How Right-Wing Groups Created an Atmosphere in which Kidnapping the Michigan Governor Made Sense

The alleged militia plot to kidnap Gov. Gretchen Whitmer was only the most shocking episode in the campaign to undermine and politicize the state’s response to Covid-19.

Jacob Wheeler

Protesters gather at the Michigan State Capitol in Lansing, Michigan on April 15 to oppose Governor Gretchen Whitmer's stay-at-home order designed to contain the spread of the coronavirus. (Photo by Jeff Kowalsky/AFP via Getty Images)

Tra­verse City, Mich.―Dubious peti­tion-gath­er­ing tac­tics. Mask-less MAGA ral­lies. Incen­di­ary tweets from the White House. Open-car­ry protests inside the State Capi­tol. And tac­it approval for it all from state Repub­li­can lead­ers. All these things hap­pened before Oct. 8, when the F.B.I. and state Attor­ney Gen­er­al shocked the coun­try by unveil­ing the mili­tia plot to kid­nap, and poten­tial­ly mur­der, Michigan’s Gov­er­nor Gretchen Whitmer.

But the kid­nap­ping plot, though shock­ing, is only the most extreme episode in a much broad­er cam­paign by Repub­li­cans and con­ser­v­a­tive-fund­ing groups to under­mine Michigan’s response to Covid-19 and politi­cize the pan­dem­ic dur­ing a high-stakes elec­tion year. The anti-gov­ern­ment back­lash pro­voked by Whitmer’s polit­i­cal oppo­nents tilled the soil in which the kid­nap­ping plot grew.

In the runup to the Novem­ber elec­tion, Covid-19 has become a polit­i­cal foot­ball, par­tic­u­lar­ly in this cru­cial swing state, which was one of the first to shut down in March. Pro­po­nents of Gov. Whitmer’s aggres­sive, safe­ty-first mea­sures through the spring and sum­mer say that her exec­u­tive orders call­ing for a state of emer­gency helped keep the coro­n­avirus at bay, even as case num­bers have surged in oth­er Upper Mid­west­ern states like Wis­con­sin and the Dako­tas. (When this sto­ry was pub­lished, accord­ing to sta­tis­tics from The New York Times, Wis­con­sin had seen a dai­ly aver­age of more than 4,000 cas­es over the past sev­en days, while both North and South Dako­ta had reg­is­tered more than 100 pos­i­tive cas­es per 100,000 peo­ple — the high­est in the nation. Michi­gan, mean­while, count­ed 28 cas­es of the virus per 100,000 residents.)

But with­in weeks of Whitmer’s March 10 emer­gency dec­la­ra­tion — after the first two Covid-19 cas­es were announced in south­east Michi­gan — a furi­ous oppo­si­tion to her poli­cies mount­ed. When she extend­ed her Stay Home, Stay Safe” exec­u­tive order on April 9 to restrict the pur­chase of paint and gar­den sup­plies from big box stores, trav­el­ing between homes in Michi­gan, or using motor­ized boats, Repub­li­cans in state gov­ern­ment accused her of restrict­ing their move­ments and free­doms.

Some of the alleged plotters met each other at the rallies, and later hatched a plan to storm the capitol, kidnap Whitmer either from Lansing or from her vacation home near Elk Rapids, and effectively decapitate Michigan’s state government.

On a rainy April 15, mask-less demon­stra­tors, some armed, many car­ry­ing Don’t Tread on Me” ban­ners and Trump flags, descend­ed on the State Capi­tol in Lans­ing for Oper­a­tion Grid­lock” orga­nized by the Michi­gan Con­ser­v­a­tive Coali­tion along with the Edu­ca­tion Sec­re­tary Bet­sy DeVos-linked group Michi­gan Free­dom Fund. Two days lat­er, Trump tweet­ed LIB­ER­ATE MICHI­GAN!” in sup­port of the ral­ly. By the day of the ral­ly, the virus had killed near­ly 2,000 Michi­gan res­i­dents and over­whelmed hos­pi­tals in the metro Detroit area.

The same day as Oper­a­tion Grid­lock, in rur­al north­ern Michi­gan, four coun­ty sher­iffs issued a press release stat­ing that they would only selec­tive­ly enforce the governor’s exec­u­tive orders. The sher­iffs, three of whom have iden­ti­fied as con­sti­tu­tion­al sher­iffs,” had worked with a Repub­li­can state rep­re­sen­ta­tive from their dis­trict to draft the press release. Yard signs pro­claim­ing Thank you Sher­iff for pro­tect­ing our rights” began pop­ping up around rur­al Lee­lanau and Ben­zie coun­ties, fol­lowed weeks lat­er by a pro­gres­sive rebut­tal: Thank you Gov­er­nor for pro­tect­ing our lives.”

On April 30, hun­dreds of pro­test­ers, some bran­dish­ing assault rifles, entered the capi­tol rotun­da. The ral­ly was orga­nized, in part, by Face­book groups Michi­gan Unit­ed for Lib­er­ty and Michi­gan­ders Against Exces­sive Quar­an­tine. Face­book lat­er removed the pages, alleged­ly for user posts that threat­ened Whit­mer. A now infa­mous pho­to tak­en and post­ed on Twit­ter by state sen­a­tor Day­na Pole­han­ki on April 30 showed four armed men in the gallery look­ing down on the law­mak­ers. At least two of those men were arrest­ed on Oct. 8 as part of the alleged domes­tic ter­ror­ist plot to kid­nap Whitmer.

Michi­gan­ders Against Exces­sive Quar­an­tine lat­er mor­phed into the Stand Up Michi­gan Face­book group, which has 112,557 fol­low­ers and fea­tures in its logo a sil­hou­ette of Paul Revere on horse­back with an out­line of the state in his lantern. Stand Up Michi­gan mem­bers have made fre­quent appear­ances at Trump ral­lies and the group boasts a litany of Repub­li­can ral­ly­ing cries on its page: sec­ond amend­ment, con­ser­v­a­tive jus­tices, law and order, pro-life, pro-school choice.

The gov­er­nor and pub­lic health offi­cials decried the spring demon­stra­tions, where few wore masks, as pos­si­ble Covid-19 super-spread­er events. Some of the alleged plot­ters also met each oth­er at the ral­lies, and lat­er hatched a plan to storm the capi­tol, kid­nap Whit­mer either from Lans­ing or from her vaca­tion home near Elk Rapids, and effec­tive­ly decap­i­tate Michigan’s state gov­ern­ment short­ly before the Nov. 3 pres­i­den­tial election.

The ral­lies and bur­geon­ing oppo­si­tion move­ment against Whit­mer and her exec­u­tive orders also birthed the Unlock Michi­gan cam­paign, a peti­tion ini­tia­tive seek­ing to over­turn a 1945 emer­gency pow­ers law the gov­er­nor used to legal­ly jus­ti­fy her uni­lat­er­al state of emer­gency exec­u­tive orders. The cam­paign launched in ear­ly July and was fund­ed, in large part, by Michi­gan Cit­i­zens for Fis­cal Respon­si­bil­i­ty (MCFR), a non­prof­it found­ed in 2010 that has ties to sen­ate Repub­li­cans. A cam­paign finance report shows that MCFR gave $660,200 to Unlock Michi­gan from June 9 through July 20 — 86% of the mon­ey raised dur­ing that time.

MCFR spent $1.1 mil­lion back­ing Repub­li­can state sen­ate can­di­dates in 2018, accord­ing to the Michi­gan Cam­paign Finance Net­work. Two days after the Novem­ber 2018 elec­tion, Repub­li­can Mike Shirkey, who became sen­ate major­i­ty leader, intro­duced a bill that aimed to ensure non­prof­it donors like MCFR remained secret. Shirkey, who talked with pro­test­ers inside the Capi­tol on April 30 of this year, lat­er said in a radio inter­view that a peti­tion dri­ve to lim­it Whitmer’s emer­gency pow­ers was prob­a­bly the No. 1 pri­or­i­ty right now.”

Unlock Michi­gan spokesman Fred Wszolek said the group also has more than 1,000 indi­vid­ual con­trib­u­tors and more than 40,000 peo­ple col­lect­ing signatures.

Over 80 days between ear­ly July and Sept. 23, Unlock Michi­gan claimed that it col­lect­ed more than half a mil­lion peti­tion sig­na­tures seek­ing to repeal the state’s 1945 emer­gency pow­ers law. But Keep Michi­gan Safe, a com­mit­tee that oppos­es Unlock Michi­gan, wants a com­plete review of each and every sig­na­ture” fol­low­ing reports in Sep­tem­ber that some Unlock Michi­gan peti­tion gath­er­ers were trained to lie to peo­ple about the pro­pos­al. Keep Michi­gan Safe released a clan­des­tine video of a Sept. 4 train­ing ses­sion dur­ing which Cal­i­for­nia sig­na­ture com­pa­ny In the Field — con­tract­ed by Unlock Michi­gan — instruct­ed peti­tion gath­er­ers to tell peo­ple their sig­na­tures would sim­ply help put the issue on the bal­lot” even though law­mak­ers have the pow­er to approve it on their own — a pow­er law­mak­ers do not, in fact, have. In the video, In the Field employ­ee Erik Tisinger also told gath­er­ers they could col­lect sig­na­tures in pri­vate­ly owned park­ing lots, which is ille­gal, then feign igno­rance if approached by police.

Wszolek said Unlock Michi­gan didn’t sub­mit the few thou­sand” sig­na­tures col­lect­ed by In the Field. The Michi­gan Bureau of Elec­tions is cur­rent­ly review­ing the half mil­lion col­lect­ed sig­na­tures. State law requires 340,047 valid sig­na­tures to put the 1945 emer­gency pow­ers law before the leg­is­la­ture, which could vote on it after the Nov. 3 election.

The state Supreme Court struck down Whitmer’s coro­n­avirus-relat­ed exec­u­tive orders on Oct. 2 by a 4 – 3 vote along ide­o­log­i­cal lines, and lat­er ruled against her request for a 28-day exten­sion, but Unlock Michi­gan still wants the sig­na­tures counted.

We’re gonna con­tin­ue to push the Bureau of Elec­tions to val­i­date our sig­na­tures and to push the leg­is­la­ture to vote imme­di­ate­ly,” Wszolek told In These Times. We’ve seen these Fred­dy Krueger movies where they keep com­ing back. We’re try­ing to get the law tak­en off the books immediately.”

Michigan’s Repub­li­can-con­trolled House and Sen­ate may seize the oppor­tu­ni­ty in a lame duck ses­sion after the elec­tion to gut the emer­gency pow­ers law used by Whit­mer — par­tic­u­lar­ly if Democ­rats win con­trol of either cham­ber on Nov. 3. Repub­li­cans cur­rent­ly con­trol 58 seats in the House; Democ­rats have 51, with one vacan­cy. Repub­li­cans have 22 state Sen­ate seats, to 16 for Democrats.

We’ve had a lot of sup­port from mem­bers of the Leg­is­la­ture dur­ing the peti­tion phase,” added Wszolek.

Since the Michi­gan Supreme Court struck down Whitmer’s exec­u­tive orders, state and coun­ty health depart­ments have con­tin­ued to enforce the use of masks and encour­age social dis­tanc­ing inside busi­ness­es to mit­i­gate the spread of Covid. Still, cas­es have spiked in recent days, and Oct. 31 saw a sin­gle-day record of 3,792 coro­n­avirus cas­es. At the end of Octo­ber, the aver­age dai­ly rate of new infec­tions was more than twice what it was in the mid­dle of the month, eclips­ing the pre­vi­ous peak in April.

Despite the ris­ing num­bers, Unlock Michi­gan and its social media ally Stand Up Michi­gan down­play the threat.

Covid is not an emer­gency any­more,” said Wszolek. It doesn’t need to be man­aged like a tor­na­do that just hit.”

Ron Arm­strong, co-founder of Stand Up Michi­gan and state co-chair of Unlock Michi­gan, doesn’t think that exec­u­tive orders are need­ed from the gov­er­nor or the health depart­ment to pro­tect against Covid.

If you are vul­ner­a­ble, you’re gonna stay home,” Arm­strong told In These Times. Every­one has learned social dis­tanc­ing. The major­i­ty of peo­ple are wear­ing masks when they think it’s nec­es­sary. … We have to piv­ot now to some sort of nor­mal­cy and recovery.”

Stand Up Michi­gan used its Face­book page on Oct. 27 to implore that church­es stand up” while post­ing a sto­ry about a Lans­ing Catholic school that sued Michi­gan to drop the state’s in-school mask mandate.

Mean­while, Covid out­breaks in Michi­gan schools have risen sharply this fall with near­ly 500 cas­es linked to new or ongo­ing out­breaks, and a report released on Oct. 26 revealed an 11% week­ly increase in cases.

The pub­lic nar­ra­tive espoused by Unlock Michi­gan and Stand Up Michi­gan, with its Paul Revere motif and Rev­o­lu­tion­ary War rhetoric, sug­gests a duty to reclaim and defend the rights and lib­er­ties,” as the Stand Up Michi­gan mis­sion state­ment puts it, while cast­ing Gov­er­nor Whit­mer almost as a King George-like tyrant. Stand Up Michigan’s sleek videos fea­ture cit­i­zens, many clad in red, white and blue and wear­ing MAGA hats, enthu­si­as­ti­cal­ly pledg­ing to vote on Nov. 3. None are wear­ing masks.

Michi­gan res­i­dents, and Amer­i­cans in gen­er­al, fac­ing anoth­er spike in virus cas­es, could be for­giv­en for won­der­ing who, exact­ly, is impos­ing their will on whom.

Jacob Wheel­er is a con­tribut­ing edi­tor at In These Times.
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