The Most Authentic Republican in America
A GOP county chairman tried to push back on the stolen election narrative. He had a difficult time persuading Trump supporters.
|The Dispatch Staff||112|
The following is an excerpt from The Steal: The Attempt to Overturn the 2020 Election and the People Who Stopped It by Mark Bowden and Matthew Teague which will be published by Atlantic Monthly Press on January 4. The book records the story of what happened in the six swing states—Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, Nevada, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin—between November 3 and January 6 through the eyes of participants on both sides, those who believed there was widespread voter fraud and those who, after investigating and finding no evidence of it, defended the election results. It is based on original interviews conducted by the authors and the team of researchers and reporters who worked on the book, as well as public records, court testimony, and open legislative hearings.
In Fond du Lac, Wisconsin, a small city that wraps around the lower edge of Lake Winnebago, Rohn Bishop hosted a celebration on Election Night at Republican Party headquarters.
Inside a big, low, square building just two blocks south of the lakefront, about 60 people watched as Fox News reported the election results. The windowless, fluorescent-lit room was decked with Trump banners, small American flags, and movable wall panels studded with campaign buttons. The mood was festive. All the local Republican candidates were winning, and so was Trump at first. Then when Fox called Arizona for Biden, a chorus of boos went up, and Bishop could see trouble ahead; he knew the Arizona result suggested danger for the president everywhere. Mail ballots, which would take longer to count, were going to swing heavily to Biden—Trump had helped ensure it.
Bishop wasn’t happy about it. Few had invested more in Trump’s reelection or cared more.
Bishop was GOP chairman in Fond du Lac County, flat farm country that unrolls green and lake pocked to the west and south of Green Bay. He was leery of Trump’s chances statewide and nationally, but he had done his job. Trump was going to carry his patch of Wisconsin handily—by about 26 percent, with about 62 percent of the vote.
Upbeat, popular, and garrulous, Bishop had a high-pitched nasal voice that was surprising from a man of his bulk. He was broad shouldered, big bellied, with a wide, florid face, big dark-rimmed glasses, a cleanly shaved dome, and a thick red-brown beard. He managed the detailing department of a GM dealership in his day job, but everybody in Fond du Lac knew his passion was politics. He was the face of the Republican Party here.
In at least one respect, Bishop may have been the most authentic Republican in America. Because it was in Fond du Lac County, according to local lore, that the party got its start. In 1854, a group of antislavery former Whigs and members of other parties had met in Ripon, inside a little white schoolhouse. They had formed a new political organization, adopting the name Republican. Other meetings in other states made similar claims, but the Ripon schoolhouse had been preserved as a historical shrine, and the county laid claim to being the GOP’s taproot.
Bishop lived in nearby Waupun, a biggish town of clapboard houses on neatly manicured lots, where no one had ever questioned his party bona fides. His whole life was wrapped up in his Republican identity. One of his grandfathers volunteered for Robert Taft at the party’s convention in 1952 because Dwight Eisenhower “wasn’t conservative enough.” His other grandfather worked for the party in nearby DuPage County, Illinois. He proudly notes that the river that runs near his corner lot is the south branch of the Rock River, which, downstream in Illinois, Ronald Reagan once patrolled as a lifeguard. He named his two daughters after ‘80s conservative icons—Reagan and Maggie, for Britain’s Maggie Thatcher. Beneath the stars and stripes that fly over his driveway is a red 2006 Pontiac with the license plate GOP 4ME. His family calls his favorite pastime, simply, “Republican-ing,” which includes riding on the party float in as many as nine annual county parades while waving, as his daughters put it, “like a princess.”
Bishop also holds baked-in Republican views. He watches Fox News and sees Democratic priorities as creeping socialism. But he has the personality to transcend differences of opinion, even in the darkest dens of Democratic orthodoxy. Invited in 2019 by a Columbia University professor to a series of interview sessions in New York via Skype, he likely failed to alter a single opinion on the liberal campus about abortion or gun rights, but according to the professor, “they loved him.”
Bishop had made his house Trump campaign central. On a patch of lawn between his house and his neighbor’s garage, he’d set out Trump signs 100 at a time, inviting supporters to drive up and take as many as they liked. He registered new voters and trained campaign workers at the picnic table in his backyard, where volunteers downloaded the Trump campaign’s canvassing app and used it to find fellow Republicans. As they learned how to address potential voters, Bishop served coffee and juice.
Despite the president’s popularity in Waupun, Bishop had seen signs that it was slipping in Wisconsin overall. The president’s victory over Hillary Clinton in the state had been narrow, less than 1 percent. More and more, Wisconsin’s people were concentrated in Green Bay, Milwaukee, and the state capital of Madison. When Bishop had driven an hour southwest to do door-to-door work in the reliably Republican suburb of Mequon, just north of Milwaukee, he’d seen “Biden” and “Black Lives Matter” signs on front lawns, which shocked him. This was not his grandfather’s Wisconsin anymore.
And as far as Bishop was concerned, Trump had hurt himself badly by discouraging people from voting by mail. When the president had suddenly inveighed against the practice, it came as a surprise to the state’s Republican leaders. Not long before, they had mailed pamphlets to every GOP voter in the state encouraging it, with a picture of Donald Trump on the front giving two thumbs up. Now he was telling Fox News, “I think mail-in voting is going to rig the election, I really do,” later tweeting that it would produce “the most CORRUPT ELECTION in our Nation’s History!”
Bishop countered by urging that the president’s comments be ignored. “It’s such a bad idea to scare our own voters away from a legit way to cast their ballot,” he tweeted.
That discordant note from the president’s own party in America’s heartland drew some national press attention, which Bishop found both startling and troubling. A hail of criticism followed. Here he was, the nation’s most authentic Republican, a man who considered himself more pro-Trump than Trump, accused of being a “Never Trumper”—all for trying to help get the guy reelected!
“As local party chairman, your job is to help get our candidates elected,” one critic wrote. “I am not saying that you are wrong about some of Trump’s tweets, but Joe Biden is a greater threat to our future. Focus.”
Which, as far as Bishop was concerned, entirely missed the point. If the idea was to win, it was Trump who had lost focus.
A local Wisconsin news program invited Bishop on to explain himself.
“I think the mail-in absentee voting can actually help Republicans in a state like Wisconsin,” he said. “We have early voting [by mail] for two weeks. So why give big metropolitan areas where the Democrats are more concentrated 14 days to vote while only giving the Republicans one day to vote? … I think urging Republican voters who live in those more rural areas to get their ballot in the mail … is a good way for us to reach voters. And any vote we can bring in, in what I think’s gonna be a high-turnout election’s a good thing for us.”
He defended the voting system in Wisconsin, which he had witnessed up close for years. As a young man, he’d tended to believe stories of widespread voter fraud, but his familiarity with the process had taught him that it would actually be very hard to fix an election. Instances of fraud were rare, almost always insignificant, and committed by both sides. Whipping up fears among conservatives would just discourage them from voting.
Like the audiences at Columbia University, his listeners were unpersuaded. More criticism followed from his own people. Some passed word that the White House was not happy with him. Bishop was used to being criticized. Democrats were after him all the time. But here he was, trying to help Trump, lending his considerable local expertise, and getting vilified for it!
And there was no doubt that he was right. He didn’t have to wait for the election results in Wisconsin to prove it, as they would. Bishop knew what he was talking about. People who knew and respected him, after hearing him out, would say, Okay, I get where you are coming from; that makes sense. But he couldn’t have that kind of talk with all his new critics. And increasingly, he found, even those who would hear him out simply responded, But Trump says….
He had contradicted the Oracle. It didn’t matter that he made sense. Heresy was heresy.
In early September, Bishop noticed his heart racing strangely. It worried him. He’d had an ear issue earlier in the summer, and when he went back for a checkup, the doctor noted that his blood pressure had shot up.
“Hey, it’s the middle of an election year,” Bishop said and laughed it off. But his mom told him that high blood pressure ran in the family. He started worrying about it.
Not that he didn’t already have enough worries: the election stress, the criticism, planning for his wife’s birthday and their anniversary in the same week. The final straw was a call from the state GOP chairman, who complained that internal polling showed weak numbers for Trump in Fond du Lac County. This made no sense to Bishop. His county was full of farmers, people who wouldn’t vote for a Democrat if the GOP put up a dead man. But now the party questioned his performance as county chairman.
That’s when his heart started to flutter. Normally, he didn’t notice his heart beating in his chest, but now it went so fast that he could hardly focus on anything else. It would stop and then start up again. The more he worried about it, the more it happened. Finally, sitting behind his desk at the dealership, there came an attack so strong that he drove to the emergency room on his lunch hour. Doctors hooked him up to an IV, gave him a calming drug, and ran some tests. Only when the results came back normal could he breathe easily again. He went home with anxiety medication, took a few days off, and resolved not to let things get to him so much.
So the clean sweep of local candidates on election night felt like vindication. But Trump’s numbers continued to fall, just as he had feared.
Bishop had remained at campaign headquarters in Fond du Lac on Election Night long enough to watch Trump appear on TV to give a rambling, disconsolate “victory speech.” It was just before 2:30 in the morning in Washington, 1:30 in Wisconsin. Only a few of the Fond du Lac crowd remained. The president spoke from the White House with his wife, Melania, and Vice President Mike Pence at his side. He didn’t look like a winner. He looked bewildered and disgusted. Before a wall of American flags, he saluted the millions who had voted for him and said, “A very sad group of people is trying to disenfranchise that group of people, and we won’t stand for it. We will not stand for it.”
He meandered rhetorically through the various states where he said he had either won already or would soon win, soon transitioning to talk of voter fraud. “I’ve been saying this from the day I heard they were going to send out tens of millions of ballots. This is a fraud on the American public. This is an embarrassment to our country. We were getting ready to win this election. Frankly, we did win this election. We did win this election. So our goal now is to ensure the integrity for the good of this nation. This is a very big moment. This is a major fraud on our nation. We want the law to be used in a proper manner.”
This is a fraud on the American public. This is an embarrassment to our country. This is a very big moment. This is a major fraud on our nation. Rohn Bishop looked over at one of his colleagues and they rolled their eyes at each other. This was … nonsense.
Wisconsin’s election had been run by Republicans. In fact, the election laws in that state had been overhauled just a few years earlier during the tenure of Gov. Scott Walker, a Republican. Bishop had been around for that, had cheered it, and ever since, he had felt especially good about the integrity of the vote in his state.
This election stolen? It wasn’t just false; it was dangerous. Bishop thought, This could get ugly.
Whatever hopes he had that his election travails would ease after Election Day were quickly dashed. He slept for only about two hours after the party, then woke up bright and early Wednesday, running on coffee, playing teacher for his daughters’ pandemic in-home virtual schooling. He also did two radio interviews.
He sympathized with Trump’s outburst at the White House early that morning but did not agree. He told one interviewer that they had to give the president “a few days” to accept his loss.
“There’s enough states outstanding that we’re not going to concede anything yet,” he said. “But if I was running for president of the United States I’d rather be Joe Biden than Donald Trump at this moment.”
Bishop regarded these interviews as a standard wrap-up, but he discovered as the week progressed that the contest remained far from settled for many of those he knew. Saying otherwise riled them up.
And he had become the local focus for election outrage. A truck driver called him and screamed at him for helping Democrats steal the election. Bishop wanted to know what had given him that idea. The driver was moving through northern Wisconsin and seeing Trump sign after Trump sign. He hadn’t seen any Biden signs. So how could Trump lose Wisconsin?
“Well, do you ever drive your semi in Dane County?” Bishop asked. This encompassed Madison, the state capital, a city of about 270,000 and the second largest population center in Wisconsin, behind Milwaukee. It was also a Democratic stronghold.
“No,” said the driver.
Bishop suggested that his sample was flawed.
Strangers were one thing. What really got under his skin were his friends, even his coworkers. He engaged with his colleague Jeff Respalje on Facebook. A mechanic at the GM dealership who had been increasingly vocal about Trump’s claims, Respalje had reposted a “news report” that generals would refuse to take orders from Biden as commander in chief. The first mutinous general quoted was Joe Barron, who had died in 1977.
Bishop pointed out this and other clear signs of the article’s falsity, to which Respalje made the curious reply, “There’s too many fact-checkers already, don’t need another one.”
Taking a stand on the principle that facts mattered, Bishop had tried to speak to Respalje about it in person at the back end of the workshop where vehicles were hoisted on lifts so mechanics could work underneath. He considered Respalje one of the best workers in the shop. Beneath a Chevy Silverado, Bishop told his friend, “I’m just trying to help because the stuff you’re sharing is completely wrong.”
Again, Respalje responded, “I don’t need a fact-checker.” Then they got into it: Respalje, tall and lean with a long, thin beard and a baseball cap; Bishop, bald, burly, and thickly bearded.
“Dude, I voted for the same guy you did,” Bishop said. “I’m just telling you it wasn’t stolen; these ballots weren’t illegally cast. They’re not going to be thrown out. There’s nothing there.”
“You really think Joe Biden got 84 million votes?” Respalje asked.
“No f---ing way. He never left his basement.”
“Yeah, that’s right,” Bishop said. “Trump was unpopular enough to drive Democrats to vote for a doormat. Yeah, I don’t deny that; but he won and it’s legit.”
Then another colleague joined in—on Respalje’s side. This was a man who had never evinced an interest in politics, but suddenly he was asking whether the state legislature could overturn Biden’s win, or whether the state’s representatives to the Electoral College might ignore the popular vote, which he had seen reported, and simply cast their ballots for Trump.
Bishop answered the questions, but he could see that nothing he said connected. The fact that he had toiled for a year trying to get Trump elected—he hadn’t seen these guys at his training sessions or door-to-door outings—simply didn’t matter.
He felt increasingly troubled by the tactics of Trump’s ardent followers. When state legislators called for partial recounts in Dane County and Milwaukee, seeking to throw out the votes of those who had voted early and in person, it offended him. The effort went nowhere. Its rationale was that election clerks, following procedures adopted informally years earlier, had used a single form instead of a two-form procedure that was still technically mandated. Bishop saw it as fundamentally unfair, a bald effort to toss out black ballots since both recounts were aimed where most of Wisconsin’s black voters lived. As it happened, he had used the single form, too. By this standard, his own early, in-person vote also deserved to be tossed.
Bishop took down the Trump sign in his front yard on the Thursday after the election. When some of his neighbors complained, he told them simply, “We lost.”
In February, months after the state elections commission struggled over whether to certify the election results over the protests of Republican electors, Bishop was reelected to his party chairmanship. His neighbors came out in a blizzard to support him. After all the abuse he had taken for telling the truth, Bishop was touched.
Bishop had wavered about seeking the job again. He feared that Trump loyalists would challenge him. But the vote was unanimous. He would remain the most authentic Republican in America, at least as things are seen in Wisconsin. When he stood to accept and to offer thanks, one of his friends thought he might be about to cry.
He didn’t, and proud as he was, he didn’t plan to keep the position for long. He decided to run for mayor of Waupun. He had T-shirts that read, “Rohn for Waupun.”
His affection for the town gushed forth in one breath: “It’s a part-time mayor and it’s a nonpartisan position, but I like Waupun, and we have a lot of history in Waupun, and I was raised here, and I love the town, and the history of the town, and the people who live here and I’m a good advocate for Waupun, and the best part about being the mayor is basically you’re the cheerleader for the city, and I’m kind of like, ‘Well, who better than me?’ And plus, we have a cute little slogan, ‘Rohn for Waupun.’”
In Wisconsin, “Rohn” (Raahn) is pronounced the same as the “Waah” in Waupun. He says, “It helps people finally learn how to pronounce Waupun correctly.”
Excerpted from The Steal. © 2022 Mark Bowden and Matthew Teague. Reprinted with permission of the publisher, Atlantic Monthly Press, an imprint of Grove Atlantic Inc. All rights reserved.