As a near-life-long Michigander, this was not my State’s best week ever. Thousands of demonstrators, incited to fury by disinformation and their own MAGA orthodoxy, descended upon our capital to protest the very concept of public health and safety. This cynical and dangerous deployment of men, women and children in the service of an unworthy tin-pot tyrant is mortifying; the fact that these folks are dupes in a decades-long gas-lighting operation of divide and conquer makes it tragic.
It is not my intent to spoil breakfast, lunch or dinner. However, in efforts to explain, expiate, and perhaps enlighten even one Operation Gridlock-er in the error of their way(s), let’s examine this as if we were performing a post-mortem, and see what lurks in the morbid tissues.
Putting the Ass in Astro-Turf
While there are elements of relativism, Nixon’s Southern Strategy and the Reagan Revolution at play in Operation Gridlock, its most immediate forbear is the Tea Party Movement of 2010. If you’ll recall, that was when Dick Armey and a few other millionaire GOP strategists created a “grass roots” movement from whole cloth, weaving in grievances old and new, real and imagined. The premier catalysts were three: the prospect of affordable health care for every American; the prospect of continued if nominal Democratic majorities; the prospect of a black man occupying the Office of the Presidency for even one more day.
The sad fact is that this astro-turf movement worked like a charm; just in time for the 2010 mid-terms, the Tea Party-brand helped gain six GOP seats in the Senate and 63 in the House, costing Dems that chamber. In 2014, Dems lost another 13 seats in the House and a staggering nine in the Senate, completing a Republican takeover of Congress.
None of the hysterical drivers of this turnaround were even remotely true: Obama wasn’t coming for your guns; taxes weren’t at an all-time high; the United Nations was not taking over the United States; no one was unplugging grandma or shipping her off to a FEMA death-camp. But as they say, nothing succeeds like success, and in 2016, an entirely unsuitable reality-TV host with zero academic or government credentials rode this same brand of brazen bullshit all the way to the White House.
So fast-forwarding to Spring, 2020, we find a Republic and its respective states enduring death and disarray on an epic scale rivaling some of the lowest points in US history. Nearly three-quarters of a million Americans have contracted Covid-19, and almost 40,000 have died from it. And while Donald John Trump did not personally bring this contagion to our shores, he has bungled, botched and butchered the US response so badly, to paraphrase a GOP slogan, “he built this.”
In Michigan, a vulnerable travel-hub state due to its auto industry, over 30,000 Covid-19 cases have been confirmed, and nearly 2,400 Michiganders have died. Looking to less critical data points, Trump’s reelection prospects are on a downward trajectory in a state he must win in November; a recent Hart Research Associates poll has Joe Biden up nine points.
Doing her duty to flatten this curve of disease and death, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer (D) enacted stay-at-home orders less than one month ago, and by all medical and scientific measurements they are working. But as no good deed goes unpunished, and no opportunity for more brazen bullshit and incitement should go unexploited, the Michigan GOP and their ilk cooked up a duty of their own.
Rather than seeking to combat Covid-19 and ease suffering through any number of constructive legal means, the Michigan Conservative Coalition (funded in part by Betsy and Dick DeVos) and other groups slithered into action. Deftly ramping-up from personal grievances about gardening, golfing and “travel between your properties,” Operation Gridlock was planned for the self-same date as your old-timey Tea Party protests of yore. April 15th would be the day Gretchen Whitmer should pay the political price for saving lives, with “patriots” gleefully whipping enthusiasm to an ignorant froth to save Trump’s bacon.
A Confederacy of the Confused
Setting out while the morning mercury was still below freezing, thousands of the feckless faithful converged on the Capitol. Their trucks and cars festooned with flags, signs, wonders and misspellings, this canard of a caravan encircled its nemesis, responsible government, honking, mugging and wailing at the very injustice of good health.
Signs with such messages as “Lock Her Up,” “Freedom is Essenial (sic)” and “We the Peope (sic)” were displayed, with many folks proudly rocking their MAGA gear. And though the organizers of Wednesday’s display solemnly claimed that all protesters would remain in their vehicles, packs of men, women and children wandered freely as if in a NASCAR infield.
The attendees seemed to break down into three groups: garden-variety people who’ve been bluntly manipulated to vote against their own economic interest for years; low-level, office-seeking GOP hopefuls looking for votes and support; cos-play “militia-men” and gun-nuts brandishing military-grade, semi-automatic firepower while posing for selfies and group portraits on the steps of the Capitol. Throw in several American flags, a few Confederate ones and an errant Nazi symbol or two, and you get the picture.
What conceptually bound these folks together is something I dubbed “shambolism” back in 2016, to wit: “a chaotic, scatter-gunning, spit-balling attack on convention, consistency, facts and logic. In shambolism, two entirely opposite ideas occupy the same space, truthfulness is rare, swift-boating reigns supreme, and the process operates as sound cannon of illogic aimed at opponents, the press, and voters alike.” A distinguishing feature of shambolism is that much like Covid-19, many folks suffering from its effects are unaware of the peril to themselves, their families and society at large.
Of course there can be no greater embodiment of shambolism than Donald Trump himself. On Monday of this past week, Trump suggested opening the American economy single-handed, stating “When somebody is president of the United States, the authority is total . . . the governors know that.” By Thursday, Trump announced a purposefully vague, three-phase plan, stating to governors, “You’re going to call your own shots . . . we’re going to be standing alongside of you.” And yet, by Friday, Trump had switched back again, dangerously tweeting “LIBERATE MINNESOTA!” and “LIBERATE MICHIGAN!” More sinister still, Trump also tweeted “LIBERATE VIRGINIA, and save your great 2nd Amendment. It is under siege!”
Looking to three quick examples of shambolism on display in Lansing, we first turn to Meshawn Maddock of the Michigan Conservative Coalition, wife of a sitting State Rep and likely a GOP-hopeful herself. “Nobody is denying that this is a crisis . . . but we’ve also all learned to be safer. Everybody has learned a lesson in hand-washing, face touching and social distancing.” Her apparent brand of distancing involves throngs of people huddling in groups, with some even handing out candy to children. Two of Maddock’s specific examples of tyranny were rules regarding motor-boating and limitations on travel between primary and vacation residences.
In the realm of simple economics, many claimed that Whitmer was purposefully destroying their small businesses. This displays a special brand of narcissism only a mother could love, and begs the question: how do evil Democrats simultaneously tax such patriots at confiscatory rates to fulfill their socialist agendas, yet at the same time intentionally bankrupt the same businesses?
A final wry observation is conceptual; if the Confederate flag on display in Lansing Wednesday means anything, it means respect for “states’ rights” and states’ governors, versus a despotic president in Washington. And yet, there was the heroic Trump on Monday, lording his “total authority” over all 50 states. Looks like some of these Johnny-Rebs need to repeat 8th grade or admit to two sets of rules.
What’s the Matter With Michigan?
In his seminal work, “What’s the Matter With Kansas?,” author Thomas Franks carefully examined the anachronism of regular folks regrettably but reliably voting against their own self-interest in his native state. “There’s a reason you probably haven’t heard much about this aspect of the heartland. This kind of blight can’t be easily blamed on the usual suspects like government or counterculture or high-hat urban policy,” wrote Franks. “The culprit is the conservatives’ beloved free-market capitalism, a system that, at its most unrestrained, has little use for small-town merchants or the agricultural system that supported the small towns in the first place . . . .”
Michigan’s political history for the 20th century features hallmarks of sound and decent public policy implemented at the hands of Democrats the likes of Frank Murphy, Soapy Williams and James Blanchard. GOP moderates like George Romney and Bill Milliken carried the same spirit of sincere service to their constituents, and our state remained a relative working-class paradise where labor, capital and smart governance meshed for the good of all.
Sadly this tradition of reasonableness came to a screeching halt with the elevation of John Mathias Engler to the office of Governor. With the care and finesse of an angry bull, Engler’s long tenure brought privatization of state services, income tax reduction, a sales tax increase, gutted departments, welfare reform, tort reform and other “reorganizations.” All such actions paraded as populism, but in reality heaped ever more privileges upon the wealthy and corporations at the expense of regular folk. In sum, Michigan’s government was converted from a shield protecting the working class into a cudgel for the powerful. Divide and conquer really works.
Perhaps the most telling feature of Engler’s legacy and zeitgeist was one of his last tricks. In a stunning declaration of two sets of rules, he championed term limits for everyone but himself; heads he wins, tails you lose. No wonder he made such a hash of his failed rehabbing at Michigan State University in the wake of the Larry Nassar scandal. Blaming the victims of sexual assault for such crimes is never a good look.
Michigan’s history is salient to compare and contrast our politics with that of our immediate neighbor to the south and hone this piece to a fine point. In Ohio, GOP Gov. Mike DeWine implemented stay-at-home orders similar to ours even before Whitmer did. Yet both Republicans AND Democrats in his state largely praised DeWine’s stewardship of the pandemic and the protection of the public from themselves. In Michigan, where John Engler once famously ruled like a king, they cravenly want to lock Whitmer up. Two sets of rules.
So as it turns out, Wednesday’s conservative comic-con was about as phony as Bozo’s nose, but as serious as the deaths of 153 Michiganders who perished that very same day.