A Danger to Democracy

In her daily posts, Heather Cox Richardson gives us an historian’s view of daily events. In her March 10 post, she tells us that “at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) the previous weekend, Daily Wire host Michael Knowles said that ‘for the good of society…transgenderism must be eradicated from public life entirely.’” Richardson goes on to tell us how his extreme – and dangerous – words represent the movement’s opposition to equality for all, which is the basis for democracy.

This is not new. As the opening speaker at CPAC in Texas last August, she reminds us, “Hungarian president Victor Orbán called for the establishment of a global right wing to continue to work together to destroy liberal democracy and establish Christian democracy.” During the preceding decade, movement leaders built direct ties with Russian president Vladimir Putin and praised him as a leader in this “global right wing.”

Professor Richardson, is an American historian and professor of history at Boston College, where she teaches courses on the American Civil War, the Reconstruction Era, the American West. In her book, How the South Won the Civil War: Oligarchy, Democracy, and the Continuing Fight for the Soul of America, she traces the history of this idea of equality for all at the core of American democracy from the 1600s in Europe through the founding of this nation to today’s conservative movement. Today’s news of the impact of this movement is definitely not new. (The quotes below are from How the South Won the Civil War, Oxford University Press, Kindle Edition.)

In her telling of the early history of Virginia, what she describes sounds familiar when we compare it to the influence of this new conservative movement:

“The very men who adhered most vigorously to the Enlightenment concept that all men were created equal held slaves. Indeed, their new, radical concept of freedom depended on slavery, for slavery permanently removed the underclass from any hope of influencing government. Virginia leaders had gotten rid of the problem of the poor in society: they had enslaved them. And, of course, they had gotten rid of the problem of women by reading them out of personhood altogether. What was left—ideologically, anyway—was a minority of people running the government, a body politic dedicated to the needs of men of property.”  (p. 53)

Richardson details the history of this nation as the cultural and political influence of the South before the Civil War spread West. She describes the developments of a new conservative movement in the 1950s and 1960s. This is a good summary of this movement that has taken power in the 21st century:

“Movement Conservatives continued to blame everything on the growing liberal government …  They had a simple solution: the government must get out of the way of individualism. It must slash taxes and regulation, restore traditional values, and build up the military.” (p.229)

For “movement conservatives,” as Richardson refers to them, individualism is sacred. They deny the truth of anything systemic – racism, poverty, patriarchy – because in their view everything is about individual choice and responsibility. This is where we are today. “By 2016, Republican leaders sounded eerily like antebellum slaveholders in their defense of a system in which wealthy elites ruled over the masses.” (p.253)

“Republicans wrapped their actions in a cloak of paternalism, but in 2016, Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump… revealed the core of their ideology. He played to the fears Republicans had stoked for a generation, declared that he alone could save America from the dangerous forces arrayed against it, and actively cultivated the support of white supremacist groups. … Trump warned supporters that he alone stood between them and a dystopian nightmare.” (p.254)

If you have not read this book, I urge you to do so. You will be able to understand the deep historical roots of this conservative movement which threatens our democracy. Here is her closing summary:

“The conflict between a hierarchical society and one based on equality is rooted deeply in European-American society, and it is a battle America has fought since its founding. When a group of slaveholders embraced the idea that they, and they alone, should control the nation’s political and economic system, thus threatening democracy in the 1860s, Americans fought back and rededicated the country to equality. A quirk of geography and timing meant they failed to make their principles stick. The idea of the American paradox moved west, where its adherents over time reasserted control over American culture. From Reconstruction through World War II, Americans recreated a hierarchical society. The fight against fascism—the modern form of hierarchical society—once again challenged that paradox. The ensuing drive for universal equality, though, enabled oligarchs to mobilize their corollary to the American paradox, gaining power by convincing voters that equality for people of color and women destroyed liberty. Now, for the second time, we are called to defend the principle of democracy.” (p.260)

Conspiracies and lies

These words from Sir Walter Scott are a good fit for The Reawaken America Tour: Oh what a tangled web we weave / When first we practice to deceive.

Conspiracy theories and lies dominated the 18 hours of this event, and thousands of people cheered and clapped and shouted “Amen!” They were there for a show, and the speakers met their expectations. The underlying deceptions of this event began with its naming. It was publicly advertised as a Fresh Roasted Coffee Fest and Expo in Rochester/Batavia, yet this was always their advertising for the people who actually came:

In Batavia, the theme of the event was “The Great Reawakening vs. The Great Reset.” When the tour began in 2021, it was billed as a “Health and Freedom” event. Organizers often described it as featuring a host of speakers on freedom, faith, health, and family values. However, the event now focused on the idea of a conspiracy of “the global elite” trying to control the world through many nefarious means, including COVID mandates and vaccines. “The Great Reset” is a term coined in 2010 in a book on global economics and social/political changes and used again in 2020 in a book by Klaus Schwab, founder of the World Economic Forum (WEF), who wrote about how COVID-19 was changing everything and provided an opportunity to “reset” how we work together to create a more resilient, sustainable world. How did that become an evil, demonic threat to the health and freedom of Americans?

Eric Trump, Michael Flynn, Kash Patel, Mike Lindell, and Clay Clark headlined this event and, along with many other speakers, used the same false narratives of the “stolen” 2020 election, ongoing election fraud (by Democrats), and now the “politicizing” and “weaponizing” of the DOJ and the FBI (e.g. the FBI “raid” on Mar-a-Lago) to stir up the receptive crowd. Shouts of affirmation, applause, even standing ovations was the consistent response from the audience.

The presentations were filled with inter-related conspiracies that share one common theme: “trust no one from the outside.” You cannot trust the mainstream media, the government, politicians, researchers, scientists, etc. You can only believe what we tell you. This was one of several cult-like characteristics of this event – indeed, of a worldwide movement of which this tour is but one part. And the movement is characterized by deceptive use of language, demonizing of “the Left,” and declaring leaders of the movement as the only hope.

Victor Orban, prime minister of Hungary, has been elevated with Donald Trump to this heroic role. Orban spoke at a July 2022 CPAC (Conservative Political Action Conference) event in Dallas: “I’m here to tell you that we should unite forces … in a battle for Western Civilization.” https://www.politico.com/news/2022/08/04/viktor-orban-cpac-00049935

This PBS News Hour segment both highlights his CPAC appearance and ways this movement in the U.S. has worked with Orban’s authoritarian dominance in Hungary. (See here for his full CPAC speech.)

Sarah Posner writes that “In a 2014 speech, Orbán claimed liberal values ‘embody corruption, sex and violence’; predicted that the successful nations of the future would reject these values and draw inspiration instead from Russia, China, or Turkey; and claimed that nongovernmental organizations working on building up civil society were actually ‘paid political activists who are attempting to enforce foreign interests here in Hungary.’ (“Unholy,” p. 226, Random House Publishing Group, Kindle Edition)

She connects Orban directly to Donald Trump: “At this critical moment in American history, when the democratic experiment hangs in the balance, this totalizing political and religious culture, rooted in a white Christian nationalist political ideology, was tailor-made to go to the mat for Trump. For Trump’s white evangelical supporters, defending him became indistinguishable from defending white Christian America.” (pp. 259-260) That describes my experience at this event.

What can we do? – We can challenge every deception, every lie, every conspiracy. Wherever we see or hear someone state what we “know” to be false, challenge it. Confront them. Don’t ignore it. Be respectful of the person. Avoid aggressive communication, but be assertive in what we say and how we say it. And stand our ground, not being argumentative, but being confident. Research diverse sources, trust our discernment, and speak up. We can do this.