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The GOP’s new political tricks: silencing, censure, expulsion

In Republican-controlled state legislatures, Democrats are being undemocratically punished for dissent.

Representative Zooey Zephyr waved to supporters during a rally on the steps of the Montana State Capitol in Helena on Monday.Thom Bridge/Associated Press

When two Democrats were recently expelled from Tennessee’s Republican-controlled Legislature, it was clear that what happened in Nashville was never meant to stay in Nashville.

That was the latest salvo in the GOP’s efforts to chill dissent and undermine democracy, one supermajority at a time. Now Montana state Representative Zooey Zephyr, a Democrat, has been banned from the House floor for the duration of that state’s current legislative session. While she’ll be able to vote remotely, she won’t be allowed to debate.

Zephyr, the first out trans person elected to Montana’s Legislature, has been targeted by Republicans since speaking out against several anti-trans bills, including one that denies gender-affirming health care to trans youth.


“If you vote yes on this bill and yes on these amendments,” she told her colleagues, “I hope the next time there’s an invocation when you bow your heads in prayer, you see the blood on your hands.”

When Republicans then silenced Zephyr by refusing to allow her to speak against several anti-trans bills, her supporters protested within the State House, chanting “Let her speak.” Riot police broke up the non-riot and arrested seven people.

Law enforcement agents cleared the gallery in the Montana House of Representatives on Monday during a protest after the speaker of the House refused to acknowledge Representative Zooey Zephyr.Thom Bridge/Associated Press

Then came the vote to ban Zephyr from the House floor.

“We have a week and a half left in the session and we will be covering important topics — housing bills, the state’s budget,” Zephyr said on CNN shortly after the ban against her passed. “And every bill that goes forward for the remainder of this session, there will be 11,000 Montanans whose representative is missing, whose voice cannot be heard on those bills.”

In a statement, the Legislature’s Republican “Freedom Caucus“ said, “It’s unfortunate that Rep. Zephyr had neither the maturity nor the humility to take responsibility for his actions and simply apologize.”

Montana Republicans should — but won’t — apologize for misgendering Zephyr again. All she is doing is speaking in defense of a community, her community, which is enduring an onslaught of discriminatory legislation. According to the American Civil Liberties Union, at least 417 anti-LGBTQ bills, many of them targeting trans people, have been introduced in state legislatures nationwide this year.


Not even six months into 2023, that’s already a record high — and a nearly tenfold increase since 2018.

“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,” Zephyr said before she was barred. “He’s asking me to be complicit in this Legislature’s eradication of our community.”

Decorum is the new Republican buzzword. But in the ways that they wield it, the word has become another euphemism — like the bastardization of “woke” — to use as a cudgel on political opponents. With its false patina of gentility, it’s the new “civility,” another right-wing tool to shame, suppress, and silence people and opinions they don’t like.

That’s the same tactic Republicans used to briefly expel Tennessee state Representatives Justin Jones and Justin Pearson. Claiming that they and Gloria Johnson, a third Democrat, violated House rules of decorum and procedure, Cameron Sexton, Tennessee’s house speaker, compared them to the Jan. 6 insurrectionists who violently breached the US Capitol to stop the congressional certification of Joe Biden’s 2020 presidential election victory.


Just to refresh — the “Tennessee Three” demanded a legislative response to gun violence after a mass shooter killed six people, including three 9-year-olds, at a Nashville Christian school in March. The Jan. 6 insurrectionists wanted to hang Mike Pence.

Logic and truth are lost on Republicans intent on incapacitating constitutional rights and democracy. And these attacks show no sign of slowing down. In Nebraska, Democratic state Senator Megan Hunt is being formally investigated for a potential conflict of interest regarding her opposition to an anti-trans bill. Hunt, the mother of a trans child, called the complaint “harassment.”

To keep and expand their power, Republicans have long employed gerrymandering and voter suppression to tilt elections in their favor. This is how so many state legislatures wound up with all-powerful Republican supermajorities.

Now Republicans are disenfranchising voters by moving to silence, censure, or expel their duly elected Democratic legislators. Tennessee was the test case for a Republican crackdown on dissent in state legislatures, its expanding quiver of poisoned arrows aimed at the heart of democracy.

Renée Graham is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at Follow her @reneeygraham.