Armed members of the Michigan Home Guard stood outside Karl Manke's barber shop, ready to blockade the door if police arrived. They were determined to help Manke, 77, reopen his shop Monday, in defiance of state orders, and dozens joined them, wearing Trump sweatshirts and Trump cowboy hats and waving Trump flags.
They gathered not because they desperately needed haircuts but to rail against Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s approach to fighting the coronavirus outbreak in Michigan, one of the nation’s worst hot spots. They were channeling President Trump’s support of such protests, but some also were taking aim at the state’s Republicans, who they say have not done enough to “liberate” the state from safety measures that have ground life to a halt.
Michelle Gregoire, a 29-year-old school bus driver from Battle Creek who is running as a Republican for a seat in the state House, waved a yellow “Don’t tread on me” flag at passing traffic. She derided Whitmer as “a tyrant.” But she also urged Republicans “to get in line and get it together.”
The protest and others like it — including two last month that included demonstrators with swastikas, Confederate flags and some with long guns inside the capitol — have alarmed lawmakers on both sides of the aisle. But after Trump appeared to urge the militia members on, tweeting that they are “very good people” who “want their lives back again,” they have forced Michigan’s Republican lawmakers to strike a delicate balance, managing a deadly virus while also being careful not to contradict Trump or alienate their conservative supporters.
Though the coronavirus has infected more than 48,000 people in Michigan and has killed 4,674 as of Tuesday — the fourth-highest total in the nation — many of the protesters live in areas that have barely been touched by the virus but have been struggling with economic collapse because of it. GOP state lawmakers, who hold narrow margins in both the state House and Senate, have tried distancing themselves from the most vocal protesters while being careful not to appear to hew too closely to Whitmer’s shutdown policies.
“The less partisan we can be through this entire process, the sooner we’ll get out of it,” said Lee Chatfield (R), the 31-year-old speaker of the House who was working on the floor to adopt some of the governor’s restrictions when armed militiamen entered the capitol building. “There are people who want to take covid-19 seriously but believe the governor’s approach is the wrong call for our state,” he said, referring to the disease caused by the virus.
Generally, residents of Michigan agree with Whitmer’s approach, according to a Washington Post-Ipsos poll released Tuesday, in which 72 percent approve of her handling of the outbreak, and 25 percent disapprove. Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine (R) got the highest marks — 86 percent approval — but in general, Republican governors did not fare well in the poll, with Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp, who moved to open the state early, getting an approval rating of just 39 percent.
Whitmer said in an interview Tuesday that she worries Republican state lawmakers, who have said she does not have the authority to continue her coronavirus executive order, are pushing people to violate it.
“They are feeding a lot into the behavior,” Whitmer said. “We would be so much better off if everyone with a platform focused on the science and less about politics.”
Protesters in Michigan have sought a radical turnabout in the state’s response to the pandemic, with some demanding that Whitmer lift all restrictions. Many come from fringe movements and harbor deep suspicion of health officials and their warnings; the activists insist that the government has inflated the death toll and blown the dangers out of proportion. The event’s main organizer, Ryan Kelley, a real estate agent from outside Grand Rapids, said he invited members of a local militia to the protests in Lansing as “security.”
Chatfield, who appeared onstage with Trump at a rally in Battle Creek in December, said he disagrees with protesters who believe the death toll reported by the state is inflated. He worries that the activists are making it difficult for Republicans pitching more pragmatic reopening plans to be heard.
“Those voices are getting drowned by those who are being over the line and derogatory,” Chatfield said.
Mike Shirkey (R), the state Senate’s majority leader, was more direct, condemning protesters who “used threats of violence to stir up fear and rancor.” Some lawmakers, frightened by the heavily armed demonstrators, wore bulletproof vests during the protests April 30.
“They do not represent Senate Republicans,” Shirkey said in a statement. “At best, those so-called protesters are a bunch of jackasses.”
Kelley, the organizer of the protest, said he was disappointed that many Republican lawmakers did not want to lift all restrictions immediately.
“You’re elected to serve the people,” he said. “You’re not elected to serve yourself.”
So far the militias are limited to preening demonstrations of toxic rage and impotent foolishness, but with white supremacist domestic terrorist groups actively recruiting exactly these "very good people" the capacity for both a serious miscalculation in a confrontation with law enforcement as well as a purposeful terrorist attack remains ludicrously high and will for a very long time.
The Trump Depression will absolutely be accompanied by armed and deadly unrest, especially as rural areas are hit hard by COVID-19 and economic depression. All this would be bad enough without an actively racist autocrat facing crushing defeat in November and growing more desperate by the day, egging on groups like this in order to maintain his power.
It would be a miracle for that to not be the case, and if you haven't looked around lately, we're fresh out of goddamn miracles these days.