Susan J. Demas: How does Michigan’s Legislature come back from last week’s conspiracyfest?

December 6, 2020 10:13 am

As millions tuned into “Saturday Night Live’s” parody of Rudy Giuliani and slurring star witness Mellissa Carone last night, they were laughing at Michigan, not with Michigan.And we deserved it.

I’m not sure how the GOP-controlled Legislature comes back from hosting almost 12 hours of insane right-wing election conspiracy theories and (again) flirting with handing a not-close election to Donald Trump that made the national networks. It wouldn’t have been much different if Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey (R-Clarklake) and House Speaker Lee Chatfield (R-Levering) had turned the keys over to screaming “Infowars” nutjob Alex Jones.

Giuliani and Carone were, in fact, fine stand-ins. House Oversight Committee Chair Matt Hall (R-Marshall) let Trump’s lawyer bizarrely take over his Wednesday hearing, questioning witnesses and demanding for a Democratic lawmaker to be punished. Giuliani and Trump lawyer Jenna Ellis also pressured GOP lawmakers to essentially throw out 5.5 million votes and appoint Trump electors, assuring them they could do it and be legends (they would also be breaking Michigan election law).

Republicans made sure nobody was under oath, so nobody could be held liable for their lies.

And that was the point. Republicans just wanted to inject as many lies and conspiracy theories about a routine election into the bloodstream so that even casual observers believe there was something funny about Democratic President-elect Joe Biden’s election. And indeed, this will be the playbook for any future elections Democrats win.

In reality, Biden won the election by a whopping 7 million votes and 306 electoral votes to Trump’s 232. In Michigan, he earned a straight-up majority of 51% — a 154,000-vote margin that’s about 14 times the size of Trump’s 2016 victory. The election has been certified and is in the National Archives.

It wasn’t close. There wasn’t voter fraud. Republicans are lying because they don’t like the results.

But our entire understanding of politics is premised on the idea that a major party simply would not whip up such an obvious and sinister deception, so many people have trouble believing that’s what’s going on. And Republicans have primed the pump with years of Jim Crow-inspired voter fraud myths about Detroit and other cities.

Now we’ve had other right-wing power grabs in Lame Duck. In 2012, the GOP-led Legislature did a blitzkrieg of Right to Work, anti-abortion restrictions and a new emergency manager law (overturning a ballot initiative) allowing the state to take over struggling cities like Flint (which would pave the way for the water crisis). Weak GOP Gov. Rick Snyder went along with it, of course.

In 2018, the GOP-controlled Legislature sought to quash the power of incoming Democrats Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, Attorney General Dana Nessel and Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson, take aim at progressive ballot initiatives for voting rights and redistricting and make it harder for citizen-led petition drives. They had mixed success, as Snyder was in legacy-building mode.

That helped set the stage for the spectacle last week with Republicans indulging their QAnon-addled base and coup schemes. At least four GOP lawmakers — Reps. Triston Cole (R-Mancelona), Julie Alexander (R-Hanover), Gary Eisen (R-St. Clair Twp.) and Sen. Roger Victory (R-Hudsonville) — don’t seem sold that election law excludes the Legislature from taking action. And you can bet they’re not alone.

Since Trump became president and his daily tirades, firings by tweet and rallies celebrating violence against political foes and the press became the norm, a lot of the Lansing brass has taken some comfort that at least D.C.’s craziness hasn’t permeated here. But the circus came to town last week — Republican leaders, in fact, invited it on taxpayers’ dime — and the veneer of the GOP’s respectability politics has been stripped away.

And let’s say a word about Michigan’s top two legislative leaders. The Giuliani Show and endless parade of GOP activists demanding to speak to the manager about Black Detroit poll workers would not have happened unless Shirkey and Chatfield sanctioned it. The most generous interpretation is that they’re weak leaders with tenuous holds on their caucuses, so they didn’t put a stop to it.

Given the fact that Shirkey, Chatfield and five other GOP leaders couldn’t jump on a plane fast enough to huddle last month with Trump (and Giuliani via phone) about what to do about the pesky fact that Biden won the election should dispel any myth that they’re noble protecters of democracy. You don’t take that meeting and possibly expose yourself to a criminal bribery investigation if you take the law seriously.

But they were more than happy to do so, with Chatfield and others partying afterward with a little Dom Perignon at the Trump Hotel, as they finally made it to the big time. Then days later, they insisted everything was on the up and up in contradictory statements and some politicos and pundits who know better pretended it must have been, because the alternative — that they did entertain a coup — was too stomach-churning.

House Speaker Lee Chatfield and other Republicans had a drink at the Trump International Hotel D.C. after their White House meeting

If there’s one thing that we’ve learned from this democracy-shredding episode is that there must be consequences for those involved — from lawyers filing error-filled grievance suits to activists lying in affidavits — or else there will be every incentive for them to do this every election.

The Republican lawmakers who made Michigan a laughingstock this week are not serious people. Most of them are only in office because they represent heavily GOP districts drawn by Republican lawmakers, so they don’t have to be accountable to the majority.

But these are the leaders tasked with dealing with the most serious crisis we’ve faced in decades, the COVID-19 pandemic that’s killing more than 2,000 Americans every day. In Michigan, we’re closing in fast on 400,000 cases and 10,000 deaths.

Last week, Republicans did nothing to help the thousands of people suffering in this health and economic catastrophe. They have done little since March, deploying a one-note strategy of screaming that it’s all the Democratic governor’s fault.

Whitmer spent last week writing the Legislature requests for COVID-19 funding, talking about vaccine distribution and begging Michiganders to hang on a bit longer with mask-wearing and social distancing.

The credibility gap is simply astounding. So how is Whitmer supposed to work on the pandemic with a GOP Legislature obsessed with conspiracy theories that’s just not that into democracy anymore?

That’s looking more like an impossible task with each passing day. It is an unspeakable — and completely avoidable — tragedy.

But at this point, anyone who blames her for the ensuing disaster is telling us that they’re not really serious people, either.

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Susan J. Demas

Susan J. Demas is a 22-year journalism veteran and one of the state’s foremost experts on Michigan politics, appearing on MSNBC, CNN, NPR and WKAR-TV’s “Off the Record.” In addition to serving as Editor-in-Chief, she is the Advance’s chief columnist, writing on women, LGBTQ+ people, the state budget, the economy and more.