Wolverine Watchmen, Workshopping War (with Nina Burleigh)
The plot to kidnap the governor of Michigan was a prelude to January 6.
The seething rage at the government, and the seditionist movement to topple it, did not begin with January 6. As Nina Burleigh, today’s guest on the PREVAIL podcast, writes at Airmail Weekly, “the fantasy of arresting and killing elected leaders that animated the Capitol insurrectionists on January 6 had a prologue in a deranged neck of Michigan.” Before they opened on Broadway, they workshopped the play in the sticks.
As Burleigh notes, the story of the plotters who sought to kidnap, try for treason, and execute Gretchen Whitmer, the governor of Michigan, “has since slid off into an eddy of the wild news cycle.” But the raw materials that combined explosively at the Capitol in January were also present in the Wolverine State last fall, when members of a militia group with the dual comic book name “Wolverine Watchmen” were arrested by law enforcement before they could act out their violent, treasonous fantasy:
First, an anarchic disdain for authority of any kind, what Burleigh describes as “[a] shared sense of restricted personal liberty—by traffic cops, debt collectors, and, most of all, coronavirus and gun regulations. . . . That any ‘authority’ dared tell the Wolverine Watchmen what they could and could not do with themselves or their firearms galled them.” The founder of the group was arrested when an unlicensed gun was found in his car after he was pulled over, and he spent a night in jail. How dare those pigs stop his vehicle! How dare they confiscate his gun! How dare they arrest him, an upstanding citizen! That experience inspired him to start the group.
Second, white male grievance. Michigan’s three highest-ranking state officials were, and are, all women. How dare that “tyrant bitch” tell us what to do! The misogyny in the group’s communications is ugly and extreme. Despite having wives and girlfriends who were totally down with the idea of kidnapping the governor, as Burleigh discusses on the podcast—and who participated in the training—the group was strictly segregated by gender. And there was an erotic element to what they hoped to do to Whitmer. “The Watchmen bonded over a series of shared fantasies, fetishes, and grievances,” Burleigh writes. “There was the sexualized fantasy of arresting, hog-tying, and executing the governor . . . . [M]embers shared memes about the ‘gross slut who fucked the whole state.’”
Third, gun paranoia, fueled by disinformation. These men, even the wounded veteran who wound up turning them in, were hard-core Second Amendment nuts. For years they had been warned by the NRA and other groups that the government would one day come for their guns—a first step, as the bat-shit conspiracy goes, that would see them marched off to toil in FEMA work camps. Never mind that the logistics of taking guns away from every American would be logistically impossible—let alone the cuckoo FEMA camps notion. This narrative was reinforced in everything they saw on Facebook, heard from their friends, watched on Fox News and elsewhere. (Burleigh discusses this eloquently on the podcast).
These three elements—hatred of authority, misogynistic grievance, and media-fueled gun paranoia—sat inert, like a kerosene-filled glass bottle with a rag in it. And then came the spark that made the whole thing go up in flames: the pandemic. When the “tyrant bitch” governor of Michigan, whom they compared to Hitler, dared to impose a lockdown to stem the spread of the virus, the Wolverine Watchmen took it as a sign that the totalitarian takeover had begun. And they took action.
Fortunately, the FBI knew about the group and the plot almost from its inception, and easily put a stop to it. But if not for the one member of the Wolverine Watchmen who had actually served in the military, and who notified law enforcement, this might have been one of the most brutal crimes in recent memory. They were going to abduct her at her vacation home in the woods—like in a Friday the 13th movie. They were going to hog-tie and rape her. They were going to livestream her execution. Instead they are in prison, and likely to remain there for many decades—ironic, given their passionate views on liberty.
How can we stop this kind of thing from happening somewhere else, and succeeding? One way is to push back on these false narratives:
First, the Reaganite notion that all government is bad, that government is the enemy, is as ridiculous as it is insidious. The government is us! It’s we the people, not someone else. The only ballast to huge corporations is a robust federal government, and when it comes to doing things like rolling out a new vaccine, the government does it better than anyone else.
Second, it’s fucking embarrassing that there are so few women in positions of power in our government. Great Britain has been led by women. Israel has been led by women. Fucking Pakistan has been led by women. In the United States, we finally get a female Vice President, and all the press can talk about is her cookware purchases, her headphone choices, and how people don’t like her. This isn’t 1953. We aren’t the Taliban. Normalize women in charge, ffs.
And finally: No one is coming for your guns, militia dude. We just want common sense gun reform so kids stop shooting up schools. And by “we,” I mean over 90 percent of Americans, including many NRA members. The government is not your enemy! On the contrary! As The Onion foresaw years ago, if some dark, despotic force is going to control us all, it’s going to be a corporation, not a government. I had an argument with a family member recently, who insisted that “there has to be some good reason” why Biden and Fauci want everyone to get vaccinated. This person refused to allow for the possibility that the “good reason” was to save our lives—that there wasn’t more to it than that. Mistrust of the government is that deep.
Left to fester, these elements bring about catastrophe, of the kind we manage to avoid in Michigan. Next time, we might not be so lucky.
Greg Olear addresses the debate on whether we should criticize the Justice Department. Then he speaks to journalist and author Nina Burleigh about her piece for “Airmail Weekly” on the plot to kidnap the governor of Michigan; about the Ghislaine Maxwell trial and the documentary on which she was an EP; and updates on the pandemic response. Plus: a candidate declares for the Senate.
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Photo credit: Mugshots of two of the Wolverine Watchmen plotters.