For Rohn Bishop, chair of the Republican Party in Fond du Lac County, Wisconsin, a low point in the party’s post-election civil war came one snowy December morning in the small town of Waupun.
Republicans were challenging ballots cast in two heavily Democratic Wisconsin counties, Milwaukee and Dane, based on a variety of technicalities. It was part of Trump’s broader effort to overturn the results of the election, perpetuating his false claim that it had been stolen. Bishop, who manages the auto detailing operation at a GM dealership and has been party chair since 2017, was one of the few state or county party officials anywhere to break ranks—first on Twitter, then on the radio and in the press.
His own party, he said, was “trying to disenfranchise people.”
It was heresy in Bishop’s Trump-supporting county. Fond du Lac has long seen itself as not just another midwestern Republican stronghold, but the symbolic heart of the party: It’s home to the town of Ripon, the sentimental birthplace of the GOP. Bishop takes that heritage seriously. His oldest daughter, Reagan, is named for the former president. That morning in December, sitting down at a coffee shop with his wife, Jennifer, and their two daughters, he picked up a message on his phone. It was from Jim Kiser, a former county supervisor and former party official who’d known Bishop for years.
“I don’t want you calling me back,” Kiser told him. “I don’t want to have anything to do with people that are such traitors to the conservative movement … So, when you see me, don’t say, ‘Hi.’ Just walk right on by as though I don’t exist.”
He said, “I don’t want to talk to you ever again.”
It kept coming. A donor who wrote the party a check for $500 — a substantial sum for the small county party — demanded Bishop return the money. On social media and email threads, Republicans called him an “idiot,” an “asshole” or — the one that bothered him the most — a “RINO,” for Republican In Name Only. (“A lot of these people who like to call you a ‘RINO,’ they don’t do anything,” Bishop said. “They listen to talk radio all day and they think they’re Karl Rove.”) Bishop’s supporters, including elected Republicans in the county, began hearing talk about an effort to unseat him as party chair.
Over the following weeks, the party schism that opened over Trump’s election claims would only grow wider. Republicans would lose the Senate majority in the Georgia runoff elections and Trump would be impeached for the second time. Handfuls of establishment-minded Republicans, including a smattering of House and Senate members supportive of impeachment, became more forceful in their criticism of Trump’s behavior. Some major corporate donors disengaged, and thousands of disaffected Republican voters fled the party. But instead of backing away from Trump, in local and state party committees across the country, Bishop’s counterparts would begin reprimanding Republican lawmakers who crossed him.
By late January, that schism between the party’s traditionalists and its activist base had become the party’s preoccupying crisis of the post-Trump era. Even in defeat it was obvious Trump wasn’t going anywhere. Between the governing and populist classes of the GOP, said Whit Ayres, the longtime Republican pollster, it’s an open question “whether the party remains an uneasy alliance between the two factions or splits apart.”
Ultimately, that question will be answered not only — or even primarily — in Washington, but in local parties like Fond du Lac’s. And in December in Waupun, it wasn’t going well for Bishop’s side of the argument. He told his wife he was “beaten down.” He’d wrapped his whole life up in small-town party politics, and viewed his county’s historic place in the GOP’s history as sacred. But Bishop didn’t want to be chair anymore.
“If people are going to take it so seriously that they’re going to swear at me, I don’t want to do it,” Bishop said. “I’m not in this job to make enemies. I’m here to support Republicans and take the occasional shot at a Democrat. But I don’t want people to hate me over it.”
Then, as Bishop weighed whether to stay on, something started to change in Fond du Lac County. Joe Biden’s inauguration was approaching, with his promise to unwind one Republican policy after another, and the fault lines within the local GOP appeared to fade. The angry phone calls died down, replaced by more agreeable grousing about Biden and Wisconsin’s governor, Tony Evers, two Democrats that Republicans could all disdain.
Bishop knew Republicans who still disagreed with him about Trump and the election and its aftermath. But they were talking about it less. In a party that is laboring to come together, the GOP’s local outpost in his county was emerging as a test case for reconciliation—not by confronting the source of its division, but by papering it over.
By a chance of history and geography, Republicans in Fond du Lac County have seen more of the evolution of the Republican Party than most — enough to make the area a real, if minor, tourist attraction for conservatives and political junkies. And it invests Bishop with what he calls an “extra responsibility” not to let his small piece of the party fall apart.
It was in Fond du Lac County, in 1854, that several dozen Whigs, Free Soilers and Democrats — Americans who felt politically homeless in their fury over the Kansas-Nebraska Act — gathered at the Little White Schoolhouse in Ripon to form a new anti-slavery party, calling themselves Republicans.
Sitting with a Bud Light on his back porch one frigid afternoon in late January, Bishop said, “It’s not like we’re just some random Republican Party in Missouri. We’re the Republican Party of Fond du Lac County, so our letterhead says, ‘Since 1854,’ and we’re the only Republican Party in the country that can say that.”
Bishop, 41, was not a never-Trumper. In Waupun, where he grew up, he lined his driveway last year with Trump signs for supporters to take home. He helped register new voters for Trump, held a campaign training at his house and distributed campaign literature and miniature Trump flags. He watches Fox. And like most of the rest of Fond du Lac County, which went for Trump by more than 26 percentage points, he said “it sucked” when Trump lost.
But Bishop is also steeped in a party that predates Trumpism — and whose story and values Bishop sees as bigger than any one man. One of his grandfathers volunteered for Robert A. Taft at the Republican National Convention in Chicago in 1952 because, Bishop said, “Dwight Eisenhower wasn’t conservative enough for him.” His other grandfather was a precinct committee member for the Republican Party in DuPage County, Ill. There’s an American flag on a pole in Bishop’s front yard and, in his driveway, a red 2008 Pontiac Vibe with the license plate “GOP 4ME.” A branch of the Rock River — the same waterway on which, in Dixon, Ill., Ronald Reagan once worked as a lifeguard — runs alongside Bishop’s backyard.
“Politics is my life,” Bishop said. In his town of about 11,000 people, he had served on the city council, been the local Republican Party treasurer and, eventually, chair. And when he appeared in an ad for Rep. Glenn Grothman, the local Congress member, in 2016, his endorsement said as much about what attracted Bishop to party politics as anything else: “My five-year-old is on a first-name basis with her congressman, because she sees him everywhere,” he said. “Parades, pie socials, truck shows and fish fries — Glenn Grothman will be there.”
It was “kind of cool,” he said, to be on a first-name basis with a Congress member. And it wasn’t just familiarity with important people he liked. Through the party, Bishop had made friends with like-minded Republicans from across the state. In Republican Party circles, he was a fixture himself. “‘Rohn from Waupun,’ that’s what we call him sometimes,” said Eric Toney, the Fond du Lac County district attorney.
In a normal summer, Bishop would appear in parades all over the county — between six and nine of them during a non-pandemic year, in towns like Eden, Alto, Eldorado and Van Dyne. The party has a float with a fiberglass elephant on it. Bishop puts his daughters, Reagan and Maggie, on the float, he walks beside it and they “throw candy and do the whole thing.”
In local political organizing, Bishop said, “A lot of it has to do with making it fun for people.”
But what Bishop saw unfolding in Wisconsin last year wasn’t fun at all. It was far angrier than the politics he was accustomed to, beginning with the chaotic state Supreme Court election in April, flaring again with the shootings in Kenosha and culminating with the election itself. Toward the end of the presidential campaign, Republicans were polling so poorly in the state — a misread, it turned out — that Bishop drove himself to the emergency room in September with what he later learned was an anxiety attack. And in the aftermath of the election, with only about 20,000 votes separating Biden and Trump in the state, Wisconsin, along with Pennsylvania, Nevada, Georgia, Michigan and Arizona, became a focus of Trump’s challenge of the election. In Madison, one legislative aide said her office was inundated with hundreds of telephone calls and emails every day.
“It’s been crazy here,” she said. “Crazy.”
To Bishop, Trump’s loss was “nothing to be ashamed of … I mean, they got 74 million votes!” But a loss was a loss, he said. And as Trump kept lying about what happened, and Bishop saw Republicans in his state supporting him, Bishop, as one Republican elected official in Fond du Lac County put it, “went rogue.” He accused Republican lawmakers of trying to disenfranchise people. He criticized the state’s Republican senator, Ron Johnson, a Trump loyalist, for signing on to the objection in Congress to certifying the election results — a position Johnson abandoned after the riot at the Capitol. He chastised two other pro-Trump senators, Josh Hawley of Missouri and Ted Cruz of Texas, both of them potential GOP presidential candidates in 2024, for their role in challenging the results. On the day of the riot, he insisted publicly that the election “wasn’t stolen and what happened today can be laid at the feet of those Republicans who lied and gave protesters false hope.”
The next day, when Bishop was asked on a Wisconsin radio show if Trump should be removed from office by impeachment or the 25th Amendment, he said: “I probably need to calm down a little before I give an answer I might regret.”
To Bishop, the Republican Party’s entire post-election posture had been a disaster — from challenging the results to the House Republicans’ defense of Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, a peddler of QAnon conspiracy theories. “I mean, that was just unacceptable,” Bishop said. “Who’s going to vote for us if we’re the QAnon party? We need to have an optimistic outlook and tell people why they should vote for us and how we can improve their lives. Not the stupid stuff.”
The Republican Party, he said, had to be “pro-Second Amendment, and we have to be pro-life.” But he said, “We can’t be doing this weird, wacko conspiracy stuff.”
That might strike many Americans as a reasonable caution for a party that had just lost the White House and the Senate. But within the party’s sprawling, Trumpian base, those were fighting words. A large majority of Republicans, accepting Trump’s baseless accusations about widespread voter fraud, believed the presidential election wasn’t free or fair. County and state Republican Party officials across the country — in Arizona, Wyoming, Nebraska, Kentucky — began turning on elected Republicans considered insufficiently loyal to the former president. The base appeared to be carrying Trump’s banner into an internal party war.
Even longtime observers aren’t sure how one party will hold these two factions together. Joining a focus group organized on Zoom by the Republican pollster Frank Luntz last month — and listening to the participants argue about Trump and the direction of the party — Reince Priebus, the Wisconsin native and former White House chief of staff, said that “we have to figure out how to keep this group together without killing each other, and it’s pretty tough.”
However, Priebus said Trump’s voice is “so important” that “this idea that you’ve heard from some of the establishment Republicans that we’re going to divorce ourselves” from Trump, “it’s ridiculous. It’s not even possible.”
Another former Trump adviser put the conundrum for the party more vividly: “There is no good path. I don’t know how you break up with someone like that. It’s like ridding yourself of a parasite that has its tentacles wrapped around most of your major organs.”
Priebus is probably right that the Republican Party will not divorce itself from Trump. But not every marriage is a love affair, and the hope of institutionalists is that this one might, with time, become a union of convenience.
When Bishop told his father, Rohn Bishop Sr., over lunch at The Other Bar in Waupun recently that he was “losing a lot of friends,” Bishop Sr. urged him to patient. “The anger and stuff will calm down,” he said.
Bishop Sr. had seen a moment like this before, he said, when Richard Nixon resigned. His parents kept a framed photograph of Richard and Pat Nixon on the wall behind the bar in their house. When Nixon left, he said, “That really tore the party apart.”
The comparison is imperfect. Nixon stepped down voluntarily; Trump lost by a wide electoral margin yet refused to concede. A disgraced Nixon didn’t try to keep control over the party the way Trump is now doing. But he did bring a sense of national embarrassment that rocked the party back on its heels — and eventually, after Nixon left the White House, Bishop Sr. said, “everybody got over it. It took a few years for the Republicans to get reorganized, but they did.” Ronald Reagan was elected in 1980, just six years later.
“I think it’s just waiting,” he said. “The next election comes, and people start focusing on that.”
In Wisconsin, there are reasons to think that at least some segment of the Republican electorate is prepared to look past Trump. They may already have been looking past him in November. Of the state’s five Republican-held House seats, the Republican running — and winning — in each district in November outperformed Trump in his district. And Republicans fared relatively well down-ballot nationwide.
It is possible that, for general election purposes in future years, the rift in the party is overstated. Andrew Hitt, the Republican Party chair in Wisconsin, thinks so. “If there’s any disagreement, it’s about who you’re going to support in the next [primary] election. That just seems like a very run-of-the-mill primary discussion, which happens all the time, and parties work through that, and have worked through that for decades.”
That’s true. In Fond du Lac, the county clerk, Lisa Freiberg, recalled that right after Hillary Clinton’s surprising loss to Trump in 2016, it was the Democrats who appeared adrift. Eight years before that, with Barack Obama’s election, Toney, the district attorney, remembered hearing “the Republican Party was dead.”
The anger and sense of division, he suggested, is partly just a symptom of a normal post-election reckoning. “I would never judge any party based on what we’re seeing right now,” he said.
For the next four years, Republicans will have a common foil in the White House. They are pushing, largely in unison, for new voting restrictions in states across the country. And in Wisconsin, there’s Evers and his management of the coronavirus pandemic for Republicans to organize against.
Scott Walker, the Republican former governor of Wisconsin, predicts that Republicans will find they have more in common than not. Like Bishop Sr., he likened the moment to the post-Nixon era, “where you got different wedges of people in the movement.”
“As conservatives, we’ve just got to get back to the basics,” Walker said. “I think that’s what they did in Ripon … The people who came together and called themselves Republicans in Ripon were of this core sense of not just being opposed to slavery, but of freedom, they were fundamentally about freedom.”
Asked if getting “back to basics” required Republicans not only to rally around common ideals but also give something up, Walker said, “Well, we’ll see. Who knows what ultimately happens with President Trump. Obviously he’s going to be a factor … But how big of a factor?”
One sign of how the party may find a way past its divisions came on Bishop’s lunch break one Friday in January. While on a walk, he got a call from Toney, the district attorney. Toney knew Bishop was under siege. But his opinion was that in local politics, the deeper relationships people have with one another — even among those who disagree — make it harder for people to stay mad.
It was a brief conversation, but on the phone that afternoon, Bishop and Toney talked about the party and about the Little White Schoolhouse in Ripon, the small, white frame structure with “Birthplace of The Republican Party” above the door.
“We do have some special responsibility in being caretakers of the party,” Toney said. “And that’s where we have to be united in bringing people together.”
In fact, by mid-January, Bishop said the criticism he took immediately after the election was already waning. Talk about the election was, too. (Of the 15 Wisconsin state lawmakers who signed onto a Jan. 5 letter asking then-Vice President Mike Pence not to certify the election results, none responded to requests for comment for this article. Nor did Rep. Tom Tiffany, one of the two House members from Wisconsin who voted against certification. A spokesperson for the other, Rep. Scott Fitzgerald, said he had no comment.) One night after dinner, Bishop’s wife asked him why he was being so quiet. He had been rethinking his decision to quit the chair role, and he told her “I might be making the wrong decision.” Bishop announced he was going to run for re-election, and he asked Toney to re-nominate him.
Nobody in Fond du Lac County knew what to expect when the county party met for its annual caucus in early February. Were the Trump loyalists going to mount a challenge to the local chair who dared to question their leader? Sam Kaufman, a county supervisor and the party’s treasurer, had heard “some grumblings in the background about having somebody else nominated for chairman.” Freiberg, the county clerk, had picked up on discontent — “just hearsay,” she said. In part for that reason, despite a gathering snowstorm, the meeting at the Sunset on the Water Grill and Bar, on the southeast shore of Lake Winnebago, drew a crowd.
Bishop was re-elected unanimously. No one even ran against him.
Kiser, the former supervisor who had left the voicemail for Bishop, still feels the same way about him. “I think he’s an idiot,” he said.
But Kiser, a former vice chair of the party, had long ago pulled away from the party apparatus. And no one else stepped up to spearhead a challenge. Even among Bishop’s critics, Kaufman said, there was a recognition, that he is a “dedicated, hard worker … He’s always just got his hands in it, under control.”
“Plus,” Kaufman said, “no one else wants it, I don’t think. It’s a lot of work.”
Bishop was so moved that when he stood up to thank the room, someone asked him if he was going to start crying.
It was after 10 p.m. when Bishop left the restaurant and climbed into his car. The wind was whipping snow in off the frozen lake. Driving back to Waupun on Highway 151, he said, “So, I’ve got the job for two more years.”
The challenge for the party — how it knits itself together, what kind of candidates it gets behind, how it processes Trump — that challenge was officially his. He talked about the upcoming parade season, about his political aspirations — he hopes to become mayor of Waupun one day — about what it means to be a “big tent” party.
“You can’t be kicking people out of the big tent,” he said. “And that means I have to put up with people who don’t agree with my style of Republicanism. But then, they have to put up with my style of Republicanism. We have to agree to disagree, and all get on the same page.”
That same day in Washington, the House was voting to strip Greene of her committee assignments, while Greene — though distancing herself from conspiracy theories— took aim at a “a media that is just as guilty as QAnon of presenting lies that divide us.” On the other side of the Republican Party’s divide, Sen. Ben Sasse, of Nebraska, was releasing his video defending his criticism of Trump and deriding what he called “the weird worship of one dude.” The argument was still raging.
But in Fond du Lac County, Bishop thought he could feel his county turning a page — either back, or forward, to a different style of politics. He was optimistic that, at least in Fond du Lac County, the Republican Party could “unite around a nice message.”
“We need to be better than what we have been, because our message has been jumbled in the negativity of the personal insults,” he said. “We’ve got to be better than that.”
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