At the national level, the Republican Party has been trying as hard as it can over the last six months to toe the line between showing its fealty to former President Donald Trump and not directly endorsing his lies about the 2020 election. This dance has led GOP leaders to twist themselves into increasingly incoherent knots to avoid alienating their voting base.
But the problem is much, much worse at the state level. In effect, it's not just one party of Trump we're going to have to deal with — it's 51 of them. I don't see any easy fix for this — not when you consider the type of people who tend to dominate state politics and how little leverage anyone has over them.
In effect, it’s not just one party of Trump that we’re going to have to deal with — it’s 51 of them.
The extent of the rot recently came to light in Nevada with a vote to censure Secretary of State Barbara Cegavske in April. Her alleged crime — failing to declare that Trump lost the election only because of massive fraud — is all too familiar lately. But here's a twist for you: The extremely close vote to censure Cegavske may have come down to a group of extremists:
The furor over the censure vote comes as local GOP officials in Nevada said they have been alarmed by recent attempts by people espousing extremist views to get involved in the party — including at least one man who has said he is a member of the Proud Boys.
In Las Vegas, the clash over the party’s future has pitted the new band of activists against elected Clark County GOP officials, who said they have already banned seven people from participating in local functions because of racist and antisemitic material they said was distributed on the messaging app Telegram in a channel connected to a group called Keep Nevada Open.
On one hand, it's encouraging that Nevada's elected officials are trying to push back against these people's having a place in their local party. On the other, it's troubling that they might lose their fight. From the top down, state and local parties are becoming increasingly Trumpian:
A VICE News review of public positions of all 50 GOP state chairs shows a significant number are openly pushing conspiracy theories, spouting unhinged rhetoric, and actively undermining voters’ trust in democracy. That includes the chairs of nearly every swing state in the U.S. And the trend is accelerating: Many of the most extreme chairs just won their chairmanships or have been reelected since Trump left office four months ago, a number of them with his explicit endorsement.
A quick review of my own bore that out. For example, Trump won Alabama handily, but voters are still very much into hearing about how rigged elections are — and how much of a scam democracy is. At a Jan. 23 rally, just weeks after the Capitol riot, John Wahl, a butterfly farmer who was then senior vice chairman of the state GOP, delivered one of his biggest applause lines when he spoke about "fair and honest elections." Wahl, who became party chair in March, unsubtly said, "We should investigate any discrepancies and any unconstitutional voting practices that might have happened."
What's even more frightening is that the attacks are set to keep coming from both sides of the ballot. On one side, state parties are driving activists and recruiting candidates who fit into their Trumpian worldviews. On the other, as Politico recently reported, a surge of candidates who believe or boost Trump's lies are trying to take control of elections in swing states as secretary of state:
The candidates include Rep. Jody Hice of Georgia, a leader of the congressional Republicans who voted against certifying the 2020 Electoral College results; Arizona state Rep. Mark Finchem, one of the top proponents of the conspiracy-tinged vote audit in Arizona’s largest county; Nevada’s Jim Marchant, who sued to have his 5-point congressional loss last year overturned; and Michigan’s Kristina Karamo, who made dozens of appearances in conservative media to claim fraud in the election.
It's a combination that promises to entrench the Trumpist attacks on democracy into the fabric of our electoral politics for years if its architects succeed. And given how clearly state-level machinations and adherence to Trump's conspiracy theories laid the groundwork for the Jan. 6 riot, there's no chance that the effects of these actions will stay within their borders.
The last few decades have shown a remarkable nationalization of American politics, in part thanks to the slow demise of local media. This flattening has made it so that local laws about bathrooms in North Carolina can affect elections across the country and the White House's response to Covid-19 can play out in school board races.
Until recently, it was still easy to write off a state representative who introduced an outlandish bill as a crank or to dismiss a state party's troubling stances as a local problem. But as the GOP finds itself populated more and more with leaders who are skeptical of democracy and willing to embrace Trump's lies in exchange for power, we can't afford to ignore them anymore.
I'm concerned that there may not be a national solution to this national problem. The voting rights bill the Democrats are trying to move through the Senate focuses on the running of federal elections — off-year local races would fall outside the purview. And the national GOP seems to have zero interest in disciplining its state parties or getting involved in their internal affairs.
Instead, it's going to be up to local activists and politicians to do the hard work to dislodge Trump's acolytes before they can do even more harm to our country's institutions. I have faith in them, but, man — they have their work cut out for them.