WASHINGTON — The head of the Jewish Democratic Council of America decried President Donald Trump on Friday as “depraved” after he defended far-right armed protesters rallying against social-distancing measures as “very good people.”
The demonstrators, some of whom were holding swastikas and other Nazi insignia, packed the Michigan State House on Thursday to pressure the state’s governor, Gretchen Whitmer, to ease restrictions and reopen the economy.
Trump’s tweet supporting the protesters echoed language he used to defend marchers in the 2017 white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, whom he called “very fine people.”
“In some ways, it’s worse than Charlottesville,” said Halie Soifer, who heads the JDCA. “Then he was equating neo-Nazis chanting ‘Jews will not replace us’ with those peacefully protesting them. It was a false equivalence.
“In this case, you have a similar praising of hateful extremists, but they were also an armed militia that stormed a state capitol and were standing in front of the Michigan governor’s office.”
The Governor of Michigan should give a little, and put out the fire. These are very good people, but they are angry. They want their lives back again, safely! See them, talk to them, make a deal.
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 1, 2020
Many of the demonstrators Thursday were holding assault rifles and were part of the Michigan Liberty Militia, which the nonprofit Southern Poverty Law Center lists as an extremist anti-government group.
“This was an emboldening of the same kind of hatred and extremism that we saw in Charlottesville, but now he is essentially giving them the green light to storm the state capitol with weapons,” Soifer told The Times of Israel.
“What kind of depraved elected official calls a heavily-armed militia classified as an anti-government extremist group blocking a governor’s office ‘very good people?'” she added.
Two weeks ago, thousands of people demonstrated in state capitals around the country to protest physical distancing measures to stop the spread of the novel coronavirus, which has already claimed more than 55,000 American lives.
Rebelling against shelter-in-place directives meant to stem the disease’s spread, far-right extremists have been comparing the governors issuing the orders to Adolf Hitler, in a bid to sow division and amplify their ideology, according to experts.
In Lansing, Michigan, for instance, a woman was photographed holding a sign that said “Heil Whitmer,” referring to the Michigan governor. As of this writing, Michigan has confirmed more than 41,000 virus cases and over 3,700 deaths.
A few days later, Trump tweeted “LIBERATE MICHIGAN!” Constitutional scholars interpreted the tweet as an attempt to incite insurrection.
The president also encouraged the governors of Minnesota and Virginia to “liberate” their citizens in separate but similar tweets.
Soifer, who grew up in Lansing, 10 minutes from the site of Thursday’s unrest, said that Trump’s signals that he approves of the Michigan protest groups could bring dangerous consequences.
“I think he rightfully identifies these folks as part of his base,” she said. “If he’s demonstrated anything in the past four years, it’s that he knows how to weaponize hate for his own political benefit. And we saw the results of that in Pittsburgh and Poway.”