On a mid-April day, about 3,000 conservatives rallied at the Michigan state Capitol against Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s stay-at-home order, which she had issued on March 23 in an attempt to stem the spread of the deadly coronavirus. Among the protesters were members of the neo-fascist street gang the Proud Boys, armed militias, and some who waved Confederate flags. One participant brandished a doll hanging from a noose that he said represented Whitmer. Militia members reportedly used this and other rallies to recruit new members.
“Lock her up!” chanted protesters as they marched towards the Capitol.
Two days later, President Donald Trump tweeted, “LIBERATE MICHIGAN!”
By the time of the rally, because of Whitmer’s order, Michigan had already hit its peak of new daily COVID-19 cases. Cases were dropping by the day but still quite high. At the time, Michigan had the fourth-highest number of coronavirus cases in the nation.
Conservative think tanks, however, didn’t care. Funded by wealthy right-wing political donors whose businesses could lose revenue during lockdowns, these thinly-veiled political organizations whipped up a fury over stay-at-home orders in Michigan and other states and, in some cases, helped organize the protests against them.
The family of Trump’s Education Sec. Betsy DeVos is the biggest known donor to the Michigan Freedom Fund (MFF), which organized and ran paid ads promoting the April 15 protest of Whitmer’s lockdown, named “Operation Gridlock.” MFF organized a second protest, which occurred on May 20. Greg McNeilly, a political adviser to the DeVos family, founded MFF.
Also organizing the April rally was a far-right group called the Michigan Conservative Coalition, which is affiliated with state Rep. Matt Maddock and his wife, Meshawn, and has made racist social media posts, including some using “alt-right” memes. Meshawn Maddock is a Trump campaign adviser.
Numerous ideologically aligned think tanks joined conservative politicians in condemning not just the lockdowns in Michigan and other states but the politicians who ordered them, making histrionic allegations of tyranny and even martial law. No governor was maligned more than Whitmer.
The culmination of months of attacks on Whitmer and multiple lawsuits against her came on Oct. 8, when state and federal agencies arrested 13 members of an all-white militia group for planning to kidnap and possibly execute Whitmer and start a civil war. Some of those militia members had taken part in another anti-lockdown event in late April at the Capitol, and some lurked in the balcony during Michigan’s legislative sessions.
The would-be kidnappers’ motivation was Whitmer’s coronavirus-related restrictions. The men’s rhetoric mirrored that of GOP politicians and political groups; they referenced Whitmer’s alleged “uncontrolled power” and spoke of murdering “tyrants.”
Even after law enforcement revealed the terror plot, Trump felt no need to change his tone. On Oct. 15, the president claimed that Whitmer “wants to be a dictator in Michigan, and the people can’t stand her” in a Fox Business interview.
On Oct. 17, it got worse. At a rally in Muskegon, Michigan, Trump told the crowd, “You gotta get your governor to open up your state.” Trump fans responded with chants of “Lock her up!” and the president smiled, adding, “Lock them all up.”
Whitmer called out Trump for inspiring violence against her just 10 days after the 13 men were arrested for their plot to kidnap her.
“The president is at it again and inspiring and incentivizing and inciting this kind of domestic terrorism," she said on NBC's Meet the Press.
Regardless of their stance on the radical militia’s plans, Republican officials and right-wing political groups played a key role in setting the stage for such a plot to hatch.
In June, a study found that Whitmer’s stay-at-home order may have saved tens of thousands of lives. In late September, Michigan reported that it had wiped out the disproportionate effects of COVID-19 on its Black residents.
Despite evidence that Michigan had one of the nation’s best coronavirus responses, right-wing organizations, politicians, and media continued to attack Whitmer up until the kidnapping plot became public in October, and even afterwards.
Some rhetorical techniques that politicians, media figures, and right-wing groups used to malign Whitmer mirror classic fascist propaganda techniques. One such technique is an “us versus them” mentality, which many used by casting Whitmer as a tyrant or dictator eager to use martial law and endanger people’s health. On the other side were patriots exhibiting their constitutional rights to free speech and to bare arms while protesting a malicious ruler.
Whitmer told the AP in October that attending protests were Republican lawmakers and at least one sheriff “who fraternize with these domestic terror groups, who egg them on, who encourage them, who use language that incites them. They too are complicit.”
The Republican majority leader in the state Senate, Mike Shirkey, who had previously condemned the protests and voted to extend her emergency authority, took the stage at a May event and said that “groups need to stand up and test that assertion of authority by the government.”
“We need you now more than ever,” he said, reportedly gesturing to the armed men in attendance. One of those men, who was photographed onstage with his rifle during a county sheriff’s speech, would go on to participate in the plot to kidnap Whitmer. Militia members acted as a security detail for the event.
Barry County Sheriff Dar Leaf likened the stay-at-home order to mass arrest and told the protesters they were the “last home defense” against a government run wild. In an interview after the kidnapping plot was exposed, he defended the suspects.
Trump flags were many, and one woman in attendance dressed as Whitmer and sported an Adolf Hitler-style mustache.
Another technique the Right has used is projection, “the core of fascist politics,” according to Jason Stanley, a Yale philosophy professor and the author of How Fascism Works: The Politics of Us and Them. Fascists project their own abuses of power and other incriminating characteristics on their political opponents. Trump and the Republican Party have engaged in racist abuses of power and assaults on core American values, such as attacks on immigrants, voter suppression, and ending the Census count early to exclude minorities—and sent unmarked federal officers to liberal cities such as Portland, Oregon who abducted perceived leftist protesters—but claim it’s really the liberals who are the authoritarians.
Ronna McDaniel, who would later contract COVID-19, tweeted on April 14, the day before “Operation Gridlock,” that Whitmer was turning Michigan into a “police state.”
Far-right media joined the political groups in their rhetorical battle against Whitmer, doing their best to equate public health measures in a time of crisis with a punitive dictatorship.
Roger Kimball, publisher of the conservative Encounter Books and The New Criterion, downplayed the virus in an April column for American Greatness and called Whitmer “Gretchen ‘Cruella de Vil’ Whitmer, the wretched governor of Michigan.” The protests, he hoped, would lead to “a quiet revolution in sentiment against the people who abetted this wealth-destroying panic: against the media, first of all, but also the obscure bureaucratic elite that stoked the fear and helped spread the hysteria.” Kimball is a trustee of the Manhattan Institute and chairman of the William F. Buckley, Jr. Program at Yale, two recipients of large donations from the donor network of Charles Koch.
In several of his regular emails to supporters, FreedomWorks and Heritage Foundation leader Stephen Moore has referred to Whitmer as “a combination of Cruella de Ville and Marie Antoinette.” Freedomworks, where Moore is a senior economic contributor, helped organize and promote anti-lockdown protests. Moore is a founder and leader of multiple right-wing groups, including the Save Our Country coalition, that have lobbied against business closures in the coronavirus era.
Moore is on the private sector board of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a corporate pay-to-play lobby group. ALEC launched the Save Our Country coalition in April along with the Tea Party Patriots, FreedomWorks, and the Committee to Unleash Prosperity.
The political arm of right-wing student group Turning Point USA still has an anti-Whitmer petition on its website. “As protests erupt across the state, now is your opportunity to support those freedom fighters by signing this petition against Gov. Whitmer,” it says, asking for users’ phone numbers and email addresses.
A website run by Citizens for Self-Governance that helped promote anti-lockdown protests around the country includes a pledge for its targeted audience. The first plank of the pledge is, “Stand Up to tyrannical lockdown orders by telling my state and local officials to reopen our economy.” The site also has a pop-up ad for a petition against Whitmer.
Many more conservative think tanks and advocacy organizations vocally opposed state lockdowns, including Charles Koch’s premier political group, Americans for Prosperity, which criticized Whitmer’s shut-down order in March. In Ohio and elsewhere, AFP and other Koch-financed groups opposed lockdowns as well as bailouts to help cash-strapped cities and states.
The Grim Reaper
After the plot against Whitmer was revealed groups that had incessantly pilloried Whitmer for roughly half a year struck a different tone, denouncing the militia’s plot.
“At the beginning of the pandemic, we encouraged restraint,” claimed MFF in a two-paragraph condemnation of the kidnapping plot on Oct. 9.
MFF’s website and social media presence hardly back up this claim, however. The group hurled personal insults at Whitmer throughout the year and has run numerous scathing ads attacking her, including a Facebook ad that ran from Sep. 25 through Oct. 1 and portrayed the governor as the Grim Reaper, calling her coronavirus policies “disastrous and potentially deadly.”
“This is classic Hannah Arendt,” Stanley, the Yale professor, told CMD, referring to the late scholar of fascism. “What’s happening now is utterly textbook. The Nazis and their government never officially condoned street violence but never condemned it either. But with their rhetoric, they were giving it permission.
“For a group that wanted to inspire violence without being blamed for it,” said Stanley, “an effective tactic would be to create images that associate a political target with mortal danger, which would justify violence, but then follow this by denying that the group condones violence. This would have the effect of encouraging violence while washing one’s hands of it.
“I don’t know if anyone is doing that, but it would be a natural tactic.”
MFF is a 501(c)(4) nonprofit, meaning it does not need to disclose its donors. But its sister political action committee, Michigan Freedom Network, does, and the DeVos family has provided nearly all of the PAC’s funding since 2017. In the first quarter of 2020, the only donors were five family members, including Betsy DeVos’ husband, Dick, who combined to donate $250,000.
The biggest donor to the Michigan Freedom Network in the second quarter of this year was Ron Weiser, a DeVos associate who gave $50,000 to the group. Weiser, who worked with the DeVoses to attack collective bargaining, is also a major donor to Unlock Michigan, a group with close ties to the Republican Party that recently submitted a petition to repeal the state’s 1945 Emergency Powers Act. Attorney General Dana Nessel opened a criminal investigation into the group’s practices, which allegedly used dishonest tactics to obtain the signatures required for the petition to move forward. Weiser donated $100,000 to Unlock Michigan in July.
Unlock Michigan’s biggest donor is the dark-money group Michigans for Fiscal Responsibility, which has donated almost $800,000 and has ties to Republican state senators and to the Michigan Chamber of Commerce.
Suing the Governor
The DeVos family’s money helped portray Whitmer as a tyrant in other ways as well.
Another major beneficiary of DeVos family donations is the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a right-wing think tank based in Midland, Michigan that also receives funds from Charles Koch. Mackinac is a member of the State Policy Network (SPN), a web of conservative, Koch-backed nonprofits that coordinate as they lobby to cut taxes and regulations.
Mackinac promoted “Operation Gridlock” in April, and more recently, Mackinac’s law firm, the Mackinac Center Legal Foundation, teamed up with the Michigan Chamber of Commerce to sue Whitmer over her lockdown orders. In September, the conservative state Supreme Court heard the case, and on Oct. 2 it issued a 4-3 decision nullifying the orders, ruling that she lacked the authority to issue emergency orders after April 30. Most states are currently under some form of emergency declaration, making Michigan an outlier.
From 2015 to 2018, the Dick and Betsy DeVos Foundation, the charity of the education secretary and her husband, donated $750,000 to Mackinac. Most of that amount came after Devos became head of the Education Department. Dick’s parents’ foundation donated $260,000 to Mackinac from 2014 to 2018, and Betsy’s parents gave $70,000 via their foundation over a similar time frame. The Charles Koch Foundation donated over $1 million to Mackinac from 2016 to 2018.
ALEC, of which Mackinac is a member, filed an amicus brief supporting Mackinac in the lawsuit. After the case went their way, ALEC called it a “liberty win” and wrote that Whitmer had been “running roughshod over legislative prerogatives” and wielded “unprecedented authority.” Betsy DeVos is a major supporter of ALEC and has spoken to the network multiple times while secretary of education.
DeVos worked for decades to privatize public schools in Michigan and collaborated closely with ALEC in those efforts.
“Betsy DeVos and ALEC are joined at the hip,” Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, told Education Week. “DeVos executed ALEC’s agenda when she was in Michigan and is now doing the same at the Education Department, working to defund and privatize public education."
Mackinac and the Michigan Chamber have similar, business-focused goals as well as overlapping leadership. For example, Mackinac board member J.C. Huizenga, a manufacturing and charter school management executive, has chaired the Michigan Chamber. Jim Barrett, who was CEO of the Chamber for 32 years, is also on the Mackinac board and chairs the Great Lakes Education Project, a trio of nonprofits that the DeVoses created in 2001 to advance school privatization by funding other nonprofit groups and state lawmakers’ campaigns. The Great Lakes Project’s PAC has funded the Michigan Freedom Alliance.
The Chamber and the DeVos family have shared electoral goals, which played out this month in the state Supreme Court’s partisan rulings. Over the last few election cycles, their election spending has helped ensure a conservative majority on the court. In the 2014, 2016, and 2018 state Supreme Court elections, the Chamber and the state Republican Party were among the biggest independent spenders. The DeVos family has contributed over $3.4 million to the state party since 2013, according to campaign finance records.
Militias and the GOP
The Republican Party has for decades attacked the government for alleged overreach, whether for desegregating the South or for imposing modest regulations on greenhouse gases that contribute to disastrous climate change. It may not, then, be surprising that some Republican candidates and lawmakers from around the nation are either members of right-wing militias or have associated with such anti-government extremists.
Arizona state Senate nominee Wendy Rogers is reportedly a member of the Oath Keepers, an anti-government extremist group. She has recently defended the Trump supporter who killed two protesters in Kenosha, Wisconsin with a semi-automatic rifle.
Also in Arizona, state House member Mark Finchem is reportedly an Oath Keeper. Finchem is an extremist who claimed that the racist “Unite the Right” rally, which featured neo-Nazis and other white nationalists and led to the murder of leftist protester Heather Hayer, was a “Deep State” operation created by Democrats and the media.
State and local Republican leaders have ties to militias in Idaho, such as the Oath Keepers and the Three Percenters, according to the Idaho Statesman. Lt. Gov. Janice McGeachin has hired security details with Three Percenter affiliations. State Rep. Heather Scott is an Oath Keeper and an ally of far-right extremist Matt Shea, a former Washington state legislator and ALEC state chair who “planned and participated in domestic terrorism against the United States.” Shea was involved with right-wing militia groups and had a role in three armed conflicts from 2014 to 2016.
Matt Rosendale, the GOP nominee for Montana’s only U.S. House seat, spoke at a 2014 rally of the Oath Keepers.
Trump’s rhetoric and politics have emboldened right-wing militias, many of which are white supremacist, support Trump, and are now bracing for civil war. But journalist and filmmaker Jeremy Scahill said on Democracy Now! on Oct. 19 that Trump is not an aberration.
“While it is important to focus on the activities of individual militias...we can’t do it at the expense of recognizing that these are sort of the unofficial shock troops of what is a long-term Republican agenda that has at its center white supremacy, anti-worker policies, anti-women policies and, certainly with Mike Pence in the White House, a right-wing Christian supremacist theocratic ideology that’s manifesting itself right now in the court system.
“So, what we’re seeing is Trump using a tactic that was used against Black people in this country for centuries, where you have these unofficial forces that are doing the lynching and then those in power are saying, ‘Oh, well, we didn’t do that. You know, we’re going to rustle up those good old boys and put them on trial’—if they would even do that.”
Featured image adapted from a screenshot from Reuters/YouTube.