In Arizona and Oregon, they rebuked opponents of Donald Trump’s assault on democracy. In Hawaii, they defended followers of the QAnon conspiracy movement. And in Texas, they adopted a slogan with dark historical connotations: “We are the storm.”
To understand the future of the Republican party, start with the army of increasingly radicalised foot soldiers who shape it at state level.
Far from responding to the loss of the White House to Joe Biden by tacking to the political centre, local parties appear to be racing to the extreme right by giving safe harbour to white nationalism, QAnon – an antisemitic theory involving Satan-worshipping cannibals and a child sex trafficking ring – and “the big lie” that the presidential election was stolen by Democrats.
“The central story of American politics right now is that one of the two parties is ‘radicalizing against democracy’ in front of our eyes,” tweeted Chris Hayes, an author and host on the MSNBC network. “There are tons of other stories as well, but they all come after that, I think.”
The Republican party has been drifting towards rightwing populism for years, with notable examples including the Tea Party movement, the nomination of Sarah Palin for vice-president and the total capitulation to Trump.
Moderate Republicans hoped that Trump’s failures at the ballot box – he was the first president since 1932 to lose re-election, the House and the Senate – might generate an “autopsy” similar to that which followed Mitt Romney’s defeat eight years ago and a reset aimed at broadening its appeal.
But recent evidence suggests that state parties are embracing Trumpism with renewed zeal, along with the fantasies of the far-right fringe. The most explosive demonstration came on 6 January, when a violent mob stormed the US Capitol in Washington in a bid to overturn Trump’s election defeat while displaying the Confederate flag, a sweatshirt that said “Camp Auschwitz” and “Q” shirts and “Q” banners.
Tim Miller, former political director of Republican Voters Against Trump, said: “The evidence is overwhelming that local parties across the country, in blue states and red states, are radicalized and support extremely far outside the mainstream positions like, for example, ending our our democratic experiment to install Donald Trump as president over the will of the people.
“They believe in insane Covid denialism and QAnon and all these other conspiracies. It’s endemic, not just a couple of state parties. It’s the vast majority of state parties throughout the country.”
In the internal battle between conservatives and extremists, the extremists appear to be winning. The state party in Oregon recently condemned Liz Cheney and nine other House Republicans who voted to impeach Trump over the Capitol insurrection. It cited a groundless conspiracy theory that the riot was a “false flag” operation staged to discredit the president’s supporters.
In Hawaii, the party’s official Twitter account claimed that QAnon followers were merely displaying misguided patriotism and “largely motivated by a sincere and deep love for America”. QAnon has been identified by the FBI as a domestic terrorism threat. (Following a backlash, the state party’s vice-chairman, Edwin Boyette, resigned and the tweets were deleted.)
In Minnesota, Jennifer Carnahan, the state party chairwoman, suggested that Mike Lindell, the chief executive of MyPillow and a Trump ally and election denier, should run for governor. In Michigan, Meshawn Maddock, who joined a pro-Trump rally near the US Capitol a day before the riots, is set to become party co-chair.
In Kentucky, Republicans in Nelson county voted to censure Mitch McConnell, the Senate minority leader, over his statements on the Senate floor criticising Trump for his role in the Capitol violence. In Pennsylvania, Republican leaders “are all-in for Trump more than ever”, the New York Times reported, noting that they “have made loyalty to the defeated ex-president the sole organizing principle of the party”.
Then there is Arizona, where last weekend Republicans voted to censure Governor Doug Ducey, who certified Trump’s defeat in the state, as well as the Trump critics Jeff Flake, a former senator, and Cindy McCain, the widow of Senator John McCain. The state party also re-elected its chair, Kelli Ward, a self-described “Trump Republican” who is among the most unabashed promoters of his election lies.
Arizona has become an election battleground that narrowly flipped from Trump to Biden last November with the help of young Latinos, newcomers to the state and growing suburban communities. A Republican shift to the far right is therefore seen by many as electoral suicide.
Mark Salter, who was a close friend and adviser to McCain, said: “Trump lost re-election because because minority voters turned out in greater numbers than they did in 2016 and because the suburbs, especially suburban women, turned decisively against him.”
Ward and other extremists “screw up elections” for Republicans, Salter added. “So if you’re a Republican who’s interested in power and exercising it and advancing whatever your policy principles are, you’ve really got to do something about these people.”
Texas is another example with huge electoral implications. The party chairman is now Allen West, a former Florida congressman who in 2014 described Barack Obama as “an Islamist” who is “purposefully enabling the Islamist cause”. When the supreme court threw out Trump’s challenge to the election, West hinted at secession, arguing that “law-abiding states should bond together and form a union of states that will abide by the constitution”.
Under West, the state party posted a tweet urging people to follow it on Gab, a social media app known to be used by white supremacists, and adopted the provocative slogan: “We are the storm”.
Steve Schmidt, a founder of the Lincoln Project, an anti-Trump group, noted that the term echoes both the Sturmmann (storm troopers) and der Stürmer (the Stormer) newspaper of Nazi Germany. “So the idea of being the storm is deeply embedded in the mythology of the extremist Nazi fascistic ideologies of both past and present,” he said.
More recently “the storm” is also a phrase used by devotees of QAnon predicting an apocalyptic showdown between Trump and his foes. Schmidt added: “In every state party there are QAnon adherents. Some state parties are being consumed by them. You can certainly say four – Texas, Oregon, Arizona and big parts of California – at a minimum and it’s likely to be more.
“There will be more candidates who subscribe to the theories of the movement in 2022 and beyond. It will continue to metastasise to some degree. Shutting off the Twitter account, while a good thing, is just another game of Whac-a-Mole that puts it deeper underground where more extreme and virulent strains emerge in various places. The river flows to the ocean.”
Some local parties insist that it is possible to express solidarity with Trump while rejecting QAnon. Republicans in Palm Beach county in Florida are “pretty united” in support for the former president, said chairman Michael Barnett, who does not blame him for the sacking of the US Capitol. “I don’t get any kind of sense that there was any upset or anger with the president whatsoever.
“We have a lot of Trump supporters on the ground, a grassroots movement that wave signs and knock doors and are very active locally, who are waving Trump 2024 signs. They want him to run for re-election.”
Barnett confirmed that he has seen evidence of QAnon’s presence but it has not come close to taking over the state party. “Some of them have run for office but they don’t have any influence on what we do as a county party and certainly not what the state party does, as far as who we support for elections, our policies, our platform or anything like that.”
He added: “They are a fringe and I wish they would go away. We have nothing to do with QAnon and we want nothing to do with QAnon or their supporters. I have served seven years as the first Black chairman of the Republican party of Palm Beach county and anybody you speak to knows that we don’t tolerate or put up with any of that racist nonsense.”
Trump himself, however, has repeatedly failed to condemn QAnon while bragging that its supporters “like me very much”. Experts suggest that it is not clear where fealty to Trump ends and fealty to the extremist ideology begins. The process of Republican radicalisation has been going on for years, according to Jared Holt, an investigative reporter at Right Wing Watch.
“These far-right beliefs embodied themselves in a candidate which was Trump,” he said. “He was the avatar for this radicalisation that was already happening in various offshoots of the Republican voter base. To some degree Trump was a leader and a coalescing figure for these far-right ideas and movements but I don’t think that those ideas are necessarily unique to Trump.”
The grassroots trend is manifesting itself in Washington. Marjorie Taylor Greene, a freshman congresswoman from Georgia, has previously endorsed QAnon, approved calls for the execution of Democrats and harassed a survivor of a school mass shooting. She is now calling for Biden’s impeachment. Yet she has been rewarded with a seat on the House education committee.
The New York Times reported this week that Congressman Paul Gosar of Arizona visited the Oath Keepers, a rightwing militia group that believes America is already fighting a second civil war. Gosar and a handful of other Republican House members have “ties to extremist groups who pushed violent ideas and conspiracy theories and whose members were prominent among those who stormed the halls of Congress”, the paper said.
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a Democratic congresswoman from New York, has warned that white supremacist sympathisers now sit at the heart of the Republican caucus. “This is extremely dangerous, an extremely dangerous threshold we have crossed because we are now away from acting out of fealty to their president that they had in the Oval Office, and now we are talking about fealty to white supremacist organizations as a political tool,” Ocasio-Cortez told Hayes on MSNBC.
Trump’s continued grip on the party was evident this week when 45 out of 50 Republican senators, including McConnell, voted to dismiss his impeachment trial before it began, implying that his eventual acquittal is guaranteed – likely to provide him with fresh political momentum. It was a final surrender of the Republican establishment: whatever senators’ private thoughts, few dare defy the state parties’ cult of Trump.
Miller, a writer-at-large at the Bulwark website, said: “I didn’t ever think that there was any momentum to convict him because I looked at what the local Republicans were saying. I remember saying to folks in the days after January 6, ‘Compare the statements that are coming out from Republican state parties to what the senators are saying’ – and there was a big disconnect.
“The state parties were in defence of Trump. They were advancing conspiracy theories about how it was really Antifa in disguise. They were the canary in the coalmine for me as far as the fact that these senators were not going to to convict Trump. Everybody represents their own constituency. What’s notable is that the state parties are closest to the constituents so they know what the constituents want. What the constituents want is fealty to Trump.”