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The Capitol rioters' assault on democracy has its roots in the states

To paraphrase Justice Brandeis, the states have been laboratories for anti-democratic experiments that put the rest of the country at risk.
Photo illustration of blue glass flasks in a dark lab with one red U.S. state in each. Bubbles are coming out of each flask.
Anti-democratic plotting often starts in the states.Anjali Nair / MSNBC; Getty Images

It's been one week since President Donald Trump incited crowds of his supporters to storm the U.S. Capitol. Trump's role in their violence is clear, as is that of the national Republicans who boosted and spread his lies before and after Election Day. But there has to be just as thorough a look at what these thousands of believers heard that primed them for the horror show in Washington in the months and years before the president set foot in the White House.

Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis wrote in a 1932 dissent that "a single courageous State may, if its citizens choose, serve as a laboratory; and try novel social and economic experiments without risk to the rest of the country." This quote has been spun out into the kind of aphorism that long ago slipped into cliché, that the states are laboratories of democracy.

Conversely, states have also been the laboratories of anti-democracy. We can't pretend that the people who overran the Capitol sprang forth fully formed like Athena from Zeus' skull, clad in QAnon shirts, MAGA hats and makeshift tactical armor. The strikes against voting rights, encouragement of political violence and bolstering of extremists on the fringe that have defined the Trump era and its attacks on the democratic system all have roots at the state level. These will not wither up and die once Trump is out of power, not without their branches' first being pruned.

Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer was a canary in the coal mine for what we saw Jan. 6. First, she was the subject of protests in April by anti-lockdown activists, convinced via social media and their own demands for servitude from others that Covid-19 was overhyped and that she was a tyrant for shutting down businesses.

We can't pretend that the people who overran the Capitol sprang forth fully formed like Athena from Zeus' skull, clad in QAnon shirts, MAGA hats and makeshift tactical armor.

As the Legislature prepared on April 30 to debate an extension of Whitmer's emergency order that shut down the state, a crowd gathered outside the Statehouse demanding to be let in. Eventually the protesters were allowed into the chamber. So were their firearms — Michigan allowed open carry of guns in the state's Capitol building until it changed the rules two days ago. They were blocked from advancing onto the House floor, but the intimidation they rained down from the gallery on the legislators below worked — the Legislature adjourned without taking up the extension the protesters opposed.

Then, months later, federal officials revealed that they had broken up a plot to kidnap Whitmer. It had all the hallmarks of the most memorable far-right schemes in the 2020s, simultaneously laughable in the details and horrifying in the intent. What was telling was Trump's response to both. He called on the anti-government protesters to "liberate Michigan" and other states on Twitter; he then attacked Whitmer during a rally the same day the plot was made public. Trump wasn't the source of the discontent in Michigan, only the amplifier ­— and extremists were listening.

Out west, Oregon Public Broadcasting reminded its readers that the state's leaders have been enabling extremists for a long time now. Ammon Bundy's armed takeover of Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in 2016 has been called a "dress rehearsal" for the attack in the Capitol. But a year earlier, Joseph Rice, a leader of the Josephine County Oath Keepers militia, had rallied local armed groups to intervene in a mining dispute. The militias "didn't face intervention by law enforcement or pushback from local elected leaders," OPB reported, and several of them would take part in the Malheur takeover. Rather than face consequences, Rice ran for local office and went on to serve as a delegate at the 2016 Republican National Convention.

Other local politicians have either actively supported Trump's claims of election rigging or, in the case of state Rep. Mike Nearman, gone so far as to open the Oregon Capitol's doors for violent protesters last month.

Even those who aren't directly backing extremists are still giving their grievances oxygen to keep burning. The president's lies about election rigging and voter fraud, far from being rejected and atoned for, are being used to justify even more crackdowns on voting rights in legislatures across the United States. One Michigan legislator is calling for allocating the state's electoral votes by congressional district, strengthening Republican power in an already gerrymandered state. A similar bill, which like Michigan's would disenfranchise the large minority populations in major cities, is under discussion in Wisconsin. And in Georgia, which has been the target of some of Trump's most outlandish claims of fraud, Republicans want to make it even harder to vote.

As much as we want it to be, this is not a federal problem — it's a national one. The U.S. Capitol wasn't the only seat of government threatened on Jan. 6. The Associated Press reported that in New Mexico, the Legislature was evacuated as a precaution, and the Utah governor's staff was sent home as people gathered outside. Demonstrators rallied outside statehouses "carried guns in places like Oklahoma, Georgia, Arizona, Nevada and Washington state." Some of the Washingtonians broke through the gates of the Governor's Mansion, repeating Trump's election lies before they were dispersed.

In the days since then, the FBI has warned in a memo that there are warning signs for "possible armed protests" in all 50 state capitols starting Saturday in the lead-up to President-elect Joe Biden's inauguration. All politics is local, but there has to be a national program to counteract the disinformation and separatism that's being developed in the states. Because unlike in Brandeis' postulation, the risk to the rest of the country is all too real.