The Tyrannical Soul of
Gretchen Whitmer

When Abraham Lincoln issued his Emancipation Proclamation he was criticized by abolitionists for not issuing a more sweeping order. He refused to do so, asking “If I take the step, must I not do so . . . without any argument, except the one that I think the measure politically expedient, and morally right? Would I not thus give up all footing upon constitution or law? Would I not thus be in the boundless field of absolutism? Could this pass unnoticed, or unresisted?”

Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer stepped into this boundless field at the end of April. The legislature refused to extend her emergency powers as required by the Emergency Management Act of 1976, so she granted herself the extension the legislature refused. She declared a new, separate state of emergency under a dubious interpretation of the Emergency Powers to the Governor Act of 1945, and granted herself the extension the legislature refused. Sound statutory construction dictates that when two statutes cover exactly the same ground, the more recent statute governs, and the more recent statute limits the governor’s power to 28 days unless extended by the legislature. 

Even if both laws are still fully operative, they must be read in a way that is not nonsensical. Whitmer’s construction of the two acts effectively reads, “The governor’s emergency power shall extend no longer than 28 days, unless extended by the legislature, unless the governor, according to her own unfettered will, shall choose to extend her own power, in which case it shall last as long as she pleases it to last.” 

The 1976 statute obviously was intended to limit the duration of the governor’s emergency powers, and she has simply ignored that. The state of Michigan will be governed by Whitmer’s unlimited, arbitrary will until she deigns to allow the rule of law to resume.

In usurping power, Whitmer merely is revealing her nature, and it is far from unique in our history. In the antebellum American South, slaveowners and their apologists frequently asserted the relationship of master and slave was a paternal one, and that slaves were perpetual children who needed to be ruled absolutely for their own benefit. The difficulty is that adults cannot be ruled like children, for the simple reason that they are not children

Adults can be ruled only politically, as equals, or despotically, as inferiors. Paternal rule, unlimited power exercised by one over another, when applied to adults, under whatever guise, is simply despotic rule—it is tyranny. 

She has a tyrannical soul, and a tyrannical soul will yield to nothing but superior force.

Whitmer’s official biography reads “the most important title she boasts is MOM,” and in keeping with that, one supposes, she treats the people of Michigan like children. When protesters arrived in Lansing, she responded by stating that their continued misbehavior may result in extended lockdowns. Translation: “I’m going to continue to punish you until you behave, and it’s for your own good.” She refuses to be bound by law or constitution. She refuses to negotiate. She threatens, she digs in her heels, she makes arbitrary pronouncements. 

When these America’s slaveholding oligarchs once upon a time went to Congress, they found life there confusing. Self-government requires that people treat each other as equals; this is essential to negotiation and deliberation, to accepting adverse decisions as legitimate, and to the notion that the majority ought to respect the rights of the minority. The slaveholding oligarchy could not do this. 

Bred to be an elite class, they were accustomed in their home states to commanding and to being obeyed by everyone who was not also of their social class. In Congress, however, they had to work with northerners with different opinions and who did not defer to them, and thus these elites did not know what to do. Frequently angered by what they saw as “impudence,” they often resorted to threats of violence, and occasionally to actual violence, in order to cow their opponents into submission—the same tactics, in other words, that they used against their slaves.

Whitmer, likewise, flatly rebuffed offers from the Republican-controlled legislature to negotiate. She’s done this before. Her primary campaign promise was to “fix the damn roads” and she wanted a 45-cent-per-gallon increase in the state gasoline tax to do it. When the legislature balked she dug in her heels, refused to negotiate, and attempted to browbeat legislators into giving her exactly what she wanted—though mercifully she failed. When the budget reached her desk, out of sheer pettiness she used her line-item veto power to strike additional funding for charter schools. For Whitmer, it’s her way or no way.

Frederick Douglass, having lived under the heel of tyranny for the first 20 years of his life, understood the nature of it and the soul of the tyrant better than most. When the slaveholders rebelled after Lincoln’s election, it came as no surprise to him. As tyrants, he said, “they know no law, and will respect no law but the law of force.” 

We would do well to recognize the type, as this crisis has revealed that it is appallingly common in our government at all levels. Whitmer has already defied the legislature and ignored the law. What reason is there to believe she would yield to a state supreme court decision? She has a tyrannical soul, and a tyrannical soul will yield to nothing but superior force. Somehow Whitmer, and others like her, will have to be compelled to respect the rule of law and the rights of the people. One can only hope that the federal government will intervene and supply that superior force.

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About Kevin Portteus

Kevin Portteus is the Lawrence Fertig Professor of Politics and Director of American Studies at Hillsdale College.

Photo: Bill Pugliano/Getty Images

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