Democrats can still win -- here's how

Democrats are struggling to try to pass Joe Biden's domestic spending agenda, which enjoys double-digit support, even after months of mostly negative, misleading and defeatist media coverage. The disconnect between how popular Democrats' policies are and how hamstrung they are politically couldn't be clearer. But what's far less clear is what to do about it — and how that disconnect can be overcome. On the flipside, we see almost a mirror image: Republicans have largely abandoned any sort of policy agenda, aside from sabotaging democracy (and soothing one man's injured ego), while spreading COVID denialism that's killing their base by a thousand or more people every day while seemingly suffering no consequences as a result. We know that our politics have become extremely dysfunctional, but we're flummoxed about how to fix it.

This article first appeared in Salon.

In a recent op-ed for The Hill, "How the Democratic Party's campaign strategy is failing America," Democratic consultant Hal Malchow presented a compelling argument that echoed some of the analysis I've written about before, from the likes of Alan Abramowitz and Rachel Bitecofer, but with his own distinctive twist. Like both of them, Malchow sees the sharp shrinkage of the persuadable voter population — i.e., the "swing voter" — as a fundamental point of departure, and like Bitecofer, he sees party brand identification as something Democrats need to focus on much more clearly. Both the similarities and the differences intrigued me, along with the echoes of other experts I've interviewed who are engaged with different aspects of partisan identity.

Malchow is in the American Association of Political Consultants Hall of Fame, and is recognized as "the first political consultant to regularly use statistical modeling to target voter communications and fundraising mail." So he has experience on the cutting edge, and a track record that suggests he's worth listening to. This interview has been edited for clarity and length, as usual.

In your recent op-ed for The Hill, you wrote about two developments you said "represent the most unnoticed earthquake in the history of American campaigns." What are those two developments?

The first development is the diminishment, almost disappearance, of the swing voter. There's a Republican pollster, Public Opinion Strategies, and every two years they poll the percentage of the electorate that actually casts ballots for candidates. In 2000, the percentage of ticket-splitters was 36% of the electorate. At that level, they decide almost every election. But the 2020 number was 11%. So basically, nine out of 10 voters are choosing parties and not candidates. This is a big deal, because the entire campaign structure is built around influencing the choice of candidates. So the terrain has shifted, but no one's reacted to it. That's No. 1.

The second development is the fact that political advertising is really not working — or is working at a minute level. I've been on the board of The Analyst Institute, and our job is to measure campaign methods and determine what works, how much it works and how much it costs to get a vote, using various techniques. In a 2017 study of 49 control group experiments measuring the effectiveness of political mail, mailings that were sent in primary elections and ballot referendums showed statistically significant effects. Mailings sent to support candidates in general elections, with the parties on the ballot, showed no effects at all.

So the lessons you drew from those developments had to do with campaign focus and timing. I'd like to ask about focus first: your suggestion to shift from candidate-focused to party-focused advertising. You write, "Can advertising affect party affiliation? No one knows. It has never been tested." But you go on to make two further points. First, that the benefits of doing that could be huge.

If 90% of the voters are voting straight party tickets and you convert someone from being an independent to being a Democrat, and they go, "All right, I'm in," a fair assumption, an empirically-supported assumption, is that this new Democrat is going to vote straight tickets. So in converting someone from an independent to a Democrat, you affect not just one race that you were previously spending all your advertising dollars on, you are getting votes up and down the ticket.

But here's the kicker. The data on party registration in states where you register by party indicates that the length of a decision about party registration lasts in excess of 30 years, that the turnover is about 2.5% a year. So if that's the case, and you get the whole ticket, plus you get some portion of the next 30 years, how many elections are you affecting, compared to spending your money on one candidate? And so the question is, can you move party affiliation?

That takes us to a second thing you said, which is that it's already happening. You write that "it is not correct to ask whether advertising can move party affiliation. The more appropriate question is can highly targeted advertising accelerate the movement that is already taking place."

That's correct. Gallup does the most regular party affiliation polls. Their fourth-quarter poll for 2020 had the Democrats and Republicans, with leaners, dead even. At the end of the first quarter of 2021, the Democrats had a nine-point advantage, and this was after the Jan. 6 insurrection, after Republicans spreading the Big Lie and voting to overturn the election, after Republicans voted unanimously, at least in the Senate, against the stimulus package, which sent $1,400 checks to 85% of our households. Their misconduct fueled a fairly major movement in party affiliation, without any advertising or any reinforcement of their sins.

I think one of the things you have to think about is: What is the information voters are getting? What we need to use our advertising for is not to try to make a particular candidate into Satan and describe all their bad deeds, because no one believes that. What we need to do is enter into the news cycle and enhance or amplify news that is good for us, but also elaborate on that division, with key information that is often left out on television news. For instance, key information on the certification of the election was that 80% of Republicans in the House voted to overturn the election, when 70% of Americans believed the election was fairly decided. That's pretty powerful news, but it didn't get out. It wasn't the lead of the story. So voters weren't seeing that.

If we're in the news cycle and we're amplifying or enhancing news that is taking place — if CNN or NBC or any of the major news outlets are talking about something, then you insert yourself into the conversation. That's a much more believable delivery of information, because it's validated by what the mainstream news outlets are saying. We shouldn't try to create a message. We should take the messages that are out there, amplify them and enhance them with the information that is particularly favorable to us.

You also note that there are examples of such shifts going on long-term, and one of those you look at is about younger voters. What's most significant about them?

With younger voters, there's a couple of things to keep in mind. They tend to be more independent than other age groups, they are less affiliated. Generally, it's fair to say younger people have less information about politics than older people do. So, frankly, they're a little more malleable. And this shows up in the study the Democracy Fund did, I thinkin 2017. About 30% of the younger voters changed their party affiliation in states where you register by party, and most of the movement was from Republican to independent, but there was some movement to Democrats.

I think we have excellent messages for younger people. We are on one side of climate change, Republicans are on the other side. Biden, to my knowledge, has not done student loan forgiveness but has come out for it, and Democrats have been talking about reducing the cost of college, which is something you don't hear from Republicans. So you have that contrast, and of course generally young people are a more liberal audience.

Young voters weren't the group that moved most, though, right?

The group that moved most into the Democratic column in the 2017 study was Asian-Americans. I don't doubt that they're feeling more afraid of Republicans now than they were in 2017, with all the violence that has taken place. They've been sort of a quiet minority, but now they've gotten a lot of attention in threatening ways. So this is an opportunity.

In targeting the people that you want to move, you have all the data you need to do a great model. All you have to do is look at the voter lists, look at the people who move toward the Democrats, and construct a model that includes age, includes ethnicity, includes education, includes gender, marital status, all sorts of things that may be predictive of someone moving. It's an easy problem. Targeting is the easiest problem to solve.

So the second big lesson had to do with timing, with what's wrong with the current timing of campaign spending and what might work better. Could you explain?

Let me start with some background on that. I forget what year it was, but when Rick Perry was running for governor of Texas, he brought Don Green from Yale down — the shocking scandal in all of this is that the measurement of political tactics started the academic community, and not within the industry itself. He went down and worked with Rick Perry, and they discovered that TV could move votes, but they also showed that the effect tended to diminish. And since then, everyone has kind of packed the advertising into September and October of the election year. If they have a plethora of money, they might back it up into June or whatever. But here's the thing: There has to be a balance.

So if I sent a mailing in September of 2022 and say, "Whoa! The Republicans all voted against your stimulus check, $1,400!" That's a big deal, but it's two years ago. People have already spent the money. If we run it at the time when they're actually receiving the check, the initial impact is going to be much greater. And if the initial impact is much greater, even if there's some diminishment you'll end up with more. All the advertising has gotten so difficult. It's hard to move these voters, and the best way to move them is when they are being personally affected by an issue, when the issue is current and in front of them.

Not many voters probably know that 80% of the Republicans in the House voted to overturn the election. If we had put that out and it was widely known, maybe it wouldn't have been a nine-point shift, maybe it would have been an 11-point shift. I believe in being opportunistic and talking to voters and delivering messages at the point in time when they are feeling the issues most strongly.

Let me give you another example. Portland, Oregon, had temperatures of 112 this last year. Why are we not, in the midst of this, running ads showing Republicans talking about how climate change is a hoax? Politics is not about reason. There's a great political scientist, Drew Weston, he was at Emory, who wrote a book called "The Political Brain." He put sensors on people's heads to determine when they were processing information, and where the information went. Well, it didn't go to the frontal cortex, where reasoning and advanced thinking takes place. It went to the most primitive part of the brain, which was there before we could speak, before we could do anything but be scared, be excited, be sad and be happy.

Politics is about emotion. Your messages need to be about emotion, and if you can hit the voter at the time that the voter is emotional, that's how you have the greatest effect.

You just gave some examples of things earlier this year that Democrats could have messaged about. What are some examples right now?

Well, right now the Republicans just voted to shut down the government and default on the American debt. And I think the only reason they did that was because they knew the Democrats would have the votes to raise the debt ceiling. But you could quote the Wall Street Journal a big Republican paper — and they would say it is catastrophic, it would wreck the economy, it would raise interest rates. You just put a list out there of all the things that would happen if the Republican vote prevailed. It's frightening. And it's not fake-frightening, it's real-frightening. But who is explaining this to the voters? Not the goddamn Democrats. They're spectators now, the Democratic Party. They're spectators in a world of rich opportunity.

Now that world of rich opportunity may be passing, because the Democrats can't get their stuff together to pass anything and they're all fighting amongst themselves, and Biden has had a bad several months. So what opportunities lie ahead is another question. But we have had a treasure trove of opportunities to diminish their credibility as a responsible political party in this country, and we haven't done anything about it.

You've also suggested a proactive proposal about advancing proposals to exploit the gap between politically popular measures and the position of the GOP base. So how would that work?

The Republican Party has a problem. And the problem is that their base has become so extreme and so Trumpified that it's hard for them to move to the middle, to offer moderate proposals, which leaves them in a trap. A couple of things I've mentioned: One is QAnon. Here's this group, this internet group that believes the "deep state" is run by a cabal of pedophiles who are kidnapping children and emptying their adrenal glands in order to get some hormone that helps them live longer. They said the election was stolen, but there's going to be a great wave that's going to sweep all the new leaders out and replace them with their rightful leader. This is an organization of extreme nonsense. How any large, substantial segment of the population can believe all this is baffling to me. But they represent, according to one poll, 25% of the Republican base, and in addition to that you've got another 50% of Republicans who are not rejecting QAnon completely. They're a little skeptical, but they are kind of interested.

So let's say in the House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi decides that we need a congressional resolution condemning QAnon. Well, this puts the Republicans in a bad spot. Because they either have to do something that's going to really anger 25% of their base, or they've got to accept that they're creating an issue in the general election campaign, because their Democratic opponent can say, "Look, this person voted against condemning an organization that says America's governed by pedophiles," and all these strange, untenable beliefs. You could do that with the Proud Boys, and I think many Republicans, in fact most, would find it very difficult to condemn these groups, because they've become an important part of the party's base.

You also suggest some things that can be done to cause problems with the Republican donor base.

Yeah. Some of that was actually done. A number of them said they would not support candidates who voted to overturn the election, but there has been some movement from those positions. That sort of happened as a natural development.

You also suggest taking votes on different kinds of tax proposals, where Republicans either have to go with their donors or go with the vast majority of the American people.

Well, I think the tax issue was a big opportunity for us, but it was not done in the most effective form. So you had this big infrastructure bill and you had tax proposals to pay for it. The tax proposals basically increased the corporate tax a little bit, nothing like what it was, but also raised taxes on Americans who make more than $400,000 a year. Excuse me! How many Americans believe that people who are making $400,000 a year are paying their fair share of taxes?

This was so ripe, if instead of putting this infrastructure thing into one big package, we had put the tax proposals first — how we're going to pay for it, which makes us look very responsible, right? — and made them vote against raising taxes on Americans making $400,000 a year. I haven't seen a poll on that, but I would be shocked if support for that tax increase is not overwhelming. Then you've got it paid for, and that makes it easier to pass. People can't go around saying, "Oh, this is reckless spending." No! We already paid for it. And virtually every Republican in Congress has signed a no-tax-increase pledge. There would be a lot of squirming over that one.

You also talk about things I would call splitting the base of GOP supporters, who see anything Democratic as evil. You put it in terms of Mitch McConnell's intransigence, his refusal to support anything in the Biden agenda. But it's not just McConnell and not just in Congress. We also see it in governors and state legislatures fighting against masking and vaccines, for example. What about that?

That's another big issue, the vaccine mandate. That one is a little complicated, because you've got people going a lot of different ways. I think people who got their vaccines are resentful toward the people who haven't gotten them. That's an issue, and you've got places like Florida, where it could be a bigger issue, although I think most of the news cycle is putting out the information about DeSantis and it has hurt him, but not hurt him at the level you might expect.

I asked before about shifts favoring the Democrats but I'd like to ask about the opposite, shifts away from the Democratic Party where there are people working against the grain. With rural voters, for example, Nebraska Democrats have had significant success mostly below the level of national awareness. Party chair Jane Kleeb has written a book, "Harvest the Vote: How Democrats Can Win Again in Rural America" (Salon interview here). She notes the success of progressive initiative campaigns for medical marijuana and Medicaid expansion. There was also the 2018 teachers' strike wave, set off in West Virginia and heavily concentrated in red states. These are examples of issues in the news cycle Democrats could take advantage of, to counter if not reverse that pro-GOP shift.

I think rural voters are a tough nut. I think oftentimes there are more votes to harvest where you're doing well than where you're doing poorly. If you look at the voters supporting Trump, the majority of them are white, they're not college-educated, they are struggling financially and really all the programs of the Democrats are favorable to them, particularly compared to the sort of things the Republicans advocate.

But it's a cultural problem. The people who support Trump feel looked down upon by Democrats and the liberal elites and the people who live in New York City and Philadelphia and Denver. And even though all economic arguments would cause them to vote for a Democrat, they feel so resentful about their place in the world, the fact that they feel looked down upon, that I think they ignore the economic issues and just want to give the elites the finger.

I guess what I'm saying is that your suggestions seem to point to a way to work against that, or at least to make a difference on the margins, especially where you've got dedicated grassroots people working in the community on an everyday basis. It can help create opportunities that wouldn't be there otherwise.

I think that's right. If you can move some of these counties that gave 20% to Biden up to 30%, that would be a good thing. I think our opportunity at the current time is just the irresponsible behavior of the Republican Party and their domination by Trump in a way that forces them. You know, Adam Kinzinger from Illinois said there are only 10 House Republicans who are dumb enough to believe the election was stolen. But all the rest of them are afraid that if they stand up to Trump they'll get a primary and they won't be in Congress anymore. And that's a bad spot to be in, although the tolerance of voters for misconduct surprises me every day.

The greatest barrier I see to the kinds of changes you're proposing is the existing set of institutions dedicated to doing things the way they've always been done. But there clearly are a lot of people who see that current practices just aren't working. So who might step up and support the changes you're suggesting?

After the article came out, I got a ton of emails from people who said, "Yes! This is spot on! This is right, we need to do this!" But they weren't from anybody who actually made these decisions.

You know, I've been through this twice. Once in the early '90s, when I started campaigning for using advanced statistical analysis to gather voter target data. And you would think, oh, that's easy. Why would you target a precinct when you can target an individual, and you know whether or not they're voting, what their registration is and all this individual stuff. It took 12 years to get the party to finally move. It was 12 years on issues it really should have been able to settle with a 30-second conversation.

What happens is people are making money doing things a certain way. They're at a table in the campaign and you know there's a pollster and a media consultant, a direct-mail consultant, a research and internet guy, and they all have their piece of the pie, and anything that threatens to mix that up is likely to get opposition. People will protect their turf. The way we're doing things is the same way we've been doing them for 70 years, and now the idea that we would have to change is jolting.

And there's another aspect to this that should be mentioned. A campaign can be the best-run campaign ever run, and still lose. Or it can be the worst-run campaign ever, and still win. There's so many factors involved in this. But the campaign manager, in either case, is held accountable. So if you're a campaign manager and sort of know how all this works, you don't want to do anything new, because if you do something new, something different, and you lose, you'll get blamed.

So actual campaigns aren't the ones who would implement this. The campaigns raise their own candidate money, they're going to spend that money on the candidates. The groups that could change this are the three Democratic committees, their big super PACs like Priorities USA, and other groups. In particular, I think the super PACs that have a lot of money are the ones that could step in and really do this, and make a difference.

One of the first things we've got to do is get messages out there and test how they affect voters. But I'll tell you, you don't have to affect voters very much to make this worthwhile if it affects every race on the ballot, and it goes on for 20 years. Just a tiny piece of movement is a big deal over time.

A prescription for saving democracy: Is public health key to beating back fascism?

The California recall had an important lesson for Democrats, on at least two levels: First, that protecting public health is a politically potent platform, as California Gov. Gavin Newsom himself stressed in a day-after interview.

"We need to stiffen our spines and lean into keeping people safe and healthy," Newsom said. "We shouldn't be timid in trying to protect people's lives and mitigate the spread and transmission of this disease." It was both the right thing to do and a key to driving turnout in what might otherwise have been a low-turnout election, he said: "Democrats, I hope, were paying attention."

On election eve, former Obama adviser David Plouffe had offered a similar analysis on "The Last Word." Looking forward to 2022, he said, "Democrats need to go on the offense with vaccinated Americans, and say, you can't trust this other crowd." The following week, on "The Beat," Democratic strategist Chai Komanduri made a deeper, related point about the political efficacy of anger, now being felt by the vaccinated toward the unvaccinated, for needlessly prolonging the pandemic.

Heeding this immediate lesson could well be the key to beating the historical odds by gaining seats in the 2022 midterms, as a recent DCCC memo also reflects. That is, as President Biden would say, a "big fucking deal."

But there's a deeper lesson that could be even more potent: Public health — promoting wellness and preventing sickness and injury on a societal level — isn't just about mobilizing voters in an emergency for one election cycle. It can also serve as a long-term, overarching framework to reframe our politics, to provide us with new common sense in addressing a wide range of diverse issues by highlighting common themes and connecting what works.

And that could be key to defeating the threat of resurgent fascism, both here and abroad. Which would only be fitting, considering how viciously proto-fascist threats have targeted public health officials across the U.S., contributing to the exodus of at least 248 public health leaders since April 2020, according to an ongoing investigation by the AP and Kaiser Health News.

In tune with this long-term potential, as reported by NPR the previous week, more than 200 medical journals (including The Lancet and The New England Journal of Medicine) issued an unprecedented joint statement warning that the rapidly warming climate is the "greatest threat" to global public health, even in the midst of the COVID pandemic. Climate change and biodiversity loss "risk catastrophic harm to health that will be impossible to reverse," they warn. "Urgent, society-wide changes must be made and will lead to a fairer and healthier world. We are united in recognizing that only fundamental and equitable changes to societies will reverse our current trajectory."

Two calls for action are worth highlighting. The first is about equity:

Equity must be at the center of the global response. Contributing a fair share to the global effort means that reduction commitments must account for the cumulative, historical contribution each country has made to emissions, as well as its current emissions and capacity to respond.

Second, a call for sweeping systemic redesign:

[G]overnments must make fundamental changes to how our societies and economies are organized and how we live. The current strategy of encouraging markets to swap dirty for cleaner technologies is not enough. Governments must intervene to support the redesign of transport systems, cities, production and distribution of food, markets for financial investments, health systems, and much more.

The statement as a whole, and these calls in particular, resonate with the broader social justice framework articulated as the "Green New Deal" — some of which, though not all, has been carried over into Biden's Build Back Better agenda. But this is just the beginning of how a public health perspective dovetails with Democratic politics. In addition to climate change, other Democratic policy concerns recognized as crucial issues listed by the American Public Health Association include environmental health, racism, gun violence, injury and violence prevention, healthy housing and reproductive and sexual health. The list also intersects with human rights in the field of global health, and deals with issues of income inequality, education, housing, incarceration, nutritional equity, literacy, health care coverage and access under the broad umbrella of social determinants of health.

As a consequence of all these intersections, one frequently encounters public health professionals and advocates engaged in progressive issues, though rarely playing a defining role. But in the face of the COVID pandemic, climate change and the resurgent fascist threat, a more prominent role for the public health perspective, clearly and consistently articulated, is precisely what we need.

These intersections are hardly surprising, given the pragmatic, problem-solving thrust of progressive politics. As I've noted repeatedly before (here, here, here, here and here, among others), as far back as 1967, in "The Political Beliefs of Americans," Hadley Cantril and Lloyd Free identified a fundamental "schizoid" asymmetry in American politics: There is a plurality preference for ideological and symbolic conservatism on the one hand, and a supermajority preference for what they called "operational liberalism" on the other.

As our two political parties have become increasingly homogeneous ideologically, that leaves Republicans with a conservative symbolic and ideological advantage that lacks any substantive programmatic content, which makes them powerfully unified in opposition to specific Democratic initiatives (Obamacare, for example) but hopelessly lost when it comes to crafting initiatives of their own. What exactly was the "replace" part of their pledge to "repeal and replace" the Affordable Care Act? Democrats, on the other hand, have great difficulty explaining why the large majority of people who agree with them on a whole host of issues — a living wage, universal health care, combating climate change, sensible gun laws, etc. — should actually vote for them to get those issues acted on.

In the last section of their book, "The Need for a Restatement of American Ideology," Cantril and Free described the situation as "mildly schizoid, with people believing in one set of principles abstractly while acting according to another set of principles in their political behavior," and went on to call for a resolution:

There is little doubt that the time has come for a restatement of American ideology to bring it in line with what the great majority of people want and approve. Such a statement, with the right symbols incorporated, would focus people's wants, hopes, and beliefs, and provide a guide and platform to enable the American people to implement their political desires in a more intelligent, direct, and consistent manner.

That restatement has never come about, in part because, as I first noted in 2014, "racialized rhetoric has dominated campaigning, and stymied the emergence of a restated American ideology that Free and Cantril envisioned." But on-the-ground support for liberal policies remains as strong as ever, despite decades of mostly unanswered ideological assault. This can be seen for example, in a recent Data for Progress poll finding that voters support Biden's infrastructure plan by margins of 40% for the bipartisan infrastructure and jobs plan and by 32% for the Build Back Better plan.

As I noted four years ago, "The challenge for Democrats and progressives is to do what Republicans and conservatives have been doing for decades: Craft a coherent ideological narrative that makes sense of what people already feel."

The objections to Biden's agenda now being circulated on the right derive largely from what Paul Krugman calls "zombie ideas" in economics. What keeps bringing those zombies back to life is the narrative framework of conservative mythology, which cannot be defeated by any number of contradictory facts, because it's a quasi-religious framework for making sense of the world. It can only be defeated by challenging it and then replacing it with another meaning-making narrative — one that can actually deliver what it promises.

The public health framework in responding to the COVID pandemic represents a perfect opportunity to do precisely that. Failure to craft such a narrative in the past has allowed conservatives to dominate the framework of American politics, even in the absence of workable policies. Eventually, the lack of programmatic content on the conservative side was a key factor in preparing the way for Donald Trump's emergence. The failure to deliver policies and programs that improved people's lives fueled a widespread feeling of betrayal, which Trump ruthlessly exploited against establishment Republicans (even more than against Democrats), while amping up the party's racialized rhetoric to new heights.

Trump's own failure to deliver any substantive policies has only makes matters worse, because of his adeptness at blame-shifting — which is typical of autocrats everywhere — and the GOP's failure to repudiate him after the failed insurrection of last January. If Democrats are to succeed in defeating Trump's assault on American democracy, then his abject failure at fighting COVID may present the most viable point of attack, not just against Trump specifically but against the whole historical dynamic that has delivered us to this sorry point in our history.

Chai Komanduri's discussion of anger, mentioned above, is most illuminating on this point. "Trump can scream and yell his way to the presidency, and Kavanaugh can scream and yell his way to the Supreme Court, but women and minorities simply are not allowed politically to show anger, and the Democratic Party, as the party of women and minority voters, restrain themselves from showing anger," Komanduri said. "That has all changed [with] the recent California recall: The Democratic Party has become the party of angry vaccinated voters, and there are millions of them."

Anger has a logic, as he further explained: "The Roman philosopher Seneca said that anger is really about defeated expectations." Vaccinated people expected that everyone else would get vaccinated too, and we'd bring the pandemic to an end. "The fact that that did not happen," Komanduri said, "has led to real anger in the country, and it's something the Democratic Party can very much tap."

In contrast, Komanduri said, Republicans tap into "an expectation by white men that their status would not be touched," which is entirely unrealistic but can bee politically effective.

There's a name for that expectation — not just white privilege or male entitlement but a more generic one: collective narcissism. Trump's malignant genius is to intertwine the collective narcissism of his supporters with his own individual narcissism. He cannot be wrong, he cannot be criticized — because any attack on him is an attack on his followers. They will defend him, and even risk death from COVID — or deny that they are dying of COVID — to shield him from criticism.

This same logic underlies Trump's claim that the 2020 election was "stolen," which is now seen as very or somewhat important to Republican identity for 59% of GOP voters in a recent CNN poll. Trump is using fidelity to that belief to install secretaries of state in swing states who could hand him the next the election by fiat, regardless of what voters might say. Remember that the Republican Party literally had no platform in 2020. It proudly and officially stood for nothing other than Donald Trump. Now it's going one step further, vowing to elect Trump again whether the voters want it or not. There is no contact whatsoever with objective reality in the evolving GOP universe, as it follows the logic of collective narcissism to its ultimate neofascist end.

The public health narrative framework might not seem directly relevant to that problem. But in fact it can counter it at every turn, starting with the basics: Trump disregarded public health every step of the way in fighting COVID, he was wrong about virtually everything (other than funding vaccine development) and he spawned, encouraged or inspired a whole raft of delusional beliefs that have cost hundreds of thousands of lives. The notion that wearing masks or getting vaccinated is a matter of "personal choice" or "individual freedom" is one of the most pernicious examples. The nihilistic libertarian roots of such an antisocial creed long predate Trump, but he supercharged it in spectacular and deadly fashion.

In a recent Washington Post op-ed, Leana Wen and Sam Wang argue that unvaccinated people in public spaces should be considered as dangerous to public health as drunken driving:

Both causes of severe bodily harm are largely preventable — covid-19 through vaccination, and drunken driving by not driving after drinking alcohol. Both are individual decisions with societal consequences.
Both can cause substantial mortality, though deaths due to coronavirus far outstrip those due to drunken driving.

Drunk driving is clearly a public health issue, as shown by the CDC itself, and of course so are vaccination and mask-wearing. The notion that you have a "God-given right" to infect others with a deadly virus is absurd on its face, provided you are not swept up in the delusional worldview Trump is promoting. But its absurdity becomes especially clear the more firmly you grasp the public health perspective.

Of course I'm not arguing that perspective alone can save us. It's a tool we must use to save ourselves. It's also not quite right to call it a "perspective," since it involves a whole range of life-enhancing and life-preserving practices. The American Public Health Association explains:

Public health promotes and protects the health of people and the communities where they live, learn, work and play.
While a doctor treats people who are sick, those of us working in public health try to prevent people from getting sick or injured in the first place. We also promote wellness by encouraging healthy behaviors.
From conducting scientific research to educating about health, people in the field of public health work to assure the conditions in which people can be healthy. That can mean vaccinating children and adults to prevent the spread of disease. Or educating people about the risks of alcohol and tobacco. Public health sets safety standards to protect workers and develops school nutrition programs to ensure kids have access to healthy food.
Public health works to track disease outbreaks, prevent injuries and shed light on why some of us are more likely to suffer from poor health than others. The many facets of public health include speaking out for laws that promote smoke-free indoor air and seatbelts, spreading the word about ways to stay healthy and giving science-based solutions to problems.

It goes on to note that public health workers include first responders, restaurant inspectors, health educators, scientists and researchers, nutritionists, community planners, social workers, epidemiologists, public health nurses and physicians, occupational health and safety professionals, public policymakers and sanitarians. The tremendous diversity of this field is itself a potential source of strength, because these various roles by their very nature work synergistically together, modeling ways of cooperative problem-solving that are ideally suited for self-governing democracy.

But let's face it: America's public health record can only be regarded as poor. While it's frequently claimed that we have the best health care in the world, that's only true if you belong to the class that includes Bill Gates and dictators from the developing world. Our lack of universal health care makes the U.S. an anomaly among advanced economies, with predictably dismal outcomes in key indicators.

In terms of life expectancy, Wikipedia provides four authoritative lists ranking us somewhere between 28th and 43rd place among world nations. According to the World Bank, our infant mortality rate is three times higher than the countries with the lowest rates, and our maternal mortality rate is almost 10 times higher. What's more, our basic foundation of local public health agencies is subject to periodic boom and bust cycles of support and defunding, according to a report by the AP and Kaiser Health News. In typical American fashion, we react by pouring out money to address major emergencies, rather than the less expensive and far more prudent practice of being prepared in advance.

So we've got a lot of work to do just getting the basics of public health right — and some version of Medicare for All would go a long way toward doing that. But that's no reason to delay applying the principles and practices of public health more broadly throughout the realms of both policy and politics. Acting proactively to defend individuals and society against injury, disease and death is not just a "liberal" value. "An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure" has a distinctly conservative ring to it, at least in the old-fashioned, honorable sense of the word.

Of course liberals and progressives would be well served to advance a public health policy approach. But in the long run, so would conservatives — if they have any real hope of rehabilitating their movement. For the past 150 years or so, conservatives have become increasingly wedded to a vision of market economics that they once regarded as threatening, because it undermined existing and cherished institutions. There may be some wisdom in returning to their roots. More recently, of course, conservatives have found themselves in the grasp of Donald Trump, who's much closer to strangling them than to strangling progressive Democrats. Abandoning both market fundamentalism and incipient fascism should be a highly attractive prospect for genuine conservatives, if any of them are left.

The nightmare scenario that could make former Trump adviser Stephen Miller a US senator

At its best, the California recall election aimed at unseating Gov. Gavin Newsom may serve as a wakeup call for 2022. An election that shouldn't even be happening — much less be close — has energized Republicans in a most unlikely place, highlighting the high-stakes dangers of Democratic complacency. After polls dangerously tightened in August, they now suggest that Newsom is likely to survive. But turnout remains the crucial question, and no one's taking anything for granted.

Understanding what's driving this recall, and why this is even a race, is vital if Democrats are to beat the odds in the 2022 midterms rather than lose seats, as is the norm. No one has shown a better grasp of what's involved than Los Angeles Times columnist Jean Guerrero, who is also the author of "Hatemonger: Stephen Miller, Donald Trump, and the White Nationalist Agenda."

Others may have been surprised when right-wing talk-show host Larry Elder quickly emerged as the leading GOP candidate, but Guerrero was perfectly prepared. In fact, Elder had been Stephen Miller's formative mentor, essentially launching his career. Guerrero had interviewed Elder for her book, and had even read his memoir, "Dear Father, Dear Son." She also understood how Elder and Miller's anti-immigrant views fit into the long history of reactionary politics in California, as does the entire recall effort. Salon reached out to Guerrero recently to discuss the recall and its ramifications, using the columns she's written about the race as a jumping-off point. This interview has been edited, as usual, for clarity and length.

Back in mid-July, you wrote about Larry Elder's role in contributing to the development of Trumpism, most notably by mentoring Stephen Miller, the subject of your book "Hatemonger." What should people know about Elder, and what does that tell us about the kind of governor he would be?

Larry Elder was a mentor to Stephen Miller back when Miller was a teenager at Santa Monica High School. Stephen Miller called into his show to complain about multiculturalism and racial equity initiatives at the school. Larry Elder told me, when I interviewed him for my book, that he was very impressed by how articulate Stephen Miller was. He decided to have him on as a regular guest, and ultimately he was on 69 times, according to Elder. So he mentored Stephen Miller and remained in touch with him over the years, even through the Trump campaign when he was sending Miller talking points for Trump and ideas for the campaign.

But it's not just about Larry Elder mentoring Stephen Miller. He mentored a number of other Trump acolytes, like Alex Marlow, now the Breitbart editor-in-chief, who had an internship with Elder. As Larry Elder himself told me, he gave a lot of confidence to young conservatives like Stephen Miller and Alex Marlow to express their viewpoints without fear of being called racists, because he himself is a Black man who holds and promotes these views that were once considered racist — things like, black people are more racist than white people, really incendiary stuff that Larry Elder built his career around.

As far as what kind of governor he would be, Stephen Miller was to the right of Trump on immigration issues. He pushed consistently in a more extreme anti-immigrant direction. Trump was mostly against illegal immigration, but Stephen Miller made his administration really go after legal immigration in the form of gutting the refugee system, gutting the asylum system, things like that.

So I believe that Larry Elder, who helped shape Stephen Miller's anti-immigrant views, would be the most anti-immigrant governor that California has ever seen, even more so than Pete Wilson. I think he would transform the state from one of the most pro-immigrant-rights states in the country into one that systematically attacks not just immigrant communities but Latino communities and other racially diverse communities where many people have mixed status. He would terrorize these communities by working closely with federal immigration officials to enforce laws that are contrary to the values in California.

One of the things you've mentioned about Elder's influence on the Trump campaign was that he urged Miller to stress that undocumented immigrants were harmful to inner-city Blacks and Latinos, correct? Which is not just anti-immigrant, but setting different races against each other

Exactly. He advanced this false view that divides brown and Black communities against one another and keeps them fighting and distracted from the institutional problems that are making their lives miserable.

He also passed on some misogynistic advice targeting Hillary Clinton as well. Could you talk about that?

He encouraged Stephen Miller to read up on the sexual harassment and sexual assault accusers of Bill Clinton and about Hillary Clinton's alleged mistreatment of them, and he told him, you know, you should read up about this. I forget whether he told him specifically to bring it up during the debate, or if he said, "Let's talk about how to use this down the line." Just a few months later, Donald Trump held that press conference with the accusers, to distract attention from the tapes that came out where he's talking about assaulting women.

In mid-August you wrote that Elder "isn't afraid to deny the reality of systemic racism by maligning Black people," even by relying on bogus data from Jared Taylor, a leading white supremacist figure. How has he done this?

He'll go on his talk show, or when he's a guest on other talk shows, and over the course of his career, ever since the '90s, he has repeatedly cited statistics saying that Blacks commit a disproportionate number of violent crimes. Sometimes the data is completely made up, and other times he's using real data and completely leaving out the context in order to put forth the idea that black people are somehow innately more violent than white people — an idea that harks back to the eugenicists, when people believed in race-based pseudoscience that has since been discredited. There aren't any real differences between the races, but he puts forward this data to make it seem like all the problems in the Black community are the result of Black people misbehaving or having something wrong with them.

You recount an anecdote Elder told during an L.A. Times interview in which he explained away his own first-hand experience of systemic racism. What happened to him, and how did he explain it away?

He was telling us that when he was a young man, within the first year after getting his driver's license he was pulled over by police between 75 and 100 times. When we heard that we asked him, "Well, how can you believe that you weren't being racially profiled? That's not the experience of most non-Black people. Most non-Black people are not pulled over between 75 and 100 times in a single year by the police." He said that it was because he looked young, that it had nothing to do with race, and that the idea that he was being racially profiled was absurd. It just goes to show that even when it comes to his own experience he is unable or simply refuses to acknowledge the reality of systemic racism and the way that it operates, and continues to operate, in people's lives.

That struck me as bizarre. He went on to say that as governor he would tell people just to comply with the police and they'll be OK, even though last year hundreds of millions of people repeatedly saw that that's not the case. I'm just wondering if you have further thoughts about what kind of psychology he has, to make those kinds of statements.

It has to do with a refusal to see context or history, and just a desire to blame any person's problems on their own behavior. What helps me to understand it a little bit better is when I read his memoir about his father. Nearly the entire first half of the book is about how abusive his father was. His father allegedly would whip him and his brother for very minor infractions and emotionally terrorized them when they were growing up. It created a lot of anger in Elder toward his father.

But then he writes about how he confronted his father, and his father explained, "You just have to have self-reliance in life, and then things will turn out OK." Somehow his father sharing his own story of abuse made Larry Elder no longer angry at his father. Suddenly he felt incredibly aligned with his father and grateful to his father for his presence in his life, almost as if his father's allegedly abusive behavior had made him the person that he is today, and therefore had been a good thing.

So I think this whole idea of might makes right that is popular among conservatives — that there is no law apart from might makes right, you have to use force to make people behave — that is something that I think is core to the identity of Larry Elder. And it is clearly tied to his relationship to his father, given that he's often talked about how the main problem in Black communities is fatherlessness, the absence of fathers in the home.

First of all, he's not acknowledging the reason that we have this problem with the absence of fathers in communities of color is because of the institutional racism that results in so many of these men being locked up. He's also almost advocating for these men to remain in the home and to behave in the way that his father behaved. He doesn't say that, but given that he became ideologically and emotionally aligned with its father, it just makes sense that that's what he thinks is appropriate.

Elder also portrays Latinos as being more prone to crime as well. Could you say something about that?

In that same memoir he writes about how when he was growing up by the convention center in downtown Los Angeles his neighborhood became more and more overwhelmingly Hispanic, and as Hispanics moved into his neighborhood his neighborhood became more dangerous and more crime-ridden. He basically conflates the new criminality of his neighborhood with the arrival of Hispanic people, as if there's something innately crime-prone in them. I think that is part of what explains his support for draconian immigration policies, his desire to get rid of sanctuary protections, his desire to get rid of health care and public education for undocumented migrants, his desire even to get rid of birthright citizenship, the constitutional right to become a citizen if you were born in this country. He doesn't believe that should be the case for people who are born to parents whose papers are not in order.

That apparent hostility that he has towards Latinos is something that would guide his governorship in a similar way to his apparent disdain for the Black community, who he regularly maligns and blames for very complicated problems that have to do with institutional forces that he refuses to acknowledge.

You also wrote a column stressing that Gavin Newsom has been one of the most pro-Latino governors California has ever had. Folks may know that he appointed the state's first Latino U.S. senator, Alex Padilla [who replaced Kamala Harris], but that's only one example. What else should I know about this record?

He has been more engaged with Latino civil society than any previous governor, according to civil society leaders I spoke with. He was giving them a seat at the negotiating table from his early days as governor, and listening to them. Among the many actions that he took in response to those conversations was to prioritize high-risk Latino neighborhoods for COVID vaccines. He has made unprecedented monetary investment in public education, some of which well help Latino communities — for example, giving two years of community college to first-time students and measures to drive down the cost of textbooks, which many Latinos cannot otherwise afford, He also extended health care coverage to undocumented seniors and provided housing during the pandemic to essential workers, and to farmworkers who tested positive for COVID, so that they wouldn't infect their family members. He also expanded the Dreamers' access to college loans for grad school.

So according to civil rights and civil society leaders I spoke with, he has been one of the most, if not the most, pro-Latino governors in California history. He perhaps doesn't come across that way in his demeanor because he's this wealthy white man with slicked-back hair. But his actions have really benefited the Latino communities in California and particularly the most vulnerable, those with mixed-status families and those who are undocumented and the essential workers who had to keep working throughout the pandemic and keep the economy running — agricultural workers and domestic workers and things like that.

You point to the "reasons for the recall" in the official voter information guide, which include the claim that Newsom has endorsed laws that "favor foreign nationals, in our country illegally, over ... our own citizens." I have two questions about that: First about the factual basis of what he's actually done, which you've just described. And second, how could it be more accurately characterized?

That statement that's in the voter information guide fails to acknowledge that so many citizens in California come from mixed-status families, and when you help undocumented people you are also helping to alleviate poverty and crime in these communities as well. First and foremost, Newsom did help undocumented people in California, but that's not the only contingent of the Latino community who he helped.

That's certainly true, but I was also thinking that he's not really favoring immigrants, undocumented or not, over natural-born citizens. It's more like he's just removing discriminatory barriers to equal treatment.

That's exactly right. He's been taking actions to decrease inequality in these communities, and in so doing has improved the lives of all Californians. We all benefit and have benefited from the economic and public health contributions of our undocumented residents. Like I said, he has also made record monetary investments in public education, which helped all working-class Californians to rise out of poverty.

Conservatives attack sanctuary laws because they say that we're letting criminals out on the streets, and then they go out and commit more crimes. But the whole reason we passed sanctuary protections in the first place is because law enforcement officials found that fear of deportation made people in Latino communities, who so often come from mixed-status families, afraid to call the police and report crimes, because that could lead to their deportation or the deportation of a loved one. So sanctuary laws actually improve public safety, and in addition the economy of California, because they encourage people to come out of the shadows and to interact with the police in situations where they otherwise would not.

But there's more to the recall argument. It goes on to say: "People in this state suffer the highest taxes in the nation, the highest homelessness rates, and the lowest quality of life as a result." Those claims are factually false. We have a high homeless rate, but not the highest, for example. And we only have the highest tax rate for the top 1%, while the bottom 80% are taxed below the national average. So those are false, but so is the alleged causality. That leads directly to something else that you wrote about recently: the role of anti-California propaganda and racism driving the recall. There's three different components I'd like you to discuss. First, California's own racist history of targeting multiple different races.

People think of California as a very blue, very liberal state, and in many ways it is. But it still has traces — we have more hate groups in any other state and we still have a fringe, a very powerful white supremacist element in our state, along with our white supremacist history. As recently as the 1990s, California passed a number of measures targeting Latino and Black communities.

We had the racist three-strikes law which disproportionately led to Black men being incarcerated in mass numbers. We had Prop. 187, which targeted social services for undocumented migrants, including public school for their children, which was later deemed unconstitutional. We had attacks on bilingual education. We had attacks on affirmative action. There was just a lot of anti-immigrant hysteria in the 1990s in California because of demographic change, as California went from a white-majority state to one where non-Hispanic whites became a minority by 1999 or early 2000, and basically underwent the extreme demographic shift that the United States as a whole is now undergoing as we head into the 2040s, when non-Hispanic whites will become the minority nationally.

In response to that demographic change, there was a lot of fear-mongering by conservative politicians, including then-Gov. Pete Wilson, who blamed all of the state's fiscal problems on what he called an invasion at the border, and even sued the federal government for the alleged cost of having to deal with that. He was putting out advertisements on television that showed immigrants crossing the border with, like, this ominous narrative saying, "They keep coming." There was just a lot of anti-immigrant hysteria whipped up by Pete Wilson and other conservatives in California, including Rush Limbaugh, who had previously been broadcasting out of Sacramento. It just took over the state.

There was also a huge white separatist movement in Southern California led by Tom Metzger, who even won a Democratic nomination for a seat in Congress. There was a lot of white supremacist activity in California in the 1990s, which was soon relegated to the fringes. But now it appears to be resurgent nationally, in a much stronger and even more dangerous way.

Another factor you say was pushing it was anti-California propaganda. California, Massachusetts and New York have been the three states conservatives have consistently attacked over the years, but California has been especially targeted. How has that played out in recent years?

In recent years conservatives have loved to bash California and portray it as a failing state, and their portrayals always have racial undertones. A good example is what happened when in 2019 when there were are all these failed early efforts to recall Gavin Newsom. Right-wing media launched an anti-California campaign, casting California as a "third-world state" that came as a results of policies of racial diversity. A lot of that was showing images of homeless people, who were disproportionately African-American, Native American and Latino. For example, Tucker Carlson recently called California "the Zimbabwe of the Pacific."

There's always talk about how the state's leaders are "kinder to illegal immigrants than to citizens," as we saw in the voter information guide. A lot of it is just tied to the fact that we saw demographic change in the 1990s that conservatives nationally are terrified of the United States experiencing. They try to portray California as a place that has failed and that is deteriorating and decaying and being destroyed as a result of leaders who have embraced that diversity and sought to empower everyone in an equal way. They want to portray that as an apocalyptic approach that's going to result in the end of civilization.

That leads right into my third question, about your discussion of the "Camp of the Saints" worldview, which I also wrote about recently. How does that tie things together?

This recall election is fundamentally about discrediting multiracial democracy and the idea that it could possibly function, that it does function. In order to discredit multiracial democracy they're using a narrative straight from the book, "The Camp of the Saints," which Stephen Miller promoted in 2016 and Steve Bannon did as well, in the lead-up to the Trump administration. It's a book that is popular among white supremacists, which portrays the destruction of the white world by a horde of brown refugees who are described in really degrading language, words like "monsters" and "beasts," and also that maligns anti-racist politicians and activists who embrace the brown refugees, and blames them for the "destruction of the white world" as well.

That entire book is about creating hatred for not only people of color, but also anyone who helps them or embraces them or sees them as equals. That narrative, which is incredibly apocalyptic, relies on tropes about "white genocide" — this whole "great replacement" theory of white supremacists, that brown and Black people are systematically replacing white people, and are being helped in that process by liberal elites, often Jewish in some tellings of the white supremacist tale. It's a tale that has become mainstream on Fox News and on other right-wing media — this idea that Democrats are embracing immigrants with open arms because they want to replace "legitimate citizens" and white people with people from the "third world."

It's an incredibly dangerous idea, because if you believe there is a conspiracy to replace white people with people of color, then violent action is the logical reaction to that, as "The Camp of the Saints" captures. The book's characters repeatedly call for genocide and massacres and violence against the brown refugees to "save the white people." That is what is being dog-whistled every time Tucker Carlson talks about voters in the United States being "replaced," which by the way relies on a definition of replacement that is completely false. When you have immigration you're growing the population, you're not replacing the population. But it connotes violence and it connotes catastrophic destruction, and therefore logically incites violence against people of color.

In contrast to that, you note that there's a powerful counter-narrative about California "as the place that took chances and succeeded," as you put it, drawing on Manuel Pastor's book "State of Resistance." The negative narratives have been repeated ad nauseam. What does that positive counter-narrative sound like?

The positive counter-narrative is that California is the most welcoming place for people of color to live, because of the immense progress that the state has made on immigrant rights, on racial justice, on criminal justice reform. It is on its way to being one of the safest and most prosperous states, it's already the fifth largest economy in the world, it attracts half the nation's venture capital, it has among the best public health outcomes in the nation. And the problems that do exist here — which are exploited by conservatives, such as our problem with homelessness, due to high housing costs — have nothing to do with progressive policies, as conservatives would like us to believe. They have to do with the fact that there is still a very powerful constituency of conservatives and moderates, and even faux-progressives, who are opposed to the construction of affordable housing anywhere near their neighborhoods. That is what has stalled progress in terms of economic equality in this state.

But if we were to continue on the path that we have been on in recent years, and which Newsom has been a part of, then I think we as a state would conclusively show how successful a multiracial democracy can be. That is the idea that is under attack in this recall election. They want to prove that that multiracial democracy and progressive policies do not work. But they do work. We've seen that they've been working, and we have a long way to go, but the actions that have been taken to address inequality have been incredibly successful. They've been slowed down by the minority conservatives and white supremacists who live in this state, but they've shown that they can work to improve the lives of Californians everywhere, and to lift up the entire country, honestly, because of our economic success.

One thing you've written about that could take up a whole interview is the importance of Latino turnout, and your concerns about it. What's most significant at this point?

Latinos are arguably the community in California that has the most to lose in this election, but there are concerns that they will not turn out in sufficient numbers because of the fact that, first of all, they're being targeted with disinformation on social media, with anti-Newsom propaganda. Secondly, despite all the actions Newsom has taken to make our lives better, Latinos have still borne the brunt of the pandemic, because of the jobs that they have, and have borne the brunt of death tolls and economic tolls.

So we are traumatized, not just from the pandemic but also from four years of anti-Latino rhetoric from the Trump administration. I think a lot of Latinos, especially young Latinos, are just so overwhelmed with everything that we've experienced over the past few years, that after Biden won we wanted a period of letting out a sigh of relief, and just not thinking about politics for a little while. But I think that as the Newsom campaign and civil rights groups have been going out and disseminating information about all that is at stake, that is changing. The polls now reflect that, and I think the election will reflect that as well.

What's the most important question I didn't ask, and what's the answer?

Someone asked me recently in an interview, "Is it possible that Larry Elder would appoint Stephen Miller to replace Dianne Feinstein if something were to happen to her?" That thought had never occurred to me, honestly. It seems so outlandish and far-fetched. But Larry Elder did tell Stephen Miller that he hopes to see live to see the day that Stephen Miller becomes president. I think we need to acknowledge that.

Some of us try to downplay how much a Republican governor could actually do, if they were to come into power with only a very short period until the next election [in 2022], and with a legislature that has a Democratic supermajority. But the governor does have powers to appoint significant positions. It's possible that if something were to happen to Dianne Feinstein that we would see someone like Stephen Miller be selected as one of the senators for California. That would be clearly catastrophic for the Biden agenda, and for any progress our nation was looking to make on addressing issues of inequality.

The dark history of the 'Great Replacement': Tucker Carlson's racist fantasy has deep roots

In April of this year, Tucker Carlson got into hot water after offering an impassioned expression of the white nationalist conspiracy theory known as the "Great Replacement" during a monologue on his Fox News prime-time show. Anti-Defamation League CEO Jonathan Greenblatt wrote to Fox News in response, citing just a small fragment of Carlson's long racist record, and noting that "Carlson has suggested that the very idea of white supremacy in the U.S. is a hoax." Greenblatt concluded, "Carlson's full-on embrace of the white supremacist replacement theory ... and his repeated allusions to racist themes in past segments are a bridge too far. Given his long record of race-baiting, we believe it is time for Carlson to go."

This article originally appeared at Salon.

Predictably enough, Fox News and its ownership refused to take this seriously. Fox Corporation CEO Lachlan Murdoch responded by falsely claiming that "Mr. Carlson decried and rejected replacement theory." But the only evidence he offered didn't sound like rejection, only an attempt to sanitize Carlson's remarks through denial and reframing: "As Mr. Carlson himself stated during the guest interview: 'White replacement theory? No, no, this is a voting rights question.'"

It's worth looking back at that episode now for several reasons. First, Carlson has again been pushing "Great Replacement" discourse more recently, this time by attacking the idea of bringing Afghan refugees to the U.S. in the wake of the Taliban's lightning conquest of that country. Second, because Fox News' defense of Carlson has only supported the spread of this racist conspiracy theory. Third, because that theory has a bloody record of inspiring mass murder — not incidentally, but as a logical consequence of its central argument.

"The great replacement is very simple," its originator, French conspiracy theorist Renaud Camus, has said. "You have one people, and in the space of a generation you have a different people." In this formulation, immigration is equated with genocide, which logically requires or demands genocidal violence in response.

And then there's the final reason: Because the "Great Replacement" and a family of similar, almost interchangeable conspiracy theories — claiming that Western culture and civilization are being destroyed by immigration, which is permitted or enabled by weak or malicious cosmopolitan elites, often though not always identified as Jewish — effectively defines a radical shift in conservative ideology over the last few years. Indeed, one could almost call it a great replacement of previous conservative thought.

Here's a key portion of what Carlson said in April:

Now I know that the left and all the little gatekeepers on Twitter become literally hysterical if you use the term "replacement," if you suggest the Democratic Party is trying to replace the current electorate, the voters now casting ballots, with new people, more obedient voters from the Third World. But they become hysterical because that's what's happening, actually. Let's just say it! That's true.

Renaud Camus could not have said it better. That was no rejection of the theory; if anything, it was an overt embrace. As conservative Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson noted, "Nearly every phrase of Carlson's statement is the euphemistic expression of white-supremacist replacement doctrine." It was, Gerson wrote, "what modern, poll-tested, shrink-wrapped, mass-marketed racism looks like."

In fact, it's much more than that. For two decades Republicans have been screaming about organized voter fraud, while never producing any evidence. So here is a new and much darker conspiracy theory, so sweeping that it does not rely on hard evidence, but has even more sinister implications.

This past week, Carlson helped spearhead right-wing opposition to welcoming Afghan refugees who aided the 20-year U.S. war effort. He understood that argument was a tough sell and framed it around a familiar trope, telling his millions of viewers they were being manipulated by unnamed conspiratorial elites:

You should be happy you live in a country where your neighbors love children and dogs and want to help refugees. We are a generous and empathetic people and we can be proud. Unfortunately, there are many in our ruling class who are anxious to take advantage of our best qualities. They see our decency and weakness and they exploit those things and they do it relentlessly. "Let's try to save our loyal Afghan interpreters," we tell them. "Perfect," they think. "We'll open the borders and change the demographic balance of the country."

There is no evidence for this, of course. It's pure paranoid fantasy — but not Carlson's alone. He's only a transmitter of extremist views into the mainstream. A key source for these views is the notorious 1973 novel "The Camp of the Saints" by French right-wing author Jean Raspail, which argued that mass migration is an invasion that will eventually destroy Western culture and replace Western populations, that Western political elites lack the moral strength to defend their civilization and therefore that the invaders must be physically removed or destroyed. When I interviewed retired intelligence analyst James Scaminaci III last year, he described how the novel's paranoid vision has inspired an entire worldview:

The main variations within this "Camp of the Saints" worldview are whether the political elites lack moral strength to resist the invasions ("Great Replacement"), enact immoral policies which weaken Western societies to invasion ("demographic winter") or actively collaborate with the governments of the invading migrants to facilitate the invasion (as in John Tanton's network). The other variation distinguishes the neo-Nazis from all the other segments: whether or not the Jews are responsible for the destruction of their societies ("white genocide").

These variations can bleed together. Catchphrases like "great replacement" or "white genocide" easily cross the boundaries Scaminaci describes, as part of their lingua franca. So does the record of terrorism. Here are some examples.

On July 22, 2011, right-wing terrorist Anders Breivik murdered 77 Norwegian citizens (mostly teenagers) and injured an additional 319, at the same time electronically distributing a 1,518-page conspiracist manifesto calling for the deportation of Muslims from Europe, and dividing blame between Muslims themselves and "cultural Marxism," an alleged Jewish conspiracy to destroy Western culture and civilization by promoting multiculturalism and undermining traditional values.

The manifesto used the terms "cultural Marxism" or "cultural Marxist" more than 600 times, and plagiarized almost the entirety of William Lind's 2004 Free Congress Foundation book "'Political Correctness': A Short History of an Ideology," the most significant text promoting the theory, which uses the terms "cultural Marxism," "political correctness" and "multiculturalism" almost interchangeably. The book disappeared from the FCF website shortly after the massacre. But Breivik was doing exactly what Lind had called for. He just did it a little too quickly.

On Oct. 27, 2018, Robert Bowers killed 11 people at a Pittsburgh synagogue, the deadliest attack against Jews in American history. Before the attack, he referenced the anti-Semitic variant, "white genocide." Bowers had a record of posting anti-Semitic comments on Gab attacking the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS). One congregation at the synagogue had participated in HIAS's National Refugee Shabbat the week before, and Republicans were trying to whip up hysteria about migrant "caravans" during the midterm election campaign. Referencing those, Bowers posted on Gab that "HIAS likes to bring invaders in that kill our people. I can't sit by and watch my people get slaughtered. Screw your optics, I'm going in."

On March 2019, Brenton Tarrant live-streamed himself killing 51 people at two mosques in New Zealand. In advance, he released an 74-page online manifesto called "The Great Replacement," elaborating on Camus' ideas and citing Breivik as an inspiration. The manifesto included neo-Nazi symbols, although Tarrant denied being a Nazi, calling himself an "ethno-nationalist" and an "eco-fascist." Equating immigration with genocide, he wrote, "Radical, explosive action is the only desired, and required response to an attempted genocide," underscoring the inherently violent nature of this worldview.

On April 27, 2019, the last day of Passover, white supremacist John Earnest killed one person and injured three others at a synagogue in Poway, California. He posted a letter of explanation, which the ADL summarizes:

The letter includes a laundry list of anti-Semitic conspiracy theories, including the longstanding white supremacist assertion that Jews are responsible for non-white immigration, which "threatens" the white race. "Every Jew is responsible for the meticulously planned genocide of the European race," the letter states, adding "… For these crimes they deserve nothing but hell." This mirrors the language used by both Bowers and Tarrant prior to their attacks.

On Aug. 3, 2019, white supremacist Patrick Crusius opened fire at a Walmart store in El Paso, Texas. The final death toll was 23, with almost two dozen others wounded. As the ADL reported, Crusius' manifesto claimed that his attack was a "response to the Hispanic invasion of Texas," and that he was merely defending his country from "cultural and ethnic replacement brought on by an invasion." What's more, he also claimed that "he did not intend to target the Hispanic community until he read 'The Great Replacement.'"

This is the conspiracy theory Tucker Carlson is spreading, with Fox's explicit blessing. More than that, what Scaminaci calls the "Camp of the Saints" worldview "is widespread in right-wing media, think tanks, and political parties." He continued:

Thus, there is very little difference between the rhetoric of right-wing media and the rhetoric of right-wing terrorists or mass murderers. The manifesto of the El Paso terrorist and nightly broadcasts of Fox News or the tweets of Donald Trump are remarkably similar. Right-wing elites may be "shocked" by these periodic massacres, but they keep priming the pump. In turn, these massacres create new right-wing "heroes" and "martyrs" and spur others to beat their "score" while spreading the conspiracy theory further.

Even more than the massacres noted above, this points to the most frightening aspect of all: a transformation in conservative ideology which promises more such massacres. In 2012, Arun Kundnani shed light on this in "Blind Spot? Security Narratives and Far-Right Violence in Europe," published by the International Center for Counter-Terrorism at the Hague in the aftermath of Breivik's attack.

"Every perception has a blind spot, the area that cannot be seen because it is part of the mechanism of perception itself," Kundnani writes. "This paper considers whether, since 9/11, the far‐right has been the blind spot of counter‐terrorism, the problem that could not be perceived clearly because it had begun to absorb significant elements from official security narratives themselves."

This absorption was in fact only one aspect of a longer-term transformational process Kundnani identified. He describes a threefold evolution of far-right ideology in Europe, which has allowed it to move into the mainstream from the fringes. Post-World War II neo-Nazi parties were ostracized for decades, but this began to shift from the 1980s onward, with a focus on culture rather than race, followed by the latest evolution in the wake of 9/11.

"In the 'counter-jihadist' narrative, the identity that needs to be defended is no longer a conservative notion of national identity but an idea of liberal values, seen as a civilizational inheritance," Kundnani explains. "Islam becomes the new threat to this identity, regarded as both an alien culture and an extremist political ideology. Multiculturalism is seen as enabling not just the weakening of national identity but 'Islamification,' a process of colonization leading to the rule of sharia law."

Summing up, Kundnani writes, "In moving from neo‐Nazism to counter‐jihadism, the underlying structure of the narrative remains the same, but the protagonists have changed: the identity of Western liberal values has been substituted for white racial identity, Muslims have taken the place of blacks and multiculturalists are the new Jews."

That phrase, "the identity of Western liberal values," should set off alarm bells, coming from neo-Nazi-affiliated political activists. It's perhaps best understood in terms of something else promoted by the above-mentioned William Lind, a pioneer of white supremacist ideology, which I've written about before: fourth-generation warfare.

In 4GW — to use a shorthand familiar to aficionados — Carl von Clausewitz's distinctions between the government, the army and the population collapse. There is no clear dividing line between war and peace, combatant and non-combatant, or, as Tucker Carlson may see it, between immigration and invasion — or even genocide. It is, above all, a war of perceptions, a war for legitimacy. So when it comes to defining the identity of Western liberal values, the current Republican obsession with defining freedom as the freedom to infect others with a deadly virus shows just how ludicrous a war of perceptions can become — and still have a legitimate chance of succeeding.

Scaminaci also told me that Matthew Feldman and Paul Jackson, co-editors of the book "Doublespeak: The Rhetoric of the Far Right Since 1945," argue that far-right movements have engaged in what they call "fifth-column discourse," described as a "form of deception and political cunning intended to attack an enemy from within; in this case, by aping the language of liberal democracy." That's clearly similar to Kundnani's argument.

I asked Scaminaci whether racist right-wingers claiming to be defenders of Western values offer a paradigmatic example of fourth-generation warfare, and also whether that helps explain Tucker Carlson's man-crush on Viktor Orbán, Hungary's autocratic leader.

He agreed, adding that the version of 4GW articulated in this instance was "extremely clever." He turned to Kundnani's description:

This new "identitarian" narrative makes the defense of Western civilization and Enlightenment values from invading Muslims and Islam central to its appeal. The new internal enemy are the multiculturalists instead of the Jews. This is consistent with a larger conservative narrative of the "clash of civilizations." One consequence of this new narrative is that the Jews and Israel are now potential allies. But this new narrative is entirely consistent with the central argument of the "Camp of the Saints" worldview.

Indeed, support for Israel has a double appeal: First to fight Islam, second, to provide cover for continued anti-Semitism on the right. The older narratives haven't gone away just because new ones have emerged. For some, "cosmopolitans" may have replaced Jews on their enemies list. For others, that's just rhetorical code.

As for Carlson's bromance with Orbán, Scaminaci said:

Tucker Carlson is following a well-worn path. Orbán embraced this "Camp of the Saints" worldview and made it the centerpiece of his political strategy. Orbán and [Benjamin] Netanyahu were allies and white nationalists found encouragement in casting Israel as a white-settler enclave worth defending. When Donald Trump went to Poland in July 2017, he delivered a "Camp of the Saints" or "Great Replacement" speech.

There's another dimension to the story not yet mentioned, the "Eurabia" variation of the "Camp of the Saints" worldview, as explained by Scaminaci:

Trump and Orbán were following the path laid out by Egyptian-Jewish author Bat Ye'or in the 1990s. Ye'or, in her "Eurabia" writings, brought Jews and Christians together to fight against a Muslim invasion of Europe. Ye'or made common cause with proponents of the Serbian genocide in Bosnia and Herzegovina, as did William Lind, the originator of fourth-generation war. This Serbian genocidal policy was then imported into the Republican Party and the Christian right. Tucker Carlson is just the latest in a long line of Bat Ye'or followers.

Kundnani's description of the evolution of neo-Nazi narratives into "counter-jihadist" narratives was framed in a European context, where multiparty democracies allowed extremists to use existing party structures to claw their ways into the political mainstream. America is locked into a two-party system that presents a different dynamic, and Nazi ideology was never strong in the U.S. So the lines weren't as clearly drawn and the evolution wasn't as obvious or direct. But a similar story can be told about American politics as well, Scaminaci said:

By now everyone is familiar with Lee Atwater's observation that the Republican Party used sanitized and abstract concepts like taxes rather than more crass and vulgar white supremacist terminology. GOP rhetoric from the 1980s up to Trump used sanitized code words to appeal to ... voters feeling their status was being threatened from below or they were being abandoned from above by Democratic Party elites.

Trump dropped the dog whistles [and] never abandoned his central narrative that his key strategist, Steve Bannon, had borrowed and pushed into the conservative media ecosystem, namely, the "Camp of the Saints" worldview. Trump may not be a true card-carrying white nationalist, but he's close enough that they immediately recognized him as a kindred spirit.

The "Camp of the Saints" worldview provides a new framework for conservatism, an overarching narrative that connects things together more tightly than postwar conservatives ever managed in the past. If "invading hordes of immigrants" are the enemy, and falling white birthrates are key to the problem, then the right's misogynist agenda and its xenophobic agenda are much more tightly linked than ever before.

Connections with Christian nationalism — an Old Testament-based worldview fusing Christian and American identities — are similarly strengthened. A 2018 paper, "Make America Christian Again," which I wrote about here in 2018, explained that "Christian nationalism … draws its roots from 'Old Testament' parallels between America and Israel, who was commanded to maintain cultural and blood purity, often through war, conquest, and separatism."

In short, all the major electoral facets of American conservatism are more tightly unified by the "Camp of the Saints" worldview than they ever were, or ever could have been, in the days of William F. Buckley or Ronald Reagan. What's more, the practical need to suppress voters of color becomes a central ingredient.

As Scaminaci put it: "The underlying motivation of the Great Replacement and voter suppression is the same: Nonwhite voters are inherently illegitimate because they vote for an illegitimate political party that itself poses an existential threat to Western civilization or America or White America or White Americans, because it conspires with external nonwhites to destroy the country."

So the Great Replacement that has actually taken place is the replacement of the ideas, ideals and mores of conservatism. As debased and depraved as those had already become, they have now been supplanted by much darker principles, which have deadly real-world consequences and pose an existential threat to what remains of American democracy.

"The right wing wants to use the language of liberal democracy and of the Enlightenment," Scaminaci said in conclusion, "but the right wing is intellectually incoherent":

It no longer has a governing philosophy. Thus it must make its appeals to resentments, to frustrations, to anger and to fear, using liberal language in defense of Enlightenment values — while their arguments make little or no sense and cannot withstand scrutiny. But there is an underlying logic and that is the logic of the "Camp of the Saints" worldview. And they continue to develop rhetorical and narrative strategies to make that worldview palatable and electable.

Those rhetorical and narrative strategies will necessarily involve doublespeak, of which Tucker Carlson is a master. For example, in June, David Neiwert, author most recently of "Red Pill, Blue Pill: How to Counteract the Conspiracy Theories That Are Killing Us," called out Carlson for inverting the reality of demographic change in the Mountain West, in a further extension of replacement theory.

Carlson had suggested on his prime-time show that Montana, Idaho and Nevada now face "similar problems" to the demographic change right-wingers view as catastrophic in California: "The affluent liberals who wrecked California aren't sticking around to see how that ends. They're running to the pallid hideaways of Boise and Bozeman, distorting local culture and real estate markets as they do it."

Neiwert responded that as "a fourth-generation Idaho native with family in Montana, I can tell you that this is a complete inversion of the historic demographic reality in those places":

It could only be accurate if viewed from a very short-term perspective — and even then, it's wrong. Idaho and Montana have only become deep-red Republican states in the past decade or two. Prior to that, they were classic "purple" states, electing a mix of Democrats and Republicans. What changed that was an in-migration of right-wing voters.

We can expect more such gaslighting arguments in the days ahead. The far right now finds itself deeply at odds with the Western values it pretends to defend. Even if it has convinced the vast majority of conservative voters to go along, it can only hope to gain and hold power by standing those values on their heads — including, most fundamentally, the biblical value of not bearing false witness.

A terrifying new theory: Fake news and conspiracy theories as an evolutionary strategy

Political misinformation — whether "fake news," conspiracy theories or outright lying — has often been attributed to widespread ignorance, even though there are numerous examples of 20th-century propaganda aimed at those most attentive to politics. Books like Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky's "Manufacturing Consent" began to challenge that notion, as did the 1991 study of media coverage of the first Gulf War with the memorable bottom line, "the more you watch, the less you know." In the age of social media, scholarly explanations have shifted to discussions of "motivated reasoning," which could be defined by Paul Simon's line from "The Boxer": "A man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest."

But the ignorance perspective has a deep hold on us because it appeals to the Enlightenment notion that we are motivated to pursue truth. We are "the thinking animal," right? The important part of that expression may be "animal." Human beings have an evolutionary history, and deception is commonplace in the animal world because it confers evolutionary advantage. There's good reason to believe we're not so different, other than the fact that humans are ultra-social creatures. In ancestral and evolutionary terms, being part of a successful social group was every bit as essential as food and water. So deception among humans evolved from group conflicts. That's the thesis of a recent paper called "The Evolutionary Psychology of Conflict and the Functions of Falsehood" by the Danish political scientists Michael Bang Petersen and Mathias Osmundsen and American anthropologist John Tooby.

While the paper aligns with the "motivated reasoning" perspective, its focus goes deeper than the psychological mechanisms that produce and reproduce false information. These researchers are trying to elucidate the functions of those mechanisms, that is, to answer the question of why they evolved in the first place. I interviewed Petersen three years ago, about a previous paper, "A 'Need for Chaos' and the Sharing of Hostile Political Rumors in Advanced Democracies," which was summarized on Twitter thusly: "Many status-obsessed, yet marginalized individuals experience a 'Need for Chaos' and want to 'watch the world burn.'" That paper provided crucial insight into prolific spreaders of misinformation and why they do what they do. But that individualist account was only part of the story. This new paper seeks to illuminates the evolutionary foundations and social processes involved in the spread of outright falsehoods. So I had another long conversation with Petersen, edited as usual for clarity and length.

Over the past decade or so, it's become more common to regard the spread of political misinformation, or "political rumors," as they're sometimes called, as the result of "motivated reasoning" rather than ignorance. But your new paper proposes a broad evolutionary account of the social functions behind that motivated reasoning. Tell me about what led you to writing it, and what you set out to do?

One of our major goals with this research is to try to understand why it is that people believe things that other people believe are completely bizarre. I think it's clear for everyone that that problem has gained more prominence within the last few decades, especially with the advent of social media. It seems that those kind of belief systems — belief in information and content that other people would say is blatantly false — is becoming more widespread. It can have some pretty dire consequences, as we could see for example with the storming of the Capitol on Jan. 6.

So what we're trying to understand is, why people believe things that must be false. The traditional narrative is, 'Well if you believe false things, then you must be stupid. It must be because you haven't really made an effort to actually figure out what is going on." But over the last few decades, more and more research has accumulated that suggests that's not the case. In fact the people who are responsible for spreading misinformation are not those who know the least about politics. They actually know quite a lot about politics. In that sense, knowledge doesn't guard against believing things that are false.

What we're trying to do is to say, "Well, if it's not because people are ignorant, then what is it?" In order to understand that, we utilize the framework of evolutionary psychology, basically trying to understand: Could there be anything adaptive about believing false information? Could this in some way be functional? Is it actually sort of on purpose that false information is believed and spread, rather than being an accident?

Before you discuss human evolution, you have a section of nonhuman animals. What can we learn from deception and conflict in the animal world?

I think that's an important stepping stone, to look at the animal world, because most people would say that what animals do is the products of biological evolution, and has some sort of evolutionary advantage. And what we can see in animals is that they spread false information all the time when they are engaged in conflict.

One sort of obvious example is that animals try to appear larger than they are when they are engaged in conflict with other animals. That's, of course, to send a signal to the other animals that you shouldn't mess with me and if we actually get into a real fight I will win. So animals are trying to get an upper hand in conflict situations by making false signals.

So how does that change, or not change, when we look at humans?

First, that is also what we should expect that humans do, that if they can send false signals that are advantageous to them, then they should do it. What we then discuss is that there are certain constraints on the degree of falsehood in animal communication. That constraint is that communication systems evolved in the first place because they are a helpful for both individuals or both organisms involved in the exchange. So before a communication system can evolve it should be adaptive for the sender and for the receiver. That means that even in conflict situations you cannot set up blatant falsehoods. There are some kinds of reality constraints.

We are then saying that actually, in some situations, with regards to humans and human evolution, these constraints doesn't operate. That's because if we look at nonhuman animals, then the conflict is often between two individuals, but in human conflict it's often between two groups, and the members of one group, are cooperating with each other against the other group. That means there might be certain advantages, within one group, to spread misinformation and spread falsehoods, if that can give them an upper hand in the conflict with the other group. Then we go on to discuss a number of ways in which that might be true.

You identify three functions of information sharing: group mobilization for conflict, coordination of attention, and signaling commitment. You argue that accomplishing these goals efficiently is what gets selected, in evolutionary terms, not truth or veracity. Can you give an example of each, starting with mobilization?

When you want to mobilize your group, what you need to do is find out that we are facing a problem, and your way of describing that problem needs to be as attention-grabbing as possible before you can get the group to focus on the same thing. In that context, reality is seldom as juicy as fiction. By enhancing the threat — for example, by saying things that are not necessarily true — then you are in a better situation to mobilize and coordinate the attention of your own group. The key thing is that it may actually be to your group's advantage that if everyone is in agreement that we don't like these other guys, then we make sure that everyone is paying attention to this other group. So by exaggerating the actual threat posed by the other group, you can gain more effective mobilization.

The key to understand why this makes sense, why this is functional, is that one needs to distinguish between interests and attention. A group can have a joint set of interests, such as, "Well, we don't like this other group, we think we should deal with this other group in in some way." But on top of that interest or set of interests, there is the whole coordination problem. You need to get everyone to agree that this is the time to deal with that problem. It's now, and we need to deal with it in this way. It's in that sort of negotiation process where it can be in everyone's interest to exaggerate the threat beyond reality, to make sure that everyone gets the message.

You've more or less answered my next question about coordination. So what about signaling commitment? How does falsehood play a role there?

I think these are the two major problems, the mobilization on the one part and then the signaling on the other part. When you're a member of the group, then you need other group members to help you. In order for that to take place, you need to signal that, "Well, I'm a loyal member of this group. I would help you guys if you were in trouble, so now you need to help me."

Humans are constantly focused on signals of loyalty: "Are they loyal members of the group?" and "How can I signal that I'm a loyal member?" There are al sorts of ways in which we do that. We take on particular clothes, we have gang tattoos and all sorts of physical ways of expressing loyalty with the group.

But because we humans are exceptionally complex, another way to signal our loyalty is through the beliefs that we hold. We can signal loyalty to a group by having a certain set of beliefs, and then the question is, "Well, what is the type of belief through which we can signal that we belong?" First of all, it should be a belief that other people are not likely to have, because if everyone has this belief, then it's not a very good signal of group loyalty. It needs to be something that other people in other groups do not have. The basic logic at work here is that anyone can believe the truth, but only loyal members of the group can believe something that is blatantly false.

There is a selection pressure to develop beliefs or develop a psychology that scans for beliefs that are so bizarre and extraordinary that no one would come up with them by themselves. This would signal, "Well, I belong to this group. I know what this group is about. I have been with this group for a long time," because you would not be able to hold this belief without that prehistory.

I believe we can see this in a lot of the conspiracy theories that are going around, like the QAnon conspiracy theory. I think we can see it in religious beliefs too, because a lot of religious beliefs are really bizarre when you look at them. One example that we give in the text is the notion of the divine Trinity in Christianity, which has this notion that God is both one and three at the same time. You would never come up with this notion on your own. You would only come up with that if you were actually socialized into a Christian religious group. So that's a very good signal: "Well, that's a proper Christian."

Right. I was raised Unitarian. As a secular Jew in Northern California at that time, the only place we could have a home was a Unitarian fellowship. It was filled with secular Jews, definitely not "proper Christians."

Yes, I went to a private Catholic school myself, so I've been exposed to my portion of religious beliefs as well. But there's another aspect that's very important when it comes to group conflict, because another very good signal that you are a loyal member is beliefs that the other group would find offensive. A good way to signal that I'm loyal to this group and not that group is to take on a belief that is the exact opposite of what the other group believes. So that creates pressure not only to develop bizarre beliefs, but also bizarre beliefs that this other group is bad, is evil, or something really opposed to the particular values that they have.

This suggests that there are functional reasons for both spreading falsehoods, and also signaling these falsehoods. I think one of the key insights is that we need to think about beliefs in another way than we often do. Quite often we think about the beliefs that we have as representations of reality, so the reason why we have the belief is to navigate the world. Because of that, there needs to be a pretty good fit or match between the content of our beliefs and the features of reality.

But what we are arguing is that a lot of beliefs don't really exist for navigating the world. They exist for social reasons, because they allow us to accomplish certain socially important phenomena, such as mobilizing our group or signaling that we're loyal members of the group. This means that because the function of the beliefs is not to represent reality, their veracity or truth value is not really an important feature.

In the section "Falsehoods as Tools for Coordination" you discuss Donald Horowitz's book, "The Deadly Ethnic Riot." What does that tell us about the role of falsehood in setting up the preconditions for ethnic violence?

"The Deadly Ethnic Riot" is an extremely disturbing book. It's this systematic review of what we know about what happens before, during and after ethnic massacres. I read this book when I became interested in fake news and misinformation circulating on social media, and this was recommended to me by my friend and collaborator Pascal Boyer, who is also an evolutionary psychologist. Horowitz argues that you cannot and do not have an ethnic massacre without a preceding period of rumor-sharing. His argument is exactly what I was trying to argue before, that the function of such rumors is actually not to represent reality. The total function of the rumors is to organize your group and get it ready for attack. You do so by pointing out that the enemy is powerful, that it's evil and that it's ready to attack, so you need to do something now.

One of the really interesting things about the analysis of rumors in this book is that, if you look at the content of the rumors, that's not so much predicted by what the other group has done to you or to your group. It's really predicted by what you are planning to do to the other group. So the brutality of the content of these rumors is, in a sense, part of the coordination about what we're going to do to them when we get the action going — which also suggests that the function of these rumors is not to represent reality, but to serve social functions.

What I was struck by when I read Horowitz's book was how similar the content of the rumors that he's describing in these ethnic massacres all over the world, how similar that is to the kind of misinformation that is being circulated on social media. This suggests that a lot of what is going on in social media is also not driven by ignorance, but by these social functions.

One point you make is that to avoid being easily contradicted or discredited, these kinds of "mobilization motivations should gravitate towards unverifiable information: Events occurring in secret, far away in time or space, behind closed doors, etc." This helps explain the appeal of conspiracy theories. How do they fit into this picture?

When we look at falsehoods there is a tension. On one level, there is a motivation to make it as bizarre as possible, for all the reasons we have been talking about. On the other hand, if you are trying to create this situation of mobilization, you want the information to flow as unhindered as possible through the network. You want it to spread as far as possible. If you're in a situation where everyone is looking at a chair and you say, "Well, that chair is a rock," that's something that will hinder the flow of information, because people will say, "Well, we know that's really a chair."

So while there is this motivation or incentive to create content as bizarre as possible, there is also another pressure or another incentive to avoid the situation where you're being called out by people who are not motivated to engage in the collective action. That suggests it's better to develop content about situations where other people have a difficult time saying, "That's blatantly false." So that's why unverifiable information is the optimal kind of information, because there you can really create as bizarre content as you want, and you don't have the risk of being called out.

We see a similar kind of tactic when conspiracy theorists argue, "Well, we are only raising questions," where you are writing or spreading the information but you have this plausible deniability, which is also a way to avoid being called out. Conspiracy theories are notorious exactly for looking for situations that are unverifiable and where it's very difficult to verify what's up and what's down. They create these narratives that we also see in ethnic massacres, where we have an enemy who is powerful, who is evil and who is ready to do something that's very bad. Again, that completely fits the structure of mobilizing rumors that Horowitz is focusing on. So what we've been arguing, here and elsewhere, is that a lot of conspiracy theories are really attempts to mobilize against the political order.

In the section "Falsehoods as Signals of Dominance" you write that "dominance can essentially be asserted by challenging others," and argue that when a given statement "contradicts a larger number of people's beliefs, it serves as a better dominance signal." I immediately thought of Donald Trump in those terms. For example, he didn't invent birtherism, and when he latched onto it he didn't even go into the details — there were all these different versions of birther conspiracy theories, and he didn't know jack-shit about any of them. He just made these broad claims, drawing on his reputation and his visibility, and established himself as a national political figure. I wonder if you can talk about that — not just about Trump, but about how that works more generally.

Yes, I can confess that I too was thinking about Donald Trump when writing that particular section of the paper. So I will talk a little bit about Donald Trump, but I will get to the general case. I think one of the first examples for me of that tactic was during the presidential inauguration in 2017, where the claim was that there were more people at Trump's inauguration than Obama's inauguration, and everyone could clearly see that was false.

So there are two explanations. Either Trump is ignorant — and I don't believe he's ignorant, I think he is an extremely skilled or intuitive psychologist who knows how to mobilize his followers — or it suggests he's thinking, "I can say whatever I want, and I care so little about the other group's opinions that I can say things that are blatantly false, where they know that I know it's false, and it's precisely because they know that I know that it's false that it serves as a dominance signal."

That's why, in order to get that kind of dominance signal through, you need to find these cases where it's clear that it's not just because you're getting it wrong — it's exactly because you know and you just don't care. That's the kind of signal you want to go for when you are trying to assert dominance through holding those kinds of beliefs.

You point out that for group members preparing for conflict, "signals of falsehoods are cooperative rather than conflictual." It seems to me that one of the ways your paper could be built on is to look at other ways falsehoods enter into the picture. For example, there are times when people deny or undercut the false claims they've made. With the recent spread of racist voter-suppression laws, the underlying racism helps build group solidarity and prepare for conflict, but you also constantly hear Republicans deny any racist intention. I wonder if you have thoughts about how further work can be done in that direction.

Just to start with that particular observation, I think with that sort of denial — for example, "This is not racism, this is not sexism," or whatever — part of the function is again to have plausible deniability, whereby you can make sure that the information spreads, that everyone who needs to hear it will hear it and it's not really being blocked. Because you could say that outright racism or outright sexism would be something that would stop the spread of the information. So people who are in a mobilization context are always caught in this cross-pressure between making sure that the signal is as loud as possible, and that it is disseminated as widely as possible. Often there is this tension between the two that you need to navigate. I think looking at and understanding that conflict and that tension is an important theoretical next next step.

As we say numerous times in the chapter, this is a theoretical piece where we are building a lot of hypotheses which are in need of empirical evidence. So I think one important next step is to gain and develop the empirical evidence or empirical tests of these hypotheses, to see what actually seems to hold up, and what may be misguided.

One thing I'm very interested in personally is to to look into who uses these tactics more than others — who is most motivated to engage in these kinds of tactics to win conflict. This is a line of work that we have been studying, and one thing we are finding is that people who are seeking status are the most motivated to use these kinds of tactics to gain that status.

I always like to end by asking: What's the most important question I didn't ask? And what's the answer?

I think the most important question that you may not have asked is this: We started out talking about motivated reasoning, so what is the difference between what we are bringing to the table, compared to the traditional theories of motivated reasoning? Those argue that you hold certain beliefs because they feel good. You like to believe certain things about your group because it gives you self-esteem. You like to believe the other group is evil because that also helps you feel good about your group. When social scientists have abandoned the ignorance argument for those kinds of beliefs and looked into social function, then they say, "Well, the social function of these beliefs is to make you feel good about yourself."

What we are saying is that while it is probably true that these beliefs make you feel good about yourself, that's not really their function, that's not their real purpose. We're saying that evolution doesn't really care whether you feel good or bad about yourself. Evolution cares about material benefits and, in the end, reproductive benefits. So the beliefs that you have should in some way shape real-world outcomes.

We are arguing that these false beliefs don't just exist to make you feel good about yourself, but exist in order to enable you to make changes in the world, to mobilize your group and get help from other group members. I think that's an important point to think more about: What it is that certain kinds of beliefs enable people to accomplish, and not just how it makes them feel.


'Both sides' journalism isn't even journalism — at this point, it's Republican propaganda

The first witnesses in the House select committee's investigation of the Jan. 6 Capitol attack last week were clear about what its goals ought to be. Officer Harry Dunn put it most bluntly: "Get to the bottom of what happened. "If a hit man is hired and he kills somebody, [the] hitman goes to jail. But not only does the hitman go to jail, but the person who hired him does. There was an attack carried out on Jan. 6, and a hitman sent them. I want you to get to the bottom of that."

This article first appeared in Salon.

The others agreed. "We do need to get to the bottom of it," Sgt. Aquilino Gonell echoed. "Who incited, who brought those people here."

"That is what I am looking for, is an investigation into those actions and activities which may have resulted in the events of Jan. 6," said Officer Michael Fanone. "And also whether there was collaboration between those members, their staff and these terrorists."

"Fanone hit the nail on the head there," Officer Daniel Hodges followed up. "I need you guys to address if anyone in power had a role in this. If anyone in power coordinated or aided or abetted or tried to downplay, tried to prevent the investigation of this terrorist attack."

These were not partisan witnesses with a partisan agenda. They were law enforcement officers with a patriotic agenda. What they asked for was precisely analogous to what was asked for from the 9/11 Commission, whose example Democrats had originally hoped and tried to follow, only to be thwarted by Republican opposition, organized by House Leader Kevin McCarthy and Senate Leader Mitch McConnell. What they asked for was a full accounting, to ensure that it would never happen again.

This ought to be utterly uncontroversial, especially for journalists, whose job it is to get to the bottom of things. But not anymore, it seems. Instead, the very existence of the hearings was treated as a partisan exercise of power, utterly contradicting the fact that Republicans had scuttled the balanced 9/11-style model Democrats had initially tried to advance. And much of this came from journalists who obviously knew better.

CNN's Chris Cillizza first excoriated McCarthy for his committee picks, correctly observing, "He has zero interest in getting to the bottom of what really happened (and why) when the US Capitol was stormed by rioters," and noting that Rep. Jim Jordan's proposed "presence on the committee ensures then is that it will be a circus." But the next day Cillizza turned amnesiac, with a piece headlined, "Nancy Pelosi just doomed the already tiny chances of the 1/6 committee actually mattering." Not only would the committee would be seen as partisan, Cillizza argued, but "you should give up on" any hope that it "might produce a report that would help us understand what happened in the lead-up to that day," without noting that this new claim directly contradicted what he'd written just the day before, about Jordan in particular.

With reactions like this, journalists violate something even more fundamental than getting to the truth — that is, getting the truth to the people. Seeking the truth just to know it for oneself isn't journalism. Journalism is a public profession, a civic profession. Its purpose is to make the world legible, so that citizens can make democracy work. It's about the making of common sense. That's why autocrats the world around throw journalists in jail. Or shut down news outlets altogether, like Apple Daily in Hong Kong. When it happens abroad, we have little trouble seeing it. In contrast, the purpose of propaganda is to make the world illegible, making it impossible for people to be effective citizens. We have little trouble seeing this when it happens abroad, particularly in such perceived global adversaries as Russia and China.

Yet this is what much of mainstream "journalism" is doing right now here at home: making the world illegible so citizens throw their hands up in despair. It couldn't come at a worse time. The GOP is trying to normalize Jan. 6, normalize Donald Trump's pathological destruction of democratic norms and institutions, and move toward the establishment of a competitive authoritarian system in place of electoral democracy. And the press, for its own muddled reasons, is helping them do this. Prominent media figures and institutions are normalizing the attempted slow-rolling overthrow of American democracy, and de facto allying themselves with Republicans by misreporting their fundamental hostility to democracy as just another bout of partisan warfare, in which both sides make equally serious, facially valid claims.

It's not easy to see this as propaganda, because we assume that propaganda comes from one side or another, whereas this "journalism" goes out of its way to "balance" both sides. But when both sides have been so profoundly different for so long, pretending otherwise can only make the world illegible, whether the issue is infrastructure, voting rights or the future of democracy itself. Critics have complained about such practices for decades, offering alternatives as well — see James Fallows' 1997 "Breaking the News" or Jay Rosen's 1999 "What Are Journalists For?" as classic examples.

But the widespread misreporting of McCarthy's attempted sabotage of the 1/6 investigation starkly casts things in a harsher light. This isn't simply "flawed" journalism. It isn't journalism at all. It's the opposite: It's propaganda. It actively undermines the capacity for understanding, and thus, for self-governance. It was aptly described as "The absurd coverage of the January 6 committee" in a particularly perceptive piece by Jon Allsop for the Columbia Journalism Review.

"Both sides" metastasized

"This is, indeed, bothsidesism as we've come to understand the term, insofar as it bent over backward to find Democratic culpability in a problem that Republicans created," Allsop writes, saying it represented "a slippage from a clear-cut understanding of the term" as previously understood, "the idea of false equivalence."

There was that, of course — coverage "casting it as part of a 'partisan brawl,' or juxtaposing soundbites from Pelosi and McCarthy without adding much context" — but there was also coverage that "committed far graver sins; arguably, the worst of it was so bothsidesy that it approached onesideism, scolding Democrats while letting Republicans off the hook."

Allsop goes on to note three particular problems, starting with Brian Beutler's observation of a perverse inequivalence: "the commonplace journalistic assumption that 'Republican bad faith … is just a feature of the landscape,' whereas a given Democrat is 'an actor with agency, and subject to scrutiny.'" Along the same lines, Beutler earlier wrote, "Baking the presumption of GOP bad faith into everything, rather than treating it as a series of choices by human agents, creates a kind of impunity (through exhaustion or savviness or whatever else) where it isn't even worth pressing them on their conduct."

Second, Mehdi Hasan's observation on "Pod Save America" that "in the eyes of many pundits, a given political development is often framed as being Bad News for Democrats, but not for Republicans." Third, there's the particular kind of what I'd call brain-dead analysis that, "taken on its own terms, [gets] lost down a series of empirical and logical dead ends."

Allsop cites a couple of examples: One was the claim that Pelosi set a dangerous precedent, when in reality, Republicans have repeatedly been willing to break precedent whenever it suited them, so the idea that "they need the cover of Democrats doing it first is absurd." The other was the discussion of "credibility," linked either to accepting insurrectionists onto the committee, or to criticizing Pelosi for destroying its bipartisan nature. This either ignores renegade Republicans like Liz Cheney and Adam Kinzinger or discounts them based on "Alice in Wonderland" logic: "Such an analysis implies that, to satisfy the demands of bipartisanship, Republicans aren't Republican enough if they take seriously the thing the committee was created to take seriously. This, clearly, is circular, and self-defeating."

Allsop doesn't tie these different problems together, but that part is easy. It starts with "both sides" journalism treating both parties symmetrically, when they're fundamentally different in important ways. One way they differ is in terms of bad-faith politicking, which has grown especially pronounced since Newt Gingrich's speakership. Once the press accepted and normalized Gingrich's tactics, Democrats were at a perpetual disadvantage, so much so that framing anything "as being Bad News for Democrats, but not for Republicans" was simply a way of reflecting how much the game had been rigged in advance. Finally, the brain-dead analysis reflects the media's tendency to record and accept Republican descriptions of their fantasy world, and then to pretend it reflects reality.

Another feature or bug of the "both sides" approach is what NYU journalism professor Jay Rosen calls "the savvy style," which he has described this way:

When journalists define politics as a game played by the insiders, their job description becomes: find out what the insiders are doing to "win." Reveal those tactics to the public because then the public can … well, this is where it gets dodgy. As my friend Todd Gitlin once wrote, news coverage that treats politics as an insiders' game invites the public to become "cognoscenti of their own bamboozlement," which is strange. Or it lavishes attention on media performances, because the insiders are supposed to be good at that: manipulating the media.

This was always a bad idea, including when Rosen wrote that in 2011. But consider the last few decades, when the celebrated media performances go from Richard Nixon to Ronald Reagan to Gingrich to George W. Bush — and then to Trump and his eager sycophants.

By trying to be "balanced" and savvy — and maintaining the relationships on which insider-sourced journalism depends — the dominant media response has obscured what's obviously going on: Republicans are deeply complicit with Trump (even more so after Jan. 6) and adamantly opposed to a truth-seeking investigation.

All this happens, mind you, while the majority of journalists are Democrats. But it's not their party affiliation that most intimately impacts how they do their jobs. That comes predominantly from their professional ethics, which are misunderstood and under-scrutinized, as described in Jeremy Iggers' 1999 book, "Good News, Bad News: Journalism Ethics and the Public Good," and from peer group pressures and expectations. Generations of right-wing attacks have taken their toll, resulting in deep-seated tendencies to bend over backward in order not to seem biased. Conservatives get to rail against the liberal media whenever they want, and the media responds by normalizing it — well, that's just what conservatives do! — while bristling at any criticism from the left.

"Both sides" rooted in asymmetric politics

The ethos of "both sides" "journalism" requires treating both parties symmetrically, but the two parties have never been symmetrical, as Matt Grossmann and David Hopkins showed in their 2016 book, "Asymmetric Politics: Ideological Republicans and Group Interest Democrats" (Salon review here).

"The Democratic Party is focused on producing concrete solutions for citizens whereas the Republican Party is obsessed with conservative ideological purity," I wrote at the time. "This is useful for understanding how the nation got to a point of contemplating a possible Donald Trump presidency. (In the authors' view, Trump is the unintended product of a Republican Party purification process.)"

One key factor underlying this asymmetry was first fully documented in Lloyd Free and Hadley Cantril's 1967 book, "The Political Beliefs of Americans." As I summarized in 2018, "At the level of individual opinion, more people identify as conservatives than liberals, and conservative ideology ('free markets,' 'limited government,' etc.) is more popular. But on the other side of the ledger, support for specific liberal policies like Medicare, Social Security and so on is even more lopsided." It was a disconnect the authors called "almost schizoid."

This fundamental difference explains a great deal, including the contrast between the Trump infrastructure train wreck and Biden's (so far) low-key success. Trump saw infrastructure as a symbolic signature issue, and reveled in staging a series of "infrastructure weeks," but couldn't marshal the technical know-how to get a functional deal done, and never even really tried. Biden and the Democrats, on the other hand, have been working on so-called "human infrastructure" issues for decades. The term itself is new for most, but the thinking behind it isn't. (Rosa DeLauro's almost 20-year campaign to advance the expanded child tax credit is a particularly striking example.) So they're better prepared for this legislative task than Republicans ever could be.

This basic reality is not just ignored, but actively obscured by "both sides" coverage. Take, for example, this short, telling passage from CNBC:

Republicans have so far refused to raise any corporate or individual taxes to offset the new funding, which will be added to an existing transportation bill for a total of $1.2 trillion. The White House, in turn, has refused to impose user fees on the improved highways and rails.

Nice, neat, symmetrical and factual, at least on the surface. But beneath the surface it's profoundly deceptive. User fees are regressive taxes, falling disproportionately on the poor and the working class, whose incomes have stagnated for decades now, with only brief periods of respite. Corporate and high-income individual taxes are progressive taxes, which were cut sharply under Trump, and are far below historical averages.

So that symmetrical formulation fails to describe an asymmetrical reality, which is reflected in public opinion as well. A mid-June survey conducted by Invest in America and Data for Progress (memo here) found that huge majorities of likely voters support "paying for new investments in infrastructure by making corporate taxes fairer" and "increasing taxes on individuals who earn more than $1 million a year on income from stocks and bonds and on individuals who earn more than $400,000 a year." by margins of 45-points and 38-points, respectively." That was no fluke; a mid-July AP/NORC poll had similar results.

Furthermore, "likely voters overwhelmingly oppose increasing user fees (like highway tolls) or the gas tax in order to fund infrastructure investments." So on both alternatives, the public overwhelmingly supports the Democratic position. But how many members of the public understand that, and what impact does that widespread consensus have, when the practitioners of "both sides" journalism do their utmost to obscure it, making it seem that the public must be evenly divided, aligned with whichever party they voted for in the last election?

The AP/NORC poll mentioned above also revealed remarkably strong support for all kinds of specific infrastructure spending, which is significantly at odds with the picture painted by media coverage of supposedly deadlocked Senate negotiations. Results range from 83% support for "roads, bridges and ports" to a low of 45% support (but only 29% opposition) for electric vehicle charging stations. Notably, funding for local public transit — which Republicans generally oppose — is supported by 61% to 14%, and funding for caregivers for the elderly — which Republicans also want to drop — is overwhelmingly popular, with 75% support. How different would American politics be if journalists made the will of the American people clear, rather than obscuring their substantial agreement on matters of fundamental public policy?

The asymmetry of bad faith

That's only the beginning. Let's return to "The Political Beliefs of Americans," whose authors called for an end to the "almost schizoid" disconnect they observed between broad ideology and specific policies:

There is little doubt that the time has come for a restatement of American ideology to bring it in line with what the great majority of people want and approve. Such a statement, with the right symbols incorporated, would focus people's wants, hopes, and beliefs, and provide a guide and platform to enable the American people to implement their political desires in a more intelligent, direct, and consistent manner.

That restatement never happened. Instead, the racist backlash to advancing civil rights provided a framework for sharply increased attacks on "big government," which liberals became increasingly reluctant to defend. At the same time, as explained in "The Long Southern Strategy" (Salon interview here), the GOP focused on fragile, threatened identities — first around race, but then about gender and religion as well. Bad faith was central to this strategy—not just because these three identities were deeply rooted in the bad-faith mythology of the Lost Cause, but also because it depended on constantly raising the level of perceived threat.

Asymmetric bad faith took a quantum leap under Reagan, who slashed taxes dramatically while railing against deficits, a core GOP bad-faith dynamic ever since. It took another quantum leap under Gingrich, culminating in the impeachment of Bill Clinton for lying about an affair at the same time that Gingrich himself was covertly cheating on his second wife.

Bad faith has long since become pervasive throughout the GOP, and completely normalized by the press. Commenting on a recent Punchbowl News article about McConnell "taking a very hard line on the debt ceiling," Brian Beutler noted, "The bad-faith GOP strategy of threatening to tank the economy while Dems are in charge, based on pretexts Republicans plainly don't believe, and even though the Dems don't engage in the same kind of nihilism, is just presumed and unexamined (and, of course a problem for Dems)."

Bad faith can be found in Republican claims to be "the party of life" as they cheerfully spread COVID disinformation. Bad faith can be found in their claims to be "the party of law and order," while they heap contempt on the officers who defended the Capitol and want them to get to the bottom of that attack Bad faith can be found in their claims to be the party of patriotism, as they defend Confederate monuments and defending the Jan. 6 insurrectionists from scrutiny or consequences, paving the way for the next attempted overthrow of government.

When journalists cannot honestly report what is happening, when they normalize the ongoing destruction of democracy, they become complicit in it. When their posture of balance makes the world more illegible, so that democratic self-governance becomes all but impossible, they're no longer journalists. They have become propagandists, and cannot be allowed to define the standards of a profession they no longer practice.

The Christian nationalist assault on democracy goes stealth — but the pushback is working

In April 2018, researcher Frederick Clarkson exposed the existence of Project Blitz, a secretive Christian nationalist "bill mill" operating below the radar to shape and enact legislation in dozens of states, using a network of state "prayer caucuses," many of which had unsuspecting Democratic members. Its plan was to start with innocent-seeming bills, such as requiring public schools to display the national motto, "In God We Trust," and to culminate with laying the foundations for a "Handmaid's Tale"-style theocracy, enshrining bigotry in law under the guise of "religious freedom."

This article first appeared on Salon.

Salon was the first to report and build on Clarkson's findings, as well as subsequent progressive organizing efforts which eventually drove Project Blitz back underground, following a high-profile USA Today exposé (Salon follow-up here.) Now, three years later, Clarkson, a senior research analyst at Political Research Associates, has unearthed the playbooks Project Blitz has used since going dark, and discussed their implications with Salon in an exclusive interview.

"The playbooks advise legislators to cloak their religious mission in the guise of more secular intentions and they've renamed several bills to make them sound more appealing," Clarkson reported at Religion Dispatches. But there's another, more hopeful message: These playbooks "also tell a story of the resilience of democratic institutions and leaders in the face of movements seeking to undermine or end them."

Clarkson told Salon, "While most people to the left of the Christian right view the Project Blitz playbook with revulsion, I see it as a gift to democracy. The playbook and their accompanying briefings and events laid bare their intentions and their game plan." Because of that, he continued, "We were handed a vital tool for the defense of democratic values and, arguably, the wider defense of democracy itself. The things that happened in response, I think, are underappreciated, even by some of those who should be taking great pride in their victories."

In particular, Clarkson said, "We were fortunate that Rachel Laser, the then-new president of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, recognized this right away and made taking on Project Blitz a signature campaign of her presidency." One highlight of Laser's work was "organizing dozens of national religious and civil rights organizations to issue a joint letter to state legislators opposing the anti-democratic, Christian nationalist intention" behind Project Blitz.

He also cited the webinars staged for various national groups by Alison Gill of American Atheists, Elizabeth Reiner Platt of Columbia University Law School and Clarkson himself, which "laid out the implications of the Project Blitz campaign," Clarkson said. (My reporting on that is here.) That in turn led to the formation of Blitz Watch, which focused attention on the continuing threat.

In Clarkson's article for Religion Dispatches, he writes, "In 2020, depending on how one counts, 92 bills were introduced, 8 of which passed. In 2021, so far, 74 bills have been introduced, 14 of which have passed, according to Blitz Watch." So Project Blitz is still in action, and still a threat. But it's not the massive and successful onslaught that its founders intended and hoped for — and the fact that it was forced into stealth mode shows how successful the pushback has been.

At the end of his story, Clarkson offers this summary:

The ongoing exposure and response to Project Blitz has taught us several things. First, that it's possible to stand up to and prevail against anti-democratic movements and measures, and that our democratic institutions are more resilient than they sometimes seem. Sen. John Marty showed that — when he spoke up for the integrity of his faith and stood down a national smear campaign led by Fox News, as noted earlier. Librarians and their allies showed that, even in the face of demagogic attacks on the competence and integrity of public libraries, state legislators could be made to see reason. Efforts since 2018 by scores of national organizations organized by Americans United for Separation of Church and State and Blitz Watch, have also shown that it's possible to defend democracy and its institutions against a secretive and formidable opponent of democratic values, and of democracy itself. What's more, journalism has once again shown that sunlight remains the best disinfectant.

Elaborating on this last point, Clarkson told Salon, "Scores of national media outlets covered either Project Blitz directly, or covered the patterns of bills introduced in legislatures across the country, especially the most common, In God We Trust bills…. Thus Project Blitz was exposed as part of wider problem of manipulation of state legislatures, and found itself compared to the tobacco and the pornography industries as corruptors of democratic institutions."

What's equally important is that these lessons can also provide tools and strategies to counter the right's latest culture war offensive — the racist backlash flying under the banner of fighting "critical race theory." Although the two campaigns are dissimilar in some respects, in both cases the right is defending a founding myth (America as a "Christian nation," or America as a flawless "beacon of liberty") and perverting or taking hostage a progressive value to claim it as their own (religious freedom or racial equality). In both cases, the reliance on blatant deception tells us that conservatives themselves understand that progressives hold the stronger hand. The right may be more mobilized now — just as it was before Project Blitz was first exposed — but it won't win if progressives can learn, and adapt, the lessons of their recent success.

How we got here

As Clarkson first reported, Project Blitz originally divided its bills into three tiers. The first tier aimed at importing the Christian nationalist worldview into public schools and other aspects of the public sphere. A signature example is display of the motto, "In God We Trust," a Cold War replacement for "E pluribus unum" — out of many, one — which better reflects America's pragmatic, pluralist foundations.

The second tier, "Resolutions and Proclamations Recognizing the Importance of Religious History and Freedom," aimed at making government a partner in "Christianizing" America, largely by promoting bogus historical narratives. For example, Clarkson told me, the model "Civic Literacy Act and the Religion in History Acts," required the study or posting of "the founding documents" in the public schools, but with a twist:

"Curiously, the Mayflower Compact is included as a founding document," he said, "but there is no mention of the Virginia Statute for Religious Liberty [the law Thomas Jefferson wrote which served as the model for the First Amendment] ... because it throws a monkey wrench into the Christian nationalist narrative, which seeks to link Christianity and national identity from the British colonies at Jamestown and Plymouth to the present."

The third tier contained three types of proposed laws that "protect" religious beliefs and practices specifically intended to benefit bigotry. "Although category three is divided in three parts, you could also see it as having two main underlying intentions," Clarkson explained in a later story. "First to denigrate the LGBTQ community, and second to defend and advance the right to discriminate. This is one way that the agenda of theocratic dominionism is reframed as protecting the right of theocrats to discriminate against those deemed second-class, at best. As the late theocratic theologian R.J. Rushdoony said, 'Only the right have rights.'"

The basic structure of Project Blitz's agenda hasn't changed much, but its presentation has. "The 2020-2021 playbook offers slicker arguments than previous years," Clarkson notes. "For example, they deny that they seek a theocracy, try not to be overtly Christian, present secular arguments for their legislation and attempt to give the appearance that they respect religious pluralism. But they don't quite succeed."

The contradictions he notes are not surprising. Authors of these proposed laws insist, for example, that they're not out to "change our model of government into a theocracy" and that the bills don't "mimic or enact any particular religious code." But the inclusion of "The Ten Commandments Display Act" isn't very convincing on that score. They further insist that the model bills promote "religious tolerance" and "do not force any religion on anyone," yet the "National Motto Display Act" calls for the posting of the Christian religious slogan "In God We Trust" in public schools and buildings. Still they allege that "tolerance [is] sorely lacking in those who reject various aspects of religious teaching," an old talking point that frames rejection of imposed religion in public spaces as "intolerance."

That last point is another example of how the right attempts to usurp progressive values and turn them on their heads. It also represents an attempt to erase religious liberals, progressives and radicals from the public sphere, by pretending that only "secular humanists" can possibly oppose what they are doing.

The 2019-2020 playbook was more narrowly focused, dealing only with bills related to sexual orientation and gender identity. That made sense, since it was the rapid shift in public attitudes around LGBTQ rights that put the religious right into its current defensive posture, out of which it conceived its counter-offensive: recasting religious bigotry as a defining feature of faith, and claiming a right to discriminate as an essential aspect of "religious freedom." The fact that the other tiers were dropped from the 2019-2020 playbook is a tell of sorts — but of course the playbook's authors never expected it to become public.

The 2020-2021 playbook returned to the full three-tier format, under a new rubric of "categories," adding two additional ones. "Category 4 offers 'talking points to counter anti-religious freedom legislation,' which is simply a breakout of the talking points previously included in other sections," Clarkson notes, while "Category 5 provides four new model policies dealing with prayer in public settings — three for public school settings and one for municipal settings, such as city council meetings."

One important new ingredient

One new bill that Clarkson draws attention to would criminalize libraries and librarians, and became infamous even before Project Blitz adopted it:

The "Parental Oversight of Public Libraries Act," introduced by then-freshman Missouri State Rep. Ben Baker (R-Neosho), ignited a state and national controversy in January 2020 shortly after he took office. …
His bill sought to create "parental review boards" with the authority to "convene public hearings" and restrict access to anything they deemed "age-inappropriate sexual materials." Not only would their decisions be "final," but the bill also prescribed fines or jail for librarians who "willingly" violated board decrees regarding what is inappropriate, and included the potential state defunding of libraries accused of violating the statute.

This bill is deceptive in two key ways. First, as Clarkson notes, it "feigns a democratic method to achieve an anti-democratic result." These board members wouldn't be chosen in a general election, but by voters who show up in person at a scheduled public meeting where the issue is raised. "Thus the boards could be elected by small groups of zealots able to pack an otherwise routine evening meeting of a town council," Clarkson writes. These boards would then be given powers to overrule existing library boards, which are either democratically elected or appointed by democratically elected officials. In short, this is an attack on local democratic control, the very principle it pretends to embody.

The second deception is over the term "age-inappropriate sexual materials," since the impetus for the original bill wasn't about sexual content at all, but rather gender representation:

Baker said he was originally concerned about the popular-but-sometimes-controversial Drag Queen Story Hour in libraries and bookstores around the country.
Drag Queen Story Hour describes its events simply as "drag queens reading stories to children in libraries, schools, and bookstores … [where] kids are able to see people who defy rigid gender restrictions and imagine a world where people can present as they wish, where dress up is real."

Baker sees something more sinister at work. Any break in rigid gender stereotypes is inherently subversive to his snowflake sensibilities, as he explained to the New York Times: "What inspired this bill is becoming aware of what is taking place at our publicly funded libraries with events like Drag Queen Story Hour, and materials that have a clear agenda of grooming our children for the L.G.B.T.Q. community with adult themes and content that fit the description of a objectionable sexual nature."

In this worldview, any breakdown in rigid gender stereotypes is associated with "grooming our children" for the LGBTQ community," a trope used by the right dating back at least to the Eisenhower-era John Birch Society, when scientific knowledge about gender orientation and identity was virtually nonexistent. Not only does this lack any scientific credibility, it's also a hysterical overreaction, since no one is forced to attend Drag Queen Story Hour. If this law were passed, as an official with American Library Association warned, not just Drag Queen Story Hour could be censored, but also displays relating to Pride Month, Black History Month and other specific commemorations.

This attempted intrusion into local library politics is just one example of how Project Blitz overlaps with the new wave of white backlash under the banner of fighting "critical race theory." For several decades, the right has repeatedly mobilized to take over nonpartisan school boards, and occasionally library boards, as a way of building grassroots power and grooming candidates for higher office. Such elections usually have low turnout and relatively little campaign organization, which makes them attractive targets for extremists running scare-tactic campaigns. The parental oversight bill takes things one step further by empowering small activist groups who invade local government meetings, but the organizing principle is the same: Use fear and stealth to seize power, and use simulated democratic legitimacy to advance a divisive, reactionary agenda.

These library-centered battles served to underscore a broader point that Clarkson made to Salon. "When people are invested in democratic institutions like public libraries, or any aspect of government, it is important not to 'other-ize' government, which in a democratic society is intended to be an expression and function of what we need and want to do together, and is necessarily an expression of democratic values," Clarkson said.

"That librarians and allies around the country rallied to the defense of the archives of democratic knowledge, culture and practice is a case example of how we need not be bullied by Christian right demagoguery. Screechy charges may make headlines and bring in ad revenue on right-wing talk radio, but most people, most of the time, do not want their schools and libraries messed with by authoritarian bigots and mobs of the easily led."

Reflecting on lessons learned

Exposure was the key to success, according to two important figures in this struggle, both mentioned above. Rachel Laser is president of Americans United For Separation of Church and State, and Alison Gill is vice president for legal and policy matters at American Atheists.

"To oppose Project Blitz effectively, we first had to raise awareness about this campaign," Gill said.

"Project Blitz's strategy was to start with seemingly less controversial legislation that organizers thought they could slip past the public," Laser said, "then build to even more harmful, more controversial bills. They had some success early on. But once we exposed that strategy and people became aware of Project Blitz and its agenda of codifying Christian nationalism, the initiative began to unravel, because people don't want to force religious beliefs on public schoolchildren and they don't want our laws to license discrimination in the name of religious freedom."

Gill focused more on exposing the secretive workings behind the Project Blitz operation. "At first, the campaign worked discreetly and without broadcasting their intentions to lure unsuspecting lawmakers into state prayer caucuses," she said. "These caucuses then provided a structure with which to pursue the Project Blitz legislation. By elevating the campaign to media and lawmakers, highlighting its connection to Christian nationalism and showing that these bills were not organically driven by in-state interest, we succeeded in neutralizing their advantage."

Gill cited two other lessons as well. "Our work to oppose Project Blitz reinforced the importance of cross-movement collaboration," she said. "Project Blitz is a campaign that targets civil rights in multiple fields — LGBTQ equality, access to reproductive services and religious equality — and so coordination with organizations across affected movements was required to effectively oppose it."

That took time and crucial information, Laser added: "It wasn't until we learned of the Project Blitz playbook and their organizing strategy that we were able to build a coalition of allies to fight this movement at its source, rather than only state by state and bill by bill."

Gill cites the pooling of resources as another important factor. "Project Blitz provided Christian nationalist lawmakers and activists with all the tools they needed in one place to pursue these bills and flood state legislatures with harmful legislation," she said. "However, the resources necessary to oppose these varied bills were scattered and less organized, so initially the opposition work was less cohesive. By bringing advocacy and messaging resources together at BlitzWatch.org, we helped ensure that lawmakers and advocates opposing Project Blitz had access to all of these tools."

More worrisome than Project Blitz itself, Gill said, are the forces behind it. "The same forces pushing forward Project Blitz have now seized upon new issues, and they are already flooding state legislatures with dangerous model bills," she said. "There were at least four major waves of harmful legislation propagated in 2021: anti-trans youth legislation, religious exemptions to COVID-related public health protections, broad denial-of-care bills, and bills that undermine abortion access."

Of those, she says the most dangerous element is a "renewed emphasis on Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) measures at the state level. RFRAs create a limited exemption from state laws whenever religious organizations say that their activities are burdened. RFRAs have been used to attack nondiscrimination protections, access to contraception and abortion, and even child labor laws."

Such laws were a major focus of conservative activism during Barack Obama's presidency, although "none were successfully passed after significant public setbacks in 2015 in states like Indiana," Gill noted. "In the wake of the pandemic and state-imposed public health restrictions," she said, "activists have rebranded these bills as necessary to protect churches from government overreach." Three states — Arkansas, Montana and South Dakota — passed RFRAs this year, and we should expect to see many more coming in 2022, she warns.

It's also important to consider how these lessons can be applied to the racist backlash formulated around the bogeyman term "critical race theory," which Fox News has repeated thousands of times without ever clearly defining it. This can be seen in the state legislative map as well. Chalkbeat has tracked efforts in 27 states to "restrict education on racism, bias, the contributions of specific racial or ethnic groups to U.S. history, or related topics," compared to efforts in 12 states to expand education. Brookings reports that seven states have passed such laws, though only one explicitly mentions "critical race theory." Brookings lists actions taken by state boards of education, other state actors and local school boards as well. So the scope of right-wing activism is clear, as is the need for an effective response.

For Laser, the parallels are clear. "White Christian nationalism is the belief that America is and must remain a Christian nation founded for its white Christian inhabitants, and that our laws and policies must reflect this premise," she said. "They completely reject church-state separation. White Christian nationalists oppose equality for people of color, women, LGBTQ people, religious minorities and the nonreligious.

"The same white Christian nationalist ideology that is behind Project Blitz is also driving the backlash against a deliberate caricature of critical race theory," she continued. "Therefore, a similar strategy to the one that has hamstrung Project Blitz — recapturing the narrative about our nation's ideals, exposing the real intent of the extremists, making clear how their agenda harms freedom and equality for all of us, and bringing together a diverse coalition of people and groups to speak out against this harmful movement — should be part of the strategy to combat opponents of racial justice."

Gill sees similarities, but differences as well. "Both campaigns are similar in that they focus on redefining and manipulating language for political advantage — 'religious freedom' and 'critical race theory,' respectively," she said. "However, there are also significant differences. The anti-CRT campaigns seem at once better funded and less organized than Project Blitz. Moreover, there is a degree of moral panic associated with the anti-CRT efforts that was not as present for Project Blitz."

Still, she offered three specific lessons learned from the resistance to Project Blitz:

  1. Raise awareness about the anti-CRT campaign and bring to light where it came from, who is funding it and for what purposes.
  2. Build collaboration between the various sectors that support diversity education in schools to push back against anti-CRT efforts. Successful coalitions must include educators, experts in diversity education, political leaders, civil rights leaders, parents and students.
  3. Ensure that tools and messaging to oppose anti-CRT efforts are effective and widely available.

If America's founding was really "as pristine as the religious myth requires it to be," Clarkson observed, "it cannot be marked by the racism and genocide that the facts of history reveal. History is thus an existential crisis for Christian nationalist beliefs. That's why history must be revised and the evils that mark so much of our history be erased, rather than acknowledged and addressed. The attack on the straw man of CRT is of a piece with what we might call the purification of American history in the name of God's history."

But history and politics tend to be messy, not pure. "The Christian right, supported in part by the Project Blitz playbooks, is using — and mastering — the tools and institutions of democracy in order to erode or end them," Clarkson said. "They know that well-organized factions can win elections, beginning with low-turnout party primaries, and that the Christian Right minority can gain the mantle of democratic legitimacy by out-organizing those of us who actually believe in it." So it's up to "everyone to the left of the Christian Right," as Clarkson puts it, to mobilize for democracy.

"This includes identifying some common approaches to history, as well as religious freedom, which will remain a battleground," he said, "as well as better approaches to electoral organization at all levels of government. This will mean jumping into electoral democracy with both feet, and learning the mechanics and calendar of electoral democracy." This may mean, he warns, avoiding the distractions of cable news, social media and other forms of entertainment in favor of real-world organizing. "To borrow from and with apologies to the late Gil Scott-Heron," Clarkson said, "the mobilization will not be televised."

An edition of the Bible aimed at right-wing evangelicals has quietly scrubbed references to slavery and 'the Jews'

Long before Donald Trump made attacks against "political correctness" a key theme of his 2016 election campaign, evangelical leaders like Wayne Grudem, author of "Systematic Theology", have railed against it, particularly when they see it invading their turf — with gender-neutral language in Bible translations, for instance. But a new study by Samuel Perry, co-author of "Taking America Back for God" (I've previously interviewed his co-author, sociologist Andrew Whitehead), finds Grudem himself involved in much the same thing.

"Whitewashing Evangelical Scripture: The Case of Slavery and Antisemitism in the English Standard Version," looks at how successive translations have changed in the English Standard Version of the Bible, for which Grudem serves on the oversight committee.

In revisions from 2001 through 2016, Perry shows, the word "slave" first gains a footnote, then moves to the footnote and then disappears entirely — in some contexts, like Colossians 3:22, though not others — to be replaced by the word "bondservant," which could be described as a politically correct euphemism. A similar strategy is used to handle antisemitic language as well, Perry shows.

It's one thing for politicians to hypocritically switch positions mid-air, or hold contradictory positions simultaneously, but it's quite another thing for theologians — or at least it's supposed to be. Evangelical Christians in particular are supposed to revere the literal truth of the Bible, not fiddle around with it to make it sound better to contemporary audiences. So Perry's findings deserve much wider attention, which is why Salon reached out to discuss what he discovered and what to make of it. The interview has been edited, as usual, for clarity and length.

Your paper examines how a recent Bible translation was successively revised to tone down and ultimately erase language supporting slavery and antisemitism — in effect, to make the Bible more "politically correct," more in tune with contemporary moral sensibilities, although those doing so would surely object to that characterization. How would you characterize their work?

It's a fascinating story. All Bible translations have to navigate these waters, so the English Standard Version is really just an example of it, and they're kind of a fascinating example because they have marketed themselves as an essentially literal translation that resists the PC push. The general editor, Wayne Grudem, had for years denounced contemporary Bible translations, like the New International Version, for doing those kinds of things: becoming PC, changing the language to conform to modern sensibilities, that kind of thing, especially with regard to gender.

So for years they have said, "Hey, we're not going to translate certain things in a gender-neutral fashion, because we want to be as literal as possible, and if you like that it's capitulating to the feminist PC culture." So ESV has marketed themselves as a very popular evangelical translation that is used most faithfully by complementarian Protestant Christians for that reason: because it's conservative and because it's supposed to be literal.

But at the same time, the fact that that the "slave" language in the New Testament is so obvious creates a real apologetics problem, because of all this talk about "slaves obeying your masters," and how slaves should subject themselves not only to good masters but bad masters, and how slaves should stay in the station of life where they were called. It creates this really ugly impression of the New Testament, and especially Paul advocating for slavery.

So what you can see in the English Standard Version is that with each successive wave, from the 2001 revision of the Revised Standard Version to the 2011 revision and then finally in 2016, our most recent revision, was that they started by introducing a footnote in 2001 to the "slave" word, and then in 2011 they replace the slave word and put it in a footnote, and then they said, "We're going to call this a bondservant. So it's different from a slave."

By 2016 they didn't use slave language at all. If you read that translation you would have no idea that the original translation — and I think the most appropriate translation — would be "slave." All you see is this kind of Christian-used churchy word "bondservant," which you never hear outside of a biblical reference. Nobody knows what that means, but it's a way that the English Standard Version and other Bibles like it can kind of say, "Hey, these are slaves, but they're not real, real slaves. They're not really bad slaves like we think of in the antebellum South, like chattel slavery. It's something different."

So they're changing the text on one hand, while pretending to be more faithful on the other?

Yes. What I write about this in this article is an example of the way evangelical Bibles try to do both things. On the one hand they're trying to appeal to people within their community, and to say, "Hey, we interpret the Bible faithfully and consistently," but at the same time, they're also trying to translate such that they can avoid charges that the Bible is socially regressive and condones oppressive relationships and is socially or culturally backward. So this is kind of an example of that.

In previous studies, I showed how the English Standard Version, in particular, had actually taken the Revised Standard Version of 1971 and made the gender language more conservative. So what they did with the slave language, they did the opposite with the gender language. They actually made gender language more complementarian, more about men's and women's roles, and that kind of thing.

So ultimately this is a broader project of mine on demonstrating how really Bibles are constructed by individual choices by groups who have incentives. I don't mean incentives monetarily, though sometimes money is involved, like the consumer market. All these Bibles have to sell. But oftentimes there are culture-war issues going on. They want to be able to demonstrate, "Hey, the Bible is not culturally regressive. Look, there's no slave language at all!" Or they want to be able to say that the Bible endorses women submitting to their husbands: "Look how clear it is right here!"

So what you can do is just adjust the language here and there in the translation and make it back your own theological preference, or the preference of the people you're trying to market that Bible to. And this is fascinating thing. It's so interesting when you think about how fluid the language can be, based on whatever purposes you need, whoever you're marketing that Bible to.

But that's part of a much broader phenomenon, isn't it? I mean, you specifically say that it's not unique.

Let me give you another example. This is one I don't talk about in the article. The English Standard Version has been adopted recently by the Gideons — you know, the people who put Bibles in hotel rooms. So for years, the King James Version was the Gideon Bible. They later moved to the New King James, but since 2012 the Gideons weren't going to use the King James anymore, they were going to use the ESV.

They worked out a deal with Crossway, the makers of the ESV, to adjust some of the language in the ESV to conform to the preferences that the Gideons wanted, because they had always had the King James Version and they liked that. So certain verses and texts in the ESV were modified to conform to the preferences of the Gideons, who were going to buy massive amounts of Bibles and wanted to bring it into greater conformity with the KJV. They're not drastic changes, yet the ESV folks were willing to compromise on the language. It was like, "Hey, if this is what your group needs, sure. We'll move some stuff to footnotes, we'll change stuff around here and there."

There's all kinds of things that go on like that, but in the example I'm talking about here it's about how this particular Bible which has a reputation for being anti-PC is pretty clearly moving toward greater political correctness, so that they can avoid the charges of promoting slavery.

What about the issue of antisemitism? That was handled differently but along similar lines, was it not?

Again, Wayne Grudem is a culture warrior. Within the last five years he became kind of a shill for Donald Trump. He went on record several times to talk about why Christians should vote for Trump, and wrote a shocking, breathtaking article where he argued that he didn't think Trump had ever intentionally lied. He said, like, Trump may bend the truth or may not know all the facts, but he never intentionally lied, which makes my head explode.

So Wayne Grudem is a culture warrior, politically active, a very conservative anti-PC guy. He had for years argued against any change. Especially in the Gospel of John, there's lots of instances where John talks about this group that literally is translated as "the Jews." That's exactly what he's saying, he's saying "the Jews." But if you actually read the things that he's saying about this group called "the Jews," it's really ugly. They are chasing the apostles around, they're persecuting Jesus, they're scheming, they're looking for an opportunity to kill him. They just look like murderous, scheming people. Paul does this several times as well. So most modern New Testament translations have modified that language. They don't translate that word as "the Jews" anymore because it sounds blatantly antisemitic. What they do is they translate it, like, "Jewish leaders" or "religious leaders" or something like that, so they specify, these are the bad ones, these aren't all the Jews.

But the ESV and Wayne Grudem have for years said, "Oh, you guys are PC wimps for doing that." But the editorial committee of the ESV has realized over time that it looks really, really ugly. So what they've had to do is to introduce footnotes over time, where they can qualify when they use that word "the Jews." They do it strategically, because it's not every time you see the word "the Jews." But every time you see the words "the Jews" and the context is "Hey, this is a really bad group of people," they put an asterisk there, and a footnote that says, "Hey, no, John is not referring to all the Jews. This is probably just a group of religious leaders who are persecuting Jesus and his followers."

These are just examples of how Bibles get modified and adjusted in order to make them more palatable and attractive, and by extension make Christianity more palatable and attractive. That's the end goal, and part of it is about making that Bible more usable and user-friendly. In a broader scheme, these people are Christians and they want people to find Christianity attractive too. They want to be able to guard against accusations that Christianity is OK with slavery and antisemitism. So you've got to head that accusation off by helping your people out a little bit, putting a footnote in there, changing the language.

You begin your article by saying, "Religious communities in pluralistic societies often hold in tension the task of reinforcing core identities and ideals within the community while negotiating public relations among those outside the community." You add, "Christian communities have sought to accomplish both projects materially through Bible modification." The first task is accomplished via what scholars have called "transitivity." What does that mean?

Transitivity is not my word. That was come up with by a scholar named Brian Malley, who is a cognitive anthropologist. About 20 years ago he wrote a great and, I think, very underrated book called "How the Bible Works." One of the things he writes about is how evangelical Bible study isn't really an attempt to get meaning out of the text, as if people were coming to it like blank slates. What happens within a group context is that groups come to the Bible with theological presuppositions. They already have an idea what the Bible is. What they do together is they basically try to explain how the text that they are reading affirms what they already believe.

So they'll come to the text and they'll find a verse and they'll try to fit that verse within their broader scheme. "OK, this is what we think God is all about, this is what we know he likes and prefers, this is what we believe." This is why you end up with so drastically different readings of the Bible. This is why when Democrats come to the Bible, Jesus ends up looking like a Democrat and when Republicans come to the Bible, he sure does look like a Republican. We oftentimes just bring our own biases and lenses and interpret a passage of scripture with that. So transitivity, and how Bible translations really reinforce this transitivity project, is because they can adjust the content of the Bible to support what the community already believes.

This is a more general process, right? It's not just the ESV?

This isn't just the English Standard Version, this is all of these translations. Really blatant examples would be things like the 1995 project called "The New Testament and Psalms, An Inclusive Version." This translation team took the New Revised Standard Version and said, "You know what, we don't believe that God would want to translate anything that would support racism, antisemitism, ableism or any kind of gender identity at all." So they went through that Bible and they removed all traces of gendered language — God is no longer "father," he is "a parent" or "father/ mother," Jesus is not "the son," he's "the child." So they made the Bible conform to their own beliefs of what they felt God would like and God would want. That was an example of a transitivity project. They were making the Bible conform to their own views, and ESV has also done that with respect to gender. They made the gendered language of the RSV more conservative, so that it would back up their own theological and cultural preference.

You have coined a new term, "intransitivity." What does that mean, and what's a good example?

The gendered language of the ESV is a transitivity move, making the text conform to your own tribal or cultural positions. "Intransitivity" refers to the idea that you're trying to eliminate the possibility of a negative evaluation of your own group or the Bible by translating a passage in a more culturally acceptable way. Establishing intransitivity means you're trying to cut off the possibility of a negative social interpretation.

So retranslating those passages about "the Jews" to be about "religious leaders" or "the Jewish leaders" or that kind of thing is an intransitivity project. It is a move to be able to cut off outsiders who say, "Hey Christianity is antisemitic and the Bible is antisemitic." They can say, "No, that's not how the verses read." The same with the slavery example. You cut off the negative social interpretations by saying "No, these are 'bondsmen,' not slaves."

You go on to say that this study examines the ways evangelical translation teams seek to accomplish both agendas simultaneously — the transitivity and intransitivity agendas — creating a "materialized instantiation of engaged orthodoxy." What does that mean?

"Engaged orthodoxy" is the sociologist Christian Smith's term. A little over 20 years ago he talked about evangelicals as this unique group, in that they hold two ideas in tension. One is that they want to be different from the culture and they want to have distinct theological identities, so they value theological conservatism. It's self-policing. You can see this now, it's the most obvious thing in the world. All the debates are about, you know, are we leaving our orthodox theological roots by coming to be more culturally adaptive or "woke" or whatever?

So evangelicals want to be orthodox, and they desire that aggressively. And yet a part of evangelical identity is also that we are not retreating from the world, we are engaging the culture. You can call it culture warfare, and that's part of it, but there's a mandate to transform the culture with the gospel. So engaged orthodoxy is this idea that we are fighting for cultural distinctiveness and orthodox theology, yet at the same time we are engaged in the fight, we are trying to influence people who are outsiders with the gospel, with the Bible and with our culture.

So when I say a "materialized instantiation of engaged orthodoxy," what I mean is that through both of these moves with the Bible — they're trying to modify the Bible to make it conform to their own theologically conservative faith, while at the same time modifying other parts of the Bible to avoid negative characterizations of the Bible and their faith — they're engaging in this process of engaged orthodoxy. They're trying to be orthodox and conservative, while at the same time not trying to put up unnecessary barriers to people finding the faith attractive. So they want to be conservative, but they don't want to be blatantly racist or blatantly oppressive, that's just too far, that's too much.

Yes. That sounds tricky!

They really find themselves in a pickle sometimes because of examples like Wayne Grudem, who trashes PC Bible modification, and says, "Hey, we need to be conservative and literal," yet at the same time they don't want to translate things too literally, because it ends up looking pretty negative if you're talking about slave language or antisemitism. So they have to be subtle, which is one of the reasons why they don't necessarily announce all the changes that they make. They just change stuff sometimes. Sometimes they announce it, sometimes they explain it. Other times they just kind of do it. They make changes and don't really broadcast that, because they want to make people feel like "Hey, this the Bible, not something that is our little project that we keep on modifying."

You draw attention to the fact that changes were made to the ESV in 2001 without being talked about, but then in 2011 they actually announced it in the preface. What did they say in that preface, and what did that accomplish?

In the preface they started to telegraph that they're going to change some of the slave language and gave a little bit of the reasoning. But the reasoning they provide is intended to support the change that they wanted to make for, I think, more politically correct kinds of reasons. So they're trying to have their cake and eat it, too. They want to be characterized as a literal translation that is faithful and they don't want to come across as capitulating to the culture or being politically correct, Grudem really backs them into a corner that way.

They don't sell to their target audience of conservative evangelicals on the basis of being politically correct; they sell because they're literal or because they're faithful. So what they were trying to do in that preface was explain that these words for slave in the Old Testament and New Testament—in the Old Testament it's ebed, and in Greek, in the New Testament, it's doulos. So what they're arguing in the preface is that, hey, in the Old Testament and the New Testament, sometimes that slave language, those words, could be used to define a broad spectrum of relationships. Sometimes it describes people who are legitimately like slaves, and other times it describes something more like a servant or a bondservant, somebody who's not necessarily volunteering for it, but who could benefit from the relationship and earn money, and even get their freedom someday.

So they're trying to set the reader up to say, "We sometimes translate these words differently depending on the context," because sometimes what they feel the authors have in view is not "slave" like we talk about in the South, where you are a slave on the basis of race, you are a slave for life and so are your children.

So that's their theory. How good a theory is it?

The only problem with that is that most scholars that I've read and respect on these issues would argue that what both the Old and New Testament authors have in mind really is a slave. It's not like this weird, churchy word "bondservant," which is intended, I think, to create some rhetorical difference between what a slave really was and this kind of nice version of slavery that Christians would like to pretend the Bible talks about.

But it doesn't really exist. It was still dehumanizing. It was still somebody who, like your children, was property. You were still owned by people and you couldn't just leave if you wanted to. That wasn't the deal. So it kind of attempts, on the part of evangelicals, to introduce an idea that, like, slavery wasn't so bad sometimes, rather than just saying, "Hey, it's a slave."

What happened in the preface in 2011 was that the ESV said, "We need to change these words so that we can make these relationships a little bit less offensive." Ultimately they're saying, "We don't want you to think, every time you hear the word 'slave' in the New Testament or the Old Testament, about Southern Dixie slavery, because that's really ugly. That sounds really bad." If the New Testament is saying "slave, obey your master," that sounds really horrible, and it is really horrible. That creates a problem that they try to solve with this translation.

You're focused on the key process of biblical revision. But there's a larger cultural process and historical record to consider. Historically, biblical references to slavery played a central role in justifying it, especially as abolitionist sentiment increased from 1830 onward. All the distancing in the world can't change that history. More recently, anti-abortion evangelicals have tried to claim the abolitionist mantel for themselves, likening Roe v. Wade to the Dred Scott decision, while also ignoring their own historical indifference, if not acceptance, to Roe when it was decided, given the Bible's silence about abortion. How do you think your analysis should be seen in terms of this broader framework of claiming spiritual, moral and political authority?

I think the strategy of Bible modification is actually a way to solve some of that historical, reputational problem. As you say, there there is a record of evangelical Christians using the Bible to condone and defend slavery as an institution, because it is obviously there and it's easy to do, given that the New Testament authors didn't condemn it in any way, and in many ways enabled and justified it as an institution,. That was readily used by pro-slavery advocates in the antebellum South, and under Jim Crow for issues like segregation. Even up to the late 1990s, Bob Jones University was citing biblical references for segregation or prohibiting interracial dating on campus.

Bible modification is a way that you can clean that up by saying, "You know what? These people were obviously misinterpreting scripture, because it's right there. Look, it doesn't say 'slave,' it says, 'bondservant'!" You can point back at this group of conservative Christians in the past as people who misunderstood the Bible, rather than reading it in the plain language like we have it now. That is very important in this evangelical culture of biblicism: They want to interpret the Bible in plain language, and to be able to do that you have to adjust the language, to make it conform to exactly what you want to say.

What about the anti-abortion side of this?

I haven't detected any instances of Bible modification that are "pro-life" angles, though I think you see gestures toward that. For example, Andy Schlafly, the founder of Conservapedia, said in 2009 that he was going to start something called the Conservative Bible Project, where they say explicitly, "We're going to going to retranslate the Bible to conform to conservative political leanings. We're going to fight the liberalism that has crept into Bible translations." They said on the front end that they were going to translate the Bible such as to highlight the pro-life implications of certain texts. They're transparently saying that they want to elevate this kind of cultural interpretation, this political interpretation, that is more squarely biblical. They're reverse-engineering it.

I was just looking at the phenomenon of proof-texting pro-life verses this morning. I was reading over Focus on the Family verses that they have put together to argue for pro-life positions. It is interesting how selective those texts end up being — texts about how "God does not punish the children for the sins of the parents." Using that as a response to, "Well, what what about abortion in the case of rape or incest" by pointing to those verses is a pretty selective reading, given that God explicitly commands the wiping out the Canaanites, including children, including women who were with child, including children who in the womb.

So there are obviously instances in the Old Testament where you can argue that Yahweh formally commands [abortion], and you get this obviously selective reading of key texts. From there, I think it's a pretty small step to, "OK, how do we how we get rid of these problematic verses? How do we make these verses conform?"

If I were to pay attention to where I think those changes might pop up, it would be passages where God in the Old Testament formally commands the wiping out of Canaanites, the putting to death of women with children or of young children. Those are particularly problematic, given the pro-life leanings of evangelicals.

What's the most important question I didn't ask, and what's the answer?

I would like to underscore that this isn't just a problem with the English Standard Version. The ESV is a really explicit example because they're relatively young and you can see how they're revised the text over time pretty clearly. So they end up being a really fascinating example of this.

But I think you can also see examples of the New International Version cleaning up its translation over time to become, in some ways, more politically correct. It's a fascinating story in itself, because in the mid 2000s you have all this controversy about gendered language, and the NIV feels pressured to say, "OK, we won't do this, we won't make the language inclusive," because all these evangelicals spoke out against it.

Well, eventually they did it anyway, in the form of what's called Today's New International Version in 2005. Well, that gets panned by evangelicals, nobody buys it, it's a sales failure. So they pull Today's New International Version off the shelves, and they no longer sell it. But then they did a revision of the NIV where they basically just snuck in all the translations they did in 2005, except now it's called the "New International Version, 2011 edition."

So that's an example of how the NIV translation team, the Committee on Bible Translation at Zondervan, wanted to appeal to evangelicals because that's their primary consumer market, while at the same time adjusting the text to be more user-friendly for those outside conservative evangelicalism. That's another example of this tendency toward Bible modification in the direction of both trying to appeal to one subculture while also trying to appeal to those outside the culture.

Evangelical snowflakes censor the Bible

Long before Donald Trump made attacks against "political correctness" a key theme of his 2016 election campaign, evangelical leaders like Wayne Grudem, author of "Systematic Theology", have railed against it, particularly when they see it invading their turf — with gender-neutral language in Bible translations, for instance. But a new study by Samuel Perry, co-author of "Taking America Back for God" (I've previously interviewed his co-author, sociologist Andrew Whitehead), finds Grudem himself involved in much the same thing.

This article originally appeared at Salon.

"Whitewashing Evangelical Scripture: The Case of Slavery and Antisemitism in the English Standard Version," looks at how successive translations have changed in the English Standard Version of the Bible, for which Grudem serves on the oversight committee.

In revisions from 2001 through 2016, Perry shows, the word "slave" first gains a footnote, then moves to the footnote and then disappears entirely — in some contexts, like Colossians 3:22, though not others — to be replaced by the word "bondservant," which could be described as a politically correct euphemism. A similar strategy is used to handle antisemitic language as well, Perry shows.

It's one thing for politicians to hypocritically switch positions mid-air, or hold contradictory positions simultaneously, but it's quite another thing for theologians — or at least it's supposed to be. Evangelical Christians in particular are supposed to revere the literal truth of the Bible, not fiddle around with it to make it sound better to contemporary audiences. So Perry's findings deserve much wider attention, which is why Salon reached out to discuss what he discovered and what to make of it. The interview has been edited, as usual, for clarity and length.

Your paper examines how a recent Bible translation was successively revised to tone down and ultimately erase language supporting slavery and antisemitism — in effect, to make the Bible more "politically correct," more in tune with contemporary moral sensibilities, although those doing so would surely object to that characterization. How would you characterize their work?

It's a fascinating story. All Bible translations have to navigate these waters, so the English Standard Version is really just an example of it, and they're kind of a fascinating example because they have marketed themselves as an essentially literal translation that resists the PC push. The general editor, Wayne Grudem, had for years denounced contemporary Bible translations, like the New International Version, for doing those kinds of things: becoming PC, changing the language to conform to modern sensibilities, that kind of thing, especially with regard to gender.

So for years they have said, "Hey, we're not going to translate certain things in a gender-neutral fashion, because we want to be as literal as possible, and if you like that it's capitulating to the feminist PC culture." So ESV has marketed themselves as a very popular evangelical translation that is used most faithfully by complementarian Protestant Christians for that reason: because it's conservative and because it's supposed to be literal.

But at the same time, the fact that the "slave" language in the New Testament is so obvious, it creates a real apologetics problem, because of all this talk about "slaves obeying your masters," and how slaves should subject themselves not only to good masters but bad masters, and how slaves should stay in the station of life where they were called. It creates this really ugly impression of the New Testament, and especially Paul advocating for slavery.

So what you can see in the English Standard Version is that with each successive wave, from the 2001 revision of the Revised Standard Version to the 2011 revision and then finally in 2016, our most recent revision, was that they started by introducing a footnote in 2001 to the "slave" word, and then in 2011 they replace the slave word and put it in a footnote, and then they said, "We're going to call this a bondservant. So it's different from a slave."

By 2016 they didn't use slave language at all. If you read that translation you would have no idea that the original translation — and I think the most appropriate translation — would be "slave." All you see is this kind of Christian-used churchy word "bondservant," which you never hear outside of a biblical reference. Nobody knows what that means, but it's a way that the English Standard Version and other Bibles like it can kind of say, "Hey, these are slaves, but they're not real, real slaves. They're not really bad slaves like we think of in the antebellum South, like chattel slavery. It's something different."

So they're changing the text on one hand, while pretending to be more faithful on the other?

Yes. What I write about this in this article is an example of the way evangelical Bibles try to do both things. On the one hand they're trying to appeal to people within their community, and to say, "Hey, we interpret the Bible faithfully and consistently," but at the same time they're also trying to translate such that they can avoid charges that the Bible is socially regressive and condones oppressive relationships and is socially or culturally backward. So this is kind of an example of that.

In previous studies, I showed how the English Standard Version, in particular, had actually taken the Revised Standard Version of 1971 and made the gender language more conservative. So what they did with the slave language, they did the opposite with the gender language. They actually made gender language more complementarian, more about men's and women's roles, and that kind of thing.

So ultimately this is a broader project of mine on demonstrating how really Bibles are constructed by individual choices by groups who have incentives. I don't mean incentives monetarily, though sometimes money is involved, like the consumer market. All these Bibles have to sell. But oftentimes there are culture-war issues going on. They want to be able to demonstrate, "Hey, the Bible is not culturally regressive. Look, there's no slave language at all!" Or they want to be able to say that the Bible endorses women submitting to their husbands: "Look how clear it is right here!"

So what you can do is just adjust the language here and there in the translation and make it back your own theological preference, or the preference of the people you're trying to market that Bible to. And this is fascinating thing. It's so interesting when you think about how fluid the language can be, based on whatever purposes you need, whoever you're marketing that Bible to.

But that's part of a much broader phenomenon, isn't it? I mean, you specifically say that it's not unique.

Let me give you another example. This is one I don't talk about in the article. The English Standard Version has been adopted recently by the Gideons — you know, the people who put Bibles in hotel rooms. So for years, the King James Version was the Gideon Bible. They later moved to the New King James, but since 2012 the Gideons weren't going to use the King James anymore, they were going to use the ESV.

They worked out a deal with Crossway, the makers of the ESV, to adjust some of the language in the ESV to conform to the preferences that the Gideons wanted, because they had always had the King James Version and they liked that. So certain verses and texts in the ESV were modified to conform to the preferences of the Gideons, who were going to buy massive amounts of Bibles and wanted to bring it into greater conformity with the KJV. They're not drastic changes, yet the ESV folks were willing to compromise on the language. It was like, "Hey, if this is what your group needs, sure. We'll move some stuff to footnotes, we'll change stuff around here and there."

There's all kinds of things that go on like that, but in the example I'm talking about here it's about how this particular Bible which has a reputation for being anti-PC is pretty clearly moving toward greater political correctness, so that they can avoid the charges of promoting slavery.

What about the issue of antisemitism? That was handled differently but along similar lines, was it not?

Again, Wayne Grudem is a culture warrior. Within the last five years he became kind of a shill for Donald Trump. He went on record several times to talk about why Christians should vote for Trump, and wrote a shocking, breathtaking article where he argued that he didn't think Trump had ever intentionally lied. He said, like, Trump may bend the truth or may not know all the facts, but he never intentionally lied, which makes my head explode.

So Wayne Grudem is a culture warrior, politically active, a very conservative anti-PC guy. He had for years argued against any change. Especially in the Gospel of John, there's lots of instances where John talks about this group that literally is translated as "the Jews." That's exactly what he's saying, he's saying "the Jews." But if you actually read the things that he's saying about this group called "the Jews," it's really ugly. They are chasing the apostles around, they're persecuting Jesus, they're scheming, they're looking for an opportunity to kill him. They just look like murderous, scheming people. Paul does this several times as well. So most modern New Testament translations have modified that language. They don't translate that word as "the Jews" anymore because it sounds blatantly antisemitic. What they do is they translate it, like, "Jewish leaders" or "religious leaders" or something like that, so they specify, these are the bad ones, these aren't all the Jews.

But the ESV and Wayne Grudem have for years said, "Oh, you guys are PC wimps for doing that." But the editorial committee of the ESV has realized over time that it looks really, really ugly. So what they've had to do is to introduce footnotes over time, where they can qualify when they use that word "the Jews." They do it strategically, because it's not every time you see the word "the Jews." But every time you see the words "the Jews" and the context is "Hey, this is a really bad group of people," they put an asterisk there, and a footnote that says, "Hey, no, John is not referring to all the Jews. This is probably just a group of religious leaders who are persecuting Jesus and his followers."

These are just examples of how Bibles get modified and adjusted in order to make them more palatable and attractive, and by extension make Christianity more palatable and attractive. That's the end goal, and part of it is about making that Bible more usable and user-friendly. In a broader scheme, these people are Christians and they want people to find Christianity attractive too. They want to be able to guard against accusations that Christianity is OK with slavery and antisemitism. So you've got to head that accusation off by helping your people out a little bit, putting a footnote in there, changing the language.

You begin your article by saying, "Religious communities in pluralistic societies often hold in tension the task of reinforcing core identities and ideals within the community while negotiating public relations among those outside the community." You add, "Christian communities have sought to accomplish both projects materially through Bible modification." The first task is accomplished via what scholars have called "transitivity." What does that mean?

Transitivity is not my word. That was come up with by a scholar named Brian Malley, who is a cognitive anthropologist. About 20 years ago he wrote a great and, I think, very underrated book called "How the Bible Works." One of the things he writes about is how evangelical Bible study isn't really an attempt to get meaning out of the text, as if people were coming to it like blank slates. What happens within a group context is that groups come to the Bible with theological presuppositions. They already have an idea what the Bible is. What they do together is they basically try to explain how the text that they are reading affirms what they already believe.

So they'll come to the text and they'll find a verse and they'll try to fit that verse within their broader scheme. "OK, this is what we think God is all about, this is what we know he likes and prefers, this is what we believe." This is why you end up with so drastically different readings of the Bible. This is why when Democrats come to the Bible, Jesus ends up looking like a Democrat and when Republicans come to the Bible, he sure does look like a Republican. We oftentimes just bring our own biases and lenses and interpret a passage of scripture with that. So transitivity, and how Bible translations really reinforce this transitivity project, is because they can adjust the content of the Bible to support what the community already believes.

This is a more general process, right? It's not just the ESV?

This isn't just the English Standard Version, this is all of these translations. Really blatant examples would be things like the 1995 project called "The New Testament and Psalms, An Inclusive Version." This translation team took the New Revised Standard Version and said, "You know what, we don't believe that God would want to translate anything that would support racism, antisemitism, ableism or any kind of gender identity at all." So they went through that Bible and they removed all traces of gendered language — God is no longer "father," he is "a parent" or "father/ mother," Jesus is not "the son," he's "the child." So they made the Bible conform to their own beliefs of what they felt God would like and God would want. That was an example of a transitivity project. They were making the Bible conform to their own views, and ESV has also done that with respect to gender. They made the gendered language of the RSV more conservative, so that it would back up their own theological and cultural preference.

You have coined a new term, "intransitivity." What does that mean, and what's a good example?

The gendered language of the ESV is a transitivity move, making the text conform to your own tribal or cultural positions. "Intransitivity" refers to the idea that you're trying to eliminate the possibility of a negative evaluation of your own group or the Bible by translating a passage in a more culturally acceptable way. Establishing intransitivity means you're trying to cut off the possibility of a negative social interpretation.

So retranslating those passages about "the Jews" to be about "religious leaders" or "the Jewish leaders" or that kind of thing is an intransitivity project. It is a move to be able to cut off outsiders who say, "Hey Christianity is antisemitic and the Bible is antisemitic." They can say, "No, that's not how the verses read." The same with the slavery example. You cut off the negative social interpretations by saying "No, these are 'bondsmen,' not slaves."

You go on to say that this study examines the ways evangelical translation teams seek to accomplish both agendas simultaneously — the transitivity and intransitivity agendas — creating a "materialized instantiation of engaged orthodoxy." What does that mean?

"Engaged orthodoxy" is the sociologist Christian Smith's term. A little over 20 years ago he talked about evangelicals as this unique group, in that they hold two ideas in tension. One is that they want to be different from the culture and they want to have distinct theological identities, so they value theological conservatism. It's self-policing. You can see this now, it's the most obvious thing in the world. All the debates are about, you know, are we leaving our orthodox theological roots by coming to be more culturally adaptive or "woke" or whatever?

So evangelicals want to be orthodox, and they desire that aggressively. And yet a part of evangelical identity is also that we are not retreating from the world, we are engaging the culture. You can call it culture warfare, and that's part of it, but there's a mandate to transform the culture with the gospel. So engaged orthodoxy is this idea that we are fighting for cultural distinctiveness and orthodox theology, yet at the same time we are engaged in the fight, we are trying to influence people who are outsiders with the gospel, with the Bible and with our culture.

So when I say a "materialized instantiation of engaged orthodoxy," what I mean is that through both of these moves with the Bible — they're trying to modify the Bible to make it conform to their own theologically conservative faith, while at the same time modifying other parts of the Bible to avoid negative characterizations of the Bible and their faith — they're engaging in this process of engaged orthodoxy. They're trying to be orthodox and conservative, while at the same time not trying to put up unnecessary barriers to people finding the faith attractive. So they want to be conservative, but they don't want to be blatantly racist or blatantly oppressive, that's just too far, that's too much.

Yes. That sounds tricky!

They really find themselves in a pickle sometimes because of examples like Wayne Grudem, who trashes PC Bible modification, and says, "Hey, we need to be conservative and literal," yet at the same time they don't want to translate things too literally, because it ends up looking pretty negative if you're talking about slave language or antisemitism. So they have to be subtle, which is one of the reasons why they don't necessarily announce all the changes that they make. They just change stuff sometimes. Sometimes they announce it, sometimes they explain it. Other times they just kind of do it. They make changes and don't really broadcast that, because they want to make people feel like "Hey, this the Bible, not something that is our little project that we keep on modifying."

You draw attention to the fact that changes were made to the ESV in 2001 without being talked about, but then in 2011 they actually announced it in the preface. What did they say in that preface, and what did that accomplish?

In the preface they started to telegraph that they're going to change some of the slave language and gave a little bit of the reasoning. But the reasoning they provide is intended to support the change that they wanted to make for, I think, more politically correct kinds of reasons. So they're trying to have their cake and eat it, too. They want to be characterized as a literal translation that is faithful and they don't want to come across as capitulating to the culture or being politically correct, Grudem really backs them into a corner that way.

They don't sell to their target audience of conservative evangelicals on the basis of being politically correct; they sell because they're literal or because they're faithful. So what they were trying to do in that preface was explain that these words for slave in the Old Testament and New Testament—in the Old Testament it's ebed, and in Greek, in the New Testament, it's doulos. So what they're arguing in the preface is that, hey, in the Old Testament and the New Testament, sometimes that slave language, those words, could be used to define a broad spectrum of relationships. Sometimes it describes people who are legitimately like slaves, and other times it describes something more like a servant or a bondservant, somebody who's not necessarily volunteering for it, but who could benefit from the relationship and earn money, and even get their freedom someday.

So they're trying to set the reader up to say, "We sometimes translate these words differently depending on the context," because sometimes what they feel the authors have in view is not "slave" like we talk about in the South, where you are a slave on the basis of race, you are a slave for life and so are your children.

So that's their theory. How good a theory is it?

The only problem with that is that most scholars that I've read and respect on these issues would argue that what both the Old and New Testament authors have in mind really is a slave. It's not like this weird, churchy word "bondservant," which is intended, I think, to create some rhetorical difference between what a slave really was and this kind of nice version of slavery that Christians would like to pretend the Bible talks about.

But it doesn't really exist. It was still dehumanizing. It was still somebody who, like your children, was property. You were still owned by people and you couldn't just leave if you wanted to. That wasn't the deal. So it kind of attempts, on the part of evangelicals, to introduce an idea that, like, slavery wasn't so bad sometimes, rather than just saying, "Hey, it's a slave."

What happened in the preface in 2011 was that the ESV said, "We need to change these words so that we can make these relationships a little bit less offensive." Ultimately they're saying, "We don't want you to think, every time you hear the word 'slave' in the New Testament or the Old Testament, about Southern Dixie slavery, because that's really ugly. That sounds really bad." If the New Testament is saying "slave, obey your master," that sounds really horrible, and it is really horrible. That creates a problem that they try to solve with this translation.

You're focused on the key process of biblical revision. But there's a larger cultural process and historical record to consider. Historically, biblical references to slavery played a central role in justifying it, especially as abolitionist sentiment increased from 1830 onward. All the distancing in the world can't change that history. More recently, anti-abortion evangelicals have tried to claim the abolitionist mantel for themselves, likening Roe v. Wade to the Dred Scott decision, while also ignoring their own historical indifference, if not acceptance, to Roe when it was decided, given the Bible's silence about abortion. How do you think your analysis should be seen in terms of this broader framework of claiming spiritual, moral and political authority?

I think the strategy of Bible modification is actually a way to solve some of that historical, reputational problem. As you say, there is a record of evangelical Christians using the Bible to condone and defend slavery as an institution, because it is obviously there and it's easy to do, given that the New Testament authors didn't condemn it in any way, and in many ways enabled and justified it as an institution,. That was readily used by pro-slavery advocates in the antebellum South, and under Jim Crow for issues like segregation. Even up to the late 1990s, Bob Jones University was citing biblical references for segregation or prohibiting interracial dating on campus.

Bible modification is a way that you can clean that up by saying, "You know what? These people were obviously misinterpreting scripture, because it's right there. Look, it doesn't say 'slave,' it says, 'bondservant'!" You can point back at this group of conservative Christians in the past as people who misunderstood the Bible, rather than reading it in the plain language like we have it now. That is very important in this evangelical culture of biblicism: They want to interpret the Bible in plain language, and to be able to do that you have to adjust the language, to make it conform to exactly what you want to say.

What about the anti-abortion side of this?

I haven't detected any instances of Bible modification that are "pro-life" angles, though I think you see gestures toward that. For example, Andy Schlafly, the founder of Conservapedia, said in 2009 that he was going to start something called the Conservative Bible Project, where they say explicitly, "We're going to going to retranslate the Bible to conform to conservative political leanings. We're going to fight the liberalism that has crept into Bible translations." They said on the front end that they were going to translate the Bible such as to highlight the pro-life implications of certain texts. They're transparently saying that they want to elevate this kind of cultural interpretation, this political interpretation, that is more squarely biblical. They're reverse-engineering it.

I was just looking at the phenomenon of proof-texting pro-life verses this morning. I was reading over Focus on the Family verses that they have put together to argue for pro-life positions. It is interesting how selective those texts end up being — texts about how "God does not punish the children for the sins of the parents." Using that as a response to, "Well, what about abortion in the case of rape or incest" by pointing to those verses is a pretty selective reading, given that God explicitly commands the wiping out the Canaanites, including children, including women who were with child, including children who in the womb.

So there are obviously instances in the Old Testament where you can argue that Yahweh formally commands [abortion], and you get this obviously selective reading of key texts. From there, I think it's a pretty small step to, "OK, how do we get rid of these problematic verses? How do we make these verses conform?"

If I were to pay attention to where I think those changes might pop up, it would be passages where God in the Old Testament formally commands the wiping out of Canaanites, the putting to death of women with children or of young children. Those are particularly problematic, given the pro-life leanings of evangelicals.

What's the most important question I didn't ask, and what's the answer?

I would like to underscore that this isn't just a problem with the English Standard Version. The ESV is a really explicit example because they're relatively young and you can see how they're revised the text over time pretty clearly. So they end up being a really fascinating example of this.

But I think you can also see examples of the New International Version cleaning up its translation over time to become, in some ways, more politically correct. It's a fascinating story in itself, because in the mid 2000s you have all this controversy about gendered language, and the NIV feels pressured to say, "OK, we won't do this, we won't make the language inclusive," because all these evangelicals spoke out against it.

Well, eventually they did it anyway, in the form of what's called Today's New International Version in 2005. Well, that gets panned by evangelicals, nobody buys it, it's a sales failure. So they pull Today's New International Version off the shelves, and they no longer sell it. But then they did a revision of the NIV where they basically just snuck in all the translations they did in 2005, except now it's called the "New International Version, 2011 edition."

So that's an example of how the NIV translation team, the Committee on Bible Translation at Zondervan, wanted to appeal to evangelicals because that's their primary consumer market, while at the same time adjusting the text to be more user-friendly for those outside conservative evangelicalism. That's another example of this tendency toward Bible modification in the direction of both trying to appeal to one subculture while also trying to appeal to those outside the culture.

She predicted the blue wave — now she's trying to prevent a big red one

Political scientist Rachel Bitecofer made a name for herself as an election analyst who saw the 2018 blue wave coming long before anyone else. On July 1 of that year, she presciently predicted a 42-seat gain for Democrats — a near-perfect call, when others still envisioned smaller gains. At the same time, she warned that the landscape would be very difficult for Democrats in 2022, based on the same understanding of negative partisanship and the ways the electorate has changed. The 2018 midterms were a referendum on Donald Trump's presidency more than it was about individual candidates and individual races, she argued, foreseeing that aggrieved Republicans would be similarly motivated in 2022.

Salon's 2019 interview with Bitecofer helped her gain the recognition she deserved, leading to her first appearance on MSNBC's "The Last Word." In that interview, she told Salon:

Under my model, Democrats win the White House in 2020, and then in 2022 they're going to have a very tough electoral cycle, because turnout for Democrats will go back to normal. And because Democrats have poor electoral strategy, they're going to compound that problem, probably by not appealing to Democrats to get them to the polls.

For all the attention Bitecofer gained since that interview, that basic message still hasn't penetrated the Democratic establishment as a whole. So rather than fruitlessly try to change their thinking, Bitecofer has decided to go around them, leaving the academic world and creating her own super PAC — Strike PAC — to do the kind of messaging her research suggests is key to winning elections with today's electorate. There are no big-money donors involved. She's counting on grassroots support to deliver a grassroots message. The first batch of ads she's released paint a clear picture of the threat to democracy the Republican Party now presents, and an equally clear picture of how Democrats should respond.

Salon spoke with Bitecofer about her PAC, this new wave of advertising and the thinking behind them — and of course how she sees next year's critical midterm elections. This interview has been edited, as usual, for clarity and length.

On "Morning Joe," you said your new PAC "is about bringing a brand offensive against the whole Republican Party. It's not just about Donald Trump, but it definitely includes him." Three things struck me about that. First, that seemed to be exemplified by your ad, "Fuse." Tell me about that one. Why is it shaped the way it is, and why now?

All four of our launch-packet ads are targeted toward different aspects of this branding offensive. "Fuse" is geared towards a national audience. In political advertising, the conventional two types are what we call "persuasion" — which is trying to get voters who don't have a firm vote to come over and vote for you — and the other type is "mobilization," making sure your core voters will show up.

What Strike PAC is doing is not within those two buckets. It certainly has overlap — it's performing both persuasion and mobilization. But what it's arguing is, "Look, the GOP doesn't really run anything except a marketing/branding op and it's predominantly a branding offensive against the left." They don't spend a lot of time on their own brand, but they do spend a lot of time in their messaging on discounting, discrediting and debasing our brand. That will go from everything from economics to the "woke" war, so it's always about showing us as unattractively to voters as possible. We've never answered that.

Democrats, up until now, have been told by their consultants, "Don't worry about it," or "Don't push back on 'socialism' or 'defund the police.'" To their credit, candidates are starting to understand when somebody is lobbing missiles at you, you can't just stand there and pretend it's not hitting. They are starting to try to put forward a response. But the it's a defensive mechanism, it's not offensive. The GOP is saying, "We're going to have a debate about these topics," and when you enter into that field, you are basically on the defense the whole time because you're having a conversation that's been structured by the opposition party.

So that's what "Fuse" is trying to change?

It's flipping that GOP tactic over to our side. It's attacking the Republicans to make a conversation about their anti-democratic power grab, that goes back from contesting the results of 2020, an armed insurrection, Trump actually trying to use the Justice Department to stage a coup, and the Republican Party's wholesale embrace of that.

It's not like Trump did these things and the Republican Party stood against him. They have slowly but surely normalized this anti-democratic behavior. In fact, they have doubled down on it by going into these state legislative sessions trying to restrict voter access for progressive parts of the electorate, even going so far as to put provisions that take the certification process away from nonpartisan actors and into their partisan hands.

That conversation is something you might see if you're me or you, if you're very political, but for the broader electorate it's happening completely invisibly. There's very little media coverage — certainly not saturation coverage like you would see for Clinton's emails — about this power grab, what that means for democracy and what it means for Democrats in the next cycle.

So "Fuse" is about fixing that problem, putting the stakes of 2022 in clear-eyed focus for the other half of the electorate. Because the Republican electorate has been told now for a while that the other side is coming after democracy, right? So it's their belief in a Democratic Party that has been articulated by the GOP. It's completely out of whack of reality, but Republican voters believe that Democrats are trying to "destroy democracy," and what they're doing is saving it. It's not like they don't have a motivation. So we really need this side of the electorate to realize that this meta-conversation about American democracy is on the ballot in 2022.

To me, "bringing a brand offensive" pretty much describes how Republicans have run the vast majority of their national campaigns at least since Ronald Reagan, if not Richard Nixon. Democrats have virtually never done so—not even when Trump first ran in 2016. Why do you think that is?

That's exactly right. You could believe it's a problem that began when polarization really began to take off in the mid-2000s when asymmetry appears, and to some extent that's true, because Republicans developed this technique of making every election a referendum on the Democratic brand. But you're right, it does have its roots back in the 80s.

That said, we really do see a distinct version of the modern GOP that has its origins in that 2004 Bush re-election campaign with Karl Rove, to use the gay marriage issues to turn out on their side, but also to talk about politics — including Senate and House races that might have otherwise been more local — with the intention of making them about the national party, about the national political climate and the national brand. That really starts to solidify with the 2010 midterms. They made it a referendum on Obamacare and Nancy Pelosi, and tied every candidate to that as tightly as they could. So every candidate really didn't stand for re-election on their own performance in office or voting record, things that people think traditionally mattered. Instead, it was all about whether they were a Democrat.

We never made that adjustment at all. In fact, it seems like we don't even really recognize how distinctly different voter behavior in the two coalitions are and how hyper-partisanship has changed things. Whether or not we want that change, it's there, right? We've been grasping for this old-school model of electioneering, it's like when Sega was replaced by Nintendo.

The GOP is running this very strategic, very intentional branding campaign, and we're still talking about politics in terms of policies and things like that. We're arguing that we are making a huge mistake when we're tinkering around in the branches of electioneering infrastructure on the left, because our real problem lies at that root level, where we are not engaged in a campaign technique that matches the moment.

That segues to the third thing I wanted to ask about. "Bringing a brand offensive" sounds like a logical outgrowth of your election analysis in terms of the hyper-polarization driven by negative partisan. So, how did the idea of Strike PAC develop out of your earlier work?

You could say it had its genesis on election night 2020. Around 7 o'clock it was clear that Biden was going to win the presidency — at least to me — with the Midwest swinging back to the Democrats. But it was also becoming increasingly apparent that Democrats had delivered a tremendous underperformance down-ballot. I understood exactly why those two things were, the most important factor being the asymmetry in terms of how they do politicking, how they do campaigns and elections at that messaging and strategic level.

The way that you would nationalize the 2020 campaign down-ballot is that instead of Biden running against Trump, the party should have run against Trump and the Republican brand. You don't make it about one guy, you make it about the whole party embracing and covering for him and staying next to him. But you also make it about economics. Reaganomics has now got a 40-year track record, and it's a total shitshow. It should be easy to eviscerate. In 2020, for example, Democrats could have made the economic argument for the HEROES Act. The HEROES Act was introduced in July and then blocked by Mitch McConnell in the Senate. The Democrats should have been from top to bottom, even at the state legislative level, hammering the Republicans for denying economic aid in a crisis. And that did not happen.

I also saw many things that I assumed would get fixed after 2016 go completely unaddressed. It was dramatically underwhelming in terms of what changed. And then there was suspension of field operations [by Democratic campaigns]. That was a huge mistake. Yes, I understand that, ethically, you do not want people knocking on doors in a pandemic. But when the opposition party is doing it and it is the only thing that really ever shows a measurable effect — at least if you're doing it to mobilize people, not persuade them — then you have to find a way, right?

So I was watching that and I was deeply concerned. At that point I wasn't even sure if Democrats would hold onto the House. It's just unbelievable, they had the best fundamentals you could ever hope for in 2020. You've got a man who's mismanaging this pandemic, completely incompetent. At that point his negligence had led to the death of hundreds of thousands of people and you don't make that a central theme? Like, "Hey! These people can't do government!" So I realized these things were not going to change unless I found a way to do it myself.

While "Fuse" exemplifies the idea of a brand offensive against the GOP, you have another ad that does that as well, "Hold the Republican Party Accountable," which starts with Donald Trump saying, "Part of the problem is nobody wants to hurt each other anymore. You'll never get back our country with weakness." Tell me about this ad.

It's not one that we necessarily would show in its entirety to target voters, because it's a little long. But this ad is about trying to get people to understand that we seem to have two conversations in America. We have the right talking about how extreme and crazy the Democrats are. Then we have Democrats bitching about that, bitching about "woke" culture and self-inflicting. It's like, the Republican Party makes a critique, and then Democrats jump in and start having that conversation too, just amplifying it.

We don't have any conversation on this side about a party that literally is extreme, has an extremism problem which has been quantified throughout dozens of political science articles, and Democrats just assume, "Well everyone knows the Republican Party is extreme."

Actually, the average person on the street, if they're not one of the 10% of people like us and your readers, you ask them about the Republican Party and they are apt to say, "Low taxes, right?"

There's no media ecosystem that's focused on how crazy the Republican Party is. The assumption is that the mainstream press has a liberal bias, but left-wing topics are not centralized in the way that right-wing topics become. There's no intensive conversation about what the Republican Party has been doing for the last five years as it has progressively fallen down the pathway towards fascism. So that ad is about telling that story and tying those disparate events into a cohesive story.

Your website says, "We modernize electioneering strategy. STRIKE PAC's electioneering model revolutionizes how Democrats campaign from top to bottom." More specifically, you promise "Messaging that creates a 'reverse' referendum on the GOP by putting them on the defense" and implementing "high-stakes, nationalized messaging maximizing coalitional turnout and conversion." You have two state-level ads that seem to embody these points. Let's talk about the Virginia ad first.

Virginia's important because it's an off-off-year election — its state-level elections are not on the regular calendar. Two states do that, New Jersey and Virginia. New Jersey would be more interesting if it spent more time in political competition, but it doesn't. So Virginia has long been seen as a temperature check for the newly-elected president. There was a long history of breaking against the new party in power that really only started to fall off in the 2013 election, when [Democrat] Terry McAuliffe won the governorship even though Obama had won the White House the year before.

Nevertheless, political conversations will center very much around the narrative that comes out of Virginia's 2021 election. Whoever wins in that cycle will go into 2022 with the political media giving them a more positive narrative. That's incredibly important for Democrats in particular because they're expected to do well now in Virginia, and expectations matter. And No. 2 because any political scientist will tell you that one of the most striking and robust patterns is the midterm effect, where the president's party loses seats in the Congress in the subsequent midterm election. So when we talk about Democrats facing tough fundamentals, that's one part.

So what they need to do is they need to hold onto their trifecta in Virginia [the governorship and both houses of the state legislature], so the media narrative is positive. In terms of Virginia, the worry is because the messaging from the Democratic Party and allied organizations doesn't focus on coalitional turnout and doesn't nationalize and speak plain messaging, that turnout might decline enough where you could even have McAuliffe win the governorship, but because of that ballot drop-off problem we saw in 2020, Democrats maybe lose the [legislative] majority, and the narrative then becomes mixed.

So that's the problem. What's the solution?

What we're doing in Virginia is going to be heavily focused on stake-framing, and just really napalming the GOP brand, getting people exposed for the first time to a message that argues that the Republican Party has been a shitshow for the economy and for you, personally and economically. All of these credit-claiming things we see from Democrats is a step in the right direction, but credit claiming is not as good as telling them other people are coming to take things away. You really want a sophisticated messaging.

In the case of our first ad, we chose to focus on the issue of the voting laws, because I could see the Democrats having this wonky policy conversation like they normally do, calling it voter suppression and access. It'd be great if we had that electorate, but we do not. We do not have those voters. We have the ones that the GOP talks to more effectively and so we must make it clear to people: This is a power grab. They're coming to steal your vote. If they can take power in Virginia, they're going to pass a law like they did in these other places. Those laws aren't about "voter access," they're about election rigging.

You also have an ad about the California recall targeting Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom. How does that embody your strategy? And how does that contrast with the Democrats' ineffectual response to the 2003 recall of Gray Davis?

Yes, exactly. You hear that the electorate is much more Democratic than it was in 2003 and that is verifiably true, OK? But that doesn't mean that California isn't still at risk of having a repeat of 2003. In the recall in 2003, the turnout was in the 30% range, and when you're talking about only 30% of California, there's a very motivated Republican Party versus a complacent Democratic one. Because Newsom will probably poll pretty decently and [folks will say] "Oh, this is in the bag. It doesn't really matter. I'm not worried about it."

We're doing a couple things with this ad. Again, we're doing the nationalization component that's lacking in Democratic messaging, and is the bread and butter of the GOP. But it's also innovating — I wanted to show an example of something that other people might want to copy, which is to make the frame of the recall not about Newsom. Because if it's about Newsom, then you're going to have this conversation about whether he shut down too long, or too little and blah blah blah. You're just playing right into their hands. That's the conversation they want to have.

Instead, you want to personalize the stakes of the recall to the electorate, so that they feel the connection, and you want to paint to them a picture: "It's not about Newsom or the Democrats, it's about you controlling California and turning it into a liberal wonderland. And they're coming for it!" You want to make voters feel motivated about the recall, and also attacked. Their identity is being attacked. That's how the Republicans would approach it. That's how they defended Scott Walker, which is what I'm modeling this on.

Another key aspect of your modernization strategy is "Building a positive, values-driven firewall Democratic brand." You've released another ad called "This is What Democracy Looks Like" that starts with John Lewis saying, "We may have come here on different ships, but we are all in the same boat now," and proceeds with short clips from a wide range of notable Democrats—from Sherrod Brown to Katie Porter, AOC, Stacey Abrams and Raphael Warnock. What was the thinking here?

That ad in particular is again a movie-style ad. It's aimed specifically at Democrats, but ultimately the same methodology will be adapted to go after young people, especially voters of color. Latinos are a huge persuasion target for conversion right now and even young Black voters, but younger white voters in particular. The GOP, in my opinion, still over-performs with white young people, people under age 30, relative to what the Republican platform, and their embrace of racism and fascism, should warrant. When you've got one party that is constantly taunting the Democrats — "They support Hamas, and they're socialists, yada yada yada," you want to create an image for those younger voters: "No, this is what the Democratic Party really is."

Another aspect of your modernization strategy is "Undermining the Republican brand and areas of perceived dominance, like the economy." You did this in an ad you showed on "Morning Joe" [at 9:25] comparing Democrats' and Republicans' record on the economy since 1933, on GDP growth, job creation and the stock market, using sports imagery from football, basketball and baseball to drive home the point that Democrats do much better on all these key indicators. The difference is stark, but Democrats never talk about it.

That's exactly right. If you ask the average voter, the GOP often wins or at least breaks even on the question of which party is good for the economy, although the facts bear out a completely different story. But instead of making an affirmative case for ourselves, especially as we move through Reaganomics — and even by the early 2000s the failures of that economic philosophy were already legion — instead of running on that, saying "The GOP tried this thing and it totally destroyed our infrastructure, it destroyed our K-12 education system," and going on what I've called a brand offensive, you see Democrats try to align themselves rhetorically with their opponents, saying "I'm a fiscal conservative."

The economy tends to be the most salient issue, or second-most salient, every election cycle. So why would we concede on an issue that's that important to so many people? Especially when we're better at it? So that's why we're going after that, and the other sacred cows for the GOP, national security. I'm going to go after national security as well because the performance of the Republican Party over the last 20 years on foreign policy and national security is terrible.

That's good to hear, because I was going to ask about what's to come. Could you say a bit more about that?

What's to come will depend on you — I mean you, the readers, the listeners and the people who support this idea — understanding that we lose winnable elections and want to stop. Because never before been has a super PAC been raised from such humble roots as someone like me. I don't come from the electioneering world. I don't come from money. I don't have a good Rolodex to start this from. So, this is what I consider to be a people PAC. How far I'm able to get with my creative concepts and my strategy is going to depend on how successful we are. If my goal was to become personally famous in political nerd circles, I'm on a fine trajectory for that. But if my goal is to win as many races as possible and to disrupt what might be the collapse of American democracy in 2022. I need to be able to deploy all this creative energy in a sophisticated way to where it needs to go and how it needs to go.

The playbook I intend to run in electioneering doesn't come from any established playbook. It's kind of like Space-X is to space and to NASA. NASA is focused on space, but Space-X was able to start their program by looking at how that other one was shaped and made and being able to understand what the strengths and weaknesses of that old system were and design one completely to the realities of space travel.

There are two other aspects of your strategy I'd like you to discuss. First, "Innovative persuasion and mobilization messaging and micro-targeting strategies." We can see some of that in the state ads we just talked about, but what else do you hope to accomplish in the future?

I can't speak with specificity about all of the things I have cooking. I'm trying to build an organization. But I will say that what people see from this launch is just the tip of the iceberg as to what I have planned in deploying messaging in ways where people are forced to see it. The old Democratic model was TV-reliant, it had an old playbook. The direct mail system runs on this basically phoned-in template. My vision and plan is to build this organization so I can come in and redo how we talk to voters and how we work on winning elections, in all of those spheres and more.

The second aspect is about "unleashing the power, scalability and scope of digital for year-round party branding" Same question: The seeds of that are clearly present in the ad we talked about before — showing young voters what the party really is — but do you have future examples in mind?

Here's one thing I will tell you. The status quo of electioneering on the left is "Oh, we're innovating now. We're telling people what we're doing," which is fine and dandy. But if you're assuming that telling people "I'm doing this stuff for you" is good enough to get people to actually show up to vote, that's a mistake. And then a lot of the innovation is focused on how we go back and get these white working-class voters to vote for us.

If you don't understand that realignment is moving in one direction and one direction only, and that what we should be doing is leaning into our own realignment — which is especially white-collar, educated voters, especially as the newer ones that are moving in party politics, who maybe have been voting Republican because their parents were Republican — we should be working on breaking their party brand loyalty. Kind of like Coke vs. Pepsi.

You want people to see what the Republican Party is actually doing and hear about what it's up to — but not in ways that are focused on "Think of how this will hurt some nameless, faceless other," which is how all of our messaging is structured on the left. Instead, we have to make it highly personal to the particular voter and really target that hard.

Finally, what's the most important question I didn't ask? And what's the answer?

You didn't ask what the URL is for people to donate to Strike PAC!

Trump's army of God: Doug Mastriano and the Christian nationalist attack on democracy

On May 9, the New Yorker published a feature story by Pulitzer winner Eliza Griswold about Pennsylvania state Sen. Doug Mastriano, who could well be the Republican nominee for governor next year, as a flagship example of the swelling power of Christian nationalism within today's GOP. That's an issue I focused on in a 2018 story largely driven by a paper called "Make America Christian Again," co-authored by sociologist Andrew Whitehead. I described this phenomenon as "an Old Testament-based worldview fusing Christian and American identities, and sharpening the divide with those who are excluded from it," and quoted from the paper:

Christian nationalism … draws its roots from "Old Testament" parallels between America and Israel, who was commanded to maintain cultural and blood purity, often through war, conquest, and separatism.

Despite the "Old Testament" slant, this version of Christianity has no room for Exodus 22:21: "You must not mistreat or oppress foreigners in any way. Remember, you yourselves were once foreigners in the land of Egypt," or numerous other biblical passages — which is why Christian nationalism can't be considered synonymous with Christianity per se. Many people in Trump's base perceive it that way, however, as that paper first showed. And Griswold rightly chose Mastriano as a shining — and troubling — example of what that means in practice today.

This article first appeared in Salon.

First elected to the State Senate in a special election in May 2019, Mastriano has quickly gained prominence over the past year, as Griswold explains:

[H]e has led rallies against mask mandates and other public-health protocols, which he has characterized as "the governor's autocratic control over our lives." He has become a leader of the Stop the Steal campaign, and claims that he spoke to Donald Trump at least fifteen times between the 2020 election and the insurrection at the Capitol, on January 6th.

Since Griswold's story was published, Mastriano has claimed to have Trump's endorsement for governor, along with a promise to campaign with him (though a Trump adviser has disputed this), while new evidence casts doubt on his claims of non-involvement in the Jan. 6 insurrection. On June 2, he was one of three Pennsylvania lawmakers who toured the Arizona election "audit," calling for the Keystone State to follow suit, the latest front in Trump's effort to delegitimize Biden's election.

Griswold's story is important and compelling, drawing attention to a perennially undercovered phenomenon whose importance is only growing as much of the GOP's traditional issue package has fallen to the wayside — but certainly not its culture war component. Griswold touches base with a wide range of relevant experts, and brings much-needed attention to the under-appreciated power of Christian nationalism within today's GOP, even as Mastriano and others involved with it disingenuously reject that identification.

But right-wing religious politics is so poorly understood by outsiders that any story will inevitably leave a lot out. Beyond that, journalists must navigate layers of deception and denial — reflected in repeated televangelist scandals, for example — that have made the religious right such a perfect epistemic fit for Trump's gaslighting style. That fit, and what lies behind it, was highlighted by retired intelligence analyst James Scaminaci III in a 2017 essay, "Battle without Bullets: The Christian Right and Fourth Generation Warfare." (The confusion of Christian nationalism with Christianity on the one hand and American democracy on the other reflects the main thrust of what "fourth-generation warfare" is all about, as I'll describe below.)

To avoid such deception, the term "Christian nationalism" could be more sharply clarified, to dispense with its adherents' denials. The religious movement Griswold mentions — the New Apostolic Reformation — could be more clearly defined, and doing that can shed light on Christian nationalism's lesser-known, but more nefarious fellow-traveler, Dominionism — a creed that adds two more elements: a belief in "biblical law," as adherents define it, and the religious supremacy of their version of Christianity.

All of these are not just threats to American democracy but are also biblically questionable, to say the least, which should be a focus of primary concern to those they appeal to most strongly. At a more granular level, there's a need to illuminate the groundwork for the emergence of figures like Mastriano that's been laid over time — for example, through the state-level organization of Project Blitz, devoted to passing three tiers of increasingly theocratic laws. It's also important to examine Mastriano's Christian nationalist deceptions prior to entering politics, as well as the role of fourth-generation warfare. Let's consider each of these in turn.

Defining Christian nationalism

Griswold summarizes Christian nationalism as "a set of beliefs … which center on the idea that God intended America to be a Christian nation, and which, when mingled with conspiracy theory and white nationalism, helped to fuel the [Jan. 6] insurrection." She quotes the aforementioned sociologist Andrew Whitehead (Salon interview here) saying, "Violence has always been a part of Christian nationalism. It's just that the nature of the enemy has changed."

She follows with five lengthy paragraphs of Mastriano's biography before returning to a discussion of Christian nationalism by giving center stage to its gaslighting denials:

Many white evangelicals reject the Christian-nationalist label. "Christian nationalism doesn't exist," Franklin Graham, the evangelical leader, told me, calling it "just another name to throw at Christians." He added, "The left is very good at calling people names." Mastriano also rejected the phrase, writing to me, "Is this a term you fabricated? What does it mean and where have I indicated that I am a Christian Nationalist?"

She goes on to note that "historians and sociologists have found the term useful" and brings several expert voices to bear. But centering their denials as she does conveys a false impression that their positions possess some legitimacy. Whitehead addressed this in an email:

Yes, Graham and Mastriano's claim is absurd. Christian nationalism clearly exists and Americans are found all along a spectrum of how strongly they embrace it. … Survey after survey of the American public demonstrates that Christian nationalism is present within the population, and especially among white evangelical Protestants, where upwards of 80% are at least somewhat favorable of a fusion of Christianity and American national identity.

Graham and Mastriano are clearly within that 80%, and they're more than "somewhat favorable" toward that fusion of Christian and American identity. Graham's father, the Rev. Billy Graham, was the public face of popularizing Christian nationalism in post-World War II America, as Anthea Butler noted on his death in 2018.

"Fusing Christianity and Americanism together to create a potent cocktail of Evangelical Christian Nationalism" was part of Billy Graham's lifelong work, Butler wrote. It began with his Feb. 3, 1952 service on the Capitol steps, an AP account of which she directly quotes. That in in turn lead to the establishment of the National Day of Prayer and the prayer breakfasts run by the secretive organization described in Jeff Sharlet's book, "The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power."

As Butler went on to note, "The apple doesn't fall far from the tree. Franklin Graham simply represents a more strident version of 1950s Billy Graham."

Typically, Christian nationalists have been proud to conflate their religious faith and the national identity. So why, I asked Whitehead, are they now upset about being called "Christian nationalists"? He said he had no data available to answer the question:

My guess is that despite being proud of their Christianity and national identity, they see the clearly negative outcomes associated with embracing Christian nationalism and so they balk at being placed in that group. In one sense they want to be able to take pride in both identities, and claim this culture for Christianity, but not wrestle with the repercussions of melding those identities.

Is that a sign of insecurity, I wondered? Perhaps, Whitehead said. Or it may reflect ignorance of what the term means and why academics study it, which of course is "because it is a powerful force in our culture. ... "My sense is that they generally fear anything that might make them reflect on their personal beliefs and actions and consider harm they might be doing to Christianity and democracy in the U.S."

This idea that Christian nationalism is actually harmful to Christianity, is a central concern of Christian critics and opponents of Christian nationalism, as seen in John Fea's book, "Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump," for example. As I explained in my review:

Fear is Fea's central concern, and the one most directly at odds with the Bible. "The Bible teaches that Christians are to fear God — and only God," Fea writes. "All other forms of fear reflect a lack of faith."

An unacknowledged lack of faith may be Christian nationalism's mortal flaw. But it's one secular writers avoid discussing, with a knee-jerk aversion to questioning anyone's religious faith, even when it's bad faith shot through with obvious contradictions and manipulative or even malicious intent. Christian nationalist avoid scrutiny from their co-religionists by demonizing any secular scrutiny whatever, leaving themselves accountable to no one. Their seemingly inexplicable affinity for Donald Trump is a natural consequence.

As Whitehead's research makes clear, Christian nationalism is very much about drawing lines of inclusion and exclusion, and defining the cultural and political landscape in their own terms. It's only natural to ask if their denialism can be seen as a power move, meant to deny others the power of drawing contrasting distinctions.

"This makes sense to me," Whitehead responded. "Language shapes and forms our realities and so being able to say something 'doesn't even exist' allows them to shape that reality. It is similar to consistently pointing to antifa or 'critical race theory' as threats. It doesn't matter so much if those terms are defined, or even exist in any substantive reality. Using them, or in the case of Christian nationalism saying it doesn't even exist, allows them to forego any sustained interrogation of their personal actions or beliefs."

Denialism frequently goes hand-in-hand with projection, such as Franklin Graham's claim that "The left is very good at calling people names." When asked about this, Whitehead said:

Political scientist Paul Djupe shared this wonderful concept, the inverted golden rule. He finds white evangelical Protestants generally "expect from others what you would do unto them." They assume any attempt to understand the reason why they see the world the way they do (Christian nationalism as a cultural framework) is merely to smear them in some way. Which again, isn't true. Perhaps their fear of such an attack is because this is generally how they treat their perceived opponents.

The New Apostolic Reformation

Griswold reports on Mastriano's involvement with events "events held by a movement called the New Apostolic Reformation," though he denies directly working with the movement. "Many members believe that God speaks to them directly, and that they have been tasked with battling real-world demons who control global leaders," Griswold explains. "Prominent members in the group go by the title Apostle or Prophet to hark back to early Christianity."

This movement was named by C. Peter Wagner, its chief architect. Three of his key teachings — the "Dominion Mandate," the "Seven Mountain Mandate" and the "Great End-Time Wealth Transferal" — are summarized by a Christian critic here. Battling demons is such a central part of the NAR worldview that it can fairly be viewed as a syncretic religion, incorporating elements of the pagan religious traditions it pretends to be fiercely battling against — in that sense, as scholars of religion might note, a replay of the Colossian syncretism.

Roland Chia, a professor of Christian doctrine at Trinity Theological College, put it this way in an article titled "Paganising Christianity":

Perhaps one of the most disturbing aspects of NAR is their acquiescence to and legitimisation of neo-pagan and shamanistic practices such as contact with angels (or spirit guides), angel orbs, portals of glory, teleportation and 'grave-sucking' (the belief that one can obtain the anointing of the deceased servants of God by visiting their graves).

A precursor movement known as "Latter Rain" was declared heretical by the Assemblies of God (America's largest Pentecostal denomination) in 1949, and related practices were again condemned in 2000. That second ban had significantly less impact, thanks to the growth of mass media, which has significantly eroded traditional church authority in favor of charismatic hucksters who spread their messages through cable TV, YouTube and other online channels, as well as live mega-events publicized to a global audience, such as the August 2011 event former Texas Gov. Rick Perry used to launch his presidential campaign. One of that event's organizers had written that there was a "demonic structure behind the Democratic Party" — specifically, the demon Jezebel. That "demonic structure" is the reason Black people are so wedded to the Democratic Party rather than the "party of Lincoln," she argued, ignoring the whole history of the "long Southern strategy."

The bottom line is that the NAR is a long way from traditional Christianity. Despite some strategic backtracking, its own proponents, such as Wagner, proudly proclaim as much: NAR represents a "new wineskin" in which the pastor appoints the elders, who report to him, as opposed the "old wineskin" of mainstream Protestant denominations, in which pastors report to church elders. One can clearly criticize the NAR without "attacking Christianity," just as it's legitimate for believing Christians to criticize Christian nationalism as damaging to their faith by shifting focus onto divisive fights over flawed human creations. In both cases, extremists demonize secular scrutiny as a way of escaping orthodox religious scrutiny, while themselves claiming to embody true religious orthodoxy. It's a game of spiritual three-card monte.

The NAR's untethering from institutional roots gives it a fluidity ideally suited to political activism, as Katherine Stewart, author of "The Power Worshippers," told me.

The NAR has been much more explicit about its political aims than some of the more traditional or established religious right groups. The theology is very much tied to political developments in the here and now. In the Trump era, they also played a significant role in political mobilization. For a subsection of the Christian right, the NAR has functioned as a kind of Overton Window.

In her New Yorker article, Griswold wrote: "The N.A.R.'s overarching agenda — to return the United States to an idealized Christian past — is largely built upon the work of the pseudo-historian David Barton, who has advanced the idea that America was founded as a Christian nation."

This overlooks the fact that the NAR's agenda is global, and looks forward to a fantasy future in which the wealth of the "wicked" is magically transferred to believers. But it's accurate enough within the framework of domestic American politics, which is Griswold's focus. Barton, who was vice-chair of the Texas Republican Party from 1997 to 2006, has been a key figure in advancing Christian nationalist ideology, both through the GOP and through his fraudulent scholarship on America's founding.

"Barton has been discredited by every American historian I know, including evangelical historians who teach at the most conservative Christian colleges in the country," evangelical historian John Fea told me in 2018. But because his fake history is so politically useful, the fact that all legitimate historians reject his claims is a feature, not a bug. Stewart discussed his significance:

Even as David Barton has cultivated links with the big names in Republican politics, he has stayed close to some of the most extreme representatives of the Christian nationalist movement. He paired up with evangelists Lance Wallnau, who wrote a book comparing Donald Trump to King Cyrus, and Andrew Wommack, who has said opposition to Trump was "demonic deception" and "one of the signs of the End Times," in the Truth & Liberty Coalition, an activist and messaging organization whose mission was described on their website as "the reformation of Nations by igniting the latent potential in the Body of Christ." The website champions "the 7 Mountains Mandate, a powerful, transformative campaign intended to bring about social transformation," a reference to the idea, popularized by C. Peter Wagner and others, that Christians who hold similar beliefs are to dominate seven key areas of culture and society.

Project Blitz — and an instructive precursor

Just after mentioning Barton, Griswold writes this:

"Mastriano's significance, alongside that of the N.A.R., is that he is attempting to create a theonomy — a system of enacting God's law on earth," Frederick Clarkson, a research analyst at Political Research Associates, told me. Bills that Mastriano supported in the legislature would have mandated teaching the Bible in public schools and would have made it legal for adoption agencies to discriminate against same-sex couples, among other things.

What's left out here is that the bills in question supported are part of an organized nationwide effort known as "Project Blitz," first uncovered by Clarkson in 2018 (Salon report here.) Barton was also a key architect, heading one of its three organizational sponsors. The bills are arranged in three tiers, with the first aimed at importing the Christian nationalist worldview (including Barton's bogus history) into public schools and elsewhere in the public sphere, the second aimed at making government a partner in "Christianizing" America, and the third using a false narrative of religious liberty to privilege religious bigotry. As I wrote:

Bills protecting the "right" to discriminate against the LGBTQ community are the most salient example of how Project Blitz aims to produce a radically altered "Handmaid's Tale"-style America. But even the most innocent-seeming proposal — introducing the motto "In God We Trust" into schools — has a divisive, discriminatory, damaging impact, sharply at odds with its presentation.

As I described in a later story, Project Blitz commonly works through deceptively named "prayer caucuses," outwardly presented as social bodies devoted to religion, faith or prayer, and not specifically pushing a religious right agenda. "By deceiving caucus members about its ultimate goals and purposes, it can then deceive others as well," I noted.

Clarkson has continued to research and report on Project Blitz and its broader Dominionist connections. Most recently, in late May, along with his PRA colleague Cloee Cooper, he published an article on the "convergence of far-right, anti-democratic factions In the Pacific Northwest" and its national consequences. The story focused on two former military officers with Dominionist ties, one of whom, Matt Shea, was a Washington state representative from 2009 to 2020, and was founding chairman of the Washington Legislative Prayer Caucus in 2018, a year after he was elected chair of the state legislature's Republican caucus.

Shea provides an instructive complement to Mastriano, whose rapid emergence in the Trump-COVID era can be challenging to comprehend, compared to Shea's well-documented record. Clarkson writes:

In May of 2013, Shea spoke at a founding meeting of the Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association (CSPOA) along with prominent Patriot and far-right leaders including Stewart Rhodes, the founder of the Oath Keepers.

The "Constitutional Sheriffs" are a far-right organization claiming that county sheriffs have a unilateral right to decide what laws are constitutional and whether they will enforce them. Needless to say, this doctrine is entirely unsupported by the Constitution itself, in which the word "sheriff" never appears. This is simply a form of lawlessness in "law-and-order" drag.

This lawlessness came to the fore with Shea's involvement in the 2016 armed occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon by right-wing activists. "For this," Clarkson writes, "he was characterized as a domestic terrorist in a well-documented December 2019 investigation commissioned by the state House of Representatives," which concluded that Shea presented "a present and growing threat of risk to others through political violence." He was subsequently removed as GOP caucus chair, and didn't seek re-election in 2020. Included in that investigation was Shea's 2016 manifesto on the Biblical Basis for War, "which reads like a to-do list for religious civil war," Clarkson noted, including the assertion that "Assassination to remove tyrants is just, and is not murder." John Wilkes Booth would surely approve.

"Shea and Mastriano have had different trajectories in their respective state legislative careers," Clarkson told me via email. "Shea launched his career in public life via leadership in Christian right organizations. Mastriano seemed to get right into it — apparently anointed by NAR leaders.

"In one sense, this is what one would expect in any movement or party," he explained. "People will necessarily come from different places to get to where they are. The larger context is the long-term effort by the Christian right to take state legislative seats and chambers. That these politicians used their offices as launching pads for insurrection is troubling, but not really surprising."

This leads us to the question of Mastriano's previous history, and how it prefigures his ongoing insurrectionary activity.

Sgt. York and history: Mastriano's academic fraud

As mentioned above, patterns of denial and obfuscation common to Christian nationalists make it difficult to get a fix on Doug Mastriano's actual commitments and involvements. He clearly knows the strategic value of keeping his position ambiguous. In a 2016 article about Russian hybrid warfare, he wrote about how well this works for Vladimir Putin, citing Putin's use of the "so-called 'little green men' who appeared in Crimea in 2014 — soldiers without national affiliation on their uniforms, who seized key places in the peninsula" as an example.

"This approach was cloaked in a veneer of ambiguity, which played upon the fears and doubts of Western political leaders," Mastriano wrote. "The ambiguity gave Putin near complete flexibility to lower or raise Russian intervention based upon the level of Western resolve." This is highly illuminating, since Mastriano has pursued a similar strategy of deceptively fostering and exploiting ambiguity, as Griswold's account clearly shows.

Before his recent rise in politics, Mastriano's earlier history shows a clear pattern of deception, alongside his Christian nationalist beliefs. This was summarized in a March 20 story by Mark Scolforo of the AP, focused on Mastriano's academic research into the legendary World War I Medal of Honor winner Sgt. Alvin York, who led a small group of U.S. soldiers behind German lines on Oct. 8, 1918, killing more than 20 German soldiers and capturing 132. That research earned Mastriano a doctorate in history from the University of New Brunswick, along with a book contract from the University Press of Kentucky. But there were two major problems, as Scolforo notes:

For more than a decade, other researchers have questioned Mastriano's claim to have conclusively proved exactly where York was during the October 1918 battle. They argue his research is plagued with errors and that a walking trail he helped build actually takes visitors to the wrong spot.
In the past two months, University of Oklahoma history graduate student James Gregory has filed complaints with Mastriano's publisher and with the Canadian university.
"Many of his citations are completely false and do not support his claims whatsoever," Gregory said in a Jan. 25 email to the University Press of Kentucky, identifying footnotes with no apparent relation to their corresponding book passages.

I contacted Gregory, who told me he had cited 35 such examples in his letter to the Kentucky press. Half of those were simple transcription errors, he told Salon, but the rest were "examples of academic fraud. They are instances where Mastriano has made a claim and cited a source, yet the source does not say what he claims. He does this often. ... He also likes to make claims of half-truths or make false 'confirmations' without any evidence."

The most glaring false confirmation is the photo used on the cover of his book — purportedly of the German soldiers York captured on Oct. 8, 1918. That same photo appears in the National Archives catalogue, and is dated Sept. 26. Mastriano knows this, but insists that the archive records are wrong, Gregory explained, forwarding a Feb. 22, 2017, email from Mastriano complaining about records at the Army Heritage and Education Center. "I have no idea why the tag in AHEC says 26 September. It is simply wrong," Mastriano wrote, following a description of York's movements after the battle, which attempts to explain why that photograph was taken by a soldier from the 35th Army Division, not the 82nd, in which York served.

Mastriano's tortured explanation conflicts with two accounts of the 35th Division's movements that Gregory consulted. "Honestly, Mastriano is really showing his lack of skill as a researcher," Gregory told me, explaining that the 35th Division was roughly 33 miles away from the French village where York's famous battle occurred on Oct. 8, 1918, and there is no plausible way that a photographer from the 35th took any photo related to anything York did. One history of the 35th, however, noted that the division had captured an estimated 450 prisoners on Sept. 26, evidence that the National Archives' official date for the photo makes sense.

So Mastriano put a fake photo on the cover of his supposedly legitimate historical work, and has defended it with bald-faced lies. This episode has become a major embarrassment to the University Press of Kentucky, whose director told Gregory by email, "We are reviewing all of the author's manuscripts."

There's more. "Every time Mastriano writes about York, he focuses on York's religious convictions," Gregory told me. "Even in the introduction of his book, Mastriano breaks into a discussion of York's faith," claiming that "people who have tried to attack York's deeds are just attacking his faith and therefore those detractors are an example of cynicism in our age."

Gregory summarized Mastriano's pseudo-scholarly approach this way: "To question Alvin York is to question God. Therefore, anyone who speaks against York is against God and his ability to interact with our daily lives. This is the problem, as I see it, with Christian nationalism and history. Those who write about history through the lens of religion run the risk of writing in a way that creates an ultimatum: If you do not believe that God helped Alvin York, then you do not believe in God."

Christian nationalism provides a compelling, coherent narrative for its proponents — but at the cost of ignoring, rejecting or demonizing anything that does not fit. That includes much of the Bible, as well as the Constitution. It selects the elements it wants and ignores, denies or rejects the rest.

What is "Fourth-Generation Warfare"?

As Frederick Clarkson told me:

Shea, Mastriano and others are coming at this from a "fourth-generation warfare" perspective, seeking to delegitimize the institutions of democracy with a moral narrative that casts them as evil or occupied by evil, and presenting themselves as a moral alternative with a more compelling moral narrative. James Scaminaci is spot on that this is a core strategy of the Christian right in all of its manifestations, and is a good lens through which to view many current events.

He's referring to Scaminaci's essay "Battle Without Bullets: The Christian Right and Fourth Generation Warfare," which described Donald Trump's final campaign argument in 2016 as "a classic example of a right-wing strategy developed in the late 1980s: Fourth Generation Warfare (4GW)," which involves "going beyond the charge that one's individual opponent is wrong or misguided, to claim that the system is illegitimate and one's opponents have no right to power or even to exist."

The hard right in all its manifestations (cultural, religious, militarist, etc.) has always held that liberalism — if not democracy itself — is illegitimate. What's new about 4GW is that it provided the right a shared model of how to systematically delegitimize an opponent. Although 4GW theory's claims of historical accuracy have been severely criticized, it works well as an organizing mythology for its proponents.

In brief, 4GW theory holds that the three prior "generations" of modern warfare involved massed manpower, massed firepower and non-linear maneuver, but we have now reached a new phase: "4GW expands warfare beyond the physical level to include the mental and moral dimensions," Scaminaci explained. "At the highest level of combat — moral conflict — the central objective is to undermine the legitimacy of one's opponent and induce a population to transfer their loyalty from their government to the insurgent." In other words, 4GW normalizes the concept that political opponents are enemy combatants, building on generations of religious conservatives demonizing liberals as evil or demonic.

This mentality and its fruits — if not the explicit theory itself — now informs Trump and his allies' relentless claims that the 2020 election was stolen, along with the GOP's ongoing efforts to make it easier for them to steal the next one. When legitimate office holders use their powers illegitimately to change the system, simultaneously claiming that they're the ones doing everything correctly, that's 4GW at work. It's also the logic behind the "constitutional sheriffs" movement noted above, as well as the state legislatures that tried to interfere with the 2020 election and are now trying to rig all future ones. The same applies to the "Oath Keepers," with their selective list of which oaths they will keep and their assumption of a unilateral right to interpret their meaning and act accordingly.

Christian nationalism helps support all of this, deploying its warped and selective version of Christian faith to attack all other Americans, not to mention other Christians. While pretending to represent the ultimate in Christian belief and American patriotism, it is really a fundamental attack on the core values of both.

Conservatives claim to hate 'cancel culture' — but it's the heart of the right-wing agenda

You know who's not canceled? The endless parade of conservative pundits and politicians complaining about "cancel culture." You know who is canceled? George Floyd is canceled. Breonna Taylor is canceled. Ma'Khia Bryant is canceled. Andrew Brown Jr. is canceled. They are the true victims in America's longest-running culture war. Anyone who tells you different is just gaslighting. You want "cancel culture"? America is plagued with cancel culture. And no one is more American than conservatives, as they never cease reminding you.

This article first appeared in Salon.

Despite earlier boutique appeal, the term "cancel culture" had only faintly registered with the broader public before the July Fourth holiday last year (Google trends), when then-President Donald Trump gave a speech at Mount Rushmore, warning of "a growing danger that threatens every blessing our ancestors fought so hard for," and saying that his opponents' "political weapons" included ''cancel culture' — driving people from their jobs, shaming dissenters, and demanding total submission from anyone who disagrees."

It was a ludicrous accusation coming from the man who's signature line — "You're fired!" — was the quintessential expression of actually-existing cancel culture. More recently, Trump had been the main driver of the cancellation of NFL Colin Kaepernick, demanding not just that the NFL quarterback be fired, but driven from the country. That absurdity prompted CNN fact-checker Daniel Dale to post a list of people or institutions Trump had called out to cancel on Twitter over the years, ranging from corporations like AT&T, Apple and Macy's to newspapers like the Dallas Morning News and the Arizona Republic to liberal commentators like Paul Krugman and Touré and even conservatives like Karl Rove, Rich Lowry, Charles Krauthammer and Jonah Goldberg.

But now that Trump himself has been canceled by the votes of 81,268,924 Americans, "cancel culture" has become a go-to weapon of choice for Trumpian conservatives, fueled by a branded string of stories in conservative media, including the New York Post, Breitbart, the Daily Caller and the Daily Wire. With Trump himself no longer dominating news cycles 24/7, there's a huge void to fill. Conservative "cancel culture" panic helps fill that void by providing a shared cookie-cutter framework to both fuel and give shape to that panic — which is in fact a genuine cultural panic about the white right's loss of power to impose its worldview, and resulting judgments, on others. To hold onto power, conservatives are committed to building the "cancel culture" narrative, casting themselves as victims — along the lines of my December Salon story on perceived victimhood.

A meaningfully meaningless term

As Media Matters editor Parker Malloy argues, regarding the terms "cancel culture," "woke" and "identity politics": "Whatever real definitions these words had before they were co-opted by the right have been diluted to the point of meaninglessness." For conservatives, that meaninglessness is a feature, not a bug. Those words mean whatever a right-wing accuser needs them to mean in the moment. They are talismanic terms, representing the very cultural power the right feels itself losing in today's rapidly changing world. "Cancel culture" in particular has a profound Orwellian or even Nietzschean power: a transvaluation of values, transforming a moment of existential loss into one of triumph, at least for as long as we let them get away with it.

There are, however, two modest constraints on meaning we can observe: the notions that cancel culture is something new, and that it comes exclusively from the left. The reality is exactly the opposite. For as long as culture has been changing, conservatives have tried to stop it by suppressing or demonizing anything that challenges their worldview. Not all conservatives, of course, and not in all ways. But this has been a central thrust of conservative thought, not just in the modern political era, when the terms "liberal" and "conservative" emerged, but as far back as ancient Greece, as Eric Alfred Havelock showed in "The Liberal Temper in Greek Politics."

In American history we can see dramatic examples of conservative cancel culture in the Alien and Sedition Acts, in the 4,743 post-Civil War lynchings to terrorize and suppress black political power, in the post-World War I Palmer Raids, in which 10,000 were arrested and 556 deported, in the McCarthy era, during which hundreds were imprisoned and 10,000 to 12,000 Americans lost their jobs — including the long-neglected anti-gay Lavender Scare — and in the FBI's COINTELPRO Program, which targeted the 1960s civil rights and anti-war movements, labelling Martin Luther King Jr.'s SCLC as a Black nationalist "hate group." Trump's obsession with canceling people he fears fits squarely within this historical tradition. After all, his political mentor and second father-figure was Joe McCarthy's lead investigator, Roy Cohn. We shouldn't be the least bit surprised or confused by the cancel culture hysteria being promoted today as a front for the same evils it pretends to be fighting against.

Still, the term itself is new compared to this centuries-long history, so it warrants clarification. In early April, the Washington Post's Clyde McGrady provided an excellent guide, "The strange journey of 'cancel,' from a Black-culture punchline to a White-grievance watchword." McGrady offers a concise cultural history, from legendary songwriter/producer Nile Rodgers' experience with a bad date, rendered into the 1981 Chic song "Your Love Is Cancelled" to its appearance in "New Jack City" a decade later to 2000s songs "Hustler's Ambition" by 50 Cent and "I'm Single" by Lil Wayne and finally to Black Twitter.

"Declaring someone or something 'canceled' on Twitter was not really an attempt to activate a boycott or run anyone from the public square," McGrady explains. "Saying someone was 'canceled' was more like changing the channel — and telling your friends and followers about it — than demanding that the TV execs take the program off the air."

It's worth highlighting that Rodgers' bad-date experience at the root of all this sprang from his working-class common man rejection of tossing his cultural weight around:

[A]t heart, he was still a humble kid whose parents had struggled with drug addiction and who felt fortunate to have made it as far as he did. So, when his date asked the maître d' to remove people from a table so they could sit there instead, Rodgers bristled. …
Her attempt to use his celebrity to push people around was a dealbreaker. "No, no, no, I don't do that," Rodgers remembered explaining. "I don't play that card."

In short, canceling everyday people in the way that conservatives portray "cancel culture" to work was the exact opposite of what motivated Rodgers to coin the term in the first place, as well as how it's been used on Twitter. Think about that anytime you hear the term used.

You should also think of everything conservatives are doing — or trying to do — right now to cancel the views of those they disagree with. The following are just a few prominent examples. In each case, it's about those who wield power "canceling" — or at least trying to cancel — those who would challenge them. Their efforts to cancel democracy at the ballot box (with 361 bills in 47 states as of March 24) and in the streets (81 anti-protest bills in 34 states as of April 21) are deadly serious threats to American democracy.

But the right's most persistent, long-running cancel-culture attacks center on education. As Fairness and Accuracy In Reporting noted on William F. Buckley's death, "Buckley's career began in 1951 with the publication of 'God and Man at Yale,' an attack on his alma mater that urged the firing of professors whom he felt were insufficiently hostile to socialism and atheism."

Cancel culture in education

In March, Boise State University abruptly suspended all 52 sections of a required general education course, "Foundations of Ethics & Diversity," citing "allegations that a student or students have been humiliated and degraded in class on our campus for their beliefs and values." Suspending 52 sections of a required course without investigation for perhaps a single student complaint is of course wildly out of bounds, as pointed out by John K. Wilson at the Academe blog:

Even if one instructor had done something terrible in one class, that would only justify (in the most extreme cases) suspending that instructor temporarily and finding a substitute to continue the class. It could not justify suspending all 52 classes in which there was no evidence of any misconduct.

Shedding light on the over-reaction, The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education reported, "The cancellation of the classes comes after more than a year of lawmakers' efforts to rein in classes at Idaho universities and colleges." But the legislature wasn't acting on its own, as Wilson made clear:

The Idaho legislators are being pressured by right-wing nonprofits who demand censorship of liberal ideas on campus. A December 2020 report from the right-wing Idaho Freedom Foundation and the Claremont Institute declared that "eliminating social justice initiatives at Idaho's universities is necessary for meaningful reform, as well as disrupting their ability to provide stable careers for social justice advocates." The report called for the state legislature to act by "penalizing universities that continue to emphasize social justice education." This report urged the state legislature to violate academic freedom and ban classes it deemed too liberal: "Direct the University to eliminate courses that are infused with social justice Ideology." Leading right-wing think tanks are actively demanding a ban on courses based on their ideology. This is an example of conservative cancel culture far more extreme than anything pushed by left-wing activists.

The report doesn't just call for eliminating individual courses, however. It calls for the elimination of five whole departments — Gender Studies, Sociology, Global Studies, Social Work and History — that it claims are infused with "social justice" ideology. (A sixth blacklisted department has since been added: Criminal Justice.) Eight other departments (later updated to nine) are on a watch list of sorts, judged to be "social justice in training." What conservatives want here is strikingly similar to what Viktor Orbán has done in Hungary, where he's just announced the privatization of 11 public universities, to be run by political allies.

Boise State's recklessly illegal actions are just the tip of the iceberg. On April 15, Education Week reported that Republican lawmakers in eight states (including Idaho) have drafted bills restricting how teachers can discuss racism and sexism. "The bills use similar language as an executive order former President Donald Trump put in place to ban diversity trainings for federal workers," it reported.

Georgetown political scientist Donald Moynihan saw all this coming years ago. In a New York Times op-ed just before Trump took office, Moynihan — then at the University of Wisconsin — focused attention on what was really happening where he worked.

"At least three times in the past six months, state legislators have threatened to cut the budget of the University of Wisconsin at Madison for teaching about homosexuality, gender and race," his article began. All the discussions focused on the dangers of "political correctness" (the buzzword of choice before "cancel culture") bore no relation to his own experience teaching at public universities in three states over 14 years. "Students can protest on the campus mall, demanding that policies be changed; elected officials can pass laws or cut resources to reflect their beliefs about how a campus should operate," he wrote. "One group has much more power than the other."

I asked Moynihan about how he came to write that piece when he did. Here's what he said:

I was first engaged on speech issues when the then-governor of Wisconsin, Scott Walker, proposed to remove "the search for truth" from my university's mission statement. (He would later claim it was a typo.) He then reduced tenure protections for faculty and new policies that would have made it easier to bring guns on campus. Republican politicians would talk about free speech on campus, but seemed to be intent on eroding the conditions to protect such speech. Politicians were also willing to target faculty members. The chair of the Assembly Higher Education committee started monitoring faculty syllabi and calling for the firing of faculty whose courses he did not like.
That was when I spoke out…. It seemed deeply unfair that state officials would so blatantly use their power to determine what was, and what was not, acceptable speech. ...
Soon after a Ben Shapiro talk was interrupted for about 10 minutes the legislature proposed and the conservative Board of Regents adopted a new set of policies that they said protected free speech but effectively forced campuses to punish students for protest. Our Board of Regents was almost uniformly conservative appointees who seemed to see it as their job to attack the institution they had been appointed to represent.

I'll have more to say about Shapiro's role below. But it's part of a broader campaign. "Conservatives have been successful at demonizing the people who work on campus — faculty, staff and students — as threats to free speech," Moynihan told me. "Attacking universities became a staple of the far right, propelled by an entire ecosystem of media funded by donors like the Koch or DeVos families, such as Campus Reform. [More on them below, too.] Tucker Carlson had a themed segment called 'Campus Craziness.'"

Worse than that, Moynihan said:

The mainstream media bought it. It wasn't just on the right. Journalists at the Atlantic or writers in the New York Times told us that students were becoming dangerously intolerant, and faculty were brainwashing them. My op-ed in the Times was one of the few that pushed against that general narrative. The dominant narrative, even in places like the New York Times, was that conservative speech was being suppressed, and the students and faculty were the villains. Someone counted this! They found that over an 18-month stretch, there were 21 op-eds about the suppression of conservative speech but just three, including mine, on conservative threats to speech.

Remember: Moynihan's op-ed ran just days before Trump took office, having made complaints about "political correctness" a recurrent campaign theme.

"Once the general narrative was established, even trivial examples — students at Oberlin complaining about food names - were presented as serious and representative threats to speech," Moynihan continued. "There were also a series of college tours by people like Milo Yiannopoulos, Ann Coulter and Ben Shapiro who said offensive things designed to enrage people, and then generated protests and interruptions that embellished their brands as fearless free-speech champions."

In March 2018, Sanford Ungar reported on results from the Georgetown Free Speech Tracker:

[M]ost of the incidents where presumptively conservative speech has been interrupted or squelched in the last two or three years seem to involve the same few speakers: Milo Yiannopoulos, Ben Shapiro, Charles Murray, and Ann Coulter…. In some instances, they seem to invite, and delight in, disruption.

At Vox, Zack Beauchamp put a finer point on it:

What Ungar is suggesting here is that the "campus free speech" crisis is somewhat manufactured. Conservative student groups invite speakers famous for offensive and racially charged speech — all of the above speakers fit that bill — in a deliberate attempt to provoke the campus left. In other words, they're trolling.

Trolling takes other forms as well, as Alice Speri reported for the Intercept in early April. Her story carried the subhead, "Campus Reform and its publisher, the Leadership Institute, are siccing armies of trolls on professors across the country." Campus Reform purports to expose "liberal bias and abuse on the nation's college campuses," but regularly relies on misrepresentation, first to elicit faculty comments and then to mis-report them, making them seem as sinister as possible. "Over the last several years, Campus Reform has targeted hundreds of college professors," Speri reported, "leading to online harassment campaigns, doxxing, threats of violence, and calls on universities to fire their faculty."

A Trinity College assistant professor, Isaac Kamola, "has tracked more than 1,570 stories posted on Campus Reform since 2020 and surveyed the 338 individuals they targeted." He "found that at least 40 percent of respondents received 'threats of harm' following a Campus Reform article, mostly via email and social media." She goes on to say, "Less than half the people surveyed by Kamola reported receiving support from their universities' administrations, and more than 12 percent reported facing disciplinary action as a result of a Campus Reform story. Three people said they lost their jobs."

In short, they were canceled. And no one put them on national TV to talk about it. That's just one more way in which conservative gaslighting about cancel culture advances the very thing conservatives claim to be concerned about.

"Having created the narrative of the intolerant liberal campus as a problem, conservative politicians could propose a solution," Moynihan continued. "They could make a case for why their policing of speech on campus was actually protecting free speech. They effectively persuaded many that politicians should be trusted to monitor speech on campus, more than the people who lived on campus and have historically done a pretty good job of protecting speech."

But none of this matched reality. "Wisconsin has a long history of protest and counter-protest on campus, some of it quite violent. The idea that students had suddenly become aggressive seemed clearly wrong to me," Moynihan recalled. "These terms I kept hearing just did not fit with my experience with the students I engaged with. The gap between my lived experience on campus and what was being portrayed in the media was large."

At the same time, "I looked around the world and saw a very disturbing trend: Authoritarian governments in places like Hungary, Turkey and China were policing speech on campus as part of their effort to stifle dissent, using many of the same tools that U.S. state legislatures are adopting," Moynihan said. "For example, a bill in Florida encourages students to record and monitor their professors to expose their views. What could be more chilling to speech in the classroom? This is the same tool that China uses to control universities: Student informers report any dissent against the party."

Canceling democracy at the ballot box

Trump's refusal to accept his defeat in the 2020 election was the epitome of attempting to cancel democracy. But it was only an intensification of processes already underway. Republicans have only won the popular vote for president once in eight elections since 1988. They have not represented a majority of voters in the Senate since 1996. Their $30 million REDMAP project in 2010 created the most sweeping partisan redistricting of the House in US history, as former Salon editor in chief David Daley recounted in "Ratf**ked." Baseless claims of voter fraud have been repeatedly invoked in justifying and motivating voter suppression efforts. More broadly, a new study of state-level democratic backsliding since 2000 found that "Republican control of state government, however, consistently and profoundly reduces state democratic performance during this time period."

Still, what's happening now goes considerably further. A majority of Republicans refuse to believe Biden legitimately won the election, leading to an avalanche of new voter suppression bills — 361 bills in 47 states as of March 24, according to the Brennan Center, which reported:

Most restrictive bills take aim at absentee voting, while nearly a quarter seek stricter voter ID requirements. State lawmakers also aim to make voter registration harder, expand voter roll purges or adopt flawed practices that would risk improper purges, and cut back on early voting.

Sharply underscoring the cancel culture motivations — the conflict between established state power and shifting public opinion — the report continued: "The states that have seen the largest number of restrictive bills introduced are Texas (49 bills), Georgia (25 bills), and Arizona (23 bills). Bills are actively moving in the Texas and Arizona statehouses, and Georgia enacted an omnibus voter suppression bill last week."

The most infamous aspect of the Georgia law is its restriction on giving water to people waiting in long lines to vote. But as election law expert Rick Hasen explained in a New York Times op-ed, there's something even more sinister involved, a "new threat of election subversion" that "represent[s] a huge threat to American democracy itself." Specifically, "The Georgia law removes the secretary of state from decision-making power on the state election board," which is aimed at Brad Raffensperger, who refused to "find" 11,780 votes to overturn Biden's victory. "But the changes will apply to Mr. Raffensperger's successor, too, giving the legislature a greater hand in who counts votes and how they are counted," Hasen explained.

It's hardly an isolated case, he noted: "According to a new report by Protect Democracy, Law Forward and the States United Democracy Center, Republican legislators have proposed at least 148 bills in 36 states that could increase the chances of cooking the electoral books." More precisely, the press release says:

Many of the bills would make elections more difficult to administer or even unworkable; make it more difficult to finalize election results; allow for election interference and manipulation by hyper-partisan actors; and, in the worst cases, allow state legislatures to overturn the will of the voters and precipitate a democracy crisis. If these bills had been in place in 2020, they would have significantly added to the turmoil of the post-election period, and raised the prospect that the outcome of the election would have been contrary to the popular vote.

This is what a real cancel culture crisis looks like. And it's 100% conservative from top to bottom. There are of course some individual conservatives who strongly object — but nowhere near enough.

Canceling democracy in the streets

But democracy doesn't begin and end at the polls. The First Amendment protects basic freedoms that make meaningful democracy possible, including "the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances." Republicans have been busy trying to cancel our democracy on this front as well, with 81 anti-protest bills introduced in 34 states during the 2021 legislative session, "more than twice as many proposals as in any other year, according to Elly Page, a senior legal adviser at the International Center for Not-for-Profit Law," the New York Times reported on April 21. (Those laws are tracked here.)

"Republican legislators in Oklahoma and Iowa have passed bills granting immunity to drivers whose vehicles strike and injure protesters in public streets," the Times reported. But that's just the tip of the iceberg. "We've seen at least 15 bills introduced that would create new immunity for drivers who hit protesters with their cars," Page's colleague Nick Robinson told Democracy Now! on April 26. That just one of many objectionable features in a recently-passed Florida bill that Gov. Ron DeSantis signed while claiming it was as "anti-rioting." The ACLU of Florida characterized it instead as "anti-protest." Just three people would be enough to constitute a "riot" and 26 would constitute an "aggravated riot," potentially facing long prison sentences.

"Under this new bill, let's say you just go to a protest, and a handful of people kick over a trash can. Just by being part of that crowd, you can be arrested and prosecuted for rioting and face a felony," Robinson explained. "Actually, under the law, no one actually has to commit any violence at all. If there's just a danger to property, then people can be arrested for rioting."

In short, this a naked governmental power grab, meant to squelch popular protest, and aimed specificallyat Black Lives Matter protesters. How do we know? Florida lawmakers said as much, and they included a provision blocking any Florida city or county from cutting police budgets without explicit permission from the state.

Conservative anti-protest cancel culture is nothing new, of course. The Palmer Raids were supposed to head off a Russian Revolution-style violent uprising, but only turned up a total of four pistols from thousands of arrests. More recently, Republican state lawmakers have focused on criminalizing climate activism, as the Brennan Center reported in March:

Since 2016, 13 states have quietly enacted laws that increase criminal penalties for trespassing, damage, and interference with infrastructure sites such as oil refineries and pipelines. At least five more states have already introduced similar legislation this year.

The laws are based on post-9/11 national security legislation to protect vital physical infrastructure, "but most state critical infrastructure laws focus more narrowly on oil and gas pipelines," the Center noted. "While protecting critical infrastructure is a legitimate government function, these laws clearly target environmental and Indigenous activists by significantly raising the penalties for participating in or even tangentially supporting pipeline trespassing and property damage, crimes that are already illegal."

And there's one final conservative cancel culture twist: the question of who's calling the shots:

Many laws are modeled on draft legislation prepared by the American Legislative Exchange Council, also known as ALEC, a powerful lobbying group funded by fossil fuel companies like ExxonMobil and Shell.

Cancel culture In Congress

Those are three broad areas where conservative cancel culture is both widespread and deeply dangerous to democracy. But that's hardly the whole story. Consider what's happened with two key Biden appointments, Vanita Gupta, for Associate Attorney General, and Kristen Clarke to head the DOJ Civil Rights Division. Both were subject to dishonest, racist right-wing smear campaigns, as CNN reported, and Gupta was confirmed 51-49, with just one Republican vote (Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska) on April 21. Both were relentlessly portrayed as dangerous extremists, when they've actually been leaders of mainstream civil rights organizations — the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights (Gupta) and Lawyers' Committee on Civil Rights Under Law (Clarke). Both were attacked for supposedly being anti-police (no racial stereotyping there, right?) even though both had been endorsed by police organizations, including the Fraternal Order of Police (Gupta) and the Major Cities Chiefs Association (Clarke).

The attacks on them were part of a broader pattern of attacks on nominees who are women and/or people of color, including Xavier Becerra (Health and Human Services), Deb Haaland (Department of Interior) and Neera Tanden (Office of Management and Budget). Becerra was confirmed 50-49 — with Sen. Susan Collins of Maine as his only GOP vote — while Tanden's nomination was withdrawn.

All this is simply accepted as normal now, but it's prima facie evidence of a concerted conservative cancel-culture effort to stifle the voices of key Democratic constituencies. It's visible in the broad reach of voter suppression efforts, of protest suppression efforts and curriculum suppression efforts as well. They've all but given up on advancing anything like a governing agenda. At the Atlantic, Ron Brownstein observed:

With their opposition to President Joe Biden's infrastructure plan, Republicans are doubling down on a core bet they've made for his presidency: that the GOP can maintain support among its key constituencies while fighting programs that would provide those voters with tangible economic assistance.

To accomplish that, they have to cancel reality itself. No problem — Republicans have been doing that for decades. The only difference now is that they've stopped doing anything else.

Can a 'true' conservatism be redeemed after Trump? Maybe — if it embraces liberalism

It's not just the bedraggled band of "never Trump" Republican refugees on MSNBC and elsewhere who are endlessly vexed. For four long years, the whole mainstream media sphere has been laced with talk about the need for a healthy GOP, a vibrant two-party system, and a return to true conservative values. Critiques of that system, like Lee Drutman's "Breaking the Two-Party Doom Loop," only get a fraction of the attention devoted to these themes. But even more absent is any discussion of what a responsible conservatism might actually look like.

This article first appeared in Salon.

Conservatives who long for the days of George W. Bush or Ronald Reagan overlook one obvious fact: Their legacies helped get us into the current fix they — and we — find ourselves in. Both those presidents nourished the destructive, irrationalist forces that have come to dominate with Donald Trump, and both implemented ill-conceived policies that only made life worse: increasing inequality, eroding social stability and intensifying the ethos of cutthroat competition.

I'm not out to damn conservatism unreservedly, just because I'm quite blunt about its disastrous political failures. But conservative politics are not the whole story. Conservative temperament and character traits are part of human nature, as the field of political psychology has firmly established. And they can be positive qualities, as Dannagal Young argues in "Irony and Outrage," for example.

"Conservatives are just more skilled at efficient quick responses to threats," Young told me when I interviewed her. "These are people who will run into the fire. These are people who are so necessary for our society to survive and to thrive." But the outrage industry "exploits what are really to be thought of as gifts," mobilizing them on hate, which is "dangerous for democratic health."

By failing to distinguish between conservative temperament and conservative ideology — between conservative masses and conservative elites — we miss perhaps the most important aspect of the story of how we ended up with Trump: American conservatism has been profoundly irresponsible. It has repeatedly failed to deliver on its promises — its trickle-down promises to promote prosperity, its culture war promises to vanquish evil at home and turn back time, its foreign policy promises to vanquish evil abroad — and it never takes responsibility for those failures. And the people most hurt by this unending history of failure are ordinary Americans with conservative temperaments, whose faith in their leaders has repeatedly been betrayed.

The end result is obvious, even if many conservatives still insist Donald Trump isn't their creation. They made their own media alternative universe because they couldn't stand the real world, and out he came. They demonized the word "liberal" for 50 years, and only now are some of them wailing over the existential threat to liberal democracy. I want to trust the never-Trump conservatives. I want to see a healthy conservatism in place of a deeply malignant one, a conservatism that does not betray the ordinary people whose instincts and desires it appeals to. But the odds are very much against them in the short run.

A new poll identifying five "tribes" within Republican voters finds that only 15% qualify as "never Trump" Republicans. His job approval among the four other tribes is 97% to 100% — even among "post-Trump" Republicans who think it's time for new leadership. What's more, the two tribes most supportive of Trump also have the largest proportion who self-identify as "very conservative," while the "never Trump" tribe has the least. So conservatives who yearn to look toward the future need to think long and hard about what a healthy conservatism could look like, and then start building it.

Fortunately, I've got some ideas for them — ideas I first laid out almost 15 years ago, when Republicans lost control of the House in the wake of multiple Bush administration failures: the Iraq war, Hurricane Katrina, the botched attempt to privatize Social Security, and more. Bush was not a "true conservative," some began to argue as his popularity declined. He was a "globalist," some added. But what was "true" conservatism, then? My answer was simple: It was liberalism. If you want the ends that conservatives claim to desire, you get them through liberal means:

  • You preserve social order by including the so-called "undesirables." You grant them the dignity they deserve, simply for being human, and they proceed to act with dignity. (You think gay people are hedonistic narcissists, destructive to social order? Then recognize their right to marry, and stop treating them like second-class citizens.) This was 2006, remember!
  • You preserve religion's place as a polestar in people's lives precisely by keeping it separate from the vagaries of politics, where change is the only constant, and compromise a guiding principle. Render unto God that which is God, and unto Caesar that which is Caesar's.
  • You preserve the integrity of local communities and their institutions by engaging the power of state and national government to deal with problems that are too large for them to handle, that would utterly break them if they were left to stand alone.
  • You maintain historical continuity, and respect for the nation's traditions by rethinking both in the light of new experience, and the experience of new Americans. Self-reinvention is our most hallowed tradition.
  • You command respect for authority by exercising authority with respect for the people, who are the only legitimate source of authority.
  • You preserve the highest levels of personal morality, first, by granting people the freedom to discover its logic for themselves, and embrace it as their own freely chosen commitment, and second, by insisting on the public morality of a just and equitable social order.

I could add more to that list today, to bring it more fully up to date. But the core theme remains the same: You deliver the most legitimate desiderata of conservatism by embracing the practices, policies and ideals of liberalism. You want law enforcement respected? Then instead of defending racist police practices — up to and including wanton murder — reform law enforcement to act respectfully toward all people. Embrace the accountability that activists have long been calling for.

My argument here is not exactly that such reforms are the answer — I incline much closer to the abolitionist perspective. I'm simply highlighting what a sensible conservative approach ought to look like, if it were serious about achieving what conservatives themselves claim to care about.

Consider what we have instead: knee-jerk defense of police violence under the banner that "Blue Lives Matter," paired with defense of an insurrection that left three police dead and hundreds wounded. That's where the majority of self-described "very conservative" Republicans are today. Incoherence is a feature, not a bug, of actually existing conservatism.

So, is a coherent conservatism possible? One whose means can plausibly achieve its desired ends, even if those means be liberal? It should be. After all, conservatives have often claimed to be pragmatic and non-ideological, in contrast to liberals and those farther left. Not all conservatives have claimed this, of course, but enough have to make it clearly part of their tradition. And besides, when they have drawn ideological lines in the past, they've invariably redrawn them when they've proven untenable. The cases of slavery, segregation and the civic exclusion of women are the most obvious American examples that come to mind.

What stands in the way, for American conservatives, is their long history of demonizing liberals. How can they embrace what they have repeatedly demonized in a manner so central to defining themselves? Demonization and scapegoating have long been key to their successful struggles for political power, and tie into the basic nature of conservatism — the "efficient quick responses to threats" that Young spoke of. But they do so by misleading, just as logical fallacies mislead us by mimicking valid heuristics. (The post hoc "rooster" fallacy, for example, mimics the valid heuristic that causes precede effects.)

This misleading reaches an apotheosis in QAnon conspiracy theory. The "Infowars GOP" tribe, which has the strongest believers in QAnon theories (68% of that group subscribe to four or more such theories), also has the highest percentage who self-describe as "very conservative" (at 72%, compared to a GOP average of 49%). What is the essence of QAnon? That liberals are led by a hidden cabal of Satan-worshipping, cannibal pedophiles running a global child sex-trafficking ring, and that Donald Trump will someday defeat them in one fell swoop.

This is what happens when "efficient quick responses to threats" go haywire, just as they once did in Salem Village. Those responses should be "thought of as gifts," as Young put it, but they have been intentionally misdirected for years, if not decades. Can conservatism ever rid itself of this legacy? Color me skeptical, to say the least. It's not a question of individual attitudes — the "conspiracist dimension" that Joe Uscinski has found to be fairly uniform across the political spectrum — it's a question of conservative culture and the elites who shape it: the Murdochs, Mercers, Bradleys and Kochs who fund it, and the figures they chose to lift up.

It could be argued that liberals demonize these conservative leaders as well, but the people who are most intimately hurt by them are the conservative masses whose basic instincts and aspirations they so ruthlessly betray. The ends they hold out — preserving social order, local integrity, historical continuity, respect for authority, high levels of personal morality and religion's place as a polestar in people's lives — cannot be met by the means they insist on. In each instance, as I pointed out above, the exact opposite of what they insist on is required. "Liberal" means alone can deliver these desired conservative ends.

The good news for conservatives is that they don't actually have to become liberals to enjoy these liberal fruits, at least not in terms of temperament. But they do have to stop mindlessly and reflexively battling every aspect of liberal thought and ideology, and they have to be willing to claim those fruits as their own. There will still be — and will always be — temperamental differences between liberals and conservatives. There are temperamental gifts on both sides, as well as in between. But there's a common liberal cultural heritage that makes it pragmatically possible for both sides to achieve what's most important to them. Conservatives need to claim that heritage and own it for themselves.

Maybe I'm wrong and there's some basis on which a non-pathological form of conservatism could be built. If conservatives think they can do a better job of delivering the most legitimate desiderata of conservatism, then it's on them to explain how, and to show that it can actually work. That's what a responsible conservatism would do, if indeed it could exist. To do that, it will have to embrace what it has always demonized — or to put this in terms conservatives can relate to, it will have to man up, and put away childish things.

The dark truth about conspiracy theories: They're everywhere! Can they be stopped?

Conspiracy theories can take bewildering forms, as has become especially clear in the current era, when a recently deposed U.S. president became instrumental in spreading and popularizing an entire interlocking universe of demonstrably false conspiratorial narratives. But the historical development of conspiracy theories is becoming clearer, thanks to research across multiple disciplines, synthesized for a broad audience in German scholar Michael Butter's recent book, "The Nature of Conspiracy Theories."

This article originally appeared at Salon.

None of that work in any of those disciplines — from psychology and sociology to philosophy, literature and cultural studies — gives us any reason to believe that conspiracy theories are going away anytime soon, simply because Donald Trump has left office. But they can help us make sense out of their persistence, which is why Salon reached out to Butter for an extended conversation.

In the first part of this interview, published two weeks ago, Butter — who teaches the history of American literature and culture at the University of Tübingen — discussed how conspiracy theories were long taken for granted. Winston Churchill, George Washington and Abraham Lincoln offer just a few entirely typical examples of major historical figures who believed in them. But conspiracy theories aren't universal throughout human history, Butter explained: They depend on the existence of a public sphere and the right sort of media environment.

Centuries before the internet, the printing press was responsible for the birth of conspiracy theories in their modern form. Butter also described the ways conspiracy theories can be categorized — they describe conspiracies from above or from below, from outside a society or from within — as well as the social and psychological needs they meet, and how they underwent a three-phase process of stigmatization that pushed them out of the mainstream after the 1950s.

In part two of the interview, Butter describes the three-phase process that brought conspiracy theories back into the public sphere as we know them today, their structural similarities with populism, the important case study of Donald Trump as a case study, what can be done to counter them and more. This transcript has been edited, as usual, for clarity and length.

In describing the comeback of conspiracy theory — which perhaps culminated with Donald Trump and QAnon — you outline what might be called a three-phase process of evangelism, in whose final stage we reach online conspiracy theories, which you characterize as "more rumors than fully fledged theories." How did this evangelical revival begin, and what defined it?

Conspiracy theories never really became unpopular. They were just flying under the radar for a while, in Europe far more so than in the United States. In the United States, conspiracy theories were always more part of popular discourse because of the [John F.] Kennedy assassination, because of Robert Kennedy, Martin Luther King and also Watergate, than they were part of public discourse in Europe. Still, you could make the argument that full-blown conspiracy theories in the U.S. as well in Germany during the '70s and 80s and '90s were part of rather hermetic subcultures that are difficult to enter and whose members have problems articulating their ideas and finding a broader audience.

In the United States, of course, the emergence of talk radio and other venues, even before the internet, helps these people voice their ideas, but if you look at the Western world in general, I think it's really the emergence of the internet that turns these subcultures into what we could now call counter-publics, publics that are more easily found and whose members have far less trouble now finding a public for their ideas.

This again happens in different steps, in that during the late '90s we have these precursors of the internet like USENET, where people are writing in forums. Of course this is not yet happening in life on any large scale, because people are not online all the time. You need a modem, you need to connect through your landline telephone and you can't do that all the time. So you might download comments and then contribute to the discussion and people might look it up later. But on the other hand, it's very close to what's happening in social media these days — just a little slower.

Then, of course, a couple of years later we get platforms like YouTube where you can upload your own conspiracy film, something that before the advent of digital technology was really only possible for professional filmmakers and people who were very rich and who could afford all this equipment. Now you can just do these things on your laptop. The first version of the "Loose Change" films, which had tens of millions of viewers, was allegedly produced for just $1,200 on a laptop. Suddenly you can do that and put it online and you will find an increasingly big audience.

Then the third step would be what's happening to conspiracy theories because of social media — the echo chamber they increasingly generate and the specific conditions that they impose on how messages can be framed. If you have only 140 or 280 characters at your disposal, you can't really develop the conspiracy theory in the way a 90-minute YouTube video can do it. You have to restrict yourself to certain bold claims, and you don't provide any evidence.

I think in American culture the first case we can observe is what is called the "birther" conspiracy theory, which claims that Barack Obama was never eligible to become president because he allegedly was not born in the United States. I tried very very hard, with students of mine, to find anything on the internet where this conspiracy theory is developed in detail in the way older conspiracy theories were developed. But it's not really there. You only find the rumors, you find little bits and pieces of evidence. People taking apart the birth certificate and arguing that it's a forgery. You don't find a full-blown, completely developed conspiracy narrative about that.

At the same time, it's not the case that one of these online forums entirely replaces the others. Even now, in 2021, we still find fully fledged conspiracy theories. It's not all about conspiracy rumors these days, and it seems to me that these longer documentaries are even making a comeback. So there is this film "Plandemic" that you probably have heard about, which is really returning to a form that was popular 10 years ago with the "Loose Change" films, and there's a second part that's up now which is called "Indoctrination," which I think runs nearly two hours. So these older forms don't disappear and they're coexisting with the newer ones now.

You talk about how conspiracy theories today have a lot in common with populism, even though historically that's not usually the case. What do they have in common, and what distinguishes them?

There are a couple of structural analogies between populism and conspiracy. For example, both of them clearly divide the world into good and evil. For conspiracy theories, it's always the conspirators and the victims of the conspiracy and for populism is always the elite and the common people, and the elite is always acting against the interests of the common people.

This is coming back to what we talked about earlier, that contemporary conspiracy theories usually target an alleged conspiracy from above, and it's usually elites that are imagined as conspiring from above. So we could say that both populism and contemporary Western conspiracy theories have a common enemy and that is the elite.

Now, of course not all populist discourse accuses the elite of conspiring actively against the people. But usually accusations of conspiracy are one way of explaining why the elite is acting against the interests of the people that tends to coexist with other explanations within a populist movement.

For example, very often the elite is being accused of having lost touch with reality, of neglecting the common people — they're so caught up in other things, so detached from reality, that they no longer know what people need. Sometimes the elite is also accused of being corrupt, meaning that everybody that wants to just enrich themselves — which is why they act against the interests of the people — but they're not following one common systematic plan. And then there are those people who say, "Wait a minute, it's not that they are detached from reality. It's not that they're all corrupt. They are all part of a devious plot."

To a certain degree these explanations can overlap and the accusation of conspiracy grows naturally out of the other explanations. So we could say that accusations of conspiracy are one specific way in which members of the populist movement make sense of the fact that the elite is allegedly acting against the interests of the people.

Another analogy is that both populism and conspiracy theory are stigmatized in similar terms, aren't they?

Yes. Both populism and conspiracy theory are stigmatizing terms. If you call somebody a conspiracy theorist, you imply that you don't need to take them seriously, that this person is making baseless claims. If you call somebody a populist — I would suspect even more so in Europe than in the United States — you are also accusing them of being a fraud, of being somebody who is offering simplistic solutions to complex problems and is trying to rile up the masses.

Something we've observed again and again is that populists and members of populist movements accept people who believe in conspiracy theories, even though they themselves do not believe in these conspiracy theories. They say, "Well, you know, the elites are looking down on these people and think they are idiots because they believe in conspiracy theories. But they also think that we are idiots and should not be taken seriously, so there should be a space for these people within our movement." That's another parallel between populism and conspiracy theory.

You deal with Donald Trump as a case study, illustrating where conspiratorial thinking has most recently come to fruition. How did he rely on conspiracy rumors at first, rather than full-blown theories?

Trump is an interesting case, in that I think that he has been using conspiracy theories and conspiracy rumors very smartly from basically 2011 or 2012 onward, though most recent developments may have changed this. But initially he uses conspiracy rumors — those about Barack Obama's alleged birth outside of the country — to turn himself into a political figure. And this works — he's quite popular with Republican voters, suddenly, early in 2012 — and then he shuts up again, because he doesn't want to run against Obama just yet.

But he resuscitated these accusations against Obama and against conspiring elites in 2015, when he decided to run for the presidency. The interesting thing about Trump is that he usually does not articulate conspiracy theories. He doesn't really commit to anything; he restricts himself to conspiracy rumors. He just makes very short accusations, and usually leaves a safety net for himself. So he will always use phrases like "A lot of people are saying," or "I hear all the time," or "I've been told," or "Think about that." I would argue this is a strategy, because he does not want to alienate traditional Republican voters who have very little sympathy for conspiracy theories, and also people who might be receptive to his increasing populist stances, but who also favor other explanations of why elites are neglectful or corrupt over explanations of conspiracy.

But then, as you describe, that changed. When did that happen, and why?

It's only a couple of weeks before the 2016 election that he really makes this move from conspiracy rumors to conspiracy theories. In October 2016, the TV debates are over and he is behind in the polls to Hillary Clinton, and this tape has just been leaked to the press where he talks about sexually harassing women. I think this is the moment where Trump realizes that there is no chance that he's going to win over undecided voters or moderate voters. He knows that a lot of Republican voters will vote for him because they always vote for the Republican candidate and they really hate Hillary Clinton, but he now can reach out to people who are really receptive to his populist and conspiracist rhetoric.

So in his first public appearance after his tape goes public, he steps in front of his audience in Florida and talks for 45 minutes about a huge global conspiracy led by international banks and Hillary Clinton in order to destroy the American people. So here he really becomes a full-blown conspiracy theorist, because he knows he needs those people to vote for him now. This works and he wins the election, because, of course, of a couple of other factors interfere in his favor — James Comey's letter and also other things — and after the election he goes back to conspiracy rumors, at least usually.

This is the phase of the process I describe in the book. But since then things have developed further, and my impression is that what happened to Trump is something that has happened to other political leaders who initially use conspiracy theories strategically as well, for example, Viktor Orbán in Hungary. It seems to me that Trump at some point starts believing some of his own conspiracy theories that so far he has only spread strategically.

That seems to apply both to the accusations against Hunter Biden that are connected to Ukraine — because otherwise there would be no point in sending Rudy Giuliani to Ukraine to investigate all of this, and to expose himself in a manner that led to the first impeachment — and secondly, Trump had been talking about election fraud for many years, even before the 2016 election. Then, after that election, he said there had been illegal votes cast, and this is how he explains that he lost the popular vote.

He systematically picks up on this again from June 2020 onward, in order to cast doubt on the outcome of the 2020 election. It seems to me that this is something that by now he genuinely believes in himself, because there is no longer any discernible strategy in maintaining these conspiracy theories. Even now, at the moment that we're speaking, with the second impeachment going on, he first ordered his lawyers to focus on the election fraud, not on arguing that impeaching him while he was no longer in office is unconstitutional. So he seems to have fallen victim to some of his own conspiracy theories.

You have some prescriptions for what to do about conspiracy theories. Regarding specific ones you recommend "pre-debunking." How does that work?

We know that debunking is very problematic. It's very difficult to convince people who already believe in conspiracy theories, or are drawn to conspiracy theories, that they are wrong. But we know from a couple of studies — and I know from conversations with teachers, for example — that something that what works much better is the so-called pre-debunking, which means you teach people about the arguments of specific conspiracy theories, but also about the way in which conspiracy theories generally work, before they are exposed to them. Of course schools would be the place to do that. If you equip people with the right education and the right knowledge, then the likelihood that they will come to believe in conspiracy theories significantly decreases.

This is something that we can explain historically, if we return to the stigmatization of conspiracy theories during the 1950s and 60s, which was also partly motivated by explaining to people why conspiracy theories are bad explanations, how they overemphasize intentions and why this is problematic. We know that educating people is a good means against belief in conspiracy theories, because education seems to be negatively linked to belief in conspiracy theories. While there are, of course, highly educated and intelligent people who believe in conspiracy theories, the likelihood that you will believe in them decreases with your level of education. So I think that education and pre-debunking really are key to fighting conspiracy theories.

You also speak more generally about social literacy, media literacy and historical literacy. Explain briefly why those are important in combatting conspiracy theories.

Media literacy is of course extremely important. People need to know which sources, especially on the internet, they can trust and which sources they cannot trust. Why does it make more sense to trust an article by the Washington Post or the New York Times than to trust something that somebody just writes in social media? People need to know about how the media work, how the internet works. They need to understand the search algorithms of something like the Google engine, that this is not an objective window on reality, but the results you get are predetermined by your earlier searches, for example, so that there is a certain subjectivity there right from the start. This is something people need to understand.

Right. Then explain what you mean by social literacy?

It's important to teach people about how politics works, how society works and why it is impossible to plan all of these things years or sometimes even decades in advance. These processes are extremely complex, which basically means that a large-scale conspiracies are virtually impossible. And this is basically what people realized in the '50s and '60s, when the stigmatization occurred.

Finally, historical literacy: What's most important here?

Historical literacy for me would mean that you study both historical conspiracies and historical conspiracy theories. Of course there have always been conspiracies, and there will always be conspiracies in the future. But if you look at historical conspiracies, you realize that in scope and reach they are much different from what conspiracy theories imagine. Far fewer people are involved than conspiracy theories claim. In the assassination of Julius Caesar it's just a couple of dozen people. Even in the toppling of Iranian Prime Minister Mossadegh, back in the 1950s, by MI6 and the CIA, it's just a couple of dozen people, as opposed to faking the moon landing or orchestrating the 9/11 attack as an inside job, which would have required tens of thousands, or even hundreds of thousands of people.

And then real conspiracies usually revolve around singular events like a coup-d'état or an assassination. Conspiracy theories might begin with a single event but then we move on very quickly to all of history being a plot and people being deceived for years and decades.

Finally, if you study historical conspiracies, you also realize that usually something happens that the conspirators have not foreseen. Karl Popper writes in 1949 in "The Open Society and Its Enemies," when he coined the term "conspiracy theory" in its modern meaning, that the conspirators rarely enjoy the fruits of their labor. What he means by that is that something usually goes wrong. Think again of Julius Caesar. Roman senators killed Caesar because they saw him as a danger to the republic. They succeed in killing Caesar, but of course what ensues is a civil war and at the end of the civil war the republic ends. The time of the empire and the emperors begins, and the republic is history forever.

Or think of the recent Russian efforts to assassinate the opposition leader Alexei Navalny, to poison him. This didn't work in the end. He was brought to Germany and he was cured and now he's back in Russia and he's just been sentenced to two and a half years in prison, but he remains a real danger to the regime there. This was a conspiracy, but it didn't succeed the way it was imagined, and this failure is something for which there is no place in conspiracy theories. So studying historical conspiracies, I think, can alert us to seeing where conspiracy theories go wrong.

What's the most important question I didn't ask, and what's the answer to that question?

Not all conspiracy theories are dangerous, and not all conspiracy theorists are dangerous. It is important to contextualize. But generally speaking, there are three ways in which conspiracy theories can be dangerous.

First, they can be a catalyst for radicalization and thus ultimately lead to violence. People who believe in conspiracy theories can feel justified or even obliged to take up arms to interfere in the struggle between good and evil that is allegedly going on in front of them.

Second, medical conspiracy theories can be dangerous because people who deny established medical knowledge and dismiss it as part of a devious plot can endanger themselves and others because they do not take the necessary precautions.

Third, conspiracy theories can be a danger to democracy if they undermine people's trust in democratic processes and institutions. This danger is particularly high if a lot of people believe in these conspiracy theories and if they are articulated by people in power who stir up the masses.

All three dimensions can be observed in the storming of the Capitol on Jan. 6. People who do not wear masks or socially distance, because they think that the coronavirus is harmless, violently attack the heart of American democracy because they have been stirred up by a populist leader.

Conspiracy theories unmasked: From Winston Churchill to QAnon in a few easy steps

Many people may believe that we live in a golden age of conspiracy theories. That's not really the case, according to German academic Michael Butter, who teaches American literature and culture at the University of Tübingen in Germany. But we do live in the golden age of conspiracy-theory studies. Butter's recent book, "The Nature of Conspiracy Theories," published just after the presidential election, does an invaluable job synthesizing a wide range of research across multiple disciplines — from psychology and sociology to philosophy, literature and cultural studies — over a period of decades.

This article first appeared in Salon.

While conspiracy theories are certainly much more prominent now than they were 20 or 30 years ago, they remain widely stigmatized. Before the 1950s, as Butter explains in his book and this interview, they were taken for a granted as a legitimate framework for describing the world. After the Nazi period and the McCarthy era they were driven to the political and social margins, and then returned under a cloud. The internet has played a central role in providing an environment where they can flourish, but the role of media is in itself hardly a new thing: Before the invention of the printing press, conspiracy theories as we know them today simply didn't exist, as far as we can tell, except in more limited scope in ancient Greece and Rome.

With America's conspiracist in chief now gone from the White House, such paranoid beliefs are not going to suddenly disappear, any more than the populism structurally associated with the dominant forms of conspiracy theories today. But what role will conspiracy theory play in the political future of the United States and the West, and what can its history tell us to expect? Salon reached out to Butter to explain the secret forces at work behind the surface of reality — or at least to discuss those questions and his new book. This interview has been edited, as usual, for clarity and length.

Winston Churchill probably isn't the first person who comes to mind when we talk about conspiracy theory, but you begin your introduction by discussing a short speech he gave in 1920. Why begin there, and what does the most famous British statesman of the 20th century have to tell us?

I begin with Winston Churchill for two reasons. On the one hand, because it's a prototypical conspiracy theory that he develops in this speech. All the elements — nothing is at it seems, nothing happens by accident, everything is connected — are there, so this allows me to define what a conspiracy theory is. Secondly and equally important, I begin with Winston Churchill because this cuts to the major point of my book, which, besides providing a general introduction to conspiracy theories, is that it used to be quite normal to believe in conspiracy theories. People that you usually do not associate with conspiracy theories, but regard very highly — people like Churchill, but also George Washington or Abraham Lincoln — spread conspiracy theories, because this is what people did in the past. It was perfectly normal.

Right. But if conspiracy theories were taken for granted then, they're seen very differently now. Before asking the obvious question — how did we get here? — I'd like you to clarify several things. First of all, what's your definition of conspiracy theory?

I like two definitions, one that has been provided by the American political scientist Michael Barkun, who says conspiracy makes three assumptions: a) nothing happens by accident, which means everything has been planned by the conspirators, b) nothing is as it seems, which means that you always have to look beneath the surface to find out what is really going on because the conspirators are operating in secret, and c) everything is connected, that once you look beneath the surface and once you realize that there is a group secretly plotting you, then you also realize that there are connections between people, institutions and events, that you would not have thought possible otherwise. For example, in coronavirus conspiracy theories that make connections between 5G technology and the virus.

After I finished the book, I realized that Geoffrey Cubitt, an English historian, comes up with a slightly different definition. I'll give you the definition first and then explain why they're different. Cubitt says that there are again three elements: intentionalism — everything has been planned, and that corresponds exactly to what Barkun means by "nothing happens by accident." The second element for Cubitt is occultism — things happen in secret, and this would correspond to what Barkun means when he says nothing is as it seems. But then Cubitt does not highlight "everything is connected," but he highlights Manichaeanism, a clear distinction between good and evil, which is something Barkun also talks about, but which he considered less important than highlighting that everything is connected.

So these are the two definitions that I very much like because I think they really capture what conspiracy theories are about. The reason why they're different is that Cubitt is thinking as a historian about conspiracy theories in the 18th and 19th centuries, and that's the time when conspiracy theories mostly focused on specific events or on specific groups — the Jews or the Communists or the Catholics, but not all of them together. Whereas Barkun is really looking at the second half of the 20th century, which is the time in which we find what he calls "superconspiracy theories," that is, conspiracy theories that basically cover all of human history and that forge connections between the Nazi and the Jews and the Communists and other groups. Therefore for him to assume that everything is connected makes a lot of sense, whereas in conspiracy theories of the 18th and 19th century, there are limits to how far a conspiracy theory will go. Taken together, I think these are two very good definitions of conspiracy theory.

So how can we categorize conspiracy theories in terms of who is being accused, where the supposed conspiracy comes from and who's being conspired against?

I think we can come up with a couple of useful typologies. Many people assume, because they only look at the present and the Western world, that conspiracy theories always work from below towards those above, so that they're always tackling alleged conspiracies from above, conspiracies by the elites against the people. That would be one way to categorize modern conspiracy theories, but this is not what all conspiracy theories do. In fact, for centuries, when it was still normal to believe in conspiracy theories, they usually worked the other way around: They targeted enemies from below. It was the elites who were articulating conspiracy theories, and they were concerned with alleged conspirators that were challenging their powers.

Another useful distinction is that between an enemy within and an enemy without. In the 18th and 19th centuries in the Western world, for example, we very often have this idea of an enemy who is outside the country and who is plotting, maybe with the help of some people within the country, against that nation. In the second half of the 20th century, the dominant feature that we find the Western world is that there is an enemy within — your own elite, your own government — that is in league with the conspirators. They might not be the ones pulling all the strings, but they're a big part of that. There might be an enemy without as well, but very often these conspiracy theories can do without an enemy without. So, enemies within or without, from above or from below, I think these are useful categories to think about conspiracy theories.

You also discuss how conspiracy theories are dependent on a public sphere and the right sort of media environment. For the public sphere, you go all the way back to ancient Greece and Rome, and for media environments you talk about the role of the printing press in the modern world. Can you elaborate on this?

For some time during the 1980 and 1990s, a lot of scholars thought that conspiracy theories were an anthropological given, meaning that they exist everywhere in all at all times and all places. Since then, a new generation of scholars has highlighted that this is probably wrong, and that conspiracy theories do not exist everywhere. So the question is then, where and when do they exist?

We know that we do find what we could call modern conspiracy theories from the early modern period or maybe the late medieval period onwards, with certain precursors in the 13th or 14th century. This is something one can link to the emergence of a reading public that is tied to the invention of the printing press, where texts can circulate, where many people can be exposed to these theories.

At the same time, we know that there are examples that come very close to our modern conspiracy theories in ancient Greece and ancient Rome. The reason for that is probably that in these places we already had something like a public sphere: people meeting in the market square to take decisions together in ancient Athens or people discussing events in ancient Rome. Of course conspiracy theories can circulate orally, as well as in the form of manuscripts. And then this disappears in a way. During the early Middle Ages and the high Middle Ages, at least from what we know today, it seems as if there really aren't full-blown conspiracy theories around.

And then came the printing press.

It's only with the emergence of a new public sphere and new media conditions that conspiracy theories, you could say, re-emerged, or emerged fully for the first time. They've been around since then, changing when the environment changed as well. So you could tell the whole history of conspiracy theories as the history of different media regimes. The printing press triggers the movement towards pamphlets and then later to treatises and books filled with footnotes.

The internet in turn gives us these YouTube conspiracy-theory documentaries during the early 2000s that are no longer dry and full of footnotes, that are really exciting and fun to watch, as I know from talking to lots of my students. Then the latest development would be some platform like Twitter where the restriction of 140 characters, or now 280 characters, makes for the development from full-blown conspiracy theories toward conspiracy rumors. You just make a bold claim, but you don't offer any evidence for that because there's simply no space to do that and because of the conditions of the medium. You're only talking to your followers anyway, so they don't require you to provide evidence.

What social, psychological and epistemic needs do conspiracy theories meet?

We know that there are two groups of people in the West, in the present, who in terms of psychological profile are particularly drawn to conspiracy theories. First, there are people who feel out of control and feel powerless and they can explain the fact that they are not being heard, that the country is developing in a direction that unhappy with, by resorting to conspiracy theories. Secondly, there are people who have trouble accepting insecurity and ambiguity, and what conspiracy theories do for these people is to resolve this ambiguity and provide seemingly clear answers.

Think about the beginning of the coronavirus crisis, at least in Germany and Europe, when everything went into lockdown in early March last year and we were all sitting at home and nobody knew what our lives would look like in three days or three weeks or three months. That's a situation where conspiracy theories were extremely attractive because they provided an answer. They told people, "Well, this is what's really going on. These are the people who are responsible for this, and this is what they are trying to trying to achieve."

Obviously, it's easier for some people to believe that a group of conspirators is pulling the strings than to accept that nobody is putting the strings, because it's easier to accept that people are acting intentionally than to accept that there's a lot of chaos and contingency at work. If human agents are responsible, then of course you have scapegoats, you have people you can point your finger at and blame for everything. If it's abstract forces like globalization, or just coincidence and chaos, then you really can't point your finger at anybody. And if human agents are responsible for all that, then no matter how powerful they might appear they can, at least in theory, be defeated. Even though this might prove difficult to achieve, at least it's possible. You can't really defeat chaos or an abstract force like globalization. So this is what makes conspiracy theories attractive.

Then, in the present period, where it's no longer normal to believe in conspiracy theories, believing in them also allows you to reassure yourself that you are special: You can claim that you are somebody who has understood something that most people are missing. While they are walking through life with their eyes closed, sleeping, you have opened your eyes. You've woken up, and these are powerful metaphors in conspiracy's discourse. You can claim that you are special because you know something that others don't.

Let's get back to the journey from Winston Churchill in 1920 to us in 2021. First, you describe a three-phase process of stigmatization in Europe and North America, focused both on psychology and epistemology. How did that process begin?

We need to keep in mind that during the 1950s it was still normal in the United States to believe in conspiracies. The majority of people believed there was a vast conspiracy orchestrated by Moscow in the 1950s to subvert the country. We may think today of Sen. [Joseph] McCarthy as a raving madman, but he was really representative of a specific historical moment, and only a couple of years earlier in Germany, belief in a different conspiracy theory — that of the Jewish Bolshevist world plot — had led to the Holocaust. So Western countries were rife with conspiracy theories, and then this changed rather quickly, because by the mid-1960s only a minority of Americans, usually those on the extreme right, believed in this communist plot. So what happens?

What happens is a popularization of insights from psychology and the social sciences that basically had two different sources. On the one hand, you have scholars like Theodor Adorno and other émigrés of the Frankfurt School, who are sitting in exile in the United States in the 1940s and early '50s looking at what's happening in Europe, and seeing what conspiracy theories can result in — namely the extermination of European Jews. So they begin to argue that conspiracy theories are dangerous.

At the same time, other people, especially from sociology — and I'm thinking particularly here of Karl Popper — argue that conspiracy theories are an inadequate explanation of what is going on in social reality, because they always overemphasize intentional action and tend to neglect structural effects or unintended consequences.

So these two arguments — conspiracy theories are dangerous and conspiracy theories are bad explanations — would be the first step in the stigmatization, and are, at least initially, really restricted to the ivory tower. I mean, hardly anybody reads all 800 pages of "The Authoritarian Personality."

What happened next to create broader criticism?

During the early 1950s, liberal American scholars and journalists pick up on these ideas and develop them further, because they are trying to defend themselves against accusations by conspiracy theorists that they are part of a Moscow-orchestrated communist plot. One way of countering this activation is of course to dismiss this mode of thinking entirely. So you have people like Edward Shils, for example, who do not write 800 pages on the authoritarian personality in a book nobody will ever read outside academia, but who write 800 words for Harper's or The Atlantic or other magazines. So these ideas get developed and popularized.

This works incredibly well, so by the early 1960s, as I mentioned earlier, only people on the extreme margins of society still confess to openly believe in conspiracy. This in turn allows a third generation of scholars — we can think of somebody like Richard Hofstadter — to make the argument that conspiracy theories are always populist, and that they are always the instruments of minority movements, and that there is no path and no place for them in mainstream American politics, that they are always a dangerous populist cry from the margins. This is basically the argument Hofstadter makes in his seminal 1964 essay, "The Paranoid Style in American Politics," in which he so powerfully associates belief in conspiracy theories with paranoia.

You mentioned earlier that around this same time a lot more people were being exposed to the social sciences, and to a more sophisticated understanding of causality in the social sphere.

That's the other development. In that sense, we have two-way development. One is that more and more people get exposed to these ideas from social science and psychology because these ideas become part of the more popular general discourse. At the same time, of course, more and more people are attending college because of the G.I. Bill, which multiplies the number of students in American colleges within a couple of years. Of course, in college people take classes in psychology, in sociology, in political science, and it's obvious that they were exposed to these ideas there, and this also contributed to this stigmatization of conspiracy theories.

In the second part of this interview, Butter describes the three-phase process that brought conspiracy theories back into the public sphere, their structural relationship to populism, the case study of Donald Trump and more.

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