In Michigan, less than two weeks after Trump tweeted a call to “liberate” the state, a cadre of armed protesters stormed the state Capitol demanding an end to measures Whitmer imposed to contain the rapidly expanding outbreak. Later, several men who allegedly attended were criminally charged in connection with a plot to kidnap Whitmer and put her on “trial.”
Whitmer and other officials see Wednesday’s incursion in Washington as the inevitable result of last year’s protests — the latest episode in an intensifying uprising against public officeholders and institutions carried out with Trump’s imprimatur. Experts on extremism agree, warning that the aborted takeover of the Capitol will embolden right-wing extremists to target government offices and perceived political enemies, even after Trump leaves the White House.
“I think that the sentiment, the dangerous sentiment of this moment is whipping up, feeding into people’s fears and anger and turning Americans on Americans,” Whitmer said. “Feeding this domestic terrorism is hurting all of us. And as a nation, we’re paying a price. As leaders, whether you’re a Republican or a Democratic governor, you’re paying a price for it.”
In the chaos Wednesday afternoon, rioters swiftly overwhelmed law enforcement and poured into the halls of Congress, bashing out windows, trashing offices and assaulting police. Many were decked out in red and blue Trump garb, and some carried Confederate flags. One man who described himself as a “white nationalist” on Facebook posed for a picture with his foot propped up on a desk in House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s office, in a searing symbol of the assault on American democracy.
Five people died in the mayhem surrounding the Capitol, including a Capitol police officer and a rioter who was shot and killed by security. Several dozen people were arrested, but the vast majority of the mob faced little resistance from law enforcement when they entered, and left unmolested hours later.
“It’s a huge win for them, and they have the trophy pictures,” said Ruth Ben-Ghiat, a New York University professor and expert on authoritarian regimes. “It’s the beginning of a new period of arrogance and feelings of grandeur among the white power movement, the militia movement and these extremist groups.”
Whitmer said the armed protest in Lansing in the spring — which mirrored actions in Idaho, Oregon and other states — should have offered ample warning that the pro-Trump gathering that began on the Capitol lawn could spiral out of control.
During the April 30 demonstration in Michigan, numerous speakers denounced Whitmer, with one Republican congressional candidate telling the crowd they were “the tip of the spear” in the war against tyranny.
Soon after, men wearing tactical gear and carrying assault-style rifles filed into the building and demanded to be let into the House chamber. Some were later identified as members of local militant groups and the violent anti-government boogaloo movement.
The day after, Trump tweeted support for the protesters: “The Governor of Michigan should give a little, and put out the fire. These are very good people, but they are angry. They want their lives back again, safely! See them, talk to them, make a deal.”
Six people who attended the protest were federally charged in October in the plot to kidnap Whitmer or, in related cases, providing material support for a planned terrorist act, a Post examination found.
In the run-up to Jan. 6, pro-Trump online forums lit up with posts threatening violence at the U.S. Capitol and urging people to bring guns. A tweet from the president telling supporters to “Be there, will be wild!” was the top post on thedonald.win early in the week.
Trump was “absolutely complicit” in the riot, Whitmer said, adding that there was a “complete failure of law enforcement to treat it with the kind of response that it merited.”
“While what happened in the Lansing Capitol took us by surprise, this we knew was coming,” she said. “We saw what happened here, and they should have been prepared.”
In the wake of the siege, House Sergeant at Arms Paul Irving and Senate Sergeant of Arms Michael Stenger resigned, and Capitol Chief of Police Steven Sund is expected to step down on Jan. 16.
State lawmakers, too, were shaken by how much the scenes in Washington resembled the anti-lockdown demonstrations. Rep. Sarah Anthony, a Democrat who represents Lansing, said she exchanged texts with colleagues who said they feel, in retrospect, like they literally dodged a bullet.
“For some of us, mentally we have to turn off the part of our brain that tells us how bad things could have escalated in our own state,” she said, “just to give us peace of mind.”
Compounding their fears, lawmakers woke up Thursday morning to a bomb threat that prompted security to clear the building for two hours.
“I thought the inflection point was the terrorist plot against our governor. I honestly believed that would be the tipping point,” Anthony said. “And it just hasn’t been.”
The White House didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment Friday.
After the riots were broadly rebuked, Trump released a short video condemning violence and urging supporters to respect police before ad-libbing false claims that the election was “stolen.” More than two days later, as calls for him to be impeached a second time gained traction, he returned from a brief Twitter suspension to once again stoke baseless claims that he and his voters had been cheated.
Trump may be leaving office soon, but his departure is unlikely to quell his most militant followers, one expert said. If anything, some actors in the loose universe of hate groups, conspiracy theorists and fringe movements that have coalesced around him could find new avenues for violence, according to Brian Levin, director of the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University at San Bernardino. The risk could become more pronounced as they move off mainstream social media and onto “affinity-based” platforms such as Parler and Gab, he said.
“I think we’re in an insurgency now,” Levin told The Post. “We’ve got a whole bunch of people with an array of grievances and a whole lot of guns, who hang out together and in online taverns with similarly leaning peers.”
Among those who attended the Capitol riot was Ashli Babbitt, who was shot and killed as she tried to climb through a window to the Speaker’s Lobby. The 35-year-old Air Force veteran didn’t appear to have any formal extremist ties, but her Twitter account revealed a stream of posts inveighing against coronavirus restrictions and parroting baseless QAnon conspiracy theories about Trump battling a “deep state.”
Known white supremacist leaders also took part in the violence, along with members of the hard-right Proud Boys fraternity, high-profile supporters of the QAnon movement, and members of armed vigilante outfits. Untold numbers of others, like Babbitt, appeared to come on their own accord, unaffiliated with established groups.
“We’re now entering an era where we see the ability of multiple entities to organize and get together,” Levin said, “but much of the activity going on is in cells and by loners and duos.”
Levin drew a parallel between the current situation and what he said was an “insurgency” among left-wing groups that formed in the 1960s and became increasingly militant the following decade. He pointed to the bombing of the U.S. Capitol in 1971 by the antiwar group the Weather Underground, which caused hundreds of thousands of dollars in damage. He also cited the 1970 kidnapping of a California superior court judge, who was killed in a gunfight between his abductors and police.
“What we saw in the ’60s was this growth in the mainstream of particular causes, the antiwar movement and civil rights movement, which were all laudable,” Levin said. “As disappointment grew and some of these folks found themselves on the outside, unable to access the political mainstream in power, they felt they had less to lose by being violent.”
Bob Altemeyer, a psychology professor who has studied the authoritarian mind-set of Trump’s most ardent supporters, said Trump’s return to private life will deprive violent extremists of the protection they felt during his administration.
“But his reelection has been stolen from them, they totally believe. So why wouldn’t they resort to violence, from their point of view?” Altemeyer said. “Their enemies play so dirty, they say to one another, even a sympathetic president can be stifled.”
The scourge of right-wing violence is all but certain to pose challenges for President-elect Joe Biden, who will face intense pressure to crack down on the hate-fueled movements that flourished during the Trump administration, all while trying to fulfill a mandate to heal a bitterly divided country.
As president, he could establish a commission to investigate extremism in law enforcement and the military, experts said, or lay out a domestic terrorism strategy that specifically focuses on white supremacist groups, which FBI director Christopher A. Wray described as a leading threat in congressional testimony last year.
“It’s about showing the public and showing them that we’re attacking this seriously,” said Ben-Ghiat, of New York University.
Whitmer said she’s optimistic there will be a “different tone and set of expectations” under a Biden administration but has no illusions the escalation in violent, extremist behavior will vanish.
“I don’t think we’re going to wake up on Jan. 21 and everything, from the pain of the last four years, will all be addressed and we will be back to where we were,” Whitmer said. “But I do think that with time, with decency, with leadership, that will change.”