At a Trump rally in Des Moines, Iowa, last week.

Photographer: Daniel Acker/Bloomberg

An Ex-Republican in Iowa Tells All

Francis Wilkinson writes editorials on politics and U.S. domestic policy for Bloomberg View. He was executive editor of the Week. He was previously a national affairs writer for Rolling Stone, a communications consultant and a political media strategist.
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Many Republicans have lamented some aspect of Donald Trump’s campaign. The party’s 2012 nominee, Mitt Romney, doesn’t like that Trump is a “fraud.” House Speaker Paul Ryan has objected to Trump’s “textbook” racism. Less exalted members of the party have cringed at his bigotry or flimflam or utter lack of principle.

But almost no Republican office holder or leader has done what veteran Iowa State Senator David Johnson has. In June, he quit the party. No groundswell followed him.

Trump’s emergence, Johnson said, “required somebody in elected office as a Republican to reject the party. He’s now the standard-bearer of the party. I can’t be a member of a party where the man who leads the party has this abysmal record in this campaign.”

Johnson is hardly alone in finding Trump “a cancer on conservatism,” as former Texas Governor Rick Perry memorably called him before deciding that maybe cancer wasn't so bad after all and endorsing him. But no GOP member of Congress has quit the party of Trump, and state officeholders are staying put, as well.

Johnson’s experience won’t encourage followers. “I’ve been so roughed up by the Republican establishment,” he said. “I’m going to find it very difficult to change my registration back to Republican. Which to me is really a difficult choice.”

Johnson, who is 65, has been a Republican all his life. His father was a prominent Iowa Republican before him. But he’s an outcast now. County Republican leaders from northwest Iowa, which Johnson represents in the legislature, published an open letter condemning him.

“In our opinion,” they wrote, “your comments, comparing the GOP to racists and fascists, was unworthy of you, and us, as your constituents.”

That letter and what Johnson calls a whisper campaign against him haven’t changed his course. At a Constitution Day forum at Northwest Iowa Community College, Johnson appeared with three other state legislators before an audience of several hundred students. Much of the proceeding was unremarkable, including multiple paeans to the Second Amendment.

But on other issues, Johnson’s free-range opinions strayed far from the GOP line. He called local Representative Steve King, a leader of the party’s nativist wing in Congress, a “demagogue.” Republican Senator Charles Grassley’s ad-hoc rationales for why, as Senate Judiciary Committee chairman, he has refused to hold hearings on the Supreme Court nomination of Merrick Garland, were too shabby to merit consideration. “That’s just malarkey,” Johnson said.

Johnson, who supported Rick Perry and then Carly Fiorina in the GOP presidential primary, had been having troubles with his party before Trump gained the nomination. After becoming increasingly troublesome, he lost his leadership position in the Iowa Senate in 2015. “It really was the Party of No,” he said.

He said Republicans continue to fail to reach out to racial minorities and millennials; lack a coherent, compelling message; and continue to cling to tax policies that don’t work.

“Look at Kansas,” he said. “A complete disaster under Republican majorities and a Republican governor. A complete disaster, cutting taxes too much. I believe that we’re shortchanging our education tremendously."

Closer to home, he sees Trump undermining Iowa farmers who need ready access to foreign markets, and harming a Republican Party in dire need of diversity.

“I’ve been critical of all of our state leaders from the governor to our Republican members of Congress to our U.S. senators for just having this big kumbaya with Donald Trump,” he said. “He doesn’t represent Iowa. He’ll never represent Iowa. We need free trade in this state. We need to recognize that the population is changing racially, ethnically, religiously, and we need to accept that.”

Johnson, who is now an independent, said he has plenty of e-mails from constituents supporting his position, along with quiet expressions of support from some business leaders in the state. But not a single elected Republican has offered support to him, even privately. Win or lose, he said, those Republicans will have to live with the consequences of backing a candidate defined by race-baiting, bigotry and ignorance. Claiming that they find various Trump comments “inappropriate” or such -- a common locution among those seeking to straddle the chasm between decency and Trump -- will not suffice.

“It’s a day of reckoning,” Johnson said. “This is no longer the Party of Lincoln. It’s the Party of Trump. And it’s going to destroy the party.”

Johnson might be right about that. But among the many, many things for which the GOP has no tolerance right now, a nagging conscience is high on the list.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Francis Wilkinson at fwilkinson1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Katy Roberts at kroberts29@bloomberg.net