Conspiracy theories and racist memes: How a dozen Texas GOP county chairs caused turmoil within the party
On Friday morning, Texas’ top Republican officials, including Gov. Greg Abbott, had condemned four GOP chairs for proliferating conspiracy theories on Facebook. The posts, from chairs of some of the largest counties in Texas, suggested George Floyd’s death was staged to erode black support for President Donald Trump.
Meanwhile, a fifth chairperson, Harris County GOP chair-elect Keith Nielsen, announced Saturday he will not take office as planned after coming under fire for posting a Martin Luther King Jr. quote — "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere" — on a background with a banana.
On Friday afternoon, The Texas Tribune identified similar posts from seven more GOP chairs across the state. Some of these posts suggested people who have been protesting Floyd’s death across the state and the country were being paid by Jewish billionaire George Soros — an oft-used anti-Semitic trope.
GOP county chairs are elected leaders of the Republican Party who help oversee local elections and head up county-level meetings and events. News circulating about the first five chairs’ posts sparked concern — both internal and external — about the Texas GOP.
“This is a disgusting level of ignorance that’s hard to hear from anyone, much less an elected official,” State Rep. Donna Howard, D-Austin, said in an email to the Tribune. “I’m glad to see Republican state leaders finally start to push back against this nonsense and look forward to a day when we can actually debate fact-based policy instead of constantly refuting conspiracies.”
Charles Blain, the president of Urban Reform, a conservative public policy nonprofit based in Houston, used Twitter to call for reflection within the party: “I’ll say more on this later but the fact that in one day 4 Texas GOP chairs have come under condemnation for racist remarks — including MY county — should make it CLEAR AS DAY that we have a problem in this party and y’all need to talk to more black people.”
The original five chairs — Cynthia Brehm in Bexar County, Sue Piner from Comal County, Jim Kaelin of Nueces County and Lee Lester from Harrison County, as well as Nielsen — faced backlash from Democrats and Republicans alike over their social media posts.
But many of the GOP officials who criticized Brehm’s social media posts as inexcusable did not return calls from the Tribune seeking comment about the more recently identified posts from the seven other chairs across the state. Nor did they comment about Facebook posts by Texas Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller that included an image of Soros with the text “start the race war”.
Doug Sanford, the chairperson of Freestone County, Russell Hayter, the chairperson of Hays County and Jaime Durham, the chairperson of Foard County, each shared this week a fake advertisement reading “Get Paid to be a… Professional Anarchist,” with a note claiming Soros would pay people $200 for taking action.
Sanford and Hayter did not respond to requests for comment, and Durham only confirmed to the Tribune that she shared the image, noting that it was posted on her personal account and declining to elaborate further.
Lynne Teinert, the GOP chairperson for Shackelford County, shared on Saturday a picture of Soros with the text, “The pandemic isn’t working. Start the racial wars.”
The suggestion that Soros is puppeteering political happenings behind the scenes has routinely been put forth by conservatives. Soros, who has spent billions of dollars supporting liberal and pro-democracy causes around the world, has long been a target of conspiracy theorists on the ideological right. Some of these theories use his Jewish heritage to invoke anti-Semitic tropes.
“It was mostly a joke, like the murder hornets,” Teinert explained. “You know, the pandemic didn't work so the murder hornets were next. It's just one thing after another, and it was just a joke.”
However, Teinert said she believes the “riots” are the result of a coordinated, nationwide effort, echoing Republicans all the way up to the White House who have blamed the demonstrations on organizations or “outside agitators.”
“I do think there are organizations behind [the unrest],” she said. “It's very organized. I don't understand where they came from, smashing windows, and burning buildings, and stealing purses and, you know, I just don't understand why that's necessary. There's so much of it, and all at once at the same time. I just think it's odd.”
Cindy Weatherby, the GOP chairperson of Reagan County, shared a post with a series of 21 “puzzling questions” about Floyd’s death, including “Can someone really not breathe when someone kneels on his neck and is the victim really able to speak for considerable periods of time if he can’t breathe?” and “Why did the kneeling officer appear completely cool and calm, as if he was posing for the camera?”
Though she said she doesn’t believe Floyd’s murder was staged, Weatherby told the Tribune that if “humans don’t question, there’s something wrong with us.” Weatherby added she thinks some protesters are being paid, and she said the comments reflect her personal beliefs, not her role as the GOP chairperson.
Shawn Tully, GOP chairperson of Red River County, shared an image Tuesday of the 1992 Los Angeles riots — when, after four white police officers were acquitted on almost all charges for severely beating a black man, people turned to violent protest. The post Tully shared features a crashed truck and a person lying on the ground, bleeding from the head. It reads, “This is why you don’t brake for ‘protesters.’” Tully did not respond to a request for comment.
LaDonna Olivier, GOP chairperson from Reeves County, shared a post on Monday saying “people are trying to turn George [Floyd] into a saint” but he was a “brutal criminal.”
“I’m too old, set in my ways,” Olivier said about Republican leaders in Texas asking other GOP chairs to step down over their own posts about Floyd. She added that she’s not afraid of being reprimanded since her term ends in August.
“If they want me to step down I'd be glad to,” Olivier said. “My husband would be so happy.”
Olivier said she is aware that some of the “theories” she shares may be untrue.
“I do sort of want to persuade people but I tried to get the truth out, too. If they have a different opinion or they want to post their facts or, you know, straighten me out, I'll be glad to apologize,” Teinert said. “I have no problem with that. Like I said, I make a lot of mistakes. I say a lot of stupid things. I'm not a good public speaker. But it's a job nobody else wanted.”
Asked on Friday about the conspiracy theories and racist speculation in the posts by the initial five chairs, Abbott said the problem is “narrow.”
"Listen, the only point is not a broad point, but it's a narrow point, and the narrow point is this, and that is the death of George Floyd is a travesty and it's a result of a criminal act,” he told reporters at a press conference. “It should not be the subject of any of these conspiracy theories, and it's irresponsible for anyone to promote some conspiracy theories of what is otherwise a brutal act of police violence.”
As of Friday evening, none of the four GOP chairs called on to resign by party members had offered to step aside, and at least two said they intended to stay. Abbott did not respond to requests for comment about whether he would also call for the resignations of the other GOP chairs.
Blain, the conservative nonprofit president, told the Tribune that the state Republican Party needs to change its bylaws to allow the party’s executive committee to remove county chairs in situations like this when chairs refuse to resign.
Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who also chastised Brehm and Nielsen, responded to questions from the Tribune with a press release saying the party needs to call out racism.
“Going forward, we know that some Democrats and their allies in the media will continue to throw out charges of ‘racism’ anytime they disagree with us on any issue,” the statement reads. “Without taking that bait, we should continue to unequivocally condemn racism where we see it in our party and in their party.”
James Dickey, chair of the Republican Party of Texas, issued a statement Friday afternoon calling for all five chairs originally identified to resign, saying their social media posts “do not reflect” the party’s history or values.
Gerald Horne, a history and African American studies professor at the University of Houston, said he wasn’t surprised by the posts. The Republican Party, he said, has to cater to far-right “hardline fringe” voters to win elections in a polarized political arena. He added that even if the county chairs resigned, they'd likely be replaced by people who shared similar beliefs.
Abhi Rahman, a spokesperson for the Texas Democratic Party, said the posts reflect the Republican Party Abbott and Patrick have built.
“This is what they’ve done for years,” Rahman said. “Now, people are starting to see what kind of conspiracy theories they engage in, they see how repulsive and disgusting they are.”
Last August, the Texas Democratic Party criticized Abbott for sending fundraising mailings calling to “DEFEND” the Texas border against illegal immigration. The mailings were dated a day before a deadly shooting in El Paso which targeted Hispanics. Abbott later said “mistakes were made” in his choice of rhetoric.
Peniel Joseph, a public affairs professor at the University of Texas at Austin, said Abbott and Patrick don’t set the agenda as much as they reflect the beliefs and feelings of constituents who voted them into office.
“Citizens are looking for their champions and for people articulating what they feel is their world view,” Joseph said. “That's what the lieutenant governor and governor represent.”
But Blain cautioned against jumping to conclusions that the entire Republican Party is “racially insensitive,” he said, stopping short of viewing the dozen posts as a party-wide problem.
“I don’t believe that Keith Nielsen is racist,” Blain said. “This was just a really bad post that did have very, very strong racial undertones.”
Sami Sparber and Cassandra Pollock contributed to this report.
Disclosure: University of Houston, University of Texas at Austin and The Foundation to Promote Open Society, founded by George Soros have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.