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

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 the 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.

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.

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.

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 kn