If you think the national GOP has embraced fringe figures, wait until you meet their colleagues in statehouses
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.