‘The playbook for authoritarianism counts on this’

Experts, pols warn Jan. 6 insurrection anniversary is reminder that U.S. democracy is at risk

By: and - January 6, 2022 9:38 am

Members of the pro-Trump mob destroy multimedia equipment. | Alex Kent

When U.S. Rep. Dan Kildee (D-Flint) arrives at the U.S. Capitol Thursday, he will do so to tell the truth: That, one year ago, armed rioters attempted to overthrow a democratically elected government in a fatal attack that followed a months-long campaign by former President Donald Trump to claim victory in an election he lost both nationally and in Michigan.

In a space where a crowd of about 1,000 people waved weapons, Confederate flags and Trump signs amid the smoke and broken glass filling the Capitol while calling for the deaths of elected officials who stood in the way of Trump’s attempted coup — like former Vice President Mike Pence — Kildee will remember Jan. 6, 2021. It’s a day that political experts said the country came within a razor’s edge of slipping into the authoritarianism that continues to be championed by Republicans in Michigan and across the country.

“It’s been a tough time preparing for the anniversary — I was impacted pretty significantly by the trauma of the attack and suffered from [Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder] — but the one thing I was certain about was I needed to be in Washington and participate in the event to mark this anniversary,” Kildee told the Advance Tuesday. “It’s critical that people who were there bear witness to the truth. I’m worried there are a lot of people in Washington and around the country who want to ignore the truth or contradict the truth because they think it serves their purpose.”

U.S. Rep. Dan Kildee | Robin Bravender/States Newsroom

After the pro-Trump mob built a gallows and chanted, “Hang Mike Pence” on the lawn of the U.S. Capitol, the Jan. 6 insurrection — and the lies and conspiracy theories in which it was rooted — have continued to reverberate in state and national political landscapes. Republican lawmakers and other GOP leaders are not only largely dismissive or outrightly supportive of the Jan. 6 attempted coup, in which some of them participated, but are backing further assaults on democracy through voter restriction legislation, replacing local election officials with Trump supporters, and repeatedly amplifying the falsehood that the 2020 election was stolen, according to political experts and Democratic lawmakers interviewed by the Advance.

This determination to fuel Trump’s lies is poisoning America’s electoral system and threatens the future of democracy in a country that is witnessing one of its two major political parties, the Republican Party, rejecting basic democratic concepts, like the peaceful transfer of power. Instead, they are embracing authoritarianism, a former Michigan GOP head said.

“The Republicans are highly motivated right now and are demonstrating an enthusiasm for lawlessness when it comes to the election,” said Jeff Timmer, who was executive director of the Michigan Republican Party from 2005 to 2009. He’s since left the GOP and now works with the Lincoln Project and is a vocal critic of the former president and current Michigan and national Republican leadership. 

“Eighty-one million people voted against Trump because they wanted a return to normal America, and things are crazier than they were a year ago,” Timmer continued.

‘Once you sell your soul to the devil, you don’t get it back’

With armed protestors who stormed the Michigan State Capitol in April 2020 to protest Democratic Gov . Gretchen Whimter’s COVID-19 health orders providing the blueprint for the Jan. 6 insurrection — which has resulted in the arrests of 15 Michiganders — political violence akin has already taken root in the state. 

But political experts said the Jan. 6 coup attempt prompted the normalization of that violence. The conspiracy theories that fueled it further spread in a state GOP that is leading a battle cry against democracy in the shadow of the 2022 midterm elections and 2024 presidential election.

“Once you sell your soul to the devil, you don’t get it back; that’s where the Michigan Republicans are right now,” Timmer said.

“You can see looming with their slate of candidates for 2022 that you buy into Jan. 6 was a legitimate exercise, that Donald Trump won Michigan, or you will not be nominated by the Michigan Republicans,” Timmer continued. 

A wide array of Republican candidates running for office in Michigan are vocal proponents of Trump and 2020 election conspiracy theories and have been endorsed by the former president who has become increasingly involved in Michigan politics, including state Rep. Matt Maddock (R-Milford) who was in D.C. for pro-Trump events last January; state Rep. Steve Carra, who previously was positioned to challenge Rep. Fred Upton (R-St. Joseph) but because of redistricting is now in Rep. Tim Walberg’s (R-Tipton) heavily Republican district; and Kristina Karamo, who’s running for Michigan secretary of state in hopes of challenging Democratic Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson. 

Conservative protest at the Capitol against Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, April 30, 2020 | Anna Liz Nichols

In addition to the Trump-endorsed candidates, there’s a slate of high-profile Michigan Republicans who both attended or supported the Jan. 6 melee in Washington and are continued ardent supporters of Trump’s election lies.

While some Republican lawmakers have criticized the insurrection — like U.S. Reps. Peter Meijer (D-Grand Rapids) and Upton who both voted to impeach Trump — many more have either remained silent over the event, downplayed it or outright embraced it. 

Michigan GOP Co-Chair Meshawn Maddock, for example, brought a group of Trump supporters to the Jan. 6 attack and, along with her husband, Matt Maddock, continues to be one of Michigan’s loudest voices amplifying election lies. In addition to backing a lawsuit attempting to overturn the election and attending an Electoral College protest in Lansing in December 2020, when Republicans tried to get fraudulent Trump electors certified, Maddock sponsored legislation that would force fact-checkers to register with the state or face fines of $1,000 a day.

Republican gubernatorial candidate Ryan Kelley was also at the Jan. 6 event; three Michigan Republicans — Reps. Tim Walberg (R-Tipton), Jack Bergman (R-Watersmeet) and Lisa McClain (R-Bruce Twp.) — objected to electoral votes in Arizona and Pennsylvania after the insurrection. Just prior to the Jan. 6 attack, 11 Republican state representatives sent a letter to Congress asking them to decertify the election results and delay counting electoral votes so state Legislatures can “investigate” fraud.

The majority of Michigan’s GOP Senate caucus also signed onto a letter asking members of Congress to examine allegations of election fraud, with one draft copy of the memo asking Congress to delay certification.

And Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey (R-Clarklake) and then House Speaker Lee Chatfield (R-Levering) met with Trump in the aftermath of the insurrection, something the House Commission investigating the insurrection is looking into

This obsession with pushing Trump’s election lies after an attempted coup comes despite the state Bureau of Elections’ April report on 250 post-2020 election audits in Michigan found “no examples of fraud or intentional misconduct by election officials” and a GOP-led state Senate Oversight Committee report in June that cited “no evidence of widespread or systemic fraud” in the 2020 election.

Once you sell your soul to the devil, you don’t get it back; that’s where the Michigan Republicans are right now.

– Jeff Timmer, former executive director of the Michigan Republican Party

The insistence that the Jan. 6 insurrection was not significant or was even fake (Shirkey, for example, called the event a “hoax”), or, as is increasingly thrown about by Republicans, was justified or even a “normal tourist visit,” is inextricably intertwined with the “Big Lie,” the conspiracy theory that the election was stolen, experts said. 

And this focus on Trump’s falsehoods is certainly not relegated solely to political spaces in the state or country. It has permeated an increasingly divided and partisan public that adhere to two entirely different realities — one in which President Joe Biden won the election — which he did — and another in which Biden stole the election from Trump, which, again, is false and has been repeatedly disproven. 

“There’s an effort underway right now to create this false equivalency — people say things like, ‘Yeah, there are extreme voices on both ends of the political spectrum, which, OK, there are, but this was a violent attack on the Capitol of the United States encouraged by the then-president of the United States and the leader of one of the pirates followed by the majority of that party voting to sustain the lie that was the necessary precondition to the attack,” Kildee said. 

“We all have an obligation not to fall into this trap of saying, ‘Well, yeah, there are problems on both sides of the political spectrum,” Kildee continued. “Only on one side is there a violent mob who tried to kill members of Congress.”

‘How much we value democracy versus authoritarianism’

The continued deterioration of trust in the state’s and country’s electoral systems is a significant concern for both the rise of political violence and democracy itself, said Michael Traugott, professor emeritus of communication studies and political science and research professor emeritus at the University of Michigan’s Center for Political Studies. 

He pointed out that, according to a recent poll, the majority of Americans believe further political violence is on the horizon. A new CBS/YouGov poll released in early January reported 68% of respondents believe the Jan. 6 insurrection was a “harbinger of increasing political violence, not an isolated incident.”

“The issue is whether or not it will be possible to dissuade a significant minority of the population in their belief in the Big Lie about 2020,” Traugott said. “We’ve had a period of declining trust in American institutions, including the government, and the Big Lie takes advantage of that. We need to find a way to convince people that it’s not worth their while to [commit political violence], to attack the Capitol, for example.”

That, however, is a daunting task in the face of how quickly misinformation can spread through social media, Traugott noted.

“We’re facing a series of difficult choices about how much we value democracy versus authoritarianism,” Traugott said. “People ought to devote some thought to how important that distinction is to them and how much they value the democracy that we live in, or lived in before Jan. 6, and what they want to do to preserve it.”

Right-wing rally calling for a so-called “audit” of the 2020 election at the Michigan Capitol, Oct. 12, 2021 | Laina G. Stebbins

‘Significant threat to our democratic institutions’

 Attorney Steve Liedel, former counsel to Gov. Jennifer Granholm, told the Advance Wednesday that he is even more concerned about the state of democracy now than he was a year ago.

“The [Jan. 6] anniversary confirms the active and significant threat to our democratic institutions at both the federal and state level,” Liedel said.

Leading up to the insurrection, Liedel points to a letter from the majority of Michigan GOP senators urging the U.S. Congress not to certify the state’s election results without a lawful reason to do so.

The White House visit by Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey (R-Clarklake), former House Speaker Lee Chatfield (R-Levering) and others then “took that [dynamic] to a whole new dimension,” Liedel said.

Then came the “warm reception” Trump attorney Rudy Giuliani received by a House committee in December 2020, which mainly consisted of him taking over the hearing with unfounded claims about widespread voter fraud. Many more instances, Liedel said, also point to “extensive [Michigan] connections” to the Jan. 6 insurrection.

“I have not seen any of those officials apologize for their actions,” he said. 

All of this is particularly concerning to Liedel now.

“I’m more concerned a year later … that we have a serious threat to the rule of law and our democratic institutions than I was a year ago,” he said.

I think we really need to understand how dangerous and how close we came to upending democracy as we know it. We have to be pulling together and not letting the factions and extremists slip in and get away with pulling the wool over our eyes and the rug of democracy out from underneath us.

– State Sen. Erika Geiss (D-Taylor)

Liedel is worried about more instances over the past year of election conspiracy-embracing Michiganders being appointed to county board of canvassers positions, and GOP leaders working to replace incumbent county election officials with pro-Trump figures.

“I think a number of folks have already been appointed and selected that basically say they don’t believe in the rule of law or facts. And if they feel for some reason there’s something wrong with the election, they’re going to do whatever they think is right based on their feelings or their candidate, and they’re going to ignore their oath to the Constitution,” Liedel said.

However, he said, regardless of their political leanings or feelings about election integrity, they still have a legal duty to certify election results.

“They have the duty to step up and perform their legal duty, whether they’re a supporter of Donald Trump or not. And if they fail to do so, they will face consequences.

“They do seem to be indicating that there is a lack of commitment to the Constitution and the rule of law. … Those are choices that will have likely severe consequences, whether it’s legally or at the ballot box,” Liedel said.

Now, Liedel said, Republicans have a choice before them.

“[Republicans] can be the party of domestic terrorists and insurrection, or they can be a party that’s committed to the rule of law. And they’ll have an opportunity to demonstrate where they stand in the statewide election in 10 months,” Liedel said.

A pro-Trump mob breaks into the U.S. Capitol 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. A group of Republican senators said they would reject the Electoral College votes of several states unless Congress appointed a commission to audit the election results. | Win McNamee/Getty Images

The GOP fight against voting rights

In the year since the insurrection, state Republicans have, in addition to pushing election conspiracy theories, introduced some 50 bills that aim to restrict voting, particularly for Black voters and other voters of color and spearheading a ballot measure that could result in half of Michigan’s counties losing polling sites.

While Whitmer has vetoed the GOP’s voter suppression bills, the fact that the legislation exists at all is emblematic of Republicans’ rhetoric around election lies. And the bills are rooted in Trump’s lies around the 2020 election that caused the Jan. 6 assault on democracy, political experts and lawmakers said. 

“We saw legislatures across the country introducing bills to further subvert democracy and make it more difficult for people to vote,” said state Sen. Erika Geiss (D-Taylor). 

“It’s absolutely mind -boggling, especially from someone serving in government,” Geiss said in reference to the voter suppression legislation. 

House Minority Leader Donna Lasinski (D-Scio Twp.) said Democratic elected officials are trying to ward off attacks on voting rights from Republicans — but, particularly in the wake of the Jan. 6 insurrection in which the two parties have adopted different versions of reality and Republicans run the Legislature — she noted that’s difficult.

“We have to stand in truth and ensure people the right to vote,” Lasinski said. “We need to focus ever more closely on ensuring we are not allowing baseless conspiracy theories jeopardizing our right to vote.” 

The GOP’s voting suppression legislation is emblematic not just of an ideological divide between the parties but of a complete adoption of an alternate reality that does not exist, one in which Trump won the 2020 election, Democratic lawmakers said.

“There’s always been policy divides,” Lasinski said. “As I work with colleagues and see how they’ve chosen to stand up for attacks on democracy, that has changed how I approach them on issues or if I’m willing to approach them on issues.” 

Lasinski noted that Republicans have not backed her June resolution to investigate links between Michigan and the Jan. 6 insurrection.

Geiss also emphasized that the aftermath of the April 2020 attack on the Michigan State Capitol and the Jan. 6 insurrection has made it increasingly difficult to work with Republican colleagues. 

“To quote [former Democratic House Speaker] Tip O’Neill, you could have a drink with the person you’re fighting with on the [House] floor afterwards; I’m not sure that’s possible in this climate when you know the people you’re working with and fighting with actually believe some fundamental lies,” Geiss said, referring to the conspiracy theory that Trump won. 

Right-wing protest at the Capitol against Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, April 30, 2020 | Anna Liz Nichols

White supremacy in Lansing

In addition to facing attacks on legislators and democracy, Black lawmakers and lawmakers of color have been forced to wade through a traumatic onslaught of white supremacy on display during the armed right-wing protests at the state Capitol and the Jan. 6 insurrection. 

After the state Capitol was filled with Confederate flags on April 30, 2020, and Sen. Dale Zorn (R-Ida) wore a Confederate flag-patterned mask during a legislative session, Republican leadership did nothing to address racism or the need for racial justice. 

Shirkey, for example, denounced armed protesters who “used intimidation” at the state Capitol. But he has not supported banning the Confederate symbol, which represents slavery and violence, in the state Capitol, and never said or did anything in response to Zorn wearing a symbol of the Confederacy, against which about 90,000 Michiganders fought during the Civil War. Shirkey also met with militia leaders in 2020, saying in an interview they’d gotten “a bad rap.”

“It needs to be called out when it happens,” Geiss said of white supremacy. “I never in a million years expected a colleague to show up on the floor wearing a Confederate flag. That was just under a week before our capitol was stormed. That was perceived as a joke or perceived as not a big deal, not even something to censure the member on, which gives a taciturn wink and nod to it. It further emboldens people who firmly believe in the tenets of white supremacy because now they think they have allies. That makes their hatred grow and brim to overflowing.”

State Rep. Tenisha Yancey (D-Harper Woods) talked to the Advance earlier this week about a lawsuit she is part of challenging new legislative maps for leaving out Black voters. She said she’s unlikely to return to Lansing once she is termed out because of her experiences with racism there.

“I probably don’t want to ever come back to Lansing,” Yancey said. “It really is a very racist environment. And that’s where we need to start having that conversation because if you’re a Black state legislator … you’ve experienced racism at the state capitol. And if you know that that environment breeds racism, then you can’t help but to think that through that lens that this is an attack on Black people.”

(Republicans) can be the party of domestic terrorists and insurrection, or they can be a party that's committed to the rule of law. And they'll have an opportunity to demonstrate where they stand in the statewide election in 10 months.

– Attorney Steve Liedel

When symbols of white supremacy, racism and violence emerge, it’s imperative that people, particularly people in power, denounce it, Geiss said. 

“The people who are aghast but say nothing need to be saying something,” Geiss said. “I’m sure there are more people who are aghast, but, whether it’s fear for their own situation or something else, if there aren’t enough of us speaking out against it and being willing to push back against it, it will end up taking over. That’s not something most of us want to have happen.”

The insistence from Michigan Republicans that elections are rigged (which, political experts noted, is curious considering the Republicans are in charge of both the state House and Senate) is not just rooted in the Big Lie but also in a GOP that faces dwindling membership, Traugott said. 

“The demographics are running against the Republican Party, which is mostly a party of older whites, and whites are moving to be a minority group by the mid-2040s,” the University of Michigan professor said. “They are increasingly focused on maintaining power but without any specific or well-organized programmatic policy underlying them.”

Geiss also highlighted this point. 

“In a pandemic, it should be a no-brainer that we set everything aside and work for the common good, but instead there’s political insanity about power and about clinging to whatever shreds of power they think they’re losing.”

This, Traugott said, explains the impetus behind Republicans’ focus on restricting voting and saying it’s in the name of fighting so-called fraud.

However, Republicans’ ability to push through voter suppression legislation in Michigan could be coming to an end as early as the 2022 midterm elections because of new state and congressional maps that are expected to give Democrats a slight edge, Traugott said. 

“That is one of the few optimistic things that has happened politically in the last several years, and it has relatively long-term consequences because the maps last for a decade,” Traugott said of the redrawn political maps. 

Sen. Erika Geiss (D-Taylor) speaks at the state Capitol for the MI Body MI Choice event on Oct. 2, 2021 | Allison R. Donahue

‘More division, more violence’

While Timmer also said he was pleased about the new maps, he said anyone concerned about the future of democracy in the United States should not bank on that saving the 2022 or 2024 election and to expect Republicans will attempt to cheat to maintain their power.

“They will be worse than in 2020,” Timmer said of Republicans. “There will be more division, more violence. What we saw in 2020 will be a dress rehearsal. If they supplant people like Whitmer, [state Attorney General Dana] Nessel, Benson, 2022 could make 2024 fait accompli for the lawless takeover of American democracy. They’ll carry out in 2024 what they couldn’t carry out in 2020.”

We all have an obligation not to fall into this trap of saying, ‘Well, yeah, there are problems on both sides of the political spectrum. Only on one side is there a violent mob who tried to kill members of Congress.’

– U.S. Rep. Dan Kildee (D-Flint)

That — an awareness that democracy is not guaranteed if it’s not defended — is crucial if Americans do not want their country to slip into authoritarianism, Timmer said. 

In the wake of the mounting political divisions and the pandemic, “people are growing weary, Timmer said. 

“But that’s the worst thing — the playbook for authoritarianism counts on this,” he said. “Authoritarians are able to achieve their goals when there’s apathy. That’s how an outsized minority like Republicans can win elections.”

Geiss agreed, saying, “We can’t get complacent.”

“I think we really need to understand how dangerous and how close we came to upending democracy as we know it,” Geiss said. “… We have to be pulling together and not letting the factions and extremists slip in and get away with pulling the wool over our eyes and the rug of democracy out from underneath us.” 


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Anna Gustafson
Anna Gustafson

Anna Gustafson is a former assistant editor at Michigan Advance, where her beats included economic justice, health care and immigration. Previously the founder of the Muskegon Times and the editor at Rapid Growth Media in Grand Rapids, Anna has worked as an editor and reporter for news outlets across the country.

Laina G. Stebbins
Laina G. Stebbins

Laina G. Stebbins is a former Michigan Advance reporter. A lifelong Michigander, she is a graduate of Michigan State University’s School of Journalism, where she served as Founding Editor of The Tab Michigan State and as a reporter for the Capital News Service.