Dozens of heavily armed militiamen crowded into the Michigan Statehouse last April to protest a stay-at-home order by the Democratic governor to slow the pandemic. Chanting and stomping their feet, they halted legislative business, tried to force their way onto the floor and brandished rifles from the gallery over lawmakers below.
Initially, Republican leaders had some misgivings about their new allies. “The optics weren’t good. Next time tell them not to bring guns,” complained Mike Shirkey, the State Senate majority leader, according to one of the protest organizers. But Michigan’s highest-ranking Republican came around after the planners threatened to return with weapons and “militia guys signing autographs and passing out blow-up AR-15s to the kiddies on the Capitol lawn.”
“To his credit,” Jason Howland, the organizer, wrote in a social media post, Mr. Shirkey agreed to help the cause and “spoke at our next event.”
Following signals from President Donald J. Trump — who had tweeted “LIBERATE MICHIGAN!” after an earlier show of force in Lansing — Michigan’s Republican Party last year welcomed the support of newly emboldened paramilitary groups and other vigilantes. Prominent party members formed bonds with militias or gave tacit approval to armed activists using intimidation in a series of rallies and confrontations around the state. That intrusion into the Statehouse now looks like a portent of the assault halfway across the country months later at the United States Capitol.
As the Senate on Tuesday begins the impeachment trial of Mr. Trump on charges of inciting the Jan. 6 Capitol rioting, what happened in Michigan helps explain how, under his influence, party leaders aligned themselves with a culture of militancy to pursue political goals.
Michigan has a long tradition of tolerating self-described private militias, which are unusually common in the state. But it is also a critical electoral battleground that draws close attention from top party leaders, and the Republican alliance with paramilitary groups shows how difficult it may be for the national party to extricate itself from the shadow of the former president and his appeal to this aggressive segment of its base.
“We knew there would be violence,” said Representative Elissa Slotkin, a Michigan Democrat, about the Jan. 6 assault. Endorsing tactics like militiamen with assault rifles frightening state lawmakers “normalizes violence,” she told journalists last week, “and Michigan, unfortunately, has seen quite a bit of that.”
Six Trump supporters from Michigan have been arrested in connection with the storming of the Capitol. One, a former Marine accused of beating a Capitol Police officer with a hockey stick, had previously joined armed militiamen in a protest organized by Michigan Republicans to try to disrupt ballot counting in Detroit. [Continue reading…]