In the days leading up to Jan. 6, Olivia Troye saw the online chatter grow more extreme. Former President Donald Trump’s supporters believed the November 2020 election had been rigged in favor of eventual winner Joe Biden. Trump’s team challenged election results where they could and Troye couldn’t shake the feeling that it wouldn’t end well.
An El Paso native, Troye once served as a homeland security and counter-terrorism adviser to former Vice President Mike Pence. Her worries proved prescient on Jan. 6, when Trump supporters stormed the U.S. Capitol. At her home in Virginia, Troye and her family watched the news in horror as the violence unfolded. Many of the rioters wore militia-like tactical gear, many carried arms and some were calling for Troye’s old boss, Pence, to be hanged. (Trump falsely claimed Pence had the ability to overturn the election, leading many of his supporters to label the vice president a “traitor.”)
Troye knew well how volatile the former president’s supporters could be. After she broke with the White House last August over his administration’s handling of the pandemic, she went on television and criticized Trump, even predicting the kind of violence that happened on Jan. 6. The threats poured in.
Troye believes Trump’s rhetoric, parroted by sycophantic Republican lawmakers, led to that day’s chaos and deadly violence. And she was furious: She’d dedicated her life to a party that, the way she saw it, had betrayed its principles for power.
“It’s such a dark moment for our country to watch the fragility of our democracy in action. And the fact that there’s this mob attacking the U.S. Capitol and it was like … watching a banana republic, right?” Troye said. “This doesn’t look like the United States, but it is happening here.”
Some political pundits announced the death of the Republican Party immediately following the insurrection, but it’s a notion that GOP leaders and experts roundly reject. Even in reliably red Texas, some have prophesied a blue wave, thanks in large part to the state government’s failures to manage the fallout from February’s deadly winter storm.
During the 2020 general election, that blue wave missed Texas and Republicans easily retained majority control of the state Legislature, but with conflict inside the party, the Texas GOP will have to decide: Just how much further to the right does it want to drift?
Troye feels abandoned by the party she once loved. She was appalled when prominent Republican lawmakers from her home state, among them U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz and U.S. Rep. Louie Gohmert, spread the lie that the election was stolen.
Thanks to these lawmakers’ actions, Texas Republicans are in a “critical juncture,” Troye said, but not everyone agrees.
In the era of Trump, it’s no surprise that the Texas Republican Party flirted with the extreme right, which surged alongside the former president’s ascent to power. That dalliance escalated last summer, when the state’s GOP ousted incumbent chair James Dickey and brought on a newcomer to the state: former Florida Congressman Allen West.
Once a star in the Tea Party movement, West has racked up an impressive resume throughout his career in politics, which is now a little more than a decade long. Early on, the 60-year-old ultraconservative made a name for himself attacking political adversaries. He lashed out at former President Barack Obama, whom he called “an abject failure” and a “low-level socialist agitator.” In 2015, he described protests against Confederate monuments as a “manufactured crisis.” Later, he cheered on Trump’s pick of Gen. James Mattis as defense secretary, sharing a Facebook meme that said the retired general would “exterminate” Muslims.
Once in Texas, West aimed his sights elsewhere. Last summer, he led the conservative charge against a fellow Republican, Gov. Greg Abbott, railing against the governor’s coronavirus safety restrictions. The move won him fans among the party’s ultraconservative base.
Last October, The Texas Tribune reported that West joined other prominent figures, such as far-right conspiracy theorist and InfoWars founder Alex Jones, in protest outside the governor’s mansion. West demanded that Abbott reopen Texas 100%, even as COVID-19 cases continued to soar statewide and the bodies piled up. Outside the mansion, West spoke to some 200 demonstrators, most of them without masks. His rallying cry? Abbott’s safety restrictions were hurting the state’s businesses, according to Fort Worth talk radio station WBAP.
West confronted Republican critics head-on that day. He told attendees that a county chair also questioned why he’d spearhead the effort before voting began for the general election. "I told him that true leaders don't pick and choose when they do what is right," West said, according to The Tribune. "They do what is right all the time."
West’s crusade fueled speculation that he may try to unseat Abbott in 2022. If that happens, the state’s GOP will face a tough choice: Should it will align with the moderate conservatives in the state Legislature or with the so-called “silent majority” that helped to elect Trump in 2016?
Going up against Abbott is no small task. Even though West raised impressively for his 2020 chairmanship campaign — nearly half a million dollars, according to The Texas Tribune — Abbott’s fundraising capacities are unmatched. According to Associated Press reports, the governor has secured more than $150 million during his six years in office, more than any other governor in American history.
A lifelong Republican, Troye grew up an only child in a middle-class Texas family. She identified with the party’s small-government and strong-military platform, and her college thesis made the argument that the GOP was the pro-minority party of Abraham Lincoln. Later, Troye began working for the Republican National Committee in D.C.; as a Latina, she aimed to build coalitions and strengthen minority outreach.
Then, terrorists attacked the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001. On her way home from work that day, Troye recalls walking past the still-burning building. It made such an impression on her that she decided to become a career intelligence officer focused on national security issues.
Aside from her work in national security, Troye also served as an adviser on Pence’s COVID-19 task force. She left her position in August 2020 because of the way that the coronavirus had become politicized. It was frustrating to see the president actively work to discredit and undermine his own administration’s health experts. The White House had become less concerned about protecting constituents from a deadly disease than retaining control in the November election, she said.
Because of how extreme Trump's rhetoric had become, Troye could see that the president was slowly “radicalizing” his base.
“When Jan. 6 happened, I kept thinking, ‘This is the culmination of four years of a Donald Trump presidency,’” she said. “These are the moments that I worried about that would come to fruition in our country. And unfortunately, that moment did.”
Last summer, it wasn’t just Allen West’s head-to-head with Abbott that raised eyebrows about which way the Texas GOP was headed. In August, the party adopted a curious new slogan, one that quickly prompted backlash: “We are the storm.” Critics pointed to the similarity between the new slogan and a term affiliated with the pro-Trump QAnon conspiracy theory. According to Q lore, “The Storm” refers to a time when Trump would defeat a nefarious satanic cabal of Democratic pedophiles and return the country to greatness.
West didn’t budge. The party kept the slogan, and the chairman has adamantly denied any affiliation with QAnon.
Meanwhile, old ideas gained new steam under West. Texas Republicans have kicked around the idea of secession for years, with diehard conservatives calling for a return to state independence. Now, another attempt to abandon the union is on the table again: A bill filed by Fredericksburg state Rep. Kyle Biedermann would allow Texas to opt out of the union through a referendum. Although West recoiled when asked if he supports secession, the chairman endorsed the proposal to break away. “I’ve said … ‘What would be wrong with allowing people to have a vote on the future of Texas?’ That’s all,” he told the Observer.
Nicknamed “Texit,” the push for secession has generated plenty of headlines, but it’s an “oddball long shot at best,” said Thomas Marshall, a political science professor at the University of Texas at Arlington. Long shot or not, parties boost their fundraising mechanisms when they embrace such ideologically extreme positions, Marshall said; politicians often strategically maintain a more radical stance than voters. In Republicans’ case, it helps to generate conservative grassroots approval, he said.
“There’s no penalty for being flamboyantly out on the edge,” Marshall told the Observer. “Even floating issues which are so far out of the mainstream and so unimaginable to pull off that they’re just 72-hour news cycle events, but that’s where money flows in from and that’s where extremely conservative grassroots people sort of nod and say yes.”
Those hardline ideas are making the rounds this legislative session as a swath of anti-abortion bills works its way through the chambers. Some seek to outlaw abortions, even though the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed a woman’s constitutional right to the procedure in 1973. Others would bar abortion after a heartbeat is detected. Filed by Royse City state Rep. Bryan Slaton, one bill would even make abortion a crime that could be punishable by death for women and physicians.
Another bill by state Rep. Justin Holland would turn Texas into a “Second Amendment sanctuary state,” preventing state agencies from enforcing new federal gun laws.
At the same time, the party has created an account on the far-right social networking site Gab. The Texas GOP’s vice chair, Cat Parks, has joined Abbott in condemning the move, deepening the internal rift within the state’s party.
In a statement on March 9, Parks said she was concerned by the number of anti-Semitic comments she saw on the platform, and there should be “no question” about where the party stands on bigotry.
But the Republican Party of Texas’ official Twitter account said in a post that it wouldn’t end any of its social media accounts. West had no response to the internal row over Gab, but he did say many Americans feel as though social media networks have censored them, and he calls that fascism. “I would have never thought that in the 22 years that I served in the military that I would see fascism taking root here in the United States of America,” he said.
Meanwhile, as many Republicans distanced themselves from Trump following the Capitol riot earlier this year, a portion of the GOP’s base cried heresy. The discontent was so intense that some even founded their own splinter parties to honor the former president, such as the far-right MAGA Patriot Party, which launched in San Antonio in January. Although Trump has stayed onboard the Republican Party, many of his most loyal supporters have claimed they’ll never vote Republican again, including some North Texans who have been charged by the U.S. Justice Department for allegedly participating in the Capitol riots.
New parties or not, dissident Trump supporters aren’t likely to do much damage to the GOP. Rather than siphoning voters from the Republicans, the MAGA Patriot Party and others like it will probably lose steam, said professor Matthew Eshbaugh-Soha, chair of the political science department at the University of North Texas. For instance, the populist Tea Party movement that birthed West first emerged in 2009 before fizzling out, but the Republican Party later absorbed its ideologies into its platform, he said.
Even something as shocking as the Jan. 6 insurrection might not stay on voters’ radars for long, he said. “These things are really short-term in the minds of most voters, and they don’t seem to have an enduring impact,” Eshbaugh-Soha said. “If it was going to be an enduring impact, we would have already seen Republicans significantly alter their approach to governance. And we’re not seeing that.”
Then there’s the question of leadership. On the national level, Trump is still the party’s de facto leader, Marshall said. In fact, when right-wingers from around the country traveled to Florida for the annual Conservative Political Action Conference late last month, Sen. Ted Cruz said Trumpism “ain’t goin’ nowhere.” Trump later took the stage as the keynote speaker.
Some Democrats have boldly declared that Texas is now a battleground state. In Texas, Trump beat President Joe Biden by fewer than 6 percentage points during the 2020 election, a tighter margin than Trump won by in 2016.
In Austin, Abbott’s likeability has also tanked in recent months over his handling of the coronavirus pandemic. Liberals decried his decision to end the mask mandate while the coronavirus continues to spread; conservatives, meanwhile, were upset that he’d ever set any restrictions at all. That tension has manifested itself in a push in the Texas Legislature to limit the governor’s emergency powers, with Granbury state Sen. Brian Birdwell leading the charge.
As horrifying as the insurrection was, Eshbaugh-Soha expects that Republicans will find a way to rationalize it rather than supporting a party that has policies they don’t agree with. A Jan. 6 YouGov poll even found that 45% of Republicans nationally approved of the storming of the Capitol building. “No one event is going to undo an institution that has enormous relevance to voters, members, structures of the political process,” Eshbaugh-Soha said.
More than his policies, it was Trump’s rhetoric that has repelled some, especially among suburban women and moderates, admitted Jason Vaughn, policy director for the Texas Young Republicans. At the same time, though, Vaughn insisted that Trump brought in swaths of working-class people and LGBT Republicans. The former president also helped the Republican Party make significant gains among Latino voters in counties along the Mexican border.
Trump mobilized some who had never been politically active before, Vaughn said; many flocked to Trump because they believed he would fight for them. “And sometimes people want somebody to express and feel their anger more than they actually want something to be accomplished,” he said.
But even as Allen West tries to drag the party further right and Democrats lash out at the governor over February’s deadly winter storms and repealing the mask mandate, experts say Abbott has managed to keep himself safe from threats internal and external. Marshall said he’s still the “runaway favorite” for 2022, and he sees no reason for the governor to be “really worried” by either West or the Democrats.
Olivia Troye’s forecast isn’t sunny. She sees the former president as a divisive figure, someone who has inflected a great deal of harm inside the Republican Party. To her, those still supporting Trump are saying they’re OK with the fact that he essentially “conspired and incited and contributed” to the insurrectionists’ murderous pursuit of his own vice president.
At some point, GOP lawmakers need to take a stand for what’s right for the country, Troye said. Instead of worrying about their voter base, they should break away from Trumpism or else they risk destroying “what’s left of the Republican Party.”
“You’ve already seen Texas voters starting to take a stand and not being OK with what’s happening in the Republican Party and the things that are going on in the Texas party, especially,” she said. “And you’ve seen a growing movement of blue, I would say — and rightly so.”
After the insurrection, Troye cofounded the Republican Accountability Project, an anti-Trump political action committee that created a billboard campaign encouraging Cruz and others to resign. Cruz and Gohmert readily volunteered as enablers of the president, Troye said, and their willingness to spread lies about election fraud helped pave the way for what happened on Jan. 6. Voters need to be reminded of their actions leading up to the next election, she said.
The Republican Accountability Project also supports individuals they view as principled Republicans, people who took a stand against Trump following the insurrection, Troye said. In that vein, the group has created signs thanking conservatives who voted for impeachment. Moderate Republicans need to band together and vote against MAGA candidates, she argued. “We have a short-term memory sometimes as voters but we want to make sure that people don’t forget. And that they deserve better,” Troye said.
“I may be a lifelong Republican,” she continued, “but if there’s a principled person who is running to do what’s right for the country, that’s who I’m going to back. And I think that you’re going to see that across Texas.”
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