Former Minnesota GOP operative: It’s time to rid the party of dangerous crackpots | Opinion

Demonstrators outside the governor's residence in St. Paul. Photo by Ricardo Lopez/Minnesota Reformer.

As the U.S. Capitol was under attack by domestic terrorists, I stood in my living room and watched President Donald Trump’s supporters engaged in an insurrection.

The images saddened me, but I was not surprised. Although not a Trump voter, I’m the former deputy chair of the Republican Party of Minnesota. For years, I’ve seen the party become more about the persona of Trump, than an institution that supports candidates who can win statewide in Minnesota. 

I’ve watched as Trump’s acolytes, along with Republican activists, aligned themselves with extremist groups that shared the same hate-filled agenda with the domestic terrorists who attacked the U.S. Capitol.

For far too long, former and current Republican legislators, candidates and activists have shared a political party with supporters of QAnon — a group designated by the FBI as a domestic terrorist group.

They stood shoulder to shoulder with supporters of the Three Percenters — a far-right militia and paramilitary group.

They attended protests with the Proud Boys — a far-right group described by the FBI as an “extremist group with ties to white nationalism.”

The video of Trump supporters — many wearing tactical gear — had a familiar feel to protests I’ve observed in Minnesota, even if they didn’t end in tragic violence like the sacking of the Capitol. 

Since the arrival of Trump as a candidate for president, the Republican Party has increasingly become a radicalized cult.

Even before he became the Republican nominee for president, Trump gave a sinister signal that his supporters would back him even if he embraced violence.

In January 2016, then-candidate Trump boldly declared that he “could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody, and I wouldn’t lose any voters, OK?”

Trump’s violent rhetoric became standard at his campaign events and continued after he was elected president.

When COVID-19 swept across the country, President Trump encouraged his supporters to fight back against mitigation strategies implemented by federal, state and local officials to slow the spread of the deadly virus.

Minutes after Trump sent a tweet to “LIBERATE MINNESOTA!” to nearly 80 million followers, former Republican congressman and then-U.S. Senate candidate Jason Lewis responded: “Minnesota is being held hostage.”

I immediately tweeted my concern about the “inflammatory and possibly dangerous rhetoric.” Later the same day, Lewis attended a protest at Gov. Tim Walz’s residence in St. Paul, and I was concerned that he would whip up the crowd and turn it into an angry mob at the gates outside Walz’s residence.

Just a day before, a member of a Facebook group organizing the protest asked the group, “Who is going armed tomorrow? I don’t mean concealed carry, I mean full kit.”

Lewis brought his campaign RV to the protest. He conducted interviews with the media. He talked with voters about his campaign. He took pictures with supporters. Also there: the Proud Boys, the 3 Percenters and no doubt any number of Q Anon devotees — the same types that stormed the U.S. Capitol. 

Lewis’ campaign would be seen flying an American flag on a campaign vehicle upside down, a symbol of distress that was later used by the domestic terrorists that attacked the U.S. Capitol.  

Former GOP Rep. Matt Dean, who unsuccessfully ran for governor in 2018, also attended the “LIBERATE MINNESOTA” protest at Walz’s residence. In a video he live-streamed on Facebook, Dean cheered on the protesters — who included members of the aforementioned violent extremist groups — as he slowly rode by the mass gathering.  

One month later, a Trump supporter who organized a protest at Walz’s residence, responded to criticism about the conduct of demonstrators by boldly threatening on Facebook, “Imagine how insane they’ll be when the bullets start flying, and blood starts squirting.”

They weren’t even trying to hide their violent threats.

(Let me anticipate the response of my old friends: What about Democratic state Rep. John Thompson yelling “Let Hugo burn” at a demonstration outside the home of police union leader Bob Kroll? What about the far left violence in Portland, Oregon? Fair enough. Both sides need to quell extremist violence and dangerous rhetoric. But I don’t recall seeing the other side storm the U.S. Capitol at the urging of Joe Biden, do you?)

After Trump was defeated for re-election, protesters who previously gathered to “LIBERATE MINNESOTA” quickly pivoted to  the dangerous propaganda from Trump, his campaign, the Republican Party of Minnesota, and Republican elected officials that election fraud cost Trump reelection. 

As the Reformer reported just days after the election, GOP Chair Jennifer Carnahan told activists that she would help amplify Trump’s bogus claims of ballot fraud.  

Under the banner of “STOP THE STEAL,” Trump supporters held protests across Minnesota to contest the election results.

State Rep. Mary Franson, R-Alexandria, changed her Twitter name to “STOP THE STEAL” to show her public support for the widely discredited belief that Trump’s victory over Biden was being stolen.

Franson used her rebranded Twitter account to call for a protest at Walz’s residence to “STOP THE STEAL.” Franson later claimed she didn’t attend the protest. Still, members of The Proud Boys did, and they flashed a hand-gesture associated with supporters of white supremacy while having their pictures taken by a cardboard cutout of Trump.

The “STOP THE STEAL” movement didn’t lose support from Republican members of the Minnesota Legislature even after Biden became President-Elect Joe Biden.

State Sen. Mary Kiffmeyer, R-Big Lake, used her authority as chair of the elections committee to hold a hearing to “review of the administration and security of the 2020 election.”

Kiffmeyer had previously served as Minnesota’s Secretary of State from 1999-2007. If she didn’t know the claims of a stolen election were phony, she should have. 

On December 8, the hearing provided an opportunity for multiple testifiers who supported Trump to use the committee as a megaphone to promote disinformation about the 2020 election.

Kiffmeyer said holding the hearing was a prudent response to her constituents’ claims of fraud and irregularities. . 

But Minnesota Secretary of State Steve Simon knew the inherent danger in elevating conspiracy theories about the election. In his opening remarks, Simon accurately predicted the violence that would unfold at the U.S. Capitol just one month later.

“This hearing is not taking place in a vacuum. It is taking place in the middle of a national tidal wave of disinformation. Politically inspired lies designed to mislead and manipulate people. … They’re dangerous in the short term because I think someone might get killed. I think someone in this country, maybe in this state, is going to get killed. We have amped up people out there who believe wild and unsubstantiated theories about our democracy that risk inspiring violence and even murder.”

Kiffmeyer addressed Simon’s concerns by making it clear she disavowed threats of violence, but she later rejected “the idea that asking reasonable questions is in itself a sinister act.”

Minnesotans should applaud Simon for recognizing the clear and present danger created by a legislative committee trafficking in unsubstantiated conspiracy theories.  

In the aftermath of the death and violence caused by the domestic attacks on the U.S. Capitol, Republicans and Democrats have called for peace. 

But it is the Republican Party that carries an extra burden in preventing future domestic attacks like the one occurred at the U.S. Capitol. On the same day the U.S. Capitol was attacked, six Republican members of the Minnesota Housespoke to a crowd gathered for a “STORM THE CAPITOL” protest at the Minnesota State Capitol, where, again, armed members of extremist groups attended. The emcee of the event warned to expect “casualties.”

It is not enough for the Republicans to just call for peace; what Republicans need to admit is that the domestic terrorists who attacked the U.S. Capitol found a safe home inside the tent of the Republican Party. True peace will only come after the Republicans expel these extremist elements from their ranks.