On March 17, days after Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer issued shutdown orders in her state in an effort to slow the spread of covid-19, Donald Trump decided to go on the attack. Describing Whitmer that day as the “failing Michigan governor,” in subsequent weeks he would double down on his misogynistic criticism. She was “Gretchen ‘Half’ Whitmer” and “way over her head,” she was “the woman in Michigan,” the “young woman governor” whose name he couldn’t even bear to utter. “Liberate Michigan,” Trump urged in April, giving his overt support to agitators who had gathered at the state capitol days earlier to protest Michigan’s stay-at-home order, some armed in paramilitary gear and carrying Confederate flags and swastikas and calling for explicit violence against the governor.
Whitmer has been one of the nation’s most vocal critics of the Trump administration’s response to the pandemic, and Trump’s reaction has been to not just delegitimize her authority but to encourage threats against her. Trump’s rhetoric put a target on her back and all but gave the thumbs up to violent actors, with predictable and potentially dangerous results. Last week, the FBI revealed that thirteen men, some of whom were members of the rightwing militia Wolverine Watchmen, had plotted to kidnap Whitmer, whom they described as a “tyrant bitch,” and put her on trial for tyranny. Their goal? To incite a “civil war.” Some of them had attended the anti-lockdown protests held earlier in the year, with one even appearing on stage. According to the FBI, the group began planning right around the time that Trump had called for the state to be liberated, going so far as to hold training exercises, purchase a Taser, test explosives, and conduct surveillance of Whitmer.
Whitmer herself blamed Trump for “creating a very dangerous situation,” as she put it in an interview last week. “Each time he has tweeted about me, each time that he has said ‘liberate Michigan’ and said I should negotiate with the very people who are arrested because they’re ‘good people,’ that incites more domestic terror,” she told ABC News. On Tuesday, Whitmer echoed those comments during an appearance on the View. describing the “rhetoric” being stoked as “downright dangerous.” “Giving domestic terror groups credibility or giving them space or sending them messages or encouragement means that you’re complicit,” Whitmer said, without naming Trump explicitly. She added, “This is a moment in American history where we need to see leaders stand up for the right thing, right now.”
That Trump has encouraged violence is obvious. This isn’t the first time that far-right actors have taken his words as inspiration. Yet Trump and his campaign have somehow continued to hold Whitmer responsible for the plot against her life, engaging in classic victim blaming. “Governor Whitmer is sowing division by making these outlandish allegations,” White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany asserted. Trump campaign official Jason Miller said it was Whitmer who in fact was filled with hate, not Trump. “If we want to talk about hatred, then Governor Whitmer, go look in the mirror—the fact that she wakes up everyday with such hatred in her heart for President Trump,” Miller said on Fox News. And the day that the FBI announced news of the arrests, Trump himself took to Twitter to whine that Whitmer “has done a terrible job” and that “rather than say thank you, she calls me a White Supremacist,” somehow turning himself into the injured party.
Trump always does his best to paint perceived threats to his power as illegitimate, from mail-in voting to Whitmer, an elected official whose views he doesn’t like and therefore feels justified in calling for her removal. That this anti-government sentiment had spread beyond Trump was made clear when a county sheriff in Michigan, Dar Leaf, defended the men charged in the kidnapping plot, one of whom he had shared a stage with at an anti-lockdown protest. Leaf argued that the alleged militia members weren’t going to kidnap her, they just wanted to arrest her, which was perfectly within their rights. “It’s just a charge, and they say a ‘plot to kidnap’ and you got to remember that. Are they trying to kidnap? Because a lot of people are angry with the governor, and they want her arrested,” Leaf said.
But inextricable from the attacks on Whitmer, from Trump and his minions to the men who plotted to kidnap and even kill her, is misogyny. Trump has long reserved a special hatred for women who dare to point out his failings, viewing them as threats. By fixating on Whitmer, Trump did more than fan the flames, he all but poured the fuel on the fire.