As Republicans increasingly embrace far-right radicalization, a crisis of democracy looms large

It has become painfully obvious that the Republican Party has ceased to be a viable partner in American democracy, because it has transformed into a profoundly anti-democratic, authoritarian political entity that is willing to resort to the rule of violent mobs and thugs to seize that power. While this transformation has been gathering momentum for years, the Jan. 6 insurrection became its apotheosis.

The aftermath of the insurrection gave Republicans the opportunity to distinguish themselves from the radicalized insurrectionists who assaulted the Capitol with the intent of installing Donald Trump as an unelected dictator. But now it’s becoming clear that, not only are Republicans refusing to distance themselves from the conspiracy theorists and violent thugs who have overwhelmed their ranks, they are doubling down by openly embracing them: In the refusal of congressional Republicans to discipline conspiracy-peddling lunatics within their own ranks; of state-level Republicans to form open alliances with paramilitary militiamen; and most of all, in Senate Republicans’ ongoing refusal to acknowledge the mountain of evidence that Trump incited the violence and do their plain duty to convict him of that seditious act.

No doubt, many of these Republicans are intimidated by the reality on the ground—namely, that hordes of their voters have been radicalized by the disinformation propagandists and conspiracy theorists who dominated GOP politics in the 2020 election, and their anger at any party member insufficiently supportive of Trump threatens them both electorally and physically. The radicalization of state-level GOP offices—including those where Trump lost electoral votes—has been rapid and overwhelming.

This means that Republicans are joining the incoming tide of right-wing extremism, many of them eagerly. In Michigan, the state’s Senate Majority Leader, Mike Shirkey, appears to have moved beyond merely being friendly with the state’s violent paramilitary fringe to an outright embrace of those radicals.

“It is like the Republican Party has its own domestic army,” Jeff Timmer, a former executive director of the Michigan party, told the New York Times.

Last week, Shirkey told fellow Republicans—who at the time were discussing censuring him for failing to respond strongly enough to Democrats—that he thought the Capitol insurrection was a “hoax” that had been “staged” by unknown sponsors.

“That wasn’t Trump people,” he said. “That’s been a hoax from day one. That was all prearranged. It was arranged by somebody who was funding it. … It was all staged.

Shirkey even suggested that Republicans’ former Senate Majority Leader, Mitch McConnell, “was part of” the conspiracy. “I think they wanted to have a mess,” Shirkey said. “They would have had to recruit this other group of people.”

Shirkey added: “I think there are people above elected officials. There are puppeteers.”

Shortly afterward, he issued what appeared to be a retraction and apology—except that it wasn’t. “I said some things in a videoed conversation that are not fitting for the role I am privileged to serve. I own that. I have many flaws. Being passionate coupled with an occasional lapse in restraint of tongue are at least two of them,” Shirkey said in a statement. “I regret the words I chose, and I apologize for my insensitive comments.”

But on Wednesday, Shirkey had an exchange on the floor of the Senate with Lieutenant Governor Garlin Gilchrist, a Democrat, making clear that his statement was a non-apology: "I frankly don’t take back any of the statements I made—I take back some of the words I chose." He then went on to tell Gilchrist he thought that the insurrection had been planned “weeks and months in advance” by Democrats.

Shirkey has a long history of not only encouraging right-wing extremists but also empowering them. When a horde of armed militiamen descended on the Capitol in Lansing in April and attempted to invade the state House chambers, Shirkey embraced their agenda—which was to nullify Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s COVID-19 public health measures—while voicing doubts about their tactics: “The optics weren’t good. Next time tell them not to bring guns,” he commented.

That enraged Michigan’s “Patriot” contingent. The protest’s organizers threatened to return with weapons and “militia guys signing autographs and passing out blow-up AR-15s to the kiddies on the Capitol lawn.” Afterwards, event organizer commented on social media that Shirkey had come around to their point of view, and “spoke at our next event.”

On the floor of the Senate during a subsequent Lansing protest—during which armed militia members were watching from the gallery above—Shirkey had called the governor a tyrant: "If she does not recognize the end of the emergency declaration, we have no other choice but to act," he said, not clarifying what kind of action he intended.

He had also appeared at an anti-Whitmer rally that had featured some of those militiamen. “Stand up and test that assertion of authority by the government,” Shirkey said. “We need you now more than ever.”

Later, when some of those came militiamen were arrested for plotting to kidnap and murder Whitmer—after dropping their original plan to invade the statehouse, take public officials hostage, and hold televised executions—Shirkey, rather than striking a conciliatory note, had been even more incendiary.

“This is no time to be weak in our commitment to freedom,” Shirkey told a “Let MI People Go” rally at the capitol. “We need to be strong…and not be afraid of those who are taking our freedoms away from us.”

Shirkey is not alone; the Michigan Republican Party appears to have been completely consumed by militia-loving extremists. Meshawn Maddock, credited as the chief organizer of the April 30 armed protest, was elected Saturday as co-chair of the state party, along with three other diehard Trump loyalists named to top positions. Maddock also helped fill 19 buses full of Michiganders who traveled to the Jan. 6 insurrection.

Ryan Kelley, a local Republican official also credited with organizing the April 30 event, last week announced he was running for governor. “Becoming too closely aligned with militias—is that a bad thing?” he wondered aloud in an interview.

That kind of sentiment appears to be increasingly common among Republicans nationally. Talk of “civil war” is increasingly voiced with approval both among conservative pundits and GOP officials. Phil Reynolds, a member of the GOP central committee in California’s Santa Clara County, commented on Facebook during the January 6 insurrection: “The war has begun. Citizens take arms! Drumroll please….. Civil War or No Civil War?”

Randy Voepel, a state Assemblyman in California, voiced support for the insurrectionists in a Jan. 9 San Diego Union-Tribune piece: “This is Lexington and Concord. First shots fired against tyranny. Tyranny will follow in the aftermath of the Biden swear in on January 20th.”

The Senate impeachment trial of Trump—which so far has mostly featured unrepentant Republicans insisting the former president had done nothing wrong, either ignoring testimony during the trial or simply sitting stone-faced throughout the proceedings—has only underscored the increasing embrace of extremism by the GOP.

"Washington Republicans have made their choice—they chose to cave to the murderous QAnon mob that has taken over their party," said Congressman Sean Patrick Maloney of New York, chair of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. They are "refusing to hold those responsible for the attack on the Capitol accountable, offering nothing but empty words after years of hyping up lies and conspiracy theories."

“The GOP is a counter-majoritarian party now, every week it becomes less like a ‘normal’ party,” said Jay Rosen, a New York University journalism professor. “The GOP has to make it harder to vote and harder to understand what the party is all about. Those are two parts of the same project. And it can’t treat its white supremacist and violent wings as extremists who should be isolated because it needs them. They provide motor and momentum.”

Democratic strategist Ian Russell told ABC News that the GOP doesn't seem to be reevaluating their own strategies despite losing the White House and the Senate, and having rid themselves of Trump as president.

"Both parties after losing a national election dust themselves off ... and figure out a path back," he said. "What you've seen since the election, though, is the Republicans double down on Trumpian chaos. Marjorie Taylor Greene, QAnon, those are all symptoms of the underlying disease, which is this chaos that's at the heart—that's taken over modern conservatism, and the modern Republican Party."

"That's all they've got in the gas tank right now," he added. "And this won't get them very far."

“The GOP has radicalized (and is still radicalizing) on its willingness to break democratic norms and subvert or eliminate political institutions. Don’t expect restraint where you’ve seen it in the past,” Charlotte Hill, a political researcher at University of California, Berkeley, told Five Thirty Eight.

“Many Republicans do not accept Democratic governance as a legitimate outcome” of elections, observed Georgetown University history Thomas Zimmer. “America is nearing a crisis of democratic legitimacy because one side is trying to erect one-party minority rule.”