Erika Geiss felt a tinge of déjà vu on January 6. She watched in horror and disbelief as thousands of rioters—driven by Trump’s lie that the 2020 election was fraudulent—scaled the outer walls of the US Capitol and violently forced their way inside the building and into the Senate chambers. But the “ire and vitriol” that Geiss says she saw watching live coverage of the Capitol insurrectionists on TV at her home didn’t surprise her. It was all too familiar. “We saw that here,” says Geiss, a state senator in Michigan representing a district just south of Detroit. “And we saw it mounting and escalating throughout April.”
On April 30, 2020, as Geiss and her colleagues convened for a legislative session in the Michigan Statehouse, a demonstration against the state’s stay-at-home orders took a harrowing turn as the protesters forced their way inside the building. Just as the insurrectionists did on January 6, the Michigan rioters broke through barricades and doors and pushed their way past security personnel until they entered the Senate chamber. Though the Michigan event never turned physically violent against lawmakers, it came quite close as protesters hovered and shouted in the galleries, many wearing bulletproof vests and armed with rifles and AR-15-style assault weapons. In hindsight, the riot at the Michigan Statehouse in April seems like a dress rehearsal for what happened eight months later at the US Capitol.
But there’s a key difference in the aftermath of both riots that highlights an alarming divide growing in the Republican Party. Whereas the Congressional Republicans are trying to figure out what the future of their party looks like—weighing how much of Trumpism and its extremist elements they can cling to without totally repelling more moderate voters—a growing number of GOP lawmakers at the state level are doubling down on their radical viewpoints, dangerous conspiracy theories, and association with paramilitary militias and other violent extremist groups. For every Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) currently in Congress, there are dozens of more like her at the state level—and with close ties with right-wing extremist groups.
After four years of embracing Trump—and all the ugly, racist rhetoric and violence that came with him—some of the more cravenly opportunistic Republicans are now trying to leave it behind. It can be a clumsy sight to behold: Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) delivered a scathing condemnation of Trump’s actions leading up to January 6, but still voted to acquit him during impeachment (though seven of his Republican colleagues crossed party lines on that vote, a record number). And 11 Republicans in the House voted to strip Greene of her committee assignments over her history of racist remarks and conspiracy theories. But the national party is still very much beholden to Trump. At the Conservative Political Action Conference two weeks ago, Trump delivered the keynote address, where he gave an authoritarian speech with a warning. “With your help, we will take back the House. We will win the Senate. And then a Republican president will make a triumphant return to the White House,” Trump said. “And I wonder who that will be.”
The scene at the state level makes one thing clear: Trump still dominates. The Wyoming GOP formally censured Rep. Liz Cheney for voting to impeach Trump. (And a number of other state Republican parties followed suit and censured their respective congressional leaders for not pushing election-related conspiracy theories and turning their back on the former president.) Meanwhile, radical Republican state lawmakers who were once considered fringe members of their own party have moved to the front and center, thanks to the Trump playbook. “Many of these folks have been in our legislatures for a while,” says Carolyn Fiddler, the communications director for Daily Kos. “And they always leaned in that direction. But Trump normalized it. And he demonstrated that you can use it as a way to gain and exercise power.”
In the immediate aftermath of the April riot in Michigan, the state’s top Republican, Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, initially condemned the local militia that organized the protest, calling them “a bunch of jackasses.” The outrage didn’t last long.
A few days after Shirkey issued that statement, he privately met with one of the organizers of the Michigan riot, according to the New York Times, during which he said “the optics weren’t good” of armed protesters in paramilitary gear storming the Michigan Capitol. After the protesters threatened to return to the Capitol with weapons, Shirkey publicly cozied up with their cause and two weeks later he spoke at one of their rallies against the state’s COVID regulations, where he appeared onstage with at least one member of a local militia who was later arrested for allegedly conspiring to kidnap Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer. “Stand up and test that assertion of authority by the government,” Shirkey said at the rally. “We need you now more than ever.”
Since then, Shirkey has been the face of the Michigan Republican Party’s descent into extremism. In the aftermath of the January 6 insurrection, Shirkey was caught on video parroting claims that the Capitol riot was a “hoax” staged by people to make Trump supporters look bad. “It was arranged by somebody who was funding it…It was all staged,” he says in the video, which was first reported by the Detroit Metro Times. Later in the video, Shirkey suggests that McConnell is in on the conspiracy. “I think they wanted to have a mess,” Shirkey said. “They would have had to recruit this other group of people.”
But Shirkey isn’t the exception in Michigan’s GOP. As the most powerful Republican in the state, he sets the tone and manner for which the rest of the party follows. “That is where you have to ask, ‘Is this who the GOP is?’” wonders Geiss. “To a certain degree, I do believe it is. At least, it is who they are trying to become. And it’s almost like the conversion is complete at this point.”
Michigan is far from the only state whose Republican Party has become dominated by extremists. In Virginia, the current frontrunner for the GOP gubernatorial nomination is Amanda Chase, a state senator who has been at the center of a number of controversies since she assumed office in 2016, including an incident in January 2019 where she introduced legislation in a senate committee meeting with a sidearm strapped to her hip. In July 2019 she responded to someone who criticized her extreme Second Amendment views on her Facebook page by saying, “It’s those who are naive and unprepared that end up raped. Sorry but I’m not going to be a statistic.”
Over the past year, Chase has boosted her popularity among her party’s growing radical constituency, thanks to her anti-mask stunts, comments encouraging Trump to declare martial law to overturn the results of the election, and for speaking at the January 6 rally on the Ellipse, the 52-acre park just south of the White House, that preceded the insurrection. In the aftermath of the insurrection, Chase both referred to the rioters as “patriots” and alleged, without any evidence, that antifa had infiltrated the Trump mob and led the insurrection. “The insurrection is actually the deep state with the politicians working against the people to overthrow our government,” she told the New York Times.
Mark Finchem, a staunch Trump ally, member of the extremist militia group the Oath Keepers, and a Republican member of Arizona’s House of Representatives, has similarly stirred up controversy within his own party for promoting conspiracy theories related to the election as well as his role in the January 6 insurrection. Like Chase, Finchem was at the Ellipse that day; afterward he posted pictures on Twitter from the Capitol grounds of the mob storming the building, with a caption that read, “What happens when the People feel they have been ignored, and Congress refuses to acknowledge rampant fraud.” Finchem has continued to praise the insurrectionists and promote conspiracy theories about the election; last month it was revealed that he was actually paid by the Trump campaign to help overturn Arizona’s election results. Finchem had 82 ethics complaints lodged against him over his comments and actions related to the election and the insurrection, but in early February the Arizona House Ethics Committee cleared him of all complaints, with the committee’s chair writing that all the complaints simply amount to “an objection to Representative Finchem’s advocacy of controversial political opinions.”
Finchem isn’t an outlier in his own state party, either. In late January, Arizona’s GOP officially censured three of its top members, Gov. Doug Ducey, former Sen. Jeff Flake, and Cindy McCain, the widow of Sen. John McCain, for anti-Trump comments and actions. Both Flake and McCain were censured by their party specifically for endorsing Biden, calling out McCain for her support for “leftist causes such as gay marriage and growth of the administrative state” and for Biden, which they said was “in direct opposition to Republican values, the interests of the American people and the Constitution of the United States.” The group condemned Ducey for his emergency orders to fight the spread of the coronavirus, which they said are unconstitutional and “restrict personal liberties.”
Though Trump may be gone from office, the problems he created are growing larger every day. And whereas state lawmakers like Shirkey, Chase, and Finchem might once have been brushed off as fringe lawmakers whose extremist agenda was merely a distraction with little consequence, their rise to power poses an existential threat in statehouses across the country. “Having someone parrot conspiracy theories and try to sow doubt in our elections is very, very unhelpful to say the least,” says Laurie Pohutsky, a Democratic member of Michigan’s House of Representatives. “It’s dangerous to be completely honest, especially when we’re trying to make sure that more people are participating in the democratic process.” Since the election, state Republican lawmakers in several swing states have used false claims of voter fraud and other election conspiracy theories to pass new restrictive voting laws that will further disenfranchise millions of people from the right to vote.
Democrats may have won control of the White House and Congress, but Republicans still have party control of governments in 30 states. And when redistricting happens in the next two or three years, after the most recent census is released, most of those GOP-controlled legislatures will redraw district lines to further gerrymander and ensure that their party can retain control and grow in power for another decade. And if extremism is what helps Republicans win elections at the state level, that’s what the party will ultimately embrace, according to Fiddler. “Republicans value numbers more than sort of managing the direction of their party, and they will take wins where they can get that,” she says. “I think you’re going to see a strengthening of the grip of these extremists, these QAnon believers and whatnot, on the Republican Party before it has any hope of swinging the other way.”