How the states have become 'Laboratories of Autocracy' — and why it's worse than you think

There's a booming literature on the erosion of democracy in America, as well as around the world, but David Pepper's book "Laboratories of Autocracy: A Wake-Up Call From Behind the Lines" stands out as arguably the most important for three reasons: It brings the subject down to earth, connects democratic erosion to corruption and the decline in America's quality of life, and provides a wealth of ideas about how to fight back to protect democracy.

The book's subtitle is well-earned. Pepper is a former city councilman, mayor, county commissioner and head of the Democratic Party of Ohio, as well as a lawyer who has won important battles defending democracy in court. This is no armchair account — it reads more like a well-organized set of field notes from battles seen first-hand.

Perhaps most significantly, those battles have surprisingly little to do with Donald Trump. In an essay in "The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump," therapist Elizabeth Mika described tyrannies as "three-legged beasts," supported by the tyrant, his supporters and the society as a whole. In my review of that book, I quoted her on the last of the legs:

Tyrants do not arise in a vacuum. ... It takes years of cultivation of special conditions in a society for a tyranny to take over. Those conditions invariably include a growing and unbearably oppressive economic and social inequality ignored by the elites who benefit from it, at least for a time; fear, moral confusion, and chaos that come from that deepening inequality; a breakdown of social norms; and growing disregard for the humanity of a large portion of the population and for higher values.

Pepper's book provides a detailed, nitty-gritty explanation of how the general conditions Mika describes have been created in Ohio and many other states across America. And when Pepper writes about how to fight back, it's about fighting back against the conditions that made Trump possible, if not inevitable. Of course Trump himself remains a danger, but Pepper's book provides a roadmap for action that addresses the roots of the problem. This conversation with David Pepper has been edited for clarity and length.

Let's start with your title. What's the story?

It was funny — it was when I thought of the term that the book came to me. I was going to tweet the words out, "You know, these states are no longer acting like laboratories of democracy, but laboratories of autocracy." I didn't send the tweet, because the minute I wrote it I thought, "Boy, there's a lot more to say than this tweet." And everything flowed from that.

Obviously it comes out of this age-old term that Justice Louis Brandeis made famous but that many have used, a very idealized notion of states doing good things that then become models for the country. Clearly that's been the case sometimes. But as I argue in the book, in our history sometime it's been the exact opposite. That's how we got Jim Crow. States have enough power that in the wrong hands they can do great damage, and the point of the title was to say that's what's happening now in very stark ways.

But both words matter. "Autocracy" matters, as these states are hacking away at pillars of democracy that could lead to autocracy. But the "laboratories" part matters too, because they're always learning, they're always improving. So they are functioning as laboratories. Until you start adding some accountability and pushing back, they'll just keep going. So my hope is that "autocracy" wakes people up, but "laboratories" is a really important part of that title because it explains how they operate.

The first story you tell in your book is about a horrendous traffic jam caused by an Ohio secretary of state who tried to make voting more difficult in 2020 by limiting ballot drop-boxes to one per county. Why begin there?

I've been fighting the voting rights battle in Ohio for a number of years. The worst is still the purging of voters, but to have a secretary of state intentionally cause long traffic jams for the form of voting that he knew minorities and Biden voters were using, and lying over and over again about what the law actually, was such a troubling thing. And this was not your right-wing, Trump-type secretary of state. He had held himself out as more moderate.

So I tell the story because you look at the traffic jams that his one-drop-box-per-county policy created, and anyone with a commonsense response would say, "Don't ever do that again." But in a world of "laboratories of autocracy," as I tell in the story, the state legislature of Ohio, seeing those jams, began pushing for bills to have traffic jams forever by making that not just a policy decision, but state law. And what do we see at the same time? States around the country looked at those traffic jams and saw the effect on — let's be clear — Black voters waiting in long lines. So now we have the same effort in other states to minimize drop boxes and to do what happened here: Put the drop boxes where people are already voting early in person, which creates the maximum congestion possible. So it's a great example of how they behave as laboratories against democracy.

As you lay it out, the heart of the problem is the relative invisibility of state representatives, combined with their great power, which the public may not be aware of. Two questions: Why are state legislatures so powerful? And why is there so little awareness?

It's the toxic combination: great power and total anonymity, at least for the average citizen. The power comes all the way back, from the founding. State legislatures were given a lot of power over our day-to-day lives — economic policy, energy policy, criminal justice, education, the things that we care about. Statehouses have a huge effect on those.

But in our system the Constitution and our overall balance of powers also give statehouses enormous power over not just state elections but federal elections. They draw the district lines, as we're seeing right now. They set the rules of elections. They have control, to some degree, over how the Electoral College is calculated. It's a huge amount of power. It's something James Madison worried about: My gosh, we're giving statehouses a huge amount of power. If they're in the wrong hands, undemocratic hands, they can threaten our entire nation's democracy.

What about the lack of awareness?

Most people can't name their state representative. They don't know what's happening in their capital city. Very few of the things that are happening are covered. You only have so much bandwidth as a citizen, so you know the president, the governor, maybe your congressman and your mayor. These people get lost anyway: the capital city is normally some distance away, these elections don't get nearly the attention. It just isn't on the radar.

And journalism is eroding too. You used to have more robust statehouse bureaus that would cover the ins and outs. You had local papers in the small towns and big cities. It all adds up to very low information about these places that are a source of great power. For those wanting to do damage, it's exactly what they want.

You write, "If the average voter doesn't know or care what state representatives can do, insiders and interests know exactly what they can do. That's dangerous." So what are some examples?

In Ohio, you see everything from massive subsidies given to the right players, and people getting in line for "state business," putting that in quotes — I talk about for-profit charter school scams in Ohio — who have figured out that they can get into the revenue stream, pull out hundreds of millions or more. You see individual legislators able to provide preferential tax treatment: The payday lenders got a sweetheart policy when they were helping certain legislators. I walk through all the ways that these legislators can just give huge favors.

The general theme of these places, outside of extremism and anti-democracy, is a massive transfer of public assets and resources to private insiders. Public school dollars go to the private school donors who are starting scam for-profit schools. In other states, It's the privatization of the energy grid, so in Texas they couldn't even keep things going in the wintertime. Small towns not getting any infrastructure, because public dollars have been raided by the state to give out as tax cuts at the very high end.

If you add it all up, there's a massive movement of public resources and dollars to private insiders. That's why one thing that comes with broken government is a rapid decline in public outcomes. In Ohio, we're living it. A great state is finding itself ranked last or close to last in everything from higher education attainment to health care. It's because their M.O. with the statehouse is to keep the private people happy and use public resources to do it, year after year.

I'd meant to ask you about how the decline in the quality of life is tied to the erosion of democracy. That's something that's completely disconnected in the national discourse. We've been hearing that Democrats' focus on voting rights takes away attention from kitchen-table issues, for example. But that's not the case on the ground, is it?

My book is trying to say that everyone suffers from this. It may in the short term feel good, if you have a majority. But as I explain later in the book, towns are dying because of the privatization of everything. There no winners from this, long-term. Everyone loses when you lose your democracy. When you go to small towns in Ohio that are largely Republican, they are suffering as much from lack of democracy as larger cities. Because they're not getting the health care, the infrastructure, anything else they need. And so ending gerrymandering actually would lift long-term outcomes in all these places, because these people would all of a sudden have to compete as well. They couldn't just give everything to the private players without any accountability, which right now is what they're doing.

Another category you discuss is overturning local governance. That's where the anti-democracy aspect blatantly comes to the fore, preventing people locally from passing laws. Could you expand on that?

Statehouses are the Achilles' heel of national governance. When local governments who are more attentive to public concerns pass laws about gun violence, for example, the statehouses have the ability to stop those local governments from being responsive. What they've done in Ohio on issue after issue — whether it's raising the minimum wage or gun reform — is that if the city of Cincinnati or the city of Cleveland or someone else tries to do something on those issues, they then pass a law that — by a misreading of Ohio law, I would say —allows them to stop any efforts to deal with that issue at a local level. So it's undemocratic in another way: Don't reflect your citizens' views at the state level and also don't allow local governments to represent their citizens either.

Just to be clear, on almost every issue I'm talking about they are doing the opposite of what their states actually want. Don't be fooled by the fact that Ohio voted for Trump by eight points. This is a state that supports common sense gun reform. This is a state that supports Roe v. Wade. It's a state that supports doing something on climate change. I can show you the polling on that. But the statehouses are basically places that, by protecting themselves through election rigging, can put in place deeply unpopular policies and never worry about being held accountable.

It's not just a problem with the special interests inside the state with help from the national GOP. There's also national organizations like the American Legislative Exchange Council, the NRA and others.

These national players, the Koch Brothers, ALEC and others have weaponized the weakness of statehouses to serve their national agenda. They started out doing that with social issues, but then figured out it can be done, with even greater effect, on their economic interests. I go through how they've been crushing rural broadband for years: They don't want local governments to do it because they want someday to do it. The way I describe it is that they've privatized the legislative process.

So many of the laws that are being passed — attacking voters, gerrymandering, the abortion laws like in Texas — are being cooked up in ways that are shared all across the country. And every time one doesn't succeed, they learn from it and correct for it, and then other states will do the corrected form. And every time one of their approaches does succeed, other states will then model from it. So they've turned this into a national effort that people should find very worrisome.

One thing you talk about is how how people can go through a whole legislative career and never really have a competitive election, beyond maybe winning their first primary. What do people need to know about that?

It's so much worse than people realize. In Ohio we have a 99-person statehouse, and Republicans have rigged it so that they'll have somewhere in the low to mid 60s of seats, no matter what. In 2018, it was 50% Republican, 49% Democrat statewide and they still had a supermajority of seats, and 60 of those seats have averaged a double-digit win, most of those by 20 points or more. So a strong majority of these people have never been in an election that you and I would say was a real election. Maybe they won a primary at one point, but many were appointed, and never even had the primary.

People just don't understand how bad it is. We're talking about, for the first time since back before the civil rights era, people whose entire existence in power has been devoid of democracy. They haven't talked to swing voters, they've never worried about the next election. You literally have an entire generation of people in charge of statehouses who have never experienced democracy the way I did when I ran and won my races.

Everything they've done in this world absent democracy is the opposite of what you do in a robust democracy to succeed. They help private interests, get close to the line in terms of corruption, if not over it. They get more and more extreme to avoid a primary. There are the terrible public outcomes that we talked about. Every one of those things works just fine in their world, whereas in a world of real democracy it would guarantee you lose your election.

That Texas law on abortion is extreme, it's deeply unpopular. If you were in a fair district, you would lose. That happens on guns and everything else. The point is these people in a non-democratic world are acting a certain way, and if they were in a real democracy they'd lose for sure. So what are they gonna do, forevermore? Keep that real democracy from arising, because that would mean they'd lose their power. It's gotten so much more warped than I think even Karl Rove would have imagined 12 years ago, when he rigged these districts. We're talking about a completely different mindset than most people think about with democracy.

This leads into something else I wanted to ask about, how they have increased power in part by taking it away from governors, secretaries of state, from the independent judiciary. What's happening here that don't people realize?

This gets back to how much power they have that's hidden. They have levers both political and budgetary, and many can override vetoes, That's allowed them to run over the likely moderating influences of statewide officials. To win as governor in Ohio in the past you had to be more moderate, more like George Voinovich or Bob Taft. You weren't a right-wing nut. People who run for those offices try to be more moderate, and they get run over by the statehouse.

Our current governor tried to be reasonable on COVID for a few months, but they stopped everything he tried. They almost impeached him. Now he's as irresponsible as any of the others because the statehouse basically has too much control over the key functions of government. So statehouses end up being able to to run roughshod over governors, over the people the public actually knows. They don't realize that the unknown statehouse member, in the end, is trumping the governor again and again.

Recently, Democrats have done a very good job and won three of the last four Supreme Court races in Ohio. I'm proud of this. What did the legislature do? A few months ago they changed the rules of how you elect justices, to add party ID to the ballot, on the thinking that if Trump's on the ballot and every judge's party is on the ballot, then they can't lose.

So they change the rules to undermine other statewide officials. After Democrats won North Carolina in '16 and they won Michigan and other states in '18, and even after this Raffensperger guy in Georgia stood up to Trump, what happens? The legislature immediately starts attacking the powers of those other officials, obviously if they're Democrats, but even if they're a Republican that doesn't agree with them. We saw that again in Georgia where they stripped the secretary of state's power away.

They're not only gerrymandering and being extreme for themselves, they're literally going after any threat to their power that arises, be it state courts, governors of either party, or other officials like secretaries of state. It's truly disturbing behavior.

As you make clear, in Ohio there was the Tea Party wave of 2010, in reaction to the Obama coalition, where they took action to undermine that coalition's electoral power, and similar things are happening now in response to the 2020 election.

It's why I resist when people say, "The Big Lie is making statehouses act crazy." No — they've been doing this long before the Big Lie. When there's an election they don't succeed in, they learn from their failure and then do everything they can to change the thing that cost them that election. It's not just about the presidency, it's about their own self-preservation.

In 2008, after the Obama coalition in Ohio won the election for Obama, it also won Democrats the statehouse. That really peeved them. They had gerrymandered the statehouse and Obama comes in with this huge coalition of urban young voters, electing Obama and elects a Democratic statehouse. The minute they have a chance in 2011 to tear apart that coalition — not by a good campaign, but through changing the laws — they do it. They're purging voters left and right, and despite huge errors in the purging process, they never stop. They attack early voting again and again. For years they targeted the key constituency groups that made up the coalition that had defeated them, and by 2016 it was clear just how well that worked.

I go through it in the book. The margins of victory in the large counties that made sure that Obama won — particularly the ones around Cleveland — were dramatically reduced because of how many fewer voters were actually registered by the time they were done with their purging through 2016, and curbing early voting in what was called Gold Week, where you could register and vote at the same time. Tens of thousands of voters were impacted there. Hillary Clinton may have lost Ohio for a lot of reasons, but it made her journey in Ohio far more difficult that they had taken the legs out of that Obama coalition.

So they learned their lesson for 2020, same thing. Many people voted early, using drop boxes. Drop-box voters were largely voters of color, largely Biden voters. What do they do? Same as 2011, they immediately target the way that those who vote against them vote. Get rid of drop boxes or add the kind of requirements that led to the traffic jams here. They will do everything they can to isolate what cost them an election and change the laws so it won't hurt them the next time.

That's exactly what they're doing with Jan. 6. That was another failure. What are they gonna do? Figure out why they failed. They have three years to fix it. They're going to go about fixing it through statehouses.

Right. That's already well under way. How would you describe what it looks like?

I think it's a combination of things. The bottom line is, here's what it won't look like: people storming the Capitol building on Jan. 6, 2025. What did they learn about Jan. 6? It was too chaotic. It was too late. It looked too illegitimate. The key to all this is that it has to look legitimate for them to really win. Storming a building does not look legitimate.

But what were they right about? That state legislators play a big role when it comes to the Electoral College. Not just through through traditional voter suppression, in rigging these districts through gerrymandering. They can also try different ways to maximize their chance of winning the electoral college long before you get to Jan. 6 so it looks legitimate, unlike Jan. 6 did last year.

One thing that happened after 2012 is that they proposed — of course, only in the states where it would benefit them — that you calculate the Electoral College based on congressional district, not the overall popular vote. That would flip Michigan, in a world of gerrymandered districts, at least, basically superimposing gerrymandering onto the Electoral College count. Wisconsin would also be a great example. It's a very gerrymandered congressional map that would take a state where a Democrat wins overall but if you go to the congressional districts, Republicans win the electoral vote majority. There is some precedent for that right now, because you get votes in Maine and Nebraska out of congressional districts. There's also a potential legal challenge going back to the one person, one vote principle. But that's something they've already talked about and there have been bills proposed in some states to do that.

That's something we've seen floated in the past. I actually wrote about it in 2014. But there are new and even wilder ideas you talk about.

This was fringe only a couple years ago, the idea that legislators can basically do whatever they want when it comes to the Electoral College. If there was a close election, and they claimed, like Trump tried to do, that it was illegitimate, the legislature could simply say, "We think that's the wrong result, we're going to change the outcome." If you read some of these new Supreme Court justices' thinking, going back to Clarence Thomas in Bush v. Gore, that was sort of what this John Eastman memo was about: A state legislature can step in and determine the Electoral College vote, and no one can challenge it. I guarantee you, that sort of legal thinking is currently being circulated around the states, and some are pushing it forward as law itself, and potential secretaries of state are running on it.

So they're going to do the traditional stuff. But they're also going to do everything they can to figure out this Electoral College stuff again before you have a vice president counting the votes on Jan. 6. That's why we need to be ready for the next battle. I'm glad we honored and thought seriously about the anniversary of Jan. 6, but the best way to think about it is to stop the next version, which will be far more sophisticated than what we saw one year ago.

That's a good lead-in to talking about the third part of your book, which is about ways of fighting back. And you start with talking about the Guarantee Clause, which not enough people know about.

It's the only part where I risk being academic. My goal was to make sure this is very readable, but every single thing I just talked about was of great concern to the founders. I know some people will say, "Well, the founders did terrible things," and yes, they did. But they also wrote the Constitution. They thought "rich interests" or monarchical interests would take the very powers I described in statehouses and use them to take over the country. They were so worried that they put in the Constitution something called the Guarantee Clause, which literally says, "The United States shall guarantee to every State in this Union a Republican form of Government." It's in the same area as protecting against foreign invasion. Meaning the federal government must step up and protect that every state in this country has essentially what we call today a small-d democratic government.

To me, that should shape what happens in Congress. This is not just some other policy debate. When you take an oath to the Constitution of the United States as a U.S. senator or House member or president, you are taking an oath to guarantee that every state in this country has democratic governance, just like you'd stop a foreign invader. That's why when I watch this debate over the filibuster, it shapes the debate. "Shall" is the strongest word in law, "guarantee" is about as strong as it gets.

So when I watch these people fuss about, "Well we we can't do it unless a bunch of Republicans do it," no! Your oath is your oath. You took an oath to uphold the Guarantee Clause, which means if there are states in this country who are falling away from democracy — and many of them are, like mine — you have to do something about it, or you're violating your oath to the Constitution. There is no better grounding to carve out the filibuster for voting rights and democracy than the Guarantee Clause. It's telling you that, as a senator, you have a duty to protect democracy.

So you have like 30 steps in terms of things that can be done, and that's too many for us to go into here. Pick one or two themes, because there are some echo in different steps in different ways.

I read a lot of books. and I normally put them down and they might have been interesting but I don't do anything. So I really wanted to say, "If you put this book down and don't do anything different, I've failed." I try to break this down into not just the big stuff but something people can do every single day in their corner of the world to lift up democracy, because that's what it's going to take.

I start with the federal stuff and it's essential, but not enough, that the federal government protect voting rights. The Freedom to Vote Act in the Senate right now does so much. I also say the federal government has to do some other things that I won't go into here, but there's no protection against corruption in states are locked in by one party, so we need a lot more corruption enforcement from the feds in states like Ohio. A lot of the way democracy is being attacked is actually through substance, like that crazy law in Texas. I think we need to federalize rights that are getting caught up in these antidemocratic efforts, be they labor rights, be they Roe v. Wade.

But then then I'm going to the next level down, which is not through law, but politics. I believe we have to really rethink politics right now, and those for democracy — and I don't think that's only Democrats, although Democrats are the big part of it — have to reorient our thinking. This is a long battle for democracy, the way that John Lewis and the suffragists thought about it way back when. It's a long battle.

What does that entail?

It should dramatically change how we fight that battle. We will lose that battle if all we do on our side is fight in swing states every couple of years for certain Senate seats and Electoral College votes, while they're fighting democracy in 50 states every year. We have to rethink our approach, to do what they're doing. Democracy must be protected in every state, every year, in every office that has some lever over democracy. We have to make that adjustment.

That sounds hard, and one thing we must do is decide what resources must follow that adjustment. If you took a rounding error of the billion dollars spent to win a presidential election, for example, and divided that up among 50 states over four years, you would actually have serious investment in those statehouse races and other races. Now my guess is some of those big donors would say "This is crazy. We can't do that and not give to the presidential race." And my answer would be, "That's what the Koch brothers did, and it worked." Not only will you protect democracy much more effectively, you'll do better in the presidential race down the road as you built up some support.

That's already been proven in Georgia, hasn't it?

Stacey Abrams lost in 2018, but remember her speech where she didn't concede, but she acknowledged she had lost? She said "We made progress," and people probably looked at her and went, "What? You didn't win!" Well, she knew she had registered more voters and inspired more voters — every door-knock was a new voter excited. She was right, and two years later Georgia was blue. Stacey Abrams has thought about democracy as a long game in Georgia her entire life, and that's why she succeeded. She didn't give up on everything after one bad cycle. She knew it was a long game.

A long game also means that individual candidates at the statehouse level, for example, even if they lose are contributing, and they need to be rewarded and praised for that. Too often we let a candidate run in a bad district and when they lose we walk away. If it's a long game and they're on the side of democracy, they need to be celebrated. Their run could in the long run be the difference in lifting other candidates. I go through many examples of how that happens.

In a big-picture frame, there's a lot of disagreements to be had on a lot of issues, but don't let disagreements on those issues lead to civil wars among those who all support democracy. One of the things I go through in the book is that so much of what I'm talking about are lessons learned from what led to Jim Crow. Going into Jim Crow, a lot of people who agreed on stopping things in the South — stopping the KKK and the resurgence of white supremacy — let all their disagreements on other issues get in the way of that, and they ultimately lost.

My point here is, if there are Republicans we disagree with that support democracy, welcome aboard. We'll figure the other stuff out later. But if you're for democracy, we need to work together. That's why I've actually really enjoyed — for all the criticism, the Lincoln Project has been very good at spreading the word about what I'm trying to say. That also means that progressives and moderate Democrats, yeah, we disagree on the issues. But if we're on the same page on democracy, to unify there is much harder than any disagreement you allow to get between you.

I worry that we're going to get into 2022 and we know the Senate seats and House seats are important, but if we don't do everything else we're not getting to the root cause, which is the statehouses, the most undemocratic institutions that eating away at everything else.

There's new talk of, "Well, we won't pass a voting rights act, but we'll do the Electoral College Act." If we fall for that, it's because we're not thinking about the long game. If we say, "Yeah, we'll correct for the presidential election, but we'll let you get away with all the attacks on voting rights at the state level again," that would again be a perfect example where the other side is protecting their long game, but we fall for the thing that deals with what we've always cared about, almost blindly and solely, which is the presidency. Not seeing the long game gives them another massive victory.

You conclude with a chapter on what individuals can do. As you describe it, there's quite a lot.

Each person and organization, I believe, needs to figure out how they can add to their own personal mission statement or their organizational mission statement how, in everything they do every day, they try to lift democracy. Add that to your New Year's resolution. If there are companies that are helping democracy, not hurting it, spend your resources there. Don't go around the paywall if there's a state paper that's covering the statehouse well. Thank God! You're lucky they're there. Subscribe! Keep them going! Reward those who are lifting democracy!

If you're in Georgia or Ohio, get involved in registering voters. If you run a homeless shelter, are you registering everybody who comes to your shelter every time they come through there? If you're the mayor of the city and you run rec centers and health clinics, are you registering people? They're attacking your voters through purging. You have an obligation to lift those voters up. Everyone can play a role. We know that there are people attacking democracy every single day. We love that we have people like Stacey Abrams out there protecting it. But we can't we can't leave it all to her.

It also means figuring out who your state representative is and never letting a state rep going unchallenged, especially if they're attacking democracy. There's a whole array of things everyone can do to push back for democracy. They may just think it's bigger than them, but there's steps that everyone can do, and if we all did them together it would make a massive difference.

I like to end by asking, what's the most important question I didn't ask? But in this case I'm aware of so many. I'd rather ask if there's one more thing you'd like to emphasize.

Well, the other thing we all can do is wake other people up to it. I've gotten so many responses to my book like, "Oh my God, it's a lot worse than I realized!" The more you can educate everyone you know — in your family, on your bandwidth — please do it. Because I'm worried sick that people just aren't seeing this for what it is. If you think it's bad, the truth is, it's worse than you can actually see.

Theocrats are coming for the school board — but parents are starting to fight back

"Masks are not healthy for most people. Just the bacteria that grows in them is causing more issues than any issues masks would prevent," Nicole Konz claimed in a Facebook post last February. On Nov. 2, she was elected to the school board of Academy District 20, near Colorado Springs, a district serving more than 23,000 students. It wasn't an accident. There was a lot of money and power behind her. And Konz wasn't alone.

This article first appeared on Salon.

The district's other new board member was Aaron Salt, already the board chair of a nearby charter academy, who said after his election, "We know that mask usage increases mental health problems and issues. ... That's not something that I'm willing to sacrifice." They were just two of 28 school board candidates elected across Colorado with the backing of a Christian nationalist organization — the Truth and Liberty Coalition (TLC) — whose ambitions are "national, international and eternal," as Frederick Clarkson wrote at Religion Dispatches.

Pandemic restrictions and the moral panic over "critical race theory" are the most recent hot-button recruiting tools integrated into a broader menu of carefully nurtured grievances reflected in TLC's five-issue "Christian Voter Guides," under the headings "Critical Race Theory," "Parental Rights," "Boys Playing Girl Sports" [sic], "Sex Education" and "Gender Identity Pronouns." What's missing is even the pretext of concern for academic content or achievement, budgeting or any other traditional responsibility of a school board.

Clarkson wrote that these school board races in Colorado "were the pilot project in a long-term campaign by the Truth and Liberty Coalition and its de facto training institute, nearby Charis Bible College, in Woodland Park, a suburb of Colorado Springs."

Andrew Wommak, who founded the unaccredited Bible college in 2014, co-founded TLC in 2017 along with Lance Wallnau, preeminent promoter of the "Seven Mountain Mandate," a manifesto for evangelical Christians to conquer and claim dominion over seven key facets of life: education, religion, family, business, government, entertainment and media. So while they claim to speak out as Christians and to express a broadly Christian worldview, they have something radically different in mind from anything America has ever known.

"The 'biblical worldview' is code for a theocratic or theonomic vision of society, in tension or at odds with secular institutions," Clarkson told Salon. "It's not the siloed issues. It's the whole enchilada."

Wallnau was also one of Donald Trump's earliest and most prominent evangelical endorsers. His book "God's Chaos Candidate" was published during the 2016 campaign, just a week before the "Access Hollywood" tape became public. One prominent TLC board member is the evangelical pseudo-historian David Barton, whose 2012 book "The Jefferson Lies," which claimed to debunk claims by legitimate historians about Thomas Jefferson's secular, pluralistic worldview, among other things, was recalled by its evangelical publisher for its numerous falsehoods. (The book was later republished by Glenn Beck, and sold very well to his far-right followers.)

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TLC and its allies' ability to turn out agitated and misinformed voters in low-turnout elections is yet another ominous sign about the electoral landscape Democrats face in the 2022 midterms. In El Paso County, home to Colorado Springs, Republican turnout was 47.3%, compared to 37.6% for Democrats and 28.9% for independent voters.

This was not an isolated phenomenon. Clarkson writes that as in "past waves of fresh political action, there are other organizations doing similar things for similar reasons, often in close collaboration. Their impact is undoubtedly greater than the sum of their parts in the movement." He specifically cites a group called Church Voter Guides, launched earlier this year by Steve Holt, former pastor of a Colorado Springs megachurch, that targeted some of the same races. TLC issued a press release in early October promoting the voter guides of both groups, and casting the election as "a referendum on parental rights."

On the national level, Business Insider noted the involvement of the 1776 Project PAC, which won all 11 of its targeted Colorado school board races, and a majority of the 55 races it targeted nationwide — in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Virginia, Ohio, Minnesota and Kansas — focusing on the bogeyman of critical race theory. Clarkson also noted the existence of similar groups in Pennsylvania, Virginia and Texas, primarily reacting to school closures.

Clarkson also mentioned the "School Board Boot Camp" run by FRC Action, the political action arm of the Family Research Council. "Calling these trainings 'boot camps' and illustrating them with military boots," he said, "is consistent with the theme that they are in a war, and that it is more than metaphorical and is more than a little ominous, post-Jan. 6."

In an earlier "boot camp," held in June, FRC president Tony Perkins warned attendees, "We need to get worked up" about "what is happening across the nation, the indoctrination taking place." He related his first experience of so-called indoctrination: "In elementary school I had encountered one of those newly-minted leftist teachers that was a part of the left's long march through America's institutions, and began teaching the theory of evolution as fact," he recalled. "When I wouldn't yield to it, I found myself punished." He didn't say what the alleged punishment was.

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This is how these people think: Teaching science that was revolutionary 160 years ago, but that undergirds all of biology today, is evidence of an organized leftist takeover of America's institutions — all of which need to be "taken back for God" (as in the "Seven Mountains Mandate"). Of course this requires a specific version of God, since many millions of Americans — including many evangelicals — have no trouble reconciling religion and science. For those who refuse to do that, any scientific advance whatever can potentially be construed as sinister heresy, and the more firmly the science is established, the more vast and sinister the Satanic plot must be. That's the basic conspiracy-theory logic that drives Perkins, his organization and a wide range of like-minded allies.

"The FRC boot camps reveal how the school board campaigns fit in the evolving coalition that constitutes the religious and business right in the age of Trump," Clarkson told Salon via email. "The June boot camp has presentations from inside-the-Beltway conservative think tankers as well as ostensibly grassroots parents' groups. While the Colorado campaigns appeared to focus on evangelicals, the June boot camp also features Mary Hasson, a conservative Catholic from the Ethics and Public Policy Center, underscoring the Catholic dimension of the historic and evolving coalition."

A presentation by a Virginia parents' group at a different post-election "mentioned an alliance with a Patriot group, Bedford County Patriots," he said. "We saw a similar alliance in Colorado as well."

That was a reference to another group, FEC United ("Faith, Education, and Commerce") that drew significant local media attention, particularly from the Colorado Springs Independent, where Heidi Beedle reported that "FEC United has organized protests against masks, vaccines and critical race theory at school board meetings across the Front Range. [Founder Joe] Oltmann has stated on his podcast, Conservative Daily, that teachers are 'recruiting kids to be gay' and that LGBTQ teachers should be 'dragged behind a car until their limbs fall off.'"

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Beedle also reported that FEC United's board of directors included John Tiegen, "a Marine veteran and Benghazi survivor who was at a sniper position during a speech given by UCCS professor Stephany Rose Spaulding in June 2020. Tiegen is also the head of FEC United's armed wing, United American Defense Force."

Then there's the dark money. In late October, NBC affiliate KOAA reported the influx of $130,000 in dark money from Colorado Springs Forward to the Springs Opportunity Fund, which spent massively in all three districts targeted by TLC. But final figures from the Colorado secretary of state went much higher. Slate advertising in support of Konz, Salt, and incumbent board member Thomas LaValley eventually totaled $132,411, while spending in all districts exceeded $350,000.

"They had robocalls, Google ads, text messaging ads, YouTube ads, and even Hulu and Discovery+ ads for conservative candidates throughout El Paso County," Rob Rogers, a core organizer with BIG FA$HION, a playfully-named parent's group active in Academy District 20, told Salon.

Even with this unprecedented level of outside influence, the situation on the ground was more fluid than the turnout numbers suggest. "If we would have had another month, I think that we would have seen some different results," said Bernadette Guthrie, another BIG FA$HION parent organizer. "What a passionate group of parents can do in a short amount of time was just awesome," said Lara Matisek, another core organizer.

"We went from going to parent-teacher conferences to jumping into the mix of starting a political expenditure committee and learning a lot like in the process," Rogers added.

TLC targeted 17 school districts across the state, with its success heavily concentrated in the Colorado Springs area (nine seats in three districts) and nearby Woodland Park (four seats in one district), which is home to Wommak's church and college, plus three seats each in the town of Elizabeth and the western Colorado city of Grand Junction.

Elsewhere its results were mixed, but in this case, "success elsewhere cannot be measured entirely by the score," Clarkson noted, pointing specifically to how TLC's voter guides and candidate framed the races around a set of five culture-war issues and away from "the traditional wonkery of school budgets, curricula, and test scores."

This aligns with a decades-old agenda of attacking public education, according to Katherine Stewart, author of "The Power Worshippers: Inside the Dangerous Rise of Religious Nationalism," and "The Good News Club," an examination of the religious right's efforts to infiltrate and undermine public education. It also makes sense of the prominent role played by anti-mask and anti-vaccine hysteria.

The "division and chaos" this kind of political activity "provokes in public schools and at school board meetings is not an unintended consequence," Stewart told Salon. "It is precisely the point, and it is of a piece with the movement's longstanding hostility to public education. The Rev. Jerry Falwell made the agenda clear in 1979 when he wrote, 'I hope to see the day when there are no more public schools. Churches will have taken them over and Christians will be running them.'" That aptly describes the Truth and Liberty Coalition's agenda today.

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But it's only one facet of that agenda. "The religious right's animosity toward public education is just one part of a general assault on the foundations of modern liberal democracy," Stewart said. "Undermining confidence in our public institutions, in science and critical thinking, and in the social compact that public schools represent is a way of delegitimizing the process of rational policymaking. The growth of irrationalism and anti-intellectualism in education and in society lets powerful religious and economic leaders, along with their political allies, pretend that they represent the will of the people even as they advance their own interests."

That "concerted and organized effort to tear down public education" was a shocking discovery, the Colorado Springs organizer Rob Rogers said. Stewart observed that it may be shocking but is nothing new:

In certain conservative circles, the phrase "government schools" has become as ubiquitous as it is contemptuous. It is characteristic of a movement with longstanding hostility to public education, a hostility with deep roots. The Reconstructionist theologian Rousas J. Rushdoony, whose ideas influenced a number of movement leaders, took an attack on modern democratic government right to the schoolhouse door. His 1963 book, "The Messianic Character of American Education," argued that the "government school" represented "primitivism" and "chaos." Public education, he said, "basically trains women to be men" and "has leveled its guns at God and family."

The Colorado Springs school board races provide a microcosm of how this is playing out today. "The word 'unprecedented' is used a lot. I don't think this is anything compared to what we've seen in the past," organizer Guthrie said. "Instead of hearing about real issues, in terms of testing scores and mental health in schools, violence in schools and teacher shortages, instead of hearing about real issues that plague our district, the local news cycle was masks and critical race theory. There was no real talk of any real issues by the seven self-proclaimed conservative candidates. To try to overcome that and consistently change the conversation and reroute it to the real issues was something we struggled with throughout the entire process."

The church voters guide in Colorado Springs "was heavily, heavily an influencer" in the school board races, Rogers said. Its influence "was really hard for us to overcome," Guthrie agreed. "It was heavily distributed through all the church communities, targeted at an older, conservative, retiree population who don't even have kids in the schools…. It was really difficult for us overcome."

To explain the depth of dishonesty, BIG FA$HION organizers put me in touch with Brian Coram, a Colorado Springs real estate agent and former counselor who ran for school board in the recent election. The guide's five issues were labeled, as mentioned above, as "Critical Race Theory," "Parental Rights," "Boys Playing Girl Sports," "Sex Education" and "Gender Identity Pronouns," with each candidate's position described simply as "agree," "disagree" or "refused." But those simplistic terms had little relationship to the actual questions asked, as Coram explained.

The issue of "Critical Race Theory" was defined in the Church Voter Guide in relation to a declarative statement: "The United States is systemically and fundamentally racist, and students should be educated on white privilege and the unfair benefits that it generates." But that wasn't what Coram, who is Black, was asked in an early phone interview.

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"The first question they asked was, 'Is America systematically racist?' he recalled. "My response to that was, 'Yes, absolutely, 100%. And here's why. I work in real estate. There's a thing called redlining. We know what that is. We know how the process works. We also know that even if we're not doing it today America builds on that foundation and therefore, as a system, it started as a racist system. Does that mean that we are still there? No, it doesn't. Do I still think we have issues? Of course. That's not the important part. You asked the question, I answered the question." His answer was summarized in the guide as "Does endorse CRT," although that was never discussed.

Equally problematic was the issue of "Parental rights," which functioned as de facto code for objecting to mask mandates, but not of course for parents' rights to protect their children from COVID. But the specific wording contained other trapdoors.

"I remember one of the questions being, 'Should parents always be informed of any medical decisions that the school makes for the children?'" Coram recalled. "I answered that question with, 'OK, so hold on, I have a background in social work. So you're telling me that if a kid comes into school with a bunch of bruises and whatnot and all that stuff, you're going to call the parent, who could in fact be the abuser, and say, 'Hey, we're going to do this,' and they'll go, 'Oh no, don't do that, I'll come get him,' and then they end up murdering that kid. Because that's what happens. I worked in social work. I've seen that before."

The interviewer objected, saying that wasn't what they were asking. But "any medical decisions" was in the original question, and Coram's response was labeled "refused." Regarding sex education, "What they asked was, 'Should sex education be abstinence-only?'" Coram recalled. "They did not say age-appropriate." The voter guide language added another layer of deception, framing the issue as "Sex education should be age appropriate, emphasizing the abstinence-based model."

In sharp contrast to TLC, BIG FA$HION's voter guides were completely unedited and transparent. (See Coram's here.) "We invited all candidates to participate and we told them their responses would be unedited, unaltered, submitted with screenshots of what was said so they didn't have any worries about us editing things out or putting things in," said Lara Matisek. None of the seven self-described conservative candidates responded. "It was very telling that they did not want to participate," she said. "Hundreds of parents wanted these questions answered that were never answered with the church voter guide."

The voter guides weren't the only resource TLC provided. They also had a whole webpage of links to voter tools, including "Worldview Resources" from My Faith Votes, which includes a series of short videos purporting to explain what the Bible has to say about a series of questions, such as border control and immigration, abortion and gun control.

Given that guns weren't invented until at least a thousand years later, you might conclude that the Bible doesn't have much to say about them, and you'd be correct. The Bible is also silent on abortion, although practiced and skillful cherry-picking is at work. On the subject of immigration, you might expect to find the famous passages from Exodus 22:21: "You shall not oppress a stranger nor torment him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt" or Leviticus 19:34: "The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself" or, for that matter, Matthew 25:35: "I was a stranger and you invited me in."

Nope, there's none of that. Instead we get, "Romans chapter 13 verses one through seven says there that the laws that have been given to us as a nation have been given to us by God and that those who are called to enforce those laws are actually ministers of God's righteousness. So we are to obey the laws that exist."

That's pretty much it: Exactly the same logic used to defend slavery — which, to be fair, has considerably more biblical support than do bans on abortion or restrictions on immigration. In short, the worldview here has very little to do with what's in the Bible. It's a charade, at best, or as Clarkson said, it's "code for a theocratic or theonomic vision of society in tension or at odds with secular institutions."

If secular liberals and progressives are to successfully fight back, they need to understand what they're up against. But they also need to understand their own strengths, which brings us back to BIG FA$HION and how they got their name.

"The one thing that has kept us going and helped us to sustain momentum is that we find humor in pretty much everything we do," Matisek said. "When all the 'Unmask our kids' stuff was going on, we had partaken in some commentary on social media: 'Yeah, you know, we don't want to mask the kids. We shouldn't even be pantsing them! Unpants Colorado, while we're at it! Who needs pants in school?' So BIG FA$HION kind of got its name from some commentary we were doing."

Their opponents frequently claimed that Big Pharma was behind COVID restrictions and vaccine mandates, Guthrie explained, "So the joke that got legs and ran off was that Big Fashion was trying to keep us all wearing pants."

This spontaneous playfulness in response to right-wing manufactured outrage reminded me of Dannagal Goldthwaite Young's book "Irony and Outrage: The Polarized Landscape of Rage, Fear, and Laughter in the United States" (Salon interviews here and here). As she explains, the left can never realistically hope to match the right's capacity to generate outrage, even in response to blatant efforts to steal elections and overthrow democracy. What can help empower progressives the save themselves is a shared capacity to laugh at the absurd rather than be imprisoned by it — a capacity to mock those who would make a mockery of democracy. We will need as much of that ability to laugh as we can manage.

Could this one weird trick save American democracy?

The past decade has seen voter suppression and partisan gerrymandering grow dramatically worse, while the Supreme Court has undercut efforts to fight back through litigation — both by striking down a key provision of the Voting Rights Act and by declaring that partisan gerrymandering is not a matter for the courts. But the courts aren't the only avenue for protecting America against democratic erosion. Congress has a key role as well — in fact, it has an urgent duty to act, according to a recent article about the U.S. Constitution's "Guarantee Clause" by Carolyn Shapiro, a professor at the Chicago-Kent College of Law.

Democrats in the Senate are reluctant to act, because that would mean altering or ditching the antiquated filibuster, which has been tinkered with repeatedly before. What they haven't taken seriously, at least so far, is the constitutional obligation enshrined in the Guarantee Clause, a topic also recently addressed by New York Times columnist Jamelle Bouie: "The United States shall guarantee to every State in this Union a Republican Form of Government."

For more than a century, courts have refused to act on this clause, viewing it as a "nonjusticiable" political question. As Shapiro notes in the abstract of her paper, "many see the Clause as purely vestigial." She continues: "But nonjusticiable does not mean toothless, and this view fails to recognize the Clause's grant of power to Congress," which the framers included, she argues, "because they feared that some forms of government, such as monarchy, were incompatible with republicanism, which they understood as representative self-government."

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Those fears "appear prescient" in light of the democratic erosion we're seeing now, Shapiro argues: "Fortunately, the Guarantee Clause allows — indeed, requires — Congress to address these antidemocratic state-level practices."

Shapiro's case amounts to the claim that congressional action on this issue is a crucial constitutional duty, clarified and reinforced by our history, which has seen the meaning of "republican" government evolve, even as the core rationale remains the same. This dual reality — an evolving meaning with a stable rationale — illustrates the logic of living constitutionalism and the folly of "originalism," while the plain language of the Guarantee Clause refutes the right-wing trope that "states' rights" must be seen as the antidote to a tyrannical federal government. The danger of state-level tyranny was clearly recognized by the Constitution's authors.

The need for such action has never been more urgent, as reflected in a recent statement by more than 150 scholars of American democracy, calling on Congress to pass the Freedom to Vote Act, "if necessary by suspending the Senate filibuster rule," and warning that if it fails to act, "American democracy will be at critical risk." Shapiro casts things in an even sharper light by elucidating the constitutional duty — which was vigorously fulfilled by the Reconstruction-era Congress, even before passage of the 14th and 15th amendments. Salon recently asked Shapiro to explore her argument in depth. This transcript has been edited for clarity and length.

The Guarantee Clause promises that the United States "shall guarantee to every state in the Union a Republican form of government." That part of the Constitution gets relatively little attention. Why does it deserve our attention now?

Well, it deserves our attention because it was created, in part, for a moment like the moment we're in, where we have movement away from compatible forms of government between the states. The "republican form of government" is a very broad term, it can mean a lot of different things at different moments in history.

But the framers were very worried that there would be certain forms of government that would just be incompatible with each other, and that the country would fall apart. A situation we are in now — where we have some states that do not appear to be committed to democracy, and are working to undermine democracy in some pretty significant ways — that's exactly the kind of situation that the Guarantee Clause speaks to.

You write that "making sense of the Guarantee Clause today requires recognizing that republicanism means something broader and more democratic than it did at the founding." So, first of all, what's the core meaning that's still applicable? And how has it broadened and changed?

At the founding, the idea of republicanism was actually quite malleable. The real vision of republicanism had to do with trying to prevent corruption, prevent anarchy, to promote virtue, in a way that political thinkers thought of as being similar to the Roman and Greek republics, which is where the term republicanism comes from. They had very different ideas about what that might look like. So, in Britain, they thought it could be compatible with monarchy, whereas in what became the United States, that was absolutely rejected as a possibility.

There were some core features of republicanism, and one of them was representative democracy, with some level of representation by whoever they consider to be the people. Of course, we think of "the people" today as much broader than they did at the time. But that came out of this desire to promote virtue and prevent anarchy, and try to prevent corruption among leaders — that there was always a danger of self-interest getting in the way. So you wanted to promote virtue among the leaders, among the people who were making decisions on behalf of the people. And one way to do that was to make those leaders answerable to the people.

So how has that broadened and changed?

We would not today consider what they saw at the founding as representative democracy. At the founding, only white men, and in many places only white men who were property owners, were allowed to vote, and that continued well into the 19th century in some states. Rhode Island had extremely restrictive franchise rules well up until the 1840s. So we wouldn't recognize that as a kind of representative democracy.

The other piece of what is important about the Guarantee Clause has to do with this idea of a structural guarantee — that it's about making sure that we can be a cohesive country. There are limits to what can happen in one state without it affecting the governance in another state and the cohesion between states.

You can see that with what happened with slavery. At the founding, there were people who were against slavery, but there was a general acceptance that it might be at least possible or even likely that we could have a country where slavery was legal in some states and illegal in other states. What happened over time is that it became clear that was untenable. In order to enforce slavery in the slave states, it was impossible for the free state to protect their own people. It was impossible for the free states to have their own laws.

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We saw that in cases like Prigg v. Pennsylvania, where slave-catchers could come into a free state and abduct people, including people who were born free in Pennsylvania, and say, "Well we own these people, and we're going to take them back to Maryland," and there was nothing Pennsylvania could do, even with a law that says you can't kidnap people, even under claim of ownership. So slavery became inconsistent with national cohesion, and at the same time with republicanism, because it undermines the whole notion of a functioning representative democracy.

You write that "the story often told is that the Framers were determined to protect the states from the federal government, or the parts from the whole, in order to protect against tyranny" but that in fact the protections "run in several directions." How should the Guarantee Clause be understood in this context?

It's in a part of the Constitution that generally talks about those relationships. It includes a variety of different promises that the federal government is making to the states, not just a guarantee of a republican form of government — for example, a guarantee of protection against invasion. There's this promise that if New York invades Pennsylvania, the federal government will aid Pennsylvania. It's about trying to find that balance in doing something quite new, in having this country made up of sovereign states that have given up a fair amount of their sovereignty, and in exchange are getting these promises.

In your paper you talk about the "spillover effects" that laws in one state can cause in others. Can you explain what those are and why they're such a concern?

Spillover effects is a concept not necessarily related to the question of a "republican form of government." That arises from the notion that sometimes things decided upon by the government of one state can have negative — or, for that matter, positive — effects in another state. So, the easiest one to think about is pollution. If I'm in a state with not much regulation of pollution and we're throwing a lot of stuff into the water and it's going downstream into the next state, the next state is experiencing, quite literally, a negative spillover effect.

But it's not limited to pollution, that's just the easiest concrete example. What I argue in the paper — and this is not my idea, it comes out of the work of many other scholars on democratic decline — is that there can be a negative feedback loop related to anti-democratic or pro-authoritarian impulses. So if one state is bound and determined to not allow a certain set of people to vote, or is going to gerrymander its legislature in such a way that it is highly unrepresentative, that has effects that go beyond that state itself.

Some of those effects are kind of literal: That gerrymandered legislature, in turn, is going to gerrymander the congressional delegation, which is going to affect everybody in the country, for example, through how they choose their presidential electoral votes. But the democracy scholars talk about the tit-for-tat situation that develops over time, where states begin to respond to each other: "Well, the other side is doing this. If they're gerrymandering so extremely, then we better do the same," for example. That can really devolve into an anti-democratic spiral, which I think we're seeing.

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You argue that the Guarantee Clause "may require a federal legislative response to state-level actions when they threaten antidemocratic spillovers" — not just "justify" but "require," you say. Why should we see it this way?

Well, it's a guarantee. It's a promise. It's not an enforceable requirement. You can't go to court and make Congress do it. But I think it is an appropriate way of thinking about the clause. "Guarantee" is a big word. It's not like you know, "the United States shall facilitate," or "shall promote." It says "guarantee," and I think thinking about the reasons behind such a promise is so important.

I don't think it's to be taken lightly. I don't think that I would support an argument that the Guarantee Clause allows Congress to come in and do anything it wants in restructuring state government. I don't think that's what it says at all. I think it's specifically about the kind of danger that we are currently facing.

Obviously there's room for debate, and there would be judgment calls about exactly when we're in such a situation, and what types of responses are justified. But I don't think that changes the reality that this promise is premised on the challenge of having a diverse country, even though the diversity at the time of the founding was very different. There was still worry about different states not respecting their place as coequal states, coequal members of this new country, that there could be expansionist tyrannical efforts to overtake other states' interests. I think that fairly describes a lot of what we're seeing today.

The Guarantee Clause was largely unused before the Civil War, as you discuss. What lessons can we draw from that time period?

We can draw a number of lessons. One is that if it's unused, of course, it's not very meaningful. We can see it was unused for reasons that were not necessarily very good. I talk in the paper about some of the reasons why, in the most crucial moment, around the Dorr Rebellion in Rhode Island — when the president was approached and Congress was approached and then later, the Supreme Court was asked to weigh in — there really was resistance to doing anything. Many historians think that was in part because the slaveowners and the slave states understood the Guarantee Clause as a threat to them. Because if it was taken seriously, it was not going to be possible to reconcile a republican form of government with slavery. And abolitionists in the 19th century were making this argument, they were arguing that's what the Guarantee Clause had to mean.

So there was great reluctance on the part of the Supreme Court, which was dominated by justices from slave states — some of them slaveowners themselves — and from the president at the time, who was from the South, to do anything that might open the door to relying on the Guarantee Clause to undermine slavery.

The Civil War obviously brought about a sea change, but the role of the Guarantee Clause is usually obscured in that history. What should we know about that?

The Reconstruction Congress relied on the Guarantee Clause to do a number of things before they enacted or sent to the states the 14th and 15th amendments. For example, they refused to seat delegations from some states unless and until they thought the states complied with having the type of government that they considered to meet the Guarantee Clause requirements. That meant things like universal male suffrage — and that was before the 15th Amendment was ratified. So they saw the Guarantee Clause as a crucial piece of undoing slavery, just as the slaveowners had worried that it would be. So it's very consistent.

But ultimately when the 14th and 15th amendments were ratified, a lot of attention, understandably, shifted to those amendments. One of the arguments I make is that an unanticipated consequence of those amendments has been that a lot of the debate we have about voting and election law is bound up in those amendments, which are really understood to provide individual rights and protect people's individual rights, whereas the Guarantee Clause is not about that. As I've argued, it's a guarantee about the relationship between the states. Even though the 14th and 15th amendments on the one hand and the Guarantee Clause on the other may address very similar concerns, they do so in a very different kind of way.

That leads into my next question, about how things have developed since the post-Civil War era. One was that shift of focus, but you also talk about the development of our national identity as a democracy. What's important about this for us today?

I think it's important for a couple of reasons. One is that the more cohesive we are as a country, both in terms of political culture and national identity, but also in terms of how the federal government operates in general — it is a much more significant force than it was at the founding — all speak to the potential dangers of the negative spillover effects that the Guarantee Clause was designed to address. So it's not necessarily better or worse. It's different.

I talk about how people today, as a general matter, are more likely to identify as Americans than, say, Illinoisians. I talk about how with massive immigration, with massive internal migration — where people are really moving from state to state but maintain connections with people in other states — the distinct state cultures which were very important at the founding have fallen away. And of course we have technology and an ability to travel that completely eclipses anything that was the case at the time. In essence, we function much more as a single political entity than we did at the founding.

At the same time, the history of the country is a history of moving towards increased democracy. Even in the 19th century, when you start to have people in Rhode Island during the Dorr Rebellion, say, "No, it's not OK for only men who have $134 worth of property and their eldest sons to vote. Other people should be able to vote too." And it's not OK to have a state legislature so malapportioned that rural towns were able to dominate the increasingly populous cities in Rhode Island.

Now, that's long before the Supreme Court started weighing in, that was 120 years before the Supreme Court weighed in on "one person, one vote," it was before the 14th Amendment itself. But that's part of this ongoing trend, right through to the abolition of slavery, to the 14th amendment, the 15th amendment and the 19th amendment, all of these different amendments about expanding democracy. So there's an increased constitutional commitment to popular, representative democracy that really does allow for full participation among the citizenry. That's been a pretty consistent trend.

We didn't always live up to it. The end of Reconstruction was a big backslide. But I talk in the paper about all these examples of presidents claiming, "We're going to make the world safe for democracy" or "We're going to bring democracy to the Middle East" or "The Axis Powers of World War II are trying to undermine democracy." It's a rallying cry for the country and has been for well over a century, at least since the Civil War. So I think those two put together, when you have a national identity focused on democracy and when you have that being undermined in individual states, that is a dangerous situation.

That brings us to the current moment and the threats we face now. How should they be understood in terms of the Guarantee Clause?

Well, they should be understood, in terms of the Guarantee Clause, exactly as a true threat to the ability of the country to function as a single country and as a democratic country. Federalism is often used when people talk about how states get to decide who votes and how they vote and how elections are run, and that the Constitution gives that power to the states. But the Guarantee Clause is like the safety valve on the other side, to say that we could go too far in allowing each state to decide what to do.

If a bunch of states were to say, "You know what, we're not going to have popular elections of presidents anymore." If they were to say that through gerrymandered legislatures that are themselves not democratically elected, enough states with undemocratic gerrymandered legislatures decided to take the vote for president away from the people — and they had enough votes among themselves to elect a president — it's hard to imagine that that presidency would be understood as fully legitimate by all the people who weren't for that president, whether in those states or in the other states. So that's an example where antidemocratic actions in one state, if there are enough of them, can completely undermine our national government and our ability to accept our national government.

You write that in interpreting and enforcing the Guarantee Clause, "Congress is due more here than the limited deference the Court gives to congressional efforts to enforce individual rights" under the 14th and 15th amendments — which is exactly what happened with the Shelby v. Holder decision. Do you think that would protect against the court invalidating congressional action based on the Guarantee Clause?

It's a fool's errand to say for sure what the Supreme Court is going to do. So I don't think there's a guarantee, no pun intended. I think they are very different, and I think the arguments are powerful — let me put it that way. I think that if the Supreme Court decides it's not going to define the scope of the Guarantee Clause, which it has decided, and if the Guarantee Clause is directed to the government as a whole, which it is, and if Congress makes meaningful findings — and I don't think Congress can act willy-nilly; an appropriate use of the Guarantee Clause requires a thoughtful explanation for why they're doing what they're doing — but if Congress does that, I think a significant deference is owed to their judgment.

It's exactly the kind of political judgment that led the court to decide it couldn't weigh into the Guarantee Clause in the first place. And since it hasn't provided any definition of the scope of what that clause means — unlike the rights protected by the 14th and 15th amendments — it would essentially be like a guessing game: "No, that one didn't work. Try again." That's not the way coequal branches are supposed to operate.

So, can I tell you the Supreme Court would agree with me and would do what I suggest here? Of course I can't make that promise. But I think the arguments are powerful. I think there are very meaningful differences between the different clauses and the amendments. Some of them have to do with the way they are written, and some have to do with how the Supreme Court has interpreted them, or declined to do so.

When it came to extreme partisan gerrymandering, until Anthony Kennedy left the court, it looked like they might say, "Yes we can and should do something about it," and then they pulled back. By the logic that you're proposing, this would strengthen Congress's hand in acting, correct?

This is a key: Under the elections clause, Congress can outlaw extreme partisan gerrymandering for congressional elections. I think that's widely accepted. But I think under the Guarantee Clause they can actually do it for state legislatures, and there is no other part of the Constitution that provides for that power. In fact, at the time of the founding there was a genuine fear that some states would try to establish monarchies in their own state. And if you think about it, if enough states were to say tomorrow, "We're not going to call it a monarchy, but our governor is going to serve for life and the governor gets to pick their successor, and then that person serves for life, etc.," would we stand for that? What if the state said, "We're also going to allow for that governor to handpick the members of the legislative body'? Would that be OK?

I don't think that would be OK. Congress could refuse to seat a delegation from a state that looks like that, but that could actually undermine the only small-d democratic function that the state might have left. So I think it would be well within Congress' power to say, "No, states must have a popularly elected governor and a popularly elected legislature," without a lot of detail. If a state decided to have a parliamentary form of government, that would not violate the Guarantee Clause because we see that as an appropriate form of representative democracy today. But monarchy or aristocracy? I don't think that is consistent with our understanding of republicanism.

So we're at a point of crisis now. More than 150 scholars of democratic backsliding just issued a statement in support of the Freedom to Vote Act and setting aside the filibuster, saying that if Congress fails to pass the act, "American democracy will be at critical risk." How should we understand the relationship between your argument and this call for action?

I think they come from the same place. We are in a really dangerous situation where a lot of significant efforts are being made in many states to change the way we choose our leaders, to exclude significant numbers of people from being able to have a say. We look increasingly like a country close to what we looked like before the Voting Rights Act, in terms of large parts of the country not having a government that is in any way responsive to and or elected by the people. It's elected by a subset of the people, and responsive to a subset of the people. In turn, because the legislatures in most states draw the maps for the legislature, and in most states draw the maps for Congress, and in all states get to decide how presidential electors are chosen, there's a whole series of knock-on effects that become very, very hard to undo over time.

In your survey of threats that we face today you don't just mention extreme gerrymandering and voter suppression. You also talk about anti-democratic lame-duck lawmaking, which we've seen in Wisconsin and North Carolina. How might Congress respond?

This really is most relevant in states that are pretty purple, that could go either way. You have this heavily gerrymandered supermajority Republican legislature and in statewide elections Democratic statewide officials are elected — whether the governor and the attorney general, as in North Carolina, or Supreme Court justices in some states — and then in the interim period, before the new governor comes in, the state legislatures have enacted laws that change the structure of government in a meaningful way, taking power away from the incoming Democratic officeholders and reallocating it to the legislature.

In the case of Wisconsin, one particularly outrageous thing was that one of these laws had the intent and effect of making it impossible for the new Democratic governor [Tony Evers] to fulfill one of his primary campaign promises, which was to get out of the anti-Obamacare lawsuit. He supported Obamacare, and withdrawing from the lawsuit was a big issue in the campaign, not a small thing. And then the legislature enacted a law, which the outgoing governor signed, that prevented that from happening. To me, that's particularly outrageous, because we had a small-d democratic election, people said, "This is what we want," and then an undemocratic gerrymandered legislature with an outgoing governor undermines that.

I think one way of addressing that is that if a legislature is passing laws in that lame-duck period that reallocate authority within state government in some way, those laws have to go through some form of pre-clearance to establish that it's not an attempt to undermine the democratic decisions of the people of the state. I would argue that it should be nationwide. I think it would be a pretty deferential standard, because there's lots of things that state legislatures can and should do in that context. But as a nationwide system it would at minimum discourage that kind of democratic undermining.

In two respects your paper goes against conservative constitutional mythology. First, you reveal the obvious shortsightedness of regionalism and, second, by focusing attention on the text you push back against the states' rights ideology, making it clear that the Constitution grants federal power to protect against tyranny coming from the states just as much as it protects the states against federal tyranny. Do you have any broader thoughts about the importance of freeing ourselves from these kinds of partial and misleading myths?

That's a big question. I am not an originalist, that's pretty obvious. But on the states' rights side, that is, I think, a really crucial contribution, in the way I think about the Guarantee Clause. There's this whole long saga about how a big central government is tyrannical, by definition, that the states are closer to the people and can prevent us from tyranny. That's the story that we get told. I teach a version of that story when I talk about what the founders were thinking, but they weren't oblivious to the danger that tyranny could come from within a state. They thought there were some forms of government that are incompatible with democracy. You can't have unlimited states' rights.

Finally, what's the most important question that I haven't asked? And what's the answer?

The most important question is, "What do we do to try to protect democracy in our country?" And I think the answer is enormously complicated. I think Congress should absolutely pass the For the People Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Act, and should pass some of the ideas I propose in the paper. Of course I think that.

But I also think ordinary people should take responsibility for talking across ideological divides, promoting meaningful civic education that teaches young people how to do that. It's something I do as faculty director of the Constitutional Democracy Project at Chicago-Kent. One thing democracy scholars talk about is that an antidemocratic spiral arises out of this belief that if the other side wins it's the worst thing that could happen. I think we are in a moment in our country where both sides think that — it's an existential threat if the other side wins. I don't know the answer to that, but I don't think the answer comes from Congress. It has to come from people.

How extremist Christian theology is driving the right-wing assault on democracy

Progressive policies and positions are supposed to be rooted in reality and hard evidence. But that's not always the case when it comes to the culture wars that have such an enormous impact on our politics — especially not since the unexpected evangelical embrace of Donald Trump in 2016, culminating in the "pro-life" death cult of anti-vaccine, COVID-denying religious leaders. If this development perplexed many on the left, it was less surprising to a small group of researchers who have been studying the hardcore anti-democratic theology known as dominionism that lies behind the contemporary Christian right, and its far-reaching influence over the last several decades.

One leading figure within that small group, Rachel Tabachnick, was featured in a recent webinar hosted by the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice (archived on YouTube here), as part of its Religion and Repro Learning Series program, overseen by the Rev. Dr. Cari Jackson. Tabachnick's writing on dominionism can be found at Talk2Action and Political Research Associates, and she's been interviewed by Terry Gross on Fresh Air.

Her presentation sheds important light on at least three things: First of all, the vigilante element of the Texas anti-abortion law SB 8. Second, the larger pattern of disrupting or undermining governance, including the "constitutional sheriffs" movement, the installation of overtly partisan election officials and the red-state revolt against national COVID public health policies. While Donald Trump has exploited that pattern ruthlessly, he did not create it. And third, the seemingly baffling fact that an anti-democratic minority feels entitled to accuse its opponents — including democratically elected officials — of "tyranny."

Some dominionist ideas — such as the biblical penalty of death by stoning — are so extreme they can easily be dismissed as fringe, others have been foundational to the modern religious right, and still more have become increasingly influential in recent years. Those latter two categories are what we need to understand most, say both Tabachnick and Jackson.

"One of the things that struck me, as a relative newcomer," said Jackson, a former Congregationalist minister, "was that there was not sufficient understanding about the theological frames used by many individuals who are opposed to abortion." She continued, "I'm a strategist in a lot of ways, and one important strategy, I believe, must be to understand what the teachings and the theological frames are" on the other side. Which links directly to the question of what progressive activists need to do differently in this changed environment.

This failure to understand the nature of dominionism has hampered activists, not just in the realm of reproductive justice, but across an entire spectrum of political issues, both cultural and economic. Jackson discussed her own background, raised within a conservative Christian worldview.

"I was taught a very individualistic approach," she said, "taught that we shouldn't pay taxes, because doing so enabled people who were not working, and enables people whose lifestyle we don't agree with." There's nothing new about such views, but dominionism provides believers with an even stronger foundation for them.

Jackson describes her current understanding of religious faith as highly intersectional: "We believe that to understand the attacks on abortion also invites us — or even requires us — to look at attacks on voting, to look at attacks on immigrants, attacks on prison reform, attacks on equal pay and on and on," she said. "It's all of the same cloth: They are all attacks on humans flourishing. That's my language. The God of my understanding wants all of us to flourish in who we are."

The language of dominionism is strikingly different, to put it mildly. In her webinar, Tabachnick played a clip of one of the movement's leading figures, C. Peter Wagner, providing a definition:

Dominion has to do with control. Dominion has to do with rulership. Dominion has to do with authority and subduing. And it relates to society — in other words what is talked about, what the values are in heaven [that] need to be made manifest here on earth. Dominion means being the head and not the tail. Dominion means ruling as kings. It says in Revelation chapter 1:6 that "he has made us kings and priests," and check the rest of that verse, it says "for dominion." So we are kings for dominion.


Later she provided a definition from Frederick Clarkson, author of the 1997 book, "Eternal Hostility: The Struggle Between Theocracy and Democracy":


Dominionism is the theocratic idea that regardless of theological view, means, or timetable, Christians are called by God to exercise dominion over every aspect of society by taking control of political and cultural institutions.


Wagner, who died in 2016, is known as the founding father of the New Apostolic Reformation (NAR), one of the two main branches of dominionism, which grew out of the Pentecostal and charismatic traditions within evangelical Christianity. Dominionists in the other branch, known as "Christian reconstructionism," come out of conservative Calvinism, with a focus on bringing government and society under biblical law. They tend to be more circumspect, often obfuscating their true intentions and avoiding the word "theocracy" in favor of "theonomy," for example. But not Wagner, as can be seen in the title of his 2011 book, "Dominion!: Your Role in Bringing Heaven to Earth." The NAR talks constantly about taking dominion over the "seven mountains" of society: education, religion, family, business, government, arts and the media.

But it's the other branch, the Christian reconstructionists, who have excelled at strategic organizing and providing blueprints across different right-wing constituencies for almost 50 years. They are the ones Tabachnick focused most of her presentation on, specifically two key figures: Rousas John Rushdoony, the movement's master theologian, and his son-in-law Gary North, a prolific strategist, propagandist and networker who was once a staffer for Rep. Ron Paul, the libertarian hero.

Christian reconstructionism, Tabachnick explained, is "about bringing government in all areas of life under biblical law, a continuation of the Mosaic law in the Old Testament, with some exceptions." This dispensation would include, "according to Gary North, public execution of women who have abortions and those who advise them to have an abortion."

In a recent private presentation, Frederick Clarkson asked a rhetorical question: "People have long said that there should be Christian government, but if you had one, what would it look like? What would it do? Rushdoony was the first to create a systematic theology of what Christian governance should be like, based on the Ten Commandments, and all of the judicial applications he could find in the Old Testament — including about 35 capital offenses."

But the "Handmaid's Tale"-style extremism of dominionists' ultimate vision shouldn't really be our focus, Tabachnick told Salon. "Nobody cares about the theocratic, draconian future envisioned by reconstructionists because they don't believe it will happen," she said.

What's happening right now, however, is that this ideology has had tremendous impact on more immediate politics. "Christian reconstructionism is the merger of a distinct brand of Calvinism with Austrian School economics," Tabachnick said. "In other words, it's an interpretation of the Bible grounded in property rights." The results have been far-reaching:


For more than 40 years, its prolific writers have provided the foundations and strategic blueprints for the attacks on liberation theology and the social gospel, as well as many other streams of Christianity which do not share the Reconstructionists' belief in unfettered capitalism as ordained by God and its fierce anti-statism. The larger religious right's attack on public education, the social safety net and most government functions are largely grounded in the writings, strategies and tactics formulated by reconstructionist writers.

Reconstructionism is not the only (and certainly not the first) source of interposition and nullification in this country. However, much of what is currently being taught today about using interposition to undermine the legitimacy of government is sourced in reconstructionism.


This idea of "interposition" comes through what's known as the doctrine of the "lesser magistrate," which we'll return to below. But its significance — especially in the post-2020 Republican Party — has only recently become apparent. Reconstructionism's initial appeal was more immediately, as Tabachnick explained in the seminar:


What Rushdoony provided is a package that included attacking what these fundamentalists hated and feared most in society, often expressed in terms of "This is communist. This is socialist." But Rushdoony provided a way to sacralize these ideas, and at the same time not just tear down the old order, but provide a blueprint for the new order.


Everyone didn't have to agree on the blueprint, she said: "Rushdoony's ideas went out in bits and pieces. The Christian right leaders took what they wanted and discarded what they didn't."

"Christian reconstructionism, as articulated by Rushdoony, provided a standard by which everyone else had to measure themselves," Clarkson told Salon. "Not everyone on the Christian right agreed with Rushdoony and his fellow Reconstructionist thinkers on, for example, the contemporary application of capital crimes listed in the Old Testament. And followers were often at pains to distinguish themselves."

Clarkson cites the case of conservative Presbyterian theologian Francis Schaeffer, who disagreed with Rushdoony on the applicability of biblical law, but became a driving force behind the anti-abortion activist movement Operation Rescue. That "militant Schaefferism," Clarkson said, "led activists to think: What's next, beyond political protest and stopping abortion? This is where the conversation has been in the Christian right for decades."

The doctrine of the "lesser magistrate," mentioned above, first emerged into public discourse out of Operation Rescue. But it did so as part of a larger, more complicated story.

There's a long history of right-wing opposition to federal authority, particularly grounded in the 19th-century defense of slavery and continuing in the defense of Jim Crow segregation. In his famous "I Have a Dream" speech, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke specifically of the governor of Alabama "having his lips dripping with the words of interposition and nullification."

As detailed by Randall Balmer in "Bad Faith: Race and the Rise of the Religious Right," the religious right wasn't initially fueled by opposition to the Roe v. Wade decision in 1973, but by opposition to a lesser-known decision in 1971, Green v. Connally, which threatened the tax-exempt status of racially discriminatory institutions, most famously the evangelical stronghold Bob Jones University.

Anti-abortion activists have long sought not just to bury that past but to stand it on its head, somehow equating Roe v. Wade with the notorious Dred Scott decision of 1857 and claiming the moral heritage of abolitionism.

"Throughout these movements there is also an attempt to turn the tables on the claims of racism," Tabachnick said in her webinar. "This is one of the roles that anti-abortion activism as abolition plays. Also, there's a promotion of narratives that provide a different history and legal justifications for interposition, nullification and even secession. One of the things that Christian reconstructionism has added to this dialogue is the concept of the lower magistrate."

As Tabachnick explains it, the "lesser magistrate" is a heroic figure who "resists the tyranny of a higher authority" — defining "tyranny" in biblical terms, potentially including any number of popular or common-sense laws or policies. This notion first gained salience in the anti-abortion context in the 1980s and '90s, as Tabachnick went on to explain.

"Many violent anti-abortionists have justified their actions in reconstructionist teachings," she said. "One of these was Paul Hill, who studied under one of the major reconstructionist leaders and corresponded with others." Hill went on to murder Dr. John Britton, a physician who performed abortions, as well as Britton's personal bodyguard, in 1994. Hill was executed in 2003, but the reconstructionist movement sought to cast him out well before that.

"Gary North responded, after the murders had taken place, in a book called 'Lone Gunners for Jesus,'" Tabachnick said. His message to Hill was, "You're going to burn in hell, you've been excommunicated. This was because Paul Hill stepped outside the bounds of the guidelines set by the movement."

To explain this, she quoted a passage from another book by North that offered qualified support for Operation Rescue: "We need a statement that under no circumstances will Operation Rescue or any of its official representatives call for armed resistance to civil authority without public support from a lesser magistrate."

"On the basis of their belief of what the law or the word of God is, they are allowed — on the advice, on the interposition, of a lesser magistrate — to commit acts of violence," Tabachnick continued. North was seeking to control or curb anti-abortion terrorism, but without rejecting it in principle. Murdering abortion providers — or even murdering women seeking abortions — could be morally justified, with the blessing of a lesser magistrate.

This is relevant to SB 8 in Texas in at least two ways. That bill bans abortions after six weeks and is enforced not by state officials, but by deputizing private individuals to sue anyone who performs the procedure or "aids and abets" it. First of all, giving private individuals these vigilante-style rights seems a lot like making them into "lesser magistrates," however narrowly constrained.

Second, the Supreme Court's refusal to stay the law — which clearly violates the Constitution and existing precedent, as Justice Sonia Sotomayor argued in her dissent — can be seen as an example of the doctrine in action. In more normal circumstances, the court would have stayed the law pending consideration on the merits, even if a majority of justices intended to overturn precedent. That's how common law has worked for centuries.

But biblical law isn't common law, especially as reconstructionists understand it. Under the doctrine of the "lesser magistrate," Roe is not precedent but an instance of tyranny — and the justices have a duty to God to resist it. Of course, not even Amy Coney Barrett or Clarence Thomas has said anything like that, but it's entirely consistent with their behavior — as well as with their silence, since openly making such an argument would clarify just how radicalized they have become. But adherents of the doctrine of the lesser magistrate must surely appreciate the drift in direction.

Nor is the doctrine limited to abortion cases, as already noted. Matthew Trewhella is a pastor who was a prominent leader of violence-prone wing of the anti-abortion movement in 1990s, and author of the 2013 book, "The Doctrine of the Lesser Magistrates," which greatly heightened its visibility.

"Trewhella is now all over radio and the internet," Tabachnick said in her webinar, "claiming to meet with state legislators and attorney generals at the moment, with the cause of fighting the 'tyranny of mask mandates' and vaccination for COVID. So you can see how this is a concept that is not just limited to abortion. It is a concept that can be used in resistance of government authority all over the country in all different kinds of ways — FEMA, EPA, Bureau of Land Management and so forth."

Trewhella isn't breaking new ground here. Clarkson's 1997 book "Eternal Hostility" describes him making similar arguments in a speech to an anti-tax group in Wisconsin. He was just one figure among many spreading the seeds of reconstructionist resistance to federal authority among militia members, "freemen" and anti-abortion activists at the time.

"This movement believes that rights come from God and not from any government," Tabachnick told Salon. "Therefore, any 'rights' that conflict with their interpretation of God's law are not actually rights. They are 'humanist' or a product of man's laws and not God's laws. This theme of 'human rights' versus inalienable rights from God has been at the center of the Christian Reconstructionist movement since its beginnings."

She pointed to "What's Wrong With Human Rights," an excerpt from a book of the same name by the Rev. T. Robert Ingram published in "The Theology of Christian Resistance," a collection edited by North. Ingram sweeps aside the Bill of Rights as "a statement of sovereign powers of states withheld from the federal authority of the Union," and turns instead to the Virginia Declaration of Rights, authored by George Mason in 1776.

The first section of the Virginia Declaration, beginning "That all Men are by Nature equally free and independent, and have certain inherent Rights," is dismissed by Ingram for omitting any mention of God, as an "error of unbelief which falsifies all the rest that is said about human life." The second, beginning "That all power is vested in, and consequently derived from the People; that Magistrates are their Trustees and Servants, and at all Times amenable to them," he dismisses as well: "The meaning could not be more clear, nor more opposite Biblical thought. The ruling proposition of Scripture and Christian doctrine is that 'power belongeth unto God.'" In short, there are no human rights.

The connection to the doctrine of the lesser magistrate is clear: Power comes from God, not the people. Whatever the people want is irrelevant. Whatever laws they may pass are irrelevant, too, if they go against God. "Tyranny" is whatever the Christian reconstructionist decides he doesn't like.

Elsewhere, Ingram denigrates freedom of speech and the press:

Freedom of speech and freedom of press are, in fact, applied seriously only to giving government protection to instigators of riot and rebellion, as well as those who would undermine human order by more subtle attacks on morals and customs.


As for the right to dissent, he calls it "not a lawful claim to own or to do something, which is the true right," but "a turning upside down of right and wrong, calling good evil and evil good." Similarly, there is no scriptural right to "resist authority," only that granted by the false doctrine of "human rights."

Ingram's interpretation of the Civil War is that "Yankee radicals inflamed the Northern peoples to mount the Civil War in the name of a 'human right' to be free ... if they did not destroy the whole Southern Order, they did at least dismantle its vast and efficient plantation economy." The civil rights movement, unsurprisingly, is understood as a defiance of "Tradition, law, and custom, which preserved public peace and order in the bi-racial state of the union, both North and South," and became "the target of the right to resist in the 60's, the supposed human rights justifying the violent means."

Tabachnick didn't dig into this text in her webinar, but it serves to illustrate her central principle: "This attack on the very concept of 'human rights' can be found throughout today's religious right."

Jackson told Salon that the most important part of Tabachnick's presentation came "when she talked about humanism and the humanistic frame, from the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. Those who are within the dominionist camp see that as contrary to God. I read those same documents and I say, this is pointing us toward the direction that God wants for us. They look at it and see that as counter to God, because humanism from their perspective is something very contrary to God."

If we take such arguments seriously, then we understand why for dominionists there is nothing wrong with breaking any law at all, so long as "God wills it" and you have the blessing of a so-called lesser magistrate. This is the reconstructionist argument supporting a whole range of chaotic right-wing activity today, including baseless claims that the 2020 election was a fraud. After all, the fundamental reconstructionist argument is that all such democratic government is illegitimate.

"The goal of reconstructionism is to tear down the existing order and reconstruct a new society based on biblical law," Tabachnick said. "Even if we assume that this vision of a theocratic America will never come to fruition, it's important to recognize the movement's impact on the ideas, strategies and tactics of the larger religious right and its role in sacralizing the actions of other anti-statist fellow travelers.

"As I wrote almost a decade ago, the theocratic libertarianism of Christian reconstructionism has been surprisingly seductive to Tea Partiers and young libertarians — many of whom may not realize what is supposed to happen after the government is stripped of its regulatory powers."

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.