The Republican Party is caught in a spiral of radicalization: Having alienated moderates and corporate donors, some prominent GOP figures are turning to grass roots funding from the more radical segment of its base, which has led them to delve further into the conspiracy theories and dangerous rhetoric that their most passionate voters love but that drove centrists away.

Shortly after the Capitol riot, the newly elected Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) “liked” a comment on Twitter that advocated putting a bullet through House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s head. Greene had previously questioned whether 9/11 was a hoax, flatly stated that Barack Obama was a secret Muslim and accused the Clintons of murdering John F. Kennedy Jr.

The false QAnon beliefs that Democrats are part of a global cabal of satanic pedophiles have moved toward the mainstream of the Republican Party. A January YouGov poll found that 30 percent of Republican voters had a favorable opinion of the QAnon belief system. Rep. Peter Meijer (R-Mich.), one of 10 Republicans to vote to impeach Trump, noted that a “significant plurality, if not potentially a majority, of our voters have been deceived into this creation of an alternate reality.” The current party chairman in Texas is Allen West, a former Florida member of Congress who in 2014 described Barack Obama as “an Islamist” who is “purposefully enabling the Islamist cause.” A keynote speaker at a recent Minnesota County Republican event told attendees that George Floyd’s murder was a “hoax.”

Last week, Tucker Carlson, the Fox News host, claimed that Democrats are “importing” immigrants to “dilute” the votes of “real” Americans. This is the “replacement theory,” also known as the “white genocide” conspiracy theory which holds that minorities and immigrants are seeking to replace “real Americans.” The argument started out as fear that undocumented immigrants, if given a path to citizenship, would overwhelmingly vote for Democrats. The fear morphed into the theory that these votes will effectively “replace” other, native-born voters. Rep. Scott Perry (R-Pa.) and Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis) are among the Republican who echo this theory. Johnson asked whether Democrats “want to remake the demographics of America to ensure their — that they stay in power forever? Is that what’s happening here?” Similarly, Perry told members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee that “what seems to be happening . . . is we’re replacing national-born American — native-born [read “white”] Americans to permanently transform the political landscape of this very nation.” Greene took the ideas a step farther when she pushed the idea of an “America First” caucus specifically for Ango-Saxons.

That’s all far more explicit than the “dog whistles” that the party relied on in the past — racist statements that look innocuous to most people, but have a specific meaning for the intended audience. For example, on the 1980 campaign trail, Ronald Reagan gave a speech in Nashoba County, Miss., where he said, “I believe in states' rights … I believe we have distorted the balance of our government today by giving powers that were never intended to be given in the Constitution to that federal establishment.” He delivered the speech three miles from the spot where three civil rights activists were shot and killed in 1964. The lines could be taken for an innocuous statement about constitutional law. The residence of Nashoba County who sympathized with the former Confederacy and were opposed to civil rights, however, understood that Reagan was signaling his agreement that the federal government overstepped its bounds when it ordered the South to desegregate. Thus Reagan could win the votes of segregationists without offending the moderates.

Compare Reagan’s rhetoric to the photograph taken on Jan. 6 of the insurrectionists carrying a Confederate flag through the U.S. Capitol. Relatively subtle dog whistles have given way to brandishing the Confederate flag.

When former president Donald Trump was brought to trial in the Senate for his role in inciting the insurrection, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell tried to walk a narrow line, as Republicans had done in the past. He nodded to the insurrectionists by voting to acquit Trump is his role in inciting the riot. He then tried to keep the support of moderates and corporate donors by stating immediately after the vote that Trump was “morally and practically responsible for the insurrection.”

This attempt to play both sides didn’t work. Corporations, which had always supported Republicans, withdrew their support. During the first quarter of 2021, McConnell didn’t receive a single corporate PAC donation. In contrast, during the first quarter of 2019, he took in $625,000 from 157 corporate PACs and trade associations.

Observers wondered if this meant McConnell would more firmly condemn the insurrection. Instead, he lectured the corporations and told them to stay out of politics. He then pivoted to soliciting donations from individuals by denouncing “cancel culture” and putting forward claims of voter fraud. While moderates and corporations distanced themselves from Republican leadership in the wake of the insurrection, the radicalized segment of the party base was fired up — and willingly opened their wallets.

Appealing to grass roots supporters by stoking conspiracy theories about the election paid off. McConnell hauled in more than $700,000 from individual donors during the first quarter of 2021. Appealing to the radicalized base brought in more than relying on corporate donors had.

McConnell was not the only Republican elected leader make that switch. One-third of the top Republicans who challenged elections results raked in more money in individual donations compared with the same period in 2019. Sens. Josh Hawley (Mo) and Ted Cruz (Tex.), two of the most outspoken embracers of the lie that the election was stolen, each brought in more than $3 million.

What does this mean for the Republican Party?

Soliciting donations from the radical segment of the base by appealing to conspiracy theories and lies can only have the effect of further alienating moderates and corporations, leaving GOP leadership with no choice but to rely even more on dangerous rhetoric. These Republican leaders are thus in a downward spiral, forced to cater to the most radicalized members of their base. The only way to break the cycle is to break with Trump, denounce the “big lie” that the election was stolen, and stop feeding lies to the base — something they appear unable or unwilling to do. And now the rest of us will be stuck with the consequences.

Read more: