On the warm and perfectly pleasant Saturday afternoon of October 10, Allen West, the newly minted chairman of the Republican Party of Texas, stood on the steps of the Governor’s Mansion, and loudly condemned one of his party’s most high-profile and popular officials, Greg Abbott. Elected in July, West was in part responsible for leading the defense against the liberal blitz, supposedly coming in November, when polls suggested that Democrats had a chance of taking control of the state House, winning several congressional seats, and even flipping Texas to Joe Biden. Abbott also had a role to play, with his campaign bank account of some $38 million and better approval ratings than anyone else in the state party, despite dropping 9 points since an April high of 56 percent. The party chairman and the governor should have been working in tandem. Instead, West was in front of a fired-up crowd at Abbott’s home, railing against the tyranny of the governor’s efforts to slow the spread of the coronavirus—even though, by October, Abbott had eased up on almost all of his executive orders.
West was handed a megaphone. A call rang out immediately: “Allen West for governor!” He admonished the speaker with “Oh, stop it, stop it,” but then others in the crowd of about a hundred protesters began cheering. Behind him, clapping, was Michael Quinn Sullivan, affectionately known to his enemies as MQS (pronounced “Mucus”), the conservative activist who has contributed significantly to the Republican party’s past year of discord and dysfunction by releasing a secretly recorded tape of House Speaker Dennis Bonnen attempting to direct Sullivan to go after members of Bonnen’s own Republican flock. Sullivan looked as delighted as West looked mock-bashful. “Paid political announcement by a bunch of knuckleheads,” West said. The crowd laughed.
West told the story of the motorcycle accident he suffered in May during his campaign for party chairman. After attending a “Texas Freedom Rally” at the Capitol—one of West’s many public appearances in the spring and summer, when he was already blasting the governor’s anti-pandemic measures—West was involved in a collision outside Waco and was severely injured. He survived, he told the crowd, thanks to the strength of their prayers. Now that he had recovered, he would be doubly sure never to forget the oath that he had sworn when he joined the U.S. Army—to protect the nation from “all enemies, foreign and domestic.” The implication was probably not lost on this crowd: Abbott is one of those enemies.
That kind of rhetoric, of course, is common among some conservative activists and politicians. But there has long been an informal division between the folks who say such things and party leaders who consider themselves the adults in the GOP, and that division has held up through many raucous years. For the past decade, the chairs have been a series of competent and low-drama officials. Boring, even. There was Steve Munisteri, an astute number cruncher with an impeccable reputation who ran the party from 2010 to 2015. Tom Mechler ruled from 2015 to 2017, warning, when he resigned, that Republicans should cut down on the “anger and backbiting ” and aspire to look “more like Texas,” by conducting outreach to young and minority voters. Then came James Dickey, an unfailingly amiable fellow whose Twitter bio cites his love of Monty Python movies. The three men shared an understanding that the job of the party chair was to raise a lot of money, keep the trains running on time, and otherwise get out of the way.
West has a very different view of his role. At the Governor’s Mansion rally, he told the crowd that the chairman of the Brazos County GOP had asked him recently why in the hell he was lambasting the governor three days before the start of early voting. He was protesting the governor, he replied, because he, Allen West, had a clear vision. “Leaders know what right looks like,” he explained to his audience. “True leaders don’t pick and choose when to do what is right. They do what is right all the time.”
The message, in other words, is that West would never do what was politically expedient for the party for the party’s sake. He would do what Allen West thought was the right thing to do. You could hear, that afternoon, GOP loyalists grumbling from Dalhart to Donna: Who is this guy looking out for?
The story of how West became the chairman starts in August of 2003, when he was a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army stationed in Taji, a village north of Baghdad. West later testified that an intelligence specialist had told him that the local insurgency was targeting him, in a plot that involved a police officer named Yehiya Hamoodi, who had worked with the Americans in the past.
West ordered his soldiers to seize Hamoodi. “This could get ugly,” he told his subordinates, who beat the man as West stood by. When Hamoodi continued to profess his innocence, West took him outside and staged a mock execution in which he fired his pistol near Hamoodi’s head. In West’s telling, Hamoodi immediately confessed and named names. In Hamoodi’s version, he told West what he wanted to hear to save his life. (Nothing came of the information Hamoodi gave.) Mock executions are a textbook form of torture—a war crime—and are expressly prohibited in the U.S. Army Field Manual. When word of West’s actions spread, he was relieved from command and nearly court-martialed.
What seemed an ignominious end to a military career turned out to be a fine start for a political one. West became a conservative cause célèbre overnight, a hero to those who thought America’s armies of occupation were being hamstrung by effete bureaucrats and who were eager for evidence that torture “worked.” Right-wing media personalities raised money for his legal defense; 95 Republican members of Congress signed a letter defending his actions. Instead of facing as much as eleven years in prison, West was assessed a $5,000 fine and went home to Florida to become a high school social studies teacher.
West’s case remained a subject of debate in the military. To one group, including some enlisted men and women, West’s actions marked him as exactly the kind of commanding officer they wanted as they were sidling into blind alleys in Al Anbar province—the kind who fought war as they thought it should be fought. West had encouraged that image, testifying after the Hamoodi incident that he’d “go through hell with a gasoline can” to protect his men.
To another group, especially officers, West’s actions were unforgivable, evidence of a dangerous arrogance. If Hamoodi was innocent, what did West’s stunt teach the police officer’s friends and family about the Americans? Had West made life harder for the unit that would replace his and, indeed, for coalition forces in Iraq more generally? (Hamoodi told the New York Times in 2004 he had stopped working with Americans and shuddered at the sight of their Humvees.)
West had become so fixated upon his own ideas of right and wrong that he had forgotten his many other obligations—to the organization he was a part of and the mission at hand. That’s precisely what worries Texas Republicans right now. Substitute the Army for the Republican Party of Texas, enlisted men for the GOP grassroots, and officers for GOP grandees and elected officials, and you have the approximate shape of the debate taking place about West’s sudden ascendance in Texas.
In 2010, riding the tea party wave, West was elected to represent Florida’s Twenty-second Congressional District, which ran from Fort Lauderdale north to Palm Beach. He quickly became one of Congress’s most controversial members. (Ted Nugent and Sarah Palin both suggested him for vice president in 2012.) His back catalog of minor and major outrages is too long to list but is perhaps best summed up by the episode in which he announced (without any evidence) that there were “78 to 81 members of the Democratic party that are members of the Communist party.” He served only one term—a victim, in part, of the Republican legislature of Florida making his district more Democratic. After he left Congress, he fell back into relative obscurity.
With the opportunities drying up back east, West, like many before him, pulled up stakes and moved to Texas. The state—and especially the Dallas–Fort Worth Metroplex, where West settled—offers fertile ground for minor conservative celebrities, among them Glenn Beck, Tomi Lahren, and Dana Loesch. In 2015 he was given his first formal introduction into the state’s internal politics when Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick appointed him to the Texas Sunset Advisory Commission, a sleepy but important bureaucratic backwater that periodically reviews and makes recommendations regarding state agencies.
The years passed. He wrote a book about his devotion to his new home, entitled Hold Texas, Hold the Nation: Victory or Death. Published in October 2018, it argued that conservatives had to make a sort of last stand in the Lone Star State, defending it from liberal ideologies infiltrating from the outside thanks to the state’s rapid population growth, including through immigration. In the election a few weeks later, Democratic fortunes in the state surged dramatically.
The next year, West announced his candidacy to run the most important state Republican party in the country. If he won, he would become the first black party chair of a major political party in Texas since the decades after the Civil War, when Black voters held sway in the GOP. But he rarely if ever mentioned that fact, even during a summer in which debates over racism came to the fore of American life. Though he called the police officer who killed George Floyd in Minneapolis a “very sick, demented, evil law enforcement officer,” he argued that the protests over Floyd’s death had been hijacked by “anarchists” and compared those seeking to take down Confederate statuary to the Taliban.
On the campaign trail, West was clearly loved by many conservatives. But that’s often not enough of a base to secure victory. He appeared to have more in common with Jared Woodfill, who ran an abortive campaign for party chair as a far-right insurgent in 2016, under the patronage of right-wing hormone therapy merchant Dr. Steve Hotze, than to previous chairmen such as Munisteri. But Munisteri’s party had something that the party of Dickey, West’s opponent for GOP chair, didn’t: points on the scoreboard. From 2010 to 2015, the Texas GOP steamrolled all comers. Nothing silences critics like success. But in the sole election cycle to take place under Dickey’s chairmanship, it was the GOP that did poorly instead.
Was that Dickey’s fault? No. It was because Trump had damaged the Republican brand and turned off many suburban voters in Texas. The results of 2018 could have been an opportunity for Republican leaders to meditate on why they lost so much ground and adjust their course. The other choice was to double down. Laissez les bons temps rouler!
The party chairman is elected at the Texas GOP’s biennial convention. The gathering, billed by the party as “the largest political gathering in the free world,” had been scheduled for May in Houston but was postponed until July because of the pandemic. Members of the State Republican Executive Committee desperately wanted to hold the convention in person, in part to show that the fearful wailing about the disease was unnecessary. This was clearly not a good idea, if only for the waves of negative attention that might follow if any of the delegates, many of them elderly, fell ill or died. But the SREC persisted, in Zoom meeting after Zoom meeting. One member, Walter West—no relation—a private security consultant and supporter of Allen’s from Montgomery County, swung a bottle of Skrewball Peanut Butter Whiskey at his laptop camera, charging Dickey with incompetence. “Don’t drink the Kool-Aid,” he beseeched his fellow committee members. He had to be ejected from the meeting by the digital sergeant at arms.
At the last minute, the party was forced to come up with plans for a digital convention. It was an unmitigated disaster, beset by technical screwups and an increasingly angry base. Scheduled for three days, it finally ended after five, with much of the party’s business left undone. If West wasn’t leading before, the clown show assured his victory. Of the 31 Senate district caucuses that voted for the new chairman, West won 22. He had once again found himself in a position of power and influence. What would he do with it? One of his first acts was to appoint Walter West, he of the Skrewball bottle, the new sergeant at arms.
Allen West’s election was met by blank stares from many Republican officeholders. No statement of congratulations came from the governor. The silence from other elected officials was palpable. But the silence was one-sided. Early on, it became clear that West was not afraid to speak out in a manner likely to garner resentment within the party. He appeared at an event with Shelley Luther, the rebel hair-salon queen who used her jail time resulting from defying the governor’s coronavirus restrictions to springboard into a special election for a North Texas state Senate seat, in a move that surely irritated both the governor and the other Republicans in Luther’s race, including the respected state representative Drew Springer.
In 2013 congressmen Louie Gohmert of Texas and Paul Broun of Georgia voted for West, who had already left Congress, to be made Speaker of the House. Although it’s not a constitutional requirement, every Speaker has been a House member.
West quickly steered the GOP into unnecessary controversy regarding his adoption of a motto for the party—“We Are the Storm”—that’s also used by followers of the QAnon conspiracy theory. The phrase comes from a popular meme, the kind of thing you might see on the bumper sticker of a truck with Punisher decals. It goes something like this: “Fate whispered to the warrior, ‘You cannot withstand the storm.’ The warrior replied, ‘I am the storm.’ ” (West has described the quote as a reference to Psalm 29, which talks about the voice of God being heard through a storm.)
QAnon believers are waiting for a “storm” of their own—the arrest of the leaders of a nonexistent global cabal of pedophiles. West’s use of the phrase, and his directive that the party use it too, was written up in the New York Times as an example of Republican leadership flirting with QAnon. West first lashed the paper for not talking it over with him, and then, when the Times reached out for a follow-up, issued a statement in which he wrote that it was “offensive and condescending that white, liberal, progressive socialists would expect me to respond to their demand to know how long I have said something. Here’s [sic] is a pure example of the leftist embrace of racism. It is obvious that as a strong conservative Black man I am not allowed to think or speak.”
In this case and others, Texas GOP communications took a decidedly strange turn. In August, shortly after West was elected, a video appeared on the party’s YouTube channel. With no explanation or context, the video intercut footage of Biden quoting the prophet Muhammad, with Urdu subtitles, with footage taken from a voting drive for young Muslims. The video seemed to imply either that Biden was a Muslim or that Biden was empowering a Muslim takeover of the United States. (This would be in line with West’s long-standing public position that the United States is locked in a 1,400-year struggle against Islam.)
It would have been shocking to see the party itself promoting this kind of nonsense just a few years back. But now the most shocking thing about the video is that West isn’t in it. Most of the other videos over the past few months have been poorly shot, usually unedited recordings of West on the road. On July 31, the Texas GOP YouTube channel posted a video of West in a sweaty tank top during a jog in El Paso, with Mexico visible over his shoulder. Wind whips by the mic, and some of the sound is barely audible. Other videos show West, occasionally in a formfitting exercise shirt, at various locations: at the Republican National Convention, or on a ranch in Kerrville. It all gives the impression that the Republican Party of Texas has become . . . well, a vehicle for the promotion of Allen West.
But nothing so far has characterized West’s tenure quite as much as the sparring with Governor Abbott, which seemed to intensify as Texas moved toward Election Day. At the rally at the Governor’s Mansion, West theatrically delivered a resolution passed by the State Republican Executive Committee demanding an end to pandemic restrictions. West is echoing a real demand from the base to stand up to Abbott, but it’s notable that, apart from Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller, who also attended the rally, no other Republican statewide officials are joining West’s crusade. Even Dan Patrick, who was once spoken of as a potential future primary challenger to Abbott, has focused most of his fire elsewhere. But the leader of their party seems hell-bent on breaking Ronald Reagan’s Eleventh Commandment: Thou shalt not speak ill of any fellow Republican. It’s hard not to wonder: Is West running for something?
As the election got closer, West’s eccentric activities continued. At a rally in McAllen, he spoke through a megaphone branded with the logo of Infowars, Austin conspiracy theorist Alex Jones’s site. In North Texas, he endorsed a candidate running for a seat on the board of the Grapevine-Colleyville Independent School District, an unusual matter for a state party chair to involve himself in. (West was spurred by the fact that the candidate, Tommy Snyder, opposed the existence of a student Marxist club at Grapevine High School.) And he took jabs at the media. When a reporter with the Texas Tribune asked the state party for comment on footage of a Trump supporter ramming a vehicle in a Biden campaign caravan traveling on I-35, West responded with a pointed attack. “Prepare to lose . . . stop bothering me,” his statement read. “Maybe Soros can cut y’all another check in 2022.”
During early voting, it became apparent that some ballots in Tarrant County had been printed with erroneous bar codes, which meant that they would have to be counted by hand, rather than by machine. The GOP needed poll-watchers to attend the count, a function that might, in the past, have fallen to the state party. Instead, Abbott asked former chair James Dickey to take care of it. West had become a kind of chaos agent in the GOP. But would he help or hurt Republican candidates? If they did poorly in the election, West would make a good scapegoat. If they did well, West would want his share of the credit.
On November 1, a new West video was posted to the party’s YouTube account. In the video, titled “Report from the Rio Grande Valley,” West stands by the river in Eagle Pass, wearing jeans and a crisp white polo with “We Are The Storm” printed over his left breast. He describes his tour “up through the Rio Grande Valley” from Harlingen to Laredo and towns further north. (Eagle Pass is a couple hundred miles upriver from what Texans regard as the Valley.) “The Hispanic community is waking up. The Valley is waking up,” he said. “It used to be this deep blue area, but they’re starting to understand their principles and values. Because we’ve engaged, we have talked to them.”
On election night, the Republican Party of Texas stopped Democrats cold. Texas Democrats failed to take the state House, went bust on their bid to win several congressional seats, and watched as Trump won the state by a respectable six percentage points. But perhaps the most shocking story involved the impressive showing the GOP made in South Texas. In heavily Hispanic counties along the border, Trump dramatically outperformed his 2016 margin. In Cameron County, where Brownsville is located, Trump lost in 2016 by 33 percentage points. In 2020, he closed the gap to 13. And in the case of rural Zapata County, south of Laredo, Trump went from a 33-point loss to a 5-point win over Biden. It was a stunning shift of political momentum that karate-chopped Texas Democrats in their soft underbelly.
The day after the election, West appeared in a new video, in front of the Texas Capitol. He asked each of the 5.8 million Texans who voted for Trump to send the party $5—the bill with Lincoln on it. The party needed a war chest. “One of the things I want to make sure that we do with the Republican Party of Texas, is that we don’t just ramp up for an election and then ramp back down,” he said. The party—his party—needed to maintain “a constant steady state.” Allen’s Army wasn’t going to rest.
Correction: The original version of the story incorrectly stated that Allen West would become the first Black chairman of either major political party in Texas history. In fact, there were Black chairs of the GOP in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The story has been updated.
This article originally appeared in the December 2020 issue of Texas Monthly with the headline “Wild Allen West.” Subscribe today.