Editor’s Note: Halie Soifer is executive director of the Jewish Democratic Council of America (JDCA), which is a national organization that endorses Democratic candidates for elected office and advocates for progressive policy. She previously served as national security adviser to Sen. Kamala Harris, as foreign policy adviser to Sens. Chris Coons and Ted Kaufman, and as senior policy adviser to U.S. Ambassador to the UN Samantha Power. The opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author. View more opinion articles on CNN.
Growing-up in East Lansing, Michigan, I was aware of the Michigan Militia, a pro-gun, anti-government paramilitary group that emerged in the mid-90s.
As a member of Lansing’s small Jewish community, my family was deeply troubled by this gun-wielding organization – part of a nationwide militia movement increasingly aligned with white nationalists – based in neighboring towns. We never saw the militia in action, but their mere existence posed an ominous threat to our community and others. I never imagined that I’d see the day when the president of the United States would praise a group of protesters, including militia members, as “very good people,” using similar language to the words he directed at groups that included neo-Nazis marching in Charlottesville less than three years before.
On April 15, the militia joined thousands of people at an “Operation Gridlock” rally in Lansing against statewide closures due to coronavirus.
The protesters waived Trump flags alongside Confederate flags and swastikas, and disobeyed social distancing measures. While the ostensible target of their outrage was Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer for imposing stay-at-home orders, any use of an anti-Semitic hate symbol and Nazi imagery should be interpreted as a message of targeting Jews. The racist message conveyed by the Confederate flag left little room for doubt that the hatred extended to people of color too.
The rally included the Michigan Liberty Militia – classified by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) as an extreme antigovernment group – and the Proud Boys, “western chauvinists” classified by the SPLC as a hate group.
Two days later, on April 17, President Donald Trump tweeted his support for the protesters in Michigan, Virginia, and Minnesota, encouraging these groups to “liberate” their states, which some viewed as a call to arms. At a time when some extremists are reportedly looking to exploit the coronavirus pandemic to target Jews, Asian-Americans, and others, conspiracy theorists speculated online that Trump was calling for an insurrection, which they refer to as a “boogaloo” or second civil war.
Washington Gov. Jay Inslee responded to the president’s “liberate” tweets by accusing him of “fomenting domestic rebellion.” On April 19, Trump was asked at his daily press briefing if he stood with those protesting state closures, and he asserted “I’m with everybody,” signaling to Operation Gridlock protesters that he supported their efforts.
On Thursday, armed members of the militia and dozens of protesters stormed the Michigan State Capitol as the state legislature debated the extension of the stay-at-home orders. Michigan State Senator Dayna Polehanki tweeted an image of four men clutching rifles standing above her in the Senate gallery and reported that some of her colleagues were wearing bulletproof vests. Once again, the protests included swastikas, Confederate flags, and a noose, along with a sign referring to Whitmer with the message “tyrants get the rope.”
Perhaps the most shocking image from the protest featured six heavily-armed militiamen standing in front of Whitmer’s office. While within their legal right to carry weapons in the Capitol building, the gun-wielding protesters exuded a sense of confidence and entitlement while implicitly threatening the governor by brandishing their weapons outside her door. Their sense of confidence must have been further boosted when just a day later Trump tweeted that they were “very good people.”
This was similar to Trump’s reaction after the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, when the president publicly lauded dangerous and hateful right-wing extremists, including those threatening and perpetrating violence. He equated neo-Nazis chanting “Jews will not replace us” with those peacefully protesting them. He stated, there “…were very fine people on both sides” in Charlottesville, even though one side included white supremacists.
Under mounting pressure, Trump eventually denounced “racist violence,” but failed to specifically condemn white nationalists, leaving questions about whether he feared ostracizing his far-right base.
Notably, those “very fine people” marching in Charlottesville included several reportedly wearing Michigan Militia shirts.
Trump initially praised the protesters in Charlottesville, just as he did the protesters in Lansing, in what can be seen as encouragement for their hateful and dangerous ideology. The growing threat created by his reluctance to condemn hate groups is one of the most important reasons why I’m working on behalf of the Jewish Democratic Council of America (JDCA) to defeat Trump in November. While movements such as the Michigan Militia did not emerge during the Trump administration, he has emboldened this group and others like it to come out of the shadows.
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In six months, Americans will vote in the most important election of our lifetimes. As JDCA said in a video created two weeks ago, “Donald Trump’s emboldening of white nationalism has been the biggest threat to American Jews. Now it’s clear he doesn’t have the character to keep all Americans safe or to put the country first.” From Charlottesville to Lansing, Trump has invigorated and encouraged hatred and division that threatens us all. Americans deserve better.