More than any story other than the attempted right-wing coup d’état of Jan. 6, the conspiracy to assassinate Gov. Gretchen Whitmer illustrates the escalating threat of political violence, the diminution of America’s civil society and the growing menace of a Republican Party willing to excuse, diminish, and at times, even encourage extralegal extremism as a means to achieve its political ends.
Yet the trial against four of the 14 alleged members of the Michigan domestic terrorist organization, Wolverine Watchmen, who planned to abduct and publicly murder Whitmer, a Democrat, has largely escaped national media attention. Americans ignore this trial, where a verdict is expected any day now, at their own peril.
In laying out their case, prosecutors have detailed how the Wolverine Watchmen had amassed a stockpile of firearms, ammunition, and military equipment, had carefully scouted Whitmer’s vacation home on multiple occasions, and formulated a series of contingency plans to ensure that their primary mission of executing the governor would succeed. This, prosecutors say, was a real plot, not delusional or drunken chatter.
According to an undercover FBI agent who embedded himself with the hate group, and two of its own members who have pleaded guilty and become government witnesses, the ultimate hope of the plotters was to kidnap Whitmer, restrain her, and broadcast her live execution on the internet. They also expressed eagerness to murder agents of law enforcement tasked with protecting Whitmer, viewing them as traitors working on behalf of the “tyrant.”
The similarities with ISIS do not end with the desire to broadcast an assassination. Understanding that they would quickly find themselves under siege from police officers and FBI agents, the plotters articulated, without knowing their conversations were being recorded, their intention to perform a suicide mission. In several discussions, they explained that, in all likelihood, they would have to quickly “cap” Whitmer in the moments immediately before their own deaths.
Javed Ali, a professor of public policy at the University of Michigan and former senior director for counterterrorism at the National Security Council, told me in a recent email exchange that the plot against Whitmer, the “single biggest terrorism plot within the US since 9/11,” represents a turning point for right-wing violence:
“The large number of FBI investigations, which Director Wray has acknowledged is over 2,000, violent events and plots like Jan. 6, and the Whitmer kidnapping case, the significant amount of social-media accounts and platforms which host or facilitate the exchange of toxic ideas and beliefs, and what is likely a very large pool of Americans who believe in them” separates the current era of right-wing extremism from previous spikes in militia and anti-government activity, he said. Even if those decades included horrific terrorist attacks, such as Timothy McVeigh’s bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal building in Oklahoma City, they were, according to Ali, “nothing at the scale of the current landscape.”
The contemporary landscape features Donald Trump’s Jonestown-like personality cult, brazenly white nationalist Republican members of Congress, and right-wing pundits, like Tucker Carlson and Alex Jones, who sound like street-corner skinheads. As a consequence, it is hardly a surprise that threats of violence against public officials have become alarmingly routine.
In only a small sampling of districts, Reuters found 220 examples of death threats against school board members. Similarly, the Brennan Center for Justice reports that one in six election officials have received direct threats against themselves and their families since November 2020. Hopped up on their own “stop the steal” supply, right-wing activists have become vicious and devoted to the point that USA Today reports political intimidation might “jeopardize the 2022 midterms,” due to widespread resignation of election officials.
The threat of right-wing violence isn’t coming only from extremist organizations. In a close examination of Jan. 6, Robert Pape, a professor at the University of Chicago and one of the world’s leading academic specialists on terrorism, found that most insurrectionists were unaffiliated with militias or white supremacist organizations, and more closely resembled the average Republican voter than a member of the Wolverine Watchmen. Through extensive polling, Pape has also found 21 million right-wing Americans readily proclaim that “use of force is justified” for political purposes.
Threats of violence against Whitmer did not begin with the unsuccessful plot, but with the storming of Michigan’s capitol building in Lansing in April of 2020. President Trump instructed lunatic supporters to “liberate Michigan,” and on cue, they obeyed his order—carrying firearms into the rotunda, surrounding police officers, and shouting for the deaths of Whitmer and other state officials in “protest” at COVID-19 restrictions against businesses. The same Wolverine Watchmen who would later discuss plans to assassinate Whitmer participated in the siege.
When details of the terrorist plot hit the press, Dar Leaf, the Republican Sheriff of Barry County, Michigan, initially defended the suspects, claiming that they were merely trying to make a “citizen’s arrest” of the governor. More significantly, Trump continued to lead Michigan audiences in sadistic “Lock Her Up” chants, and later “joked” that the attempt to murder her was “maybe a problem, but maybe it wasn’t.”
The trial against the Wolverine Watchmen itself was subject to attempted subversion through violence. On March 30, the Detroit Free Press reported that the FBI raided a Michigan home in response to death threats against the presiding judge in the case, the attorneys, and a former FBI informant who assisted the prosecution.
But no gruesome detail or amount of evidence has deterred those who seek to diminish the significance of the plot against Whitmer. The right wing continues to ignore it, while nominally “left” commentators like Glenn Greenwald and Krystal Ball suggest, without evidence, that the charges against the Wolverine Watchmen are nothing more than “Deep State” FBI entrapment.
In my exchange with Javed Ali, the counterterrorism expert addressed the conspiracy theory apologetics directly, “The level of commitment towards, and the concrete operational steps taken in furtherance of the kidnapping objective—tactical firearms training, the exploration of building improvised explosive devices, two surveillance dry runs on Governor Whitmer’s second residence, and the purchase of other equipment, like stun guns—seems to take the entrapment defense off the table.”
Bolstering Ali’s assessment, the two members of the Wolverine Watchmen who have pleaded guilty have stated that no member of law enforcement suggested kidnapping or killing Whitmer.
The absence of universal condemnation of a plot to assassinate an elected official, especially coupled with escalating levels of violence against school board members and election officials, portends disaster for American democracy. Anthony DiMaggio, political scientist at Lehigh University and author of the brilliant new book, Rising Fascism in America: It Can Happen Here, told me during a recent conversation, “When you have a Republican Party that makes excuses, defends, and encourages insurrectionists at the Capitol, and a right-wing media echo chamber that glorifies political violence on the part of citizens, such acts are likely to become more frequent. In an era of insurrection at the Capitol, kidnapping plots against state governors, and mass shootings, it is really dangerous and foolish to write all this off as bluster and talk.”
Prominent pundits with large audiences are writing off a sophisticated terrorist plot, while much of the American public has a seemingly blasé attitude toward the threat level that it exposes.
It is difficult to discern how exactly to describe a society that can no longer unite against fascistic campaigns to murder sitting governors and overthrow elections, but the words “democratic” and “healthy” don’t spring to mind.
A tornado is forming overhead, and many Americans have decided to fly a kite.