The Gongwer Blog

Grappling With The Unthinkable

By Zachary Gorchow
Executive Editor and Publisher
Posted: October 13, 2020 7:52 PM

The words in the criminal complaint were the definition of jarring.

Kidnap the governor. "Cap her." Conducting reconnaissance of her Elk Rapids vacation home. Blowing up the M-31 bridge to hinder law enforcement. Killing police officers. Two hundred men storming the Capitol and taking hostages.

Then layer on the revelation that several of the men charged by authorities for a plot to kidnap and possibly kill Governor Gretchen Whitmer were present in the gallery of the Michigan Senate on April 30, armed to the teeth, on a day when people swarmed the Capitol to protest Ms. Whitmer's policies to slow the spread of the coronavirus. At least one of these men, possibly as many as three, were memorably captured in a photo taken from the Senate floor by Sen. Dayna Polehanki, looking down from the Senate gallery, rifles slung over their shoulders.

Turns out they were allegedly casing the joint, not exercising First Amendment rights.

This was so stunning I was genuinely rattled all day, imagining the horror if their plot had succeeded, detonating explosives at and near the governor's vacation residence in Elk Rapids, kidnapping her. And then what? Sticking her in a trunk with a hood over her head for a terrifying drive purportedly to Wisconsin to be put on "trial" where a kangaroo court would presumably find her guilty of some imaginary offense conjured in these deranged men's minds and possibly then executed.

Or if they had attempted their original plan to storm the Capitol and take hostages. What of the safety of the legislators and staff who work daily in the building? What of the lobbyists and news reporters for whom at least prior to the pandemic they might spend more hours in the Capitol than their actual office?

It's all too terrifying to contemplate. Except now we have to think about the unthinkable. Of course, this was a lesson we painfully learned on September 11, 2001, but it's a lesson magnified exponentially when it hits at the nerve center of something so close to home – the Michigan Capitol, the Michigan governor, Michigan legislators. Staff. Lobbyists. Reporters. The people we (pre-pandemic) bumped into at Costco, the Roadhouse Pub, school events, parties, Kewpee, etc.

Everyone should be really, really pissed.

If polls are to be believed, a majority of the public generally is on Ms. Whitmer's side when it comes to her handling of the pandemic. Many are not. That's democracy.

But going back to the infamous April 30 protest that included a noose and a sign saying, "Death to Tyrants," the vitriol directed toward Ms. Whitmer has completely crossed the line. There's a lot of violent misogyny out there, just take one look at the Facebook comments (or maybe don't) anytime Ms. Whitmer speaks via Facebook Live, even well before the pandemic.

The word "dictator" has been thrown around constantly at Ms. Whitmer.

Former Governor Rick Snyder got some of this too. Protesters called him the "Ricktator." They descended on his neighborhood, first in Superior Township and then his Ann Arbor condominium. One of Mr. Snyder's children, Kelsey Snyder, offered support for the Whitmer family on Twitter after the charges were announced, recalling her trauma at the death threats directed at her father.

As far as we know regarding threats to Mr. Snyder, there was nothing of the scale announced last week. And while Democrats and liberals packed the Capitol lawn in fury at Mr. Snyder many times and had props like rats, I don't ever recall someone putting a Ken doll in a noose and saying it was Mr. Snyder the way someone took a Barbie doll earlier this year, naked and noosed, and declared it was Ms. Whitmer during a protest at the Capitol. This of course doesn't make the threats lodged against Mr. Snyder any less terrifying, but there is a scope involving Ms. Whitmer that was not the case with Mr. Snyder.

Ms. Whitmer is not immune from criticism and tough questions. It comes with the job. Critiquing and questioning our leaders is a vital part of democracy. Passionate activism also is an essential part of democracy.

Now would be a good time, however, for Republican legislative leaders to read the room, dial it back and recognize Ms. Whitmer has the right to be furious right now in the wake of this plot.

They are in a position of strength to do so anyway. They recoiled at Ms. Whitmer's use of the Emergency Powers of the Governor Act to keep Michigan under a state of emergency without the legislative approval required in the Emergency Management Act, sued and won. Democrats are casting this as a partisan decision, and while it was a 4-3 party-line ruling with the Republican-nominated justices in the majority, to dismiss it as a mere partisan ruling conveniently ignores the many times Justice Elizabeth Clement, to the fury of her Republican Party, has sided with the Democratic-nominated justices on a host of controversial cases.

This is the time for olive branches and personal outreach. Instead of throwing around terms like "dictator," maybe lighten up a little and say, "We disagree with the governor's use of the Public Health Code to continue her orders without legislative approval." No, that won't get you lots of retweets and likes.

I thought Sen. Ed McBroom (R-Vulcan) set something of an example here in the statement he issued after the Supreme Court ruling. He praised the decision and said it showed it was time for the legislative branch to regain its seat at the table. A fair argument. He also added this: "I also appreciate the governor's concern and care for the health and well-being of residents in the U.P. and lower Michigan throughout this pandemic."

That's not something many, if any, Republicans have said, at least not since the first two weeks of the state of emergency in March when they supported Ms. Whitmer's initial actions. It is something that puts criticism of specific Whitmer actions in a completely different context.

Instead of an argument that sounds like "Governor Whitmer is a dictator looking to reserve all control for herself and wreck Michigan's economy," it's a reasoned argument that says, in effect, "I don't agree with all of what Governor Whitmer has done in the pandemic, some actions I completely disagree with, but I also know her goal with the actions she has taken is to protect people."

This won't be easy for the governor right now given all that has happened, but it wouldn't hurt if she and her team pulled back from the all-out blitz on Republican legislative leaders either. Maybe a private conversation with House Speaker Lee Chatfield (R-Levering) and Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey (R-Clarklake) in which the governor calls on this incident as an opportunity for them to start anew and put the litany of problems from the past year behind them and agree that the tenor between them must change even when they vehemently disagree.

That means all three of them need to make some changes. There's a lot of bad blood between Ms. Whitmer and Mr. Shirkey, and a lot of it is Mr. Shirkey's responsibility (recall his referring to the governor and legislative Democrats as on the "bat shit crazy spectrum" late last year), but it would probably be good if the two could avoid the public name calling. Their titles are governor and Senate majority leader, not "dictator" and "anti-masker."

Mr. Chatfield's "open letter" over the weekend blaming Ms. Whitmer for not alerting him to the initial contours of the anti-government terror plot to storm the Capitol and take 200 hostages was completely at odds with how law enforcement investigations work and the facts of the situation. It was refuted by none other than U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Michigan Matthew Schneider, a respected legal mind appointed to his position by President Donald Trump and previously a top lawyer in the Department of Attorney General under Bill Schuette, in an interview with WXYZ-TV.

Tensions are extremely high right now. There's a presidential election of incredible consequence a few weeks away. We remain in the midst of a pandemic. The economy is in bad shape. And now we find out that a group of men plotted a horrifying anti-government terrorist attack in our backyard.

The urge to denounce and belittle the political opposition is high because the stakes are so high.

It is because the stakes are so high that it has never been more important for the three leaders to regroup and start a new chapter.

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