Arrests Expose Militia Plot to Kidnap Michigan Governor, Wider Threat of Election Violence

Interview with Steven Gardiner, assistant research director with Political Research Associates, conducted by Scott Harris

As tensions ratcheted up amid a bitterly fought U.S. presidential election campaign, the FBI announced the arrest of 13 men on charges of conspiring to kidnap Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, attack the state legislature and threaten law enforcement. The militants arrested also reportedly had been involved in a similar plot to kidnap Democratic Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam. Seven of those arrested were associated with an anti-government militia group called the Wolverine Watchmen. Two of those charged in the alleged domestic terrorism plot are former Marines.

At a news conference following the arrests, Whitmer accused President Trump of fomenting political extremism, citing his comments during last week’s U.S. presidential debate against Joe Biden in which Trump declined to condemn white supremacists. Before an anti-pandemic lockdown protest against Whitmer in April, Trump had tweeted a provocative message to his followers: “LIBERATE MICHIGAN.”

Between The Lines’ Scott Harris spoke with Steven Gardiner, assistant research director with Political Research Associates, who discusses the militia plot to kidnap Whitmer and the wider threat posed by armed, white supremacist groups and vigilantes who have been embraced by Trump, who he’s asked to monitor the polls in the Nov. 3 election.

STEVEN GARDINER: The important thing, I think, is to put it into context. There have been months and months — even before the vast uptick in protest for racial justice following the murder of George Floyd. That has led to its own backlash from the far right, and a large number of incidents trying to counter or intimidate that movement for racial justice. So, an incident like this is part of an ongoing development of far right politics in public. A new cycle of it started with the COVID lockdown and protests in many states, including, of course, Michigan that were essentially saying the measures put into place to defend public health and take care of people were somehow authoritarian, tyrannical that they were undermining the basic rights of people because they were being asked to wear a mask or close their business while they got a deadly virus under control.

So this particular act — it’s within a range of possibilities. I mean, we’ve already seen shootings. We’ve seen dozens of perhaps over a hundred vehicular assaults on protesters. Now the difference here is that a public official is being targeted. The people who were targeting it come from not sort of unaffiliated armed mobs or people who show up a couple of days after a call goes out on Facebook, as they did in Kenosha. But, they were actively planning an attack on a sitting governor, basically the definition of insurrection. So the idea that there was no crime here is absurd, even though it was a foiled plot.

SCOTT HARRIS: Assess for us the threat of violence on Election Day by militia white supremacist groups and vigilantes on the day of the election, as well as the days that follow given the fact that Trump has said there is no way he could lose this election, unless it’s rigged — sending a signal out to his supporters, that there is evil to be opposed if he should lose that election.

STEVEN GARDINER: I can do an assessment. The assessment, of course, is not a prediction. And I think it’s important to understand that the threats that are coming down the line that we’re already seeing from the far right about showing up at polling places or rallying in cities or exaggerated claims about say, anarchist violence in the cities, are already absent clear talk and courageous talk from political leadership at state and local levels liable to depress voter turnout. People may be intimidated to go to the polls. They may be late to get in their absentee or mail-in ballot from a place where those are more difficult to use. They may feel that all of this contentiousness means that the electoral system that they maybe didn’t believe in so much to begin with is completely out of control and they didn’t want to waste their time just to have their vote nullified by say, a secretary of state or local election officials sympathetic to the current administration.

So there are a lot of variables in play. There is certainly the possibility of violence on or after Election Day. I think it’s more likely that what we will see is three things. One, there will be threats of large-scale protests from the right turning out to “protect the process.” This is a common claim amongst the militia and paramilitary groups that they’re there to protect something, a federal courthouse, private property, what have you. Two, you might have small-scale violent instigators who could be the particularly zealous, pro-Trump factions who might take it upon themselves to create confrontation with protesters or election watchers who they see as the opposition. And third, by individuals who might even be anti-regime, but also attempting to start — as in the Boogaloo movement, many parts of the Boogaloo movement — a wider conflagration, because they see the country as irredeemable and therefore chaos and civil war are the only answers.

None of the most extreme things have to happen in order to be a big blow to people’s trust in what, after four years of the Trump administration are already shaky levels of trust in democratic institutions. So what I would say is people should be prepared. We should be organizing. And many people I know are, to get that early voting done early, in-person voting or absentee voting or mail-in voting or drop off voting done as soon as we can. And then be prepared for a long drawn out process in which both the right and the forces that are pro-democracy are going to be out on the streets. This is going to be a situation in the United States we haven’t seen since the immediate aftermath of the Civil War. Most likely, unless the only thing that might hinder that would be a landslide early victory for Vice President Biden.

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