With the attempted insurgency in Washington D.C. on Jan. 6 and the tense inauguration of a new president there this week, you may have missed the fact that the Georgia Legislature is back in session in Atlanta.

Although that isn't nearly as important as the events in Washington D.C., it could become a microcosm of what is likely to play out on the national stage in the coming weeks and months.

Although Georgia voted blue this past election, the state government is still controlled by Republicans. The state's blue vote now puts a bright spotlight on those state leaders as they attempt to adjust to the new political landscape in the state.

While a lot of financial and policy issues will get most of the ink during the state's legislative session, the bigger issue underlying all of that is this: Republicans will have to decide who they really are and who they want to be in the future.

That's true in the state and in the nation as the party attempts to survive.

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Over the last four years, the Republican Party lost its way. It allowed a demagogue to take over the party apparatus and turn it into a cult of personality.

Trump was never really a Republican. He never really held conservative principles and certainly never practiced fiscal restraint.

To Trump, the GOP was just a vehicle for his own ambitions. He used the party the same way he used law enforcement and military officials — as nothing more than a prop on a stage designed to shine a light on him.

Many GOP leaders knew this was all manipulation, but given Trump's populist popularity within the party faithful, they went along with the charade. 

It was shameful. Nobody will write a profile in courage book about Republicans from the last four years.

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But Trump's reaction to his election loss — the spreading of The Big Lie that the election was stolen from him — cumulated in the rebellion of Jan. 6 when Trump-inspired radicals stormed Congress in an attempt to violently stop the counting of Electoral College votes.

If they weren't already having second-thoughts about Trump, many in the GOP saw the Jan. 6 uprising as a bridge too far.

Now, the GOP is faced with a choice — it can remain beholden to the lies, conspiracies and threats of violence from Trumpism, or it can cleanse itself of that virus and return to the old Republican Party that we thought we knew.

Nationally, that issue will play out in the U.S. Senate when it holds its impeachment trial of Trump. Although he will be out of office, that trial may become the vehicle through which some in the GOP attempt to kill the excesses of Trumpism. Convicting Trump on his second impeachment would be a death-blow to Trumpism, burying it in the dustbin of history.

It is a moment of decisions for Republicans — do they continue to embrace the dangerous rhetoric of Trump-inspired cultish populism, or do they distance themselves from that sickness?

•••

Nowhere is that GOP soul-searching more focused than here in Georgia. The state ended up playing a major role in the presidential election and then by being the deciding state over which party will control the U.S. Senate.

In both cases, Republicans lost, largely due to Trump's own misbehavior. Gov. Brian Kemp and other top state leaders had to tell Trump that they would not overturn the legal election of state voters and steal the election for him. 

That has caused a huge rift in the state's GOP. Many grassroots Republicans are furious with Kemp for not bowing to Trump and throwing the election. It's likely that some Georgia populist demagogue will challenge Kemp in the 2022 GOP Primary for governor.

While a populist uprising might worry Kemp, the bigger issue he faces is the massive show of force by Democrats. To a large extent, the state's voting blue came from the work of Kemp's 2018 Democratic rival, Stacey Abrams, who barely lost against Kemp that year.

Abrams spent the last two years building a Democratic voter base and getting usually unreliable Democrats out to vote in 2020. If she makes another run for governor in 2022, she will be a formidable opponent for Kemp to face.

That means Republicans in the state need to unite and not be divided if they hope to keep the governor's office. They can ill-afford an internal civil war over Trumpism.

•••

How the Georgia's GOP deals with the state's changed political landscape will be seen in attempts during the legislative session to place limits on absentee voting. Many Republicans see absentee voting as a danger to their grip on power because it makes voting easier, even for those who don't typically go to the polls in person to vote.

That's especially true among urban African-American voters who typically vote Democratic, but are often not consistent voters. Absentee voting makes it easier for those kinds of voters and for activist groups to organize them.

Some Republicans would like to make that harder for Abrams and other liberal groups to do.

But there is a downside: Putting too many restrictions on absentee voting would feed into the Abrams' playbook, allowing her to say, "See, we told you Republicans want to suppress Black voting."

That could turn off independent suburban voters and motivate Black voters into turning out in droves in the 2022 election regardless of any new absentee limitations.

In essence, state GOP leaders are damned if they do, and damned if they don't tighten up absentee voting.

That's probably why Gov. Kemp didn't mention dealing with the absentee issue during his recent State of the State speech. It's an issue he clearly doesn't want to have to deal with given that it could be a trap working to Abrams' advantage. The cure, in this case, might be worse than the sickness.

•••

All of that revolves around policy questions.

The bigger issue is what will become of the soul of the Republican Party now that Trump is gone?

Will it continue with The Big Lie about a stolen elections, fake conspiracies and other cultish-populist nonsense, or will it return to a party of honor and decency?

Trumpism has divided the GOP into two sides that are united only by their disdain — perhaps hatred — of Democrats.

Other than that, there's nothing that unites those two factions of Republicans. Nor does that split make it easy to lure in independent voters, many of whom clearly rejected the excess of Trumpism in November.

Under Trump, the GOP allowed many of its faithful to become radicalized by right-wing, anti-government rhetoric. It failed to be honest and truthful with its supporters.

To survive as a national or state political force, the GOP needs to purge itself of those radical elements and to stop normalizing and excusing extreme rhetoric and behavior. 

Hopefully, the GOP can bury the Cult of Trumpism and return to its roots as the thoughtful, truthful and honorable party of Lincoln.

And nowhere is that soul-searching needed more than here in Georgia, where extremism runs amuck among may grassroots Republicans.

Mike Buffington is co-publisher of Mainstreet Newspapers. He can be reached at mike@mainstreetnews.com.

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