The culture wars have barely begun

A few years ago, Republicans might have seen a guy like Riggleman as their future. He’s a small-business owner from the rural part of a purple-blue state who cares a lot about national security and keeping taxes low, and not much about policing people’s personal lives. In the infamous 2013 GOP autopsy report diagnosing why Republicans kept losing the popular vote and popular support, party leaders wrote that “young people and increasingly other voters will continue to tune us out” if the GOP does not become more inclusive. The culture wars were over, the report seemed to suggest—standing against same-sex marriage was a way to lose elections, not win them. But as Riggleman’s saga makes clear, there are many places in the country where issues such as LGBTQ rights are not at all settled. As the 117th Congress convenes this month, voices from those places may be the loudest ones on the right. “I’ve been screaming, ‘We need to become a big-tent party!’ for some time,” Riggleman told me. “But I think they misunderstood me and thought I meant ‘carnival tent.’”

Riggleman has spent the past six months battling the more fringe parts of his party. Shortly after he was effectively fired, he started receiving hate mail, calling him a “fag lover,” a leader of “Bibi Netanyahu’s pedophile ring,” and a “tool of the anti-Christ.” One troll even called his wife “the spawn of Satan”—making the two of them a sort of underworld power couple, Riggleman joked. “I really am not a big fan of conspiracy theories or radicalization,” he said. “There’s this bizarre stream of that running through the GOP right now. And it’s going to hurt the party.” He has used much of his final time in office to condemn QAnon, the right-wing conspiracy theory that has been promoted by conservatives such as Marjorie Taylor Greene, the newly elected representative from Georgia. “It’s very hard to call myself a Republican if I believe there’s a significant portion of the party—even if it’s 15 to 20 percent—who believe some of those things,” Riggleman said. “Something that used to be called the Grand Old Party now stands for ‘Grandpa’s on Peyote.’”