Donald Trump found a high-profile Democrat in Gretchen Whitmer to designate as a coronavirus scapegoat.
Two monumental cannons stand in front of the Capitol in Lansing, Michigan. There is no trace of any modern security. Yet less than two weeks ago, armed men entered the government building to protest measures set up to fight the COVID-19 outbreak. Demonstrators waved Donald Trump flags and carried nooses and signs with Hitler’s name and swastikas, all to pressure Gov. Gretchen Whitmer.
Of all the governors tasked with fighting the pandemic, President Trump and his supporters have criticized no one more than Democratic Gov. Whitmer. The presidential tweets are either addressed personally to “Half-Whit” – a play on the word “halfwit,” meaning fool – or are meant to encourage her opponents: “LIBERATE MICHIGAN!” Trump tweets. It raises the question of why, of all Democratic governors, he has chosen her as his target.
Part of the answer lies in the fact that Michigan could possibly be a decisive swing state in the presidential election on Nov. 3. Another reason can be found in the social and economic impact that Whitmer’s measures are having. The quarantine orders in Michigan are among the strictest in the country. In an episode of The Daily podcast of The New York Times, one of the demonstrators criticized the forced closure of DIY stores, now that so many people are sitting at home unemployed and want to renovate their homes. “Is it really necessary to go this far with it?” it was asked.
Whitmer’s answer was yes, it is really necessary, because her state had been hit above average. When the lockdown went into effect on March 17, Michigan had 65 confirmed infections. On the day of the first demonstration, there were 28,059. On April 30, the day of the second demonstration, there were 41,379 confirmed cases. That put Michigan in third place on the sinister ranking of coronavirus infections per state. In terms of the number of residents, Michigan is the 10th most populous state.
On the other hand, before the second demonstration, Michigan had gained 1.17 million newly unemployed people since the lockdown, 20% of its workforce. Unemployment is now at 14.7% in the U.S., the highest since the crisis in the 1930s. Thus, Michigan ranks above average in that troubling ranking as well.
With the collapse of the American economy, Trump has lost his most important campaign message for the Nov. 3 election. He stresses in virtually every speech that the virus cannot be attributed to him, that it is a plague, that it is caused by China.
That message is even more important in an old industrial state like Michigan, which contains the automotive capital of Detroit. After all, Trump promised that he has a “magic wand” with which he could retrieve manufacturing and the accompanying employment opportunities from China and other low-wage countries.
Michigan was one of the surprises in the 2016 election. Trump beat Hillary Clinton there by a narrow margin, by less than 11,000 of nearly 5 million votes. In 2018, the Democrats won the state back. Whitmer beat her Republican rival for the governorship by almost 10 percentage points.
In most recent polls, Democrat Joe Biden leads the Republican president in Michigan. And that is why Trump has to find a high-profile Democrat to serve as a scapegoat in Michigan.
Whitmer is careful when asked about the president’s political motives. In an interview on The Washington Post podcast, she said that she believes the demonstrations are politically motivated, but she did not point in Trump’s direction. She also made clear why she does not do that. States and governors are responsible for the fight against the pandemic, but dependent on the federal government for financial and material support. Governors dealing with a president who says that governors must “treat us well” to qualify for support cannot afford to become his enemy.
Trump’s attacks also have a less negative side effect for Whitmer. This pandemic and the tweets have given her national fame she did not have before. The 49-year-old lawyer has a long career in public administration in Michigan. In 2018, she campaigned with the slogan, “Fix the damn roads.” Once she won, her plan immediately took a hit when she sought to increase the gas tax by 45 cents a gallon to pay for the repairs. Three-fourths of the population opposed the plan, as did the entire state legislature.
But, since this spring’s crisis, Whitmer has suddenly appeared in less troubling rankings. Joe Biden has promised to choose a woman as a running mate. The “woman from Michigan,” as Trump called her, could become a candidate for the vice presidency, just like that.