1. Home
  2. policy
  3. economy
  4. news
  5. America has descended into a new Red Scare

America has descended into a new Red Scare

Brent Crane   

America has descended into a new Red Scare

When Jeff Peticolas was a boy, he wondered how his dad could stomach owning Japanese cameras. Sam Peticolas had survived Pearl Harbor. He'd flown 52 missions against Imperial Japan. He'd nearly drowned after crashing a B-17 into the Pacific and received two Purple Hearts. What was he doing using products like Nikon that were made by his former enemy? Jeez, those are the guys who were shootin' at you, Peticolas thought, and here you are buying their stuff.

Now 66, Peticolas is tall and sturdy for his age, with gray hair, a gray mustache, and deep-set wrinkles. He feels guilty about having never served. The draft ended two years before he was eligible, not that he particularly wanted to go fight in Vietnam. Instead, Peticolas trained to become an auto mechanic at Ferris State University, where his father taught, in Mecosta County, Michigan, in and around which he has always lived.

But in September 2022, when the county announced that an electric-vehicle-parts manufacturer was coming to town, Peticolas decided it was time to serve his country. The company, Gotion, is the American subsidiary of the world's second-largest EV-battery maker, a Chinese conglomerate called Gotion High-Tech. The $2.4 billion battery plant promised to bring nearly 2,500 jobs to Michigan's fifth-poorest county. But as Peticolas saw it, not only was America's most powerful adversary setting up shop in his hometown, but local officials in Green Charter Township had committed something close to treason by inviting the enemy in. This was nothing short of a communist invasion, in his eyes, and the patriots of Green Charter needed to rise up and confront the Red Peril.

"Yes, I have Chinese stuff in my house all over the place," Peticolas says. "But it's way better that they build it in China and sell it here than to build it here and be here. It's called embedding with the enemy. It's an age-old military tactic."

Peticolas and his neighbors formed a rebel coalition, christening themselves the "No-Gos." They began to see conspiracies around every corner. How long had this Chinese project been in the works? Who among the town's leaders was on Beijing's payroll? In rowdy droves, the No-Gos started attending town-hall meetings in search of answers. They unleashed a barrage of Freedom of Information Act requests, sifting through the emails of Green Charter's township board for signs of "corruption" and other shady dealings with the Chinese. To them, the Gotion project was a Trojan horse en route with communist spies. Some even speculated that Chinese missiles might be concealed in the factory's water tanks.

Green Charter, population 3,200, is the kind of quiet Midwestern town where everybody knows everybody. But communal civility quickly gave way to suspicion and ridicule. The township supervisor, a dour ex-cop and vocal Gotion supporter named Jim Chapman, became one of the No-Gos' prime targets. "I've gotten death threats," Chapman says. The calls were frightening. I'm willing to end this with my Second Amendment rights. Or We'll bring the Michigan militia over there. The hostility got so intense that Chapman began attending meetings of the township board armed and wearing a bulletproof vest.

Americans feel increasingly threatened by China. In a Pew survey conducted last year, 84% of respondents said they viewed Beijing's military strength as a somewhat or very serious problem. Last year Montana became the first state to issue a sweeping ban on TikTok, owned by the Beijing-based company ByteDance, and Arkansas ordered a Chinese-owned company to divest itself of farmland it had owned in the state since 1988. The town of Reedley, California, freaked out after discovering that a derelict medical manufacturing facility was owned by a Chinese man, who they imagined was building "bioweapons," possibly to deploy on a nearby naval base. And in Manteno, Illinois, residents are mobilizing against another Gotion project, a $2 billion battery plant that opponents have deemed "un-American."

The growing anxiety is shared by leading figures in Washington, whom the No-Gos often cite. Rush Doshi, President Joe Biden's point man on China, believes China is seeking to supplant America as the world's sole superpower. "China now poses a challenge unlike any the United States has ever faced," Doshi declares in his influential book, "The Long Game." Donald Trump, meanwhile, is fond of railing against China's "rape" of America and has pushed conspiracy theories about the Chinese Communist Party directing "military-age men" to illegally immigrate to the United States. Both parties routinely portray China as a sinister affront to American values and American jobs. In the Republican response to Biden's State of the Union address on March 7, Sen. Katie Britt of Alabama said, "The CCP knows that if it conquers the minds of our next generation, it conquers America."

But the backlash in Green Charter represents something seldom seen since the Red Scare: a quasi-militant, homegrown resistance to the perceived threat of communism at home. Early last year, the No-Gos established a command base in a Facebook group they called No Gotion, which soon amassed more than 1,500 members. Peticolas became a frequent poster. "Pro-Gotion people, wake up!" he urged. "Why would you sell out America?"

As the group became a bona fide grassroots force, the Michigan Republican Party took notice. In March 2023, a Green Charter resident named Lori Brock whose horse farm lies near the proposed Gotion site hosted a "Save My Farm" rally. The event was attended by Kristina Karamo, the chair of the Michigan GOP and a 2020 election denier, and state Sen. Lana Theis. Posters peppered the property with signs that read "CHOOSE FREEDOM, NO GO ON GOTION!" and "NO CCP. WE WILL NOT BE SILENCED." The county's Republican congressman, Rep. John Moolenaar, gave a rousing speech. "The CCP is not right for Mecosta County, and it's not right for Michigan," he declared.

But to the No-Gos' ire, the Green Charter township board, whose seven members were all Republicans, remained unmoved in their support for Gotion. They argued that not only would the battery plant be an economic godsend, but the board didn't even have the power to deny the project. Gotion had purchased private property that was zoned for industrial use. It had largely completed the permitting process. It had voluntarily submitted information to the Treasury Department, which determined that any risk Gotion might pose to national security was too low to require a full audit. Legally, Gotion was free to build in Green Charter. All that remained was to sort out the details of construction and hiring.

Such realities hardly mattered to Peticolas and the No-Gos. To them, the board's acquiescence amounted to a kind of treason. John Holdsworth, a local factory worker, began performing anti-Gotion protest songs at town-hall meetings. (One was set to "American Pie": "A long, long time ago, I can still remember how democracy used to make me smile.") To "piss off" Gotion supporters, Peticolas began parading around town in one of his trucks, a ramshackle 1956 Willys, with a giant sign protruding from the bed like a monstrous shark fin: "STOP! THE CHINESE LAND GRAB!"

By April, town-hall meetings had devolved into standing-room-only shouting matches. Speakers railed at Chapman and the board as if they were the CCP politburo. "It makes me sick that every time we stand up to pledge allegiance to that beautiful flag," one resident fumed. "Your allegiance is to China!" Another seethed, "My family members fought communism, and you're bringing it to our backyard!" No-Gos warned that Chinese spies would infiltrate the town. They pointed to a line in Gotion's parent company's articles of association: "The Company shall set up a Party organization and carry out Party activities in accordance with the Constitution of the Communist Party of China." As the rhetoric escalated, police began attending the town halls, hovering uneasily between the board and its irate constituents, exuding all the confusion of border collies caught between two warring flocks of sheep.

Like many locals, Tracy Ruell was overjoyed when she heard about Gotion. Ruell, who works part time as an administrator for her husband's insulation company, grew up in Mecosta County. Her great-great-grandfather migrated from Sweden in the 1800s, and her mother, Carlleen Rose, owns a gift store in Big Rapids, the county seat. Ruell says she has no illusions about China or its efforts to nettle America. But the No-Gos' concerns struck her as "nut-job" nonsense, and the accusations of corruption within the town board seemed like senseless smears. Over 200 Chinese companies operate in Michigan: SAIC Motor, AVIC, Nexteer Automotive. Where was all the malfeasance? Where was the threat to national security?

In June, enervated by the conspiracy theories, Ruell launched a rival Facebook group called Only Things Gotion. She envisioned the page, which attracted 1,300 members, as a place where supporters could post in peace, free from "brainwashed" agitators. Ruell spent hours each day painstakingly rebutting No-Go talking points. She prided herself on her commitment to citing her sources, often sharing official documents such as leasing agreements and other Gotion-related contracts to prove a point or challenge a claim. By the end of the summer, she'd become the undisputed leader of the Pro-Gos. "In my opinion, whatever she says is gospel," says a local named Suzi, who requested I use her first name only because of the intensity of the conflict. "She knows her shit."

But Ruell's support for the battery plant made her a prime target. The No-Gos wondered why she was so gung ho for Gotion. Surely she was jockeying for an HR position at the company. Surely she was being paid to rally support. People began posting memes featuring her likeness. Several times, walking down the street or at the grocery store, she was called a "commie." Her 69-year-old mother, who often spoke in favor of Gotion at town-hall meetings, became similarly despised. Some No-Gos organized a boycott of local businesses deemed pro-Gotion, including Rose's gift shop. Afterward, Peticolas began loitering outside the shop at a picnic table, which the Pro-Gos saw as a form of intimidation (Peticolas denies this, saying he just enjoys "sitting in the shade for a while" as part of his daily routine.)

Over 200 Chinese companies operate in Michigan. Where was all the malfeasance? Where was the threat to national security?

But Peticolas made no secret of his disgust over the Pro-Gos. For over a decade he'd been friendly with Tim Hahn, a sales manager at the Big Rapids Pioneer, a local newspaper. Peticolas had attended Hahn's annual barbecues and invited Hahn to parties in a saloon he built in his backyard. But the years of goodwill were wiped away when Hahn sided with the Pro-Gos. Indignant exchanges in Ruell's Facebook group led to testy debates via text. After months of private quarrels, Hahn was exhausted.

"At this point it would be pointless to engage with you, so I have stopped," Hahn texted Peticolas last spring, pointing to the No-Gos' penchant for unfounded conspiracy theories. "If you can't be honest, you should stop engaging with me too."

Peticolas refused to back down. "I find you repulsive lately," he texted Hahn later. "Love your use of the Laffy face when you just gotta be a dick."

After that, Hahn blocked Peticolas from texting. "I was starting to become afraid of Jeff," he said. "Of what he might do."

Before Gotion came to town, Corri Riebow had never cared for politics. She'd worked in a Big Rapids veterinarian's office and volunteered at an animal hospital. On the side, she made jewelry, some of which she sold at Carlleen Rose's gift shop. But as the war over Gotion began to consume Green Charter, Riebow began to feel that the township board was behaving "too secretly." It should've polled the community before approving Gotion's permits. It should have been more up front about the potential for pollution and other downsides. And like her father, Jeff Peticolas, Riebow worried about the national security threat Gotion seemed to pose.

"The Chinese government wants to take us out," she says. "They have said it straight up without trying to hide it. It just blows my mind that anybody in any sort of leadership position would not have a problem with that."

She decided to join the movement. In October, Green Charter residents began receiving flyers featuring Riebow and four other candidates seeking to replace the township board. The No-Gos had organized a recall election, to be held the following month. They called themselves the "CHOOSE FREEDOM Candidates."

Much of the community seemed to support them. In 20 days of canvassing, they said, they collected 630 signatures opposing the Gotion project. This, they proclaimed, was democracy in action: a movement of engaged citizens punishing an elected body that had betrayed its oath. Local radio stations ran ads of support, including some paid for by Moolenaar and a conservative group called Stand Up Michigan. Right-wing media outlets like Fox News, Breitbart, and the Daily Mail covered the campaign. A flyer mailed to residents declared, "It's the Battle to Preserve Our Way of Life."

The No-Gos were convinced of an orchestrated plot surrounding Gotion's coming. But Ruell and her Pro-Go allies became similarly convinced that the recall campaign was being mounted by a shadowy network of far-right operators. In their view, the Michigan GOP and right-wing media outlets, in conjunction with the "petroleum lobby," were coordinating the attack to dampen support for electric vehicles and to undercut Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, who had hailed Gotion as "the biggest ever economic development project in Northern Michigan." For both sides, it was dirty politics and dark money all the way down.

Still, Ruell and her Pro-Go followers shrugged off the recall as a hopeless stunt that was certain to fail. The No-Gos, they were convinced, were nothing more than a loud MAGA-like minority. So it came as a shock on November 7 when the Choose Freedom candidates won in a landslide, recalling five of the township's seven board members. Each candidate won more than 50% of the vote. In only a few months, the perceived threat of communism — one of the hardiest of American boogeymen — had reconfigured a small town's political landscape. (Two other board members had resigned prior to the election.)

The No-Gos were rapturous. "The vocal MAJORITY has won!" Riebow posted in No Gotion. "We are now one step closer to removing the CCP from the USA."

Soon after the No-Gos' victory, I attended Green Charter's first town-hall meeting with the new board. Residents I met there and elsewhere in town wondered about my own position: Whose side was I on? When I told interviewees the truth — that I was mainly interested in why people thought the way they did — they often seemed disappointed. It was as if they were so deeply entrenched in their divisions that they couldn’t imagine not holding a strong position either way. Soon after my arrival, when I posted a call for interviews on the No Gotion Facebook page, the backlash was instantaneous. "Something is fishy with you," one member wrote in a string of paranoid replies. Another suggested, "We need to 'vet' a trusted/patriotic writer."

But at the town-hall meeting, there was an air of great accomplishment. Some in the crowd wore No Gotion hats. Others brandished signs: "Thy will is done, we've just begun!!" Several residents came forward to shower the new board with well-wishes. "I want to thank you guys for all the hard work in helping to bring democracy back to our township," said Holdsworth, the protest singer. "With this election, we can hold the truth to be self-evident that the majority of the township people don't want this battery plant."

Elected to serve as chairman of the board, replacing the hated Jim Chapman, was Jason Kruse, a mild-mannered auto-mechanic instructor at Ferris State. Kruse had led the recall effort, driven by fears about China. "If I wanted to take over a country, I'm going to go for their food, and I'm going to go for their energy," he had explained in a promotional video. "And so these are things that we really need to take into consideration. What would be the 100-year plan for China?"

But now the Pro-Gos, many of whom were watching the town-hall meeting from home on a livestream, were wondering about Kruse's plan. What would he do now that No-Gos held the reins? He began with something sure to displease everyone: a plea for civility. "There's a lot of hurt that's happened," he said. "Let's use this as a fresh start, please." Whenever he was asked about Gotion, Kruse demurred, saying he and the board had been advised by legal counsel to keep mum. It seemed like a strangely subdued performance for the leaders of an anti-communist insurrection.

There were still a few pockets of peace amid the larger war. At one point, a local Filipino American man took the lectern to voice concerns about the rise of anti-Asian sentiment in the wake of the Gotion struggle. "I just want to tell everybody that we are here," he said. "There are examples — in the past and currently — of violence and verbal abuse against Asians because of perceived beliefs. So please talk to your neighbors and friends and do not act on conspiracy theories." He received a rousing round of applause.

But such moments of kinship have become vanishingly rare in Green Charter. Not long after Tim Hahn blocked Jeff Peticolas over his toxic texting, Peticolas started showing up at Hahn's workplace, the Big Rapids Pioneer. He told a Pioneer employee that Hahn was an "asshole," and he taunted Hahn on Facebook, saying Hahn's coworkers had told him how much they loathed him. Hahn felt under siege.

Then one day, at the Big Rapids farmers market, Hahn felt someone hovering close behind. It was Peticolas.

"How's life in crazyville?" Peticolas said.

"I don't want to engage with you," Hahn replied. "I'm done with you."

Hahn started to walk away, but Peticolas stuck by his side. "I'll decide when we're done," he said.

Once he slipped away, Hahn filed stalking charges. A personal protective order was granted, but Peticolas challenged it in court. Peticolas denies that his interactions with Hahn were at all threatening. He says he showed up at the Pioneer office only to sort out problems with his subscription. "I've never threatened anyone in my life," he says. At the hearing, several No-Gos appeared in support of Peticolas. The judge ultimately sided with Hahn, noting that Peticolas had initiated at least three instances of unwanted contact. But she was dismayed by the pettiness exhibited on both sides of the affair.

"I think it's terrible that as a community we are allowing something like Gotion to tear us apart," she said. "It's the nation right now. We're not able to have these conversations anymore, and it really saddens this court."

Around this time, Hahn's mailbox was smashed.

It's easy to dismiss what's happened in Green Charter as yet another sign of America's descent into dangerous incivility. But when it comes to China, the anti-communists in Green Charter represent a broader national consensus. At a congressional hearing last July, a former FBI official named William Evanina said it was "100%" likely that Beijing would use the Green Charter factory for spying. To support his claim, he described the CCP's "hybrid methods" of intelligence gathering, including the use of "nontraditional" spies. In January, at another congressional hearing, Evanina's view was seconded by Leon Panetta, who served as President Barack Obama's secretary of defense. Asked about Gotion's plans in Green Charter, Panetta replied, "I don't think there's any question that they are going to take advantage of that situation." The pervasive fear of China, it seems, may be the only shared belief holding America together.

When it comes to China, the anti-communists in Green Charter represent a broader national consensus.

Gotion is still set to come to Green Charter. In February, loggers from out of town began clearing sites for two proposed battery factories, covering more than 260 acres. The township's new No-Go board still hopes for no Gotion. "I can't talk about what we have in the works," Riebow tells me. "But we are exploring our options."

For Riebow's father, the threat of China continues to loom large. After Hahn's protective order was upheld, Peticolas couldn’t sleep for five nights. It terrified him to think he might unintentionally violate the order and wind up imprisoned. He suffered a panic attack and checked himself into a hospital. But his resolve against Gotion remains firm. "I still don't want it just as much as I never wanted it," he says.

He described plenty of reasons to oppose Gotion's battery factories. Electric vehicles are a scam; Democrats are ramming green energy down America's throat; Gotion's plants pose an intolerable environmental risk, and the heavy traffic would be a nuisance. But for him, standing up against the threat of a Chinese invasion is a patriotic duty. If China comes to America, it won't be on his watch.

"This has been a year with a lot of news about China pulling strings to antagonize America," Peticolas says. "I've known forever that China has said they're going to destroy us. But they don't want to do it with weapons. They're smart, and they're patient. They just don't like us."

Brent Crane is a reporter based in San Diego. His work can be found at and @bcamcrane on X.

Popular Right Now