Recent Primary Results Show the GOP Is Still Sliding Toward Authoritarianism

Candidates who amplified false claims about Donald Trump winning in 2020 did very well in this month’s primaries. Their victories are one more step in the direction of authoritarianism.

Donald Trump embraces Republican candidate for governor Kari Lake at a "Save America" rally in support of Arizona GOP candidates on July 22, 2022 in Prescott Valley, Arizona. (Mario Tama / Getty Images)

When Trump-backed candidates did worse than expected in Georgia’s May primaries, many media outlets declared that his influence over the Republican Party was waning. But after primaries taking place the last two weeks, those reports are starting to look like wishful thinking.

Last week, Trump-endorsed candidates performed strongly in primaries in Arizona, Michigan, and Missouri against relatively moderate rivals. And Tuesday, Trump endorsee Tim Michels won GOP the nomination for Wisconsin governor, beating former lieutenant governor Rebecca Kleefisch by five percentage points.

In addition to standard Republican fare, Michels campaigned on abolishing the Wisconsin Elections Commission and replacing it with a more partisan alternative. He has also suggested Wisconsin’s 2020 electoral votes may have been stolen from Trump and asserted that “there [were] certainly illegal ballots.”

In Arizona, where Joe Biden beat Trump by just over ten thousand votes out of 3.3 million votes cast, the Republican nominees for governor, attorney general, and secretary of state all claim that Trump was the real winner in the state. Gubernatorial nominee Kari Lake has been especially emphatic, even by Trump’s own standards, that the election was stolen from Trump. Trump’s pick for Senate, Blake Masters, also won his primary race. All in all, eleven of the twelve candidates he endorsed in Arizona won, including a challenger to Rusty Bowers, the speaker of the Arizona State House who delivered anti-Trump testimony to the Congressional committee investigating Trump’s attempted coup on January 6, 2021.

In Michigan, the Republican gubernatorial nominee, has tried to thread the needle between Trump and more “establishment”-oriented Republicans, earning both the former president’s endorsement and that of the Chamber of Commerce and other industry groups. Tudor Dixon has recently backpedaled somewhat on her previous insinuations about election fraud in Michigan. On the other hand, the Trump-endorsed Matthew DePerno, the presumptive GOP nominee for Michigan attorney general, was allegedly involved in illegally examining voting equipment in an apparent effort to prove Trump won the vote there, Reuters reported. Republican congressman Peter Meijer, who supported impeaching Trump, also lost to a Trump-endorsed primary challenger who received support from Democrats as well.

Since he left office, almost two hundred of Trump’s picks have won Republican primary elections, while only fourteen have lost — though not every candidate Trump endorsed faced a competitive primary. More concerning than Trump’s win rate is the extent to which his endorsements fit into a larger strategy. Virtually all of Trump’s most important endorsees have received his endorsement because they were willing to go farther than their competitors in saying Trump was the true winner of the 2020 election.

It would be comforting to write all of this off as insincere bluster meant to rile up a significant portion of the Republican electorate, 71 percent of whom consider Biden’s election illegitimate. But, just like during his presidency, the supposed divisions between Trump and the rest of the Republican Party are largely an illusion. Consider the national party’s collaboration with well-known “stop the steal” advocates to bolster its “election integrity program,” which Politico reported last week. Or the twenty-five states that have increased restrictions on voting since 2021. Or the Republican Supreme Court that is likely to allow right-wing state legislatures to interfere with and even overturn presidential elections as soon as next year. Or the many Republican-controlled states that have cracked down on freedom of assembly, going so far as to make it legal to hit protesters with your car.

Trump has both caused Republicans to accelerate their long-held desire to ensure that only the “right” kind of people can easily vote, and provided them a foil against which they can claim the moral high ground. It matters that one faction of the party is much more willing to use both violence and tortured readings of the law to undermine the plain outcome of elections. And that faction is still on the rise.