The troubled conscience of conservatives

May 25, 2021 6:15 am
David Reinert holds up a large "Q" sign while waiting in line to see President Donald J. Trump at his rally on Aug. 2, 2018 at the Mohegan Sun Arena at Casey Plaza in Wilkes Barre, Pennsylvania. "Q" represents QAnon, a conspiracy theory group that has been seen at recent rallies. Photo by Rick Loomis/Getty Images.

David Reinert holds up a large “Q” sign while waiting in line to see President Donald J. Trump at his rally on Aug. 2, 2018 at the Mohegan Sun Arena at Casey Plaza in Wilkes Barre, Pennsylvania. “Q” represents QAnon, a conspiracy theory group that has been seen at recent rallies. Photo by Rick Loomis/Getty Images.

Disaffected Republicans, including former Wisconsin GOP Congressman Reid Ribble, want to start a new party for conservatives — or wrest the existing Republican Party away from the forces of former President Donald Trump. 

Who can blame them?

Last week, Wisconsin’s entire Republican House delegation voted against forming a bipartisan commission to investigate the violent mob attack on the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6. 

The same legislators who barricaded themselves in their offices and hid under their desks when the mob broke in, leaving five people dead including a Capitol police officer, are now adopting the Trump line and saying that investigating the attack would amount to a partisan witch hunt.

Our state Republicans are also aggressively pushing voting restrictions based on Trump’s Big Lie that the election was stolen from him. If they can’t expand their appeal beyond Trump’s base, their strategy seems to be to try to win elections by preventing people from voting. Talk about short-term thinking.

Earlier this month, Reps. Tom Tiffany, Bryan Steil, Scott Fitzgerald, Glenn Grothman and Mike Gallagher all voted to oust Liz Cheney from her leadership position for daring to speak the truth: that the election was not stolen from Trump. 

No wonder a group of 150 Republicans, former Republicans and independents have drafted a letter calling on their colleagues to make major changes that begin with admitting the 2020 election was fair, or face the possibility of losing members to a new party altogether.

The letter, which the group calls “A Call for American Renewal” declares, “Our nation’s future should not be dictated by a single person but by principles that bind us together.”

It calls on the Republican Party “to rededicate itself to founding ideals — or else hasten the creation of an alternative.”

It’s an interesting idea. 

The founding ideal of the Republican Party, established in Ripon, Wisconsin, in 1854, was the abolition of slavery. The GOP was the northern party during the Civil War. It nurtured some of the nation’s most famous good-government advocates — Fighting Bob La Follette and Teddy Roosevelt — who set their sights on busting monopolies, regulating the safety of the food supply, protecting workers and establishing progressive taxation. The last time the Republican Party spun off a third party that wanted to rededicate itself to founding principles, the result was the Progressives. 

It’s fair to say that most of that history was buried long before the angry mob of Trump supporters carrying Confederate flags burst into the Capitol.

So what does the Republican Party stand for today, apart from the Big Lie that Trump won the election?

I asked James Wigderson, editor of RightWisconsin the online “forum for conservatives to debate the goals and tactics of the conservative movement in Wisconsin” — and an outspoken critic of Trump — what he thinks about the party’s future.

Wigderson is skeptical about the prospects for a third party that breaks away from Trump and champions conservative values.

In the absence of such a party, “my advice on how to vote would be — I would probably abstain from voting in the next election,” he says. 

Trump’s enablers — including our own Sen. Ron Johnson, who recently called the idea that a pro-Trump mob attacked the Capitol on Jan 6 “a false narrative” concocted by the left — need to be brushed back. “If you’re given a choice in 2022 between Ron Johnson and any of the Democrats so far running, then don’t vote,” Wigderson tells Wisconsin conservatives. “Don’t reward Ron Johnson with your vote. Maybe then the Republicans will learn a lesson.”

He knows a lot of Republicans do not want to hear that advice.

“I understand people that are in the conservative movement, that have been active in the Republican Party and have been to all the campaign events and prayer breakfasts and everything else, that they just cannot bring themselves to vote for a Democrat. I completely 100% understand that,” Wigderson says. In the 2020 presidential election, he adds, “there was no way on God’s Green Earth I was ever going to vote for Joe Biden.”

But, he says, “At the same time, we cannot continue to go on rewarding a Republican Party that has taken an anti-democratic turn.”

Not voting is the best strategy he can come up with under the circumstances.

In the long term, Republicans are hurting their chances of winning elections by embracing Trumpism, Wigderson says. He points to the drop in Republican voters in Waukesha and Ozaukee counties in 2020, where suburban women, in particular, defected from the Party of Trump.

“They’re counting on this rural vote to intensify and somehow be solid for Republicans,” he says. “Well, there are only so many rural voters out there. And when the district that was once held by Scott Walker in the State Assembly is now a solid Democratic seat, that should be a warning to Republicans that they need to straighten up their act.”

It’s not just Jan. 6, Wigderson says. “I’d even go back to the day that Trump used force to clear Lafayette Square. … If you’re a conservative, and you believe in the constitutional order, and you believe in free speech and democracy, that should have been the warning that it was time to get out.”

He compares Trump’s ascendancy to a scene in the 1970 movie “Beneath the Planet of the Apes,” “where they’re all standing around the atomic bomb, and they rip off their masks to reveal their true inner selves.” 

“Well, Donald Trump is the atomic bomb that hit the Republican Party or is worshipped by the Republican Party,” Wigderson says. “And he gave everybody an excuse to rip off their masks. … We’re seeing a side of the Republican Party that’s become ascendant that is really ugly.”

The authoritarianism, the boorishness, the conspiracy theories, the contempt for democratic institutions, the bullying and racism have, sadly for Wigderson, become the GOP brand.

Wisconsin’s Republican Party is hardly distinguishable from the Trump-captive national party, in Wigderson’s view. He thinks state party chairman Andrew Hitt who pursued the Trump campaign’s recount effort should resign, along with Bob Spindell, who sits on the Wisconsin Elections Commission and went along with the idea that thousands of perfectly legal ballots should be thrown away — one of many failed efforts to throw the election in swing states to Trump.

And while Wigderson sympathizes with complaints that voters used “indefinitely confined” status too liberally to cast absentee ballots during the pandemic, the current crop of election bills in the Legislature “is Republican officials’ way of playing to the base in telling them, ‘Yeah, wink wink, we understand that the election was stolen and this is what we’re doing to try and fix it.’” 

Instead, he says, “somebody needs to lead and actually say, ‘No, the election wasn’t stolen. The election process actually worked and we just need to do better and present better candidates and run a better candidate than Donald Trump.”

Instead, GOP members of Congress from Wisconsin — including Mike Gallagher, who had previously stated that Trump’s loss in the Electoral College must be respected, and condemned the Jan. 6 attack — voted to oust Liz Cheney as party leader for saying exactly that.

Wigderson calls Gallagher “a tremendous disappointment.” As a Congressman from a swing area of the state, he seemed, at first, like the voice of reason in Wisconsin’s Congressional delegation, but “maybe our hopes were too high,” Wigderson says. 

If members like Gallagher are keeping their heads down and going along with the pro-Trump crowd, hoping the Trump era will soon blow over, they are missing the point, says Wigderson: “Trump was a symptom; he’s not the disease. And the return to normal for the Republican Party is exactly what we’re experiencing right now.”

If Trump hadn’t been the candidate in 2020, Wigderson believes, Ted Cruz or Rand Paul would have filled the same role, leading the party away from any sort of big tent and into the wilderness.

A reset, if Wigderson could achieve it, would mean excavating the autopsy that followed Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan’s loss in the 2012 presidential election, and taking the advice of party leaders who offered a formula then for broadening the party’s appeal. 

“If we talk about economic freedom, economic opportunity, the Uber economy or the Lyft economy — however you want to describe it — the economy that’s filled with opportunities for people to make something of their lives, to invest in the market, not just rail against big, bad corporations. I’ve never heard so much corporate-bashing from Republicans in my entire life.” He includes expanding school choice among the issues that could appeal to minority communities. “We have to create a movement — a coalition that is capable of persuading enough voters to vote for the issues that we believe in. It’s that simple.”

I have major disagreements with Wigderson’s vision (starting with RightWisconsin’s stated mission of “always moving forward against the failed Progressive history of Wisconsin”). But the idea that Republicans should compete and try to win on a level playing field, instead of pouring their energy into trying to rig elections, that they should face up to the truth, and that they should eschew the racism, immigrant-bashing and just plain ugliness of the Trump era, is a breath of fresh air.

And I agree with him about the big problem — that partisanship has become so toxic, it is poisoning our society. That moment in Lafayette Square was too easy to dismiss for Republicans who told themselves, “The other side is worse,” he says, and “those people deserve it,”  

“We need to take a step back and say, ‘We can’t believe the worst about each other anymore,’” Wigderson says. “Because if we do, the constitutional order that we supposedly love and are trying to defend is meaningless.”

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Ruth Conniff
Ruth Conniff

Ruth Conniff is Editor-in-chief of the Wisconsin Examiner. She formerly served as Editor-in-chief of The Progressive Magazine where she worked for many years from both Madison and Washington, DC. Shortly after Donald Trump took office she moved with her family to Oaxaca, Mexico, and covered U.S./Mexico relations, the migrant caravan, and Mexico’s efforts to grapple with Trump. Conniff is the author of "Milked: How an American Crisis Brought Together Midwestern Dairy Farmers and Mexican Workers" which won the 2022 Studs and Ida Terkel award from The New Press. She is a frequent guest on MSNBC and has appeared on Good Morning America, Democracy Now!, Wisconsin Public Radio, CNN, Fox News and many other radio and television outlets. She has also written for The Nation, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Los Angeles Times, among other publications. She lives in Madison, Wisconsin with her husband and three daughters.