Donald Trump’s departure from the White House left a giant question mark hanging over American democracy: Would the GOP reckon with its embrace of Trumpism, or would it continue down the extremist path it has been traveling for years?
The evidence from the past few weeks has not been promising. But one of the most disturbing signs — and one of the most underappreciated — has been the wild behavior of certain state-level Republican parties in recent days. Three examples — in Oregon, Hawaii, and Arizona — really stick out.
On January 19, the Oregon Republican Party passed a resolution condemning the 10 House Republicans who voted to impeach Trump.
In that resolution, the state party ludicrously claimed that “there is growing evidence that the violence at the Capitol was a ‘false flag’ operation designed to discredit President Trump,” warning of “a frightening parallel to the February 1933 burning of the German Reichstag” and “Leftist forces seeking to establish a dictatorship void of all cherished freedom and liberties.”
This Saturday, the official account of the Hawaii Republican Party sent tweets defending QAnon believers and praising the “generally high quality” work of a YouTuber named Tarl Warwick, who has denied the Holocaust.
The party deleted and condemned the tweets; the communications official who sent them resigned. But this is not the first dance with extremism from the Hawaii state party: In 2020, the founder of the Proud Boys Hawaii, Nick Ochs, ran for a statehouse seat under the party’s banner. Ochs later participated in the storming of the Capitol and was arrested at Honolulu’s airport on January 9.
Also on Saturday, the Arizona Republican Party passed official resolutions censuring three prominent party members — Gov. Doug Ducey, former Sen. Jeff Flake, and Sen. John McCain’s widow Cindy McCain — for supposed deviation from GOP ideology.
The state GOP accuses Ducey — who is, again, the sitting Republican governor — of seizing “dictatorial powers” by imposing coronavirus lockdowns. They claim Flake, who endorsed Biden over Trump, has “condemned the Republican Party, rejected populism, and rejected the interests of the American people over globalist interests” — and encouraged him to switch parties. They charge McCain, who also endorsed Biden, with having “condemned President Trump for his criticism of her husband.”
Oregon and Hawaii are blue states; Arizona is a longtime Republican stronghold that has recently turned purple, voting for Biden in 2020 and sending two moderate Democrats to the current Senate. These state GOP parties should want to move to the center to win over the median local voters, people who are turned off by the hardcore Trumpism and extremism on offer from the national party.
But that is not what we are seeing. And these recent examples illustrate something important about the Republican Party’s years-long turn toward right-wing extremism: It runs deep, its reach goes well beyond Washington, and it’s going to take a lot more than Trump’s exit to quash it.
The state parties show how our national politics is broken
In the past, some observers have dismissed extreme statements from a few state-level GOP officials as irrelevant to the bigger picture of American politics. But these recent incidents aren’t isolated; in Oregon and Arizona, it was the Republican Party that issued the strikingly extreme statements.
Moreover, new political science research suggests that what’s happening to these state parties is very much representative of broader national trends.
In a paper released on Monday, three scholars — Daniel J. Hopkins, Eric Schickler, and David Azizi — examined 1,783 Republican and Democratic state party platforms issued between 1918 and 2017. The goal is to identify the relationship between national and state-level polarization: to figure out whether state parties are getting more extreme and why.
What they found was fascinating. Starting around the 1990s, state-level parties rapidly nationalized: platforms started to deemphasize regional and local issues, like agriculture, and play up national ones like abortion. In each state, both Republican and Democratic Party platforms became less distinctive and more like each other.
“Parties that were once collections of local retailers are now clearly national brands, more McDonalds than mom and pop,” they write.
Now, you might expect that this is just a reflection of national parties: They began to polarize, and the state parties just followed their lead. But that’s not what Hopkins and his co-authors found. They found that the state-level changes in polarization happened at the exact same time as measures of national polarization increased.
“If the state parties were simply taking their cues from national-level elites, one might expect a lag between the change in Congress and shifts in state-level platforms,” they explain. “The evidence instead suggests that both state parties and national-level officials were responding simultaneously to the same changes in the broader political environment.”
One of the major changes to the “broader political environment” on the Republican side has been the rise of a polluted national media ecosystem: Fox News, national radio hosts like Rush Limbaugh, far-right websites like Breitbart, and conspiracy-minded networks on social media platforms like Facebook. These institutions have worked to convince the party faithful and activists of untruths like “Trump actually won the 2020 election” and “Joe Biden is the pawn of radical socialists,” giving rise to a party that is mainlining extreme thinking at every level.
These are the epistemic conditions under which the Oregon state party could claim that the storming of the Capitol was a “false flag.” It’s how a Hawaii Republican Party official got attracted to the work of a Holocaust denier. It’s how the Arizona GOP could come to denounce its own sitting governor for trying to fight a deadly pandemic.
It’s obvious that some of the party’s national leaders, like Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, don’t actually believe in these conspiracy theories. But for too long, the party has been comfortable letting their rank-and-file supporters believe them because it’s politically advantageous. Now, true believers are rising up and capturing the leadership of state parties and local activist groups — putting pressure on national politicians to conform to extreme ideas or risk a serious primary threat.
This makes the GOP’s post-Trump trajectory look even scarier. No one person or organization is in charge of the party, in a position to fix the root causes of its continuing turn toward extremism. Reforming the party requires a fight on multiple levels and in multiple arenas: reforms to the local and national party, transformations of both the party and adjacent institutions like Fox News.
During the recent Arizona Republican Party meeting, CNN spoke with two local GOP activists named Barbara Wyllie and Corky Haynes. These women, lifelong Republicans who call themselves “the Grassroots Grandmas,” seemed delighted with the censure moves.
“However Trump rolls is how the Republican Party’s gonna roll. This is the Trump Republican Party,” said Wyllie. “And the RINOs [Republican In Name Only] will fall off.”
The fight over the GOP’s future isn’t over. There are leading figures in state-level Republican Parties, like Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, who are actively working to de-Trumpify their party.
But the early days of the post-Trump era suggest that the smart money isn’t with Hogan, but the Grassroots Grandmas.