White nationalism resurgence continues to shift and shape Michigan, U.S. politics

By: - April 13, 2022 12:36 pm
A man wearing a Confederate flag shirt and holding an assault rifle stands at an open carry rally at the Michigan Capitol, September 10, 2019.

Open carry rally at the Michigan Capitol, Sept. 10, 2019, (Claire Moore)

LANSING, Michigan — Before that fateful day in spring 2020, Michigan Sen. Erika Geiss felt safe in Lansing.

“Even on [annual] open carry day,” Geiss (D-Taylor) said. “I didn’t feel there was an active existential threat to my existence.”

As a Black lawmaker from a Southeast Michigan district populated by plenty of hunters, the only real pang of concern Geiss felt during those armed gatherings at the state Capitol was about whether someone may not carry their firearm properly and accidentally cause an injury.

But those were the “before times,” she says. Everything changed on April 30, 2020, more than five years after she was first elected to the Legislature.

“I will never forget that date,” Geiss said. “That was a day that palpably changed this place and the sense of safety here.

“Lansing, the Capitol, is a very different place since that day.”

On that day, about 600 armed right-wing protesters rallied against COVID-19 health measures on the front Capitol lawn and pushed their way into the building. About 20 of them, some brandishing long guns and wearing tactical gear, entered the Senate gallery and loomed over lawmakers during session.

Some legislators, like state Sen. Dayna Polehanki (D-Livonia), said they feared for their life. Some wore bulletproof vests.

For Geiss, that was when she felt a palpable shift. What she experienced that day has never quite left the Capitol, she said, as members still continue to engage in the types of dangerous rhetoric and behavior that was brought to Lansing on that spring afternoon two years ago.

“Disturbing doesn’t even begin to describe it,” Geiss said.

“It seems like this coalescing of white nationalism, of Christian nationalism, has really morphed into something that we haven’t seen since the Civil Rights era. And something that seems to have been steeping and brewing very slowly and underneath the surface for quite some time.”

Indeed, the resurgence of white nationalism — which calls for a white nation and has deep roots in racism, antisemitism, anti-feminism and conspiratorial anti-government ideas — has, in many ways, shifted America’s political and social landscape toward the far-right. Rather than being condemned as they might have in years before, politicians who espouse these ideas are now often rewarded with name recognition, public attention and media coverage that can be accompanied by a bump in fundraising and perhaps even a high-profile endorsement.

What is white nationalism?

At the very core of white nationalism and white supremacy lies ethnocentrism that advocates for a white nation through the exclusion of people of color. That objective is carried along on revolutionary, anti-government themes. Here are the details.

And the fallout from the muted acceptance of such extremist views leaves in the crosshairs people of color, government employees and other vulnerable communities.

“They are going for the targets that are the most vulnerable, and we know that the targets that are most vulnerable are women, people of color — specifically Black women get it probably worse than anyone,” said Melissa Ryan, who runs the Ctrl Alt-Right Delete newsletter that details the rise of far-right extremism.

That phenomenon of white nationalist ideologies being publicly embraced by political leaders, candidates and other right-wing officials is unique to the last few years, according to an analysis by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC).

Experts say such rhetoric accelerated after being brought into the limelight by former President Donald Trump. Like elsewhere around the country, white nationalist politics continue to leave a mark on state and local politics from county boards to the Michigan Legislature.

“We’ve seen a mainstreaming of ideas that were really, really fringe, in a way that I really never thought was going to be the case,” said Heidi Beirich, chief strategy officer at the Global Project against Hate and Extremism.

Sympathetic officeholders and candidates

Beirich began tracking far-right extremism in 1999 while working at the SPLC. She remembers when candidates and officials who embraced extremist ideas were “kicked to the curb” by Republicans who did not want to align themselves with the far-right.

But, “by the time Trump won the primaries [in 2016] and was on his way, that dynamic was over,” Beirich said. “People who made racist statements, misogynistic statements, who advocate policies that used to be on the fringes, were now embraced.”

Still, she emphasizes that Trump was only the accelerant to a movement that was already growing. Right-wing extremism was there, under the radar for most. Trump’s candidacy brought the movement mainstream.

We've seen a mainstreaming of ideas that were really, really fringe, in a way that I really never thought was going to be the case.

– Heidi Beirich, chief strategy officer at the Global Project against Hate and Extremism

Those ideas have seemingly saturated the politics of Michigan’s top Republicans, including Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey (R-Clarklake) and Michigan Republican Party Co-Chair Meshawn Maddock.

Shirkey, who has been called out during Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s tenure for making racist, misogynistic, conspiratorial and generally insensitive remarks, met with some of the armed protesters in the Senate gallery on April 30, 2020 and blocked reporters from covering their conversation.

Months later, Shirkey arranged a meeting in his office with leaders of three militia groups involved. He said they “talked about their messaging, their purpose, what they are trying to accomplish and how they could improve their message.” He claimed they get “a bad rap” and defended them for being patriotic citizens who are misunderstood.

On Oct. 8, 2020, Shirkey and then-House Speaker Lee Chatfield (R-Levering) attended an anti-COVID lockdown protest on the Capitol lawn — the same day authorities announced charges against 13 men who allegedly plotted to kidnap Whitmer, put her on trial and execute her. The conspirators, two of whom were acquitted on Friday, had attended Lansing lockdown protests.

Federal authorities said some of the men had ties to white nationalist groups like the Boogaloo Bois.

Shirkey has also baselessly claimed that the Jan. 6, 2021 insurrection was not carried out by Trump supporters, but by antifa and enemies of Trump. The meritless claim is commonly espoused in QAnon circles.

Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist said Shirkey’s attitude and actions toward militias and related groups are “incredibly problematic,” and “legitimize[s] those people who came in to commit violence.”

Shirkey did not respond to a request for comment.

A Confederate battle flag with an assault rifle on it flies next to a pro-Trump flag at a rally in Lansing, Michigan.
Open carry rally at the Michigan Capitol, Sept. 10, 2019, (Claire Moore)

Just four days after the April 30, 2020 incident in Lansing that left lawmakers of color particularly anxious about their safety while at work, during a rare Friday session, state Sen. Dale Zorn (R-Ida) sported a face mask that appeared to have a Confederate flag design on it.

Gilchrist, Michigan’s first Black lieutenant governor, was presiding over the chamber at the time.

Facing backlash, Zorn denied it was a Confederate flag, but said he told his wife “it probably will raise some eyebrows.” The Republican then defended the Confederate flag as a part of American history.

“Even if it was a Confederate flag, you know, we should be talking about teaching our national history in schools and that’s part of our national history and it’s something we can’t just throw away because it is part of our history,” Zorn said.

Zorn eventually apologized, but Black lawmakers who pushed for Zorn to be censured and for Confederate flag imagery to be banned from the state Capitol never saw their requests answered.

More recently, Maddock — who’s married to state Rep. Matt Maddock (R-Milford) — received widespread condemnation when she referred to Gilchrist as a “scary masked man” after he uploaded a video speaking about COVID-19 measures to Twitter.

“Show this video to a [sic] babies and watch them cry,” Maddock said, quote-tweeting the video. “Scary masked man should #StayHome.”

Whitmer and others condemned the remark as racist.

Maddock did not respond to a request for comment.

A number of candidates for office in Michigan also espouse similarly white nationalism-tinged ideas, from AG candidates running on platforms of debunked election conspiracies to a state House candidate being publicly antisemetic, anti-feminist and pro-white majority.

“Feminism is only applied against white men, because … It is a Jewish program to degrade and subjugate white men,” reads a Facebook graphic reposted by state House GOP nominee Robert Regan.

Regan has posted other antisemitic conspiracies on Facebook, as well as a slew of baseless conspiracy theories about COVID-19.

Regan gained widespread public backlash last month, when he said during a virtual panel that rape victims should “lie back and enjoy it.”

The Michigan Republican Party criticized his comments, but did not disavow Regan or ask him to withdraw from the race that he is heavily favored to win.

“Mr. Regan’s history of foolish, egregious and offensive comments, including his most recent one are simply beyond the pale,” party co-chair Ron Weiser said in a statement. “We are better than this as a party and I absolutely expect better than this of our candidates.”

Ryan said white nationalist views like Regan’s and others have become so prevalent in GOP candidates that it has become “easier to track who isn’t” subscribed to those ideas than who is.

“It was amazing to me just how rapidly the Overton window moved on what language was acceptable in political rhetoric and online,” Ryan said.

Some candidates have used their controversies to fundraise or gain more publicity for their campaigns, like GOP gubernatorial candidate Garrett Soldano. After receiving backlash and national coverage for saying that rape victims who become pregnant must “protect that DNA and allow it to happen,” no matter the circumstances, Soldano said the attention was “great news” for exposing his candidacy to a national audience.

Other Republicans with similar viewpoints include Kristina Karamo, a candidate for Michigan Secretary of State who has spoken at a QAnon conference, and attorney general candidate Matt DePerno, who has promoted the long-debunked conspiracy that Trump would have won the 2020 election if not for widespread voter fraud.

Both have been endorsed by Trump.


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Laina G. Stebbins
Laina G. Stebbins

Laina G. Stebbins covers the environment, Native issues and criminal justice for the Advance. A lifelong Michigander, she is a graduate of Michigan State University’s School of Journalism, where she served as founding editor of The Tab Michigan State and as a reporter for the Capital News Service. When Laina is not writing or spending time with her cats, she loves art and design, listening to music, playing piano, enjoying good food and being out in nature (especially Up North).