Michigan Gov. Whitmer addresses the state during a speech in...

Michigan Gov. Whitmer addresses the state during a speech in Lansing, Mich. on Sept. 16, 2020. According to a criminal complaint unsealed Thursday, Oct. 8 six people threatened to kidnap Whitmer at her vacation home. Credit: AP

For years, an ugly underbelly of resistance to authority has festered in America. On Thursday, it was thrust into the open when the FBI arrested six militia members in Michigan and charged them with planning to kidnap Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and overthrow the state government. Another seven people were charged under Michigan law with plotting to attack police and start a civil war.

The details read like a fictional thriller. One group planned to grab Whitmer from her vacation home, or recruit 200 men to attack the state capitol, kidnap her there, and try her for "treason." They bought a Taser and night goggles, tested an improvised explosive device, and conducted firearms training and combat drills.

It’s horrifying. Even more alarming: It’s just one example of a rising tide of armed and violent right-wing extremists, militias and white supremacists plotting to create mayhem, or actually doing so, against those they perceive as enemies.

Extremists have long lived in America’s margins. Now they’re bursting into the mainstream, as increasing numbers of people normalize them. That includes President Donald Trump, who refuses to recognize that these groups are the nation’s chief domestic terrorism threat, as FBI director Christopher Wray told Congress last month.

Their oxygen comes from social media, which allows them to find each other, organize, and amplify their grievances. The Michigan group communicated using encrypted online apps, raising questions about the need to regulate those platforms.

This fetid strain surfaced in the 1990s, most notably when anti-government extremist Timothy McVeigh killed 168 people in the Oklahoma City bombing. This year, militia members have descended on lawful protests. One was arrested in New Mexico. Two Missouri members with a cache of weapons were arrested en route to Kenosha, Wisconsin, the site of police-shooting protests.

The Michigan plot was more elaborate, but perhaps not surprising. As Whitmer issued emergency orders to fight the coronavirus, Trump attacked her, tweeting in April, "LIBERATE MICHIGAN!" In May, armed civilians stormed the state capitol protesting Whitmer’s restrictions. By June, an FBI source had infiltrated the group. The agency and other law enforcement bodies stopped the plot, but what else is happening out of sight of watchful trackers? These groups, largely white and largely male, call themselves defenders of the Constitution. They are not. They reflect a growing disrespect for government, and use civil unrest to push their extremist ideologies and the need for armed resistance. They believe that being an American means you can do whatever you want, regardless of the consequences for others, a misguided notion of personal freedom.

Now they have a passive champion in the president, who refuses to condemn their efforts to rachet up tension at encounters between police and violent protesters, who told one extremist group to "stand down and stand by," and who asks supporters like these to descend on polling places to monitor voting in November.

As our country frays, this is no time for equivocation. Militia members are not principled heroes. Defenders of democracy must call them out.

— The editorial board