Susan J. Demas: Don’t whitewash the GOP’s extremism on full display during Whitmer protest

April 17, 2020 7:18 am

Conservative protest at Michigan’s Capitol against Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, April 15, 2020 | Anna Liz Nichols

We were promised it wasn’t a Republican protest. We were promised people were just upset they couldn’t golf or buy seeds (in stores) during a pandemic that’s already killed 2,000 of their neighbors.

But the folks trekking to Michigan’s Capitol Wednesday weren’t carrying rakes or watering cans or cute pun-filled signs about the right to garden (which still would have been ironic, since it was snowing). No, they brought Confederate and Donald Trump flags, AR-15s and a Gov. Gretchen Whitmer doll in a noose.

“She’s the reason we need the 2nd amendment!” multiple people shouted from their cars.

The Michigan Militia showed up to do a recruitment push. The Proud Boys were there. A few hundred people left their cars — even though we were repeatedly assured they’d follow social distancing rules — and strolled down the street with misspelled signs like “Heil Witmer” (replete with a backwards swastika) and clustered together on the Capitol steps for photos. Several pushed conspiracy theories that COVID-19 wasn’t real and insisted they couldn’t get it anyway by violating simple federal health guidelines (nobody volunteered any medical credentials to make such claims). Many brought their kids.

Ambulances couldn’t get through traffic. Who knows how many gas station clerks, restaurant workers, police and reporters protestors encountered and possibly spread the virus to.

Conservative protest at Michigan’s Capitol against Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, April 15, 2020 | Anna Liz Nichols

It’s important to pull back for a moment. The policies Whitmer and 42 other governors have put in place to stop a pandemic have been carefully crafted by public health officials. It’s not that they want to be a buzzkill or kill the economy (seriously, no politician wants that, just out of sheer self-preservation). It’s because the disease has spread so rapidly and killed so many. Drastic times call for drastic measures.

With almost 30,000 COVID-19 cases, Michigan has the fourth-most in the nation. But the protestors didn’t even do a feint to acknowledging the 2,000 people who have lost their lives or the families they left behind. It was just primal screams against the Democratic governor and calls for Trump to make everything great again.

For a party that’s ostensibly dedicated to the sanctity of life, Republicans have repeatedly and flagrantly demonstrated how little they care about their neighbors dying of an excruciating disease that can feel like shards of glass have filled your lungs.

Where is the humanity?

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You would think Republican leaders would condemn the extremism and wanton disregard for public health, but there’s been crickets. Even if they’re with demonstrators in spirit, I believe this is what’s known in politics as “bad optics.”

But if you read the takes from conservatives, it sounds like some nice citizens got together for a perfectly socially distanced gathering of tea and crumpets to protest a Democratic governor who had gone “too far” with her response to COVID-19.

The slick spin is that everyone was good with Whitmer’s stay home order — which was flatly false; the Michigan Chamber of Commerce and other business groups that pull the GOP’s strings had loudly lobbied against it. But then the Democrat mucked it up by extending it until April 30 — even as new cases and deaths are still occurring at an alarming rate — and tightening things up by ordering people not to travel back and forth to their lake homes (which is just a bit of a #FirstWorldProblem).

That sounds sorta reasonable until you recall that conservatives have made the same claim about Whitmer’s push to ban LGBTQ discrimination, repair Michigan’s worst-in-the-nation roads and even her call for equal pay for women. Every bit of progress is haughtily derided as going “too far.”

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And let’s not be naïve about the politics involved. Team Trump clearly freaked out when they saw Whitmer (who you may have heard is on the VP shortlist) score 20 points higher than him in must-win Michigan on handling COVID-19. That’s when you saw activists start spreading memes lying that American flags and baby car seats were banned just to gin up stories in right-wing media and score political points.

Wednesday’s raucous protest may have been an astro-turf operation (shockingly, yes, a DeVos-funded group was involved), but this was no Brooks Brothers Riot. (Sorry, for folks who are not old, that was the protest during the the George W. Bush-Al Gore 2000 debacle in Florida where snappy-suit-clad dudes demanded votes stop being counted).

Many Republican leaders and their wealthy donors didn’t show up to the one in Lansing — which pretty much tells you everything you need to know about the safety risks involved. But why put yourself and your family in harm’s way when you can outsource protesting to folks who think conspiracy king Alex Jones’ “magic” remedies will keep the evil vibes away?

Conservative protest at Michigan’s Capitol against Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, April 15, 2020 | Michigan Advance

And let’s face it. When Republicans and CEOs tell you they want to open up the economy, it’s because they don’t want the federal government to provide basic income and benefits while people are home so that we actually beat a virus that’s already killed more than 33,000 people in this country. What they derisively call “welfare state” spending gets in the way of massive tax giveaways for the super-rich.

So they drone on that all workers are “essential,” when what they really mean is that they’re “expendable.” How many corporate executives plan to rush back in the office when the economy is gloriously “opened up,” as Trump keeps demanding? How many will give their workers the same sick leave and health care they enjoy as they risk their health and their lives to get the economy (and hopefully, Trump’s poll numbers) humming again?

Just like this week’s protest, most powerful leaders plan to outsource the actual work to other people, while they safely carry on with Zoom calls from their estates.

Conservative protest at Michigan’s Capitol against Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, April 15, 2020 | Anna Liz Nichols

But we saw what the Republican Party is really all about this week at the Capitol where racism, sexism and extremism were on full display.

When Democrats run campaign spots tagging Republicans as the party of Confederate flag and murder doll waving loons, the same right-wing talking heads trying to sell all this as patriotism will suddenly be outraged that liberals are “playing politics.”

Meanwhile, more than 2,000 people have died of COVID-19 in our state. Let me know when conservatives spend as much time mourning them as they do attacking the governor.

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Susan J. Demas

Susan J. Demas is a 22-year journalism veteran and one of the state’s foremost experts on Michigan politics, appearing on MSNBC, CNN, NPR and WKAR-TV’s “Off the Record.” In addition to serving as Editor-in-Chief, she is the Advance’s chief columnist, writing on women, LGBTQ+ people, the state budget, the economy and more.