AP Photo/John Minchillo

Texas Republicans Fanned the Flames of Insurrection Long Before January 6

It’s not just Ted Cruz. For years, Texas Republicans have fueled the toxic politics that led extremists to storm the Capitol.

by

In the week since pro-Trump mobs violently stormed the U.S. Capitol, Senator Ted Cruz has served as a rather convenient lightning rod for his fellow Texas Republicans. As the attempted insurrection began to mount outside, Ted Cruz was on the Senate floor, leading the charge to block the certification of the presidential election. In a blatant political ploy, the conservative firebrand—who wants to run for president again in 2024—tried to stake his claim to Trump’s base. Within 10 minutes of his speech, hordes of violent extremists stormed past police barricades. Ten minutes after that, rioters entered the Capitol. In the wake of the attack, Cruz has faced broad condemnation and widespread calls to resign. 

While Cruz was one of the most vocal Texas allies in Trump’s call to overturn the presidential election results, he was far from alone. Republican leaders in Texas have fanned the flames of insurrection for years, adopting the kind of rhetoric and political stunts that cater to the most extreme elements of the state’s conservative base, peddling racism, xenophobia, bigotry, and delusional conspiracy theories.

Trump Houston Cruz
Ted Cruz at a Trump rally in Houston on Oct. 22, 2018.  Gus Bova

In 2015, during his first year as governor, Greg Abbott established a penchant for catering to the most marginal fringes of his party’s base. In response to conspiracy theories that President Barack Obama was using a U.S. military exercise called Jade Helm 15 as cover for a federal takeover of several states, including Texas, Abbott mobilized the State Guard to monitor the situation. In doing so, Abbott gave credence to a conspiracy that hardly anyone took seriously, elevating it into a national affair–and Texas, once again, into a laughingstock. 

Texans are intimately familiar with the traumatic violence that extremist rhetoric and fear mongering often bring against people of color. In August 2019, a white supremacist in the Dallas suburbs published a manifesto online detailing his intent to kill Latinos in order to stop what he believed to be a “Hispanic invasion of Texas.” He then drove to a Walmart in El Paso and killed 22 people—most of whom were Hispanic—and injured dozens more. 

Trump and many other Republicans—especially in Texas—have long used that same sort of “invasion” language about undocumented immigrants coming into the country. The day before the mass shooting in El Paso, Abbott sent out a campaign mailer that urged supporters to “DEFEND” Texas from the threat of illegal immigration. As the letter read, “Unless you and I want liberals to succeed in their plan to transform Texas—and our entire country—through illegal immigration, this is a message we MUST send.”

After a full week of dodging questions about his rhetoric, Abbott finally issued a non-apology apology, saying that “mistakes were made and course correction has been made.” He said he understood the importance “that rhetoric will not be used in any dangerous way and will make sure that we work collaboratively in unification.”

greg abbott, dan patrick, sales tax, texas legislature
Governor Greg Abbott (right) explains the GOP sales tax increase at a Capitol press conference in May 2019.  Justin Miller

Then there’s the anti-voter fraud crusade that Texas Republicans have waged for years, one that has disproportionately targeted communities of color, with devastating consequences. In 2020, Abbott and Attorney General Ken Paxton’s cracked down against local Democratic officials’ attempts to expand mail-in voting and to enact other measures to make it safer to vote in a pandemic, claiming it would invite voter fraud. 

As Trump spent the past year convincing his supporters that the only way he could lose reelection was if Democrats stole the election, his Republicans allies in Texas were quick to back him up. Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick said on a conservative talk radio show that Democrats were trying to “use COVID as an excuse to steal the election, and that’s what they’re trying to do everywhere.” 

Even as it became clear that Biden defeated Trump—with no widespread voter fraud—Republicans in Texas did not demur. In the days after the election, Abbott offered carefully worded support for Trump’s continued attempts to dispute the elections. “Democracy depends upon fair and open elections,” Abbott said in his statement. “We all agree that every legal vote counts and that illegal votes do not.” 

Patrick then offered up to $1-million in rewards to anyone who provided information of voter fraud that led to conviction. After roughly 60 of Trump’s legal challenges were rejected by the courts, Paxton, who is currently under FBI investigation over recent allegations of corruption and abuse of power, filed a last-ditch lawsuit in December to throw out several states’ election results. The lawsuit was so outlandish it was dismissed without a hearing. On January 6, Paxton spoke at the “Stop the Steal” rally, urging the crowd to “fight” for Trump.

Texas GOP Chair Allen West, a former tea party congressman from Florida who took control of the state party last year, responded to the lawsuit’s defeat by suggesting that Texas and other red states leave the union. “This decision will have far-reaching ramifications for the future of our constitutional republic. Perhaps law-abiding states should bond together and form a Union of states that will abide by the constitution.”

Texas Congressman Louie Gohmert followed up with yet another failed lawsuit petitioning Vice President Mike Pence to overturn the results. When it was defeated two weeks ago, he told the pro-Trump propaganda organ Newsmax that, “Basically, in effect, the ruling would be that you got to go to the streets and be as violent as Antifa and [Black Lives Matter].”

Then, January 6 happened. Video footage showed a police officer being pulled down on the capitol steps by rioters and beat with a flag pole adorned with the American flag. Once inside, the mob stalked through the halls of Congress and broke into the House and Senate chambers as members escaped. Some rioters, armed with bats, pipes, pepper spray, and zipties, shouted “hang Mike Pence”—who had refused Trump’s pleas to block certification in the Senate—and “Where’s Nancy?” A noose hung from makeshift gallows outside on the Capitol grounds. During the assault, Cruz sent a fundraising email, which he later said was pre-scheduled, to supporters, boasting that he was “leading the fight to reject electors from key states unless there is an emergency audit of the election results.” 

Five people died, including a police officer who was reportedly attacked with a fire extinguisher. When the building was finally cleared after the hours-long siege, lawmakers reconvened to finish the certification vote. Undeterred, 147 Republican lawmakers—including Senator Ted Cruz and 16 U.S. Representatives from Texas—still voted against certification. While he moved to condemn the violence in the aftermath, Cruz made clear that he accepted no culpability. “Not remotely,” he said.

The backlash against the bloody attempt at insurrection was swift. Trump faced immediate calls to resign and Democrats began assembling a second impeachment. Cruz, too, has faced widespread calls to resign.  Republicans jumped to condemn the storming of the capitol, voicing surprise that Trump’s “Stop the Steal” rally ended in violence. 

But many had seen it coming. Two days before the riots, Representative Sheila Jackson Lee, a Houston Democrat, publicly urged Trump to rein in his extremist supporters, who had been gathering in Washington, D.C. ahead of the rally. “The President of the United States needs to return to Washington, D.C. and demand that the Proud Boys and Boogaloo Boys cease the violence they are promoting this week in the nation’s capital, the seat of democracy,” Lee wrote. “This President and only this President has the power to stop this potential unwarranted violence heading towards Washington, D.C. on the premise of false allegations of fraud in the 2020 election.”

Many Democratic lawmakers now fear for their safety when in public. Representative Al Green, another Houston Democrat and prominent advocate for Trump’s impeachment, said that he was harassed by Trump supporters on flights and in airports as he traveled back to his district for the weekend. He needed a police escort to get to his connecting flight in Nashville. “These were some very angry people,” Green told Politico. “I’m a son of the segregated South. I can remember the expressions of hate when people were saying ugly things, calling me ugly words that I don’t repeat. I remember the look. And I saw that on the faces of some of these people. I saw that also here at the Capitol when these people were marching. If you’ve ever been accosted by a person who has hate in their heart and wants to hurt, you never forget that look.”

On Monday, congressional Democrats were briefed by Capitol Police on three potential plots to overthrow the government, including one where tens of thousands of armed insurrectionists would surround the Capitol and keep Democrats from entering—by force if necessary. The FBI has also warned law enforcement agencies around the country that there may be armed protests at all 50 state capitols. Texas DPS, which is in charge of Capitol security, said that it has deployed additional troopers and resources as the legislative session begins. 

For one of his last public events as president, Trump traveled on Tuesday to Alamo, Texas, in the Rio Grande Valley—a region that Texas Republicans have, through a massive border security operation, turned into one of the most militarized and surveilled places in the country. 

There, Trump sought to celebrate what he sees as the key achievement of his administration: hundreds of miles of “big, beautiful” border wall that has cut through people’s land, historic sites, and natural reserves. In the wake of the violent Capitol riots, some locals weren’t eager for him to come: The Texas Civil Rights Project took out a full-page ad in the local newspaper, The Monitor, that read: “YOU ARE NOT WELCOME HERE. FUERA!” 

Trump may very well never step foot in Texas again, but the specter of Trumpism is not going away. And for now, neither are the Texas politicians who so fervently aided him.

Read more from the Observer:

  • Bringing the Dead Home: Thirty years after Congress passed the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, only a fraction of human remains held by Texas’ museums and universities have been returned.

  • How We Got Here: Texas’ health system has been underfunded, understaffed, and unprepared for years. Here, COVID-19 found the perfect place to spread.

  • ‘Being A Prisoner During COVID Is A Death Sentence’: Death row exoneree Anthony Graves reflects a decade after his release.