As governors across the country face mounting criticism from economy-minded conservatives for enacting stringent stay-at-home orders to prevent the further spread of the novel coronavirus, one governor in particular is drawing disproportionate fire from high-ranking Republicans, conservative media outlets, and talking heads—in part, some allies fear, because she has been increasingly floated as a potential running mate for former Vice President Joe Biden.
On March 23, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, the first-term governor of Michigan, issued one of the most stringent executive orders in the country to combat the coronavirus pandemic, which has hit the state harder than any other outside of the Northeast. The order, which Whitmer last week extended through the end of April, banned public and private gatherings outside of a family home and closed businesses deemed non-essential to functioning during a state of emergency; it was later strengthened to restrict purchases at big-box stores for non-essential items.
That last provision, as well as bans on boating, the closure of public golf courses, and restrictions on interstate travel, has proven deeply unpopular with some Michiganders, for the same reason that this entire experience is unpopular with everyone—it is lame to be stuck at home and unable to buy things you like, hang out with friends, or, if the option is available, ride on a boat.
“People always say: ‘Conservatives never protest because they are too busy working.’ Well, guess what, you’re not working—so it’s time to PROTEST,” reads an invitation to “Operation Gridlock,” an auto-based protest scheduled for April 15 at the Michigan Capitol Building that urges conservatives outraged over the executive order to circle the complex in their cars, horns honking and lights flashing.
“Come prepared for a traffic jam in Lansing!” the invitation for the event, organized by the Michigan Conservative Coalition and the Michigan Freedom Fund, an anti-Whitmer nonprofit backed by the wealthy DeVos family. “We WANT gridlock.”
Conservative frustrations with the perceived overreach of state and local governments that have enacted social-distancing measures are not new—on Monday, President Donald Trump erroneously declared that he can supersede stay-at-home orders in order to “reopen” the country whenever he chooses. But an online misinformation campaign targeting Whitmer’s order has scattered increasingly deranged theories to the wind, with senior Republican officials and right-wing commentators amplifying the message.
On Sunday, conservative columnist Andrew Malcolm tweeted an image of Whitmer that, he said, showed her signing the executive order—which orders fines of up to $1,000 for violations of social-distancing orders—while surrounded by nearly a dozen people. The tweet went viral, despite the image in question being a file photo of an unrelated signing ceremony in January 2019.
Among those who retweeted the image was Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, who concluded from the group’s size that “that’s $11k right there....” Cruz later deleted the tweet, blaming it on an “MSM error.”
Fellow Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky said in a Monday appearance on Fox & Friends that Whitmer’s “ignorance and her hatred of Donald Trump” was her motivation for a since-reversed warning in a letter from the Michigan Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs that threatened “administrative action” against doctors who prescribed experimental antimalarial drugs to COVID-19 patients.
Meghan McCain, the token right-wing panelist on The View, retweeted another viral image—this one posted by the former campaign manager for 2018 Republican Senate candidate John James—claiming that Michiganders were forbidden from buying car seats for infants.
“Guess it’s good I don’t live in Michigan—otherwise how would I transport my child home from the hospital @GovWhitmer?” tweeted McCain. “Are you going to ban cribs next? Being pregnant during this time is insanely stressful—we are all doing our best. Shame on you for doing this @GovWhitmer.”
Far-right conspiracy site Gateway Pundit went a step further Monday, accusing Whitmer of banning the sale of American flags and alleging that limitations on selling gardening supplies meant that the governor intended to starve constituents.
“There’s a lot of false information that is being disseminated, and I think you have to always discern if there is political posturing going on as opposed to sharing facts,” Whitmer told reporters during a Monday briefing on the coronavirus outbreak in Michigan, in which she said that the measures appear to be flattening the infection curve in the state. “Don’t prey on other people’s anxieties. Think about the 1,602 [Michiganders] who have died from COVID-19—each one of these people had a story. While some of us are grieving the loss of our freedom, they are grieving the loss of their loved ones.”
Sources close to Whitmer told The Daily Beast that they suspect that the increased scrutiny—particularly compared to other high-profile governors of states that have implemented strict measures to prevent the spread of the virus, including New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy—is due to Whitmer’s inclusion on Biden’s short list of potential running mates.
“Republicans see a female governor of a state that’s at the forefront of the biggest political issue facing the nation—and a state that they’re desperate to keep,” an aide to Whitmer told The Daily Beast. “But if you’re going to try and take shots against the governor for political purposes, you have to do better than Gateway Pundit.”