Susan J. Demas: Mike Shirkey’s long, crazy goodbye

You would think that Shirkey, who has managed to win several elections, would seek to distance himself from the antics of the confederacy of losers

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click to enlarge Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey (R-Clarklake), April 20, 2022. - Laina G. Stebbins, Michigan Advance
Laina G. Stebbins, Michigan Advance
Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey (R-Clarklake), April 20, 2022.

“That was some weird shit.”

That was former President George W. Bush’s reported take on former President Donald Trump’s angry inaugural address back in 2017.

And that seems to be the consensus on the farewell speech last week from Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey (R-Clarklake), who, notably, dismissed his frequent foe, Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, as being “batshit crazy” during her first year running the state.

As it turns out, Shirkey — who bounced between QAnon-inspired homophobia, tired lies about COVID-19 vaccines, bizarre tirades about “one world government,” and tales of sticking his hand in Senate building toilets (no joke) — appeared to draw inspiration from Jack Nicholson’s performance in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (stream it, kids, it’s worth it).

Let’s pause for a moment to reflect on the fact that this isn’t some MAGA-loving Twitter rando, but the top elected Republican in the state (Michigan doesn’t vote like Mississippi, either). It was hardly Shirkey’s first entre into the outlandish, from a still-unexplained trip to White House with Michigan Republicans while Trump was openly scheming to stay in office even though he lost the 2020 election to calling the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection a “hoax” and grumbling like Grampa Simpson about too many dead people voting.

Then there was the time that he appeared at yet another right-wing anti-Whitmer rally at the Capitol just hours after state and federal agents announced arrests in a militia-tied assassination and kidnapping plot against her in hopes of sparking a civil war. Yet Shirkey declared, “This is no time to be weak in our commitment to freedom. We need to be strong … and not be afraid of those who are taking our freedoms away from us.”

Shirkey also met with militia leaders and advised them on messaging, telling a local TV host, “It was very fascinating and they’re not uniquely different than you and I. They bleed red, white and blue, but they feel like they are not being heard.” And he bragged that his party had “spanked” the female governor over her pandemic health orders.

All of this was widely reported and yet there was zero accountability. Powerful lobbyists and business leaders kept shoveling boatloads of cash to Shirkey and Republicans, cynically betting that they’d maintain their majority next year despite such unabashed looniness. Some pundits continued to insist that Whitmer was obligated to do whatever she could to work with Shirkey, who basically did everything short of being a character witness for her would-be assailants at their trials.

It was a disturbing lesson on how much insiders were willing to tolerate from Republicans they assumed had a lock on power.

That turned out to be a bad bet from a political standpoint, but more importantly, from a moral one.

Shirkey’s final speech relied heavily on end-of-days themes, which isn’t surprising. Because for a far-right true believer, Nov. 8 certainly must have felt that way.

He managed a feat that seven Republican leaders before him never did — losing the Senate majority for the first time since 1984 — well before many Capitol staff and reporters (and even some lawmakers) were born.

But it got so much worse for the GOP.

Whitmer and Democrats easily held onto every top statewide office and flipped the House, giving them a trifecta. But they didn’t stop there; Dems maintained their edge on the state Supreme Court and the congressional delegation and even swept all the statewide education boards, despite endless bleating from Republicans like Shirkey and failed GOP gubernatorial nominee Tudor Dixon that liberals had turned public schools into gay indoctrination factories.

And two progressive proposals he vehemently opposed ended up passing with flying colors. One expanded voting rights (Shirkey led the post-2020 charge to make it much harder to vote in Michigan following Trump’s loss) and the other guaranteed abortion rights in the Constitution. Shirkey, who’s compared abortion to slavery, declared in July that he’d “trade the governor’s race in a heartbeat right now if we could make sure that we can defeat this constitutional amendment.”

In the end, he got nothing. His only solace, perhaps, is that term limits mean he won’t be around the Capitol next session to see his dreams die.

Let’s not forget that many Republicans (and sheep-like pundits) were endlessly hyping a red wave before the election. And when it never crested, that was devastating for those who imbibed the Kool-Aid.

There was nothing left for them to do but cope harder. After getting smoked in the election (and being the subject of a humiliating Michigan GOP memo blaming her for the party’s historic losses), Dixon made some noises about running for party chair, as the lucrative right-wing TV contracts she coveted usually aren’t awarded to candidates who lose by 11 points.

But she’s since bowed out. Just like in the campaign, Dixon was quickly overshadowed by failed attorney general nominee Matt DePerno — whose candidacy always seemed far more important to Trump, who needs all the AG allies he can get after his 2020 election machinations. DePerno — who pundits told us was going to oust progressive Attorney General Dana Nessel (lol) — announced he would run for Michigan GOP chair on a ticket with far-right fan favorite Garrett Soldano, who lost to Dixon in the primary.

As of now, DePerno is considered the frontrunner, perhaps because he’s under criminal investigation.

Not to be outdone, failed secretary of state nominee Kristina Karamo refused to concede, despite getting trounced by incumbent Jocelyn Benson by 14 points, and also decided she should run the party.

You would think that Shirkey, who has managed to win several elections, would seek to distance himself from the antics of the confederacy of losers. He could have just thanked a few folks in his speech and done a victory lap on (pre-Whitmer) Republican accomplishments, like Right to Work, school choice expansion and anti-abortion legislation. Of course, those triumphs aren’t exactly secure with Democrats taking the reins next month.

But like so many high-profile figures on the right, from Elon Musk to Kanye West, it seems like the pandemic, followed by Trump’s loss, broke something inside of him.

While most Michiganders were trying to do anything to stay safe during the early days of COVID and shield their loved ones who were older or infirm, Shirkey was advocating for “herd immunity.” That was sociopathic before vaccines and would have amounted to a survival-of-the-fittest approach where the virus spread unchecked and death rates skyrocketed.

That’s a pretty weird twist on pro-life politics, and seems like something out of the Book of Revelation to me. But while Shirkey seemed content to let a deadly disease run rampant and let God sort it all out, he did believe there was something worth fighting for.

At a September 2020 campaign rally, he sermonized that the election was one between “light and darkness,” with Republicans battling “a Democratic Party that has been completely hijacked by the Marxists and the socialists.” Then Shirkey decided to invoke the Civil War, while demonstrating he’d learned nothing about it, by announcing, “We’re grateful that Lincoln did it in 1860 and 1864, but it’s now our time.”

But Republicans lost that election. And the Jan. 6 coup attempt failed, too, although not before five people died and the U.S. Capitol was desecrated.

This year, election deniers running at the top of the ticket promised revenge. COVID conspiracists like Shirkey also were convinced that voters would finally punish Democrats over the pandemic because surely having to wear a mask at Meijer was more traumatic than watching the Capitol ransacked by violent pro-Trump goons.

Thankfully, they were wrong.

Nov. 8 was a victory for sanity, decency and democracy.

Shirkey got it twisted, but like all fanatics, he just couldn’t help himself. In his final fire-and-brimstone speech on the Senate floor, he made one more attempt to tell voters just how stupid they were for not seeing what he did.

“I carry a burden. … I can see things that are about to happen or going to happen that other people sometimes can’t see,” Shirkey intoned. “… We are witnessing 2 Timothy Chapter 3 before our very eyes. COVID was a test. These next challenges will be much more than a test.”

Of course, Shirkey never saw the GOP wipeout coming this year. So perhaps his soothsaying skills need a tuneup.

Republicans could always wise up and reject Shirkey’s brand of weird conspiracy-mongering that turns off most voters.

Now unlike the soon-to-be ex-majority leader, I don’t claim to possess any special powers. But it seems like, for now, the party is determined to keep doubling down on crazy.

Originally published by Michigan Advance. It is republished with permission.

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About The Author

Susan J. Demas, Michigan Advance

Susan J. Demas is a 22-year journalism veteran and one of the state’s foremost experts on Michigan politics, appearing on MSNBC, CNN, NPR and WKAR-TV’s “Off the Record.” In addition to serving as Editor-in-Chief, she is the Advance’s chief columnist, writing on women, LGBTQ+ people, the state budget, the economy...
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