How Trump Helped Transform Nebraska Into a Toxic Political Hellhole

LINCOLN, Neb. — In the old days, Charles W. Herbster, a cattle baron and bull semen tycoon who used his fortune and influence to get into Donald Trump’s good graces, almost certainly would have been forced to pull out of Nebraska’s Republican primary for governor by now. In recent weeks, eight women, including a state senator, have come forward to allege that Mr. Herbster groped them at various Republican events or at beauty pageants at which he was a judge.

But this is post-shame, post-“Access Hollywood” America, so Mr. Trump traveled to Nebraska last week for a rally at the I-80 Speedway between Lincoln and Omaha to show his continued support for Mr. Herbster. “He is innocent of these despicable charges,” Mr. Trump said. And Mr. Herbster, in true Trump fashion, has not only denied the allegations but also filed a defamation suit against one of his accusers and started running a television ad suggesting that the claims are part of a political conspiracy.

Mr. Herbster sees conspiracies everywhere — conspiracies to destroy him, conspiracies to undermine Mr. Trump, conspiracies to unravel the very fabric of the nation. “This country is in a war within the borders of the country,” he told the crowd at the Starlite Event Center in Wahoo on Thursday, a few days before Tuesday’s primary election. Over more than an hour, Mr. Herbster, dressed in his trademark cowboy hat and vest, unspooled a complex and meandering tale of the threat to America, interspersed with labyrinthine personal yarns and long diatribes about taxes.

It was convoluted but (as best I can understand) goes something like this: The coronavirus was manufactured in a lab in China and released into the United States in early 2020 by “illegals” from Mexico who were also smuggling Chinese-made fentanyl across the border. One of the smugglers, he said, had enough fentanyl in a single backpack to kill the entire population of Nebraska and South Dakota. The goal of this two-pronged attack, he explained, was to create a panic, stoked by Facebook and $400 million of Mark Zuckerberg’s money, to justify allowing voting by mail. Then, through unspecified means, the Chinese government used those mail-in ballots to steal the election — though Mr. Herbster hates that word. “They didn’t ‘steal’ it,” he told the crowd, his finger raised. “Do not use that terminology. They did not ‘steal’ it. They rigged it.

To state the obvious: This is not what political speech in Nebraska used to sound like.

Mr. Herbster is challenging the allegations of eight women that he groped them.Credit…Mary Anne Andrei

For half a century, from 1959 to the inauguration of Barack Obama as president in 2009, my home state, the state near the geographical middle of the country, prided itself on being politically centrist as well. Over that span, it elected four Democrats and three Republicans to the U.S. Senate. We had six Republican governors and five Democratic. The congressional delegations were predominately Republican, but Omaha and Lincoln elected Democrats as their mayors more often than not. The Nebraska Legislature remains officially nonpartisan, and as the country’s only unicameral legislature, it forced lawmakers for many years to engage in a politics of pragmatism.

Now, Nebraska is so unfailingly Republican that the party’s primaries most often determine the outcomes of statewide races. How did the state become so right wing and devoted to Mr. Trump?

Part of the answer is that Nebraska’s Democrats of a generation ago were never very liberal. They were usually socially moderate, pro-business, pro-military white guys, making them all but indistinguishable from old-line, Chamber of Commerce Republicans from the coasts. Senator Edward Zorinsky aggressively advocated military aid for Nicaragua during the Carter years. Senator Bob Kerrey voted for NAFTA. Senator Ben Nelson cast his vote in favor of Obamacare only after Senator Harry Reid promised him tens of millions in federal funding for Nebraska that came to be known as the Cornhusker Kickback.

But it wasn’t just the Democrats who were middle of the road. Even our Republican senators were sometimes so moderate that you could barely distinguish them from centrist Democrats. Chuck Hagel, for example, was a two-term Republican senator during Bill Clinton’s and George W. Bush’s presidencies but later was Mr. Obama’s secretary of defense. Likewise, our Republican governors were fiscally and socially conservative, but they generally avoided the culture wars.

Mr. Herbster told the crowd in Wahoo that that era is over. “This isn’t the good-old Dave Heineman days. This isn’t the good-old Charles Thone days. This isn’t the good-old Exon days,” he said, invoking the names of three centrist Nebraska governors, including J. James Exon, a Democrat who won over many Republicans by opposing tax increases and gay rights during the Carter administration.

For half a century, Nebraska was politically centrist. According to Mr. Herbster, that era is over.Credit…Mary Anne Andrei

In Nebraska — as in the rest of the country — the polarization seemed to hasten about the time that Mr. Obama won the presidency. To be sure, much of the hardening against the Democratic Party specifically and ideals of tolerance and diversity more generally can be attributed to an unholy stew of angry commentary on Fox News, algorithmic political siloing on Facebook and the subsuming of Nebraska’s independent newspapers and television stations by Lee Enterprises and the Sinclair Broadcast Group.

But Jane Kleeb, chair of the Nebraska Democratic Party, also attributes the extreme partisan vitriol to the Democratic National Committee’s decision to shift its resources away from rural red states like Nebraska, which was in part because Mr. Obama had slashed the committee’s resources.

“Obama hated the D.N.C.,” Ms. Kleeb told me, “because he feels like they stabbed him in the back” by supporting Hillary Clinton over his upstart campaign in the 2008 presidential primary. Distrustful of the Democratic machine — and the party brand — Mr. Obama turned fund-raising efforts away from the D.N.C. and focused on building “progressive” organizations like Organizing for America, she said. But that created two problems.

First, now cash-poor, the committee began to spend more selectively. In Nebraska, the monthly allotment went from $25,000 to $2,500. That 90 percent cut in party funding, Ms. Kleeb said, meant that Republican talking points often went unchallenged. “You’re not doing any organizing,” she said, “not because you don’t want to, not because you don’t know how to organize or create good messages, but because you don’t have the money to do it.”

Second, Democrats were forced to push hard for bipartisan support on key issues, which often further muddled their messaging. Left-leaning state senators in Nebraska, for example, joined with conservative senators to ban the death penalty in 2015. (A subsequent ballot measure restored it.) In 2016 and 2017, the progressive environmentalist and pro-small-farm group Nebraska Communities United fought against the construction of a massive poultry-processing plant on the flood plain of the Lower Platte River by partnering with a local group that was afraid the plant would be staffed by Black Muslim immigrants from Somalia. Ms. Kleeb herself, when she was the director of Bold Nebraska, one of those progressive groups, helped to block the Keystone XL pipeline not by talking about its climate impact but by joining with conservative ranchers who were outraged that the power of eminent domain had been granted to a foreign corporation. The problem with that strategy over time, Ms. Kleeb acknowledges now, is that voters often walked away confused. “They don’t even know where the Democratic Party stands,” she said.

Without a Democratic counterbalance, Republican primaries now determine most state races in Nebraska, so candidates are pulled further and further to the right in order to appease and appeal to an increasingly radical and angry base. In this year’s governor’s race, for example, Mr. Herbster’s top competitor, Jim Pillen, would seem to check all of the appropriate boxes for a Republican nominee in Nebraska. He’s endorsed by the current governor, Pete Ricketts. He is one of the largest hog producers in the country. He even played football for the Nebraska Cornhuskers during the glory years under Tom Osborne, who later represented Nebraska’s Third Congressional District.

But as Mr. Herbster’s poll numbers have surged, Mr. Pillen has veered to the right, attacking “liberal professor groups” (though he is a member and former chair of the University of Nebraska’s Board of Regents) and running TV ads with an endorsement from the comedian Larry the Cable Guy. Last week, he posted on Twitter that he was the “only candidate to take action against CRT,” the “only candidate willing to fight the radical transgender agenda” and the “only candidate willing to call abortion what it is — murder.” (A third major candidate, Brett Lindstrom, has struck a less strident tone but holds many of the same beliefs.)

Donald Trump praised Mr. Herbster at a rally in Greenwood, Neb., on May 1.Credit…Terry Ratzlaff for The New York Times
The crowd where Mr. Trump spoke.Credit…Terry Ratzlaff for The New York Times

Even with that hard-line rhetoric, it will be hard for Mr. Pillen to beat Mr. Herbster’s direct endorsement from Mr. Trump. Thursday night, after the tables and chairs had been put away at the Starlite Event Center, the Herbster campaign hosted a call-in “telerally” with Mr. Trump, in which Mr. Trump praised the businessman as “a die-hard MAGA champ” and guaranteed that Mr. Herbster would “never bend to the RINOs” — Republicans in name only — like “Little Ben Sasse,” Nebraska’s junior senator, and Representative Don Bacon, whom Mr. Trump derided as “another beauty.” During Mr. Trump’s presidency, Mr. Sasse voted with him 85 percent of the time. Mr. Bacon voted with him 89 percent of the time. But Mr. Trump has considered both to be insufficiently loyal to him personally, and their political futures may be in jeopardy as a result. If so, they will be replaced by politicians who are more brazen in their contempt for the Democratic Party and for democratic ideals. That’s why the outcome of Nebraska’s Republican governor’s primary is almost immaterial.

Yes, whoever emerges with the nomination will most likely become the next governor. And it would appear that Mr. Herbster retains the inside track, thanks to Mr. Trump — just as the former president has buoyed Mehmet Oz and Herschel Walker to the top of their primary Senate races in Pennsylvania and Georgia and lifted J.D. Vance from a packed Republican field in the Senate primary in Ohio. But it doesn’t matter whether these candidates actually win or not, because their conspiratorial and inflammatory rhetoric has overtaken the discourse, pushing all Republican candidates further and further toward the fringe. Regardless of how the final balloting turns out in Nebraska on Tuesday, the real victor will be Donald Trump.

Republican primaries now determine most state races in Nebraska.Credit…Terry Ratzlaff for The New York Times

Ted Genoways (@TedGenoways) is the author, most recently, of “This Blessed Earth: A Year in the Life of an American Family Farm.” Starting this fall, he will be a president’s professor of media studies at the University of Tulsa in Oklahoma.

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