The New York Times Magazine: A Governor on Her Own, With Everything at Stake
By Jonathan Mahler
Gretchen Whitmer first heard the word “coronavirus” over the 2019 Christmas holidays from her younger sister, who a decade earlier contracted H1N1. Whitmer, just a year into office and preoccupied with her agenda for 2020, barely registered it. She was in a hurry to push forward on some of her campaign promises, like introducing an array of new education programs and repairing Michigan’s badly potholed roads. The state’s Republican lawmakers had blocked her at nearly every turn, but now, with the economy in Michigan and America booming, Whitmer had a plan to make an end-run around the Legislature by issuing $3.5 billion in bonds to help fund her projects. January was going to be about building political momentum for that effort and gearing up for a presidential election in which Michigan, where Donald Trump won by just 10,704 votes in 2016, was again going to be an important battleground state. Whitmer was tapped to deliver the Democratic response to Trump’s annual State of the Union address on Feb. 4.
As the governor began moving ahead with her agenda, though, the state’s chief medical executive, Dr. Joneigh S. Khaldun, was watching the gathering storm with growing concern. Potentially infected travelers were arriving daily in Michigan, but the Centers for Disease Control was not providing her with the support she needed to adequately detect and contain the virus. On Feb. 27, Khaldun briefed the governor and her staff on the epidemic in a conference room adjacent to her office. She said that she was convinced the coronavirus had already come to Michigan; she just couldn’t prove it. Khaldun reminded Whitmer and her staff that there was no vaccine for this virus, that it was highly contagious and that it was much more deadly than the flu. In order to prevent a widespread outbreak, she said, it would almost certainly be necessary to take some pretty extreme measures, like banning large group gatherings and maybe even ordering certain businesses to close temporarily.
A brief silence fell over the room. One of Whitmer’s aides spoke.
“This could be disastrous to the economy,” he said.
“Yes,” Khaldun replied. “That’s exactly what I’m trying to tell you.”
The exchange — and the entire briefing — was a violent jolt to Whitmer. She asked her senior staff members if they thought she should declare a state of emergency, and they discussed the pros and cons. Doing so would unlock her emergency power and also communicate the seriousness of the threat to Michigan’s citizens. But without any positive tests, how would they justify such a drastic measure? After some debate, Whitmer decided not to. But she did start preparing for what now seemed inevitable, convening disparate agencies across the state government to anticipate and manage the multiple needs an epidemic might cause.
By March 9, all of Michigan’s neighboring states had confirmed cases. Whitmer spent the day campaigning across the state with Joe Biden, finishing up with a raucous rally at Renaissance High School in Detroit. The 2,000 attendees were given a squirt of hand sanitizer as they entered the school’s packed gym.
The next day was the state’s Democratic primary. As more than 1.5 million Michigan residents headed to local polling sites, a small batch of coronavirus tests went onto the assay machine at the state lab in Lansing. Five hours later, two came back positive.
Whitmer was home watching election returns when she got the news. An hour and a half later, she and her staff and cabinet members were gathered around a pair of tables in the State Emergency Operations Center, a large, windowless bunker inside the headquarters of the Michigan State Police. At one table, Whitmer’s cabinet officials reviewed their action plans and delegated assignments. The chief of staff, JoAnne Huls, scribbled notes on whiteboards: How would they get money and health benefits to people who would lose jobs? How would they get work requirements waived for people on food stamps? How would they prevent banks from foreclosing on homes and landlords from evicting tenants? How would they set up absentee voting for upcoming elections? At the other table, Whitmer sat with her chief legal counsel, Mark Totten, who finalized the emergency order on his laptop. He filed the order by hand at the state’s Office of the Great Seal shortly before midnight.
Within days, Detroit’s hospitals were filling up and running short of supplies. It was clear to Whitmer that things were only going to get worse. Khaldun had been updating her for weeks on the C.D.C.’s seeming inability to provide sufficient support or guidance. But now that the virus had arrived in her state, Whitmer assumed someone in Washington would be there to help. It wasn’t until she spoke directly with the president that she realized she was wrong. Michigan needed N95 masks. She asked Trump on a March 16 call with her fellow governors if he could send some from the national stockpile. The president said no; states should find supplies themselves.
“That really took my breath away,” Whitmer told me. “That’s when it became clear that there’s no bigger plan. We are just going to have to put our heads down and do what we have to do here in Michigan.”
At the time, she had no way of knowing what that would actually mean.
It is going to take years to unpack all the history that has been compressed into just the last six months. For weeks on end, what has been impossible to imagine one day has become reality the next. Hundreds of thousands of people began dying from a disease that kills some and barely affects others. Around the world, populations of entire countries were ordered to stay in their homes. The global economy ground to a halt. In America, unemployment rose to levels not seen since the Great Depression. Fear of contagion and poverty exploded into rage over racial injustice after a Minneapolis policeman killed a black man by kneeling on his neck. People poured into the streets. The police directed rubber bullets and tear gas at protesters and journalists. In many other countries, the disease seems to be abating, but not here. The presidential election is still months away.
One of the many disorienting features of this disorienting time has been the stark absence of executive leadership. The job of steering the nation through these epic convulsions has instead fallen to the nation’s governors. I first spoke with Whitmer on April 29, seven weeks after Michigan reported its first two cases of Covid-19. At the time, I wanted to understand what it was like to govern through a global pandemic. On that day, nearly 1,000 residents of Michigan tested positive for the virus, and more than 100 were killed by it. A few thousand people had recently gathered at the Michigan State Capitol for the so-called Operation Gridlock, the first mass protest of her stay-at-home order; some stayed in their cars, others crowded into the plaza carrying signs calling for her removal and comparing her to Hitler (“Heil Whitmer”). Whitmer’s executive order locking down the state was set to expire the following week. She intended to renew it for another 21 days over the objections of the Republican-controlled State Legislature, which was preparing to sue her. “They’ve asked to negotiate terms of reopening like we’re in a political crisis,” Whitmer told me. “We’re not in a political crisis, we’re in a public-health crisis. I can’t negotiate people’s lives.”
Since then, I have been talking to Whitmer every couple of days; our conversations evolved as she found herself confronting not only a public-health crisis but an economic crisis, the catastrophic collapse of a major dam and a historic reckoning with racial inequality. She was usually in her living room at the governor’s residence in Lansing when we spoke — she set up her office there because it had the best Wi-Fi reception in the house — though when the weather was good she would occasionally step outside and walk around the lawn. Some days, I could hear her Labradoodle, Kevin, playing with a squeaky chew toy in the background.
Whitmer is not naturally introspective. Recounting the almost incomprehensibly consequential decisions she was making on a daily basis, she rarely lingered on how she felt or the magnitude of the moment. She was more inclined to review events and discuss strategy, approaching it all with the same practical mind-set and vocabulary she brought to more manageable governmental challenges like fixing potholes. The effect wasn’t necessarily stirring — there was no soaring rhetoric about the need to rise to this historic challenge — but it was oddly reassuring; she was channeling panic into process.
Whitmer, who is 48, was bred for a career in public service. Her father was a government lawyer who ran Michigan’s Department of Commerce under the Republican governor William Milliken before becoming president and chief executive of Michigan Blue Cross Blue Shield. Her mother was an assistant attorney general under the state’s Democratic attorney general, Frank J. Kelley. (They divorced when she was 6.) As an undergraduate at Michigan State University, Whitmer considered becoming a sportscaster and even did an internship for the head coach of the school football team. But at age 29, not long after graduating from law school, also at Michigan State, she decided to run for office. Days before the election, her mother found out she had brain cancer. Whitmer spent her first year and a half as a state representative also taking care of her; she died in 2002.
Whitmer served 14 years in the State Legislature, trying to advance issues typically associated with the urban-progressive wing of the Democratic Party: abortion rights, stricter gun laws, universal preschool, a $15 minimum wage. In her 2018 run for governor, she sought to broaden her base, traveling exhaustively across the state’s more rural, conservative regions in a bus and emphasizing good-governance concerns, like Michigan’s decrepit infrastructure; her campaign slogan, emblazoned across the bus, was “Fix the Damn Roads.” She easily defeated her Republican opponent. Whitmer was part of the celebrated wave of Democrats elected in the 2018 midterms, though she didn’t become a national figure until recently, when she criticized Trump’s response to the coronavirus on cable news and he dubbed her “the woman from Michigan” and started trolling her on Twitter. As the popular female governor of a swing state, Whitmer was a natural vice-presidential candidate, and at the end of March, Biden confirmed that she was on his short list, raising her national profile further.
Whitmer was prepared to govern her state, but the pandemic required something of a different order: minute-by-minute, seat-of-the-pants, lives-in-the-balance decision-making for which there was no model or precedent. She soon realized that the only people who could relate to what she was going through were her fellow governors. In March, she created a group text chain with a few of them. They were all Democrats, but with different political profiles and instincts. As they started comparing notes, Whitmer was simultaneously dismayed and relieved to see that their notes were the same: Here they all were, in charge of getting millions of people through this crisis without much more information than your average, cable-TV-watching citizen.
Not long after Whitmer started the thread, one governor shared a New Yorker cartoon with the group. It depicted several men and a woman gathered around a conference table. The caption read: “And, while there’s no reason yet to panic, I think it only prudent that we make preparations to panic.”
In mid-March, as Michigan’s caseload continued to grow, Whitmer faced another tough decision: Should she lock down the state? Though the federal government was now acknowledging that tens of thousands of Americans would likely be killed by Covid-19, it was declining to issue a national stay-at-home order or even offer guidance to the nation’s governors. Several pro-business groups, including Michigan’s Chamber of Commerce — a powerful force in state and national politics — were publicly pressing Whitmer to keep the state largely open. She worried that if she moved too soon, she would lose public support. On March 20, J.B. Pritzker, the governor of Illinois, which is near Michigan and had roughly the same number of cases, locked down his state. Whitmer still felt that a shutdown, with its attendant economic devastation, was premature.
Over the next 48 hours, Michigan’s caseload doubled to more than 1,000, and it became clear that the state had to close. But how much of it? Whitmer’s legal counsel, Totten, had already started writing a stay-at-home order. Now, alarmed by the exponential growth in cases, Whitmer felt the draft was too permissive. Michigan needed a near total lockdown. Totten brought the revised order to Whitmer in her office on March 23. He told her that the moment she signed it, she would almost certainly be exercising more power than any governor in the history of Michigan. “There has never been a governor who literally told everyone in the state to stay home,” he said. “That’s just extraordinary.”
Over the next week, Michigan’s Covid-19 numbers exploded. By the end of March, the state was reporting 7,615 confirmed cases and 259 deaths. Both totals were far higher than those in any of its neighboring states. Michigan is the nation’s 10th-most-populous state, but it had the fourth-highest Covid-19 case and fatality counts in the country.
Whitmer may have had more power than any of her predecessors, but even that wasn’t enough. On the most basic level, she was struggling to get the supplies she needed. The president had pitted states against one another in a global scramble for personal protective equipment that Whitmer and her staff referred to as “The Hunger Games.” Worse yet, he seemed to be building up his own federal stockpile of medical supplies at their expense. Whitmer texted the group: “We’ve been informed by a couple of vendors that the feds have commandeered what was supposed to be heading my way. Are you having the same issue? Detroit is getting hot.” One governor responded that he’d run into the same problem with an expected shipment of ventilators.
Michigan needed supplies, but no one on Whitmer’s staff had any experience buying specialized medical products on the international market, let alone ones that were in extraordinarily high demand all over the world at a time when commercial planes were barely flying. Whitmer and her team brainstormed. Michigan was the home of General Motors, which employed experts in global procurement and was also largely idle now that the state had been shut down. Maybe they could help. Someone on Whitmer’s staff found an executive who offered to work pro bono for the state, locating P.P.E. and building makeshift supply chains to move orders from China to Michigan.
Whitmer was also struggling to slow the virus’s spread. For all of the unknowns about Covid-19, one scientific certainty at the time was that diligent hand washing was critical to containing the outbreak. This guidance, seemingly simple, would be next to impossible for the thousands of Detroit residents who were without running water, in part because of a recent crackdown on late payments. Whitmer had actually anticipated this problem. On the eve of the state’s first reported cases, she and the mayor of Detroit introduced a joint program to restore water service immediately to homes where it had been shut off; customers would be billed later, at a rate of $25 a month for the duration of the outbreak. It soon became clear, however, that because of the city’s antiquated water system, many homes required extensive plumbing repairs before service could be restored. Whitmer issued an executive order requiring water suppliers to immediately send out crews to do whatever was necessary to restore service in every home.
The state’s unemployment system, meanwhile, was deluged. In an ordinary week, about 5,000 residents apply for unemployment benefits in Michigan; during the first week in April, there were 388,000 applicants. The state’s 350 claims processors couldn’t begin to keep up with the flood of callers. Tens of thousands of people who lost their jobs when the state shut down were unable to get unemployment checks. And the problem was not simply one of demand. Whitmer’s predecessor, Rick Snyder, had overhauled the system, arguing that it was a victim of widespread fraud. The effort ended in its own scandal — tens of thousands of residents falsely accused of fraud sued the state — but many of the changes that Snyder made remained in place, creating an obstacle course of highly specific requirements and red tape that only a very few could pass through. Before Covid-19 hit, just one in every four out-of-work Michigan residents was receiving unemployment benefits.
Even getting reliable data on Covid-19 cases seemed an insurmountable obstacle. The computer system that the state used to gather lab results from across Michigan was outdated and prone to mysterious crashes. In spite of these challenges, Michigan, because of its particular racial geography, was quickly able to see what would dawn more gradually on other states: A disproportionate number of those getting sick and dying were black. Forty percent of Michigan’s reported fatalities were in Detroit, a city that is nearly 80 percent black in a state that is nearly 80 percent white. There were a lot of explanations for this disparity. One was that Michigan’s investment in its public-health system had been declining for many years to the point where it was now spending less per capita than all but a handful of states. Detroit’s hospitals didn’t have the technology they needed to efficiently move patients among them; the city’s health department didn’t have the contact tracers they needed to follow up with those testing positive; nursing homes didn’t have adequate P.P.E. Another likely explanation was medical bias: Khaldun worried that black residents were being turned away at testing facilities by medical workers who downplayed the severity of their symptoms. It was a well-known phenomenon that was suddenly too pressing to address with a long-term plan alone. She sent a letter to all of the state’s medical professionals: “Complaints of symptoms should be taken seriously in any patient and particularly those from racial and ethnic minority groups.”
The state’s caseload was still rising exponentially. On April 9, Whitmer signed a new executive order. This one imposed some of the most severe restrictions in the country, barring any activity that wasn’t “necessary to sustain or protect life.” It prohibited the use of motorboats, closed golf courses and, in a move almost guaranteed to provoke a backlash, required big-box stores to seal off aisles devoted to lawn care.
It took three weeks from the moment Whitmer signed her new stay-at-home order for hundreds of white citizens to show up at the State Capitol, many of them with guns. The American Patriot Rally, as it was called, was organized by Michigan United for Liberty, a group formed to oppose Whitmer’s shutdown, arguing in part that the state was exaggerating the virus’s death toll. Members of Michigan militia groups were invited to provide “security.” The rally started on the Statehouse steps, but soon moved into the building itself. The Legislature was in session. Armed protesters were effectively occupying the Senate gallery as lawmakers debated below. The following morning, the president tweeted his support for them. “The Governor of Michigan should give a little, and put out the fire,” he wrote. “These are very good people, but they are angry.”
The lawmakers were debating a resolution to allow the Legislature to sue the governor over her latest shutdown order. It was widely supported by Republicans and opposed by Democrats. Two black Democratic legislators from Detroit had contracted the virus; another Detroit legislator, Isaac Robinson, who was 44, is believed to have died from it. Their constituents were not only the ones getting sick and dying in incomprehensibly large numbers; they would also be the first ones asked to return to work — in service-industry and manufacturing jobs — when the state started reopening, whether it was safe to or not.
Whitmer was home during the protest, but she heard about what was happening inside the Capitol after a few militia members posted a picture of themselves on social media posing in front of her office with military-style rifles. When I spoke to her the next day, she told me that she’d been hearing from a number of black legislators who were not only angry but frightened. “They told me they didn’t feel safe,” she said. “And why would they? I have sat in those seats. The gallery is open, and it’s one floor above you. You’re a sitting duck. That would be a very, very scary place to be if you were one of those legislators.” They were urging Whitmer to call in the National Guard before the next protest or, better yet, ban guns inside the Capitol. Whitmer was again confronted with the limits of her own power; she did not have the authority to make policy for the Capitol Building. That responsibility falls either to the Legislature or to a body of political appointees called the Capitol Commission.
Whitmer was concerned about the escalating tensions and was hoping that someone — either the Legislature or the Capitol Commission — would defuse the situation. “There’s talk of another big protest, and there’s talk of an armed counterprotest,” Whitmer told me. “I’d just as soon keep that from happening.” The public had been subject to restrictions before: In 1999, when large numbers of Detroiters were coming to Lansing to protest the state’s plan to take over their city’s schools, metal detectors were used on people entering legislative galleries. The state’s Democratic attorney general, Dana Nessel, wrote a letter to the Capitol Commission, urging them to do something similar now.
On its face, it did not seem like a controversial request. But a majority of the Capitol Commission was appointed by state Republicans. There are more registered Democrats than Republicans in Michigan, but the Republicans nevertheless control the Legislature, thanks in part to an aggressively partisan gerrymandering effort. In the 2018 election, Democrats won all the top statewide offices and earned more combined votes in all the legislative races, but still wound up with fewer seats. This has enabled the Republican Party to set the state’s agenda for years.
As a former lawmaker, Whitmer was well-acquainted with this reality. In 2012, she tried to block the passage of a right-to-work bill backed by Americans for Prosperity, the conservative advocacy group founded by Charles and David Koch. The following year, she opposed legislation backed by a prominent anti-abortion group to require women to purchase supplemental insurance to cover abortions, including in the case of rape or incest. During an outraged floor speech before the vote, Whitmer revealed that she had been raped in college and emphasized that a vast majority of Michigan’s residents opposed the bill. “As a legislator, a lawyer, a woman and a mother of two girls,” she said, “I think the fact that rape insurance is even being discussed by this body is repulsive, let alone the way it has been orchestrated and shoved through the Legislature.” It, too, passed.
The Capitol Commission voted not to take any action on the attorney general’s request and instead appointed a committee to study the matter. Guns would still be permitted in the building, and the next anti-shutdown protest was only days away. A clash seemed almost inevitable.
The afternoon before the protest was scheduled to take place, the state’s legislative leaders decided to adjourn for the rest of the week. Given the now real possibility of violence, it was probably the responsible thing to do. But Whitmer was still appalled by the cynicism of her opposition. “The Republican leadership doesn’t want to be in town when the protesters they incited are coming,” she said. “They don’t want to be here because they know it’s going to be too much.”
By the beginning of the third week in May, Whitmer was dealing with a public-health crisis, an economic disaster, a hostile Legislature and an angry white protest movement.
Then the dam broke.
Whitmer first learned that the Edenville Dam was in danger of collapse from her chief of staff on the evening of May 19. It gave way, and the resulting floodwaters quickly destroyed another dam farther downriver. Water was pouring into the nearby city of Midland. Whitmer had not left Lansing since the start of the pandemic, but the following morning she flew up to survey the damage. She visited a shelter to talk to some displaced residents, looked down on the wrecked homes and washed-out bridges from a State Police helicopter and gave a brief news conference in front of Midland High School. “I feel like I’ve said this a lot over the last 10 weeks, but this is an event unlike anything we’ve seen before,” Whitmer said.
When I spoke with her later that afternoon, she was back in Lansing and had just got off the phone with President Trump to ask him to send equipment and workers from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to Midland to assist with the cleanup. I asked Whitmer if they had discussed anything else. “He told me that I look good on television,” she said, quoting him. “ ‘I see you on TV. You’ve become quite a star.’” (The White House declined to comment for this article.)
In recent years, Americans have come to see governing as something that happens largely on TV and social media; in a sense, in the age of Trump, it does. The coronavirus had already awakened many Michigan residents to the real-life stakes of actual governing. The usually hidden hand that’s intended to help citizens survive and prosper was suddenly visible. The government was fixing pipes; the government was telling you that you didn’t have to pay your rent; the government was ordering you not to go to work because it wasn’t safe. The Edenville Dam, which had been identified by federal regulators as a serious danger many years earlier, was an almost impossibly on-the-nose counterexample: Here’s what happens when the government does absolutely nothing.
The modern history of Michigan has been in many ways a story of malign neglect. The starkest example of this is, of course, the Flint water crisis. It was a crisis years in the making, as the state gradually hollowed out support for the majority-black city: From 2002 to 2014, Michigan diverted some $55 million from Flint to plug holes in its state budget, according to Anna Clark’s definitive 2018 book, “The Poisoned City.” As the resource-starved city faced economic ruin, the state put it under the control of an unelected “emergency manager.” As part of a proposed cost-saving measure, this official — appointed by the state, not the people — oversaw a change in the city’s water supply to the improperly treated Flint River. Even after local residents started complaining about their rank, discolored water, the state turned its back on them. For 18 months, government officials continued to insist that the toxic water flowing from Flint’s taps was safe to drink.
The state has also gradually hollowed out its public schools. For decades, Michigan’s education funding rose more slowly than that of any other state in the country; adjusted for inflation, per-pupil spending, in fact, declined by 22 percent from 2002 to 2015. Most states spend more money per pupil in their high-poverty districts; Michigan spends less. This long history of underfunding recently culminated in a crisis, too, if a less dramatic one than Flint’s: In 2016, a group of seven students in Detroit’s public schools sued the state, arguing that it had deprived them of their constitutional right to literacy. In April, in the midst of the pandemic, a federal appeals court ruled in their favor. Whitmer moved quickly to settle the suit, promising among other things to provide Detroit’s school system with at least $94.4 million for new literacy programs. But the Republican Legislature opposed the settlement and petitioned to have the case reheard, arguing in part that the court’s decision had infringed on their authority to control the flow of money to Michigan’s schools.
Until recently, Edenville was an operating hydroelectric dam regulated by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. The federal agency started warning about the dam’s capacity to handle a flood more than two decades ago. Its current owner, Boyce Hydro Power, ignored repeated requests from the federal government to upgrade the dam, even as it continued to exploit the power of Michigan’s waterways for profit, according to a lawsuit filed by the state. In 2018, the federal energy commission revoked Edenville’s license to operate, describing it as a “grave danger to the public.” The dam was now the state’s problem. In January 2019, it became Whitmer’s problem. (A lawyer for Boyce Hydro told me that the company was unable to perform the requested upgrades on the dam because it was constrained by Michigan’s environmental regulations and, as a private entity, didn’t have access to government funds.)
Thousands of people lost their homes and businesses in Midland. Some filed lawsuits against Boyce Hydro and its current regulator, the state of Michigan. Fighting, or settling, these lawsuits was going to be still another burden for Whitmer, whose state was already facing a historic financial crisis.
Virtually every state in the country is in economic free fall right now. But Michigan’s dependence on manufacturing, and therefore consumer spending, makes it especially vulnerable to a long slide. The state’s unemployment rate in April was 24 percent; in Detroit, it was more than 38 percent. Whitmer is facing a budget gap of some $6.3 billion over the next two years. Her ability to address this shortfall is limited. It will ultimately be up to the White House to decide how much additional money to give the states to help them deal with the economic devastation of the pandemic, and the Republican Legislature controls her ability to raise money through most other means. Deep cuts seem inevitable. By late May, it was becoming clear to Whitmer that instead of being the governor who reversed Michigan’s long history of underinvestment in the state and its citizens, she might well be one who accelerated the process.
Whitmer’s agenda for 2020 once included a Flint-inspired water initiative to replace dangerous lead pipes across the state and a long list of education programs. (Among other things, she was planning to devote an additional $60 million to academically at-risk or economically disadvantaged students.) Late last year, her senior staff members collected these and other proposals into a formal internal document: “2020 Priorities Strategy.” Recently, they held a burial ceremony for it over Zoom. Everyone took turns delivering eulogies. “Listen, it’s over,” one staff member said. “Pray for it.”
Whitmer spent the last weekend in May on the phone with the Michigan State Police and a number of the state’s mayors. The protests that had erupted in Minneapolis following the killing of George Floyd were spreading across the country and had reached Michigan. On Saturday afternoon, Whitmer issued a statement expressing solidarity with the protesters but also urging them to protest peacefully. On Sunday morning, the mayor of Grand Rapids, Rosalynn Bliss, told her that there had been considerable damage overnight to the city’s downtown. Detroit’s mayor, Mike Duggan, imposed a curfew on Sunday night that did little to disperse the crowds. Police officers deployed tear gas and rubber bullets and ultimately arrested more than 100 people. It looked to Whitmer that this could become another crisis.
There were protests in Lansing too, and on Sunday night some windows were broken in the downtown area, including a couple at the government building where Whitmer’s office is. She got up early Monday morning and walked through the now-quiet streets to survey the damage as the sun rose.
Later that morning, Whitmer was summoned to a call with Trump and her fellow governors about the weekend’s protests. As the president ranted, Whitmer started texting with a few other governors in disbelief. “Are you on this call?” she wrote.
“I’m in shock,” one responded.
“I’m not,” another wrote.
“I hope this is being recorded,” a third chimed in.
When I spoke with Whitmer a few hours after the call with Trump, she still sounded incredulous. She’d been on plenty of disconcerting calls with the White House. Indeed, two weeks earlier, she texted the group during a different call: “Bragging about the stock market, never once acknowledged the lives lost.” But the president’s tone in this emotionally fraught moment for the nation still took her by surprise. She struggled to find the right words to describe it. “He just went into this diatribe,” she finally told me. “It wasn’t like, ‘We’re going through a tough time.’ It was, ‘You need to assert dominance.’” In the most direct possible way, the president was telling Whitmer — and the nation’s other governors — to pick a side, and that shook her. Of course she was not going to “dominate” the protesters. These were the people of her state, and she was on their side. What was less clear, though, was what she should do in response to a situation that could possibly spiral into a violent mess.
The protests continued across Michigan. They spread beyond the cities into more-rural towns like Owosso, home to a barber, Karl Manke, who had recently been lionized by conservatives for refusing to abide by Whitmer’s stay-at-home orders and close his shop. In Detroit, which was in the midst of a heat wave, large crowds gathered every afternoon in front of Police Headquarters to march through the streets. The city has its own, infamous history of police abuse and racism; the uprising that engulfed Detroit in 1967 started when a group of white police officers raided a party at an after-hours club for two black veterans who had just returned from the Vietnam War. In that case, the government picked a side and proceeded to “dominate” the protesters: President Lyndon Johnson called in the military; Governor Romney called in the National Guard; the Detroit police terrorized black citizens in the streets. Similar, if less brutal, scenes were playing out in other cities across the country. Cumulatively, they created a sense among many Americans that their country was out of control and led to the law-and-order backlash that helped elect Richard Nixon.
Now something different seemed to be happening. For all the dramatic images of property damage and fire that led the news in the early days of the protests, public opinion in Michigan and across the country coalesced around the protesters. National Guardsmen were kneeling, policemen were joining marches, corporations were rushing to send out statements of support for Black Lives Matter. For reasons both cynical and idealistic, people were beginning to acknowledge that racism was inflicting deep and enduring harm on the nation.
As the days passed, the decision facing Whitmer came to seem less complicated. The next time I talked to her, she had just returned from a march through Detroit with a group of local religious leaders. She went with one of her two teenage daughters, who had been pestering her for days to let her attend a protest. It was a peculiar development — a head of government participating in a protest against the government — but it also made perfect sense in this deeply disorienting moment. “There’s a lot of pain across this country,” she said when I asked what had inspired her to go to the protest. “This is a righteous cause and I wanted to be there in person.”
Whitmer and I had been talking for almost two months. We had covered a lot of ground: Her struggle to get medical supplies to her state; her inability to ban firearms from the Capitol; the bursting of a dam; the anger and pain now exploding across her state. As the weeks went by, it became increasingly clear to me that all of these different conversations about all of these different subjects were really one conversation about one subject: Her government — our government — was badly broken.
How did America arrive at this moment? Ronald Reagan famously cracked that the nine scariest words in the English language were: “I’m from the government and I’m here to help.” What started as a joke about federal overreach metastasized across the decades; government was not only inefficient, but unnecessary, suspect and even dangerous. This antigovernment posture was embraced by many in government itself. Bill Clinton’s 1996 declaration that “the era of big government is over” became self-fulfilling: The less trust Americans had in the ability of government to take care of them, the less government was in fact able to do so. Failure bred cynicism, which bred disengagement. Big government became all government. By the time the pandemic hit, America had elected a president who was himself openly contemptuous of the very notion of good government.
It did not take long to see that the challenge presented by the virus could only be met by strong federal leadership. There were the practical realities of trying to contain a highly contagious epidemic that didn’t observe local or state lines, as well as the need for a coordinated strategy to manufacture, procure and distribute medical supplies. There was the need for someone to summon the collective national will for a historic sacrifice, and as that sacrifice wrought financial devastation, to articulate a national vision for economic recovery — and maybe even make a case for how to use this crisis as an opportunity. The collective anguish and fury unleashed by the killing of George Floyd underscored the urgency of addressing systemic racial inequalities across America. It was at the very moment that we needed the leadership of our federal government the most that it became glaringly apparent that it had lost the will and authority to lead us.
This breakdown — this growing sense that the government is them and not us — has played out at every level of American political life. Whitmer is not only fighting a rolling wave of crises perhaps without precedent, but the legacy of years of eroding faith in the institution she represents. Even when the government does try to lead, large chunks of the population don’t want to be led.
As I was wrapping up this story, Whitmer got some badly needed good news. Her strict lockdown order seemed to have worked: Michigan had one of the lowest infection growth rates in the country. What’s more, a federal court ruled that she did have the authority to settle the lawsuit over Detroit’s public schools. Her commitment to send nearly $100 million to the district for literacy programs would stand.
It’s unclear, though, where she will find the money. Absent a federal bailout, Whitmer is already contending with how to make up a $1 billion revenue shortfall in her education budget. “We just have to make the next right decision,” she has taken to telling her staff. But what is the right decision when your options are to lay off teachers or health-care workers? What happens after the pandemic has passed and some Detroit residents still can’t pay their water bills? What happens when the foreclosure and eviction exemptions imposed during the shutdown are lifted and the state’s unemployed residents still can’t pay their mortgages or rent? How do you even begin to rebuild a state that has been crumbling for decades?
During one of our last conversations, I asked Whitmer how she defined success, given the almost unimaginably daunting choices that lay ahead for her. She had just returned from another trip to Midland, where she learned that only a small fraction of the flood victims were likely to have their claims paid by their insurance companies. It was the sort of question Whitmer usually steered away from, migrating instead to firmer ground: the intransigent Legislature, the White House, the budget. She thought about it for an uncharacteristically long moment as she paced outside the governor’s residence and then offered the only response she could. “That’s a hard question to answer,” she said. “It’s one that we’re grappling with.”