thinking said, felt hamstrung by Ms. Greene and believed that the only way to deal with her was to tolerate her. On Saturday, Ms. Greene tweeted that she had spoken to Mr. Trump and he had offered his support, which may undercut attempts to modulate her behavior.
At the state level, Republican leaders are grappling with how to keep Trump loyalists engaged while trying to steer the party away from fringe conspiracy theories.
“Trump was a value add to our party,” said Jennifer Carnahan, the Minnesota Republican Party chairwoman. “We saw a level of growth in Minnesota we hadn’t seen in a long time. We want those people to stay engaged. We want them to vote again in two years.” She added: “We also need to remember that one of the things that makes America so great is having free and fair elections. Biden was inaugurated; he is our president.”
National party officials like Ms. McDaniel who are seeking to unite the party in order to win back majorities in 2022 are in a difficult position of trying to do so without disavowing Republicans who are attacking other Republicans.
In the middle of all the division is Mr. Trump. He still wields power over his party even out of office and barred from Twitter, as was clear when Mr. McCarthy visited him last week to discuss his help in 2022 races.
But Mr. Reed said the party needed to look beyond Mr. Trump if it wanted to win again. “A strong party always looks to the future for leaders, not to the past,” he said."