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With Trump out of office, the Republican Party is having an identity crisis

The Republican Party is out of power on Capitol Hill and deeply divided on issues from the attack on the Capitol to the impeachment of former President Trump. Denver Riggleman, a former Republican congressman and chief strategist at the Network Contagion Research Institute, and Whit Ayres, the president of North Star Opinion Research, join Judy Woodruff to discuss.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    It has been a week since President Trump left office, but House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy was in Florida today to meet with the former president, where they agreed to work together to win back the majority.

    Out of power on Capitol Hill, the Republican Party is deeply divided on issues like the attack on the Capitol, the impeachment of Mr. Trump, and even his role in the party.

    For a check on the GOP divide, we turn now to Denver Riggleman, a Republican who represented Virginia in Congress up until earlier this month. He's now the chief strategist at the Network Contagion Research Institute. It's an organization fighting misinformation. And Whit Ayres, the president of North Star Opinion Research, a political polling group that has worked with Republican politicians, including Senators Marco Rubio and Lindsey Graham and Florida Governor Ron DeSantis.

    Hello to both of you. So good to have you with us.

    Denver Riggleman, let me start with you.

    What shape is the Republican Party in right now? How much power does President Trump still hold?

  • Denver Riggleman:

    I think he holds a lot of power over the party.

    Now, I'm here in Virginia in the sort of central and south central portion of this great commonwealth. And right now, when you go downrange, and I would say about half-an-hour south of here — I was down there recently — and I saw a Trump/Pence sign.

    Well, "Pence" had been spray-painted black, had been spray-painted over with very crude language there. And I went into a store, a storefront there, and, really, everybody in there was completely pro-Trump. And some weren't real happy with me.

    So, what I'm seeing across the country, especially in committees — you're looking at Oregon, you're looking at Kentucky, you're looking at Arizona, you're looking at Georgia, you're looking at Michigan — I think, right now, what I'm seeing is that, in certain districts, I think President Trump's going to play very well.

    And I think there's an advantage to some of these individuals who sort of grabs to "Stop the Steal" mythology and the messaging. And I'm seeing that down in North Carolina. I'm seeing that in other places. And even here in Virginia, we're having people already running on election integrity and "Stop the Steal," Judy.

    So, I'm not trying to sound a pessimistic bell here, but I don't think it's as bad as people think for people who supported President Trump. And I think people like me, who are very angry about the Capitol riots, might be in the minority right now.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Whit Ayres, are you seeing the same thing in the Republican Party right now?

  • Whit Ayres:

    Hello, Judy. It's good to be with you.

    The GOP is sharply split today between a governing faction and a populist faction. The governing faction has gained majority support in the past among elected officials and retains the dominant force among elected officials today, including people like Congressman Riggleman.

    But the populist faction predated Donald Trump. But Donald Trump expanded it and grew it to the point where it dominates Republican primaries today, although it has never gained majority support in the country.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, what does that mean right now? I mean, as we try to understand — Denver Riggleman, back to you.

    As we try to understand the place for — frankly, for truth, for fighting disinformation in the party, what happens to party members who are trying to do that?

  • Denver Riggleman:

    Well, for me, I thought that the use of sort of compassionate blunt-force facts would be some way that I can pull people back in.

    But if you remember my convention last year, I was hit with conspiracy theories. And even with my background and intelligence and fighting disinformation back to ISIS and back to al-Qaida and the Taliban, it was interesting that I couldn't seem to break through on what facts and truth were. And I'm still seeing that today.

    I just got messages today, Judy, that said that I was still on the wrong side of things, that, on March 4, President Trump would come back and be inaugurated. And I — and these are people that I know.

    And I'm wondering right now how difficult it's going to be to bring people back into the fold. And I think we had some that felt a little out of sorts after January 6. I think they were ashamed of what happened to people like Officer Sicknick.

    But now, with the silence from President Trump, what I'm seeing, that there seems to be a small uptick in polling, but also in the open source data and chatter that we're seeing, on what we can see, it seems that people are sort of buying back in into the "Stop to Steal," election integrity, and some of those conspiracy theories that have sort of spread and metastasized across the country.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    So, Whit Ayres, I mean, for me, the question is, is there a place in the Republican Party for traditional Republicans, people who don't buy into the idea that the election was completely fraudulent, that Donald Trump actually won?

  • Whit Ayres:

    We're going to find that out, Judy.

    And it's not at all clear that that's the case. Whether the GOP retains its uneasy alliance between the governing faction and the populist faction depends on some things that we don't know about yet. How is the Biden administration going to govern?

    Are they going to govern from the center? Or are they going to get pushed to the left? How active is Donald Trump going to remain in politics in America? And will there emerge a Republican leader who can somehow split or appeal to both of the factions of the party?

    Marco Rubio gave a speech at Catholic University called "Common Good Capitalism," where he said that corporate leaders have as much of an obligation to their workers as to their shareholders. That is an attempt to bridge the divide. We will see if that's successful.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    I'm asking you all this, in part, Denver Riggleman and Whit Ayres, because, just as an example, today, Florida Congressman Matt Gaetz went to Wyoming, held a rally against Liz Cheney, who is — has been and is in Republican leadership in the House of Representatives.

    But she's one of the 10 Republicans who voted to impeach President Trump.

    Let's just listen to what — part of what Congressman Gaetz said today.

  • Rep. Matt Gatez, R-Fla.:

    If you want to prove that you have the power, defeat Liz Cheney in this upcoming election, and Wyoming will bring Washington to its knees!

    (CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

  • Rep. Matt Gatez:

    Leadership doesn't mean backing a Nancy Pelosi-fueled impeachment by reflex.

    (BOOING)

  • Woman:

    Impeach her!

  • Rep. Matt Gatez:

    There's basically two things that Liz Cheney has done in the United States Congress, frustrate the agenda of President Trump and sell out to the forever war machine.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    To Denver Riggleman, in Liz Cheney, you have a very solidly conservative member of the Republican Party. Is she in real jeopardy here?

  • Denver Riggleman:

    Absolutely.

    And I have talked to Liz. Liz is a friend of mine, But Liz is tough. And I don't know if she's going to take kindly to Matt Gaetz going to her home state. And she had definitely used the makeup analogy, but I don't think he's going to try to beat RINOs one piece of mascara at a time.

    I don't think that's the way you want to go about it, is going to somebody's home state. But you saw how many people were there. There were hundreds. I think he had Donald Trump Jr. there, by the way, as far as over the telephone, speaking about this.

    So, you can see the Trump family is still very involved in politics. And the fact is, they got a grudge against Liz Cheney, Judy. I mean, they want to do this. And I do believe that there's going to be a challenge and a lot of money pumped into that race.

    I think you will see a lot of money pumped against Fred Upton, I think maybe Anthony Gonzalez. I think poor Tom Rice, I think he's going to get hit too.

    So, I talk to a lot of these individuals. They're not afraid. They're angry. But they do understand that there's a real challenge coming. And I — honestly, I believe Whit is correct. I think it remains to be seen what's going to happen here.

    But from what I'm seeing on the data, what I'm seeing on what people believe and with the committees and how they're voting, I do think there's a little bit of trepidation with people like Liz and the 10 that voted for impeachment.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Whit Ayres, you said so much depends or a lot depends on how President Biden governs.

    But, in the meantime, are you concerned that we could see more violence, like what we saw at the Capitol on January the 6th? I mean, there's a warning out right now from the Department of Homeland Security about domestic terrorism. A man was found with explosives in his car threatening Governor Newsom of California today, Democrat.

    Are we headed for a period where we may see more violence, do you think?

  • Whit Ayres:

    Judy, you can't guarantee that we won't, not with the kinds of emotions that are out there.

    I mean, it's incredibly divisive when someone like Congressman Gaetz goes out to the home district of a leader of the Republican House Caucus and attacks them. I mean, that just gins people up and makes them angrier.

    So, I think we're in a very, very tenuous time. And it's really, really dangerous to be continuing to feed people lies and misinformation just to get them riled up.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    It's disturbing to think about, but we thank you both so much for joining us.

    Whit Ayres, Denver Riggleman.

  • Denver Riggleman:

    Thanks, Judy.

  • Whit Ayres:

    Good to be with you, Judy.

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