With their decision late last month to ban a transgender Democratic legislator from the statehouse floor, Montana Republicans have provided a fresh demonstration of the Republican Party’s full transformation into an authoritarian wrecking ball lodged in the heart of American democracy.  Coming just weeks after the GOP-controlled Tennessee legislature’s ignominious vote to expel two African-American legislators, it is clear that the anti-democratic radicalism of the GOP has only continued to accelerate since the defeat of Donald Trump in 2020.

Few would dispute that a state legislature should be able, under certain circumstances, to discipline or even expel members. But the bar for doing so should always be kept extremely high, as such actions fundamentally threaten the will of the voters who elected these representatives. Most obviously, for instance, it seems reasonable that a legislator who threatens or harasses his or her colleagues should face sanctions.

But in Montana, we are seeing an entirely opposite scenario. GOP legislators accuse Representative Zooey Zephyr of abetting disruptive protests at the state capitol, and of employing “hateful rhetoric” that might result in violence, thus violating Montana House rules. But what was this alleged “hateful rhetoric”? Zephyr told her colleagues that they would have “blood on your hands” if they passed proposed regulations banning transition care for minors who identify as transgender. In her defense prior to the vote to restrict her from the floor, Zephyr refused to withdraw this language, noting that, “When the speaker asks me to apologize on behalf of decorum, what he is really asking me to do is be silent when my community is facing bills that get us killed; he’s asking me to be complicit in this legislature’s eradication of our community.”

Given the high rates of suicide and suicidal ideation among transgender youth, and the violence directed at transgender adults, Zephyr’s offense is not due to speaking inaccurately or in an inciting fashion, but entirely the opposite — her offense is because she has spoken truthfully, by referencing the violence at the center of the reactionary right’s war on transgender Americans. Montana Republicans are punishing Zephyr precisely because she used accurate, illuminating language and the GOP considers it out of bounds because it is true, and reveals their own position as immoral and cruel.

The Montana GOP’s attempt to describe accurate language that specifically opposes violence as itself violent echoes the rhetoric of Tennessee Republicans who voted to expel two Black Democrats from that state’s legislature. There, local Republicans took revenge on the men for engaging in peaceful protest specifically targeted at gun violence, claiming that such protest was actually violence. But even this doesn’t fully capture the Republican Party’s attempts to invert public notions of peaceable conduct versus violence. In Tennessee, Republicans went so far as to describe the Democrats’ actions as akin to the January 6 assault on the U.S. Capitol, equating a protest against violence with an actual, armed rebellion against the American government. Weeks later, Montana Republicans are repeating this inversion of rhetoric and common sense, bluntly accusing Zephyr of “encouraging an insurrection.”

In both Tennessee and Montana, the insurrection language is another instance of the GOP attempting to twist public perceptions of reality through lies and propaganda. In fact, the Republican actions in both states provide far more compelling evidence that it is the Republican Party that is engaging in insurrection, by an abuse of state power meant to disenfranchise and disempower the citizens who had the temerity to elect Democrats to the legislature. In both cases, the fact that the GOP is in the majority doesn’t make this any less of an insurrection — the party’s actions constitute attempts to subvert basic mechanisms of democracy (e.g., the results of elections) in pursuit of one-party power and the suppression of dissenting perspectives.

Despite the lopsided 68-32 vote in favor of keeping Zephyr off the House floor, the Montana GOP’s attempt to assert its dominance suggests weakness and incoherence. The move to silence and ban a transgender person may have succeeded in the context of this session of the Montana legislature, but it is hard to see how this clearly bigoted power play serves the GOP in the context of national politics, or even in Montana politics over the long term. At the most basic level, it makes the GOP look not like a defender of morality so much as a party of bullies who can’t bear it when a single political opponent chooses to speak truth to power. As in Tennessee, the Montana GOP has made it that much easier for ordinary Americans to observe the moral rot and anti-democratic spirit driving the Republican Party, and for the Democratic Party to drive home a message of how GOP intolerance and hate leads directly to an assault on American democracy itself — a story that we saw play out dramatically on January 6, 2020, but which now continues to reverberate from statehouse to statehouse.

 The GOP legislators’ grotesquely disproportionate response to Montana’s sole transgender legislator also inadvertently calls into question the broader edifice of the Republican’s celebration of “traditional” patriarchal and Christian values. Among other things, the inability to grapple in any honest fashion with Zephyr’s essential charge — that GOP policies are hurting, even killing, transgender people — is ultimately a sign of weakness, not strength or confident belief in the morality of their position. Rather than engage in an actual debate — which one would assume the Republican legislators would welcome, so convinced they appear of the rightness of their anti-trans sentiments — the GOP is simply aiming to short-circuit discussion, by silencing and shaming the one legislator who has a unique and powerful perspective on the laws being pursued. At an easily-grasped level, the Montana GOP is acting like a gang of bullies; and as with bullies everywhere, it’s easy to discern a basic cowardice seeping around the edges of the mob’s bravado.

Against such corrupt and immoral behavior on the part of the Republican majority, Zephyr’s refusal to back down appears righteous and principled. The GOP legislators may be thrilling their hard-core supporters with their performative cruelty and authoritarian tactics, but most Americans should feel contempt and revulsion at their power play.