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Rosie DiManno: Donald Trump fires up Michigan’s far-right fringes, but the defining swing state may be slipping away

Rosie DiManno: Donald Trump fires up Michigan’s far-right fringes, but the defining swing state may be slipping away
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MUSKEGON, MICHIGAN—When Donald Trump passed through here just over a week ago – a-rallying he came and went – the president pressed a familiar Pavlovian buzzer with his audience.

“LOCK HER UP!’’ they cried.

Like the preface dialogue of a mass – prayer between priest and people — where the congregants respond aloud.

But it wasn’t Hillary Clinton, historically the target of that odious chant, who the thousands gathered at an airport hangar wanted to see behind bars. It was Gov. Gretchen Whitmer. And this was after the FBI had revealed a chilling plot to kidnap — possibly kill — the first-term Democratic governor.

“Snatch and grab, man,” one of the alleged right-wing militia conspirators had told an FBI informant in July. “Grab the f- governor. Just grab the bitch. Because at that point, we do that, dude — it’s over.”

The scheme, according to an FBI affidavit unsealed earlier this month, had the militia wing nuts planning to blow up a bridge leading to the governor’s lakeside vacation home and using a boat to flee with their captive. Or, alternatively, forgoing the abduction and instead executing Whitmer on her doorstep.

“Have one person go to her house, knock on the door and when she answers it, just cap her,” reads a group text message obtained by the local FOX-TV affiliate.

If not a knock-knock assassination, putting their hostage on trial for treason. Her purported crime: Issuing severe executive lockdown orders — stay-at-home orders — to slow the surging spread of COVID-19.

The “tyrant bitch.” The “wicked witch.” The “Gretchen Himmler.”

Armed for all-out war, if that was the upshot. The plan included lobbing Molotov cocktails to destroy police vehicles.

“If this sh-t goes down, OK, if this whole thing, you know, starts to happen, I’m telling you what, dude, I’m taking out as many of these motherf-s as I can — every single one …I’m sick of being robbed and enslaved by the state, period,” another of the plotters says on video that is part of the evidence.

They weren’t just blowing smoke either, all hat no cattle. Fat slob brothers Michael and William Null — among 14 charged in the kidnapping plot — had been quite visible participants when heavily armed paramilitaries besieged the state capitol in Lansing last April. Open carry is legal in the Wolverine State – although Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson has drawn the line at polling places on election day, a move that has triggered lawsuits, while several sheriffs from across the state have declared they won’t enforce the ban.

Here’s Sheriff Dar Leaf, of Barry County, who’d shared a stage with one of the Nulls at a May anti-Whitmer event: “They’re innocent until proved guilty. And we really, really should be careful, trying to try them in the media.”

Leaf expressed no regret about appearing at an event with homegrown extremists. “This is our last home defence right here, ladies and gentleman.”

The 14 men have been indicted on charges ranging from terrorism and conspiracy to gun offences.

Over the weekend there was a tense armed standoff in Grand Rapids, 65 kilometres west of Muskegon, between the American Patriot Council and Justice for Black Lives. A member of the latter, face covered with a bandana and too scared to give his name, said: “As a person of colour, we often are intimidated when we try to exercise our right to vote.”

“Some of them are very dangerous and have escalated in their planning and plotting and really see their ultimate goal as a civil war,” said Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel.

Whitmer, who had been considered by Joe Biden as his running mate, has blamed the president’s inflammatory rhetoric — calling her a dictator, winking at white nationalists, all but directing bushwhackers to gird their loins over a ballot-disputed election outcome — for emboldening fringe elements. “Hate groups heard the president’s words not as a rebuke but as a rallying cry, as a call to action.”

In that “60 Minutes” interview that Trump walked out on, broadcast Sunday, the president had just done his not mea culpa thing with Leslie Stahl when specifically asked about the threats against Whitmer and the malice he stirred up at his hangar — hang her — event. “I never said lock up the governor of Michigan. I would never say that.”

And: “I helped her!” Taking credit for the months-long surveilling of the plotters by the FBI.

Yet it was fairly obvious that Trump, in his fly-through here, was delighted by the chorus of loathing. “The way she locked down Michigan was a disgrace.” It’s what he does, blowing that dog-whistle, inciting the extremists, tacitly plumping the likes of the Pride Boys and other white supremacists. He sows venom.

Some very much like what they hear.

“It’s unconstitutional, what the governor did,” says Kevin Black, a 39-year-old resident of “Skeetown,” as locals call this city on the eastern shores of Lake Michigan. “Those militias take the constitution seriously. They don’t want their rights infringed. Just like I believe in the constitution too.

“We’ll just see if the charges the FBI laid will stick.”

Black wasn’t wrong about the constitutionality of Whitmer’s order. Michigan’s Supreme Court ruled early this month that the executive lockdown orders violated the U.S Constitution — the governor doesn’t have the authority to unilaterally declare or extend states of emergency in relation to COVID-19 — and invalidated the measures. Some restrictions were then passed by the state legislature, however. But bars and restaurants have reopened for indoor service.

Black, unsurprisingly, will be voting for Trump. Joe Biden, he grimaces, is “a greasy dude,” a political slicker after 37 years in the Senate “swamp” and eight years as vice-president. “What has he ever done to make this country better? Democrats are only interested in big government, always bigger government.”

It’s impossible to measure how much public support the big-government-despising militias enjoy. Some of the groups describe themselves as constitutional militias and ultra-patriots, which sounds better than right-wing armed crackpots. Membership alone isn’t a crime. Several, though, have firmly distanced themselves from the Wolverines-III%s clot rump, in part because the plotters are viewed as dumbasses hoodwinked by informants.

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“We just assume that somebody in the group is an informant at all times,” Lee Miracle, co-ordinator of the 200-member Southeast Michigan Volunteer Militia, told the Wall Street Journal. “If you think that way, you’ll never say something dumb, like, you know, ‘Hey, I got a map for the governor’s house.’”

Militias gained prominence in the state in the 90s, claiming to have more than 10,000 members. Oklahoma City bomber Tim McVeigh is known to have attended Michigan Militia meetings. Federal authorities said that 1995 act of domestic terrorism — 168 killed — was concocted at a rural Michigan farm, owned by the brother of Terry Nichols, convicted as an accomplice in the Oklahoma massacre.

How many degrees of separation between Oklahoma and Michigan’s paramilitaries? Or between the paramilitaries and Trump?

“I wasn’t at Trump’s rally but my son went,” say Carole Addams, buttonholed on Muskegon’s pedestrian mall. “I wish I’d been able to go.” But when this conversation shifts to militias, she suddenly zips up. “Not gonna talk about that. Fake news.”

Trump spoke for 90 minutes, insisting the governor just further relax restrictions. Few in attendance wore masks.

(An aside: Weird to see a Trump devotee at the airport, actually wearing a Trump-branded mask. “I don’t find it ironic at all,” Mickey McNamara practically snarled.)

At the Top Shelf Bar, in Muskegon’s downtown strip, Casey Allard isn’t so militia-tolerant. “It’s not the militias that give Michigan a bad name, it’s Trump that gives America a bad name when he implies that there’s a reason for them to resort to their tactics.

“There’s a wilderness aspect to the militias that a lot of people embrace. These extremist groups are minuscule in number. I wouldn’t want people to judge us all by the enthusiasm of our least brightest.”

The 38-year-old has already cast his absentee ballot, voted for an independent, among some 1.5 million Michiganders who’ve exercised their franchise in advance of the election. “We can’t afford the division and attrition of another Trump presidency. It’s just too painful for America.”

Michigan matters, hugely. The political newspaper, The Hill, named Muskegon County one of the 10 counties in the entire country that will decide the 2020 election.

Clinton took Muskegon Country by a 1,200-vote sliver in 2016 but Trump won the state, and it’s 16 electoral votes, by just over 10,000 votes.

Together with Wisconsin, on the opposite shore, losing Michigan ended Clinton’s presidential chances four years ago. Her campaign lacked a ground game strategy for the state and Clinton afterwards acknowledged not putting enough effort into Michigan. In the election, about 280,000 Michiganders picked third-party candidates.

Neither the Democrats nor the Republicans are taking Michigan for granted this time. On Sunday, Kamala Harris whipped through Detroit and Dearborn. Trump is scheduled for a Lansing event Tuesday.

So, Michigan has become a defining swing state in the Trump era. But strategists worry that the state might be harder to keep in the Republican fold than Pennsylvania or Wisconsin.

Trump’s poll numbers are swooning. Polls released Monday by both CNN and FiveThirtyEight had Biden at 55 per cent and Trump at 42 per cent.

And then there are these numbers, as of Sunday: 3,338 new COVID-19 cases, highest daily case count the state had reported since Oct. 15 (2,030) and far surpassing April’s peak period in Michigan. Total of 158,026 cases, 7,182 deaths.

Yet Trump, blitzing Pennsylvania, once again claimed the U.S. is “rounding the curve” on the pandemic, mocking the Democrats’ COVID-19 fixation: “COVID! COVID! COVID!”
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