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Extremists take provocations seriously. So should we.

Last April, hours after Donald Trump exhorted his supporters to “LIBERATE MICHIGAN!” from the lock-down Gov. Gretchen Whitmer had imposed to slow the spread of COVID-19, a former assistant attorney general in the U.S. Justice Department’s national security division suggested that the president was inciting insurrection in violation of federal law.

“It’s not at all unreasonable to consider Trump’s tweets about “liberation” as at least tacit encouragement to citizens to take up arms against duly elected state officials of the party opposite his own, in response to sometimes unpopular but legally issued stay-at-home orders,” Mary McCord, the attorney, wrote in an op-ed published in the Washington Post. She noted that “private armed militias had recently expressed eagerness to support the president’s veiled call to arms” when he suggested that his conviction on impeachment charges could lead to civil war.

Like many Michiganders, we were appalled when demonstrators protesting the governor’s stay-at-home orders carried assault rifles into the public gallery overlooking the state House chamber two weeks after Trump’s battle cry. Even so, we hesitated to equate the president’s over-heated tweets with sedition.

As journalists, we are mindful of the distinction between angry words and violent deeds, and we are suspicious of efforts to confuse the two, as the president does when he asserts that mostly peaceful protests against police violence pose an urgent, widespread threat to public safety.

But the timeline revealed in an FBI affidavit detailing the plot to kidnap Whitmer and put her “on trial” for her emergency orders — the alleged ringleader was said to have been particularly outraged by the state’s closure of private gyms — compels us to at least acknowledge the unfortunate convergence between Trump’s escalating rhetoric and the alleged conspirators’ determination to overthrow her, preferably before next month’s presidential election.

We know now that a few of the armed protesters who flocked to Lansing to protest the governor’s stay-at-home orders last spring discussed the practicality of an armed assault on the Capitol itself. Even so, House Speaker Lee Chatfield, R-Levering, and Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, R-Clarklake, have steadfastly refused to take up legislation that would bar visitors from carrying firearms into the chambers where lawmakers convene. The two legislative leaders must have been relieved to learn that Whitmer’s would-be attackers eventually concluded her vacation home would be a softer target.

Shirkey and Chatfield have been full-throated in their condemnation of previous threats on Whitmer’s life, and were quick to praise the federal and state law enforcement effort that took down the latest plot. But they’ve been equally consistent in insisting, as the misogynistic crew that plotted to abduct Whitmer did, that the governor’s emergency orders are an attack on democratic rule with no basis in law.

In fact, the legislative act Whitmer has cited as authority for extending her state of emergency stood undisturbed for three-quarters of a century until four Republican state Supreme Court justices declared it unconstitutional last week. The canard that Whitmer has acted with dictatorial disregard for the law is a distortion those who advocate armed resistance have eagerly embraced.

Still, Shirkey and Chatfield were likely blind-sided by the months-old plot revealed Thursday. It will be interesting to learn whether President Trump, who encouraged white supremacist groups to “stand by” even as law enforcement closed in on Whitmer’s would-be abductors, was equally surprised.The president’s dog whistles to extremists will appear even more irresponsible if it turns out he was briefed in advance about the FBI’s investigation.

Like Whitmer and her legislative colleagues, we are relieved and encouraged by the coordinated law enforcement effort to foil her attackers’ plans. But we also share her conclusion that elected leaders who encourage or fraternize with extremists are morally complicit in the threat they pose to democracy.

— Detroit Free Press

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