Perspective: Inside the fight for the GOP’s soul

Infighting among Republicans has become openly hostile. Can the party of Lincoln fight a path forward?

The seeds of today’s split in the Republican Party were sown before Donald Trump declared his lofty and once-laughed-at ambition to become president. Fights between so-called “rational” and “radical” Republicans broke out with the rise of the tea party movement in 2009 and continued throughout the Obama presidency, as establishment GOP elites were pitted against a raucous right wing. But these were mostly ideological spats — disputes over policy within a political party struggling to evolve — and seem quaint when compared to the current state of affairs.

As the former Trump administration official known as “Anonymous,” thanks to the op-ed I wrote for The New York Times announcing a resistance within Trump’s own administration, I can tell you things have gotten worse. In the past year the GOP civil war has gone from figurative to physical. What began as a philosophical cleavage has now turned into a militant fight over personalities, from a barrage of violent threats against establishment Republicans who brought down their own president ... to the deadly insurrection at the U.S. Capitol ... to ongoing efforts aimed at silencing those who break with Trump, the party’s lingering figurehead.

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In interviews with more than a dozen prominent Republicans — including former members of Congress, my fellow ex-administration officials, recent party leaders and political strategists — I heard a common theme: In today’s GOP, intimidation has supplanted open discourse. “For a party that’s all sensitive about the left canceling them,” lamented Michael Steele, the former head of the Republican National Committee, “they do a pretty good job canceling their own.”

Perhaps most striking, though, was the revelation that center-right dissenters have been forced to worry about something more precious than their political careers: their lives. 

I was present when the battle lines were drawn, working as a national security aide for the Republican majority in the U.S. House during the Obama years. These were the days when we tussled with the White House over concerns that it lacked focus on the terrorism threat, was unwilling to stand up to Russian aggression and was more interested in courting autocrats overseas than our own allies. (The irony isn’t lost on me, given who would eventually replace President Barack Obama.)

Yet Republicans were hardly unified. A new wave of right-leaning tea party representatives pressured GOP leaders to turn America’s focus inward, from “ending endless wars” to imposing tight immigration restrictions. I remember lamenting the intraparty squabbles on the House floor with Evan McMullin, the Republican policy chief and a former CIA officer, who had the unenviable task of reconciling these competing factions. “It’s been a bumpy road,” he confided to me then in his usual, understated manner, as House leaders worked to keep the newcomers at bay.

Then Donald Trump entered the scene. His 2016 presidential bid transformed a simmering rift within the GOP into a full-blown existential crisis. The Party of Lincoln went to war with itself, divided between the values of its 19th-century founder and the viral vitriol of social media hordes, stoked by a mercurial tycoon-turned-candidate who relished in fanning the flames of the party’s populist movement — and whose confrontational style delighted Americans tired of politicians and triple-filtered talking points.

Illustration by Craig Frazer

Establishment Republicans panicked. Texas Gov. Rick Perry branded Trump “a cancer on conservatism”; Sen. Lindsey Graham equated him to “an evil force”; and Rep. Mick Mulvaney said he was one of the “most flawed human beings ever to run for president in the history of the country.” What’s more, House Speaker Paul Ryan tasked aides, including my- self, with drafting a “Trump inoculation plan,” a GOP platform that was designed to be the antithesis of the candidate’s nativist worldview.

As Trump continued his march toward the nomination unabated, the party’s right flank coalesced around him, while many Republicans resisted. The Atlantic called it “The Great Republican Revolt,” while Politico ran the headline “Welcome to the GOP civil war,” as GOP heavyweights considered ways to block Trump’s convention coronation.

GOP elites resigned themselves to a sobering reality: that a deeply flawed Donald Trump was their nominee and that he would undoubtedly lose, tarnishing the party’s image in the process and leaving the White House in Democratic hands. The mainstream media agreed, predicting a post-election GOP reckoning. “You may think the Republican Party is in the midst of a civil war,” one analyst mused days before the vote, “(but) you ain’t seen nothin’ yet.”

Then the unthinkable happened. Trump won. 

Most anti-Trump Republicans either left the party or were sidelined. Others, including myself, urged fellow conservatives to consider entering the administration to contain the chaos, fearing that the president-elect and his island of misfit advisers were unprepared to lead the country.

Meanwhile, Trump used strong-arm tactics to drive remaining Republican dissidents underground or into submission, turning previously fiery critics — like Perry, Graham and Mulvaney — into supplicants, eager to curry favor with the new president.

Suddenly, the cacophony of a once-divided Republican Party sounded more like silence. To be clear, this was a public silence. Because behind closed doors, Republicans — from members of Congress to the president’s own Cabinet secretaries — confessed that they didn’t think he was a real conservative, was unstable and even posed a threat to the country. Nevertheless, many kept their mouths shut, having witnessed Trump’s vindictiveness up close.

Denver Riggleman, a former Republican congressman from Virginia elected in 2018, described the environment like a hostage situation. “As soon as I won, I realized what I’d gotten myself into,” he told me. “I found that votes had nothing to do with policy but with complete loyalty to the president. I just found it amazing that (other Congress members) were so subservient. Half of them agreed with me ... but there was no way they were going to go against the polls and fundraising.”

During Riggleman’s first month in office, the federal government shut down, and Trump refused to reopen it until he got more money for his border wall. The upstart congressman believed hobbling the government was a dangerous exercise, so he stood against the president. “At that point, I was told I would have a primary opponent,” he said, “because I voted ‘yes’ (to reopen the government).” Rep. Mark Meadows, who later became Trump’s chief of staff, approached Riggleman on the House floor. “You’re done,” he spat, implying an end to the Virginian’s career.

A Trump-ified Republican Party made examples out of members like Riggleman (he was challenged in the primaries and lost to Bob Good, who campaigned on a Trump-aligned platform, which included calling the COVID-19 pandemic “phony”). The intimidation worked. With rare exceptions, the GOP largely unified behind the commander in chief. And a détente remained in place for the majority of Trump’s term.

While Republican in-fighting abated, overall political discourse got more heated, jumping the tracks from vitriol to violence. There was the driver who rammed his vehicle into a crowd of protesters opposing a “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia; the Florida man who mailed pipe bombs to Trump critics across the country; and the El Paso shooter who gunned down 22 people in a Texas Walmart, echoing Trump’s grievances about an “invasion” at the southern border.

Senior national security officials, including people Trump appointed, worried that the president’s charged words were fueling an uptick in domestic terrorism. “Some of this started to surface with the rhetoric of the tea party,” explained Olivia Troye, who served as Vice President Mike Pence’s homeland security adviser. “But it shifted from ‘angry sentiments’ to ‘taking action’ under Donald Trump.”

Other conservatives shared those worries. “Language shapes behavior,” former Republican Gov. Christine Todd Whitman told me. “And the language we heard from President Trump over four years was the kind of language that encouraged people to act out if they don’t get their way. He was encouraging the other bullies to strike.” 

As the 2020 race heated up, there was quiet chatter about potential Trump challengers from the right, especially during his impeachment. Several Republicans dipped their toes in the race, including former Reps. Joe Walsh and Mark Sanford, and former Massachusetts Gov. Bill Weld. Their outsider candidacies failed to take off; instead, it was a group of insiders who posed a bigger danger to the president and who reignited intra-GOP hostilities.

I was among them, publishing that Times editorial under a pseudonym and a subsequent book detailing presidential misconduct that should disqualify Trump for a second term. His former national security adviser, John Bolton, eventually followed suit, releasing an extensive indictment of the president and declaring: “I don’t think he has the competence to carry out the job.”

It didn’t stop there. As summer approached, former Defense Secretary Jim Mattis penned a scathing essay, calling Trump “the first president in my lifetime who does not try to unite the American people — does not even pretend to try.” Then the dam began to break, and an unprecedented parade of ex-Trump aides started speaking out against him. CNN even aired a prime-time special (“The Insiders: A Warning From Former Trump Officials”) featuring nearly a dozen administration aides who believed their old boss was unfit for office.

“The depths of his dishonesty is just astounding to me,” the president’s second chief of staff, John Kelly, told associates. “The dishonesty, the transactional nature of every relationship. ... He is the most flawed person I have ever met in my life.”

Anti-Trump organizations amplified these messages in television spots, digital advertisements, social media posts and billboards across America, infuriating the sitting president and giving center-right voters unease. If Trump’s own team didn’t think he was qualified, did he really deserve reelection?

Nevertheless, many officials who shared our views were reluctant to join the fight. It wasn’t that they disagreed with what we were saying (in fact, most privately told us they’d vote for Joe Biden before voting for Trump, or write in the name of a family member). Rather, they were worried about the president using his expansive bully pulpit to attack them. “I watched how they went out of the way to destroy people and their entire lives,” Troye reflected on her time in the Trump White House; it gave her pause about coming forward.

In only a few years, the nature of political dissent had changed. Speaking out meant facing the wrath of Trump-incited digital mobs, ready to terrorize you with a few keystrokes. “When the leader of your party — the president of the country — says, ‘Go ahead and knock the hell out of them, and if you have legal fees I’ll pay for it,’” Steele remarked, “where do you go from there?”

Still, courage was contagious in some quarters. Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman testified in Trump’s first impeachment trial, detailing the incriminating phone call he heard between Trump and the president of Ukraine. In retaliation, Trump not only fired Vindman from his post at the National Security Council, he had Vindman’s twin brother removed from the NSC as well. “The objective of intimidation is to silence,” Vindman told me. “People who stand on principle won’t let that happen. They won’t be silenced.” 

In the case of Troye, Pence’s national security aide, the threats were immediate. After she released a video message in September 2020 detailing the president’s mishandling of the COVID-19 pandemic, the president and his aides struck back and rallied supporters to do the same.

“It wasn’t just political anger,” she recalled. “It was more like, ‘You will be shot in the street.’ It skipped a beat and went straight to violence.” She was deluged with messages and phone calls from strangers, including, “We know who you are,” “You will never be able to walk the streets again,” and “We will find you and your family.” Others shared similar anecdotes with me, including relocating their families or having a police presence outside their house for days and even weeks on end.

Around the same time, I was traveling through swing states to warn voters not to give Trump a second term. I’d been at it for months, but I felt the time had come to disclose that I was also Trump’s “Anonymous” critic. Sure, I’d originally written under a pen name so that Trump would be forced to contend with my message rather than distract attention by making it about the messenger, but on the eve of a momentous election, I wanted to urge others to come out of the shadows. Now was a moment to stand up and be counted, not to hide.

My unmasking led an angry Trump to bellow at a campaign rally that “bad things” were about to happen to me — a not-so-subtle signal to supporters that they should go after his adversary. They took the bait. In a North Carolina hotel room rented under a fake name, my phone exploded with emails, texts and Twitter posts from MAGA world. Each was a digital grim reaper. “Your blood will be in the streets, you (expletive) traitor,” one read. I settled in for a sleepless night, pillow covering the loaded pistol I brought on the campaign trail for self-defense. In the months that followed, I was accosted in public, forced to leave my home and my job, assigned an armed bodyguard, and besieged by stalkers who threatened my extended family and friends.

Then on Nov. 3, something extraordinary happened. Although it wasn’t immediately clear who won the election, data started to emerge that millions of Republican voters who supported Trump in 2016 ditched him in 2020, voting instead for Democrat Joe Biden. In fact, the margins were enough to push Biden over the edge in key swing states. Disaffected Republican voters had joined the rebellion.

When Biden was certified the winner, mainstream conservatives breathed a sigh of relief, hoping it would be the end of a tumultuous period for the party and country.

It wasn’t. 

Key members of Trump’s team rebutted his charges of a “stolen” and “fraudulent” election, including his own top election security official, Chris Krebs, who announced that the election “was the most secure in American history.” The president promptly fired him by tweet. Soon after, one of Trump’s attorneys remarked in an interview that Krebs “should be drawn and quartered, taken out at dawn, and shot.” Krebs reported receiving a “barrage of threats and harassment,” and his attorneys noted in later court filings that he “face(d) a genuine risk of imminent harm from persons who may seek to act upon ... (the) call for violence.”

The comment came on the heels of another public exhortation by a Trump ally, former White House strategist Steve Bannon, who declared that FBI Director Chris Wray should be decapitated and have his head placed on a pike outside of the White House, suggesting capital punishment for disloyalty to the president.

Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, also a Republican, was similarly harassed for rebutting Trump’s claims. “You and your family will be killed very slowly,” he was warned in chilling text messages to his wife: “We plan for the death of you and your family every day.” The family went into hiding, as the trend continued around the country, with election officials fearing for their lives for contradicting the president.

The discord culminated with the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol. Members of the mob — Trump supporters who’d been egged on by the president to “stop the steal” — broke into the Capitol and appeared to be hunting for senators and congressmen, with some even calling for the death of Vice President Mike Pence, who was whisked away from the Senate floor where he had been overseeing the certification of the election results.

As Congress weighed whether to impeach Trump in the wake of the attack, GOP representatives reported that their colleagues were scared to vote their conscience. “If you look at the vote to impeach,” Rep. Liz Cheney later revealed, “there were members who told me that they were afraid for their own security — afraid, in some instances, for their lives.” Cheney herself was forced to take on a protective detail follow- ing threats related to her impeachment vote and was later ejected from House GOP leadership.

“That’s why the hammer came down so hard on Liz Cheney,” Steele explained. “To send a message of fear. No one wants to be targeted the way she’s been targeted, which makes this period we are in perhaps the most dangerous.” 

Conservatives I spoke with were pessimistic about whether the rebel wing of the GOP would prevail. “In the House, we used to marginalize the crazies and elevate the rational ones,” an ex-GOP congressman confided on background. “Now the opposite is happening. They are elevating the fringe members — the ones who talk about Jewish space lasers and vaccines not working — and are sidelining the Liz Cheneys and Adam Kinzingers, the rational ones.”

Conservative lawyer George Conway believes that the moderate side has already lost the GOP civil war, at least inside the Washington beltway. “We’re down to just two Republicans in the House who are taking a strong stand,” he told me. “The real civil war is happening underground, in a sense, as Republicans lose moderate, sensible voters in the suburbs. That’s where the cleavage is. It’s a wasting away of the party.”

Data this year lends support to Conway’s claim. Following the insurrection, moderate voters began ditching the GOP in droves, with tens of thousands in key swing states renouncing their membership. At the same time, a record proportion of voters claimed to be “independents,” while a Gallup poll showed the largest increase in Democratic Party affiliation in a decade.

As rational Republicans flee, more radical ones are doubling down on extremist political positions. A YouGov poll this summer found that the majority of Southern Republicans (66%) supported the idea of secession — in other words, having their states formally leave the United States to form a new government.

At the same time, shifting attitudes toward physical attacks are setting an ominous tone around the “underground” GOP civil war Conway described. “There is a growing sentiment that political violence is justified,” says Elizabeth Neumann, who previously served as a top Trump counterterrorism official. “The rhetoric we are tracking online is shifting. Trump supporters are talking more about ‘civil war’ and ‘taking back the country’ through violent means.”

A University of Chicago survey found that 9% of American adults (more than 20 million people) agree with the statement: “Use of force is justified to restore Donald J. Trump to the presidency.” More alarming still, one million of them are members of — or personally know members — of militia or extremist groups, while six million voiced support for such groups.

“Previous estimates for domestic extremists in the United States were closer to 100,000 or less,” Neumann told me. “So we’re talking about a roughly tenfold increase in just a few years.”

She fears that politicians are normalizing violent rhetoric which will, in turn, fuel more violent behavior. Neumann pointed to comments in August from North Carolina GOP Rep. Madison Cawthorn who warned of potential “bloodshed” if elections “continue to be rigged.”

“You could have another January 6 or worse if this charged political rhetoric continues,” she elaborated. “I think they see it as politics as usual, but they are not understanding that we are on the precipice of future terrorist attacks.”

Case in point: The week she and I spoke, police arrested a Trump protester in Washington, D.C., who threatened to bomb the U.S. Capitol if Joe Biden didn’t step down. Rather than condemn the would-be bomber, Alabama Rep. Mo Brooks appeared to offer support, releasing a statement that read in part, “... I understand citizenry anger directed at dictatorial Socialism and its threat to liberty, freedom, and the very fabric of American society.”

“The GOP has a decision to make,” GOP Rep. Adam Kinzinger struck back. “Are we going to be the party that keeps stoking sympathy for domestic terrorists and pushes out truth, or finally take a stand for truth?”

In the 2022 and 2024 elections, we may get an answer.

Most observers I spoke with worried that the specter of Trump’s reentry into the fray would haunt the GOP, driving more dissidents underground and pushing the party further to the populist right. “There’s not even a GOP platform,” Whitman lamented. “The party didn’t re- lease one in 2020. It’s just whatever Donald Trump says it is.”

Others are less pessimistic. “The best thing that happened to Republicans is that Trump lost his social media platforms,” an ex-congressman offered. “Now they don’t have to answer him on a daily basis.” What’s more, he predicted that the presidential ambitions of figures such as Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz would counteract the former president’s Darth Vader-like chokehold on the party.

Meanwhile, the violent intimidation has continued. A vocal Trump critic and lifelong Republican shared that in recent weeks she’d been notified that MAGA users on the darknet were sharing her personal information and location data, along with not-so-veiled talk of hits on her life. “It’s time to take her out,” one user wrote. She referred the threat to law enforcement.

Half of the moderate Republicans I interviewed had already applied for — or received — permits to carry concealed firearms because of safety worries. One is considering a near-term run for public office and is putting in place additional precautions. There are “people in a lot of these communities who are now unafraid to commit violence. They’ve been given license by Trump — and the people who’ve made excuses for him — so we’ve got to protect ourselves,” he said, pausing for a moment.

“It’s a tightening of the noose around freedom and democracy.” 

It’s much too soon to write a eulogy for the Party of Lincoln. A nucleus of conservative leaders are still working to steer the Republican Party away from vitriol and violence and back to its roots — to a common foundation built around reverence for free minds, free markets and free people. And new conservative candidates are entering races around the country with a similar message.

Meanwhile, the GOP base is slowly showing signs of openness to a less combative, post-Trump future. One recent poll found that a majority of Republican voters want to see “new leaders and fresh faces” in a clear rebuke of Donald Trump, whose support in the same poll among GOP primary voters plummeted — only 26 percent of them want to see him as the 2024 nominee, a 20-point drop from this summer.

Finally, in the run-up to the 2022 elections, there are hopeful signs that moderates on both sides of the aisle are aligning to support moderates in races where radical candidates might otherwise have the lead. And that, perhaps, is where the GOP civil war will one day end—with pragmatic Americans deciding that they would rather be unified closer to the center than divided at the political poles. 

Miles Taylor is the co-founder of the Renew America Movement, the former chief of staff of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and author of The New York Times bestselling memoir, “A Warning.” 

This story appears in the November issue of Deseret MagazineLearn more about how to subscribe.