Militias, misogyny, mainstream Republicanism and the plot against Whitmer
AOC speaks on Capitol Hill after the sexist and racist attack on her by Rep. Ted Yoho. | AP

Last week, 13 members of the Wolverine Watchmen, a right-wing extremist Michigan militia group, were charged by federal and state officials in an alleged domestic terrorism plot to kidnap Governor Gretchen Whitmer.

Their plan was to put her on trial for treason, for violating the Constitution.  Her crime? Putting in place restrictions to curb the spread of COVID-19 throughout the state.  It’s not at all clear which article of the U.S. Constitution Whitmer was violating, but that’s never an issue with such extremist groups who invoke this guiding document in self-serving rhetorical terms to justify any action they wish to pursue.

While it is true that the Michigan Supreme Court recently declared Whitmer’s emergency orders unconstitutional because they extended beyond the duration allowed by the state’s 1976 Emergency Management Act, I wonder where these militiamen can find language in the U.S. Constitution for kidnapping a state leader and taking “due process” into their own hands.

While the federal complaint filed against the members of the Wolverine Watchmen indicated this kidnapping plot was part of a larger scheme to overthrow multiple state governments they believe were violating the Constitution, that Whitmer seemed to be the first target and that she seemed to inspire such a venomous response from these should push us to explore these motivations more deeply to understand more fully the sickness in America that is right-wing extremism.

Let’s start with some of the language these defendants used to talk about Governor Whitmer.

One referred to her as “this tyrant b****.”

Another, in laying out a possible plot, allegedly said, “Snatch and grab, man. Grab the f****** governor. Just grab the b****. Because at that point, we do that, dude—it’s over.”

Does this language resonate with other newsworthy hostilities expressed toward women of late? I know such hostility and such language are so commonplace and seemingly acceptable in our culture that it might be hard to isolate any one incident. So I’ll just tell you what I’m thinking about.

Let’s recall last July when Rep. Ted Yoho called Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez a “fucking b****” on the steps of the Capitol.

These powerful echoes of Yoho’s verbal assault on AOC found in the words of the Wolverine Watchmen suggest that when it comes to misogyny, or more particularly to the dehumanization of women that underwrites and culturally ratifies violence against women, the supposed extremism of right-wing militia movements shares quite a bit with mainstream Republican thought at work in the halls of Congress.

Republicans were largely silent when it came to condemning Yoho. The loudest Republican voices, such as that of House minority leader Kevin McCarthy, tended actually to condemn Ocasio Cortez for not accepting Yoho’s multiple lame non-apologies, in which he excused himself for simply being “passionate” about the issues he cares about.

If you recall, Ocasio-Cortez did not take Yoho’s comments personally. She wasn’t wounded, shocked, or surprised by his words. For her, as a woman, it was just another day at the office, and she was headed home—until Yoho issued his non-apology, hiding behind his wife and daughters, claiming he could not really be sexist because some of his best and most intimate friends—his wife and daughters—are women.

This virulent stupidity, though, which nonetheless has currency and hobbles us collectively from owning and addressing the dehumanizing ideologies and practices of sexism in U.S. culture, compelled Ocasio Cortez to respond.

She wanted to spotlight the dynamic at work, to make the sexism so easily swept away by individual apologies—or non-apologies—visible. To highlight how this language is part and parcel of the larger sexist processes in U.S. culture and society that dehumanize women and thus enable violence against them.

The plot to kidnap, and even potentially kill, Whitmer really bears out Ocasio-Cortez’s points when we look at the language.

Indeed, as Dave Gilson asserts in opening his Mother Jones article, “You Can’t Understand White Supremacists without Looking at Masculinity”: “Nearly all right-wing extremists have something in common: They’re men.”

In his interview with sociologist Michael Kimmel, who has observed “American white national­ism offers American men the restoration of their masculinity,” Kimmel elaborates:

These guys believe something has been taken from them that they were entitled to, that they deserved, and it was given to people who don’t deserve it, like immigrants and gay people and women. Joining up is a way to get it back, to restore your masculinity. The white nationalist organizations are fairly explicit in this: “Join us and you feel like a real man. Join your brothers, your comrades. We have a sacred mission to preserve the white race.” All this stuff is designed to say, “I’m retrieving what’s rightfully mine.” The feeling of being emasculated comes from a feeling of entitlement. Entitlement is what fuels the anger and desire to restore what’s “rightfully ours.”

This belief system doesn’t sound so different from what Trump and the Republicans peddle. Just as in the aftermath of Yoho’s verbal assault, Republicans have been slow to speak out about the plot against Whitmer.

Trump, in fact, did not resort to trumpeting his “law and order” mantra and in fact attacked Whitmer for being ungrateful and attacking him as a white supremacist.

But what we see is that we need to look deeper into the workings of white supremacy in this case to diagnose the violent misogyny and dehumanization of women that isn’t just at work in right-wing extremism but is central to Trump’s political playbook and worldview and mainstream Republican thinking dominating Congress.


Tim Libretti
Tim Libretti

Tim Libretti teaches in the English Department at a public university in Chicago where he lives with his two sons.