In this era of the anti-American president and his psychotic “law and order” campaign, it is easy to move past the import of what happened just six days ago. The F.B.I. infiltrated a cell of domestic terrorists and arrested 13 white men connected to the Wolverine Watchmen. The men were charged with plotting to attack the Michigan capital in Lansing and kidnap two United States governors — Gretchen Whitmer of Michigan and Ralph Northam of Virginia.
President Trump’s response, cheered by his supporters and jeered by his opponents, was characteristically self-centered, repellent, and alarming. He ignored Northam, and in a tweet attacked Whitmer in a way that suggested she was to blame for activating the terror cell. It was “my Justice Department” that announced the arrests, Trump tweeted: “Rather than say thank you, she calls me a White Supremacist.” He added: “Governor Whitmer—open up your state, open up your schools, and open up your churches!”
The plot, apparently, was squashed. No one was injured. Two governors were saved from danger. Too bad? Let’s move on?
Hardly. The conspiracy illustrates why voting Trump out of office is so crucial. Trump has so thrashed the tall wheat of rational national conduct with lies, and deceit, conspiracy theories and manic behavior that our sense of moral outrage has been bent almost beyond recognition. This election is all about not embracing the chaff of public acceptance. The plot against Whitmer and Northam is an apt moment and Michigan is the appropriate place to consider that national reckoning.
We’ve had some experience here in Michigan. The state’s economically painful deindustrialization in the 1980s stoked a backlash against government and fired up conspiracies about military takeovers. A band of weekend warriors formed in the Thumb region north of Detroit and rural northern reaches of the state. Calling themselves the Michigan Militia, they were part of a nationwide militia movement that warned, among other things, of black helicopters swooping down to take over unsuspecting towns.
The Michigan Militia was one of the largest and best-funded groups. Its members, mostly white men, were heavily armed. Their answer to the perceived threat was to use whatever force they deemed necessary to defend themselves from government aggression. They trained in a makeshift compound in Wolverine, a tiny Lower Peninsula outpost close to the Mackinac Bridge that separates Michigan’s two peninsulas. Four-wheelers tore through the forests. Bullets from automatic rifles ripped the air. Overweight men grunted around a rudimentary obstacle course of tires and tree branches.
I know this because in the fall of 1994 I visited the compound as a New York Times correspondent and wrote a page one report that introduced our readers and the nation to the militia movement. Five months later, on April 19, 1995, Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols destroyed the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City. Both men had attended the early meetings of the Michigan Militia. The attack, which killed 169 people, revolted America and temporarily quelled activities by domestic terrorist cells.
President Trump reactivated white supremacist domestic terrorism and armed militias. Again Michigan is a center of activity. We knew it was coming because Trump encouraged it. On April 17, two days after armed militia members demonstrated at the State Capitol in Lansing, Trump issued this tweet: ““LIBERATE MICHIGAN!””LIBERATE MINNESOTA!” “LIBERATE VIRGINIA!” At the time I wrote a piece that said the president’s message was a call to arms and would incite violence. “In the three-year-old musical score of dissonance and national peril that Trump wrote since he was inaugurated, “LIBERATE!” is the most dangerous note of all,” I wrote. “It is a presidential invitation to substitute frustration and fear with gunfire.”
This morning Gov. Whitmer sent this message to state residents: “When our leaders speak, their words matter, and it is no coincidence that after months of attacks from the president, I became the target of a multi-state domestic terrorist plot.”
The president’s words do matter. You remember his declaration of “very fine people on both sides” following the neo-Nazi march at the University of Virginia, and the confrontation the next day in Charlottesville that killed a young woman counter protestor. Just two weeks ago the president declined in his first debate with Joe Biden to condemn white supremacy, Instead, he urged the Proud Boys, a supremacist group, to “stand back and stand by.” In between, the president has issued unveiled attacks against immigrants, Blacks, women in Congress, and Governor Whitmer.
Trump is no longer a political phenomenon. He’s a proven menace. The violence he’s encouraged in his rallies is triggering attacks by white domestic terrorists. They hardly need encouragement, but they publicly welcome it.
In October the F.B.I. issued a report that found 2019 was the most lethal year for domestic violent extremism in the United States since the Oklahoma City bombing. White supremacists conducted eight lethal attacks, half the total number, and were responsible for 39 of the 48 deaths caused by domestic extremist violence.
“Some U.S.-based violent extremists have capitalized on increased social and political tensions in 2020, which will drive an elevated threat environment at least through early 2021,” said the report. “Violent extremists will continue to target individuals or institutions that represent symbols of their grievances, as well as grievances based on political affiliation or perceived policy positions.” The authors added: “Racially and ethnically motivated violent extremists—specifically white supremacist extremists will remain the most persistent and lethal threat in the Homeland.”
In November 2018, the F. B.I. released another report that found hate crimes rose for the third consecutive year. In 2017 alone hate crimes increased by approximately 17 percent, including a 23 percent increase in religion-based hate crimes, and an 18 percent increase in race-based crimes.
An unclassified bulletin from the F.B.I. and the Department of Homeland Security in 2017 found that “white supremacist extremism poses a persistent threat of lethal violence,” and that from 2000 to 2016, white supremacists “were responsible for 49 homicides in 26 attacks . That was “more than any other domestic extremist movement.” Of the hate crimes motivated by religious bias in 2016, 53 percent were anti-Semitic.
The toll on individuals and American communities has been horrendous.
On March 20, 2017, a white supremacist murdered an African-American man in New York City. The killer traveled to New York “for the purpose of killing black men.”
On May 26, 2017, a white supremacist murdered two men and injured a third in Portland, Oregon. The victims were defending two young women whom the killer targeted with anti-Muslim hate speech.
In July 2018, an African-American woman was killed in Kansas City by a white supremacist who bragged about being a member of the Ku Klux Klan.
On October 24, 2018, a white man attempted to enter a church service with a predominantly African-American congregation in Jeffersontown, Kentucky and then killed two African Americans at a nearby grocery store.
On October 27, 2018, a white nationalist shot and killed 11 members of the congregation of the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
On August 3, 2019, a 21-year-old white man, Patrick Wood Crusius, murdered 22 people and injured 23 others at a Walmart in El Paso, Texas. The same day as the shooting, Crusius uploaded to the internet a manifesto that started with this sentence: “This attack is a response to the Hispanic invasion of Texas. They are the instigators, not me. I am simply defending my country from cultural and ethnic replacement brought on by the invasion.”
I voted earlier this month for Joe Biden and Kamala Harris and delivered my ballot in person to the clerk of my northern Michigan township. I did so because Biden and Harris are running a strong, reasoned, insistent, and inspiring campaign. I did so also because President Trump has a reckless view of law and order. The president has fostered violence — against truth, decency, and people — that has betrayed our nation. How 40 percent of eligible voters still support the president is beyond my capacity to understand. But there are 60 percent of the rest of us. Our job is to stick together, exhibit courage, and have faith that on November 3 America ushers this dangerous man out of office.
— Keith Schneider