What if the would-be assassins plotting to kidnap Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer were neither left nor right? What if the plotters were little more than canaries in the mine shaft, bearers of a warning of what is to come if we don't pull ourselves together?
News that 13 men were arrested by federal and state authorities for plotting to kidnap and then “try” the governor on unspecified charges quickly became political fodder.
To the left, folks blamed Donald Trump for lending succor to far-right extremists.
Not so fast, some responded: Some of the plotters also expressed hatred for Donald Trump, calling him a tyrant. Indeed, one of the accused tacked an anarchist flag to the wall of a room in which he filmed himself opining about tyranny.
The line separating left and right seems blurry to me these days. On the one hand, Antifa and Black Lives Matter, and the not so subtle threat to hold the country – or at least certain cities – hostage unless and until, well, what, exactly? No justice, no peace? That’s empty sloganeering.
Race relations are, or at least were, better than they have ever been in the 400-year history of our country until just recently. How is that 13 percent of the population now demands all of our attention?
Then there are the militias and separatists. Things have gotten too crazy for them. They want out. They’re withdrawing, preparing for an apocalypse.
There have always been utopians and dystopians in American life. Hatred and suspicion of government is as old as the Whiskey Rebellion, put down by force in 1794, and suppressed by force of arms by none other than George Washington.
Violence is as American as apple pie. For all the incendiary rhetoric of our times, we’ve yet to see what those of us of a certain age lived through as children: the rapid fire -- no pun intended -- assassinations of John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy. Streets ran with blood then, too.
But still, this feels different.
When I first heard about the arrest of the Whitmer plotters the first thing that sprang to mind was John Locke’s appeal to heaven. “Be careful what you wish for,” I said aloud to no one in particular.
Locke wrote the Second Treatise of Government in 1690. (The first treatise was an attack on the work of Robert Filmer, whose work, Patriarcha, published in 1680, was a defense of the “divine right of kings” theory of the origin of government, a view that political power came directly from God.) We read Locke today because he powerfully argued that government is a product of the consent of the governed. His ideas bled into our founding documents.
But consent to be governed can be withdrawn. While we form government by means of a social contract, each of us putting aside certain liberties to do as we please to enjoy the benefits of collective security and action, we can dissolve government by acts of defiance. Locke called this the appeal to heaven.
It’s incendiary stuff, this appeal to heaven. Run the phrase on Amazon.com, and you will see flags, arm patches and other paraphernalia. The flag, in particular, was used by rebels during the American revolution and is believed firs to have been flown on ships commissioned under George Washington as commander of the Continental Army in 1775.
Notice I used the word “rebels.” We refer to the men and woman who led the revolt against Britain as our founders or patriots, but when they acted, all was an enormous risk. They took aim at the government in place, the powers that be, as it were. The outcome was by no means certain when the first shots were fire, or the tea was dropped overboard in Boston’s harbor.
The revolt, the rebellion, was an appeal to heaven in the sense that the rebels put aside the safety and security of the known for the wide-open risks of the unknown. They placed their faith in a better future. It was a risk that carried life and death consequences.
Was it worth it? We say it was and celebrate their heroism. Had they lost, they’d have been hung, and we’d be taught they were traitors. History is, after all, written largely by the winners.
So what are the plotters against Gov. Whitmer? Today they are defendants. When they stand trial, they will assert that the governor is the real traitor, that she acted outside the law and norms that mark us as a free people.
My hunch is that plenty of folks will listen to that defense, and they may well be acquitted. But they could just as easily be convicted and spent the rest of their lives in prison. It’s a risky thing to strike out at a king, or even a governor for that matter.
The Whitmer plot is a signal that something is simmering in the land that should frighten us all. There is a crisis of legitimacy afoot. Government seems to fail at the basics, and angry tribes form demanding a better world. The center is attacked from the left and the right. Primitive calls for justice drown out civilized voices.
It’s an election year. We’re enduring a grim pandemic. The gap between rich and poor widens. Racial tensions appear to be on the rise. What you smell in the air isn’t gasoline, and least not yet. It’s the smell of fear. The Whitmer plotters are less aberration and more symptom.
Brace yourself. Troubled times lie ahead.
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