The most striking thing about the six domestic terrorists arrested on Thursday for conspiring to kidnap the governor of Michigan isn’t that they actually took steps to carry out their plot—though that is unusual and frightening (most groups of this ilk talk big but do little). More, it’s what the gang reveals about the steep rise in American militia activity this year.
Some of these groups—including this one, which, had it succeeded, would have been the season’s most brazenly violent—seem to be inspired not by white supremacist ideology or left/right partisanship, but rather by an off-the-cliff radical variant of a feeling deeply rooted in American culture: fear and hatred of government.
The 15-page FBI affidavit against the terrorists—who called their group the Wolverine Watchmen—contains verbatim excerpts of conversations, which were recorded by two informants and two FBI infiltrators. (The two informants—neither of whom knew that the other was an informant—were members of the group who got spooked by talk of committing violence, went to law enforcement, and agreed to wear wires while attending meetings.) At least in the passages cited in the affidavit, there are no racist remarks or references to President Donald Trump’s rhetoric. More typical is this soliloquy on July 24 by Adam Fox, clearly the group’s leader:
In all honesty, right now … I just wanna make the world glow, dude. I’m not even fuckin’ kidding. I just wanna make it all glow, dude. I don’t fuckin’ care anymore. I’m just so sick of it. That’s what it’s gonna take for us to take it back. … Everything’s gonna have to be annihilated, man. We’re gonna topple it all, dude. It’s what great frickin’ conquerors, man, we’re just gonna conquer every fuckin’ thing, man.
Their particular agitation toward Michigan’s Democratic governor, Gretchen Whitmer, seems to have been sparked by her lockdown orders in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic. At least two of the Wolverine Watchmen were among the armed protesters who stormed and briefly occupied the Michigan State Capitol in Lansing this past May.
On June 6, according to the FBI affidavit, the six accused men met with other self-described militiamen to talk about “creating a society that followed the U.S. Bill of Rights and where they could be self-sufficient.” Whitmer was one of a few governors lambasted at this meeting for violating the Constitution.
Three weeks later, the talk became more radical. Fox—who, like the other members, lives in Michigan—started talking about “kidnapping” Whitmer and taking her to a “secure location” in Wisconsin, where she would be put on “trial.” Another member of the group, Daniel Harris, proposed killing her. (“Just cap her,” he said in one recorded conversation.)
Soon, the group started conducting “firearms training and tactical drills” on a private property in a remote part of Michigan. They also met in a friend’s basement whose only entrance was a trapdoor covered by a rug. They conducted surveillance outside Whitmer’s home. They arranged to buy explosives, with the idea of blowing up a nearby bridge so that police would be distracted while the group nabbed the governor. Their goal was to do all this before the Nov. 3 election, though it’s unclear what they thought would happen next beyond widespread chaos.
Trump’s rhetorical assault on lockdowns and mask-wearing may have inflamed many radicals—the storming of the state Capitol came soon after Trump’s tweet, calling on his followers to “LIBERATE MICHIGAN!”—but there is no indication that the Wolverine Watchmen are pro-Trump. One of them tweeted a video some time ago (the date isn’t clear) in which he says, “Trump is not your friend, dude. … He’s a tyrant. Every single person that works for government is your enemy, dude.”
In hearings last month before the House Homeland Security Committee, FBI Director Christopher Wray said the bureau conducts about 1,000 domestic terrorism investigations a year—“well north of 1,000” this year. Most of these cases, he said, involve white supremacist groups—contradicting Trump, who has claimed that leftists like antifa commit the most crimes. But Wray also said that the most “lethal” attacks come from “anti-government, anti-authority, anarchist” extremists. “We don’t think in terms of left or right,” he said. “That’s not how we view the world.”
Rep. Elissa Slotkin, a Democrat from Michigan, former CIA analyst, and the committee member who asked Wray about domestic terrorism, told me in a phone call Friday that the activities described in the FBI affidavit amount to “textbook terrorism.” She’s disturbed that so few, in government or media, call it by that name. But she’s more disturbed that the language transcribed in the affidavit—the references to political opponents as “tyrants” who should be tried for treason—so resembles the language that’s now commonplace in American politics. “When you normalize speech like this, you shouldn’t be surprised when a few extremists take it to the next level,” she said.
“We were very lucky,” she said, “that, in this case, we had people on the inside” who turned against the plotters and helped the authorities. “Who knows who else is out there?”
David Kilcullen, a noted terrorism expert who has written that the rise of radical militias may be a sign of an “incipient insurgency,” has similar concerns. “I’ve been studying these sorts of groups since 2012,” he said to me in a phone conversation Friday. “Until these arrests, I’d never heard of the Wolverine Watchmen. What other militias are out there we don’t know about?”
All this is occurring in a rapidly coarsening political environment. According to a recent YouGov poll, 36 percent of Republicans and 33 percent of Democrats feel at least somewhat justified in using violence to achieve their political goals. As recently as 2017, just 8 percent of both party members felt that way.
The wannabe terrorists in Michigan weren’t very bright, judging from the affidavit, but this shouldn’t be too reassuring. “Most terrorists are idiots,” Kilcullen said. “That doesn’t mean they can’t commit some very deadly acts.” The number of truly violent groups is also quite small, but that doesn’t mean much either. “The sequence goes like this,” he said. “Mass protests, for instance against lockdown laws, inspire small groups that want to commit violence. Some in those groups drop out. But a small core group sticks around, goes underground, and becomes more dangerous. It only takes a few people to inflict a lot of damage.”