Opinion

The Gretchen Whitmer abduction plot is a window into American misogyny

Conservatives, led by President Trump, have fueled resentment toward women in power

On Thursday, 13 men were charged by the FBI for a plot to kidnap Michigan's Democratic governor Gretchen Whitmer, allegedly in retaliation for "tyrannical" executive orders the governor made to close businesses and shut down travel during the Covid-19 pandemic. This comes after a series of armed protests at the Michigan state capitol, as well as Whitmer's home, in the spring of this year.

Whitmer is not the only Democratic swing-state governor who has implemented strict lockdown measures during the pandemic. But she is the only one of those governors who is a woman, and it is no coincidence that she has also been the target of the most violent reactionary right-wing extremism. The serious threats to Whitmer's physical safety are an indication of the growing danger today's political and cultural climate poses for women.

The protests in May were in reaction to the pandemic control measures Whitmer introduced to slow the spread of the Covid-19 virus, and were notable both for the extreme show of force and the violent, misogynistic language many of the protestors used. Though many governors across the country imposed similarly severe restrictions during the first major wave of coronavirus infections, and though armed protests sprung up in several states, the Michigan protests were perhaps the most disturbing.

Hundreds of protestors, some of them armed, stormed the Michigan state capitol building in Lansing, brandishing racist paraphernalia including Confederate flags, and making explicit calls for violence against Whitmer. In one of the most reprehensible examples, a Republican state House candidate hung an unclothed brown-haired doll — Whitmer in effigy — by a noose. Female Michigan lawmakers wore bulletproof vests to work and reported feeling afraid for their lives. Meanwhile on Facebook, people in private groups posted calls for Whitmer to be lynched, beaten, or beheaded, referring to her as an evil witch or wicked queen. She's been likened to a menopausal teacher, an overbearing mother, and a "tyrant b*tch." One post called for "watering the tree of liberty with the blood of tyrants."

Many pointed to President Donald Trump's tweets urging supporters to "LIBERATE MICHIGAN!" as a catalyst for the protests. And indeed, rather than condemn the violence espoused by the violent protesters, the president urged Whitmer to "give a little," arguing, "These are very good people, but they are angry. They want their lives back again, safely!"

The conspirators plotting to kidnap Whitmer met during a Second Amendment rally in June before reaching out to the Michigan militia group, Wolverine Watchmen, according to The Detroit News. In the FBI's affidavit, one of the group's leaders, Michigan resident Adam Fox, is quoted as saying, "Snatch and grab, man. Grab the f***in' Governor. Just grab the b*tch," and, "She f***ing goddamn loves the power she has right now."

The Trump campaign, meanwhile, has continued to attack Whitmer even after news of the plot broke. "If we want to talk about hatred, then Governor Whitmer, go look in the mirror — the fact that she wakes up every day with such hatred in her heart towards President Trump," said Trump campaign official Jason Miller on Fox News.

On Twitter, Trump himself stated, "Governor Whitmer of Michigan has done a terrible job," blaming her for shutting down the state and congratulating himself on "My justice department" which foiled the plot to kidnap and potentially assassinate her. "Rather than say thank you, she calls me a White Supremacist... Governor Whitmer — open up your state, open up your schools, and open up your churches!" In an interview on Fox News Thursday night, Trump likened the people of Michigan to "prisoners."

This victim-blaming language is par for the course with today's GOP, like the "well what did you expect" framing used to defend Kyle Rittenhouse, the teenager who drove across state lines with an assault rifle and went on to shoot three Black Lives Matter protesters, killing two, as a matter of "self-defense." But it also recalls language used to defend sexual assault: "Dressed like that, what did you expect?" And reasoning used to deny women abortions: "Why didn't you just close your legs?"

This framing treats violence as a natural reaction when white men's power, or sense of power, is threatened. Because these excuses are never afforded to people of color or to women.

The details of the kidnapping plot are chilling. Conspirators repeatedly spied on the governor at her home and conducted training drills with firearms and explosives, at one point considering blowing up a bridge in order to cut off pursuit by law enforcement.

Whitmer herself laid some of the blame for the threats to her life at the feet of the president, who has singled her out on several occasions in tirades on Twitter, in the White House briefing room, and on Fox News. On Good Morning America on Friday, the governor stated, "Each time he has tweeted about me, each time that he has said 'liberate Michigan' and said I should negotiate with the very people who are arrested because they're 'good people,' that incites more domestic terror."

Trump's 2016 victory came on the heels of what should have been a political career-ending audio recording — Trump bragging about being able to "grab ‘em by the p*ssy" — and which helped spur a national reckoning on sexual assault. But even as feminists grow in number and strength, conservatives appear to have spotted in Trump an unlikely opportunity to counter-pivot. The president's machismo and toxic masculinity fortifies old-fashioned gender roles — inspiring comments like Tomi Lahren saying Joe Biden "might as well carry a purse with that mask." Attempts to roll back the clock in terms of gender equality can also be seen in Betsy DeVos's changes to Title IX regulations, strengthening protections for those accused of sexual assault rather than victims. This as Trump, with the assistance of the United States Justice Department, is still fighting a civil suit by writer E. Jean Carroll who has credibly accused the president of rape.

All of these systemic gender inequalities have been heightened during the pandemic. Industries with a disproportionately female workforce were some of the hardest hit by layoffs, such as housekeepers, childcare workers, salon workers, and others. As schools closed, women, already more likely to bear the brunt of household work and childcare, were more likely to leave their jobs to care for children full time. Domestic abuse incidents, which harm women by overwhelming margins in comparison with men, skyrocketed as lockdown measures went into place. And while conservatives have been attacking Roe v. Wade and abortion access more or less unceasingly for decades, the threat has never been more present than after the death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and nomination of Amy Coney Barrett to replace her. Barrett, repeatedly praised on the right for her motherhood and large family (as Vice President Mike Pence did during the VP debate) has been vocally anti-abortion throughout the course of her career and is widely expected to join the conservative justices who want to overturn the landmark ruling.

While Trump and the right wing's language continues to normalize misogyny and violence, the administration's policies and politics have continued dismantling protections women need. Just as Trump's refusal to condemn violent white supremacists has emboldened groups like the Proud Boys and the boogaloo movement, his sexist language, and in truth his actions, embolden the men who seek to punish female power with brutality and terrorism.

Plots against Governor Whitmer are only the tip of the iceberg.

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