Among those in his party quick to disavow the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol by a pro-Trump mob was Bernie Iacovangelo, the newly elected chair of the Monroe County Republican Committee.
“Today’s violence at our Nation’s Capital is something that we strongly condemn and the perpetrators behind the acts waged against our Republic should be prosecuted under the fullest extent of the law,” he wrote in a Jan. 6 post on the county GOP’s Facebook page.
Iacovangelo continued: “What happened today is not the reflection of a party that I have been a member of my entire life. I would ask that we all take a moment to reflect and pray for our Country and for our fellow citizens and leaders.”
The post drew more than 100 replies. A few lauded their party leader’s sentiments. Many more did not.
“Thank you for posting this,” wrote Linda Kohl, a Penfield town council member
Wrote Phil Castleberry: “It’s time for the silent majority in our party to speak up, return to a focus on our values, and once again be the party of Lincoln, TR, Eisenhower, and Reagan. In four years, we have managed to lose both chambers of Congress and the White House, with ripple effects down ballot in many local elections, including right here in Monroe County. We were here before in 1992 and look what we accomplished, together as a unified party, only two years later. I’m praying for our country tonight.”
Far more responses in some respect echoed Webster resident Dianne Newman-Gerrie, who declared: “The election was stolen period. I no longer have any faith in our republic.”
Using a derogatory acronym that stands for Republican in name only, Rochester resident David Spano wrote that “the Republican party is a joke. It is filled with cowards and RINO’S. They don’t fight or stand for anything but their own self interests. Trump needs to start his own party, and we’ll get every RINO … out of there.”
Other posts characterized Democrats and Congress in general as controlled by the Chinese Communist party. Several repeated a conspiracy theory alleging that the storming of the Capitol had actually not been done by Trump supporters but by provocateurs allied with the left-wing Antifa movement.
The Antifa allegation had been floated on the House floor by Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., who cited a Washington Times story as his source. Newsweek reported in a Jan. 6 post that the story Gaetz cited had been quickly pulled by the newspaper after a facial recognition company cited in the Washington Times story as the Antifa allegation’s source said that it had not identified any Antifa activists in the mob.
In a second Facebook post, Iacovangelo invited those who disagreed with or objected to his Jan. 6 post to discuss the matter further.
“Leaving the party or bashing me is not the answer,” he wrote. “How about taking some time to sit and chat with me in my office so that I can get a better view of your position and you can hear me provide my thoughts?”
Eight individuals responded to the invitation. Seven declined. One said he might think about it.
“So, I should go to your office?” asked Lee McMullen. “I’ll think about it, but it’s odd no one seems to (be) trying to find out what the people feel. I wonder if they would if it was independent or no (party)?”
Doubting the legitimacy of an election
Since November, President Donald Trump has asserted continuously but without any basis in fact that he actually won the Nov. 3 ballot by “a lot,” that only massive fraud gave President-elect Joe Biden the more than 7 million popular-vote lead and the 306 Electoral College votes that clinched Biden’s win.
Recounts certified the legitimacy of the vote in several disputed states. Trump-appointed federal judges and Republican state judges in several states dismissed all but one of the Trump campaign’s more than 60 lawsuits challenging swing-state vote tallies. Lawyers for the Trump campaign did not claim fraud in any suit, but challenged swing-state elections on technical and procedural grounds.
Former Attorney General Bill Barr, a Trump appointee who left shortly after Trump’s electoral loss but was previously seen as unflinchingly loyal to the president, has stated that Department of Justice investigations uncovered no significant election fraud.
In addition, Trump-appointed U.S. Supreme Court justices declined to hear a lawsuit challenging the Pennsylvania vote tally. They declared that the challenge had been inappropriately filed by Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton because no state has standing to interfere in the affairs of another state. Justices Samuel Alito and Clarence Thomas, conservatives appointed by Republican presidents, said they would have heard the case because suits put forth by states should, in their view, always be heard by the Supreme Court. However, they added that they would not have granted the relief sought in Paxton’s challenge.
Still, neither the president nor his most loyal supporters are swayed.
The pro-Trump mob’s invasion of the Capitol interrupted Congress’ tally of the Electoral College votes, an exercise conducted every four years that normally passes without incident.
The rioters sought to upend the count after a rally staged by Trump in which the president exhorted his followers to march the mile and a half to the Capitol and call on lawmakers to overturn the election so that on Jan. 20 Trump could be installed as president instead of Biden.
A widening rift
In the melee, the mob smashed windows, broke down doors and vandalized congressional offices. Lawmakers were hustled to a secure location to wait out the riot, which lasted several hours and left five dead.
Three Trump supporters died after suffering medical emergencies. One rioter was shot by a police officer as she attempted to crawl through a smashed window. A Capitol Police officer died, reportedly from a blow on the head struck by a rioter wielding a fire extinguisher.
Whether the events created a rift in a party previously seen as solidly unified or merely laid bare a hidden fault line can be debated. In either case, a split among the ranks of the post-Jan. 6 GOP seems clear. On one side sit those who unflinchingly back Trump; on the other side are those opposed to or less loyal to the soon-to-be ex-president.
Nationally, the rift became evident as some in Congress like Sen. Lisa Murkowski, an Alaska Republican who has said she could consider quitting the party, called for Trump’s immediate removal, while others like Sen. Josh Hawley, a Missouri Republican, doubled down on demands to investigate alleged fraud in the Nov. 3 election. Seven Senate Republicans and more than 100 in the House continued to back calls to question Biden’s win.
The split extends to the Trump administration itself with some of the president’s previously loyal supporters including Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos quitting while condemning the Jan. 6 riot with others like Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin electing to serve out the final few days of his term.
How easily the gap between Trump loyalists and the Republican “silent majority” cited by Castleberry might be bridged or whether it can be bridged at all is not easy to gauge. Trump loyalists have so far demonstrated no appetite for compromise.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., has been one of Trump’s most loyal supporters. Until very recently, he backed Trump’s rigged-election claims, calling officials in Georgia to urge that they investigate election fraud allegations. But after Graham announced on Jan. 6 that he would not countenance the pro-Trump mob’s invasion of the Capitol, Trump supporters surrounded and berated him as a traitor to the cause.
During the invasion of the Capitol, Trump supporters erected a gallows, built, they said, to hang Vice President Mike Pence, who until he declined to declare Trump the election winner was seen as unfailingly loyal to the president.
A mission to boost party goals
Iacovangelo says he does not believe the responses to his Jan. 6 post broadly reflect the local GOP. Some of the disparaging replies might even have been made by non-residents, he theorizes.
As a first-generation Italian American, says Iacovangelo, he does not personally hold with policies like Trump’s hardline anti-immigration stance nor does he dispute the Nov. 3 presidential election.
Citing Republicans who currently hold top executive positions in 16 of the county’s 19 towns, Iacovangelo names his top priority as the county GOP’s new chair to be finding more similarly highly qualified candidates who can provide “the same excellent service” to constituents.
While he unequivocally decries the Jan. 6 mob’s invasion of the Capitol, Iacovangelo declines to weigh in on whether Trump should be held responsible for inciting the Jan. 6 riot. The FBI and other agencies have promised to vigorously and thoroughly investigate the rampage, he says, “and I will leave it them to say what happened.”
In short, Iacovangelo sees his mission as party leader as neither to defend nor tear down Trump but to boost the party’s position and promote its policy goals locally.
“The Monroe County Republican Committee, led by Chairman Bernie Iacovangelo, consists of over 1,000 committee members with the mission to elect Republicans to local positions #LowerTaxes #SmallerGovernment #Freedom #Liberty #Democracy,” states a post on the local party’s Facebook page.
It is a textbook definition of a good local party chief’s priorities. It remains to be seen how well circumstances will let him carry out the mission he has set for himself.
Will Astor is Rochester Beacon senior writer.