Sherry Harden has never trusted that American elections are honest and fair. That’s why the Cheyenne resident waited until 2020, when she was 72, to cast her first ballot.
But her vote for President Donald Trump simply confirmed what Harden said she already knew: The results cannot be trusted.
“He won the last time, there’s no doubt in my mind,” she said, emphatically declaring the election was “corrupt.”
But that’s not the only reason Harden was boiling mad when she joined about a dozen people in front of the FBI Office near the Cheyenne airport on Sunday. She responded to a Facebook ad posted by Don Odom, a Republican candidate in House District 61, to protest the federal agency’s “invasion” of Trump’s residence at his Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida last week.
Odom scoffed at the notion that the FBI was responding to “a huge national security problem” when agents searched Trump’s property to recover top-secret documents.
“This is about politics,” said the candidate, a 59-year-old truck driver for an oilfield services company. “You’ve got [Joe] Biden, the weakest president ever, using his people against the president that’s going to take his place in 2024, if [Trump] chooses to run.
“If we saw this happening in Nicaragua or El Salvador, we would be mad about it because this is Third World, banana republic stuff,” Odom added. “They’re using the FBI as a political weapon.”
The angry tone of the protesters was in sharp contrast to a man sitting in a lawn chair across the street. Dave Cromley of Cheyenne tacked his own sign, “Reality not Conspiracy,” on a pole to make his view clear.
Cromley said he’s typically not politically confrontational, but he felt the need to defend democratic principles like fair elections. He noted that the idea the last presidential election was stolen has been thoroughly refuted by the courts and other officials, including many Republicans.
“My source of news is CNN and NPR, their source is Fox and Newsmax,” he said, motioning across the street. “We see different worlds.
“To me so much of their position is conspiracy-driven. ‘Deep state.’ Well, is that reasonable?” Cromley asked. “Everybody I know that’s an election worker takes it seriously. And people honor the election system.”
What drew me to this scene of impromptu political theater is my own sense of bewilderment: How did we get to the point where there is so little common ground?
The peaceful transition of power, a hallmark of our constitutional republic for nearly two-and-a-half centuries, came perilously close to ending with the Jan. 6, 2021 attack on the U.S. Capitol. Yet millions of Americans stand ready to again vote for Trump, who incited the insurrection and almost got away with it.
And he still might, if the rule of law is ignored and Trump is not held accountable for his actions.
As if we needed something to further divide the nation. And yet the FBI’s legal search to find classified documents that the former president allegedly took with him from the White House has prompted a hysterical reaction by far-right politicians and media outlets. The furor is likely to provoke more violent acts like last week’s attack on an FBI field office in Cincinnati.
The good news is that events like the Cheyenne protest can be peaceful, with people airing their differences without threat of reprisals. But Cromley has another concern, and one that I share.
“What do you think is going to happen if [Trump] does get charged with crimes?” Cromley asked. “Now, these guys [across the street] don’t look violent. I don’t see any guns. But Jan. 6 sure went wild, and there were people with guns and organizations that are really violent.”
I spent several hours last week talking to American correspondents for news organizations in Germany, France and Switzerland. All three came to Wyoming to cover the final days of the primary race between U.S. Rep. Liz Cheney and her main Republican challenger, Trump-backed Harriet Hageman.
The German reporter told me readers can’t get enough news about Trump to satisfy them. I asked why they are so fascinated by the former American president, and his response was chilling.
“Because they know all too well what happens when you have an authoritarian leader like Trump,” he said ruefully. “And they don’t want to see it happen again.”
Reporters also asked me to explain polls indicating Hageman has opened up a huge lead on Cheney. They couldn’t fathom how a Wyoming politician whose votes aligned practically all the time with Trump’s position could be at serious risk of being voted out of office.
“Without Trump and Jan. 6 and Cheney’s impeachment vote,” I told them, “you wouldn’t be in Wyoming, because this wouldn’t have even been a race. She would have won in a walk.”
I explained that while Wyoming Republican Party officials have virtually everything going their way, with a registration advantage over Democrats of about 4.5-to-1, nothing will please them until 100% of officeholders believe what they believe.
And while the state GOP has cast Democrats as villains because many will cross over and vote for Cheney in the Republican primary, they don’t even view Dems like me as the real enemy anymore. The voters they fear are moderate members of their own party they deride as RINOs — “Republicans in name only.”
Even the far-right has splintered in this state, with two factions in the Legislature inexplicably quarreling over which one’s bill to protect the Second Amendment is stronger.
Today’s primary will help determine whether being a Wyoming Republican requires blind allegiance to Trump. The GOP is guaranteed to maintain its huge majority of legislative seats, but whether the far-right continues making incremental gains to take control of the House and Senate or is thwarted by candidates running to fix the real problems facing our state is very much in play.
The shiny object that fascinates most observers far and wide is the Cheney-Hageman race, because it’s a referendum on Trump. But down-ballot contests for statewide offices and legislative seats will have a much greater impact on Wyomingites’ daily lives than who represents them in Congress.
Will the FBI’s action at Mar-a-Lago bring more radical voters to the polls, and tip elections farther to the right? Odom said he was disappointed more people didn’t show up to protest how the agency mistreated Trump.
“Apathy is why we are where we are. We’ve got a government that just don’t listen to us,” he said. “Part of it is our own fault. When I go [campaigning] door to door, I run into people who still don’t vote. What are you thinking? That’s the only weapon you’ve got, is that vote.”
I agree with Odom about the need to exercise your vote and have a voice. But Harden’s reluctance to do so for decades, until Trump came along, underscores a fundamental GOP problem. If a large swath of its members think all elections are rigged, how does the party expect to get them to the polls?
By sowing the seeds of distrust in Wyoming elections, while insisting on blind loyalty to Trump and the party’s platform, Republican officials are banking on a strategy that seems destined to lose members. It makes no sense.
I believe the party that has always branded itself the defender of law and order will someday look at its reaction to the Capitol riot and the FBI’s “raid” and wonder what on Earth its leaders were thinking.