The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Right-wing extremists pose an alarming threat. Trump is doing nothing to defuse it.

Michigan’s Governor Gretchen Whitmer (D) at a news conference after 13 were arrested for alleged plots to take her hostage and attack the state capitol building, in Lansing, on Oct. 8.
Michigan’s Governor Gretchen Whitmer (D) at a news conference after 13 were arrested for alleged plots to take her hostage and attack the state capitol building, in Lansing, on Oct. 8. (Michigan Governor's Office/Via Reuters)
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FBI DIRECTOR Christopher A. Wray warned in September that the most pressing threats facing the nation came from anti-government and white-supremacist groups. Tuesday, the Department of Homeland Security echoed the assessment, identifying the violent white supremacy movement as the “most persistent and lethal threat in the homeland.” Just two days later, the danger was underscored in a terrifying way when federal and state authorities announced they had broken up a domestic terrorist plot to kidnap Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer (D) because of some of her covid-19 restrictions.

Right-wing extremist groups represent a real and rising menace at a volatile time in the country’s politics. Americans should be alarmed — but also reassured that law enforcement authorities seem to be taking the threat seriously, as their foiling of the alleged conspiracy against Ms. Whitmer demonstrates. They’re doing their job. If only President Trump would do his and stop the harmful, mixed messages that give oxygen to extremists.

“Extreme” surely describes the Michigan plot outlined in an FBI affidavit filed in federal court. Thirteen people face terrorism, conspiracy and weapons charges for their involvement in various plans, including kidnapping Ms. Whitmer and putting her on “trial,” storming the state capitol and trying to ignite a civil war. One plotter, recorded in the investigation that relied on undercover agents, confidential informants and intercepted messages, complained about gyms being closed. Reduced workout opportunities would be almost comical as a motive if lives weren’t at risk — not only Ms. Whitmer’s but also those of her family, police officers, other officials and the public. According to the government, the alleged terrorists surveilled the governor’s vacation home, studied police response times, participated in firearms training and tested improvised explosive devices.

Michigan has a history of so-called militia activity, but that alone can’t account for how it has become a hot spot for resistance against pandemic restrictions, with Ms. Whitmer a particular target. Demonstrators who swarmed the capitol this spring included those who advocated violence against her; one man carried a doll hanging from a noose. In May, a man was charged with threatening to kill the governor and state attorney general.

At a news conference Thursday, Ms. Whitmer thanked the law enforcement officers “who put themselves in harm’s way to keep our family safe” and then criticized Mr. Trump for encouraging violence with his incendiary rhetoric. Mr. Trump tweeted on Thursday that he doesn’t “tolerate ANY extreme violence,” but his past disdain for “that woman in Michigan,” his call to “LIBERATE MICHIGAN!” and, most recently, his telling an extremist group to “stand back and stand by” send another, far different, message — as he knows.

The events in Michigan heighten concerns about potential violence on Election Day and in the days after. Mr. Trump’s accusation of treason against his opponent and calls for his indictment are bound to raise the temperature and — if Mr. Trump loses — the number of people rejecting the election as illegitimate. Local and state officials must follow the lead of the authorities who thwarted the Michigan plot and take steps to ensure the rights and safety of voters.

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