Susan J. Demas: Michigan Republicans have radicalized — and there’s nothing to check their power

February 10, 2021 7:17 am

Trump Rally outside the Michigan State Capitol Saturday, Nov. 7, 2020 | Anna Liz Nichols

The national media has gotten wise this week to GOP Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey pallin’ around with militia leaders, calling the pro-Trump U.S. Capitol insurrection a “hoax” and bragging that Republicans have repeatedly “spanked” the female Democratic governor on policy.

“[We] spanked her hard on the budget. Spanked her hard on appointments. We did everything we could constitutionally do,” Shirkey (R-Clarklake) said of Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, who he previously called “batshit crazy.”

As for the Jan. 6 attack, Shirkey told GOP activists last week (before issuing a mealy-mouthed apology): “That wasn’t Trump people. … That’s been a hoax from day one. That was all prearranged. … It was all staged.”

Major outlets also taken note that the Michigan GOP just elected new leaders in Ron Weiser, whose predecessor accused him of running a bribery scheme, and Meshawn Maddock, a Women for Trump leader who organized 19 buses to Washington for what predictably became a bloody insurrection.

(Of course, the radicalization of the Michigan Republican Party began before the Trump era, by electing birthers like U.S. Rep. Tim Walberg (R-Tipton) and well-known homophobe and Islamaphobe Dave Agema as GOP national committeeman).

Vile and misogynistic rhetoric from leaders like Shirkey is damaging. It’s soul-sapping. It’s made Michigan a meaner place during a terrifying health crisis.

Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey at the Mackinac Policy Conference, May 30, 2019 | Andrew Roth

But it’s important to stress that Republicans’ embrace of extremism also has huge implications for democracy and public health.

They’ve repeatedly rejected science during a deadly pandemic, as Shirkey has endorsed “herd immunity” in regards to COVID — a disease he contracted in December and didn’t disclose for weeks (so much for transparency). The GOP-controlled Legislature has laughed at a mask mandate and angrily fought life-saving restrictions even as 15,000 of our friends and neighbors are dead, with Sen. Ed McBroom (R-Vulcan) memorably bemoaning that the Legislature had been “emasculated.”

Michigan Republicans also have held endless hearings (that are still going) on election conspiracies (complete with racist Detroit tropes) and 18 lawmakers flirted with overturning Democratic President Joe Biden’s 154,000-vote victory last year in lawsuits or letters. Shirkey, then-House Speaker Lee Chatfield (R-Levering) and other GOP lawmakers giddily embarked on their White House field trip to chat with Trump in November and we’ve never gotten a full account of what went down.

But long before then, many Republicans made it clear that they don’t recognize Democrats as duly elected officials.

Even before Whitmer took office in 2018, along with Democrats who swept the statewide posts, Republicans who controlled the Legislature sought to neuter their powers in a frenzied Lame Duck session.

“Voters expect me to be a governor with all the authority that the first 48 governors of our state’s great history had,” Whitmer told me that December. “And I’m gonna fight to make sure that those powers are in the executive office.”

She’s had to. In her first year in office, Republicans rejected an executive order for the first time in 40 years that would have reorganized the environmental department. They refused to negotiate on the budget because they didn’t want to compromise on her signature roads issue and sent her their own budget, from which she chopped about $1 billion. Whitmer also used the Administrative Board to shift $625 million into her own priorities, which made Republicans see red and fight to ax that power.

These state-level GOP power grabs aren’t unique to Michigan — Wisconsin, North Carolina and Oregon have seen plenty on this front long before attempts to overturn Biden’s 2020 victory in key states.

Then COVID hit in March 2020 and Whitmer took aggressive executive action to stop its spread. Fueled by business lobbyists and conservative donors, Republicans like Shirkey joined in heavily armed protests dominated by fringe groups like the Proud Boys and militias, where speeches and signs calling Whitmer a “tyrant” and “dictator” were common.

So were threats against her life, which we would learn in October weren’t just idle chatter. Thirteen militia-linked men were arrested in a kidnapping and assassination plot against Whitmer, which involved taking hostages at the Michigan Capitol and blowing it up — something that would seem eerily familiar as many of us watched Trumpers ransack the U.S. Capitol and try and hunt down members of Congress and Vice President Mike Pence a few months later in an attempted coup.

The pro-Trump insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, Jan. 6, 2021 | Alex Kent

What did Shirkey and Chatfield do hours after the FBI announced charges? They spoke at another anti-Whitmer protest on the Capitol lawn, natch.

Shirkey also bragged about meeting with militia leaders who had “gotten a bad rap” just a month before. And Trump held a series of campaign rallies in Michigan after the arrests in which the crowd shouted, “Lock her up!” about the nearly murdered governor.

Meanwhile, BIPOC lawmakers, knowing they would be the first target in a far-right attack on Michigan’s Capitol, were repeatedly shut down by Shirkey and other GOP leaders on attempts to improve safety, ban Confederate symbols and hold lawmakers who backed overturning the election to account. Several now come to work with bulletproof vests.

It also should be noted that Republicans also have spent years fighting in court a 2018 constitutional amendment creating an independent redistricting panel, precisely because gerrymandering is key to how Republicans have maintained their grip on the Legislature — even in 2012, 2018 and 2020 when Democrats at the top and bottom of the ticket won handily.

Which leads us to where we are today. During the pandemic, there has been a steady spray of stories about Republicans, restaurant owners and sports parents who are big mad about Whitmer’s COVID restrictions — even though a majority has consistently backed her pandemic response. Republicans have, not surprisingly, threatened to withhold emergency COVID funding for schools and vaccines unless Whitmer (you guessed it) gives up her powers.

Vile and misogynistic rhetoric from leaders like Shirkey is damaging. It's soul-sapping. It's made Michigan a meaner place during a terrifying health crisis.

– Susan J. Demas

Sadly, if you remove the clinical posts on daily statistics, I wouldn’t be surprised if these grievance stories outnumber articles about the lives and families of the 570,000 Michiganders who have gotten sick and the 15,000 who have died.

That’s fed the conventional wisdom that Whitmer’s powers must be blunted, even though studies have shown that her actions have saved thousands of lives. It’s truly incredible.

The reality, however, is that we have a GOP-controlled Legislature that’s repeatedly discarded scientific consensus on the pandemic and undermined a free and fair election and democracy itself.

And there is currently no check on leaders’ power. Nobody is expecting the Senate GOP caucus to chuck Shirkey. No one is expecting that Republicans will abandon their hostage-taking tactics on COVID funding for the common good.

The radicals are fully in charge of the state GOP and the Legislature. Their chief goal is to usurp all power from the duly elected governor, weakening her in her 2022 election fight.

How is this all going to end? I don’t know, but it doesn’t look good.

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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.