Opinion | The Whitmer kidnapping plot shows why violent political rhetoric needs to end — now

The news broke while I was at work, sitting at my desk on the floor of the Michigan Senate where I serve as state senator for the 13th District: On Thursday, federal and state authorities charged 13 men with plotting to kidnap and potentially kill Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer. These alleged terrorists also apparently planned to recruit “200 men” to storm that place where I was sitting — the Michigan Capitol — and take hostages in a plot to decapitate our state government.

It was also the exact same place I had been sitting on April 30 when protesters opposed to public health measures meant to stop the spread of Covid-19 stormed our Capitol, many decked out in full tactical gear carrying long guns and assault rifles. It’s where I was sitting when my seatmate, state Sen. Dayna Polehanki, took a photo looking up at four men with rifles in the gallery above us, taunting us.

I have learned that three of those same men were arrested as co-conspirators in this plot.

The details in the affidavit beyond the plot itself are horrific: The group had allegedly identified the home addresses of police officers. They are charged with plotting to blow up a bridge to slow down law enforcement’s response to their kidnapping. They are said to have tested an improvised explosive wrapped in shrapnel to gauge its impact.

This wasn’t just a group of men taking out their anger online. The men charged in the case attended multiple rallies and protests at the state Capitol and used those events to plan and recruit additional men to join their cause. They stockpiled and organized weapons, are said to have plotted detailed and disturbing plans and allegedly surveyed the governor’s main residence and vacation home.

And they were egged on and encouraged by the language of the president of the United States and the Republican leaders of our state House and Senate.

After the protest in April, like many others, I sounded the alarm that something much darker than frustrations over stay-at-home orders and Covid restrictions was at play. What we saw then — and what we’ve seen for months since — was the percolation of far-right and extremist hatred, bigotry, violence and aggression. The April rally was awash in swastikas, Confederate flags, and Hawaiian shirts — a new symbol of the anti-government “boogaloo” movement — not just calls to reopen gyms and restaurants.

But of those swastika and Confederate flag-draped protests, our Republican speaker of the House said, “There’s nothing more American than people coming together to ensure their voices are being heard,” and the president tweeted, “LIBERATE MICHIGAN.”

Since then, we’ve seen continued winks and nods at conspiracy theories like QAnon, and the extremists’ rhetoric echoed in our own state by leaders of the Republican-led legislature.

In May, for instance, Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey attended the American Patriot Rally in Grand Rapids to join those protesting the governor’s executive orders. Addressing many of the same armed protesters who had taken part in Capitol protests, Shirkey said: “Sometimes politicians get it backward. That’s when these groups need to stand up and test that assertion of authority by the government. We need you now more than ever.

One of the men on the stage that day was Mike Null — one of the 13 charged this week in the plot to kidnap Whitmer.

Since then, state Republicans have taken to calling the governor’s actions to stop the spread of the pandemic “tyrannical,” comparing her extension of the state of emergency to the Japanese attack of Pearl Harbor, and labeling her as a dictator “drunk on the addiction of unfettered power.”

More recently, the president not only refused to condemn white supremacist groups when asked at the presidential debate, he told the Proud Boys to “stand back and stand by” — which the group quickly rallied around as a call to action (even though the president then later claimed he had no idea who they were).

It’s clear all 13 of these men — and probably many more like them — were and still are listening for signals like these, and interpret them as permission and direction. When Republican leaders call the governor a “tyrant,” we see that language take hold among protesters, who then take to carrying signs saying, “Tyrants Get the Rope.” (In Michigan, protestors even brought a naked brunette doll hanging by a noose to a rally.)

Republicans didn’t create these 13 angry men, but they have absolutely encouraged them — like blowing on a tinder to start a campfire.

Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, center, is escorted by state Rep. Frank Liberati, left, and state Sen. Mallory McMorrow before delivering her State of the State address on Jan. 29, 2020, at the state Capitol in Lansing.Al Goldis / AP file

Back in January, we saw the spark was there: The Detroit Metro Times broke the story of a Facebook group called People vs. Gretchen Whitmer — with over 9,000 members — full of death threats and threats of violence against the governor and other women elected officials. Numerous Republican elected and party officials were active members of that group, which was filled with graphic and specific calls for violence as well as “jokes” about joining militias.

And while most people can separate rhetoric from real life, we knew and have now seen again that when presented with repeated messaging — especially those elevated or sanctioned by authorities — about defeating or killing a “tyrant” or a “dictator” enough times, a handful of extremists can take those words as calls to action, not just political messaging.

This is a horrifying and distressing place we’ve found ourselves in, and it is the direct result of a Republican Party tainted by this president and Republican leaders here in Michigan who feel comfortable aligning themselves with right-wing militias, hate groups, anti-government extremists and — we now know — domestic terrorists for political gain.

It’s not new a new place: In the 1990s, Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols were attendees of numerous Michigan Militia meetings; their motives — anti-government views, survivalism, protesting what they believed to be the government restricting the rights of private citizens — feel eerily present in the protests we’ve seen today. They later killed 168 people in the Oklahoma City bombing attack in 1995, one of the deadliest domestic terror attacks in U.S. history.

Without the action of the FBI and law enforcement officials here in Michigan, our governor, my colleagues and all of the people who work in our Capitol could have suffered a similar fate.

But hateful extremist groups are still out there, and they will be there long after the election and the pandemic are in our past.

That is why we need to stand united in our opposition to such groups, not flirt with the danger they represent for political gain. This is not a Democrat vs. Republican issue; it is an issue of Michiganders — and all Americans — against hatred, bigotry and violence.

We need leaders in office — from the White House to our statehouse — who will stand with us against all of the threats we face, from the threats of domestic terrorism, to the threat of a relentless deadly virus, to the threats that seek to divide, hurt or kill us.

And to the current leaders playing with fire right now — the dangerous rhetoric that got us to a place where a group was plotting to kidnap and potentially murder a duly elected governor — stop now. Before that fire explodes.