Wednesday, 22 May 2024 09:02

Scenes From a MAGA Meltdown: Inside the “America First” Movement’s War Over Democracy

Standing in a cafe decorated with tiny American flags and antique cabinets as big as bodyguards, Peter Meijer paused as he considered what to say to the man in the “Stand for God” shirt who had just called for his bodily harm.

It was a snowy morning in February. Meijer was the keynote speaker at a coffee-and-donuts meeting hosted by the Republican Party chapter in Kent County, Michigan, the most populous county on the west side of the state. Dressed in a candidate-casual uniform of jeans, a flannel shirt and an outdoorsy blazer, Meijer was seeking the Republican nomination for an open U.S. Senate seat, a race that could determine control of Congress’s upper chamber, in a state that could decide the presidential election. If Republicans wanted to win in November, Meijer told the 40-odd people in attendance, they needed to move on from the past and focus on their shared enemy.

“Is there anyone who thought that Jan. 6th was good for the Republican Party?” he asked. “Did it help us win in 2022?”

“We weren’t gonna win,” someone yelled. “It was rigged.”

“The election was stolen,” another person said. “It doesn’t matter.”

I watched this exchange from a table near the back of the room. Until that moment, the crowd met Meijer’s stump speech with polite nods and gentle applause. But when he brought up elections and Jan. 6th, the mood turned from Midwest nice to hostile.

Not long ago, this setting was friendly terrain for Meijer. For decades, voters here rewarded sensible, pro-business, avowedly conservative politicians. Meijer fit the archetype of a West Michigan Republican when he first ran for Congress in 2020. He was also basically Michigan royalty as an heir to the Meijer grocery store fortune. In one of the state’s most competitive districts, he won his debut congressional race by a comfortable 6-point margin.

At the Kent County event, however, many attendees seemed to feel nothing but scorn for him. That anger flowed from a single decision Meijer had made in Congress: He voted to impeach then-President Donald Trump. In response, he faced a far-right primary challenger who had served in the Trump administration and said Biden’s 2020 victory was “simply mathematically impossible.” Meijer narrowly lost. Now, as a Senate candidate, he was trying to make amends, even pledging to vote for Trump — whom he had once called “unfit for office” — if the former president won the Republican nomination. But to some, he was still a traitor.

“How did you vote to impeach Trump when he said in his [Jan. 6] speech, ‘I want a peaceful demonstration,’” a man angrily asked. “You don’t have to go any further than that to know that he was right and that he shouldn’t have been impeached.”

“I was there,” another man called out. “We were peaceful.”

“No shouting now,” the emcee said.

Then-Rep. Peter Meijer, a Republican, voted in 2021 to impeach President Donald Trump. Credit: Kent Nishimura/Los Angeles Times/Getty Images

One audience member accused Meijer of taking a bribe in exchange for his impeachment vote.

Another challenged him to name five “political prisoners from Jan. 6” who were “sitting in prison and falsely accused.” I watched Meijer struggle to complete a sentence before being cut off.

A third person pointed a finger at him as he questioned whether Meijer was actually in the Capitol complex on Jan. 6, 2021, as he’d claimed.

“I have a photo I took in the House,” Meijer said, trying to defend himself without sounding defensive. Mostly, he listened wide-eyed, sipping coffee from a Styrofoam cup.

An older woman asked, in a gentler tone, if Meijer would redo his impeachment vote if he could. Would he at least have abstained instead of voting “yes”?

Meijer responded by saying that when he was in Congress, someone had once joked that they’d throw him off a bridge if he ever voted “present.”

A deep voice rang out on the far side of the room. The man in the “Stand for God” shirt.

“Sorry?” Meijer said, not hearing him.

The man repeated himself: “You should’ve gotten thrown off the bridge.”

A crowd gathers outside the Capitol at a pro-Trump protest on Jan. 6, 2021. Credit: Michael Brochstein/Sipa USA/AP Images

The System Falls Apart

What divides the Republican Party of 2024 is not any one policy or ideology. It is not whether to support Donald Trump. The most important fault line in the party now is democracy itself. Today’s Republican insurgents believe democracy has been stolen, and they don’t trust the ability of democratic processes to restore it.

This phenomenon is evident across the country, in Georgia and Nevada, in Arizona, Idaho and Florida. But it’s perhaps the starkest in Michigan, a place long associated with political pragmatism and a business-friendly GOP, embodied by governors George Romney, John Engler and, most recently, Rick Snyder. It was a son of Michigan, former President Gerald Ford, who once said, “I have never mistaken moderation for weakness, nor civility for surrender.”

I grew up in Michigan. My own political education and my early years as a journalist coincided with a stunning Republican resurgence in my home state. Over several decades, Michigan’s dynastic families — the DeVoses and Meijers and Van Andels on the west side, the Romneys and Fords on the east — poured money and manpower into the Michigan Republican Party, building it into one of the most vaunted political operations in the country. They transformed Michigan from a bastion of organized labor that leaned Democratic into a toss-up state that, until recently, had a right-to-work law and put Republicans in control of all three branches of government for eight of the last 14 years. Michigan Republicans were so successful that other states copied their tactics. As Dick DeVos, heir to the Amway fortune and a prolific Republican donor, once told a gathering of conservative activists, “If we can do it in Michigan, you can do it anywhere.”

Several years ago, however, my home state stopped making sense to me. I watched as thousands of political newcomers, whose sole qualification appeared to be fervor of belief, declared war on the Republican establishment that had been so dominant. Calling themselves the “America First” movement, these unknowns treated the DeVoses and other party leaders as the enemy. I had covered the DeVoses and the Michigan Republican Party long enough to know that they were not just pro-business but staunch conservatives who wanted to slash taxes, abolish regulations and remake the public education system in favor of vouchers and parochial schools. Yet the new “America First” activists disparaged prominent Michigan Republicans as “globalist” elites who belonged to a corrupt “uniparty” cabal. That cabal had denied Trump a rightful second term and needed to be purged from the party.

With a consequential election looming, I traveled back to Michigan earlier this year to understand how this all happened. I sought out the activists waging this struggle, a group of people who don’t trust institutions or individuals except Trump and one another — and sometimes not even that. Could they triumph over the elites? I found chaos, incompetence, strife, a glimpse of a future post-Trump Republican Party and, all around me, danger for our system of government and the state of the country.

“We can’t keep going through election after election like this where a large plurality of the country just does not accept the outcome of the majority and refuses to abide by it,” said Jeff Timmer, a former executive director of the Michigan Republican Party who now works with the anti-Trump Lincoln Project. “That’s when the system falls apart.”

Trump at a 2024 rally in Waterford County, Michigan Credit: Scott Olson/Getty Images

A Call From God

After Peter Meijer’s event in Kent County, I drove west toward Lake Michigan to meet a plumber named Ken Beyer for lunch. Barrel-chested and with a neatly trimmed goatee, Beyer is in his late 50s but looks younger. He’s disarmingly earnest, the kind of guy who’d offer to help you fix a flat tire in a snowstorm. In less than two years, Beyer had risen from a political nobody to a district chair in the state GOP and a leader of the “America First” movement in Michigan. He is known for his fiery videos, in which he might equate a rival to Adolf Hitler or warn that “the storm is upon us.” Like many of his “America First” allies, he questions whether democracy still exists in this country. “I don’t know if any election is fair anymore,” he said.

Over chicken tenders and iced tea, Beyer, a church-going Christian, told me about a series of what he saw as divine revelations that had delivered him to this point. The pandemic and 2020 election had shaken him. He no longer recognized his own country. He feared that the moment had come, he said, “where freedom and the American dream end.”

Ken Beyer, a Republican district chair, feels he is on a divine mission. Credit: Nick Hagen for ProPublica

His next revelation happened on Jan. 6, 2021. Because he was convinced that Democrats stole the White House from Trump, he had gone to Washington to make his voice heard and show support for the president. Standing on the steps of the Capitol, he encountered a reporter with the conservative outlet Newsmax who needed help carrying gear. Beyer grabbed a tripod and backpack and filled in as a makeshift field producer for one of the biggest events of the 21st century. “What God wanted me to do,” he later said, “was help capture the history of what’s happening and get the truth out of what really was going on there.”

Back in Michigan, Beyer enlisted the help of a young videographer who had produced content for Beyer’s plumbing business, and together they churned out videos about COVID-19 (overblown), election fraud (rampant) and the “truth” of Jan. 6 (“a big prayer meeting”). He read about disturbing allegations about voting-machine software changing votes. He listened to poll workers allege that mysterious suitcases of mail-in ballots had arrived overnight at the state’s largest ballot-processing site in downtown Detroit (a claim that was later debunked). The more he heard, the more he came to believe that his home state had been central to the Democrats’ plan to steal the 2020 election.

In his free time, Beyer urged Republican lawmakers to investigate the allegations of fraud made by Trump and his allies. Most Republicans brushed him off. A few, like Peter Meijer, had openly turned on Trump, voting for impeachment or dismissing Trump’s stolen-election theories. Beyer couldn’t understand it. “Why weren’t they fighting for him?” he said.

According to more experienced people in the party, there was a simple answer: Many of the claims brought forward weren’t true. A long-awaited investigation by a Republican-led state Senate committee found “no evidence of widespread or systematic fraud” in Michigan.

If Republicans wouldn’t act, Beyer reasoned, then they were just as bad as the Democrats. Trump supporters in other states had also encountered Republican indifference in response to Trump’s fraud allegations. What were they supposed to do now?

Republican Party delegates listen to a speaker at a state GOP convention. Credit: Nick Hagen for ProPublica

The Re-Founding Fathers

A solution arrived in the form of the “precinct strategy.” It was a plan promoted by former Trump adviser Steve Bannon to ensure that the political establishment in both parties didn’t “steal” future elections. Precincts are the smallest geographical unit in American elections. In Michigan, there are roughly 4,700 precincts typically made up of a few thousand active registered voters. Each precinct elects at least one delegate as its representative to a county convention, and sometimes three or four. In all, there are upwards of 8,000 delegate positions in Michigan.

If a state political party is a pyramid with a chairperson at the top, precinct delegates occupy the lowest, broadest tier. Until recently, it was an obscure position. Thousands of the seats often sit empty. If enough Trump supporters filled them, Bannon said, they could form a majority within the party, elect allies to leadership positions and, eventually, take control.

Ken Beyer had never heard of a precinct delegate until he stumbled across the website for MI Precinct First, a group inspired by Bannon’s plan. He decided to run. He believed that this, too, must be part of God’s plan for him. “I believe that He’s using people like me throughout the United States to become the re-founding fathers,” he told me.

The precinct strategy proved successful. In Michigan, thousands of new activists, many recruited by “America First” groups, became precinct delegates in 2022. In Ottawa County, a deeply conservative enclave along Lake Michigan, the number of delegates leapt from 170 to 330. The same trend played out in other battleground states. “The Trump apparatus did very little correct except infiltrate the party right down to the precinct level,” said Timmer, the former executive director of the Michigan Republican Party. “Not just in Michigan but all over.”

The first test for the new “America First” delegates came in late August 2022. In Michigan, the voters select most nominees for elected office in a normal primary election. But for two key positions with oversight of elections — attorney general and secretary of state — the precinct delegates decide the party’s nominees at a statewide convention. These conventions were often sleepy affairs, the outcome predetermined. But this time, when the party’s chair, a wealthy donor and former U.S. ambassador named Ron Weiser, took the stage, the cavernous ballroom filled with boos and jeers.

“How many of you believe we can sweep in November?” Weiser asked.

“With the new people!” a woman wearing a “Keep America Great” hat yelled. “With ‘America First’!”

Over the opposition of Weiser and other longtime party operatives, the “America First” contingent nominated two election deniers for attorney general and secretary of state. Matthew DePerno, a combative lawyer who had promoted a viral yet baseless theory about voting fraud in tiny Antrim County, Michigan, vowed to use the power of the attorney general’s office to investigate election crimes. Kristina Karamo, a tall, commanding woman in her late 30s with a breathless speaking style, was the “America First” pick for secretary of state. A community college instructor and live-trivia host, Karamo had come to prominence after she testified before the Michigan Legislature about irregularities involving ballot counting and voting machines she said she’d witnessed as a poll challenger in Detroit in 2020.

The party convention nominated Kristina Karamo, who has argued that the 2020 election was illegitimate, to be the GOP secretary of state candidate in 2022. Credit: Nic Antaya/The Washington Post/Getty Images

As a show of political force, nominating DePerno and Karamo was impressive. As an electoral strategy, it was disastrous. Both candidates were trounced in November, and Michigan Democrats won control of all three branches of government for the first time in more than 30 years.

DePerno conceded defeat right away. Karamo did not. To outside observers, her stance was laughable: She had lost by 615,000 votes, roughly the population of Detroit. But Beyer and many other “America First” delegates saw Karamo’s actions as brave and principled, the opposite of DePerno’s cowardly and hypocritical concession. Several months later, she and DePerno ran against each other to be the next chair of the Michigan Republican Party. DePerno won endorsements from Trump and Mike Lindell, the MyPillow CEO and a funder of the election-fraud movement. But the delegates rallied behind Karamo and delivered her the victory. In just two years, Bannon’s precinct strategy had gone from a quixotic scheme to a reality.

No sooner had Karamo won than paranoia set in. Standing on the convention floor just before her victory, a well-connected precinct delegate approached Beyer to deliver a message. “He says, ‘Leadership is going to let you guys have this one,’” Beyer recalled. Karamo would be chair, in other words, because party leaders let it happen. Why’d they do that, Beyer asked. “Because they believe that they can make her fail quicker than they can Matt DePerno.”

File Number One

A state political party is like the HVAC unit of American politics. When it does its job, you don’t think about it. It hums away in the background, as unsexy as it is essential. State parties recruit candidates to run for office. They mobilize voters. They raise money that helps candidates spread their message and win elections.

Karamo had other priorities when she took over the Michigan Republican Party. Top of the list: “election integrity.” She created a new “election security operations” team to recruit hundreds of volunteers as poll challengers, dropbox monitors and recount specialists, and to serve on county canvassing boards, which certify the final vote count. To oversee this work, she enlisted grassroots activists best known for filing a lawsuit that accused Detroit’s election clerk of running an “illegal election” in 2022. (A judge dismissed the case, calling it “frivolous” and “rife with speculation.”) Training and embedding “America First” activists in every part of the election process was critical to the future of the party and the state. “Otherwise,” one of Karamo’s advisers told a group of activists, “the big money is going to come right back in and start doing all this for us and selecting all the candidates for us again.”

Karamo’s plan to “secure” elections had two objectives: Not only did she and her team hope to catch future cheating by the Democrats, but they sought revenge against the Republican establishment. To do that, Karamo turned to a lawyer and political outsider named James Copas. He was given a special project: write a new constitution for the state Republican Party that would give as much power as possible to precinct delegates. People like Ken Beyer.

There was no greater priority for Karamo’s team. “If you were to look in my records, I opened 82 different project files,” Copas told me. “The constitution was file number one.”

Karamo showed little interest in the day-to-day work of running the party. Bills went unpaid, emails unanswered. When members of the party’s state committee, in effect the board of directors, questioned her, she ignored them or removed them from leadership positions. Even her allies were critical. “I can tell you unequivocally that there was no chance that Kristina was qualified to be the chair,” Copas said. “So what? She was elected.” (Karamo did not respond to multiple requests for comment.)

Near the end of 2023, Copas circulated a draft of his proposed overhaul of the party constitution. The new constitution proposed a radical change: Eliminate open primary elections and replace them with closed caucuses. Under the current system, about a million people voted in an August GOP primary to choose nominees for local elected offices, state legislative seats, judgeships and federal House and Senate races. Instead of those million or so voters casting ballots, fewer than 10,000 precinct delegates — the same precinct delegates who had powered Karamo to victory — would meet behind closed doors and select the candidates.

The aim of this proposal, said Joel Studebaker, who was Karamo’s chief of staff, was to break up the “corruption club” that had ruled Michigan Republican politics for far too long. “We want something that’s pure,” he told me. “The best answer for that is putting power in the hands of the people.” The irony, critics pointed out, was that Karamo’s proposal would disenfranchise far more people than it empowered.

A portion of the preamble and introduction of a proposed new version of the Michigan Republican Party’s constitution Credit: Obtained by ProPublica

There was another reason the closed-caucus model appealed to the “America First” faithful: It meant there was no need for voting machines, mail-in ballots, high-speed scanners or any of the other technologies that election-fraud believers had spent the last two years railing against. “You’re eliminating cheating in the election system,” Beyer told me.

The backlash was fierce. “Nothing says ‘we respect democracy’ like cutting out millions of Michigan voters,” wrote one prominent Michigan conservative activist.

Karamo’s proposed voting reforms and the party’s dire finances plunged the organization into turmoil with the 2024 elections less than a year away. Even some of Karamo’s own supporters turned against her. Privately, a group of delegates discussed whether to urge her to step down for the good of the party. Karamo had no plans to resign. If her enemies wanted her gone, they would have to try to remove her.

And so they did: On Jan. 6, 2024, a group of anti-Karamo delegates on the Republican state committee invoked party bylaws and voted to remove Karamo as chair. Two weeks later, the same faction elected former U.S. representative Pete Hoekstra to replace her.

Former U.S. Rep. Pete Hoekstra addresses the press at the 2024 convention of Michigan precinct delegates. Credit: Nick Hagen for ProPublica

Up From the Ashes

By the time Trump walked onstage in Waterford Township, Michigan, in mid-February with his red hat pulled low, the Michigan Republican Party was a national punchline. Karamo had refused to leave office, saying the vote to oust her was “illegitimate.” An unsigned statement issued by the state GOP called it a “political lynching.” Her critics filed a lawsuit in state court to enforce the removal vote, and Karamo said only a judge’s order could make her leave. In the meantime, she urged her followers to travel to Detroit on March 2 for a special convention. There, they would vote on her controversial plan to rewrite the Michigan GOP’s constitution.

At his mid-February rally, Trump waded into the chaotic mess that was the Michigan Republican Party despite his supporters urging him not to. He described Hoekstra as “your new Michigan Republican Party chairman,” a line that was greeted with a mix of cheers and boos. The boos continued as Trump said he’d recommended Hoekstra for the job. “I said, ‘Do you think you could ever get this guy Hoekstra? He’s unbelievable,’” Trump said.

The Trump campaign seemed to recognize that the longer Karamo remained in charge, the weaker the state party was and the less chance he had to win Michigan. For both Trump and Biden, Michigan is arguably a must-win state.

Still, some of Trump’s most ardent supporters saw his support for Hoekstra as a betrayal. “I’m not happy with Mr. Trump right now,” one voter said at a Republican town hall I attended. “I think he should keep his nose out of Michigan politics.” When I asked Beyer what he thought, he said he suspected Trump was playing a double game. “If you know anything about election integrity, you know it’s a rigged program here,” he said. For Trump to win, “he’s gotta join the riggers.” I heard a Karamo supporter say she had read on “Truth” — meaning Truth Social, the social media platform partly owned by Trump — that Trump hadn’t even written the endorsement of Hoekstra that appeared on his account.

Around the time of Trump’s visit to Michigan, I went to hear Karamo speak in Saginaw County, an hour and a half north of Detroit. The event was part of a barnstorming tour of the state meant to rally her supporters and assure them that she remained the party’s legitimate leader. To her supporters, the date of the vote to remove her, Jan. 6, 2024, had taken on a mythological quality — it was the new Jan. 6. Their Jan. 6. The audience sat rapt as Karamo told them that it wasn’t just 2020 and 2022 that were rigged. “Our election system has been corrupted for decades. There’s an entire network protecting the corrupt system.”

At the end of her remarks, she reminded her supporters to go to Detroit on March 2. The date had taken on an outsize significance. Not only would delegates choose which presidential candidate received Michigan’s 39 remaining delegates on the path to the Republican nomination, but they would vote on Karamo’s constitution plan. Hoekstra, who was calling himself the rightful chair, was planning a separate event on the same day in Grand Rapids. The schism in the party would be on full display.

A few days before the dueling conventions, a judge issued a preliminary ruling that Karamo had been properly removed. The Detroit convention was called off, and her constitutional overhaul was shelved for the time being. With Karamo’s event canceled, Beyer, now a regional GOP chairman as well as a delegate, said he would carry the torch for the “America First” movement. In an act of defiance aimed at “Adolf” Hoekstra, as Beyer called him, he and Studebaker announced their own miniconvention.

On the morning of March 2, Beyer picked me up at a Wendy’s on the drive to his breakaway convention. A deluge of text messages lit up his phone as we drove down the highway. Beyer told me that the theme for Hoekstra’s convention was “Up From the Ashes.”

“It’s fitting,” he said. “Because they lit the match. They don’t like the new group of people that have come in over the last two years.” He paused. “They’re burning down the Republican Party to get rid of people like me.”

After Beyer and Studebaker had run their protest convention, they jumped in Studebaker’s truck and drove to Hoekstra’s event in Grand Rapids. There, Studebaker ran into some operatives aligned with Trump’s team in Michigan. Studebaker was furious with them and with Trump for abandoning Karamo and for, as he saw it, thwarting the will of the delegates.

“He’s going to lose Michigan if he keeps doing this,” Studebaker said. The delegates will still vote for Trump, he added, but they’re not going to knock doors and they’re not going to give money. They might tune out of state and national elections and focus on local races.

The operatives were unmoved. “We gotta go,” one of them said. “Trump stuff.”

A constituent wearing a “Make America Great Again” hat at a state Republican convention in early March. Credit: Nick Hagen for ProPublica

A Future Without Trump

Not long afterward, Trump disappointed his grassroots followers again. In Michigan’s high-stakes Republican Senate contest, Trump endorsed Mike Rogers, a former representative, all but assuring that Rogers would clinch the nomination in the August primary.

As for Peter Meijer, that throw-you-off-the-bridge exchange in the cafe in February had proved prophetic: His comeback bid was doomed. In late April, he dropped out.

Trump’s endorsement of Rogers left his supporters mystified. Like Meijer, he had been a vocal critic of Trump, once calling the former president “more gangster than presidential.” He had chaired the powerful House intelligence committee, which led Trump followers to label him a member of the “deep state.” A former aide to Trump had tweeted: “Can’t imagine a worse or more dangerous ‘Republican’ candidate for Senate than Mike Rogers.”

Jim Copas, who quit his role with the party shortly before Karamo was forced out, told me he was disgusted with Trump’s actions. “I’ve lost complete faith in the state GOP and I’ve lost complete faith in the national GOP,” he said. Speaking of Trump, he added: “To be honest, I think Don has learned a little bit about being a politician and he’s forgotten his soul.”

Beyer hadn’t given up on Trump. He still “loved” the man, he said, but he wasn’t taking direction from Trump. “I’m not gonna always listen to him,” Beyer told me. “I’m not part of a cult.”

He had his own plans. In one of our last conversations, he laid out a more religious, more uncompromising version of the “America First” movement. He had started his own PAC called Faith Family Freedom and he planned to target the precinct delegates around the state who had opposed Karamo and replace them with “America First” allies in the next round of delegate elections this August. He had already signed up 350 supporters in various counties, he said, to help with his efforts.

If the Republican establishment — the DeVoses and the Meijers, Pete Hoekstra and the people who had voted to remove Karamo — fought him and his compatriots, Beyer stood ready. “They’re not after Trump. They’re not after Kristina,” he told me. “They’re after me. They’re after everybody like me. That’s what this is all about.”

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