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By JAIMIE JULIA WINTERS
winters@montclairlocal.news

A letter written by Councilman Bob Russo after the Jan. 6 riot on Capitol Hill calling on all of “the more moderate, traditional, good Republicans in Montclair to repudiate President Donald Trump and the majority of the Republican members of Congress” has drawn the ire of the Montclair Republican Club.

Bob Russo
John Van Wagner

The 150-year-old club is a civic organization with “a libertarian bent committed to personal liberty and individual rights,” said club President John Van Wagner, adding that Republicans “owe Russo nothing, but that Russo owes Montclair Republicans an apology.

“We are not an appendage of the Republican state or national apparatus, but rather a civic organization based on the principle that the individual is the origin and source of all value in society,”  Van Wagner said to the council at its Jan. 19 meeting. 

“As such we abhor collectivism in its many iterations around the globe throughout history. The primary mechanism by which collectivism asserts its tyranny is through dehumanization, achieved through denying the individual the most fundamental of all prerogatives, that of free thought.”

Russo said he was sorry if anyone was upset by his letter.

“People of all political views, Republicans joining Democrats, should condemn the violence at the Capitol,” Russo said.

After the meeting, Van Wagner told Montclair Local that the organization felt that it was inappropriate for any public official — especially from a council in a township with nonpartisan elections — to publicly admonish the Montclair Republicans. Russo set what Van Wagner called a dangerous precedent “for other elected officials who choose to use their office as a platform to hector, suppress and neutralize political opposition.”  

Russo, a college political science teacher, said in a letter published by Montclair Local earlier this month that he teaches his students that there was once a “positive relationship between many more moderate and even progressive Republican leaders in Congress, and that the Republican Party historically produced some of our greatest presidents in Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt and Dwight Eisenhower, far more liberal than the very right-wing leadership we see today.

“What happened to THAT Republican Party, which my father believed was a more progressive, cooperative group of leaders in the tradition of New Jersey governors Tom Kean and Christie Whitman? My dad loved Ike, who was the commanding general he served under when we fought the Nazis in WWII, and he would condemn the modern-day Nazi-like crowd that invaded and ransacked our Capitol this week,” Russo wrote in the letter. “It’s time for all REAL, traditional Republicans to join Democrats in putting an end to the Trump ‘steal’ of their once-decent political party!”

“How does he know how we feel?” Van Wagner countered, adding the Montclair Club condemns the Jan. 6 riot.

Van Wagner said Russo’s statement just furthered a divide in the mostly Democratic, liberal town of Montclair — of the almost 30,000 registered voters, only about 10 percent are Republican. 

Being a Republican in Montclair has meant being a bit of an outlier for years, Van Wagner said. But given the current climate, being a Republican has led to members of the community “who have differing views” feeling ostracized and not able to discuss conservative views of any kind with their neighbors, he said.

The club had backed the policies of the Trump administration, including tax reform, regulatory reform, a strong military, energy independence, an America First foreign policy, conservative judicial appointments and the First Step Act pertaining to sentencing reform, Van Wagner said. President Joe Biden was inaugurated, replacing Trump, on the same day Van Wagner addressed the council.

“All of that got lost,” said Van Wagner. “The consensus that every person who supported Trump’s administration was in the capital on Jan. 6 is ridiculous.”

Populism, a political approach that strives to appeal to ordinary people who feel that their concerns are disregarded by elite groups and that can be divisive, is now connected to the Republican movement, Van Wagner said.

But many contend the Capitol Hill riots were just the culmination of years of Trump rhetoric and falsehoods.

Ariel Alvarez, associate professor of political science and law at Montclair State University, quoted Dwight D. Eisenhower’s belief that the most important “tool” is to make people believe in what you say.

“Beginning with Obama’s birth certificate, to labeling the news ‘fake,’ COVID contradictions with leading scientists, to ‘stealing’ the election, I think [Donald Trump] will be remembered mostly for his falsehoods, not his policies,” Alvarez said.

But the jury is still out, he said, on whether the underlying integrity of the Republican Party has been shaken, however polarizing the last four years have been.

As for the culmination of the riot on the Hill on Jan. 6, Alvarez said Americans, as well as the world, got to see democracy at work firsthand.

He said the most important mark Trump has left, one that will be felt for decades, is the appointment of three Supreme Court justices — the most since Ronald Reagan. 

“The significance of the Supreme Court will be more long-lasting than his presidency for four years,” Alvarez said. “We don’t talk about the president [Bill Clinton] who appointed Ruth Bader Ginsburg. We talk about all she did in the way of policies.”