Plot to kidnap Michigan's governor grew from the militia movement's toxic mix of constitutional falsehoods and half-truths
Pete Musico (left) is one of the founding members of the Wolverine Watchmen, as is Joseph Morrison (right). Both were charged in conspiracy to kidnap Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer. (Jackson County Sheriff's Office via AP)
The US militia movement has long been shaped by a peculiar - and undoubtedly incorrect - interpretation of the Constitution, the Bill of Rights and civil liberties.
This applies to an armed militia group called Wolverine Watchmen, which was involved in the recently announced conspiracy to topple the Michigan government and kidnap Governor Gretchen Whitmer.
As I wrote in the 2019 book Fracturing the Founding: How Legacy Corrupts the Constitution, the core of the militia movement's devotion to what I have termed the Legacy Constitution is a toxic mixture of these constitutional falsehoods and half-truths.
Michigan governor Gretchen Whitmer speaks to the state.
The term "militia" has many meanings.
The constitution deals with militia in Article 1 and empowers Congress to "organize, arm and discipline the militia".
However, the constitution doesn't make provisions for private militias like the far-right Wolverine Watchmen, Proud Boys, the Michigan militia, and the Oath Keepers, to name a few.
Private militias are simply groups of like-minded men - members almost always include white men - who join a sometimes confusing set of beliefs about a stingy federal government hostile to white men and white heritage, and the sanctity of the bear right to arms and private property. They believe the government is under the control of Jews, the United Nations, international banking interests, leftists, Antifa, Black Lives Matter and so on. There is no evidence of this.
On October 8, the FBI arrested six men, five of them from Michigan, and charged them with conspiring to kidnap Whitmer. Shortly thereafter, state authorities accused seven more men of "attempting to storm the Michigan Capitol and" civil war, "according to the Associated Press, including the founders and several members of the Wolverine Watchmen.
According to the FBI's affidavit on the federal charges, the six men accused allegedly served as defense lawyers for the Bill of Rights. In fact, some of the men had participated in rallies in Lansing, the state capital, in April during which armed citizens tried to rush onto the floor of the State House in violation of Governor Whitmer's order to shut down the pandemic Constitution to protest a "tyrannical" government that wants to sacrifice civil liberties in the name of the COVID-19 fight.
According to the FBI's affidavit, the conspirators wanted to "create a society that would follow the US Bill of Rights and where they could be self-sufficient".
Militiamen imagine they are "the last true American patriots", "the modern defenders of the United States Constitution in general and the Second Amendment in particular".
Therefore, the Bill of Rights - and especially the second amendment, which establishes the right to take over arms - plays an important role in the old constitution. It is no coincidence that the first discussions about the overthrow of the so-called tyrannical governor of Michigan began at a rally on the second amendment in June.
Most militias believe that the second amendment authorizes their operations and also makes them exempt from government regulation. In truth, the second change does nothing to authorize private armed militias. Private armed militias are explicitly illegal in every state.
William Zero at a protest in Michigan.
No restrictions on rights
Other basic principles of militia constitutionalism are absolutism. Absolutism in the militia world is the idea that basic constitutional rights - such as freedom of speech, the right to bear arms, and the right to own property - cannot be restricted or regulated by the state without the consent of a citizen.
The far-right reading of the first and second amendments, which regulate freedom of expression and the right to armed violence, start from a simple premise: both amendments are literal and absolute. They believe that the first amendment will allow them to say something to anyone anytime, anywhere, without consequence or reproach of the government or even other citizens who disagree or take offense in their speech.
Similarly, proponents of the alt-right weapon believe that the second amendment protects their God-given right to own a weapon - any weapon - and that government efforts to refuse their weapons will be curtailed or even restricted register must be unconstitutional. They believe that the second amendment transcends every other provision in the constitution.
Another important belief of the militia members is the principle of constitutional self-help. This is the belief that citizens, acting as sovereign free men by virtue of their inherent authority, are ultimately and definitively responsible for enforcing the Constitution - as they understand it.
To demonstrate this mindset, the men arrested in Michigan discussed taking Governor Whitmer to a "safe place" in Wisconsin to be tried for treason ahead of the November 3rd election. Barry County, Michigan Sheriff Dar Leaf - a member of the militia-friendly Association of Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers - the men arrested in Michigan may not have attempted to kidnap the governor, but merely arrested a citizen.
Leaf, who appeared at home with two of the alleged kidnappers at a protest in Grand Rapids in May by Governor Whitmer, mistakenly believes that local sheriffs are the highest constitutional agency in the United States with the power to rule which laws support and which laws violate the constitution? Events in Michigan show how dangerous this misunderstanding of the Constitution can be.
There will be more
The Wolverine Watchmen are not a Second Amendment militia or constitutional patriots in the true sense of the word. If they are guilty of the charges brought against them, then they are terrorists.
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The FBI and Michigan law enforcement closed the guards before a prodigious crime and terrible human tragedy unfolded. But, as I noted in my book just last year, "there is little reason to believe that the militia movement will wear off anytime soon."
Unfortunately, I failed to consider the possibility that President Trump would encourage militias to "step back and stand by," which likely encourages and encourages groups that are already clearly a threat. Expect more Michigans.
This article was republished by The Conversation, a non-profit news site dedicated to exchanging ideas from academic experts.
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John E. Finn does not work for any company or organization that would benefit from this article, does not consult any stocks or companies that would benefit from this article, and has not disclosed any relevant links beyond their academic appointment.
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