Commentary

Susan J. Demas: An overlooked goal of the rising far-right? Get good people to quit.

September 19, 2021 7:40 am

Right-wing protesters swarm in the Capitol in opposition to Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s COVID-19 stay-home order, April 30, 2020 | Anna Liz Nichols

When U.S. Rep. Anthony Gonzalez (R-Ohio) this week announced his retirement after being one of only a handful Republicans to impeach former President Donald Trump for inciting the Jan. 6 insurrection, it was greeted with the usual discourse when moderates step aside.

Pundits are always atwitter if this mean that Democrats are moving too far left or Republicans are shifting too far right and speculate what this means for the party’s fortunes in the next election. (Usually you get some “Washington is broken” laments for good measure.)

While all that’s a standard part of political discourse, it does obscure a rising and more sinister trend: An explicit goal of the fascist far-right-wing of the Republican Party — those who stormed the U.S. Capitol to wage a violent coup and their myriad sympathizers who hold elected office — is to make good people quit politics, from members of Congress down to members of school boards.

The goal is to exact such a personal toll that people decide it’s just not worth it for them, and especially their families, to serve. In a disturbing interview with the New York Times, Gonzalez, 37, described an “eye-opening” moment when uniformed police officers showed up at the Cleveland airport to give him extra security after his January impeachment vote.

“That’s one of those moments where you say, ‘Is this really what I want for my family when they travel, to have my wife and kids escorted through the airport?’” he told the Times.

Gonzalez, of course, isn’t alone in Congress. U.S. Rep. Peter Meijer (R-Grand Rapids), who also voted for Trump’s impeachment, said afterward he and colleagues were buying body armor.

Those who stood up for democracy now have some decisions to make — and one of them is quitting like Gonzalez. While it makes complete sense to put your family first, it does, unfortunately help the far-right’s goal of opening up a seat for a pro-insurrectionist Republican.

An explicit goal of the fascist far-right-wing of the Republican Party — those who stormed the U.S. Capitol to wage a violent coup and their myriad sympathizers who hold elected office — is to make good people quit politics, from members of Congress down to members of school boards.

– Susan J. Demas

And now U.S. House GOP leadership has now openly thrown in with the insurrectionists, trying to stonewall investigations, even though violent rioters were hunting down Republican and Democratic members alike on Jan. 6. For good measure, the caucus booted U.S. Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.), who also voted for impeachment, as conference chair.

In Michigan, we’ve almost become used to violent threats as a standard right-wing political tactic throughout the COVID-19 pandemic and after Trump’s thumping in the 2020 election (despite his lies and endless voting conspiracy theories). We were the site of some of the largest, heavily armed protests over stay-home orders featuring signs calling for Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s murder.

Right-wing activists stormed the state Capitol on April 30, 2020, with some AR-15-toting men looming over senators in the gallery as they took critical pandemic votes in what’s been described as a “dress rehearsal” for the Jan. 6 insurrection.

BIPOC lawmakers, in particular, raised the alarm, but said they had to take security measures into their own hands when GOP leaders ignored their pleas. Rep. Sarah Anthony (D-Lansing) was escorted to the Capitol afterward by armed Black citizens, while Sen. Sylvia Santana (D-Detroit) donned a bulletproof vest.

Then in October, Whitmer made international news after federal agents busted a self-described militia plot to allegedly kidnap and kill her over her health orders — and incite civil war. Notably, the top GOP leaders at the time, Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey (R-Clarklake) and then-House Speaker Lee Chatfield (R-Levering), joined yet another anti-Whitmer rally at the Capitol just hours after law enforcement announced the arrests. (Shirkey told the crowd, “We need to be strong … and not be afraid of those who are taking our freedoms away from us.”)

We also had warnings that the far-right wasn’t content just to intimidate officials at the federal or state level, with car caravans known as “Trump Trains” rolling through small communities last year like Houghton in the western Upper Peninsula. Vehicles donned Trump, American and Confederate flags and Trump supporters allegedly yelled out threats and racial slurs.

We’ve seen throughout history that these are popular fascist terror tactics, like the “squadrismos” that roamed the Italian countryside. Gangs of hundreds or even thousands of men brutalized citizens, particularly socialists, in the runup to Mussolini coming to power.

We’re not supposed to believe that kind of wanton violence can happen here, but after witnessing hundreds desecrate the Capitol and try to overthrow the government, why would we be so sure?

Protesters enter the Senate Chamber on January 06, 2021 in Washington, DC. Congress held a joint session today to ratify President-elect Joe Biden’s 306-232 Electoral College win over President Donald Trump. Pro-Trump protesters have entered the U.S. Capitol building after mass demonstrations in the nation’s capital. | Win McNamee/Getty Images

It’s not a coincidence that local health officials and school board members are the latest targets of right-wing hate over school mask mandates, even as COVID cases are skyrocketing in kids. There’s the genteel attempt to strip state and local health officials’ power to stop mass death with the well-financed Unlock Michigan ballot petition, but then there are the crass threats and protests at what used to be sleepy local meetings across the state and country.

Melissa Ryan, the editor of the Ctrl Alt-Right Delete (CARD) newsletter and an expert on extremism, told the Advance that this is just the next phase of well-funded, well-connected national right-wing groups that first whipped up anger against lockdowns, and then moved on to blasting school sports bans and the COVID vaccine.

“It’s largely the same people; it’s the same groups; it’s the same resources. They’re trying to keep their base as enraged as possible,” Ryan said. “They’re not necessarily trying to change anyone’s mind. They’re trying to cause so much disruption that it’s just easier for a school board member to resign or for the policy to change, not because it’s how the majority of parents feel, but because it’s just easier not dealing with them.”

School board members tend to be parents or former educators who volunteer their time because they care about kids and their communities. Health officials are just trying to make evidence-based decisions for public safety. They didn’t sign up to be subjected to Nazi salutes or death threats. You can’t blame people for resigning like Ohio’s health director, Dr. Amy Acton.

But we can’t sleep on the fact that these fascist tactics are working and the far-right is emboldened. Last week, Ryan Kelley, a GOP gubernatorial candidate who was at the Jan. 6 insurrection, posted a disturbing TikTok video outside an Ottawa County Commission meeting.

“You don’t even know yet what this is going to look like if you guys keep trying this tyranny,” Kelley declared.

Right-wing extremists are prepared to get what they want by any means necessary. This isn’t the fight a lot of us wanted, but it’s here. Pick a side.

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Susan J. Demas

Susan J. Demas is a 21-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, LGBTQs, the state budget, the economy and more. Most recently, she served as Vice President of Farough & Associates, Michigan’s premier political communications firm. For almost five years, Susan was the Editor and Publisher of Inside Michigan Politics, the most-cited political newsletter in the state. Susan’s award-winning political analysis has run in more than 80 national, international and regional media outlets, including the Guardian U.K., NBC News, the New York Times, the Detroit News and MLive. She is the only Michigan journalist to be named to the Washington Post’s list of “Best Political Reporters,” the Huffington Post’s list of “Best Political Tweeters” and the Washington Post’s list of “Best Political Bloggers.” Susan was the recipient of a prestigious Knight Foundation fellowship in nonprofits and politics. She served as Deputy Editor for MIRS News and helped launch the Michigan Truth Squad, the Center for Michigan’s fact-checking project. She started her journalism career reporting on the Iowa caucuses for The (Cedar Rapids) Gazette. Susan has hiked over 4,000 solo miles across four continents and climbed more than 70 mountains. She also enjoys dragging her husband and two teenagers along, even if no one else wants to sleep in a tent anymore.

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