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.
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.
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.