Commentary

Susan J. Demas: If the Jan. 6 coup succeeded, what would Michigan Republicans have done?

January 6, 2022 3:37 am

Pro-Trump protesters gather in front of the U.S. Capitol Building on January 6, 2021 in Washington, DC during the insurrection. | Brent Stirton/Getty Images

Today is the most inauspicious of anniversaries, as we came closer to losing our democracy on Jan. 6, 2021, than anyone ever dared to imagine at the time.

As a European history major who’s spent time studying coups, along with more than two decades of reporting on an increasingly fragile democratic system at home, it was still terrifyingly bizarre to watch armed insurrectionists with Nazi apparel and Confederate flags storm our Capitol — especially with my teenage children by my side.

Much like 9/11, which hit just as I was starting my journalism career, seeing a horror show unfold on live TV left most of us in a delusional fog that this must have been spontaneous violence and not carefully planned terrorism that left five dead. Indeed, it was mostly covered as such at the time and for weeks afterward, with sympathetic conservative writers simpering that those who beat police officers, hunted down former Vice President Mike Pence and members of Congress and smeared feces on the walls of the seat of government were just “a few bad apples.”

They weren’t, as I knew deep in my bones at the time, but didn’t want to alarm my kids.

As we know now, thanks to intrepid reporting and investigations from the Jan. 6 special committee, former President Donald Trump and his lieutenants (however comical slurring, hair dye-dripping Rudy Giuliani may be) were planning to go to war to install him for another term, despite badly losing the 2020 election. They had a war room. They had the (poor) legal justification with the Eastman memo. They had a president eager to rile up his supporters and exhort them to take the Capitol.

So whether it was far-right forces launching a straight-up coup d’etat or throwing the Electoral College count into chaos and bouncing the decision back to the states, this was an authoritarian ploy straight out of the history books. The Capitol siege left innocent people dead, grievously injured and forever scarred.

As a European history major who’s spent time studying coups, along with more than two decades of reporting on an increasingly fragile democratic system at home, it was still terrifyingly bizarre to watch armed insurrectionists with Nazi apparel and Confederate flags storm our Capitol — especially with my teenage children by my side.

– Susan J. Demas

It’s worth thinking about what might have happened if pro-Trump forces succeeded in either scenario. How many Michigan Republicans would have stood up against a violent fascist coup, when the GOP — which was looking at dwelling in the minority in the U.S. House and possibly the Senate — would suddenly have absolute power? 

We know U.S. Reps. Jack Bergman (R-Watersmeet), Lisa McClain (R-Bruce Twp.) and Tim Walberg (R-Tipton) — who all voted to reject Biden’s victory in states even after their lives were in danger from the mob that ransacked the Capitol — would have happily shredded the Constitution. 

But what of the other five Michigan Republicans, including the two who would later vote to impeach the disgraced ex-president, U.S. Reps. Fred Upton (R-St. Joseph) and Peter Meijer (R-Grand Rapids)? Would they have had the courage to stand up to authoritarianism if Trump was sitting on a throne in the White House instead of packing his bags? 

And what if the plan had worked for Pence to toss the Electoral College vote back to states and have majority GOP legislatures crown Trump the winner? Michigan Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey (R-Clarklake), former House Speaker Lee Chatfield (R-Levering) and assorted other GOP lawmakers couldn’t wait to hop on a plane and kiki with Trump before Thanksgiving. Before Jan. 6, they sorrowfully acknowledged there was no legal mechanism to flip the state to Trump (who lost it by almost 3%). 

But what if the vice president, egged on by the far-right mob, chucked the rules out the window, sending the vote back to Republican legislatures in key states like Georgia, Pennsylvania or Wisconsin that signaled their capitulation? Do we really think that someone like Shirkey, who’s gleefully spread COVID and election conspiracies, would have a moral spine of steel?

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

And how different would the 2020 election have been in Michigan if you had Trump-endorsed Bill Schuette as governor and a Republican attorney general and secretary of state? What lies ahead in the 2024 election if any Republican is governor, with all candidates endorsing 2020 election lies and one candidate, Ryan Kelley, joining the insurrection? 

Do we think that Matt DePerno, who got in on the fake “audit” grift game early, or Tom Leonard, who says there were serious issues with the 2020 election, will be fair stewards of election law as attorney general? Do we think Trump secretary of state favorite Kristina Karamo, who speaks at QAnon conventions in her spare time, will try to throw elections to Republicans in ‘24?

The answers should make us all queasy. Democracy is clearly more fragile than any of us wanted to believe. 

Jan. 6, 2021, may thankfully be over and the rightly elected man is president. But the fight is far from over. And anyone who tells you differently, whether it’s their outright defenses of fascist thuggery or takes brimming with ironic detachment that paper over it, doesn’t really value America or your freedom.

If we aren’t vigilant, the insurrection could be a gruesome turning point in our democracy’s demise, just as Hitler’s unsuccessful 1923 Beer Hall Putsch was a prelude for his ascent to power a mere decade later.

After Trump’s narrow 2016 win, we watched a wannabe dictator cozy up to murderous authoritarians like Orbán and Putin, enact explicitly racist policies, use the government to enrich himself and his vulgar family and replace competent, knowledgable officials with corrupt far-right flunkies.

If we aren’t vigilant, the insurrection could be a gruesome turning point in our democracy’s demise, just as Hitler’s unsuccessful 1923 Beer Hall Putsch was a prelude for his ascent to power a mere decade later.

– Susan J. Demas

It was like a four-year experiment in seeing how far government could bend before it broke and became completely dysfunctional. 

After the Jan. 6 coup attempt failed, Republicans and their billionaire donors switched gears, enacting dozens of voter suppression measures to primarily make it harder for BIPOC people to vote to wound Democrats in future elections. Trump adviser Steve Bannon and others are amassing an army of far-right conspiracy-mongers to take over local election positions to help ensure Republicans never have to fear losing elections again. And they’re bilking folks for pro-Trump “audits” that will never go anywhere, but keep their base agitated and feeling forever victimized by President Brandon.

Now we’re watching to see how far democracy itself can bend before it snaps — and we may not have as long as we think.

It’s easy to be paralyzed. It’s almost impossible to have faith in humanity after over 800,000 people have died in a pandemic, many of them needlessly. But it’s up to all of us to fight for our imperfect democracy while we still can.

We still owe that to one another.

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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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