Middle America Confronts Its Own Taliban

Extremism Split Michigan Republicans

Hans Johnson

Overshadowed by Ned Lamont’s Aug. 8 primary win for Senate in Connecticut was an ugly ouster the same day of a moderate GOP incumbent congressman from Michigan, Joe Schwarz. In his first term in Congress, Schwarz, a doctor, backed lifting the ban on stem-cell research and raising the minimum wage. But in the low-turnout primary, he narrowly lost to Tim Walberg, a minister who took money from the anti-immigrant Minutemen and had to deny involvement in an episode of antigay vandalism at Schwarz’s campaign office. Walberg’s win is the latest by a far-right insurgency in the state. Since 2000, this small group has shoehorned attacks on abortion rights, intolerance against gays, and even racist appeals into the strategy of the state Republican Party.

The power of this insurgency has also become a subplot of the race for governor this fall. Republican candidate Dick DeVos, who vows to rev up the auto industry if he beats incumbent Jennifer Granholm, has drawn fire for five-figure grants given by his wife’s foundation to the antigay American Family Association (AFA). The AFA is leading a boycott against Michigan-based Ford Motor Company for including gay and lesbian consumers in its marketing campaigns. In July, the group boasted that its boycott had cut severely into Ford’s sales. Last week, the company announced $5.8 billion in third quarter losses. 

Indeed, Michigan Republicans have a choice. They can confront the Taliban in their ranks and show them the door, or they can look on as Democrats tie them to scapegoating and stagnation, turn them out of office, and take the lead in keeping educated young people and entrepreneurs in the state.

The allegations of kicking the carmaker and its workers while they’re down are dogging DeVos all the more because the millionaire former Amway executive has appeared to welcome their plight. Automakers should stop crabbing,” he once told the Grand Rapids Press. And his wife Betsy, while chair of the state GOP in 2004, famously linked high wages” among the state’s union households to economic problems.” Yes, she actually said that.

Picking middle-class pockets may not be the stated goal of the insurgents, but they have left voters divided and diverted with relentless attacks on minorities. Leading their attacks is a disgraced antigay activist from Idaho named Gary Glenn, who moved to Michigan in the late 90s to play on a bigger stage. Glenn, head of the group behind the boycott, has tried to shed his baggage from out west, which included running a campaign that publicly insulted a Native American state official and personally threatening a gay leader with violence. In Michigan, after losing a round of three local referenda in 2001, Glenn stepped up his antigay attacks in GOP primary races in a bid to become a kingmaker.

State Attorney General Mike Cox, who squeaked into office with the help of a Green Party candidate in 2002, is Glenn’s chief water-carrier. He has defied any notion of compassion or small-government principles by claiming state authority to bar localities from extending health care coverage to committed domestic partners of public workers. He has accelerated the fight after helping to place a sweeping antigay measure on the state ballot in 2004, then parlaying the language of the measure to justify in court his jihad against gays. This year, Cox supports a state ballot measure attacking affirmative action. Civil-rights backers say the proposal would undermine workplace diversity and higher education in the state and call it an indirect appeal to racism.

Not all Republicans are buying into such discriminatory moves. In 2002, former moderate GOP Governor Bill Milliken denounced the GOP’s then-gubernatorial candidate Dick Posthumus for playing the race card by trying to link Dem then-candidate Jennifer Granholm to black politicians in Detroit. Now, Gil Ziegler, another longtime Republican, has switched parties and started a Republicans for Granholm” group backing the governor’s reelection. Granholm has peeled off about 15 percent of Republicans and is keeping the Reagan Democrats”; she is also leading among Michigan’s conservative-leaning independents about 3-to-2.

National media that bothered to tune into the Schwarz primary defeat largely swallowed the line that the insurgency represents the sentiments of grassroots Republicans. But as critics like Milliken and Ziegler have shown, it doesn’t speak for all of them. Its influence is based largely on the silence of rank-and-file Republicans who don’t face up to the bigotry being perpetrated in their names. 

One decade ago, in the wake of the Oklahoma City bombing, Michigan took a critical look at the extremists in its midst. The Michigan Militia, to which bomber Tim McVeigh and accessory Terry Nichols had connections, threatened in 1994 to launch a statewide antigay ballot measure, led by adherent George Matousek. But scrutiny followed, the measure fizzled and the militia fell apart. Matousek – who bragged of his large stash of guns as well as his membership in the John Birch Society, the racist Christian Identity movement and the Republican Party – passed away in late October near Bay City. Now another group of extremists with an ominous track record and no plan for economic development is seeking legitimacy and power.

The state is struggling to renew its economy after several manufacturing hits in the Bush years. To stop the exodus of talented, fair-minded professionals from the state, leaders at every level, especially Republicans, must take a clear look at what’s happening to their state and its image. They should approach defeating religious extremists as both a moral and community imperative and as an economic development issue.

Indeed, Michigan Republicans have a choice. They can confront the Taliban in their ranks and show them the door, or they can look on as Democrats tie them to scapegoating and stagnation, turn them out of office, and take the lead in keeping educated young people and entrepreneurs in the state.

Michigan is one of several Midwest states whose economy is more unsettled now than at any time since the Depression. Calls for a modern version of the New Deal are rising not only from the poor and unemployed, but from a nervous middle class. Democrats who overcome the politics of recrimination and deliver a plan for prosperity might look to FDR’s feat and cement a generation-long majority.

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Hans Johnson, a contributing editor of In These Times, is president of Progressive Victory, based in Los Angeles and Washington, D.C. He is a columnist and commentator on labor, religion and trends in state and national politics.
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