Plot to Kidnap Michigan’s Governor Grew from the Militia Movement’s Toxic Mix of Constitutional Falsehoods and Half-Truths

Militia members imagine themselves to be “the last true American patriots,” “the modern defenders of the United States Constitution in general and the Second Amendment in particular.

Hence, the Bill of Rights – and especially the Second Amendment, which establishes the right to bear arms – figure prominently in the alt-constitution. It is no accident that the initial discussions about overthrowing Michigan’s so-called tyrannical governor started at a Second Amendment rally in June.

According to most militias, the Second Amendment authorizes their activity and likewise makes them free of legal regulation by the state. In truth, the Second Amendment does nothing to authorize private armed militias. Private armed militias are explicitly illegal in every state.

No Restrictions on Rights
Additional foundational principles of militia constitutionalism include absolutism. Absolutism, in the militia world, is the idea that fundamental constitutional rights – like freedom of speech, the right to bear arms and the right to own property – cannot be restricted or regulated by the state without a citizen’s consent.

The far right’s reading of the First and Second Amendments – which govern free speech and the right to bear arms, respectively – starts from a simple premise: Both amendments are literal and absolute. They believe that the First Amendment allows them to say anything, anytime, anywhere, to anyone, without consequence or reproach by government or even by other citizens who disagree or take offense at their speech.

Similarly, the alt-right gun advocates hold that the Second Amendment protects their God-given right to own a weapon – any weapon – and that governmental efforts to deny, restrict or even to register their weapons must be unconstitutional. They think the Second Amendment trumps every other provision in the Constitution.

Another key belief among militia members is the principle of constitutional self-help. That’s the belief that citizens, acting on their inherent authority as sovereign free men, are ultimately and finally responsible for enforcing the Constitution – as they understand it.

Demonstrating this way of thinking, the men arrested in Michigan discussed taking Gov. Whitmer to a “secure location” in Wisconsin to stand “trial” for treason prior to the Nov. 3 election. According to Barry County, Michigan Sheriff Dar Leaf – a member of the militia-friendly Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officer Association – the men arrested in Michigan were perhaps not trying to kidnap the governor but were instead simply making a citizen’s arrest.

Leaf, who appeared at a Grand Rapids protest in May of Gov. Whitmer’s stay-at-home order along with two of the alleged kidnappers, mistakenly believes that local sheriffs are the highest constitutional authority in the United States, invested with the right to determine which laws support and which laws violate the Constitution. The events in Michigan show how dangerous these mistaken understandings of the Constitution can be.

There Will Be More
The Wolverine Watchmen are not a Second Amendment militia or constitutional patriots in any sense of the word. If they are guilty of the charges brought against them, then they are terrorists.

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The FBI and Michigan law enforcement shut down the Watchmen before an egregious crime and a terrible human tragedy unfolded. But as I concluded just last year in my book, “there is little reason to think the militia movement will subside soon.”

Unfortunately, I did not account for the possibility that President Trump would encourage militias “to stand back and stand by,” which seems likely to encourage and embolden groups that already clearly represent a threat. Expect more Michigans.

John E. Finn is Professor Emeritus of Government, Wesleyan University. This article, whichincorporates material from a story published on 15 April 2019 in The Conversation, is published courtesy of The Conversation.