Susan J. Demas: Protestors threatened Whitmer’s murder. GOP leaders haven’t condemned them.

Welcome to Michigan in the Trump era

May 1, 2020 6:24 am

Conservative protest at the Capitol against Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, April 30, 2020 | Anna Liz Nichols

It’s an extraordinarily low bar for Michigan Republican leaders to condemn heavily armed protestors calling for the governor’s murder, and yet they’ve managed to fail to clear it.

You can stop holding your breath waiting, too. There were “men with rifles yelling” at senators from the chamber gallery during a Thursday session, as state Sen. Dayna Polehanki (D-Livonia) noted, as the GOP majority passed measures attempting to quash Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s power and sue her for measures trying to stop the spread of a pandemic that’s killed more than 3,700 in our state and more than 60,000 nationwide.

This was an act of intimidation and it wouldn’t have happened if GOP leadership didn’t want it to.

At any point, Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey (R-Clarklake) could have asked for their removal.

This has happened in the Capitol before … most recently on Wednesday. Sergeants-at-arms (who wear red blazers) had to forcefully remove a couple protestors from the House gallery, including GOP state House candidate Michelle Gregoire, who has now taken to posting videos ranting about “the black guy,” referring to House Chief Sergeant David Dickson while others shouted about fighting “red coats.” (At least this appalling racism underscores the fact that the “Blue Lives Matter” movement supposedly lauding law enforcement was bunk).

In Michigan, citizens aren’t even allowed to bring signs in the Capitol supposedly due to safety concerns (everyone knows it’s because Republicans wanted to clamp down on unarmed progressive protestors, especially when they rammed through Right to Work in 2012).

But guns are fine, even though it’s sadly not surprising that a careless protestor slammed his rifle into the head of Michigan Advance reporter Anna Liz Nichols on Thursday.

Shirkey even came up to address protestors in the gallery and blocked the media from covering, which was quite the Trumpian move. It’s also fairly ironic, given the GOP bleating about Whitmer’s supposed lack of transparency on COVID-19.

So no, it’s not a coincidence that screaming, camouflage-clad protestors with long guns blocked Whitmer’s ceremonial office in the Capitol (sorry, she doesn’t work there, guys) or were just hanging around during a legislative session when Republicans repeatedly torched Whitmer for abusing her power, while protestors carried Confederate flags and signs with swastikas and slogans like, “Tyrants Get The Rope” and “Tyrant Bitch.”

Jeff Timmer, a former Michigan GOP director turned never-Trumper, put the terrifying scene in historical context: “I worked with every Republican leader – in both the Michigan House and Senate; very closely with most – from 1990-2104. This crazy batshit would never have been sanctioned. Not by any.”

He’s right. I’ve reported on dozens upon dozens of protests in almost 20 years as a reporter and this was not like any that I’ve seen at the Capitol.

It closely resembled the efforts of Republicans and militia activists who shut down Oregon’s legislature last year to block Democrats’ climate change legislation. Michigan’s militia roots, of course, run deep, most famously with Lapeer native Terry Nichols, who conspired with Timothy McVeigh on the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing that killed almost 200.

Thursday’s small showing of 600 to 800 who flouted social-distancing practices — and quite possibly spread a deadly virus — on the Michigan Capitol lawn and angrily spilled into the building was somewhat reminiscent of the Ku Klux Klan events I’ve covered, given the violent rhetoric, presence of militia (who were there for “protection”) and the makeup of the crowd, which was overwhelmingly white.

There’s a weird thing in journalism where we sometimes, even subconsciously, don’t note racial dynamics and I’ve certainly been guilty of that myself. It’s somehow considered impolite or even “biased” (whatever that means). But you can’t ignore the contrast of the deference given to white, right-wing protestors with assault rifles storming a government building and calling for the duly elected governor’s assassination vs. the violent police crackdowns on Black Lives Matter protestors a few years back.

Some big-name conservatives clutched their pearls at the scene Thursday and declared that surely GOP leadership wouldn’t throw in with the motley group of paramilitary cosplayers. But the extremist call is coming from inside the house, gentlemen. And they’ve made the political calculation that they need the misogynistic, racist fringe to win.

In his floor speech, Shirkey said nothing of the protestors’ violent rhetoric and threats to bust into chambers — and why would he? This week, he ranted that Whitmer is a “dictator” who gave him the “double middle finger” when she declined to kneecap her own duly exercised power during a crisis.

Instead, he announced Republicans would sue her because she wanted the Legislature to extend a state emergency longer than they did for a sinkhole over a pandemic that’s killed almost 4,000 people in a matter of weeks.

“If she does not recognize the end of the emergency declaration, we have no other choice but to act on behalf of our constituents,” Shirkey declared.

Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, Jan. 14, 2020 | Laina G. Stebbins

Notably, Michigan Chamber of Commerce CEO Rich Studley, the most powerful business lobbyist in the state, posted Shirkey’s remarks on Twitter and added some color commentary like any good puppet master.

“We’re the State of Michigan, not the State of Emergency. The State Constitution has not been suspended. State government by press conferences, Executive Orders and FAQs isn’t working for over 1 million unemployed Michiganders and needs to stop!!” Studley wrote, replete with junior-high-style emojis.

But here’s the thing. Republicans, their corporate funders and loud protestors don’t represent the majority opinion in Michigan — not even close. Whitmer’s handling of COVID-19 polls at 65% approval, even after weeks of Republicans agitating against her orders, aided by well-connected conservative groups. President Trump clocks in 22 points lower — which is a big source of GOP angst. If he gets the shaft in November, they may have to kiss their big tax giveaways goodbye.

If you expected better on the other side of the Capitol rotunda, you didn’t get it. House Speaker Lee Chatfield (R-Levering) cast Whitmer, not the protestors calling for her assassination, as the unreasonable one.

“Today, we offered our hand of partnership to the governor. No politics. We’re all in this together and we should all work together. We believe upholding the democratic process is best for MI people. She just said no. Very disappointing. #InThisTogether,” said Chatfield on Twitter.

House Speaker Lee Chatfield | Laina G. Stebbins

Michigan GOP Chair Laura Cox also took a pass on calling out protestors’ extremism, instead posting a photo of them on Twitter and slamming Whitmer for only being concerned with her “own absolute executive power.”

So there you have it. Republican leadership is just putting a respectable sheen on the crude and violent arguments made by protestors. This is what the GOP is today in Michigan.

And yet, remarkably, there’s been a lot of imbecilic punditry about both sides “playing politics” and Whitmer obliterating “trust” with Republicans. It defies logic for the governor to trust leaders who don’t even condemn those on their side who want her to “get the rope.”

But hey, if you want to die on the “both sides are bad” hill in the face of fascist threats, knock yourself out. Just don’t cry when you get called out for coddling craziness.

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Susan J. Demas

Susan J. Demas is a 23-year journalism veteran and one of the state’s foremost experts on Michigan politics, appearing on C-SPAN, 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. For almost five years, Susan was the Editor and Publisher of Inside Michigan Politics, the most-cited political newsletter in the state. Susan’s award-winning political analysis has run in more than 100 national, international and regional media outlets, including the Guardian U.K., NBC News, the New York Times, the Detroit News and MLive.