An ugly flap in the Fairfax County Republican Committee this spring should not be viewed as an isolated incident. Rather, it is the latest flare-up in a larger and ongoing struggle over the future of the GOP.
At the center of the commotion is Fredy Burgos, a small business owner, unsuccessful Republican candidate for the Virginia House of Delegates and, until recently, a member of the Virginia Republican State Central Committee, the party’s governing body.
A fervent supporter of President Trump, Burgos is part of the new wave of hardline cultural conservatives who took control of the GOP, forcing aside traditionally more business-oriented “mainstream” conservatives. Burgos describes himself on his Twitter feed as a “Christian, Conservative, Pick-up Truck Patriot.”
In 2016, shortly after his election to the State Central Committee, Burgos was forced to apologize for posting that Islam was “a death cult organized by Satan” and other anti-Muslim statements.
In February, when Burgos wrote a social media post that was unmistakably anti-Semitic, Republican leaders had had enough.
The Republican State Central Committee booted him off the body in late March. The committee did so without public statement, apparently hoping that the unpleasantness and embarrassment would just go away without further damaging the party’s reputation during a vulnerable period. That hope seems unlikely.
Factional rivalry in American political parties is nothing new. Just in our lifetimes, we saw anti-corporate liberals led by “Howlin’ Henry Howell” briefly take over the Virginia Democratic Party in the 1970s, and conservative Christians in the guise of the “Moral Majority” began their sustained effort to control the Virginia GOP in the 1980s.
So, the more recent tea party and Bernie Sanders-inspired Tom Perriello insurrections came as no surprise. Activists and true believers on the left and right have worked for ages to gain ascendancy in the Democratic and Republican parties, competing with centrist elements who place a higher value on getting elected over ideological purity.
But the Trump era has introduced a coarse and debasing new dynamic to political competition. Trump’s schoolyard bullying, his shoot-from-the-hip mentality and, above all, his unending history of racially incendiary public statements have emboldened alt-right and ultra-nationalist elements in the GOP to speak out and try to steer the party on a disastrous course.
Kudos to the Republican office-holders such as Rep. Barbara Comstock who continuously distance themselves from this alt-right element. Comstock is seeking reelection this year in a blue-tinged and increasingly racially diverse Northern Virginia district.
State GOP Chairman John Whitbeck also blasted Burgos, noting racist statements from party leaders make it “harder for us to convince voters that we’re the party of tolerance and respect for all religions.” Whitbeck is correct. But what state and county party leaders have failed to do is to call out the standard-bearer of the party, the president of the United States of America, who has set the ugly tone from the top.
Some in the Virginia GOP just can’t take it anymore. After two years on the party’s State Central Committee, Kyle McDaniel, a young Republican activist from Northern Virginia seen by many to be a rising star, resigned from the party in January after the president referred to Haiti and several unspecified African nations as “shithole” countries.
McDaniel had tried unsuccessfully with other young Republicans to get Burgos censured.
Downstate, former lieutenant governor Bill Bolling, a mainstream Republican who in the pre-Trump era was considered a conservative, is calling on the party via Richmond Times-Dispatch op-eds to revert to an organization that tries to win elections and solve problems without demonizing the opposition. Bolling says he’s getting a good response, but admits it’s difficult to nominate mainstream candidates when Trump’s people are in charge of the process.
Virginia Republicans should be especially sensitive to the damage that Trumpism is doing to their future. Democrats rode a wave of anti-Trump passion to sweep last November’s statewide elections and nearly erase the GOP’s once-mighty majority in the General Assembly.
Perhaps the GOP will have to hit a lower bottom before it’s ready for a cure.
David Ramadan represented portions of Loudoun and Prince William counties in the Virginia House of Delegates from 2012 to 2016. Mark J. Rozell is dean of the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University.