Why would someone plan to abduct the governor of Michigan?
"I am an originalist," Antonin Scalia once told an interviewer. "I am a textualist. I am not a nut."
Whatever critics think of the late Supreme Court justice and the school of jurisprudence that has become synonymous with his name, his distinction seems one worth maintaining. There is all the difference in the world between people like Scalia and his followers, who find it absurd that somewhere in the text of an amendment ratified in 1868 there is enshrined an explicit right to conduct then subject to universal moral opprobrium throughout the known world, and others, who believe it is the solemn duty of every American to imitate the Founding Fathers by engaging in armed insurrection against federal and state governments (for such iniquities as the imposition of speed limits). There are, in fact, nuts.
This distinction, between mainstream legal conservatives and dangerous fantasists, is the backdrop against which I think we should attempt to make sense of the alleged plot against Gretchen Whitmer, the Democratic governor of Michigan. Thank goodness (if the FBI affidavit is any indication), the scheme did not advance much beyond the exchanging of messages in a private Facebook group in which the proportions between genuine members and paid informants were (as they tend to be in such groups) roughly equal. The level of organizational sophistication achieved by these would-be terrorists makes the airport shoe bomber look like Professor Moriarty.
What is interesting about "Wolverine Watchmen," the militia group hitherto unknown to experts on extremism to which the plotters are said to belong, is not so much what they came close to accomplishing but the source of their ideology, which has little to do with the serious objections to Whitmer's policies peacefully voiced by millions of Michiganders. To these "Wolverines," the lockdown and other events of the last year are irrelevant.
To understand this plot (and to see why such things, however unlikely they are to come off, are always taken seriously by investigators), it is important to consider the history of the so-called constitutional militia movement. Robert Churchill rightly begins his fine study of this phenomenon, not in the right-wing fever swamps of the South or the remote west, but in Michigan, the birthplace of the U.A.W., arguably the most moderate state in the union, where in the early 1990s, two Baptist clergymen, Norm Olson and Ray Southwell, vowed to "shake their guns in the tyrant's face."
Unlike many of their contemporaries and successors, Olson and Southwell explicitly rejected the notion that the conflict between ordinary citizens and state and federal government agencies was racial. They disavowed anti-Semitism and worked effortlessly to root out racial, sexual, religious and other forms of bigotry. They were, as only Michigan men can be, revolutionaries who doggedly insisted upon old-fashioned Midwestern politeness. They were also wholly unrepresentative of what would follow, as membership in what became known as the Michigan Militia Corps surged to more than 10,000 in the wake of Ruby Ridge and Waco. Soon apparent instances of government overreach, concerns about privacy, and perceived threats to the Second Amendment would give way to reprints of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, dark hints about the natural subjugation of women, and a restoration of those Darwinian principles which had ensured the survival and flourishing of our species.
That a movement dedicated to right-wing terrorism would trace its origins to rural Michigan is not as strange as if the same had been true of, say, Seattle. We remain one of the most culturally conservative states in the union. We are also, I would argue, though such claims do not easily submit to quantitative evaluation, the most nostalgic of Americans, always hearkening back to our half-understood post-war golden age. But we are also quiet people, interested in common sense and decency for reasons having nothing to do with ideology; we are distrustful of all manner of enthusiasm in politics, including the crude atavistic worldview of the militia, which, even in a state in which gun ownership is both widespread and uncontroversial, never reached anything like a critical mass of support.
This is not to say that it remained wholly invisible to those of us who lived here during the decade in which it was founded. My own childhood in this state was on more than one occasion darkened by the shadow of the militia movement. Between the ages of two and five I lived in what Michiganders call "the Thumb," the vast peninsula north of Detroit. Surrounded by Lake Huron at its edges, the Thumb's interior is mostly empty save for thousands and thousands of acres of farm land and dark scattered forests. It was here in Decker, not far from our house in Cass City, that two brothers active in militia circles were often seen on their own farm in the company of one of their friends. My mother to this day recalls seeing the trio, each man clad in camouflage, leaving the old Kritzman's department store just as she, my sister, and I were entering.
The brothers were known around town and widely disliked. The men who instinctively distrusted the brothers were not cosmopolitan liberals; they were farmers themselves, hunters, many of them hard drinkers inured to violence and clinging in their own way to stubbornly independent views of the world. Most of them hated both the federal government and the big banks that had repossessed so many farms during the previous decade. But they had no patience for the lunatic views of the brothers and most kept their distance. (The rumor was that they were all gay.) Readers of a certain age will have guessed by now that the surname of the brothers was Nichols, and that their friend was Timothy McVeigh.
Fifteen or so years later, after the movement had been in steady decline, I would hear from a former state police officer about what he considered a typical encounter with a militia member during the group's heyday. "Tommy," as I will call him, had been a modestly successful middleweight boxer before becoming a cop in the Upper Peninsula, which makes the Thumb look like I-75 north of Detroit during rush hour. Tommy had heard complaints from a waitress at a bar that a man dressed in camouflage — the military kind, not what you wear for deer hunting — had been making lewd comments whenever he stopped in. He went to the home of the man, who had already made himself a nuisance by handing out anti-government pamphlets and videocassettes, and politely but firmly told him to leave the woman alone. The militia member responded that the waitress was just being coy, that she really welcomed his advances, and indeed was inviting rather more than those. Tommy did his best to disabuse the man of these notions.
"That's bullshit," the militia man said. "Feminism has made women go against what they really want, which is force."
A week or so later, after receiving another call from the waitress, Tommy returned to the house and opened the door, which, oddly enough given the lunatic views of its inhabitant on the subject of privacy, was unlocked. "Hey, Tommy," the man said. Behind him on a television screen an instructional video whose subject matter would be most accurately described as rape apologia was playing. Tommy said nothing. Instead he bear-hugged the man and dragged him across the room to the kitchen table. Then he began to loosen the man's belt.
"I'm ready," Tommy said, reaching for the man's fly button and zipper.
"No!" the man screamed.
"No, no, stop, no."
"You told me when someone says no they really mean yes."
"No, no, no!"
"Wait," Tommy said, suddenly relaxing his grip on the man's shoulders. "Does no mean no?"
Tommy released the man, took the militia tape out of the VCR, and left.
I cannot exactly defend Tommy's police work here. I can only say that after his intervention no further sexual harassment was reported, nor did the suspect, if that is the right word for someone who was never formally charged with a crime, ever again attempt to propagandize on behalf of militia groups in our sparsely populated county.
This story, which I heard as a teenager, took place just after the turn of the century, by which time the Michigan militia was already falling apart. Like every revolutionary movement, it would collapse due to a combination of members' half-heartedness about the value of "the struggle" and internecine conflict over its ultimate objectives (the latter exacerbated by undercover law enforcement agents). The chief disagreement by the end of the '90s was between those who considered themselves engaged in a primarily political conflict to restore America to roughly the political conditions under which the Bill of Rights had been ratified and those who believed that the stakes were much higher, that by stockpiling weapons and watching cassettes about the Trilateral Commission and the Bilderberg Group they were preparing themselves to face the armies of Antichrist. Neither position seems to enjoy much purchase these days.
What explains the rise and rapid fall of the militia movement in the Great Lakes State during the last decade of the 20th century? And, more important, what accounts for its dogged, though thankfully rather more limited appeal today? I am wary of facile explanations, but I think two related factors can be singled out. One is the ghost of the American Founding, specifically the widespread inability to understand the revolution of 1776 in terms of the greater historical forces at work — among them the impossibility of a Western European maritime power ruling a colony whose expansion into a vast continent-spanning empire was inevitable. Instead we tell ourselves that the Founding was the glorious but unlikely legacy of a ragged band of patriots whose heroism would now (alas) be dismissed as terrorism.
The second, not entirely unrelated explanation for the appeal of militia groups belongs to political economy. In a world from which tangible authority of the sort once exercised by George III and the British Parliament has all but disappeared, replaced by a sinuous continuum of economic exchange that even in the '90s transcended borders, one in whose injustices we are all more or less equally culpable, it is understandable that some persons horrified by the pace of change and their own feelings of powerlessness would seek a more concrete enemy. But it is not what CEOs and U.N. bureaucrats do behind closed doors that ensures the survival of globalized neoliberal capitalism but what millions of us do in public each day whenever we purchase goods and services. The seat of power is the system itself, and, as various Marxist writers have shrewdly observed, it is much easier to imagine the apocalypse than an end to our current economic system.
The only cabals are the ones making idle threats to kidnap moderate liberal governors, who once bombed a daycare center in Oklahoma.