Despite overwhelming evidence of the dangers posed by white supremacists and right-wing radicals, Trump has largely avoided confronting them and has instead spoken in a manner that critics say has encouraged far-right extremists, with fatal consequences.
Less than six months after President Donald Trump encouraged armed militia members to “LIBERATE MICHIGAN!” from Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s coronavirus safety measures, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) on Thursday announced charges against 13 right-wing domestic terrorists. They had planned to kidnap and potentially execute Whitmer, storm the state Capitol, overthrow the government, and potentially instigate a civil war.
The arrests come after months of dangerous and divisive rhetoric from the president, who has been reluctant to condemn white supremacy and far-right extremists all while stoking baseless fears that the Black Lives Matter movement and anti-fascist protesters are going to invade the suburbs and cause violence.
That scenario has not come to pass, and Thursday’s arrests highlight what anti-extremism experts, the FBI, and even Trump’s own Department of Homeland Security (DHS) actually view as the “most persistent and lethal threat in the homeland”: violent white supremacy.
Despite overwhelming evidence of the dangers posed by white supremacists and right-wing radicals, Trump has largely avoided confronting them and has instead spoken in a manner that critics say has encouraged far-right extremists. The consequences at times have been fatal.
At last week’s presidential debate, Trump was asked to explicitly condemn white supremacists and violent, right-wing radical groups like the Proud Boys, which have caused violence at racial justice protests throughout the summer. Instead of doing so, he deflected.
“Proud Boys, stand back and stand by!” Trump said.
Speaking at a press conference on Thursday, Whitmer herself drew a line between the president’s language and the threat to her life.
“Just last week, the president of the United States stood before the American people and refused to condemn white supremacists and hate groups like these two Michigan militia groups,” Whitmer said, adding that the radicals had “heard the president’s words not as a rebuke but as a rallying cry—as a call to action.”
The men arrested included members of an armed radical group in Michigan known as the Wolverine Watchmen, who previously planned to “target and kill” police officers. These suspects also allegedly had ties to the violent “Boogaloo” movement, which is intent on destroying the government and causing a second civil war.
According to the FBI, the suspects referred to Whitmer as a “tyrant bitch,” and discussed kidnapping her before the Nov. 3 election and putting her on trial for “treason.” They even suggested they might “just cap her.” The men who planned the kidnapping communicated via Facebook and text message, engaged in firearms training and combat drills, practiced building explosives, spied on Whitmer’s vacation home in August and September, and tried to determine the best way to blow up a highway bridge with a bomb in order to distract law enforcement, the FBI said.
While there is no evidence that the men’s plot was specifically inspired by Trump, several of the suspects had previously expressed support for him, ranted about Whitmer, and made veiled threats against Democrats on social media, referring to them as traitors and criminals.
Amy Cooter, a sociology professor and militia expert at Vanderbilt University, said she is confident the men were impacted by the president’s rhetoric. “I absolutely believe that Trump plays a role in encouraging actions like this, in calling individuals to be members of groups like this in the first place and encouraging folks to show up in person to protests—by stoking fears and making them feel like it is their responsibility to do something about it,” she told NBC News.
The Democratic nominee for president Joe Biden also linked the extremists’ plot to Trump’s rhetoric.
“The words of a president matter. They can move markets. They can bring peace. They can bring war. They can heal divisions or incite violence,” Biden said in a statement. “When Governor Whitmer worked to protect the people of her state from a deadly pandemic, and saved countless lives, President Trump issued a call to ‘LIBERATE MICHIGAN!’ That call was heard.”
While Biden spoke to Whitmer on Thursday and conveyed his well wishes, Trump responded with more attacks, tweeting that Whitmer had “done a terrible job” and attacking her over her failure to “thank” him for the FBI’s arrests. He also once again labeled protesters as “Antifa, Anarchists, Looters and Mobs,” even as it was his own supporters who engaged in what could be considered mob-like activity.
In contrast, no left-wing anti-fascists or any other protesters have plotted to kidnap a sitting governor.
A History of Divisive, Consequential Language
Trump’s rhetoric has had consequences before.
In 2017, Heather Heyer, 32, was killed during a counter-protest at the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. Instead of denouncing the white supremacists behind the rally, the president called Neo-Nazis “very fine people.”
Trump’s comments further emboldened an already growing white nationalism movement. According to the most recent annual report by the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), 38 of the 42 extremist-related murders tallied by the group in 2019 were committed by white supremacists, up from just 18 such murders in 2017.
The president has also spent years attacking and dehumanizing members of the media, engaging in a racist campaign questioning Barack Obama’s American nationality, and leveling baseless personal attacks against Hillary Clinton. That inflammatory language led to real-life consequences in October 2018, when it inspired one of his loyal supporters, Cesar Sayoc Jr., to send pipe bombs to CNN’s offices, as well as Obama and Clinton’s homes.
Most recently, Trump labeled groups of primarily peaceful protesters—including those who took to the streets of Kenosha, Wisconsin, following the August police shooting of Jacob Blake—as “anarchists,” and “agitators.” But, once again, it was one of his own supporters, 17-year-old Kyle Rittenhouse, who showed up armed and shot two people to death.
Trump has since defended Rittenhouse and continued his criticism of protesters. Some of the men involved in the plot to kidnap Whitmer have also defended Rittenhouse, even expressing their admiration for him in social media posts.
That more and more armed, right-wing domestic terrorists are taking violent action and defending one another is not a coincidence, according to Biden. “There is a throughline from President Trump’s dog whistles and tolerance of hate, vengeance, and lawlessness to plots such as this one,” he said, referring to the ploy to kidnap Whitmer. “He is giving oxygen to the bigotry and hate we see on the march in our country.”
Biden has repeatedly said that the “soul of the nation” is at stake with the 2020 election and encouraged Americans to “stand up and shut down violence and hate” and “come together.”
In contrast, Trump continued to sow seeds of division on Friday. During an appearance on Rush Limbaugh’s radio show, Trump once again criticized the Black Lives Matter movement.
“The first time I ever heard of Black Lives Matter, I said, ‘That’s such a terrible term.’ Because it’s such a racist term,” Trump said. “It’s a very bad term for [Black people]. But they were very angry.”
The president did not express similar outrage over news of the angry domestic terrorists who threatened to kidnap and kill a governor.