Anti-government groups shift focus from Washington to states

Full Screen
1 / 3

Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer campaigns with Dan O'Neil, a Democratic candidate for the Michigan House in Traverse City, Mich., Friday, Oct. 9, 2020. Whitmer visited the area the day after police announced a foiled plot to kidnap the governor. (AP Photo/John Flesher)

TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. – The alleged foiled plot to kidnap Michigan’s governor is a jarring example of how the anti-government movement in the U.S. has become an internet-driven hodgepodge of conspiracy theorists who have redirected their rage from Washington toward state capitols.

That's in contrast to the self-styled “militia” movement that took shape in the 1990s — loosely connected groups whose primary target was the federal government, which they considered a tyrannical force bent on seizing guns and imposing a socialist “new world order.”

Deadly standoffs between FBI agents and extremists at Ruby Ridge, Idaho, and Waco, Texas, stoked those groups' anger. Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols, convicted in the 1995 bombing of the Oklahoma City federal building that killed 168 people, were reported to have met with Michigan paramilitary activists.

Public revulsion over that massacre damaged the movement, which largely faded from public view. But recent protests over racial injustice, the coronavirus and other turmoil during the Trump administration have fueled a resurgence, with paramilitary groups blending into a mishmash of far-right factions that spread their messages on websites and social media.

In many ways, their focus is unchanged, including contempt for authority, reverence for the Second Amendment and backwoods military-style training exercises.

But the plot targeting Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer illustrates one stark difference: Nowadays, much of the anger focuses on state officials whom extremists accuse of denying rights and freedoms.

"And this is largely due to the fact that Donald Trump, who the militia movement supports, is at the head of the federal government,” said Mark Pitcavage, a senior research fellow at the Anti-Defamation League's Center on Extremism.

“But they can much more easily be angry at state governors, especially Democratic ones, but sometimes even Republican ones, who are involved with gun-control efforts or lockdown or anti-pandemic measures," he added.