“It’s 1776 all over again!” the tract declared.
But these were not the ramblings of an anonymous Internet troll or some random troublemaker. This was an official letter from the chairman of the Nye County Republican Party in Nevada, posted Friday on the organization’s official website.
The jeremiad drew a rebuke from Michael Ahrens, the communications director for the Republican National Committee, who called it “deranged and wildly irresponsible.”
But as of Monday morning, the post remained, with an update from party Chairman Chris Zimmerman noting that a message intended for his local community had sparked widespread attention online.
“Nothing in the letter was original to me,” he wrote. “I have no ‘inside’ access to the administration so what was posted was simply a summary of things that are readily available for any willing to do the research which was then provided to the membership for their consideration.”
The missive by Zimmerman, who did not respond to a request for comment, reflects the extent to which the Trump-inspired mob violence at the U.S. Capitol last week has elevated a long-festering struggle within the Republican Party over conspiracy theories, purity tests and fealty to the rule of law.
The central question now hovering over America’s political landscape is whether one of its two major parties will allow itself to function as an extension of QAnon and other online conspiracy theory movements that have taken hold with a vocal segment of the GOP, or if it can emerge from the Trump era as a potential governing coalition built around ideas and some shared agreement on facts.
The tensions carry echoes of the tea party uprising that powered the Republican takeover of Congress a decade ago when grass-roots activists clashed with establishment leadership and pushed the party to the right.
But the movement exposed by the Capitol riot and its aftermath has taken a far darker and anti-democratic turn.
A significant minority of the Republican base supports the deadly siege of the Capitol, polls show, while many GOP officials continue to advance Trump’s false claims about the election and parrot debunked Internet theories associated with the QAnon conspiracy theory that have been spread by the president and his allies.
Even after the riot, a majority of congressional Republicans — 139 House members and eight senators — voted against affirming President-elect Joe Biden’s victory over Trump after citing wild allegations of election fraud that have been roundly rejected by courts as meritless. The party as a whole has declined to hold Trump accountable for inciting the mob, with many leaders focusing their ire at Twitter for banning the president and at Democrats for backing a “divisive” impeachment.
“January 6 is the opening battle in the war for the soul of the Republican Party,” said Republican pollster Whit Ayres. “The party is now split between the governing wing and the populist wing even more sharply than it was during the tea party period.”
The divisions have played out in dramatic scenes and appeals around the country in recent days. Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), once a friend and golf buddy of Trump, was trailed at the airport Friday by a group of invective-hurling Trump supporters who were furious he did not vote to overturn the election.
A North Carolina House candidate, Sandy Smith, boasted in a fundraising appeal that she had attended the march on the Capitol and wanted to continue the fight to make the “establishment listen.”
“Capitulating does nothing,” she wrote, after condemning the violence.
In Maricopa County, Ariz., on Saturday, Republicans attempted to censure the widow of Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), Cindy McCain, who supported Biden over Trump in this past election. The draft resolution, which is scheduled to go before the state party later this month, included references to McCain’s past abuse of prescription drugs, calling her a “troubled individual.”
That effort met a sharp rebuke from RNC Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel, who had just returned from a national party meeting in Florida where she resisted member calls for a statement defending Trump’s groundless claims of electoral fraud.
“Obviously we are upset that a prominent Republican would support Joe Biden whose beliefs are the opposite of what our party stands for, but the language in this resolution is abhorrent,” McDaniel said in a statement to The Washington Post on Sunday. “My hope is that the Arizona Republican Party will not entertain it. This does nothing to grow our party or put us in a better position to win in 2022.”
Arizona GOP Chairwoman Kelli Ward did not respond to a request for comment on the censure motion. “Have a great Sunday,” she said before disconnecting a phone call with a Post reporter.
Some parts of the traditional Republican coalition have tried in recent days to assert influence.
Major corporations, like Marriott and Commerce Bank, told the online publication Popular Information that they will stop donations to GOP lawmakers who voted to reject Biden’s electoral college victory. Corporate donations, often split between Republican and Democratic lawmakers, have historically played a bigger role in financing Republican reelection efforts.
The announcement was dismissed by those who say they represent the future of the party.
“That’s fine,” tweeted the newly elected Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.), who has voiced support in the past for some elements of QAnon. “I work for the people not the communists.”
Still, mounting pressure from corporate America — the National Association of Manufacturers, for instance, has called for Trump’s removal from office — could put many Republicans in a bind as they face potential votes as early as this week on whether to impeach Trump over inciting an attempted insurrection.
But Trump supporters will insist on loyalty, and as last week’s bloody events demonstrated, some are willing to take their demands to the extreme. One sign of the leadership’s inability to control the GOP’s pro-Trump wing came in a Friday tweet from Rep. Kevin Brady (R-Tex.), who warned that supporters of impeaching or removing Trump because of his rhetoric were “calling for action that is equally irresponsible and could well incite further violence.”
Former Trump adviser Roger Stone, who argued that Trump won the 2020 election last week at a Washington rally one day before the riot at the U.S. Capitol, predicted an aggressive effort to carry out Trump’s promise to primary any Republican who opposed his effort to reject Biden’s win in Congress. Trump recently pardoned Stone after he was convicted of lying to Congress, obstruction and witness tampering related to the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election.
“Establishment Republicans were forced to support Trump because he was far more popular with their constituents than they were at home, the exact same phenomenon we saw under President Ronald Reagan,” Stone said in an written statement Saturday to The Post. “Establishment Republicans have no votes among the people.”
He made a point of saying Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah), who voted to impeach Trump in 2020 and supported accepting the election results, would be a prominent target of activist ire.
“Activists in that state are already planning civil disobedience anytime and everywhere he attempts to appear in public,” Stone wrote. “It is their intention to drive Romney out of the state.”
Recent polls suggest the national Republican Party remains closely and deeply divided, with 47 percent saying the attack on the U.S. Capitol was “mostly a legitimate protest” and 47 percent saying it was “mostly people acting unlawfully” in a recent PBS NewsHour/Marist poll. The same poll found about one in five Republicans supported breaking into the U.S. Capitol, even though that violence has been condemned by many congressional Republicans.
Those polls echo surveys from last year by the Pew Research Center that found 39 percent of Republicans said they had heard of the QAnon conspiracy theory, a collection of false claims involving “deep state” child abusers and Satan-worshipping Democrats. Of Republicans who had heard of it, about four in 10 said they believed the theories were good for the country.
Biden, the leader of the Democratic Party, has said that “a minority of the Republican Party” should “be ashamed of themselves” for supporting Trump’s efforts to overturn the election result. He praised the rest.
“I think they understand that we need a Republican Party,” he said. “We need an opposition that’s principled and strong. I think you’re going to see them going through this idea of what constitutes the Republican Party.”
After Barack Obama won office in 2008, becoming the country’s first Black president, the GOP was energized by the grass-roots tea party movement, which was initially founded under the banner of constitutionalism and low spending but also attacked Obama as illegitimate. In the years that followed, the movement led to fierce and often damaging intraparty battles.
Senate Republican leaders blamed bad tea party candidates for their failure to take back the U.S. Senate in 2012, but other tea party-affiliated candidates, including Sens. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) were able to rise as prominent voices inside the party. The populist anger that they tapped helped elevate Trump to the White House.
A similar division is now playing out, not just in Congress but among the wide field of potential 2024 candidates, who are positioning themselves along a spectrum between the two wings of the party. Two potential candidates, Cruz and Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.), were prominent supporters of the effort to reject the state vote counts in favor of further examination of the vote process.
Others took more nuanced approaches, distancing themselves from Trump. Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) argued that there were election irregularities but that Congress lacked the constitutional authority to overturn the election. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) has kept a steady stream of attacks on Democrats while embracing the “center-right” label and distancing himself from Trump’s claims that the election was rigged.
“Many of those in the mob were driven by a ridiculous conspiracy theory,” Rubio said Friday, after the attack, in a statement that appeared to single out Trump. “And others were lied to — lied to by politicians telling them the VP had the power to change elections results.”
Some potential 2024 contenders have begun to outline a post-Trump era that incorporates his populism but seeks to avoid his unpopular traits. An essay by South Dakota Gov. Kristi L. Noem published over the weekend in the Federalist mentions Trump and the Capitol riot only in passing and does not reference the president’s election claims — but attacks coronavirus-related shutdowns and accuses many in her party of spending too freely and failing to fix problems.
“Republicans have had chances to deliver for the American people. But we haven’t followed through,” she wrote.
Jim McLaughlin, a longtime Republican pollster who worked for Trump in the 2020 election, said he is optimistic Republican voters will again sort out what kind of party they want to have. Ultimately, he argues, the greatest asset of the party is the issue set.
“The voters are going to decide. We always do well when we are out of power,” McLaughlin said, noting the big midterm wins in 1994 and 2010, after Democrats took power. “When we don’t have Washington leadership, we are at our best. It will come up from the grass roots.”
Scott Clement contributed to this report.