TONIGHT: What Happens When Terroristic Threats Come From Someone Wealthy & White?

Editor’s Note: Jonathan Hutson is the author of a forthcoming article in The Public Eye magazine fully examining the case of David Lenio and the disparate treatment of offenders from different backgrounds and ethnicities by the criminal justice system.

In the wake of a controversial decision this month to drop the felony intimidation charge against David Joseph Lenio—a 29-year-old White Nationalist who tweeted threats last year to shoot up a grade school in Kalispell, Montana, and “put two in the head of a rabbi,” then retrieved a weapons cache—the Investigation Discovery channel will premier the next installment of “Hate in America,” which explores the growing movement of strong-man worshiping populists, nativists, and armed anti-government militants across the country through the lens of Montana’s Flathead Valley.


In “Hate in America: A Town on Fire,” which premiers Thursday, March 24 at 8pm ET / /7pm CT, Emmy Award-winning journalist Tony Harris introduces America to this beautiful valley nestled outside Glacier National Park.

The case of David Lenio is opening up many questions about the criminal justice system and White supremacy. Specifically, questions about how terroristic threats are treated when the person making them comes from a wealthy White background versus someone who is low-income or a person of color.

Armed and Ready

On December 30, 2014, the day he arrived in Montana, Lenio tweeted several times that he felt so angry at being economically disadvantaged that he wanted to “shoot up” a grade school in Kalispell. This short-order cook and snowboarder who falsely claimed to be destitute and homeless but who is actually the son of influential banker Remos Joseph Lenio, who co-founded the private investment bank Tillerman & Co. of Grand Rapids, blames a Jewish conspiracy for his sense of being disinherited from his economic birthright. He bragged that, in retaliation for his supposed life of poverty, he could kill more people than the 20 school kids and six adults who died in the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre in Newtown, Connecticut in December 2012.

Specific Threats

Screenshot of a David Lenio holding a semi-automatic pistol in a video uploaded to YouTube in 2012.

Screenshot of a David Lenio holding a semi-automatic pistol in a video uploaded to YouTube in 2012.

Here is one of his tweets from the day he arrived in Kalispell, threatening Kalispell school children and teachers: “I David Lenio am literally so indebted & #underpaid that I want to go on a sandy hoax style spree in a kalispell, MT elementary #school 2014.” There are only five elementary schools in Kalispell.

From then until his arrest six weeks later, he obsessed about mass shootings and terrorist attacks – which he invariably claimed were hoaxes and false-flag operations perpetrated by Israel or the federal government.

By February 12, 2015, Lenio was calling for the rise of a new strongman to lead a White supremacist movement in fixing the American economy, stating that he was prepared to go down in a hail of bullets while killing Jews. “USA needs a Hitler to rise to power and fix our #economy,” he tweeted, “and i’m about ready to give my life to the cause or just shoot a bunch of #kikes …”

Calling for a Chapel Hill-Style Mass Shooting of Jews

Lenio also seized on the February 10 murders of three Muslim students in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, to call for a Chapel Hill-style mass shooting of Jews in retaliation for those murders and for his sense of economic disempowerment. On February 13, he tweeted: “I think every jew on the planet deserves to be killed for what kikes have done to our #dollar and cost of living Killing jews > wage #slave.” He added, “Best way to counter the harm #jewish #politics is causing is #ChapelHillShooting styling [sic] killing of #jews til they get the hint & leave.”

“I bet I could get at least 12 unarmed sitting ducks if I decide to go on a killing spree in a #school,” he tweeted on February 12th. “Sounds better than being a wage slave.”

The same day, he tweeted, “What do you think costs more in most U.S. cities? A gun with enough ammunition to kill 100 school kids or the security deposit on an apartment,” he tweeted. Then he wrote: “What would I rather do? Be a #wage slave for the rest of my life or tell society fuck you & do your kids a favor by shooting up a #school?”

‘I Bet I’d Take Out At Least a Whole Classroom’

Two days later he expressed a desire to emulate the shooting in Chapel Hill, North Carolina – in which a White man was arrested and charged with fatally shooting three Muslim students – Lenio wrote: “I bet I’d take out at least a whole #classroom & score 30+ if I put my mind to it #Poverty is making me want to kill folks #mental health.”

The line between free speech and true threats is crossed when one goes beyond scapegoating and conspiracy theories to threaten the indiscriminate shooting of 30+ school kids and teachers, as well as threatening to put two bullets in the head of a rabbi (of which there are only two in the Flathead Valley) to salve a sense of economic grievance and to advance White supremacy. There is also reason to believe that Lenio planned to put his murderous ideas into action.

Police found that on February 15, just after I reported his threats to law enforcement, Lenio had retrieved a cache of rifles and ammunition from his storage locker. He also had a loaded semi-automatic handgun with him in his van at the time of his arrest – along with extra ammunition clips and jugs of urine.

The First Amendment protects unpopular, crude, and controversial speech. But First Amendment protection is not absolute. Certain speech acts, such as extortion, false advertising, and true threats which would make a reasonable person fear violence and take precautions are not protected. Nor should they be.

In the Lenio case, the threats resulted in a nationwide effort involving FBI, police, and sheriffs from three states. Flathead County schools contacted every parent to let them know that the schools had enacted a security plan to respond to the Twitter threats, and extra police and sheriff deputies were deployed to guard the schools. When parents received the calls, they were scared for their kids, as any parent would be. And, for the first time ever, the Flathead Valley’s synagogues hired security guards.

As Rabbi Fancine Green Roston and I  wrote in the Flathead Beacon, “Each of us writing this piece knows what it is to be threatened by Lenio. One of us (Francine) is one of only two Flathead Valley rabbis and has kids in the local schools. Lenio tweeted to the other of us (Jonathan) to ask where his kids go to school. Lenio crossed the line between hate speech and hate crime.” However, we presciently titled our op-ed “David Lenio Reloaded?” because the justice system was already bending over backward to show Lenio undue leniency—unlike other defendants.

In the “Hate in America” series, produced by NBC’s Peacock Productions for the Investigation Discovery channel, former CNN news anchor and Emmy-winning journalist Tony Harris teams with noted civil rights advocacy organization, the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), to showcase stories from the organization’s files, including the David Lenio case, which SPLC’s HateWatch has reported on in detail.

Lingering Questions

Why did the justice system give David Lenio preferential treatment by releasing him into the custody of his wealthy banker dad without bail in July 2015? Why did the authorities fail to act when Lenio violated his release conditions at least 348 times in August 2015 even though 37 other Flathead County Detention Center residents had been rearrested for violating their release conditions? Why did the prosecutor and judge keep delaying the trial and finally agree to drop the felony charge of intimidation against him without any meaningful conditions? And what could be the significance of those jugs of urine in Lenio’s van? Those are topics about which I plan to write more extensively in the future.

The same week Lenio received a deferred prosecution, a 24-year-old mentally ill transient in Oregon (who actually was homeless, unlike Lenio, who merely pretended to be while enjoying expensive snowboarding jaunts in the nearby resort in Whitefish) got 18 months in prison for making Facebook threats against unnamed police officers. In the Oregon case, the offender, Timothy Loren McCoy Fleming, didn’t possess a real, working gun; he had an inoperable pellet gun. In contrast, Lenio had fetched a working semi-automatic pistol and a working semi-automatic rifle along with a busted bolt-action rifle and spare ammunition clips after making his threats specifically against a Kalispell grade school as well as threats to put “two in the head” of a rabbi, in a Montana valley where only two rabbis reside.

Meanwhile, here’s a Investigation Discovery channel finder. Don’t miss “Hate in America: A Town on Fire” tonight, March 24, at 8ET / 7CT.

Crime Control & Political Repression: From the War On Drugs To The War On Terror

Click here to download the article as a PDF.

Click here to download the article as a PDF.

This article appears in the Winter 2016 issue of The Public Eye magazine.

American political time is often rhetorically divided into before and after the attacks of September 11, 2001. In this model, “before” signals liberty and respect for individual rights while “after” brought increasing restrictions and surveillance as a result of terrorism. But this distinction both romanticizes the past and obscures some of the institutional architecture underlying the War on Terror. In fact, there’s a direct line between the pervasive infiltration of Muslim communities seen since 2001 and the militarized street-surveillance and home invasion experienced by African American communities, which has steadily escalated from the early 1980s until the present.

The national emergence of the Black Lives Matter movement speaks to the level of rage (and community organizing) that exists beneath the surface of marginalized communities, but also to the impact of systematic law enforcement-driven repression. The steady expansion of both the power and use of law enforcement in multiple areas of life reflects (and institutionalizes) right-wing worldviews regardless of the political party or identity claims of the speaker.

Informants and undercover agents have been central to a significant proportion of federal prosecutions of “homegrown” Islamic terrorism cases.1 Those informants typically do much of the actual work to transform loose talk into concrete action.2 The procedural elements of these prosecutions, however, originated long before today’s War on Terror; the methods employed by the FBI against Muslims have been developed and refined for decades in the War on Drugs, as can be seen in brief descriptions below of a current homegrown terrorism case and a 1990s drug trafficking case.


Statue depicting the traditional “Blind Justice,” in front of the Albert V. Bryan U.S. Courthouse in Alexandria, Virginia.. Photo by Tim Evanson via Flickr. 

On April 10, 2015, a 20-year-old Kansas man named John Booker was charged3 with three counts of attempted terrorism: attempt to use a weapon of mass destruction at Fort Riley, in northern Kansas; attempt to damage and destroy U.S. government property (again at Fort Riley); and attempt to provide material support to a foreign terrorist organization (specifically the Islamic State, or ISIS/ISIL). The FBI complaint details the involvement of two confidential informants who had actively participated in every stage of planning the “plot” underlying the charges: they provided Booker with a list of the materials needed to make a bomb, they volunteered to build the bomb for him, delivered the supposed bomb to him in a van, and provided him with a map of the Fort Riley area.

A year earlier, in March 2014, Booker had come to the attention of the FBI after posting messages on Facebook indicating that he was planning to engage in violent jihad. Booker was interviewed by FBI agents and described his plans in considerable detail, but was allowed to go free with no other action taken, suggesting that the FBI agents involved did not consider him a credible threat. It seems clear that John Booker ideologically supported ISIS/ISIL and had some aspiration to engage in violence, but these encounters with the FBI suggest that, on his own, he had little capacity to turn his provocative statements into action. The key event leading to the terrorism charges occurred in October 2014, approximately seven months after his first meeting with the FBI, when he met the first of the two informants who set in motion the events that led to his arrest in April 2015. (The information currently available on this case comes from the FBI, and does not describe the motivations of the informants or whether they received compensation of some kind for their participation.)

Compare Booker’s arrest and prosecution with that of a man identified only as Miguel in an article written by a former Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) agent. In 1996, Miguel, an immigrant from Bolivia who worked as a parking lot attendant in Washington, D.C., was charged as a drug kingpin based solely on the testimony of a paid informant with an extensive criminal record.4 The informant had fled to the United States to avoid prosecution for a variety of criminal charges in Argentina and Bolivia, and over the preceding four years had been paid by the DEA for information in several other cases. Miguel had spent three of those years working 60 hours a week for a large parking lot company.

The informant was a distant family friend of Miguel and, based on his past experience, saw an opportunity to make money by fabricating a story to sell to the DEA. He proceeded to invent a fake “cocaine deal,” wherein Miguel was the “kingpin,” even though Miguel had no prior involvement in drugs or drug dealing. While the informant developed his story with the DEA, he simultaneously lured Miguel into playing along with a supposed one-time deal that would net them both considerable cash, if Miguel pretended to be a major Bolivian cocaine dealer. It ended with a staged transaction in which Miguel accepted a bag of cash in exchange for a promise to deliver cocaine a few weeks later; he was arrested as he left the room. The informant was paid $30,000 for arranging the encounter, and after several years in and out of court Miguel ended up taking a plea bargain than gave him a four-year sentence.

Informants have played such consistent and central roles in the War on Drugs that the provision of information has repeatedly generated elaborate economic relationships between prosecutors and inmates. In 1990, an L.A. County grand jury found that a well-developed network of jailhouse informants investigated cases based on newspaper accounts and any other sources they could acquire, and provided (largely false) testimony for the prosecutor’s office in exchange for reduced jail time, privileges, and other incentives.5 Between 2004 and 2006, a similar network of informants was found to be operating in Texas prisons, investigating cases based on publically accessible material and providing testimony for the prosecutor’s office, resulting in some cases being thrown out.6 Informants in homegrown terrorism cases, similarly, often receive some form of compensation, including money or assistance with immigration or other legal issues.7

The Right and the War on Drugs

U.S. drug policy has deeply racist roots. The Harrison Act of 1914, the first law to significantly control access to opiates and cocaine, was passed in part by exacerbating prejudices against Chinese immigrants and impoverished southern African Americans.8 In the early 1930s, Harry Anslinger, head of the newly created Federal Bureau of Narcotics, claimed that use of marijuana caused half of the violent crime committed in Black, Mexican and other Latin American immigrant neighborhoods.9 The War on Drugs both continued and dramatically amplified this historical pattern. Nixon’s 1971 declaration that drugs were a threat to the nation occurred within the context of significant social conflict and change, during which conservative resistance to the Civil Rights movement included defining social unrest as criminal activity.10 Ronald Reagan, in turn, built upon two of Nixon’s more toxic legacies: the “Southern Strategy” of using mildly-coded racism to align southern Whites with the Republican party, and the War on Drugs, with its attendant images of Black urban crime and drug dealing. (It’s worth noting that Whites and Blacks use and sell drugs at very similar rates.11)

The ideological valuing of order, discipline, and traditional social hierarchies are definitional characteristics of right-wing movements, from fascism to the KKK, and the Moral Majority to the Tea Party.

One of the challenges in describing the links between the Right Wing and both the War on Drugs and the War on Terror is the extent to which the political discourse of U.S. society has moved to the Right culturally. Over the last 40 years, the U.S. has grown increasingly sensitive to the perception of risk and the need for safety, accepting “freedom from” over “freedom to.” This is characteristic of societal moves to the Right, as German philosopher Erich Fromm noted in relation to the cultural psychology underlying the growth of Nazism. The ideological valuing of order, discipline, and traditional social hierarchies are definitional characteristics of right-wing movements, from fascism to the KKK, and the Moral Majority to the Tea Party. Yet core elements of this mindset have become normalized in the U.S., with Democrats as well as Republicans wanting to appear tough on both crime and foreign policy, and the presence of police officers in schools treated as normal (even when individual officers’ behavior may be questioned). Throughout the War on Drugs, personal privacy and individual liberty were steadily constricted by the need to keep us “safe” from the dangers of drug use and drug dealing, laying the legal and cultural groundwork for the much greater invasiveness of the War on Terror that would follow.

Race, Searches, and the Presumption of Guilt

In the movie CitizenFour, filmmaker Laura Poitras implicitly and explicitly makes the point that much of what we now talk about as “privacy” used to be called liberty. When the War on Terror began, the justification of mass searches of body and property on the grounds of safety had already become astoundingly normalized, and complaints were met with the assertion that only the guilty need worry. Once a society has accepted the need for chronic, invasive control of one vulnerable community on the grounds of protecting society, it’s a small step to target additional communities and employ somewhat different forms of surveillance.

Much of what we now talk about as “privacy” used to be called liberty.

Routine drug testing has become perhaps the most widespread example of the erosion of judicial and Constitutional protections against searches without probable cause. Urine tests for evidence of recent drug use have become a commonplace experience for health care workers, transit workers, and numerous other public service occupations, and are a standard element of participation in high school team sports. However taken-for-granted this has become, prior to 1989 routine drug tests without individual suspicion only took place in the military. In 1986, the Reagan Administration recommended testing employees for drug use as part of the War on Drugs, and the 1988 Drug Free Workplace Act required that companies with federal contracts provide a workplace free of illicit substances. In response, there were multiple cases in which courts ruled against mass-testing of firefighters,12 school bus drivers,13 and public school students,14 on the grounds that testing without individual suspicion would violate due process, privacy and protections against unreasonable search and seizure. In 1989, however, the Supreme Court discovered a “legitimate [state] interest” in protecting the public from drug use that justified an exception to the due process and individual suspicion requirements in the Fourth Amendment.15 Widespread testing in aviation, trucking, railroads and mass transit quickly followed. By 1995, the court’s understanding of legitimate state interest had moved so far that it approved random mandatory testing of student athletes.16

Silent March against "Stop and Frisk," New York City, 2012. Photo by Michael Fleshman via Flickr. License:

Silent March against “Stop and Frisk,” New York City, 2012. Photo by Michael Fleshman via Flickr. 

At the same time, Fourth Amendment protections were being eroded in other ways as well. The most egregious and destructive violations of privacy and person in the War on Drugs may be the development of the no-knock warrant. In 1970, an anti-crime bill authorized judges to issue search warrants that permitted agents to break down a door without first knocking and identifying themselves. The warrants were initially permitted for use only in a small number of federal anti-drug investigations, but they are now more common and associated with SWAT team raids, which increased from 3,000 in 1981 to 50,000 in 2005.17 An ACLU review18 of SWAT raids found that almost 80 percent were used to serve a search warrant (62 percent for a drug search) but only 35 percent of cases clearly resulted in finding contraband of any kind.

No-knock warrants and SWAT raids have resulted in an uncountable number of unnecessary injuries and deaths that are in some ways intrinsic to the process of militarized forced entry into a home. In Massachusetts in 2011,19 a 68-year-old African American man was watching TV in his pajamas when a SWAT team broke down his door with a no-knock warrant to search for his daughter’s boyfriend, who did not live at the house. The man was shot while lying facedown on the floor, and it was later revealed that the suspect they were looking for had been arrested outside the home before the door was broken down. In Georgia in 2014,20 officers executed a no-knock warrant at 3 A.M. at a home with children’s toys in the yard. They threw a flashbang or “stun” grenade into the home as they entered, and the grenade landed in the crib of a 19-month-old toddler. Given the number of no-knock warrants issued annually, it is literally impossible to know the exact number that have resulted in injury or death to innocent parties, but the process puts the people inside the home at significant risk.

Cases and Trials: Prosecutors and Courts

The expansion of law enforcement powers over the past 40 years has not been limited to invasions of privacy, but has moved into the operation of criminal law in the courts as well. Progressives have historically viewed the federal courts as upholders of basic rights and protections, largely based on the work of the Civil Rights division of the Department of Justice. But the criminal branch of the federal system has become fully complicit in law enforcement assaults on vulnerable communities in both the War on Drugs and the War on Terror.

Drug laws have had a significant effect on criminal charging, trials and convictions in the federal courts in ways that enabled the subsequent, and higher profile, prosecutorial abuses of the War on Terror. The road from arrest to prison, from police practices to mass incarceration, passes through the courts. Theoretically, judges hold significant power, both direct and indirect, to modify law enforcement practices through questions about the admissibility of evidence, the constitutionality of particular actions, and the ultimate sentence imposed on a guilty party. An obscure but crucial element of the War on Drugs has been to shift power from judges to prosecutors,21] with multiple consequences for criminal defendants. These changes have both grown out of and accelerated the politicization of crime and punishment.22

Mandatory minimums

In 1984, the Comprehensive Crime Control Act replaced the federal Parole Commission with the Sentencing Commission, a bureaucratic declaration that punishment now trumps rehabilitation in the federal prison system. From 1984-88, the Sentencing Commission and subsequent anti-drug bills eliminated parole in the federal prison system and instituted escalating mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses, including dramatically higher sentences for crack cocaine over powder cocaine.23 The sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine was the most overtly racialized element of the anti-drug bills, since crack was known to be a form of cocaine largely used by Blacks while cocaine in powder form was more common among Whites. The elimination of parole for all federal convictions after 1987, when the rule was passed, has been less visible since state prison systems still have parole and the vast majority of incarcerated people are in state prisons. The recent attention to the early release of 6,000 people convicted of federal drug offenses24 might not have happened if they could have been quietly released on parole without the need for formal action.

In combination, the sentencing guidelines and elimination of parole shifted the balance of power in the federal courts.25 Mandatory minimum sentences mean that the parameters of prison time are primarily determined by the charge itself, and negotiations then focus on the charge as a way to manage the sentencing outcome. In practical terms, this gives prosecutors enormous power to determine the fate of an arrestee through the minimums associated with different charges, and facilitates a pervasive system of plea bargains in which a defendant’s fate is determined outside the courtroom and with little judicial oversight. This dynamic was exacerbated by cutbacks to public defenders and other indigent defense resources.

Plea bargains

Approximately 90 percent of cases settle through the plea bargain process, and defendants who insist on going to trial usually receive harsher sentences,26 although this may reflect the power of sentencing guidelines. Plea bargains involve manipulation of the charges and sentencing recommendations made by the prosecutor, without meaningful judicial review or meaningful documentation of the negotiation process. The sentencing guidelines for drug offences exacerbate this situation dramatically, with punitive threats of charges that carry high mandatory minimums used to coerce bargains.27 A particularly toxic element of the process comes from a clause in the drug-related sentencing guidelines that recommends reduced sentences for defendants who “cooperate” with police and prosecutors. This clause has generated a quasi-underground economy of “snitching” in which information buys sentence reductions, generally at the expense of those too powerless to exact revenge.

Use of informants

Informants have become a pervasive aspect of drug cases at both federal and local levels, but with little or no oversight by the Department of Justice.28 The system of mandatory minimums paired with leniency in exchange for information offers significant incentives for defendants to provide information to police and prosecutors and creates a legal context that invites corruption from all players.29 Over time, this constant supply of informants has generated some dependence among prosecutors, exemplified by Miguel’s story, as informant testimony provides a less expensive and time consuming alternative to building cases based on material evidence.30 The resulting system invites slanted or outright false testimony from informants while providing significant incentives for prosecutors to overlook indications of problems with informant sources and lack of supporting evidence.31 It also uses the weak to punish the weak: turning in an impoverished neighbor safely reduces prison time, while providing information about higher-level drug dealers could cause more problems than it solves.

Federal prosecutions of “homegrown terrorism” build on elements of the War on Drugs: defendants face extreme prison sentences, power lies primarily with prosecutors and investigators, and cases are built through dependence on informants and plea bargains coupled with extended pre-trial detention.

This system of threats, harsh prison sentences, informants, and plea bargains should sound very familiar to anyone paying close attention to terrorism cases. Federal prosecutions of “homegrown Islamist” terrorism build on elements of the War on Drugs: defendants face extreme prison sentences, power lies primarily with prosecutors and investigators, and cases are built through dependence on informants and plea bargains coupled with extended pre-trial detention.32

Prosecuting “terrorists”

U.S.-based Islamist terrorism cases, commonly called “homegrown,” have the same core procedural elements as drug prosecutions although they are anchored in a different set of criminal laws. People charged with committing certain offenses (e.g. weapons possession) for political reasons face “terrorism enhancements” rather than mandatory minimums, but with similar consequences. Terrorism enhancements add a multiplier to the standard sentencing recommendations for a charge, again shifting significant power to the prosecutor in the choice of what charges to file. The resulting threat of extreme sentences creates pressure for negotiated guilty pleas and sentencing bargains. Informants again play a central role in the building of cases, and typically receive significant legal or financial incentives for their cooperation with authorities. Threats of deportation or prosecution as well as plea bargains on existing charges have proven as effective in generating informants in terrorism cases as they have in drug cases. The process again creates cases that get resolved largely behind the scenes, with vulnerable defendants pressured into guilty pleas in exchange for reduced sentences. The resulting spectacle reinforces the perception of Muslim communities as centers of terrorist activity, although a closer look at prosecutorial activity raises questions about the definition of certain legal terms.

Theories of prevention

Many civil rights advocates have pointed to the increased militarization of police forces as a factor in political repression. Photo by Tony Webster via Flickr. License:

Many civil rights advocates have pointed to the increased militarization of police forces as a factor in political repression. Photo by Tony Webster via Flickr. 

Legally, the defense of entrapment requires prosecutors to demonstrate that the defendant would have committed a crime of this type regardless of the informant or undercover agent. Homegrown terrorism cases have been built around a theory of radicalization to support prosecution arguments that Muslim defendants would have engaged in terrorism without the instigation of the informant or law enforcement officials,33 a claim to “pre-emptive” prosecution as a form of national defense. While focused on religion and national security, the core logic of the argument builds upon and extends the presumptions of danger and guilt embedded in the criminalization of low-income Black and Latino communities through frisking young Black men walking down the street or calling the police to handle misbehaving students in inner city public schools. In all these cases, the justification rests on a presumption that membership in certain racial/ethnic groups constitutes a predisposition to commit particular kinds of acts, and that militarized police practices are necessary to protect society.

Politics by other means

Among progressives, the War on Drugs and mass incarceration are increasingly understood in relation to the larger history of legal repression of Black people in the U.S. The focus on post-1970s racially disproportionate incarceration and its consequences,34 however, overlooks both the deeply racialized history of U.S. drug law and the multiple contexts for the expansion of law enforcement over the past 40 years.

U.S. drug law has been a tool of racial control throughout its 100-year history, 35 but the War on Drugs shifted the legal environment in qualitative, and not just quantitative, ways. As described throughout this article, the past four decades have seen changes in constitutionally-derived legal protections regarding searches and the right to privacy of home and person which affect all of us to some degree, but have specifically targeted African American communities. Within the court system, there has been a systematic shift of power from judges to prosecutors and the creation of incentives for the use of informants and other practices that reduce transparency and sidestep open judicial process. These gradual but steady reductions in civil liberties and the protections of due process were initially developed to “protect” the public from exposure to drugs and drug use, but have expanded into other areas of law enforcement. Over the past few years, the mandatory minimums and mass incarceration of the War on Drugs have been rolled back in certain ways, as with the decision to release several thousand federal prisoners as part of a rollback of mandatory minimum sentences.36 Meanwhile, the War on Terror continues unabated and employs many of the same legal strategies at an even higher level against Muslim communities in the U.S.

The War on Drugs and the War on Terror invite us to think about ways law enforcement engages in political repression outside contexts of heightened mobilization.

The War on Drugs and the War on Terror invite us to think about ways law enforcement engages in political repression outside contexts of heightened mobilization. In the 1960s, COINTELPRO (a portmanteau for the FBI’s Counter Intelligence Program) targeted activists, organizations, and black communities during a period of widespread collective action. In contrast, the War on Drugs and War on Terror focus on communities primarily defined by vulnerability, not active resistance. The systematic targeting of Muslim communities has generated more fear than mobilization, and the targets of FBI anti-terrorism activities are often poor and socially or emotionally troubled.37 While African American communities have historically experienced recurrent waves of political mobilization and unrest, that had not been their primary condition for many years until the emergence of the Black Lives Matter movement.

While the legal changes described in this article can be traced directly to the War on Drugs, the past 30-40 years have seen an overall pattern of criminalization of the poor justified by the need for order and discipline. The increased use of paramilitary police units like SWAT teams to execute search warrants and other routine procedures has expanded in small towns and rural areas as well as major cities.38 In a process sometimes described as the school-to-prison pipeline, police officers have become part of the normal disciplinary apparatus in public schools, and now arrest students, primarily low-income students of color, for behavior that used to be handled within the school.39 Homelessness has effectively become a crime in many cities, with local laws prohibiting sleeping, lying down, or even sitting for long periods of time in public spaces.40 Criminalization has extended into sexuality and public health, as laws to protect living children are used to prosecute pregnant women for child abuse for, say, delivering children born with drugs in their system or refusing a doctor’s orders,41 and young gay men and trans women of color are charged as sex workers for carrying more than three condoms.42 Simultaneously, the consequences of having a criminal record have expanded in ways that further marginalize the poor, such as limiting access to public housing and a range of social welfare programs, including some forms of student financial aid.43

The distinction between crime control and political repression has eroded, with criminalization used as a method to contain populations that might otherwise be politically problematic.

One lesson of the War on Drugs may well be that the distinction between crime control and political repression has eroded, with criminalization used as a method to contain populations that might otherwise be politically problematic. The War on Drugs and the school-to-prison pipeline have resulted in high levels of incarceration and other forms of legal supervision (such as probation) among young African Americans, which in turn creates other forms of vulnerability such as lack of education, employment, and housing. The stigma of being labeled a criminal compounds the technical disenfranchisement of loss of voting rights, access to social welfare programs, and a wide range of employment opportunities. In addition, mainstream Civil Rights organizations have historically been slow to engage with criminal law,44 and the growing critique of drug law and mass incarceration are a relatively recent phenomenon.

From a political perspective, one advantage of the tactic lies in the stigma and fear associated with criminalization. People accused of stigmatized crimes are difficult to defend, even for Civil Rights advocates, and civil liberties protections can be rolled back under the mantle of crime control and community safety. As a result, a highly developed and refined contemporary system of legal coercion, repression, surveillance, and associated institutional infrastructure remained largely outside of the progressive political vision, even as it was adapted for targeting Muslim communities.

Beyond the officially declared wars on drugs and terror, the expanding circles of criminalization described above have steadily encroached on social justice discourse in multiple arenas, eroding social movement gains through legal assaults on the young, poor, and otherwise vulnerable. The unwillingness of many progressives to challenge the criminal justice system and defend those caught in its net enabled mass incarceration to grow largely unchecked for over 30 years, as low-income Black communities experienced growing devastation. In order to truly roll back the power of right-wing movements in the U.S., progressives will have to challenge the politics of fear and criminalization, and stand in alliance with those pushed outside of society through the legal system. Black Lives Matter activists model this every day by refusing attempts to implicitly justify police violence through criminalizing Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Freddie Gray, and others. Will other movements follow that path?

About the Author

Naomi Braine is an Associate Professor in the Sociology Department at Brooklyn College, CUNY, and a lifelong activist in struggles for social justice. Her political and intellectual work has addressed mass incarceration, the war on drugs/drug policy, HIV and collective action, and, more recently, the war on terror.


[1] Thomas Cincotta, “Platform for Prejudice: How the Nationwide Suspicious Activity Reporting Initiative Invites Racial Profiling, Erodes Civil Liberties, and Undermines Security.” Political Research Associates, March 2010,

[2] Human Rights Institute, Illusion of Justice: Human Rights Abuses in US Terrorism Prosecutions. (New York: Columbia School of Law and Human Rights Watch, 2014); Center for Human Rights and Global Justice, Targeted and Entrapped: Manufacturing the “Homegrown Threat” in the United States. (New York: NYU School of Law, 2011).

[3] All information on the Booker case comes from the formal complaint filed on April 10, 2015: USA v John T. Booker, Jr a.k.a. “Mohammed Abdullah Hassan”, Case Number: 15-mj-5039-KGS, D.C. KS (Topeka Docket).

[4] Michael Levine, “King Rats: Criminal informants are the real winners in then DEA’s drug war,” Utne Reader, May-June 1996,

[5] Los Angeles County Grand Jury, “Investigation of the Involvement of Jail House Informants in the Criminal Justice System in Los Angeles County,” June 26, 1990.

[6] Randy Balko, “Guilty before proven innocent.”, May 2008,

[7] Center for Human Rights and Global Justice, Targeted and Entrapped: Manufacturing the “Homegrown Threat” in the United States. (New York: NYU School of Law, 2011).

[8] Nancy Campbell, Using Women: Gender, Drug Policy, and Social Justice. (New York: Routledge Press, 2000); David Musto “Opium, Cocaine, and Marijuana in American History.” Scientific American 40, no. 7 (July 1991).

[9] Susan Speaker, “Demons for the Twentieth Century: the Rhetoric of Drug Reform, 1920-40.” in Altering American Consciousness: The History of Alcohol and Drug Use in the United States, 1800-2000, edited by Sarah Tracy and Caroline Acker, (Univ of Mass Press. 2004).

[10] Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. (New York: The New Press, 2010).

[11] Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.

[12] Lovvorn v City of Chattanooga, (861 F.2d 1388 (D.C. TN 1986)); Capua v City of Plainfield, (643 F.Supp. 1507 (D.C. NJ 1986)).

[13] Jones v Mckenzie, (833 F.2d 335 (D.C. DC 1986)).

[14] Odenheim v Carlstadt-East Rutherford School District, (510 A.2d 709 (S.C. NJ 1985)).

[15] National Treasury Workers Union v. Von Raab, 489 U.S. 656 (1989).

[16] Vernonia v. Acton, Washington School District, (23 F.3d 1514 (9th Cir. 1995)).

[17] Peter Kraska and Louis Cubellis, “Militarizing Mayberry and Beyond: Making Sense of American Paramilitary Policing.” Justice Quarterly 14 no. 4 (December 1997); American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), War Comes Home: the Excessive Militarization of American Policing. ACLU, 2014,

[18] ACLU, War Comes Home: the Excessive Militarization of American Policing.

[19] ACLU, War Comes Home: the Excessive Militarization of American Policing.

[20] ACLU, War Comes Home: the Excessive Militarization of American Policing.

[21] Jamie Felner, An Offer You Can’t Refuse: How US Federal Prosecutors Force Drug Defendants to Plead Guilty. Human Rights Watch, December 5, 2013,

[22] Jonathan Simon, Governing Through Crime: How the War on Crime Transformed American Democracy and Created a Culture of Fear. (New York: Oxford Univ Press, 2007).

[23] Felner, An Offer You Can’t Refuse: How US Federal Prosecutors Force Drug Defendants to Plead Guilty.

[24] Michael S. Schmidt, “US to Release 6000 Inmates From Prisons,” New York Times, October 6, 2015,

[25] Felner, An Offer You Can’t Refuse: How US Federal Prosecutors Force Drug Defendants to Plead Guilty.; Alexander Natapoff, Snitching: Criminal Informants and the Erosion of American Justice. (New York: New York University Press, 2009).

[26] Lindsey Devers, Plea and Charge Bargaining: Research Summary. Bureau of Justice Assistance, U.S. Dept of Justice, January 24, 2011.

[27] Felner, An Offer You Can’t Refuse: How US Federal Prosecutors Force Drug Defendants to Plead Guilty.

[28] Natapoff, Snitching: Criminal Informants and the Erosion of American Justice.

[29] Natapoff, Snitching: Criminal Informants and the Erosion of American Justice.; Felner, An Offer You Can’t Refuse: How US Federal Prosecutors Force Drug Defendants to Plead Guilty.

[30] Natapoff, Snitching: Criminal Informants and the Erosion of American Justice.

[31]Los Angeles County Grand Jury, “Investigation of the Involvement of Jail House Informants in the Criminal Justice System in Los Angeles County.”

[32] This summary and the material in the next section, Prosecuting Terrorists, all comes from the following two reports: Human Rights Institute, Illusion of Justice: Human Rights Abuses in US Terrorism Prosecutions.; Center for Human Rights and Global Justice, Targeted and Entrapped: Manufacturing the “Homegrown Threat” in the United States.

[33] Stephen Downs, Esq, and Kathy Manley, Esq, Inventing Terrorists: the Lawfare of Preemptive Prosecution. (Albany NY: Project SALAM and the National Coalition to Protect Civil Freedoms, May 2014),

[34] Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.

[35] Campbell, Using Women: Gender, Drug Policy, and Social Justice.; Musto, “Opium, Cocaine, and Marijuana in American History.”

[36] Schmidt, “US to Release 6000 Inmates From Prisons.”

[37] Center for Human Rights and Global Justice, Targeted and Entrapped: Manufacturing the “Homegrown Threat” in the United States.; Downs, Esq, and Manley, Esq,  Inventing Terrorists: the Lawfare of Preemptive Prosecution.

[38] Kraska and Cubellis, “Militarizing Mayberry and Beyond: Making Sense of American Paramilitary Policing.”

[39] Karen Dolan and Jodi L. Carr, The Poor get Prison: the Alarming Spread of the Criminalization of Poverty. Report from the Institute for Policy Studies, DC.

[40] Dolan and Carr, The Poor get Prison: the Alarming Spread of the Criminalization of Poverty.

[41] Lynn Paltrow and Jeanne Flavin, “Arrests of and Forced Interventions on Pregnant Women in the United States, 1973-2005: Implications for Women’s Legal Status and Public Health.” Journal of Health Politics, Policy and Law 38 no. 2 (January 2013).

[42] Margaret H. Wurth, Rebecca Schleifer, Megan McLemore, Katherine W. Todrys and Joseph J Amon, “Condoms as evidence of prostitution in the United States and the criminalization of sex work,” Journal of International AIDS Society 16, (May 2013).

[43] Dolan and Carr, The Poor get Prison: the Alarming Spread of the Criminalization of Poverty.

[44] Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.

Profiles on the Right: Three Percenters

The Three Percenters (aka 3%ers, III%ers, or “Threepers”) are a Patriot movement paramilitary group that pledges armed resistance against attempts to restrict private gun ownership.1 Adherents and supporters have been associated with threats and acts of violence. Like other Patriot groups, they depict the federal government as tyrannical. Their name refers to the (disputed) percentage of American colonialists who took up arms against the British during the Revolutionary War.

Image created by a Three Percenter and posted to the conservative blog Skeptical Eye favorably compares the Three Percenters to the Confederacy and the American Revolution.

Image created by a Three Percenter and posted to the conservative blog Skeptical Eye favorably compares the Three Percenters to the Confederacy and the American Revolution.

The Three Percenters have a loosely defined membership and a decentralized organizational structure. Seemingly anyone can use the label. There are overlapping Three Percenter organizations, including local, state, and regional leadership structures that coordinate actions and decision-making.

A Three Percenter from Idaho provides "security" at the Oregon Standoff, Jan 14, 2015. Photo by Spencer Sunshine.

A Three Percenter from Idaho provides “security” at the Oregon Standoff, Jan 14, 2015. Photo by Spencer Sunshine.

The Three Percenters were co-founded in late 2008 by Mike Vanderboegh, who was active in 1990s Alabama militia groups. Vanderboegh has said, “The Three Percent idea, the movement, the ideal, was designed to be a simple, powerful concept that could not be infiltrated or subjected to agents provocateurs like many organizations that I observed in the constitutional militia movement of the 90s.”2 Along with the Oath Keepers, the Three Percenters are part of a new wave of Patriot movement groups that are successors to the militia movement of the 1990s and have had a dramatic rebirth since the 2008 election of Barack Obama to the presidency.3

Ideologically, the Three Percenters are similar to the better-known Oath Keepers, a Patriot movement group of current and former military, law enforcement, and first responders. The Oath Keepers claim to “defend the Constitution,” and interpret this as a commitment to right-wing social and economic views of the kind usually associated with the John Birch Society. The Oath Keepers promote conspiracy theories that claim that the United States is a socialist government intent on disarming the population so that a foreign government can invade. They are committed to a libertarian view of private property that opposes most federal land ownership or restrictions on private use for environmental or other reasons.4

A Three Percenter flag could be seen flying above the Jan. 2015 militia seige of a federal building in rural Oregon.

A Three Percenter flag could be seen flying above the Jan. 2015 militia seige of a federal building in rural Oregon.

Where the Oath Keepers are a formally incorporated group with a board of directors and membership roll, the Three Percenters are more like a loosely organized social movement. The Oath Keepers carefully cultivate a public image of bold but legal resistance against supposed government tyranny. Consistent with their media-ready image, they claim that they can deny membership to felons.5

Those with felony convictions are welcome in the Three Percenters, who work closely with the Oath Keepers. There appears to be substantial membership overlap and their most prominent members appear in public together; for example, Vanderboegh and Oath Keepers President and Founder Stewart Rhodes both spoke at a 2015 Salem, Oregon rally against a law requiring registration of gun sales between private individuals. This arrangement with the Three Percenters may afford the Oath Keepers a measure of insulation from public scrutiny of actions by Three Percenters.

Three Percenter co-founder Vanderboegh is well known for his violent rhetoric. In 2010, he called for breaking the windows of Democratic Party offices, and a slew of such attacks followed. He called for armed resistance to Obamacare and has published personal information about the families of legislators who voted for gun control measures.6 At the 2015 Salem, Oregon rally against state gun control legislation, he threatened “civil war” (as he did at the Bundy Ranch) as a response to the new laws. He also called Oregon Governor Kate Brown and others in the state government “tyrants” and “domestic enemies of the Constitution,” before saying, “this country has long had a remedy for tyrants—a second amendment remedy. So be careful for what you wish for, Madam—you may get it.”7

The Three Percenters have shown up at almost all of the major Patriot movement standoffs and armed camps in recent years, including the Bundy Ranch confrontation with Bureau of Land Management (BLM) agents in Nevada in April 2014; a Josephine County, Oregon dispute between miners and the BLM in April 2015; and a Lincoln, Montana dispute between miners and the BLM and Forest Service in July 2015. In Idaho, they have mobilized religious hatred and xenophobic hostility, organizing public rallies against Syrian refugee resettlement.8 The Idaho Three Percenters’ organizing has inspired similar actions in California. Supporters also tried to build a “citadel” in rural Benewah County in the Idaho panhandle.9

Numerous arrests of Three Percenters and those who have shown affinity with them have been documented. Allen “Lance” Scarsella, who was arrested in connection with the shooting of five people at a Black Lives Matter demonstration in Minneapolis in November 2015, showed an affinity for the Three Percenters.10 So did Jerad Miller, who was at the Bundy Ranch before he and his wife, Amanda, were involved in a June 2014 ambush of police officers and subsequent shootout that left five dead, including the Millers.11 Three Percenter Brad Bartelt threatened to detonate a homemade explosive on Arkansas State University’s campus in December 201512. Bran­don D. Gibbs, who was heavily armed and armored when police arrested him in December 2014 for threatening a city official, also had shown an affinity for the Three Percenters.13 And in 2011, Frederick Thomas was arrested in Georgia as a member of a militia group, which “planned to attack cities including Atlanta with deadly ricin, bomb federal buildings and murder law enforcement officials and others.”14 Thomas was allegedly inspired by Vanderboegh’s online novel Absolved; it describes a future confrontation where activists with Patriot movement views have a shootout with law enforcement and plan to murder government officials.15


[1] Co-founder Mike Vanderboegh described the concept this way in 2009: “The Three Percent today are gun owners who will not disarm, will not compromise and will no longer back up at the passage of the next gun control act. Three Percenters say quite explicitly that we will not obey any further circumscription of our traditional liberties and will defend ourselves if attacked. We intend to maintain our God-given natural rights to liberty and property, and that means most especially the right to keep and bear arms. Thus, we are committed to the restoration of the Founders’ Republic, and are willing to fight, die and, if forced by any would-be oppressor, to kill in the defense of ourselves and the Constitution that we all took an oath to uphold against enemies foreign and domestic.” Mike Vanderboegh, “What is a ‘Three Percenter’?,” February 17, 2009,

[2] Mike Vanderboegh, “A Brief Three Percent Catechism — A discipline not for the faint-hearted,” June 29, 2014,

[3] Mark Potok, “The ‘Patriot’ Movement Explodes,” March 1, 2012,

[4] Rachel Tabachnick, “Profile on the Right: Oath Keepers,” April 23, 2015,

[5] See Article VIII, Section 8.01 in the “Bylaws of Oath Keepers,” accessed December 31, 2015,

[6] “Michael Brian Vanderboegh,” accessed December 31, 2015,; see also David Neiwert, “Antigovernment Speakers Denounce Washington State Gun Law, Threaten Violent Revolt,” December 17, 2014,

[7] Devin Burghart of Institute for Research and Education on Human Rights pointed this part of the speech out. “We Will Not Comply Rally – Salem, Oregon – May 30, 2015,” uploaded July 3, 2015, Vanderboegh’s “civil war” comment is around 57:15, and comments on Brown around 1:04:40; for his Bundy Ranch speech, see Miranda Blue, “Bundy Ranch Speaker Warns Of ‘Civil War On A Vast Scale,’ Promises Harry Reid Will Have His ‘Balls Ripped Off’,” April 30, 2014,

[8] David Neiwert, “‘III Percenters’ Ride Wave of Islamophobia in Idaho to Lead Anti-Refugee Protests,” November 4, 2015,

[9] Bill Morlin, “Behind the Walls,” May 16, 2015,

[10] Sarah Kaplan, “Minn. man accused in Black Lives Matter shootings reportedly subscribed to ‘sovereign citizen’ subculture,” December 1, 2015,

[11] Mark Potok, “Alleged Las Vegas Cop-Killers in ‘Patriot’ Movement, Warned of ‘Sacrifices’,” June 9, 2014,‘patriot’-movement-warned-‘sacrifices’.

[12] Arturo Garcia, “Alleged Arkansas State gunman was investigated for saying he was ‘suicidal and homicidal’ online,” December 10, 2015,

[13] “Apparent Extremist Threatens Police Officers and a City Employee,” December 17, 2014,

[14] Mark Potok, “Georgia Militiamen Arrested in Major Domestic Terror Plot,” November 2, 2011,

[15] “Michael Brian Vanderboegh,” accessed December 31, 2015,


‘Trumping’ Democracy: Right-Wing Populism, Fascism, and the Case for Action

This article is part of the Winter 2016 issue of The Public Eye magazine.

The candidacy of Donald Trump has prompted a vigorous public debate over whether or not Trump is flirting with fascism. Some analysts suggest his political dance partner is leading him to the tune of right-wing populism. Other analysts say Trump’s marriage to fascism already has been consummated. Either way, Trump is stomping on the dance floor of democracy in a way that could collapse it into splinters. It’s a “scary moment for those of us who seek to defend civil rights, civil liberties, and democracy itself,” warns political analyst Noam Chomsky.1

Donald Trump speaking at CPAC 2011 in Washington, D.C. Image via Flickr, Gage Skidmore.

Donald Trump speaking at CPAC 2011 in Washington, D.C. Image via Gage Skidmore on Flickr.

Back in 2010 Chomsky started lecturing about the collapse of the Weimar Republic in Germany into the abyss of Hitler’s totalitarian Nazism.2 There are parallels to our current political climate than need to be examined cautiously, even though conditions in the U.S. are not nearly as bad as those faced by the Weimar Republic.

Is it really fair to suggest Trump—neofascist or not—poses a danger to civil society itself, as occurred in Germany at the end of the Weimar Republic? A review of Trump’s rhetoric makes this a legitimate question. Trump keeps gaining ground. As New York Daily News columnist Shaun King wrote in November:

For nearly six straight months, no matter how racist, sexist, anti-immigrant, or anti-Muslim Trump gets, he has maintained his lead in the polls. In fact, from all indications, it appears the more his public talk resembles that of a white supremacist, the more rabid and entrenched his support gets.3

The examples of Trump’s fascist-sounding rhetoric are numerous. In June, Trump tweeted, “I love the Mexican people, but Mexico is not our friend. They’re killing us at the border and they’re killing us on jobs and trade. FIGHT!”4 In July Trump falsely asserted, “The Mexican Government is forcing their most unwanted people into the United States. They are, in many cases, criminals, drug dealers, rapists, etc.”5

Trump’s sexism was displayed at the Republican debate on August 6 when he was asked by Fox News reporter Megyn Kelly about referring to women as “fat pigs, dogs, slobs and disgusting animals.” Trump later attacked Kelly on CNN, saying, “You could see there was blood coming out of her eyes. Blood coming out of her wherever.” The London Guardian reported that the “insinuation that Kelly was menstruating crossed a line for organisers of the Red State Gathering, a conservative event featuring GOP presidential hopefuls.” That group cancelled an appearance by Trump.6

Forging ahead, Trump claimed in September that the United States had become the “dumping ground for the rest of the world” for undocumented immigrants and proposed rounding up and deporting some 11 million of them, including their children, who are U.S. citizens.7 In a series of rambling and contradictory statements, Trump called for widespread surveillance of Muslims and refugees in the United States, and seemed to agree to the need for a federal database registering all Muslims, although he later backed off to say he was only considering it as a possibility. He confirmed that he wanted such a database for all Syrian refugees.8

As Trump’s viciousness ballooned, the corporate press shifted from portraying him as a carnival sideshow geek to recognizing that he posed a threat to civil society and even democracy itself.9

The media reported with palpable disgust when, during a press conference, Trump mocked the physical disability of New York Times seasoned political reporter Serge Kovaleski.10 Amid mounting disruptions of his campaign rallies by anti-Trump activists, Trump began to mock them, tried to silence them, and even ask that they be forcibly removed. In one incident Trump appeared to approve of the physical attack on a Black Lives Matter protestor who interrupted a November rally in Birmingham, Alabama.11

Supporters at a Donald Trump rally in Birmingham, AL, kick and punch a Black Lives Matter protester to the ground. Image via screenshot.

Supporters at a Donald Trump rally in Birmingham, AL, kick and punch a Black Lives Matter protester to the ground. Image via screenshot.

The Washington Post reported that Trump yelled, “Get him the hell out of here… Throw him out,” whereupon the protestor “fell to the ground and was surrounded by several white men who appeared to be kicking and punching him,” while CNN filmed video.12 Trump later remarked on Fox News that “Maybe [the protester] should have been roughed up, because it was absolutely disgusting what he was doing.”13

This was the same rally at which Trump announced to his cheering supporters, “I want surveillance of certain mosques.”14

Trump’s appeal to White Nationalism became increasingly obvious. While Trump can’t control who supports his candidacy, the New Yorker’s Evan Osnos observed with disdain that even “the Daily Stormer, America’s most popular neo-Nazi news site, had endorsed him for President.”15

Writing about Trump’s nasty rhetoric, and the alarming welcome it has found during the Republican pre-primary media blitz, American Prospect journalist Adele Stan put it bluntly:

What Trump is doing, via the media circus of which he has appointed himself ringmaster, is making the articulation of the basest bigotry acceptable in mainstream outlets, amplifying the many oppressive tropes and stereotypes of race and gender that already exist in more than adequate abundance.16

A Weimar Moment?

The Weimar period is crucial to understand because it was that precise moment in Germany’s history when a broad united front, crossing traditional political boundaries to defend democracy, could have blocked the mass base of a right-wing populist movement threatening to morph into a fascist juggernaut.17

Professor Paul Bookbinder at the University of Massachusetts in Boston has studied the Weimar Republic as it eroded into fascism in Germany. His collection of essays at the Facing History and Ourselves website, in a section entitled “The Fragility of Democracy,” explores the moments when public interventions might have altered what happened in Europe.18

As Bookbinder told me, “right now our society is facing some of the same tensions as seen in the Weimar Republic. People didn’t take seriously the threat to democracy when they could have; and when they did see the dangers it was too late.”19 He continued:

There are certainly some similarities to the rhetoric of the Weimar Period in Trump’s speeches, but also in that of some other Republican candidates, and Trump especially seems to be playing to an audience of angry White men who have held a privileged status as a group, but now see their status being challenged by people who they see them as undeserving.

Some commentators now are referring to Trump as a fascist demagogue, and Bookbinder thinks “they have a point” since “Trump is a strange combination of a fascist demagogue and a late night talk show host comedian. But we shouldn’t laugh at him because his is dangerous. When I watch Trump, even his facial expressions have the character I associate with the fascist demagogue Adolf Hitler. Trump’s crude humor also plays to some of the prejudices of many in his audiences.”

Mass Media, Demagogues, and Scripted Violence

Perpetrators of ethnoviolence and attacks based on race, religion, or gender “often take their cues from what they hear in the media,” wrote Robert Reich in a column on his website after the deadly attack on a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado Springs in November.20 Reich, Secretary of Labor in the Clinton administration, warned that “the recent inclination of some politicians to use inflammatory rhetoric is contributing to a climate” in which fear of violence is real and growing among targeted groups.

Reich, now a professor at the University of California at Berkeley, was shocked when Republican Presidential hopeful Carly Fiorina continued to allege “that Planned Parenthood is selling body parts of fetuses,” even though the claim has been proven baseless. Fiorina isn’t alone, Reich continued. Mike Huckabee calls it “sickening” that “we give these butchers money to harvest human organs,” noted Reich. And after the Colorado shootings, Trump falsely claimed “some of these people from Planned Parenthood [are] talking about it like you’re selling parts to a car.” Much of Reich’s column consists of a horrific list of physical attacks on facilities operated by Islamic groups and Planned Parenthood in recent months.21

While violence is often used by ultra-right groups such as the Ku Klux Klan and various neonazi groups in the U.S., it is less common in conservative social and political movements. But Trump’s use of alarming right-wing populist rhetoric, aimed at mobilizing his predominantly White base, is changing that status quo.

The conservative Right generally tries to avoid this obvious and threatening sort of inflammatory language. In the Washington Spectator, political journalist Rick Perlstein, who has written several books about U.S. conservatism, observed of Trump that, “Previous Republican leaders were sufficiently frightened by the daemonic anger that energized their constituencies that they avoided surrendering to it completely, even for political advantage.”22 The Nazis cultivated the idea of an apocalyptic battle between good and evil. This, coupled with claims of a Jewish financial conspiracy and a sense of national humiliation that demanded redress, helped mobilize the mass base for fascism among the electorate in Weimer Germany. And it also legitimized the violence that followed Hitler’s rhetoric. Street fighting became rampant during the collapse of the Weimar Republic, as “Brownshirts” took to the streets to attack the targets singled out in Hitler’s speeches as a “threat” to Germany.

Similarly, Trump’s use of demagoguery aimed at scapegoated targets is laced with references to conspiracy theories involving President Obama—namely that he was not born in the United States. Tea Party conspiracists claim Obama is a secret Muslim and part of an evil plot. Trump also portrays Muslims in an apocalyptic framework, implying Muslims are a threat to the survival of the United States. Journalist Deborah Caldwell suggests this has touched a chord precisely because “people find his apocalyptic rhetoric enticing and familiar—because America has end-times obsession deeply embedded in its national psyche.” Conspiracism and apocalypticism are among the core components of right-wing populism, along with demonization, scapegoating, and “producerism,” which is the division of the population into “productive” members of society struggling against the “parasites” above and below who are subversive, sinful, or lazy.23

In their study of how media manipulation for political ends can help incite genocide, Mark Frohardt and Jonathan Temin looked at “content intended to instill fear in a population,” or “intended to create a sense among the population that conflict is inevitable.”24 They point out that “media content helps shape an individual’s view of the world and helps form the lens through which all issues are viewed.” According to the authors:

  • In Rwanda prior to the genocide a private radio station tried to instill fear of an imminent attack on Hutus by a Tutsi militia.
  • In the months before [conflicts] in Serbia, state television attempted to create the impression that a World War II–style ethnic cleansing initiative against Serbs was in the works.
  • Throughout the 1990s Georgian media outlets sought to portray ethnic minorities as threats to Georgia’s hard-won independence.

Frohardt and Temin found that demagogues facilitated the likelihood of violence against specific demonized and scapegoated target groups by creating a widespread fear in the general population that serious—perhaps lethal–attacks on them were “imminent;” even though “there was only flimsy evidence provided to support” these false claims. They continued:

When such reporting creates widespread fear, people are more amenable to the notion of taking preemptive action, which is how the actions later taken were characterized. Media were used to make people believe that “we must strike first in order to save ourselves.” By creating fear the foundation for taking violent action through “self-defense” is laid.

Thus demagogic rhetoric can produce “scripted violence,” in which the demagogue can claim there is no direct link between the inciting language and the violence of “random” perpetrators.25

Using the F-word — Why Terminology Matters

There are good reasons why Trump’s statements cause our progressive antennae to wiggle. Trump’s swaggering demeanor recalls that of Italian Fascist leader Benito Mussolini. A number of journalists have suggested that Trump is using rhetoric similar to that used by Adolf Hitler in mobilizing Germans to support fascism. Some just call Trump an outright fascist.26 In doing so, however, some writers have fallen victim to a hoax quote on fascism wrongly attributed to Mussolini: “Fascism should more properly be called corporatism because it is the merger of state and corporate power.”27

It’s not clear where this fake quote originated, but it confuses Italian corporatist syndicalism with modern business corporations. The spelling is the only major similarity. Mussolini and his adviser, fascist philosopher Giovanni Gentile, consistently wrote that under fascist rule corporations (and all other sectors of society) must bend to the iron will of the fascist ruler.28

Despite how loosely or inaccurately the terms are sometimes used, “fascism” and “totalitarianism” have very specific meanings. A totalitarian state is a central goal of fascist movements, including neofascism and neonazism. Totalitarian states enforce total control over every aspect of a person’s life—political, economic, social, and cultural—in order to reshape the individual and unify society. Totalitarianism is like authoritarianism on methamphetamines. Public debate and opposition are not tolerated. Core democratic systems are crushed. Dissidents are rounded up and sometimes executed. Political theorist and author Hannah Arendt argued that Nazism and Stalinism were the prime examples of totalitarian movements that gained state power.29

However frightening Trump’s ascent might be to progressives, the candidate is neither a neofascist nor a totalitarian ideologue, but a right-wing populist bully. And the distinction matters for reasons that go beyond simple taxonomy. Calling Republicans fascist or totalitarian leads progressive organizers into a dead-end of crafting the wrong tactics and strategies for the moment in which we live.

Professor Roger Griffin is a world-class authority on the subject of fascism, and author of several books including The Nature of Fascism.30 Griffin defines fascism as:

… a revolutionary form of nationalism, one that sets out to be a political, social and ethical revolution, welding the “people” into a dynamic national community under new elites infused with heroic values. The core myth that inspires this project is that only a populist, trans-class movement of purifying, cathartic national rebirth (palingenesis) can stem the tide of decadence.

Another expert, Emilio Gentile, author of The Sacralization of Politics in Fascist Italy, says fascism raises politics to the level of a sacred struggle seeking totalitarian control over society. It is “a mass movement with multiclass membership” that

…believes itself invested with a mission of national regeneration, considers itself in a state of war against political adversaries and aims at conquering a monopoly of political power by using terror, [electoral] politics, and deals with leading groups, to create a new regime that destroys [electoral] democracy.31

Despite Trump’s campaign slogan—the promise to “Make America Great Again”—neither of these definitions describe his program, even though he appears to be getting close to neofascist rhetoric. Trump’s obvious early mass appeal is built around right-wing populism. Matthew N. Lyons and I defined the term in our book Right-Wing Populism in America:

Populism is a way of mobilizing “the people” into a social or political movement around some form of anti-elitism. Populist movements can occur on the right, the left, or in the center. They can be egalitarian or authoritarian, inclusive or exclusionary, forward-looking or fixated on a romanticized image of the past. They can either challenge or reinforce systems of oppression, depending on how “the people” are defined.32

Populism is confusing because it is at once an ideology, a strategic organizing frame, and a rhetorical narrative storyline that names friends and enemies. While left-wing populism often organizes people around expanding economic fairness, right-wing populism relies on prejudice and bigotry, demonization and scapegoating of an “Other,” and fears of traitorous, subversive conspiracies.

Trump uses populist rhetoric to appeal to “the people,” even as he campaigns on his status as an elitist member of the one percent. Margaret Canovan, author of Populism, a key academic book on several populist variants, calls this “politicians’ populism.”33 It’s a cynical scam, but one with a history of short-term success in political contests as the means of one set of elites unseating the faction of elites currently running the government. Italian philosopher Umberto Eco called this a “selective…qualitative populism” and warned that there “is in our future a TV or Internet populism, in which the emotional response of a selected group of citizens can be presented and accepted as the Voice of the People.” Thus we now have Trumpism: the use of right-wing populism to mask the fascistic demonization of targeted groups.

Although they can look similar, right-wing populism is distinct from fascism. As the University of Georgia’s Cas Mudde, an internationally-recognized expert on global right-wing movements, told the Washington Post in an article on Trump, “The key features of the populist radical right ideology—nativism, authoritarianism, and populism—are not unrelated to mainstream ideologies and mass attitudes. In fact, they are best seen as a radicalization of mainstream values.”34

Mudde, author of Populist Radical Right Parties in Europe, sees Trump’s ideology and rhetoric as comparable to several European movements,35 particularly Geert Wilders’ Party for Freedom in the Netherlands, Jean-Marie Le Pen’s National Front in France, and the Danish People’s Party. These right-wing populist movements flirt with fascist themes, but are not full-blown neofascist movements, although they share many similarities in terms of exclusionary rhetoric, organic nationalism, and nativist bigotry.36 The trickiest part is that many scholars now see right-wing populism as a building block of neofascist movements. Fascism emerges from right-wing populist mass movements when a faction of the one percent decides it is necessary to promote violence to regain control of a rapidly destabilizing nation facing a crisis. Fascism is the last resort of those in power trying to maintain control.

Fascism emerges from right-wing populist mass movements when a faction of the one percent decides it is necessary to promote violence to regain control of a rapidly destabilizing nation.

Terminological distinctions matter because some of the strategies and tactics we craft while organizing against a right-wing populist movement must be categorically different from organizing to block the rise of a totalitarian fascist state.

To challenge the current wave of vicious anti-democratic attacks in the United States we must study the forces that have unleashed them as well as determine the exact moment in history in which we struggle against them. People’s lives may depend on it.

As fascism builds toward grabbing state power, the situation quickly unravels.37 Sporadic attacks and acts of terrorism against the named scapegoats become more frequent and widespread. People need to focus on organizing around physical self-defense. This is not that moment. Things are bad, but not as bad as when Weimar collapsed into the hands of Hitler and his thugs.

During a period of right-wing populism, as we are experiencing now, the focus of organizing must be to defend the scapegoats targeted by demagogues like Trump. Millions of White people seem to be having panic attacks in the face of the changing racial demographics of our nation. Our task is to build citywide and even neighborhood coalitions to defend economic and social equality. The coalitions must be multi-issue and cross boundaries of race, gender, class, age, ability, and more.

The focus of organizing must be to defend the scapegoats targeted by demagogues like Trump.

Suzanne Pharr, author of In the Time of the Right, talks about “divisions that kill.”38 By keeping us divided, the defenders of the status quo have an easier time exploiting us. She suggests that in the current political climate, organizers must bring the discussion back to the neighborhood level. “We have to get people to talk about what duress they are experiencing and the losses their communities are experiencing. Then we need to talk about what has been stripped away from our community and family support systems.” This is how we can reach out to our neighbors and convince them to “stop blaming poor people and people of color and start looking in the direction of the forces holding us down.”

But be aware that the targeting by our right-wing adversaries is opportunistic and can shift in an instant to reproductive rights, the LGBTQ community, the environment, or “tax and spend” liberals. Back in 1994 the main target of the Right was the gay community, and right-wing strategists were using race as a wedge issue to get Black ministers to denounce the “Homosexual Agenda.”

The current crop of Republican candidates includes several active with the Christian Right and their agenda to curtail reproductive rights, force gay people back into the closet, and make women handmaids to male supremacy. Meanwhile, Carly Fiorina makes wildly inaccurate statements about Planned Parenthood and Jeb Bush is beating the militarist war drums with a frenzied ad campaign. Behind these candidates are millions of dollars of donations from wealthy “Free Market” fanatics pushing “neoliberal” policies to gut government services and cut taxes for the rich.

No matter who becomes the Republican candidate for President in 2016, the damage is already being done, and it is increasingly harming a range of scapegoated targets. This is a new political and social moment. Republicans have used bigoted rhetoric in the past, but anger has grown as buying power and status have shrunk among many Whites. This is producing a more virulent strain of White Nationalist nativism and masculinist rage.

Why Are These People So Angry?

The crowd listening to Trump’s stump speech in Massachusetts this October cheered his attacks on Mexican immigrants. The supporters my partner and I spoke with were fed up with the status quo, suspicious of President Obama, and very much liked Trump’s campaign slogan, “Make America Great Again.” Great for whom? Cleary not everyone. Trump supporters are angry. They resemble the folks in the film Network, who were told by a raving demagogue to open their windows and shout: “I’M AS MAD AS HELL, AND I’M NOT GOING TO TAKE THIS ANYMORE!”39 This is the quintessential right-wing populist primal scream. Who is kicking them down the ladder of success? Someone has to be blamed for turning their American Dream into a liberal, “politically correct” nightmare.

When Trump uses the phase “politically correct” he is using a concept re-engineered by the Right in the 1980s as a way to silence activists demanding equality for traditionally oppressed peoples and groups in the United States. This is similar to the propagandistic use of terms such as “radicalization” and “extremism” to demonize dissent on both the Left and the Right.

Image via Gage Skidmore on Flickr.

Image via Gage Skidmore on Flickr.

Trump’s rhetorical propaganda is aimed at appealing to a growing base of angry and frustrated White middle and working class people. In a script broadcast by Trump ad nauseum, he is telling them who to blame for their slipping economic, political, and social status. According to sociologist Rory McVeigh, people who join right-wing movements tend to be convinced they are losing or about to lose status, power, or privilege in one or more of three civic arenas: economic, political, or social.40

We have seen exclusionary, repressive, or right-wing populist movements in the United States before. President Andrew Jackson (1829-1837) was cheered as a champion of “the people” even as he kept Black people in chains and forced the Cherokee nation out of their ancestral homeland to make room for White pioneers.41 After the Civil War, the Ku Klux Klan launched a murderous wave of violence against freed slaves and their supporters in the South. The large populist movements of the late 1890s began as an overwhelmingly progressive force, seeking economic fairness and curtailing the abuses of economic elites, but some supporters later turned their anger against Jews and Blacks. The backlash against the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s frequently used populist-sounding conspiracist rhetoric, suggesting that communists and Jews were stirring up otherwise happy Black people in order to prepare the United States for a takeover by the Soviet Union. The presidential campaigns of George Wallace and Pat Buchanan were built using clear and coded right-wing populist appeals to a White nationalist base.42

In more recent history, the rise of the Tea Party exemplified right-wing populism, as an angry constituency was mobilized back in 2009.43 The Tea Party idea originated with supporters of uber-libertarian Ron Paul, but the franchise was scooped up by conservative billionaires who funded trainings and rallies around the country. Over time Christian Right activists played a leading role in local Tea Party groups, shifting the focus to a toxic blend of nativist anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim rhetoric coupled with homophobia and antiabortion propaganda.44 Now the Tea Party grassroots is heavily populated by White nationalists.45 This is Trump’s voter base.

Folks who support the Tea Party and other right-wing populist movements are responding to rhetoric that honors them as the bedrock of American society. These are primarily middle class and working class White people with a deep sense of patriotism who bought into the American dream of upward mobility.46 Now they feel betrayed. Trump and his Republican allies appeal to their emotions by naming scapegoats to blame for their sense of being displaced by “outsiders” and abandoned by their government.

Emotions matter in building social movements. The linkage of emotion and politics are at the heart of a forthcoming book by University of California, Berkeley, sociologist and author Arlie Hochschild. In it, Hochschild reports on many conversations with Tea Party members in the South, where the movement is strongest.47 Many she spoke with long doubted that Obama was American; even after the publication of his long-form birth certificate some still suspect that he is Muslim and harbors ill will toward America. Hochschild also observes that this set of beliefs was widely shared among people who otherwise seemed reasonable, friendly, and accepting. How she wondered, could we explain this?

Her premise is that all political belief

is undergirded by emotion. Given the experiences we’ve undergone, we have deep feelings. These shape our “deep story.” And this is an allegorical, collectively shared, “honor-focused,” narrative storyline about what “feels true.” We take fact out of it, judgment out of it. A “deep story” says what happened to us from the point of view of how we feel about it.

The “deep story” of the Tea Party is that the American Dream has leveled off. Ninety percent of Americans between 1980 and 2012 received no rise in salary while dividends from a rising GDP rose dramatically for the top 10 percent.

Since the election of President Ronald Reagan in 1980, the one percent has enriched itself while pushing most of us into a downward spiral of exported jobs, lower wages, unsafe working conditions, and tax breaks for the wealthy. Government social services such as public health and food stamps have been slashed. Public works projects, from bridges to sewers, have been gutted. Shifting tax dollars to private charter schools has strangled public education, the keystone of democracy. This has been happening in communities of color for decades. Now it is front-page news because research shows it is devastating White working class and even middle class communities.48

Amid a rising gap between the rich and poor, the middle has been pressed out—especially blue-collar men, the bottom of the middle. Their search for other sources of “honor”—what Hochschild feels is an underlying crisis among Tea Party members—has also encountered resistance, and they have met with criticism, insult, and injury, from upper-middle class liberals who look down on them as “rednecks.”

Most Tea Party supporters feel the government is allowing them to be shoved aside, displaced, dispossessed, and disrespected by newcomers, outsiders, and immigrants who they don’t see as proper citizens (no matter their legal status).

Trump is popular among many Tea Party movement activists, although national leaders are remaining coy in terms of an endorsement.49 The Tea Party and Trump conspiracy theories feed off each other, and bolster a sense that there is a plot to disempower White people.

Trump and other Republican candidates capture their hearts and minds by telling them their anger is justified and then point them at scapegoats rather than the institutions that have failed them. A culture permeated by the legacies of White supremacy leads the White middle and working class to blame their real downward mobility on people of color and “non-White” immigrants, and in that way reproduces both structural racism and the class-based power of the one percent.

Much of this rhetoric, like Trump’s, began as a specific attack against Mexicans and Latinos, but it keeps expanding. There is a “Trump Effect increasingly sweeping through the country,” warned immigrant rights activist Pablo Alvarado, Director for the National Day Labor Organizing Network.50 For example, after the Paris attacks a number of Republican governors banned all refugees from entering their states.51 The Puente Human Rights Movement, a grassroots migrant justice organization based in Phoenix quickly responded with a statement declaring, “Scapegoating and xenophobia don’t make us safer.”52 But the attacks aren’t only coming from the Republican Right. Democratic Senator Diane Feinstein, for example, is now criticizing immigrant-sheltering sanctuary cities.53

The center of the entire political spectrum in the United States is being shifted to the Right. The political views of today’s “centrist” Democrats resemble the views of many Republicans during the Nixon administration. White voters have been maneuvered into choosing White racial privilege over their own economic security. This explains the question asked in Tom Frank’s 2014 book, What’s the Matter With Kansas?54 In 2015, the same mass base cheers Trump while he is mobilizing resentment. That tactic, which Jean Hardisty explored in her 1999 book of the same name,55 is a longtime part of right-wing politics in the U.S. But now, as demographers predict that the majority of the U.S. will be non-White by the middle of the century, the existing emotional response behind that resentment is getting stronger.

From Analysis to Action

The debate over what we should call Trump’s vicious political movement should not stop us from organizing now to protect the people being demonized and scapegoated as targets of White rage. The current wave of right-wing populism in the United States is breeding a backlash movement that will take creative and bold strategies and tactics as we organize to defend democracy and diversity in the public square.

Debate over what we should call Trump’s vicious political movement should not stop us from organizing now to protect the people being demonized and scapegoated as targets of White rage.

Trump is a political performance artist portraying the psychological Id of the American Dream. He unleashes the fearful and angry feelings of people who live in a society run as a zero sum game requiring the successful to climb up over those labeled as inferior. So as the old “Liberalism” consensus collapses from the center while the Right is on the rise, what do we do?

Our challenge is to expose the ideas and policies of Trump and his Republican cronies while competing for folks in their voting base who are legitimately concerned about their declining economic and social future. At the same time we need to put pressure on backsliding liberals who now have the space to abandon justice for unauthorized immigrants and other targets of Republican venom.

Our challenge is to expose the ideas and policies of Trump and his Republican cronies while competing for folks in their voting base who are legitimately concerned about their declining economic and social future.

Activists need to build broad and diverse local coalitions that tactically address local issues while strategically linking them to national struggles. Building broad, inclusive, and egalitarian coalitions is hard. Bernice Johnson Reagon is a progressive scholar, singer, and activist. She helped found the women of color a Capella vocal group Sweet Honey in the Rock. Reagon advises that, when doing real coalition building, “Most of the time you feel threatened to the core, and if you don’t, you’re not really doing no coalescing.”56

There are times when liberals and progressives can form alliances, but it can be frustrating. PRA’s founder, Jean Hardisty, explained this in her essay My On-Again, Off-Again Romance With Liberalism. At times when the Right is a growing threat and the Left is weak, she argued, “liberal reforms have to be defended. Now we are swimming against a tide that is thick with peril…and like it or not” progressives must “work with liberals, as well as with any other left-leaning sectors” in a “united front against the agenda of the Right.”57 Also keep in mind the right-wing backlash is a coalition that has fissures and cracks that can be wedged apart. We need to analyze and take advantage of the stress cracks in any right-wing coalition while making sure in our coalition work these strains are openly discussed and resolved honestly and equitably.

The late progressive activist Audre Lorde reminded us that there is “no hierarchy of oppressions.” Race, class, and gender issues are all complex and related, and no single form of oppression trumps another. That’s why the concept of intersectionality is so important. All systems of oppression need to be unraveled. Currently the focus is on the hierarchies of power and privilege that maintain the system of oppression on which this nation was founded: White Nationalism. That’s the primary text and subtext of the Trump campaign rhetoric. At the center of our struggle today is the idea of a “White Race”—which in scientific terms is nonsense. But in terms of the struggle we face, “Whiteness” is at the center. There is a White Race in the minds of millions of Americans. Whiteness is a social, cultural, political, and economic fact.

Right now we need to be organizing against right-wing populist scapegoating, especially racist White Nationalism and anti-immigrant xenophobia. White people need to reach across the political divide and engage White neighbors in conversations about how the nasty rhetoric is making it difficult to have serious discussions on how to fix what is broken. We all need to be engaging in struggles in our local communities, schools, workplaces—even on the supermarket checkout line.

White people need to reach across the political divide and engage White neighbors in conversations about how the nasty rhetoric is making it difficult to have serious discussions on how to fix what is broken.

Back in 2010 as the Tea Party Movement was first brewing, Chomsky raised the example of the Weimar period in Germany as a warning. At a meeting held by Z Magazine, Chomsky fielded a set of questions on how the Left should organize against the racist, anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim, and antigay backlash arising out of the Tea Party.58

“First of all,” he said, “you need to understand it. They say to themselves ‘We work hard, we’re Christians, we’re White…and now They are taking it all away from Us.’”

Chomsky points out that, though often bigoted, these “feelings are genuine…and they have to be dealt with.” Organizing has to be “done in a way which doesn’t frighten people,” that doesn’t “elicit their worst emotions and reactions.” Hochschild’s sociological analyses and Chomsky’s political analysis reinforce each other.

According to Chomsky, we need to pay attention to the feelings of resentment which are “very understandable” from their point of view. You begin by recognizing that their anger “does have legitimate roots. People feel…seriously threatened…people’s way of life is being taken away from them.” It’s not the immigrants who should be blamed, however, but the greed of the financial sector, Chomsky says.

And when organizing, “You don’t want to brazenly flaunt in front of people your attacks on their values.” You need to help them understand that their values should lead them to tolerance instead of hate. Chomsky was asked how activists can build a successful movement. He replied to the whole room, “We all know how…by education, by organizing, by activism.”

Chip Berlet, co-author of Right-Wing Populism in America, has written scores of scholarly and popular articles on human rights, fascism, and right-wing movements. He served as a researcher at Political Research Associates for 30 years, and is creator of Trumpism.usAn expanded set of resources is being updated at Research for Progress.


1 Correspondence with author.

2 Chomsky first raised the issue of Weimar at a lecture at Left Forum in New York City. Another Chomsky lecture mentioning Weimar presented at the Haven Center at the University of Wisconsin is available as a transcript,

3 Shaun King, “King: Donald Trump shows he’ll do anything to appeal to his racist supporters,” New York Daily News, (updated) November 22, 2015.

4 Affan Chowdhry, “Trump leads in polls despite gaffes,” The Globe and Mail, July 15, 2015.

5 Washington Post, “Fact Checker” column, July 8, 2015.

6 Edward Helmore and Ben Jacobs, “Donald Trump’s ‘sexist’ attack on TV debate presenter sparks outrage,” August 8, 2015.

7 David Leopold, “The shocking reality of Donald Trump’s plan to deport millions, MSNBC, 09/15/15.

8 Lauren Carroll, “In Context: Donald Trump’s comments on a database of American Muslims, November 24th, 2015,

9 Jason Stanley “Democracy and the Demagogue, Opinionator – A Gathering of Opinion from Around the Web, The Stone, October 12, 2015,

10 The Guardian,New York Times slams ‘outrageous’ Donald Trump for mocking reporter’s disability,” November 26, 2015,

11 Jenna Johnson and Mary Jordan, “Trump on rally protester: ‘Maybe he should have been roughed up’,” November 22, 2015,

12 David Mark and Jeremy Diamond, “Trump: ‘I want surveillance of certain mosques’” CNN: Politics, November 21, 2015,  The video of the attack is in a section titled “Scuffle breaks out at rally,”


14 David Mark and Jeremy Diamond, “Trump: ‘I want surveillance of certain mosques’” CNN: Politics, November 21, 2015,  The video of the attack is in a section titled “Scuffle breaks out at rally,”

15 Evan Osnos, “The Fearful and the Frustrated: Donald Trump’s nationalist coalition takes shape—for now, The New Yorker, “The Political Scene,” August 31, 2015,

16 Adele M. Stan. 2015, “A Nation of Sociopaths? What the Trump Phenomenon Says About America,” American Prospect, September 9, 2015.

17 Paul Bookbinder, “Choices and Consequences in Weimar Germany,” Section: The Fragility of Democracy, (Weimar Republic Readings): four essays (Brookline, MA, Facing History and Ourselves, no date),

18 Ibid.

19 Interview with the author, December 9, 2015.

20 Robert Reich, “Why Hate Speech by Presidential Candidates is Despicable,” November 29, 2015

21 Ibid.

22 Rick Perlstein, “Donald Trump and the ‘F-Word’: An unsettling symbiosis between man and mob,” Washington Spectator, September 30, 2015.

23 Berlet and Lyons, Right-Wing Populism in America, 6-9. Terms explained in right sidebar here:

24 Mark Frohardt and Jonathan Temin, Use and Abuse of Media in Vulnerable Societies, Special Report 110, Washington, DC, United States Institute of Peace. October 2003,, (accessed 26/9/2012). Although an excellent study, the report is flawed by the failure to include a single footnote. See also Kofi A. Annan, Allan Thompson, and International Development Research Centre of Canada, The Media and the Rwanda Genocide (Ottawa: International Development Research Centre, 2007).

25 Chip Berlet. 2014. “Heroes Know Which Villains to Kill: How Coded Rhetoric Incites Scripted Violence,” in Matthew Feldman and Paul Jackson (eds), Doublespeak: Rhetoric of the Far-Right Since 1945 (Stuttgart: ibidem-Verlag, 2014). Excerpts at

26 Chip Berlet, “Trump a Fascist?” Research for Progress.

27 Chip Berlet, “Mussolini: The Fake Quote,” Research for Progress.

28 Benito Mussolini (with Giovanni Gentile), “The Doctrine of Fascism,” in Enciclopedia Italiana (1932); Benito Mussolini (with Giovanni Gentile), The Doctrine of Fascism (Firenze: Vallecchi Editore, 1935), this was the official English translation of the article in the Enciclopedia Italiana;  Benito Mussolini (with Giovanni Gentile), Fascism: Doctrine and Institutions (Rome: ‘Ardita’ Publishers, 1935), an expanded version of “The Doctrine of Fascism.” A discussion of the use of the fake quote is at

29 Hannah Arendt,  The Origins of Totalitarianism (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1951). See also: Hannah Arendt, Eichmann in Jerusalem A Report on the Banality of Evil (New York: Viking Press, 1963).

30 Roger Griffin, The Nature of Fascism (London: Routledge, 1993).

31 Emilio Gentile, The Sacralization of Politics in Fascist Italy, translated by Keith Botsford (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1996); See also regarding Nazi Germany as sacralized politics: David Redles, Hitler’s Millennial Reich: Apocalyptic Belief and the Search for Salvation (New York: New York Univ. Press, 2005); Klaus Vondung, The Apocalypse in Germany ( Columbia and London: Univ. of Missouri Press, 2000). An expanded bibliography is at

32 Chip Berlet and Matthew Nemiroff Lyons, Right-Wing Populism in America: Too Close for Comfort (New York: Guilford Press, 2000)

33 Margaret Canovan, Populism (New York: Harcourt, 1981).

34 Cas Mudde, “The Trump Phenomenon and the European Populist Radical Right,“ Washington Post, The Monkey Cage, August 26, 2015 .

35 Cas Mudde. Populist Radical Right Parties in Europe (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007).

36 Berlet and Lyons, Right-Wing Populism in America.

37 Bookbinder, “Choices and Consequences in Weimar Germany.”

38 Suzanne Pharr, “Divisions that Kill,” in Eyes Right! Challenging the Right Wing Backlash, ed. Chip Berlet (Boston, MA: South End Press, 1995)

39 Network, Sidney Lumet and Paddy Chayefsky (Hollywood, CA: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer 1976), Full quote at Internet Movie Database.

40 Rory McVeigh, David Cunningham, and Justin Farrell. “Political Polarization as a Social Movement Outcome: 1960s Klan Activism and Its Enduring Impact on Political Realignment in Southern Counties, 1960 to 2000 (American Sociological Review 79, no. 6 2014): 1144-171; Rory McVeigh, “Ku Klux Klan activism in the 1960s is linked to the South’s swing to the Republican Party, London School of Economics, the LSE US Centre’s daily blog on American Politics and Policy, December 17, 2014,

41 Berlet and Lyons, Right-Wing Populism in America, pp. 40-46; Google Educational Resources, “Jacksonian Era: Populism,” online resource,

42 Berlet and Lyons, Right-Wing Populism in America.

43 Chip Berlet, “Reframing Populist Resentments in the Tea Party Movement.” In Steep: The Precipitous Rise of the Tea Party. Lawrence Rosenthal and Christine Trost, eds. (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 2014); Devin Burghart and Leonard Zeskind, The Tea Party Movement in 2015, online report, (Institute for Research and Education on Human Rights, 2015).

44 Abby Scher and Chip Berlet, “The Tea Party Moment,” in Nella van Dyke and David S. Meyer, eds., Understanding the Tea Party Movement (Farnham and London: Ashgate, 2014).

45 Burghart and Zeskind, The Tea Party Movement in 2015.

46 Scher and Berlet, “The Tea Party Moment.”

47 The book is tentatively entitled Strangers in Their Own Land: a journey into the heart of the right, (New York: The New Press, 2016)

48 Michelle Chen, “Now White People Are Dying from Our Terrible Economic Policies, Too,” The Nation, November 6, 2015, Chauncey Devega, “Dear White America: Your working class is literally dying—and this is your idea of an answer?” Salon, Nov 6, 2015

49 S.A. Miller, “Donald Trump enjoys support of tea party movement that refuses to fully embrace him,” The Washington Times, November 22, 2015,

50 Pablo Alvarado, “Reaction: L.A. Sheriff Reverses Course on Jail Deportations,” National Day Laborers Organizing Network, September 22, 2015

51 Scott Oathout “Gov. Ducey calls for immediate halt of new refugees to Arizona” KVOA Television, Nov 16, 2015

52 “Puente Responds to AZ Gov. Ducey’s Announcement on Refugees,” Puente Movement,

53 Courtney Coren, “Dianne Feinstein Under Fire for Sanctuary City Bill,” August 3, 2015 Newsmax is a right-wing website cited here to encourage touring the page to review the rhetoric.

54 Thomas Frank, What’s the Matter with Kansas?: How Conservatives Won the Heart of America (New York, NY: Metropolitan Books, 2004),

55 Jean V. Hardisty, Mobilizing Resentment: Conservative Resurgence from the John Birch Society to the Promise Keepers (Boston: Beacon Press, 1999).

56 Bernice Johnson Reagon, 1983, “Coalition Politics: Turning the Century” in Barbara Smith, ed., Home Girls: A Black Feminist Anthology, Kitchen Table Women of Color Press, 1983; Rutgers University Press, 2000. See also

57 Jean Hardisty, “My On-Again, Off-Again Romance With Liberalism,” The Women’s Theological Center (now known as Women Transforming Communities), in the Brown Paper series, March 1996. Republished with permission by Political Research Associates, 2015

58 Chomsky’s comments are assembled by the author from a transcript of a videotape of the event. He was speaking at Z Magazine’s Media Institute (for progressive journalists). Video: “What Went Wrong: A Q & A with Noam Chomsky,” a Z Video Production. Chomsky confirmed these are still his views in an e-mail to the author.

Policies That Make People Disappear: Activist Shana griffin on Post-Katrina New Orleans Housing

Click here for a printable PDF.

Click here for a printable PDF.

This article appears in the Fall 2015 issue of The Public Eye magazine

To mark the 10-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina this August, a conservative member of the Chicago Tribune’s editorial board, Kristen McQueary, wrote that she wished that a similar “swirl of fury,” “a real storm,” would whip through Chicago and prompt a citywide “rebirth.”1 While 1,833 people died, and more than 400,000 others were displaced by Katrina—many permanently—McQueary found a silver lining in the catastrophe: slashed city budgets and mandatory unpaid furloughs; the demolition of old housing stock, labor contracts, and teachers’ unions; and the rise of “the nation’s first free-market education system.”

“That’s what it took to hit the reset button in New Orleans,” McQueary wrote. “Chaos. Tragedy. Heartbreak.”

Thousands of working-class, African American families were displaced by the Housing Authority of New Orleans in favor of corporate development after Hurricane Katrina. Photo via Flickr and courtesy of Culture: Subculture Photography.

Thousands of working-class, African American families were displaced by the Housing Authority of New Orleans in favor of corporate development after Hurricane Katrina. Photo via Flickr and courtesy of Culture: Subculture Photography.

Although McQueary was forced to walk back her language after commenters nationwide pilloried her callous “prayer,” she was merely repeating a powerful narrative that’s been created over the past decade. Just weeks after the hurricane made landfall, The New York Times’ longtime conservative columnist David Brooks wrote:

The first rule of the rebuilding effort should be: Nothing Like Before. Most of the ambitious and organized people abandoned the inner-city areas of New Orleans long ago, leaving neighborhoods where roughly three-quarters of the people were poor…. If we just put up new buildings and allow the same people to move back into their old neighborhoods, then urban New Orleans will become just as rundown and dysfunctional as before.2

January 15, 2007 - Martin Luther King Day. St Bernard Public Housing Development. New Orleans, LA. Four to five hundred people assembled on St. Bernard Avenue to force an entry into the St. Bernard Public Housing Development. Photo via Flickr and courtesy of Culture: Subculture Photography. License:

January 15, 2007 – Martin Luther King Day. St Bernard Public Housing Development. New Orleans, LA. Four to five hundred people assembled on St. Bernard Avenue to force an entry into the St. Bernard Public Housing Development. Photo via Flickr and courtesy of Culture: Subculture Photography.

Dreams of a blank slate on which to carry out a market-driven recovery weren’t confined to op-eds. Government officials began speculating about how the storm and the area’s subsequent evacuation would change New Orleans’ demographics. Alphonso Jackson, HUD Secretary to President George W. Bush, urged against rebuilding the Lower Ninth Ward and told the Houston Chronicle, “Whether we like it or not, New Orleans is not going to be 500,000 people for a long time.

New Orleans is not going to be as black as it was for a long time, if ever again.”3 Rep. Richard H. Baker, a Republican congressman from Baton Rouge, was quoted as telling lobbyists in September 2005, “We finally cleaned up public housing in New Orleans. We couldn’t do it, but God did.”4

Democrats got on board with the blank slate narrative as well. The efforts to get rid of large swaths of the city’s public housing units couldn’t have been successful without the unanimous support of New Orleans’ largely Democratic City Council. Arne Duncan, the Obama administration’s secretary of education, expressed a kind of gratitude for the devastation, telling an interviewer, “I think the best thing that happened to the education system in New Orleans was Hurricane Katrina. That education system was a disaster, and it took Hurricane Katrina to wake up the community to say that ‘we have to do better.’”5

Rep. Richard H. Baker, a Republican congressman from Baton Rouge, was quoted as telling lobbyists in September 2005, “We finally cleaned up public housing in New Orleans. We couldn’t do it, but God did.”

Now, 10 years later, the results of this enthusiastic promotion of a new New Orleans—one rebuilt along corporate-friendly, neoliberal lines—are clear. A recent New Orleans Advocate article6 describes the city as being “smaller, whiter and wealthier” than it had been prior to Katrina. New Orleans has 79 percent of the population it had in 2000, according to Census data. The city has lost almost a third of its Black population since 2000, but only about eight percent of its White population.7 White residents made up about a quarter of the city’s population before the storm. Now they make up just under a third8 (See also our 2010 report, “The Long Hurricane”).9

Now, 10 years later, the results of this enthusiastic promotion of a new New Orleans—one rebuilt along corporate-friendly, neoliberal lines—are clear.

Shana griffin (lower-case intentional), an activist and New Orleans native, spends much of her time thinking about how the changes of the past decade fit into a longer history of discriminatory housing policy and displacement. As cofounder and board president of the Jane Place Neighborhood Sustainability Initiative (JPNSI), a hybrid community development non-profit and advocacy organization, she implements solutions she hopes will keep the city affordable for longtime residents. The organization’s first development, a renovated four-unit historic building in the Mid-City neighborhood, is scheduled to open this fall.

I spoke with griffin about how not-in-my-backyard attitudes toward public housing residents and housing voucher recipients, weak laws protecting tenants’ rights, and recovery policies that favored homeowners with high property values—conceived of in right-wing policy circles, but embraced by a bipartisan coalition of pro-business politicians—have all contributed to changes in New Orleans’ makeup since Katrina.

In the years since the storm, four of the city’s 10 public housing developments have been demolished.10 Those 5,000 units were replaced by just more than 600 units. The number of housing vouchers, which are often promoted as a way to de-concentrate poverty, tripled from 2000 to 2010.11 How are changes to federal and local housing policy related to changes in the city’s demographics?

We had Rep. [Richard] Baker (R-La.) making the comment that, “We could not clean up public housing, but God did.”12 The idea [being that] those who occupy public housing were dirty, a social ill that the state, in its paternalistic role, could not deal with, but God did. And seeing Hurricane Katrina as a metaphor, something that cleaned up this problem where the government had struggled to.

Shana griffin (lower case intentional) is a New Orleans activist, and cofounder of the Jane Place Neighborhood Sustainability Initiative

Shana griffin (lower case intentional) is a New Orleans activist, and cofounder of the Jane Place Neighborhood Sustainability Initiative

I grew up in public housing here in New Orleans called Iberville. I resided in public housing almost 23 years, almost half of my life. I grew up always feeling extreme shame about where I lived. I cringed when people would ask me where I lived. It caused an extreme level of anxiety to say I live in the projects. Just to say “public housing” was basically saying that you’re dirty, you’re bad, you’re dumb, you’re lazy, you’re a problem. I have these memories of extreme shame. As I got older, I realized that shame wasn’t based on my family or me or people who live in public housing being bad, dirty, dumb, lazy, or ugly people; it was based on the fear of being blamed for something that we didn’t cause.

I think that’s what we see now when I think about the demolition of public housing in New Orleans. It’s like these are people that you can blame. It’s like if we have social problems, it has to be the people that are utilizing public assistance; it has to be people living in public housing; it has to be kids going to public schools. There’s something that’s almost inherently bad about anything public. It’s like these people are problems, so if you get rid of them, “the problem” goes away.

These are policies that make people disappear. You don’t see the remnants of what once was public housing. When the buildings are gone, the assumption is the people are gone.

You’ve written13 about the specific impact of such policies on women and girls. Did the displacement in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina have a disparate impact on low-income women?

New Orleans after Katrina Photo via Flickr / drp and courtesy of The Times-Picayune of New Orleans. License:

Housing is not a gender‑neutral issue. Public and subsidized housing programs are disproportionately utilized by women of color and poor women. Black women represent a vast majority of leaseholders within public housing, and the same is true for voucher holders. So you see the ways in which gender and racial inequality came together to deny black women in the city a right to return home.

If you see an advertisement for housing that says, “Blacks not welcome,” that’s an obvious violation. If you see, “Children are not welcome,” that’s a clear violation as well. But whenever you see “No Section 8”—and you see that all the time—that is not a violation. Those who are likely to be poor and who are receiving Section 8 housing vouchers are women, and in the context of New Orleans, Black women.

Women’s perceived fertility rates are often used as an underpinning for affordable housing opposition. It’s this typical, unfortunate thing when there are articles around public housing or affordable housing in the local newspaper, and it’s seen also nationally, when you read the comments section, there are always comments about, “These women are having too many kids. They’re breeding criminals.”

In 2008, John LaBruzzo, Louisiana state representative, Republican, made statements about exploring legislation to pay poor women, those who are on welfare and in public housing, $1,000 to be sterilized because they’re having so many kids they can’t afford to take care of.

In 2008, John LaBruzzo, Louisiana state representative, Republican, made statements about exploring legislation to pay poor women, those who are on welfare and in public housing, $1,000 to be sterilized because they’re having so many kids they can’t afford to take care of.14 He made the statement in the context of people evacuating because of Hurricane Gustav, but also during the same week that the House of Representatives overwhelmingly denied support of President Bush’s $700 billion dollar stimulus plan.

How have homeowners fared in the wake of Katrina?

Under the [federal] Road Home program [which provided funds that could be used to rebuild homes], Black homeowners’ properties were devalued compared to White homeowners and many White homeowners received more Road Home funding. The formula that was used [to determine who got grants] was based on homes’ pre‑Katrina value, not on the destruction that the homes suffered through Hurricane Katrina. The disparities were obvious and resulted in several lawsuits [which led to a $62 million settlement].15

In general, the policies that were enacted did not show any investment or commitment to supporting people’s right to return home, and also sent a clear message in terms of who was wanted, who can come back, who can’t come back.

The lack of affordable housing in New Orleans seems to be caused by a number of factors, including soaring rents, stereotypes about low-income residents, and policies such as the federal Road Home program that left out both renters and Black homeowners. What solutions are you working on?

JPNSI creates the opportunity, rather than waiting for something to occur. We’re not just advocating for this, we’re also developing affordable housing in our communities.

When I think about the housing crisis in the city, I see the community land trust model as being one of many avenues to address the problem. At JPNSI we put a particular focus on permanent affordability as well as advocacy to improve equitable forms of development and resident-controlled development.

Affordability loses its strength in markets where you have poor tenant rights laws.

But a community land trust is not a silver bullet. You can create permanent affordability in an area like New Orleans and still be able to put somebody out of a unit. Affordability loses its strength in markets where you have poor tenant rights laws. Inclusionary zoning, a rental registry [to address blight through code enforcement], and tenant rights unions all need to play a role in broader strategy.

This spring, your organization broke ground on a four-unit development that you’ve said will be the first permanently affordable apartment building owned by a community land trust in New Orleans. In Mid-City, the neighborhood where this project is located, 79 percent of residents rent and rents have increased 44 percent since 2000.16 The need is so great and yet you’ve decided to smart small.

The scale of the project may seem small, but it’s characteristic in terms of New Orleans neighborhoods. It’s these small neighborhood projects that have seen the least of the funding and attention. Our effort to explore different possibilities to turn the tide is really important.

These small-scale projects are important and have a big impact on people. They feel like, “I can see a change.”

About the Author:

Dani McClain reports and writes on race, gender, policy, and politics. She is a contributing writer at The Nation and a fellow with the Nation Institute.


  1. Kristen McQueary, “Chicago, New Orleans, and rebirth,” Chicago Tribune, August 13, 2015

  2. David Brooks, “Katrina’s Silver Lining, The New York Times, September 8, 2005
  3. Lori Rodriguez and Zeke Minaya, “HUD chief doubts New Orleans will be as black,” Houston Chronicle, September 29, 2005
  4. Charles Babington, “Some GOP Legislators Hit Jarring Notes in Addressing Katrina,” The Washington Post, September 10, 2005
  5. Nick Anderson, “Education Secretary Duncan calls Hurricane Katrina good for New Orleans schools,” January 30, 2010
  6. Jeff Adelson, “Hurricane Katrina transformed New Orleans, the region’s makeup after unrivaled exodus in U.S.,” The New Orleans Advocate, July 11, 2015
  7. Paula Martinez, David Eads and Christopher Groskopf. “Post-Katrina New Orleans Smaller, But Population Growth Rates Back On Track,” August 19, 2015
  8. Katy Reckdahl, “Katrina scattered New Orleans’ entrenched social networks far and wide as census says nearly 100,000 fewer black residents after storm,” The New Orleans Advocate, June 27, 2015
  9. BondGraham, Darwin. “The Long Hurricane: The New Orleans Catastrophe Predates Katrina.” The Public Eye, Nov. 1, 2010,
  10. Rachel E. Luft with Shana griffin, “A Status Report on Housing in New Orleans after Katrina: An Intersectional Analysis,” Katrina and the Women of New Orleans (2008): 50 – 53
  11. Stacy Seicshnaydre andRyan C. Albright, “Expanding Choice and Opportunity in the Housing Choice Voucher Program,” The New Orleans Index at 10, The Data Center, July 8, 2015
  12. Babington, “Some GOP Legislators Hit Jarring Notes in Addressing Katrina.”
  13. Luft with Griffin, “A Status Report on Housing in New Orleans after Katrina: An Intersectional Analysis,” 50 – 53
  14. Mark Waller, “LaBruzzo considering plan to pay poor women $1,000 to have tubes tied,” The Times-Picayune, September 23, 2008
  15. Michael J. Fletcher, “HUD to pay $62 million to La. homeowners to settle Road Home lawsuit,” The Washington Post, July 6, 2011
  16. Kate Scott, “Neighborhood Organization Rehabilitates Historic Apartment Building to Provide Permanently Affordable Homes in Mid-City,” Jane Place Neighborhood Sustainability Initiative Press Release, April 21, 2015


History Wars Exposed: Right-Wing Influence in APUSH Curriculum Update

Co-authored by Katherine Stewart.

Click here for a printable PDF.

Click here for a printable PDF.

This article appears in the Fall 2015 issue of The Public Eye magazine.

On July 30, 2015, the College Board, creators of college-level curricula and testing for high school students, released an update to its Advanced Placement U.S. History (APUSH) course.1 The revision came after what had already been a two-year battle and was quickly criticized by all sides. Digital news outlet Quartz published an article detailing “All the ways the new AP U.S. history standards gloss over the country’s racist past,”2 while conservative media sites like The Daily Caller quoted conservative “experts” who groused that the changes were merely cosmetic and still don’t adequately emphasize “American Exceptionalism.”3 But as to why the changes had been undertaken in the first place, the media consensus was, as The Washington Post put it, that “Conservatives convinced College Board to rewrite American history.”4 Were these headlines just clickbait or had there been mounting pressure on the College Board to appease right-wing critics?

Jeremy Stern, an independent historian who had consulted on the College Board overhaul,5 cast the revision in a more positive light, telling The Christian Science Monitor, “This is a major success for an unpolitical look at American history.”6 However, there was nothing “unpolitical” about the events preceding the revisions.

Photo via Flickr courtesy of Don Harder. License:

Photo via Flickr courtesy of Don Harder. License:

The fight over APUSH had been simmering ever since the College Board released its new version of the framework in 2012; it boiled over in several states after the new curriculum was implemented for the 2014-2015 school year. The original redesign of the course—in the works since 2006—was intended to reflect an ongoing shift in history classrooms from rote memorization to critical thinking skills.7 As the authors of the new curriculum explained in Education Week, 8 they’d been motivated by the concerns of AP teachers who felt the existing APUSH curriculum “prevented them and their students from exploring in any depth the main events and documents of U.S. history.” They sought greater opportunities for their students to “understand the ‘why’ of U.S. history,” and to “make its deeper meanings come alive to students.” The 2014 redesigned APUSH was greeted warmly by academic associations, including the American Historical Association, the Organization of American Historians, the National Council for Social Studies, and the National Council for History Education.

But the College Board’s attempt to change how students learn U.S. history was greeted by conservatives as a revision of what U.S. history is.9

Education has long been a front in the U.S. culture wars. In particular, conservatives have argued for at least two decades that secular progressives have taken over history studies to inculcate students with a negative view of the American past and present.10 Thanks to a concerted effort from members of the State Policy Network,11 such as the Boston-based Pioneer Institute12 and the Chicago-based Heartland Institute, high school history has remained a controversial subject on a national level.

“Ben Carson said that ‘most people’ who complete the course would then be ‘ready to sign up for ISIS.'”

The APUSH controversy of the past several years is reported to have started when Larry Krieger, a retired high school history teacher who had started each year with the theme of American exceptionalism,13 slammed APUSH in numerous articles,14 including several written for the Heartland Institute,15 a conservative think tank known for its role in promoting climate-science denial. The Republican National Committee picked up the beat and condemned APUSH as “radically revisionist.” Peter Wood, President of the right-leaning National Association of Scholars and a critic of environmentalism and LGBTQ equality, penned an extensive piece criticizing the APUSH redesign last year,16 using the term “Bowdoin Syndrome” to describe what he called the “intellectual arrogance” fostered by that college as well as by AP examinations. Eventually, Tea Party hero Ben Carson, author of One Nation: What We Can All Do to Save America’s Future, went so far as to say that “most people” who complete the course would then be “ready to sign up for ISIS.”17

“Little Rebels”

In 2014, the fight received national media attention when nearly 400 high school students in Jefferson County, Colorado, engaged in an unusual form of political theater. A newly elected school board was attempting to create a “curriculum committee”18 that could review any course’s instruction materials, starting with APUSH. Its review criteria held that “Materials should promote citizenship, patriotism, essentials and benefits of the free enterprise system, respect for authority and respect for individual rights. Materials should not encourage or condone civil disorder, social strife or disregard of the law.”19 A Colorado school board member, Julia Williams, summed up this sentiment in an interview with a local TV news station, saying, “I don’t think we should encourage our kids to be little rebels.”

In protest of the school board’s attempt to write civil obedience into the curriculum, the students dressed themselves up as historical figures, including Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, Jr., and sundry founding fathers, and staged a walk out. Some county schools were closed when too many teachers failed to show up for work in protest.20 Jefferson County Board of Education President Ken Witt dismissed the students as “political pawns”21 for the teachers’ unions, but the walkout succeeded in stalling the school board’s plan to change the curriculum22 and helped garner support for the recall of three board members.23

Local Battles, National Strategy

The Jefferson County history battle was colorful enough to capture national headlines. But it was just one in a string of conflicts over APUSH curricula taking place nationwide over the last few years, in Oklahoma, Georgia, Texas, and North and South Carolina.

While the vehement state battles appeared to be driven by local personalities and agendas, there was a larger, national strategy at work.

“In Texas, the infamously right-wing State Board of Education passed a resolution in September 2014 to request that the College Board revise the APUSH framework.”

The opposition to APUSH occurred on two levels. The first, as in Colorado, concerned control of local school boards and school communities. A second prong of the attack focused on legislation at the state level, bolstered by a resolution passed by the Republican National Convention denouncing the course and urging Congress to withdraw funding to the College Board.24 Policymakers in the Carolinas agitated to eliminate or doctor APUSH at the end of 2014. In Texas, a state that represents 10 percent of the College Board’s market,25 the infamously right-wing State Board of Education passed a resolution in September 2014 to request that the College Board revise the APUSH framework.26 In February 2015, Oklahoma state representative Dan Fisher introduced a bill that would bar funds from being used on AP History, although public outcry effectively killed the bill within a month.27 And in March 2015 in Georgia, a lobbyist from the American Principles Project, a right-wing think tank based in Washington, D.C., reportedly showed up urging legislators to adopt anti-APUSH legislation, resulting in a bill that passed the state Senate in March28 (but ultimately stalled in the House).

The American Principles Project (APP), which has been advocating against APUSH since at least the Jefferson County protests, was founded in 2009 by Princeton University professor and Catholic neoconservative Robert P. George in order to ensure that the “dignity of the person” is reflected in local and national policies. Some of the APP’s best-known work has been produced in the fight against Common Core, but its leadership is invested in a broader slate of culture war issues. After the publication of the Manhattan Declaration in 2009, The New York Times called George “the country’s most influential conservative Christian thinker.”29 George was the primary author of the Declaration—part of an effort to unify conservative Catholics and evangelicals around a three-part agenda, which they described as “life, marriage, and religious liberty”30—but other APP figures are also proven culture warriors. APP chairman Sean Fieler also heads the Chiaroscuro Group, whose radio ads attacking a pro-choice politician once featured a talking fetus; the APP’s board president, Francis Cannon, coauthored a post-2012 report on “Building a Winning GOP Coalition”;31 and other board members include anti-marriage equality activist Maggie Gallagher and Luiz Tellez, cofounder of the anti-LGBTQ and anti-abortion legal advocacy group the Witherspoon Institute (which helped fund a thoroughly debunked 2012 study by conservative sociologist Mark Regnerus suggesting negative outcomes for children of same-sex couples32).

In their 2015 lobbying document,33 APP charged that APUSH “requires American History to be taught through a leftist, revisionist lens.” According to APP, the course gave “special attention to the formation of gender, class, racial and ethnic identities” and “presents American business in a consistently negative light.”

This type of accusation is an old one, dating back to at least 1994, when Lynne Cheney, former head of the National Endowment for the Humanities (and wife of former Vice President Dick Cheney) condemned the National Standards for U.S. History as revisionist political correctness in her now-famous Wall Street Journal op-ed, “The End of History.”34 Over twenty years later, Cheney, currently a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, resumed the attack in another Journal op-ed, “The End of History, Part II,” arguing, “The [APUSH] curriculum shouldn’t be farmed out, not to the federal government and not to private groups. It should stay in the hands of the people who are constitutionally responsible for it: the citizens of each state.”35

Whose History?

At the core of this debate over “revisionist” versus “traditional” history is the question of whether U.S. history curriculum should be about facts or a primer on civic duty and citizenship. The College Board’s new curriculum already had to stand the test of certain state laws such as North Carolina’s Founding Principles Act, which since 2011 has required that high school students pass a course on the “Founding Principles” (because “the survival of the republic” depends on students being better “guardians of its heritage”).36

A professor of history at the University of Oklahoma asserted that the 2014 “framework represents a shift from national identity to subcultural identities” and warned, “We will not be able to uphold our democracy unless we know our great stories, our national narratives, and the admirable deeds of our great men and women. The new AP U.S. History framework fails on that count, because it does not see the civic role of education as a central one.”37 (Scholars of Native American history pushed back on this, arguing in Indian Country Today that, “American Indian history is part of the fabric of the state of Oklahoma and who we are today…therefore all of that history is American history.”38)

“At the root of current objections to this highly regarded process is a blatant disregard for the facts.”

In September 2014, the Board had responded to critics, writing in a memo, “At the root of current objections to this highly regarded process is a blatant disregard for the facts…the most vocal critics have prioritized their own agenda above the best interests of teachers, students, and their families.”39 Nonetheless, the force of the pushback was enough to convince the Board to solicit public feedback on their course, which they did through their website from late 2014 through early 2015.40

In the end, with no sign of the debate relenting, the College Board agreed to another revision, which was released this July. News coverage pointed to the pressure the College Board had received using phrases such as “gives in” and “caves to.”

Zachary Goldberg, Director of Media Relations for the College Board, objected to these characterizations, saying that inaccurate media reports about the revision had misled many readers into thinking the Board had removed numerous mentions of slavery from the course. Not only was that incorrect, he wrote, but the revision was hailed as a success “by historians and teachers representing a range of political views [for] presenting a richer and more balanced view of American history. This was achieved not by reducing or minimizing the important narratives of underrepresented groups, but by adding to those narratives and including other important themes and concepts that the 2014 edition was rightly criticized for having minimized.”41

Whether or not the curriculum was rightly criticized, and the College Board was simply “responding to legitimate criticism while avoiding excessive overcompensation” (as consultant Jeremy Stern put it),42 the events preceding the revisions appear to suggest that APUSH, like much school curricula, has been politicized by a right-wing agenda.

The areas of the curriculum that the College Board noted had received the most criticism—the treatment of the founding fathers, founding documents, free enterprise, and America’s role in wartime victories—underwent the most significant changes and expansions.43 And a side-by-side comparison of the two versions of the course shows concrete examples of right-wing influence—some blatant, and some more coded.

“Mention of ‘white superiority’ as a component of Manifest Destiny was stripped from the 2015 revision, along with any mention of “white resistance” to desegregation.”

Analysis of White racial identity and power as an undercurrent of U.S. history is all but erased. Mention of “white superiority” as a component of Manifest Destiny was stripped from the 2015 revision, along with any mention of “white resistance” to desegregation. From 2014 to 2015, the coverage of Native American history under colonialism shifted from describing indigenous people’s attempts to “forge advantageous political alliances” in order to “maintain their tribal lands” to having “repeatedly evaluated and adjusted their alliances” in order to “maintain control of tribal lands and natural resources”—a subtle tweak that seems to speak more to contemporary conservative complaints about Native American control of natural resources on sovereign lands than an impartial reassessment of what happened during colonial times. Where the issue of White racial identity was added, it often seemed intended to mitigate injustices perpetuated against Blacks, by linking the experience of White indentured servants and poor White sharecroppers with the experience of enslaved Africans and impoverished African Americans in the Jim Crow South.

While Goldberg argues that “The struggles and challenges experienced – and that continue to be experienced – by minorities as America seeks to live up to its ideals in no way are minimized in the new edition,” many complexities of those struggles seem to have been lost in the Board’s new revision. Quoted in a September article in Indian Country Today, K. Tsianina Lomawaima, a member of the Mvskoke/Creek Nation and a professor at Arizona State University, pointed to the consolidation of “Latino, American Indian, and Asian American movements” into one statement in the course as an example of how the newest curriculum is “once again erasing indigenous sovereignty and sliding American Indians in as just another piece of the so-called racial-ethnic mix.”44

To The National Review, which was pleased with the revision, the changes amounted to “a good rewrite,” and “balanced handiwork.”45 But the biggest question about teaching U.S. history remains: how can you balance coverage of a heritage that was never based on equity?

Information in this chart was compiled from the 2014 and 2015 edition of the College Board's AP U.S. History Course and Exam Description

Information in this chart was compiled from the 2014 and 2015 edition of the College Board’s AP U.S. History Course and Exam Description


About the Authors:

Gabriel Joffe is the program coordinator at Political Research Associates. 

Katherine Stewart has written for The Nation, The New York Times, and The Guardian. She is the author of The Good News Club: The Christian Right’s Stealth Assault on America’s Children (PublicAffairs, 2012).


1 “The 2015 AP U.S. History Course and Exam Description,” Advances in AP, July 30, 2015,

2 Jack Flanagin, “All the ways the new AP US history standards gloss over the country’s racist past,” Quartz, July 31, 2015,

3 Scott Greer, “Experts: AP U.S. History Still Doesn’t Teach American Exceptionalism,” The Daily Caller, August 5, 2015,

4 Lyndsey Layton, “Conservatives convinced College Board to rewrite American history,” The Washington Post, July 30, 2015,

5 Anya Kamenetz, “The New, New Framework For AP U.S. History,” NPR, August 5, 2015,

6 Kevin Truong, “New guidelines for AP history: Are they still ‘unpatriotic’?,” The Christian Science Monitor, July 30, 2015,

7 College Board, “Announcing AP U.S. History Course and Exam Revisions” (presentation, AP Annual Conference, July 20, 2012),

8 Catherine Gewertz, “AP History Framework Authors Defend Their Work,” Education Week, August 18, 2014,

9 Caitlin MacNeal, “Meet The Man Behind The Right’s AP History Freak Out,” Talking Points Memo, October 9, 2014,

10 Katherine Stewart, The Good News Club: The Christian Right’s Stealth Assault on America’s Children (New York: Public Affairs, 2012), 164.

11 For a more in depth look at the State Policy Network and its links with member organizations see Frederick Clarkson, “EXPOSED: How the Right’s State-Based Think Tanks Are Transforming U.S. Politics,” Political Research Associates, November 25, 2013,

12 Stanley Kurtz, “Madison Scholar Condemns AP U.S. History Redesign,” National Review, September 2, 2014,

13 Pema Levy, “What’s Driving Conservatives Mad About the New AP History Course,” Newsweek, August 14, 2014,

14 Casey Quinlan, “College Board Caves To Conservative Pressure, Changes AP U.S. History Curriculum,” Think Progress, July 30, 2015,

15 Larry Krieger, “29 Biased Statements In the AP U.S. History Redesign,” Heartland, August 19, 2014,

16 Peter Wood, “Update on AP U.S. History,” National Association of Scholars, July 10, 2014,

17 Valerie Strauss, “Ben Carson: New AP U.S. history course will make kids want to ‘sign up for ISIS’,” The Washington Post, September 29, 2014,

18 Jesse Paul, “Jeffco students walk out of 5 high schools in school board protest,” The Denver Post, September 23, 2015,

19 Jefferson County Public Schools Board of Education, “Board Committee for Curriculum Review,” September 18, 2014,$file/JW% 20PROPOSAL%20Board%20Committee%20for%20Curriculum%20Review.pdf.

20 Justin Streight, “Colorado Teacher Protest Shuts Down Schools Over History Censorship,” Inquisitr, October 1, 2014,

21 Dr. Susan Berry, “Colorado Teacher’s Union Uses Students As ‘Political Pawns’ in Teacher Salary Dispute,” Breitbart News, September 24, 2014,

22 Jack Healy, “After Uproar, School Board in Colorado Scraps Anti-Protest Curriculum,” The New York Times, October 3, 2014,

23 Nicholas Garcia, “Jeffco clerk: School board recall organizers have enough signatures,” Chalkbeat Colorado, August 18, 2015,

24 Catherine Gewertz, “Republican National Committee Condemns New AP History Framework,” Education Week, August 11, 2014,

25 Merrill Hope, “Exclusive: Texas is ‘Nation’s Last Best Chance’ To Block APUSH, Say Experts,” Breitbart News, September 11, 2014,

26 Merrill Hope, “Texas State Education Board Passes Resolution to Stop Redesigned AP US History,” Breitbart News, September 20, 2014,

27 Jasmine Song, “Oklahoma Educators Quash Attempt to Ban AP U.S. History,” neaToday, March 16, 2015,

28 Martha Dalton, “Georgia Senate Passes Resolution Challenging AP US History Exam,” 90.1 FM WABE, March 12, 2015,

29 David D. Kirkpatrick, “The Conservative-Christian Big Thinker,” The New York Times, December 16, 2009,

30 Frederick Clarkson, “Christian Right Seeks Renewal in Deepening Catholic-Protestant Alliance,” Political Research Associates, July 23, 2013,

31 “Building a Winning GOP Coalition: The Lessons of 2012,” American Principles in Action, October 2013,

32 Brandon Watson, “New Documents Contradict Regnerus’ Claims on Gay Parenting Study,” The Austin Chronicle, March 29, 2013,

33 Ayman Fadel, “Anti-Advanced Placement US History Movement at Georgia Capitol,” Aym Playing, March 19, 2015,

34 Lynne V. Cheney, “The End of History,” The Wall Street Journal, October 20, 1994,

35 Lynne V. Cheney, “The End of History, Part II,” The Wall Street Journal, April 1, 2015,

36 T. Keung Hui, “NC Board of Education to hear AP US History controversy,” Charlotte Observer, November 27, 2014,

37 Wilfred M. McClay, “History, American Democracy, and the AP Test Controversy,” Imprimis Vol. 44, No. 7/8, July/August 2015,

38 Tanya H. Lee, “University of Oklahoma Prof: Native History is American History,” Indian Country Today, March 6, 2015,

39 “Statement on AP U.S. History.” Advances in AP, September 19, 2014,

40 Trevor Packer, “Letter from Trevor Packer,” Advances in AP, nd.,

41 Zachary Goldberg, e-mail message to author, September 16, 2015.

42 Jeremy Stern, “Left and Right May Not Be Happy with the New AP Standards. Here’s Why You Should Be,” History News Network, August 14, 2015,

43 “The 2015 AP U.S. History Course and Exam Description,” Advances in AP, July 30, 2015,

44 Tanya H. Lee, “New AP US History Exam Perpetuates Lies About Native Americans,” Indian Country Today, September 8, 2015,

45 Frederick M. Hess and Chester E. Finn Jr., “The Overheated Reactions to the New AP U.S. History Framework,” National Review, August 5, 2015,

Not Fascism: Trump is a Right-Wing Nativist Populist

Editor’s note: This article is an excerpt of the author’s forthcoming analysis of the new wave of right-wing nativism inspired by Donald Trump.

The outlandish populist rhetoric of Republican presidential wildcard Donald Trump has left many journalists at a loss for words—words such as bigotry, xenophobia, racism, sexism and demagoguery. These are the elements of the latest Nativist crusade.

Donald TrumpJournalists and scholars familiar with the rise of contemporary right-wing populist political parties and social movements in Europe recognize that xenophobic, anti-immigrant, and racist rhetoric can lead to acts of violence. The progressive press has done a better job of pointing out the potential for making some of our neighbors targets of White angst.

Adele Stan in the American Prospect (9/9/15) put it boldly:

What Trump is doing, via the media circus of which he has appointed himself ringmaster, is making the articulation of the basest bigotry acceptable in mainstream outlets, amplifying the many oppressive tropes and stereotypes of race and gender that already exist in more than adequate abundance.

Donald Trump Is an Actual Fascist” trumpets the headline in Salon (7/25/15) for Conor Lynch’s article. Undermining Salon’s headline, Lynch tells us the “GOP are obviously not fascists, but they share a family resemblance.” The resemblance, according to Lynch, is explained in the famous quote attributed to Italy’s fascist dictator during World War II, Benito Mussolini:

Fascism should more appropriately be called corporatism because it is a merger of state and corporate power.

According to Lynch, this “definition may very well fit the GOP ideology: a kind of corporate fascism.” Alas, the quote is a hoax, widely circulated on the internet but debunked years ago. Mussolini never wrote or said anything like that, since the fake statement refutes Mussolini’s views on fascism. Nor is Trump an example of creeping totalitarianism, for which Hitler and Stalin were the analytical icons for Hannah Arendt in her masterwork The Origins of Totalitarianism.

Part of the confusion over Trump’s ideology is definitional: Scholars write entire books trying to map out the contours of right-wing political and social movements, especially the line dividing right-wing populism and neofascism. The pre-eminent scholar in this area, University of Georgia’s Cas Mudde, explained in the Washington Post (8/26/15):

The key features of the populist radical right ideology – nativism, authoritarianism, and populism – are not unrelated to mainstream ideologies and mass attitudes. In fact, they are best seen as a radicalization of mainstream values.

His ideology and rhetoric are much more comparable to the European populist radical right, akin to Jean-Marie Le Pen’s National Front, the Danish People’s Party or Vladimir Zhirinovsky’s Liberal Democratic Party of Russia. All of them use the common radical right rhetoric of nativism, authoritarianism and populism.

What fuels this sort of bitter backlash movement now? The late scholar Jean Hardisty who founded Political Research Associates argued in 1995 that a confluence of several historic factors has assisted the success of the right in the United States:

  • a conservative religious revitalization,
  • economic contraction and restructuring,
  • race resentment and bigotry,
  • backlash and social stress, and
  • a well-funded network of right-wing organizations.

Each of these conditions has existed at previous times in US history,” wrote Hardisty. She also noted they overlap and reinforce each other. This backlash is picking up speed. The Republican voter base in the Tea Party long ago shifted its attention away from fiscal restraint toward anti-immigrant xenophobia, banning abortion and pushing gay people back into the closet.

The demonization and scapegoating that accompanies right-wing populism in the United States is breeding a backlash movement that will take creative and bold approaches as we organize to defend democracy and diversity in the public square.

This article and the forthcoming analysis are adapted from the author’s previous piece in FAIR.

Big Questions About Templeton: How the Philanthropic Giant Legitimizes Faith Healing

Click here to print the magazine version

Click here to print the magazine version

This article appears in the Summer 2015 edition of The Public Eye magazine.

On May 18, 2012, Christianity Today, the most influential magazine within evangelicalism, reported that there were “credible reports” that Christian evangelist Heidi Baker had healed the deaf and raised people from the dead where she was working in Mozambique.1 Baker claimed that “100% of the deaf in the Chiure area” of the country had “been healed through prayer.” In addition, Baker argued that “scores” of people had been resurrected and the blinded and disabled “restored.”2

Such a report must have struck some Christianity Today readers as oddly out of place; the magazine has long been known for approaching the miraculous much more cautiously than competitors like Charisma, the leading magazine for Charismatic and Pentecostal believers.i Yet Christianity Today’s coverage of Baker’s activities could not have been more credulous; the magazine valorized Baker’s missions and healing activities in Africa, stopping just short of declaring her an evangelical saint.3

John Templeton introduces the 2011 John M. Templeton Jr. Lecture on Economic Liberties and the Constitution. Photo via Flickr and by Jeff Fusco, use courtesy of the National Constitution Center.

John Templeton introduces the 2011 John M. Templeton Jr. Lecture on Economic Liberties and the Constitution. Photo via Flickr and by Jeff Fusco, use courtesy of the National Constitution Center.

In the course of the article, two academics were quoted regarding Baker: Indiana University’s religious studies professor Candy Gunther Brown and Michael McClymond, a theology professor at St. Louis University. Both academics were quite flattering in their description of Baker. For example, Brown commented that “‘Heidi is a hero to young women,’ so much so that scholars joke about ‘Heidiolatry.’”4 Indeed, Brown had been so intrigued by Baker’s claims that she “sought to verify them scientifically.” Thus Brown and a small team traveled to Mozambique and tested 24 Mozambicans “before and after healing prayer.” Brown found “statistically significant improvements in hearing and vision”5—an astounding claim, given that previous studies concerning the efficacy of prayer have reported mixed results at best.6

The lion’s share of Brown’s funding came from the John Templeton Foundation’s Flame of
 Love Project, which contributed $150,000 dollars to her research.7 
The Templeton Foundation was founded by billionaire Sir John Templeton, who made his fortune 
in mutual funds. Templeton had a 
keen interest in religion, his own
beliefs an eclectic union of Presbyterianism, New Thought, and Eastern influences; he borrowed
 from sources ranging from Nor
man Vincent Peale to Ramakrishna. Many of the traditions Templeton drew from emphasize spiritual exploration, “mind over matter” ideology, and positive thinking.8 Today, the $3.34 billion-endowed John Templeton Foundation awards some $100 million in grants yearly to organizations and projects that study the intersection of religion and science.9 There’s the eight-year, $9.8 million grant given to Duke University’s Center for Spirituality, Theology and Health, as well as a nearly $2.2 million grant awarded to the University of Pennsylvania for the establishment of a Positive Psychology Center, which afforded the Foundation the opportunity to exercise important influence over this emerging school of psychology.10

In general, the Foundation has sought to create a rapprochement between science and religion—from healthcare to biology, positive psychology to theology.

While this goal has been heavily criticized by many scientists (for instance, prominent physicist Sean Carroll11), the Foundation has made a major name for itself in academia, thanks in part to increasing competition for research funds among academics. This article seeks to trace the impact of the Templeton Foundation by exploring a slice of its influence on research into the Charismatic and Pentecostal movements.

The Templeton Foundation

The origins of the Foundation can be traced to the Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion, founded in 1972 and given “each year…to a living person who has shown extraordinary originality in advancing humankind’s understanding of God.”12 The Prize originally operated like a Nobel Prize for religion,13 though today it is as likely to be awarded to scientists as to theologians or other spiritual leaders.14 At the time that Templeton formed his Foundation in the mid-‘80s, writes journalist Nathan Schneider, “conventional wisdom . . . held that religion would retreat as science secularized the world.”15 Templeton sought to forestall this decline. What allowed the Foundation’s religion and science agenda to take off, however, was Harvard planetary scientist Charles Harper’s 1996 decision to join the Foundation as its executive director. Harper took Templeton’s ideas and visionary speculations and shaped them “into a package of programs that could begin to look credible to the scientific community.”16

Much ink has been spilled about the Templeton Foundation’s influence on research in the hard sciences. Zoologist and outspoken secular activist Richard Dawkins has quipped that the Templeton Prize is usually given “to a scientist who is prepared to say something nice about religion.”17 Jerry Coyne, a prominent American biologist, condemned Templeton’s mission as a “serious corruption of science” and warned of the “cronyism that has always infected Templeton,”18 particularly in relationship to its study of “Big Questions,” a somewhat vague field of inquiry centered on quandaries like the nature of free will, consciousness, and evil.19 Sean Carroll’s criticisms of Templeton are somewhat more measured; he does not think there is any hard evidence that “Templeton works in nefarious ways to influence the people it funds.” For Carroll, the problem isn’t that Templeton is anti-science, but rather that “their views on science are very wrong.”20 Quantum physicist Michael Brooks echoes these views in the New Scientist, contending that Templeton does a disservice not so much to science as to religion, by advancing a conception of religion so “stripped-down, vague and wooly” that it “puts the new Templeton religion comfortably beyond assault from questioners.”21

Google’s research director called Brown’s methodology “a perfect example of how not to do experiment design.”

Within the hard sciences, a firm ideological line has developed between critics of the Foundation—many of whom are New Atheists—and supporters of the Foundation, which can sometimes lead to charges of partiality and anti-religious prejudice. Yet even Jeffrey Schloss, a Templeton trustee, has admitted that without the Foundation, there would “be a bit less accommodationist fluff that proposes integration [between religion and science] at the expense of rigor.”22

While the Foundation’s influence on the hard sciences has often been the focus of criticism, the social science- and healthcare-related research in which it engages can be far more problematic. The more subjective nature of the social sciences—and, to a lesser extent, healthcare—may make these fields more vulnerable to pseudoscientific concepts and dubious methodologies.

The ready acceptance of pseudoscience undergirds Templeton’s “history of seeding fields of study almost from scratch,” as Nathan Schneider describes it.23 In the early 1990s, the Foundation began heavily funding the National Institute for Healthcare Research (NIHR), an organization established “to ‘objectively’ examine the role that religion and spirituality might play in physical and mental health.”24 At the time, hardly any medical schools offered courses on religion. But today, after two decades of Templeton-promoted research, three-quarters of U.S. medical schools utilize spirituality within their curricula.25 This development was facilitated by a combination of awards given to NIHR researchers; an NIHR-derived, multi-volume literature review of religion and health research; and numerous Templeton Foundation-funded programs concerning the intersection between science, religion, and medicine.26

And it is the NIHR’s research that helped pave the way for Christianity Today to claim there were scientifically “credible reports” of faith healing in Mozambique.

Intercessory Prayer and The Stepp Study

At a Templeton-sponsored conference in the mid-1990s, Margaret Poloma, a sociologist who studied Charismatic and Pentecostal religious movements, met bioethicist Stephen Post, who would go on to create the Institute for Research on Unlimited Love (IRUL).27 Poloma and Post soon became Templeton grantees themselves, and by 2007 both had become co-directors (along with two other academics) of the Flame of Love (FOL) Project,28 the goal of which was to establish “a new interdisciplinary field of study [called] Godly Love.”29 The exact parameters of the science of Godly love are rather unclear; even Anthea Butler, who has been involved with the Templeton Foundation’s Project on Global Pentecostalism,30 told Schneider that initially “nobody in the field could figure out what the hell [Poloma] was talking about.”31

As defined by Poloma and her Templeton-sponsored colleagues, Godly love is “the dynamic interaction between divine and human love that enlivens and expands benevolence.” To put it simply, the key takeaway is that while neither God Himself nor His interactions with human beings are measurable phenomena, individuals’ perceptions of interactions between human beings and God can be measured.32

The Flame of Love Project, which received an initial Templeton grant of more than $2.3 million,33 was a massive undertaking, funding ten academic books (by significant figures in their respective fields), scores of academic articles, conference presentations, and book chapters.34 Among these projects was Brown’s prayer research: the “Study of the Therapeutic Effects of Proximal Intercessory Prayer… on Auditory and Visual Impairments in Rural Mozambique,” known as the STEPP study for short. The study focused on Iris Ministries (now Iris Global), which Baker and her husband founded, along with the closely aligned Global Awakening ministry.35

Brown’s STEPP project is a part of a long line of academic “prayer studies” conducted in recent years, not all of which have found prayer to have positive effects. Many of these studies sought to evaluate “distant healing” or “distant intentionality”—the act of praying for others often referred to as “intercessory prayer.”36 As of 2005, three studies had been conducted on remote intercessory prayer’s effect on heart patients. Two of these studies concluded that the prayed-for group fared better than a control group. However, the third found no difference. Another study—a relatively well regarded, Templeton-funded $2.4 million project directed by Herbert Benson—studied 1,802 patients recovering from coronary artery bypass graft surgery and concluded that “distant prayer” had no effect. And, as Dr. Richard Sloan, a leading critic of prayer research, points out, researchers claiming benefits from prayer may have succeeded simply because they tested for so many different health benefits that simple random chance produced the positive results.37

If one were to accept the prayer studies’ premises and conclusions, one would still encounter other basic problems with conforming prayer-based research to the scientific method. How can researchers, for example, be sure that it is intercessory prayer performed by study participants that is helping, and not the prayers of concerned outsiders?

Candy Gunther Brown and her team sought to address some of these issues by looking at a more immediate form of prayer known as proximal intercessory prayer (PIP), which focuses on physical healing (primarily through laying-on of hands, per Charismatic tradition). Moreover, Brown argued that one must distinguish between PIP and other proximal healing techniques, such as “Therapeutic Touch,” since they had a “different healing mechanism.”38 Her study looked at the effect of “direct-contact prayer,” involving touch and the laying-on of hands, on subjects’ vision and hearing.39 Brown and her colleagues claim to have found “statistically significant” findings in visual and auditory improvements across the tested populations.40

Brown argued that the findings of the study were significant enough to warrant further study, which would “assess whether PIP may be a useful adjunct to standard medical care for certain patients with auditory and/or visual impairments, especially in contexts where access to conventional treatments is limited.” She continued:

The implications are potentially vast given World Health Organization estimates that 278 million people, 80% of whom live in developing countries, have moderate to profound hearing loss in both ears, and 314 million people are visually impaired, 87% of whom live in developing countries, and only a tiny fraction of these populations currently receive any treatment.41

In other words, Brown was suggesting that work like Baker’s might serve as an effective treatment strategy in medically underserved developing nations.

Unfortunately for the study’s subjects, however, Brown’s claims were not all they appeared to be. Peter Norvig, former division chief of computational sciences at NASA’s Ames Research Center and current director of research at Google, declared that Brown’s study suffered from several fatal design problems: it lacked a randomized control group; there was no double-blinding in the study; and the sample size for the treatment group was only 24 people.42 According to Norvig, “Rather than choose a cross-section of subjects, the experimenters specifically chose subjects from rural Mozambique who were attending an evangelical revival meeting—subjects who would be favorably inclined to (consciously or unconsciously) demonstrate a benefit from prayer.”43 Brown’s research methodology was so flawed that Norvig called it “a perfect example of how not to do experiment design.”44 Psychologist Jean Mercer, a leading authority on pseudoscience in the social sciences, further criticized Brown and her colleagues for introducing too many confounding variables into the study through their “amateurish methods of assessing hearing and vision.”45

Heidi Baker pays a Christmas visit to Iris Ministries' Zimpeto Children's Center in Maputo, Mozambique. Photo from Wikimedia Commons and courtesy of user Wunder

Heidi Baker pays a Christmas visit to Iris Ministries’ Zimpeto Children’s Center in Maputo, Mozambique. Photo from Wikimedia Commons and courtesy of user Wunder

Despite the ethical and methodological problems associated with Brown’s study, it received plentiful funding from the Templeton-sponsored FOL project ($150,000), as well as from the Lilly Endowment ($50,000) and Indiana University Bloomington ($50,000), Brown’s home university and a premier institution of higher learning.46 Brown also used the STEPP study as the basis of her 2012 book Testing Prayer, which was published by Harvard University Press. Such scholarly trajectories are becoming increasingly common for Templeton academics in a wide variety of fields. It is startling to see how many Templeton-connected academics end up publishing their work through Oxford or Harvard University Press. A 2014 report enumerating IRUL-produced books (i.e., works published or edited by IRUL associates) includes seven titles published by Oxford University Press, and another three in press or under review by that prestigious publisher.47 While not as many Templeton-associated academics seem to have linked themselves with Harvard University Press, some of those who have published through it have close links with the Foundation or are major figures in the Foundation’s history. For instance, Charles Taylor, whose A Secular Age was a major Harvard University Press publication in 2007, won the Templeton Prize for the same year.48

Templeton and The New Apostolic Reformation

Brown represents a particularly extreme example of distorted research engendered by Templeton money and legitimized by a major academic publisher. However, the methodological flaws in the STEPP study point to problems pervading the Flame of Love project as a whole— problems the Templeton Foundation should have recognized. The “Godly love” study that anchored the larger FOL project was based on the “Great Commandment to love God and love neighbor as self.”49 The researchers proposed that Godly love—the interaction between humanity and what is perceived as the divine—can be studied through figures known as exemplars: individuals who are supposed to be unusually benevolent within their own communities, and who have often received awards and honors (both secular and religious) for meritorious acts of service.50 These individuals were held up as the best embodiment of the Great Commandment. This research relied on what is known in the social sciences as an inductive/phenomenological method, which sought to “better understand” the subjective experiences of exemplars.51 While there is nothing inherently wrong about such a research process—anthropology, for instance, often relies on the phenomenological approach—it made the Flame of Love project unusually open to political propagandizing, since the subjective experiences studied depended almost entirely on which “Godly exemplars” were chosen to represent the idea of Godly love.

Many of the Godly exemplars
 profiled by Flame of Love are as
sociated with the New Apostolic
 Reformation (NAR), a right-wing
 Charismatic and Pentecostal 
movement organized around parachurch groups known as apostolic networks. The NAR is committed to the principle of spiritual warfare against evil spirits that it believes threaten the well-being of Christians. One such exemplar is Che Ahn, who founded the evangelical organization The Call along with Lou Engle, the Charismatic evangelist associated with the 2009-2010 Ugandan“Kill the Gays” bill.52 Poloma herself describes the two men’s close friendship in glowing terms.53

Ahn (like Heidi Baker, another exemplar) is a member of the Revival Alliance, a powerful apostolic network that oversees six other major apostolic networks.54 The leaders of five of these six subordinate ministries, along with several of their spouses, are among Flame of Love’s highlighted Godly exemplars. The STEPP study, too, is marked by such connections: Alliance member Randy Clark, founder of the evangelical Global Awakening ministry, has worked closely with Stephen Mory, one of the study’s co-authors.55 Moreover, Candy Gunther Brown herself has served on the board of directors of the Global Medical Research Institute, a prayer research organization that originated as a Global Awakening initiative, though independent of that ministry.56 Subjects for the STEPP study were primarily recruited at meetings cosponsored by Global Awakening and Baker’s Iris Ministries.57

The Revival Alliance leaders’ work incorporates some shocking ideas about a variety of issues, particularly mental healthcare. Baker is known for “‘expelling’ demons from children.”58 Another couple has helped promote the supernatural healing of autistic children59 through a particular form of Charismatic exorcism, or deliverance, called Sozo.60 As I wrote in my 2015 book The Failure of Evangelical Mental Health Care, Sozo’s healing practices seem little different from the long-discredited practice of recovered memory therapy. (Sozo leaders and proponents also maintain, in terms akin to the increasingly discredited diagnosis of multiple personality disorder, that individuals with bipolar disorder have “parts,” or people living inside of them who need to be integrated into a core personality.ii)

While the Flame of Love Project was ostensibly a scientific enterprise, in practice the project served primarily as a public relations project celebrating NAR leaders, as well as providing an academic justification for many of their beliefs and policy priorities, including their economic agenda. The Templeton Foundation has enjoyed a friendly association with a variety of right-wing groups and think tanks that share its support for open markets and entrepreneurship; the Heritage

Foundation, for instance, received more than $1 million in Templeton funding between 2005 and 2008, while the Cato Institute received more than $200,000.61 Relatively speaking, grants to conservative think tanks represent only a minor portion of the Foundation’s philanthropy, but even prominent conservative political voices like The National Review have pointed to the Foundation as a funder of right-wing policy drivers.62 Transformationalism, the NAR’s unique form of conservative economics, fits in well with the Templeton agenda; it promises a solution to global poverty rooted in the belief that the marketplace is the best foundation for economic reform.63

Flame of Love co-director Margaret Poloma was herself so well regarded in the NAR movement that Charismatic leader John Arnott (yet another exemplar) entrusted her with the task of mediating a conflict between his ministry and John Wimber, a major evangelical leader who was critical of Arnott.64 At the time when Poloma engaged in this mediation process, she was conducting academic research on the Toronto Blessing, a revival that Arnott was leading.65 Most academics would seek to avoid conflicts of interest like this, but in the Flame of Love universe it is common for academics studying the intersection of religion and science to blur the lines between the academic study of revivalistic culture and participation in that culture.

In addition to all the methodological dilemmas in the STEPP study and Flame of Love’s elaborate ties to the group they purport to study, there’s a further conflict of interest in how the results of this research are ultimately presented. The Southern Medical Association, which publishes the Southern Medical Journal, in which Brown’s paper first appeared, has twice received contributions—$98,889 in 2006 and $73,673 in 2007—from the John Templeton Foundation.66

The Future

After Sir John Templeton’s death in 2008, the heir to his legacy was Jack Templeton, an evangelical doctor with abundant conservative political connections who had been active in fighting same-sex marriage and defending the Iraq War. He and his wife Josephine contributed $1 million to the fight to pass California’s anti-same-sex marriage Proposition 8.67 Jack Templeton was also the second- largest donor to the Red White and Blue Fund (RWB), a super-PAC that supported Rick Santorum’s 2012 presidential primary campaign.68 The younger Templeton passed away in May 2015,69 but before his death, both critics and Templeton grantees worried that Jack would steer the Foundation further to the right, and perhaps further away from mainstream science.70

The Foundation did shift its focus during Jack Templeton’s reign, but not as anticipated. Previous areas of specialization, such as “spiritual information” and “humility theology,” were replaced with the paradigm of “Big Questions,” in which philosophy and cosmology tended to receive more emphasis.71 There remained a guiding interest in faith and medicine, but the projects approved under the younger Templeton often concentrated more on the intersection of faith and psychology than on prayer studies. While not always perfect, this work was certainly more scientifically rigorous than the Flame of Love Project. Now, with the death of Jack Templeton, it’s unclear what direction the Foundation will take. Moreover, serious repercussions from the Foundation’s earlier work remain. Though the scientific community has rallied in recent years to protest the dangers of creation science and intelligent design theory, this focus on conservative responses to hard science has led many to overlook the more pressing dangers posed by right-wing influences on healthcare and social science research. Pseudo-science supporting faith healing can lead directly to the injury or death of those treated, if placebos or harmful treatments are used in place of tested and effective medical care.72 
While the influence of fundamentalism is diminishing, the Charismatic and Pentecostal movements continue to gain power among the Christian Right, with growth rates unrivaled in the Christian world.73 When it comes to scientific debates, these movements are not focused primarily on evolution or cosmology, but on faith healing. It is likely that this issue area—and not the waning conflict over evolutionary biology or cosmology—will represent one of the most important scientific battlegrounds on which 21st Century conservative Protestants will make their stand.

Candy Gunther Brown herself has contended that “divine healing is the single most important category [of pentecostal religious practice]…for understanding the global expansion of pentecostal Christianity.”74 And Brown is correct to point out that it is precisely in “regions of the world where poverty and sickness seem most overwhelming”—mostly regions with a colonial legacy—that Pentecostalism has seen its most rapid growth.75 As a result, this conflict may have far more immediate human costs than the creation science conflicts of the 20th Century.

Consider the large mental healthcare providers who, as I argue elsewhere, base their treatment on practices such as exorcism rather than research-tested mental healthcare interventions. In 2008, Australia was scandalized when Mercy Ministries Australia—a group of large treatment centers for young women, including many suffering from eating disorders—turned out to have based their treatment regimen on the exorcism manual Restoring the Foundations. A constant element of controversy in the ensuing Mercy Ministries scandal was the correct means of delineating the differences between faith healing and healthcare; ministries like Mercy operated in a gray area where either definition could be deemed appropriate, depending on the context.76

But even in situations where the line between faith healing and medicine is clearer, the real and potential influence of the Brown study cannot be ignored. By 2007, writer and Iris Ministries supporter Donald Kantel (who studied under Heidi Baker) claimed that pastors associated with the ministry had raised over 50 people from the dead throughout Southern Africa in a five-year period. The ministry also purported to engage in miraculous healings and supernatural multiplications of food.77 The popularization of “dead raising” teams—groups of people engaged in attempted resurrections—throughout the NAR could certainly not have been hurt by either the Brown study or the Christianity Today treatment that publicized its results. Nor can we ignore the influence of Global Awakening, whose revival events in Brazil, Mozambique, and India attract crowds of 100,000 people at a time; according to Brown, claims of divine healing often reach the thousands during such events.78 Here Brown’s influence is perhaps most marked, as her books are sold by Global Awakening’s own bookstore—a very unusual honor for any academic, particularly a secular academic such as Brown.79

The danger here is not so much that the Templeton study will be utilized to form new healthcare systems based on Brown’s model. Rather, the problem is that Brown’s research, like much of the Flame of Love project, will be utilized as a justification for preexisting Pentecostal and Charismatic healing initiatives in the developing world: a new wrinkle in an old colonial tale. This may not be the future the Templeton Foundation has envisioned for their work; yet it’s the future the Templeton Foundation has helped make possible.

John Weaver is an English lecturer at Binghamton University. His scholarship, including his 2015 book The Failure of Evangelical Mental Health Care, focuses on how evangelical theology informs the mental health beliefs of the evangelical subculture.


i. The Charismatic and Pentecostal movements are Christian theological traditions devoted to the belief in, and practice of, “gifts of the Spirit” in the modern Christian church, such as healing and speaking in tongues. Candy Gunther Brown, much referenced in this article, uses the lowercase term ‘pentecostal’ to refer to “both Pentecostals and second and third-wave Charismatics.” ‘Charismatic’ often refers to a kind of Pentecostal- lite, or alternately to the combined Charismatic and Pentecostal traditions (which is the sense in which I use the term here). As I have argued in The Failure of Evangelical Mental Health Care and in a forthcoming work on the New Apostolic Reformation, the idea that “classical” or traditional Pentecostals are more theologically and politically extreme than Second or Third Wave Charismatics collapses under any sustained historical scrutiny. (See John Weaver, The Failure of Evangelical Mental Health Care, [Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2015], 15-16 and Candy Gunther Brown, “Introduction: Pentecostalism and the Globalization of Illness and Healing,” in Global Pentecostal and Charismatic Healing, [Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011], 14.)

ii. It is quite clear from the Sozo material that the term “parts” is being used in a semantically identical fashion—albeit with a Christian twist— to the term “alters,” utilized among secular supporters of the increasingly controversial dissociative identity disorder (DID) diagnosis. Monica Pignotti and Bruce Thyer, writing in Science and Pseudoscience in Clinical Psychology, have expressed concerns that DID therapy and parts work have not been adequately tested and can in fact cause further illness. (See Monica Pignotti and Bruce A. Thyer, “New Age and Related Novel Unsupported Therapies in Mental Health Practice,” in Science and Pseudoscience in Clinical Psychology, eds. Scott O. Lilienfield, Stephen Jay Lynn, and Jeffrey M. Lohr [New York: Guilford Press, 2014], 191-209.)


1. Tim Stafford, “Miracles in Mozambique: How Mama Heidi Reaches the Abandoned,” Christianity Today, May 18, 2012,

2. Stafford, “Miracles in Mozambique.”

3. Stafford, “Miracles in Mozambique.”

4. Stafford, “Miracles in Mozambique.”

5. Stafford, “Miracles in Mozambique.”

6. Benedict Carey, “Long-Awaited Medical Study Questions the Power of Prayer,” The New York Times, March 31, 2006,

7. Candy Gunther Brown, PhD, Stephen C. Mory, MD, Rebecca Williams MB BChir, DTM&H, Michael J. McClymond, PhD, “Study of the Therapeutic Effects of Proximal Intercessory Prayer (STEPP) on Auditory and Visual Impairments in Rural Mozambique,” Southern Medical Journal, 2010, 864.

8. Nathan Schneider, “God, Science and Philanthropy: Politics of the Templeton Foundation’s ‘Big Questions,’” The Nation, June 21, 2010,

9. Sarah Pulliam Bailey, “John Templeton Jr., president of multi- billion dollar foundation invested in science and religion, has died,” The Washington Post, May 19, 2015,

10. Templeton Foundation, “Positive Psychology Research,”

11. Sean Carroll, “Science and Religion Can’t Be Reconciled, Why I Won’t Take Money from the Templeton Foundation,” Slate, May 9, 2013,

12. Joseph Charles Kiger, Philanthropic Foundations in the Twentieth Century, (Santa Barbara: Greenwood Publishing Group, 2000), 133.

13. Sunny Bains, “Questioning the Integrity of the John Templeton Foundation,” (Evolutionary Psychology 9, no. 1, 2011), 92-115, 94.

14. Bains, “Questioning the Integrity,” 93-94; the reader should note that the Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion subsequently morphed into the Templeton Prize for Progress Toward Research or Discoveries About Spiritual Realities, before turning into the Templeton Prize. Please see John M. Cummingham, “Templeton Prize,” Brittanica, N.D. Web. 8 Jun 2015.

15. Schneider, “God, Science and Philanthropy.”

16. Schneider, “God, Science and Philanthropy.”

17. Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion, (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2006), 19.

18. Jerry Coyne, “Martin Rees and the Templeton Travesty,” The Guardian, April 6, 2011,

19. Nathan Schneider, “The Templeton Effect,” The Chronicle of Higher Education, September 3, 2012,

20. Carroll, “Science and Religion Can’t Be Reconciled.”

21. Michael Brooks, “Templeton Prize is Bad News for Religion, Not Science,” New Scientist, March 25, 2010,

22. Schneider, “God, Science and Philanthropy.”

23. Schneider, “God, Science and Philanthropy.”

24. Richard P. Sloan, Blind Faith: The Unholy Alliance of Religion and Medicine (New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 2006), 61.

25. Schneider, “God, Science and Philanthropy.”

26. Sloan, “Blind Faith,” 62.

27. Schneider, “God, Science and Philanthropy.”

28. Flame of Love Project, “Project Co-Directors,”

29. The University of Akron, “Sociology Researchers Receive $2.3 Million Grant,”, February 4, 2008,

30. Patheos, “Anthea Butler Biography,” Patheos,

31. Patheos, “Anthea Butler.”

32. Matthew T. Lee, Margaret M. Poloma, and Stephen G. Post, Introduction to The Science and Theology of Godly Love, ed. Matthew T. Lee and Amos Yong (Dekalb, IL: Northern Illinois University Press, 2012), 5-8.

33. Templeton Foundation, “The Flame of Love: Scientific Research on the Experience and Expression of Godly Love in the Pentecostal Tradition,”

34. Institute for Research on Unlimited Love, “Abridged List of Deliverables for the Flame of Love Project,” June 15, 2011,

35. Brown et al., “STEPP,” 865.

36. Sloan, “Blind Faith,” 157, 168

37. Sarah Glazer, “Prayer and Healing,” CQ Researcher 15, no. 2 (2005): 27.

38. Brown et al., “STEPP,” 865.

39. Brown et al., “STEPP,” 864-867.

40. Brown et al., “STEPP,” 867.

41. Brown et al., “STEPP,” 868.

42. Peter Norvig, “Evaluating Extraordinary Claims: Mind Over Matter? Or Mind Over Mind?,” Norvig. com,

43. Norvig, “Evaluating Extraordinary Claims.”

44. Norvig, “Evaluating Extraordinary Claims.”

45. Jean Mercer, email message to author, April 17, 2015.

46. Brown et al., “STEPP,” 864.

47. Institute for Research on Unlimited Love, “Institute for Research on Unlimited Love – Books Produced,” September 2014,

48. Templeton Prize, “Previous Prize Winners: Charles Taylor (2007),”,

49. Lee, Poloma, and Post, “Introduction,” 6; currently this is centered in Christianity, but the study is supposed to later extend to other religions.

50. Matthew T. Lee, Margaret M. Poloma, and Stephen G. Post, The Heart of Religion (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013), 52.

51. Matthew T. Lee and Margaret M. Poloma, A Sociological Study of the Great Commandment in Pentecostalism: The Practice of Godly Love as Benevolent Service (Lewiston, NY: Edwin Mellen Press, 2009), 59.

52. Flame of Love Project, “Exemplar Biosketches,”; Josh Kron, “In Uganda, Push to Curb Gays Draws U.S. Guest,” New York Times, May 2, 2010,; the Ugandan “Death To Gays” bill has received considerable attention in the United States thanks to the release of God Loves Uganda, a documentary chronicling the actions of American evangelicals in promoting anti-gay efforts in Uganda. PRA Senior Religion and Sexuality Researcher Kapya Kaoma featured prominently in the film, and the organization has released several detailed major reports detailing evangelical political activities within Africa. Kaoma’s work explores Engle’s actions in Uganda in detail.

53. Margaret Poloma, Main Street Mystics: The Toronto Blessing & Reviving Pentecostalism (Walnut Creek: Altamire Press, 2003), 174-181.

54. Revival Alliance, “Homepage,”; “Exemplar Biosketches.”

55. Global Awakening, “WLI Course Catalog,”, 18.

56. Randy Clark, “A Study of the Effects of Christian Prayer on Pain or Mobility Restrictions from Surgeries Involving Implanted Materials” (D.Min. diss., United Theological Seminary, 2013), 167-168.

57. Brown et al., “STEPP,” 865.

58. For a brief introductory look at the links between some of these leaders, notably Baker, and the NAR, see Rachel Tabachnick, “Spiritual Warriors with an Antigay Mission: The New Apostolic Reformation,” Political Research Associates, March 22, 2013,

59. Bethel Sozo, “About Bethel Sozo: Autism,”

60. John Weaver, The Failure of Evangelical Mental Health Care, 75-84.

61. Schneider, “God, Science and Philanthropy.”

62. Schneider, “God, Science and Philanthropy.”

63. Rev. Dr. Kapya Kaoma, “Colonizing African Values, How the U.S. Christian Right is Transforming Sexual Politics in Africa,” Political Research Associates, 2012,

64. Poloma, “Main Street Mystics,” 243.; “Exemplar Biosketches.”

65. Poloma, “Main Street Mystics,” 243.

66. Conservative Transparency, “Recipient: Southern Medical Association,”

67. David O’Reilly, “$1 million for their own two cents Bryn Mawr couple are largest individual donors in efforts to ban gay marriage in California,”, October 28, 2008,

68. Phil Hirschkorn and Laura Strickler, “Santorum’s big benefactor,” CBS News, February 9, 2012,

69. Pulliam Bailey, “John Templeton, Jr. Has Died.”

70. Schneider, “God, Science and Philanthropy.”

71. Schneider, “The Templeton Effect.”

72. What’s The Harm?, “What’s the harm in believing in faith healing?,”; This website records faith healing deaths that have been reported in the news. The incidents it documents represent a mere fraction of the deaths that have resulted from faith healing practices.

73. Barna Group, “Is American Christianity Turning Charismatic?,” January 7, 2008,

74. Candy Gunther Brown, “Introduction: Pentecostalism and the Globalization of Illness and Healing,” in Global Pentecostal and Charismatic Healing, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), 14.

75. Brown, “Introduction,” 7.

76. John Weaver, The Failure of Evangelical Mental Health Care, 86-88.

77. Donald Kantel, “The ‘Toronto Blessing’: Revival and its Continuing Impact on Mission in Mozambique” (Ph.D. diss., Regent University, 2007), 32.

78. Candy Gunther Brown, “Global Awakenings: Divine Healing Networks and Global Community in North America, Brazil, Mozambique, and Beyond,” in Global Pentecostal and Charismatic Healing, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), 353.

79. Global Awakening, “Global Awakening Online Bookstore,”

Catholic Democrats & the Group Behind the Anti-Planned Parenthood Videos

Anti-abortion Catholic Democrats have long sought to cast their cause as progressive, but their actions have taken them into common cause with the Religious Right.  This tendency has been on display during the brouhaha over the publication of the first of what promises to be a series of misleading propaganda videos published by an obscure antiabortion group.

The Center for Medical Progress (a Catholic Right group with no relation to the liberal Washington DC think tank, Center for American Progress) has made news for its tabloid claim that Planned Parenthood Federation of America engages in the potentially criminal harvesting of fetal tissue and organs for profit. But the documentation does not substantiate the charges.  In fact, the unedited version of the covertly recorded video and the transcript supports PPFA’s statements that they only engage in the lawful practice of—and with the woman’s consent—donating fetal tissue for medical and research purposes.

Christopher J. Hale, executive director of

Christopher J. Hale, executive director of Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good (CACG).

Epitomizing the tendency of anti-choice Democrats to become entangled with religious and political elements who are neither progressive or Democratic, is Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good (CACG) – whose devotion to the cause has been clear since its founding in 2004.

Two days after the release of the first video, Christopher J. Hale (executive director of CACG) published a provocative op-ed in the religion section of The Washington Post online.  He called for progressive and Democratic leaders to join him in denouncing Planned Parenthood, citing the Center for Medical Progress’s crude work of propaganda as the justification for his call to moral action.

“Who will say no,” Hale asked, framing his accusation in the form of a question, “to this growing indifference towards others’ invisible sufferings, toward unseen violence, and toward hidden injustices that has metastasized in our national conscience? Who will speak truth to the rich and powerful and denounce Planned Parenthood’s participation and leadership in this throwaway culture and an economy that debases, excludes, and kills?”

Juxtapose Hale’s accusations with journalists like Robin Abcarian at the Los Angeles Times and Robin Marty at Cosmopolitan, who quickly saw that the video does not support the charges. So did the editorial board of The New York Times, which concluded that “the video campaign is a dishonest attempt to make legal, voluntary and potentially lifesaving tissue donations appear nefarious and illegal.”

It did not take long for Hale’s piece to be seen as an outrageous rush to judgement. Jon O’Brien of Catholics for Choice, writing at The Huffington Post, observed that Hale did not let the facts get in the way of the story he wanted to tell. CACG, said O’Brien, “is so hell-bent on making abortion illegal that they went so far as to equate a woman’s abortion decision with torture and war.”

Nevertheless, Hale is often cited in major media as a representative of liberal Christianity, and is a regular contributor to Time magazine.

Who Is Center for Medical Progress?

If Hale and other anti-abortion Democrats had bothered to look, they would have learned that the Center for Medical Progress has only existed since 2013, and has no record of doing much of anything prior to their release of the propaganda video which prompted Hale’s op-ed.  Hale would also have found out that one of the three founders is Troy Newman, longtime president of the militant anti-abortion organization Operation Rescue (see PRA’s profile here).  What’s more, Robin Marty reported that the tactic of making sensationalized, highly edited undercover videos targeting Planned Parenthood was popularized by Live Action, founded and led by Lila Rose (see PRA’s profile here), and that Daleiden had worked for her.  “David Daleiden” Marty wrote of Center for Medical Progress’s founder, “is the former director of research for Live Action, and according to Breitbart News, he held that position for five years and ‘is no stranger to undercover investigations of Planned Parenthood.’”

Rose, who says her work is driven by her faith, was catechized by the secretive, conservative order Opus Dei while she was in college. She is a popular speaker at Christian Right events, such as the annual Values Voters political conference hosted by the Family Research Council. Rose claimed that the Daleiden video reveals “the unimaginable horror that is Planned Parenthood” including the “exploitation of human life, the cover-up, and the black market profiteering by America’s largest abortion chain” as well as “their contempt for rule of law and human life.”

Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good itself has a curious recent history.  The organization lost its federal tax-exempt status several years ago, and all of its prominent supporters inexplicably disappeared from its web site last year.  It is unclear where its money currently comes from, but CACG now appears to be an unincorporated project of a Washington, DC political PR firm, Matz, Blancato & Associates  – with which it shares a mailing address, and where longtime CACG board member and current chairman Alfred Rotondaro has worked in recent years.  (Blancato also chairs the Italian American Democratic Council, a political action committee of which Rotondaro is treasurer.)  Rotondaro, who has also been a Senior Fellow at the liberal Center for American Progress, is no longer listed on the organization’s web site.  (The Center for American Progress’s publication Think Progress has, however, posted a detailed exposé of what’s wrong with the Daleiden videos and links it to similar video smear products intended to damage Planned Parenthood.) 

The fact is that there is no evidence that PPFA or any of its personnel or affiliates are doing anything that violates the legal and ethical standards regarding donation of tissue and organs for purposes of medical and scientific research. The full transcript of the video, which was released by CMP, shows PPFA’s Senior Director of Medical Services Dr. Deborah Nucatola explaining how patients are not coerced but are informed about the option of donating tissue, and also making it very clear that there is no profit motive.

The fact is that there is no evidence that PPFA or any of its personnel or affiliates are doing anything that violates legal and ethical standards.

Subsequent statements issued by PPFA are consistent with what Nucatola told her undercover interviewers. PPFA states, “[W]e do this just like every other high-quality health care provider does – with full, appropriate consent from patients and under the highest ethical and legal standards.  There is no financial benefit for tissue donation for either the patient or for Planned Parenthood.  In some instances, actual costs, such as the cost to transport tissue to leading research centers, are reimbursed, which is standard across the medical field.”

Indeed, the charges being exploited by anti-abortion groups and opportunistic politicians are based exclusively on a method of employing terms like “selling,” “trafficking,” “haggling,”  “profiteering,” and “black market” to make inflammatory charges that are not supported by the facts.  

Recent reporting suggests that the videos may have been released in collusion with Republican Members of Congress—at least two of whom had seen the first video weeks before its release—and who say they will  initiate an investigation into the allegations.

It was one thing for the ostensibly liberal and Democratic Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good to advocate for their views. But there has always been more to it. “To the untrained eye,” Catholics for Choice explained in a 2009 report on the group, “CACG may just seem like another Catholic social justice organization, focusing solely on traditional Catholic social teaching such as care of the poor, environmental sustainability and economic justice. However, a closer look reveals that a key aim of CACG is to oppose the availability of legal abortion.”

But beyond even this, it is quite another thing for CACG executive director Christopher J. Hale to treat as fact a work of crude political propaganda from a sketchy organization, alleging potentially criminal activity on the part of a respected health care provider – and then to call on Democratic and progressive leaders to  join him in this recklessness.  Hale and others of his ilk may actually believe this video smear job, or, worse, may be willing to employ the lies of a militant, right-wing agency to accomplish their ends – no matter who among their supposed allies may be harmed.

Beyond the Hate Frame: An Interview with Kay Whitlock & Michael Bronski

Click here to print the magazine version

Click here to print the magazine version

This interview appears in the Summer 2015 issue of The Public Eye magazine.

Whether it’s a spree killing, a vandalized mosque, or a bias attack on a queer teen, Americans are quick to chalk it up to hate. The label “hate crime” invites us to blame overwrought individuals acting on extreme personal prejudice, making it seem as if a small cadre of social deviants is our main obstacle to a peaceful society. In fact, such individuals are products of a society that endorses all kinds of violence against the very same groups who are targeted in hate crimes. The perpetrators of these crimes are taking their cues from a society that embraces mass incarceration, militarized policing, the school-to-prison pipeline, and other forms of structural violence wielded disproportionately against people of color, queer and trans or gender non-conforming people, and the poor.

Kay Whitlock is an independent scholar of structural violence who seeks to dismantle the prison industrial complex. She is the cofounder of Criminal Injustice, a blog series that explores myths about crime, criminals, and the justice system. Michael Bronski is a professor at Dartmouth College and author of the award-winning book A Queer History of the United States. Their new coauthored book is Considering Hate: Violence, Goodness, and Justice in American Culture and Politics, published this year by Beacon Press.1 This spring, they spoke with PRA about their work.

Photo: Cindy Trinh, / / Instagram @activistnyc

Photo: Cindy Trinh, / / Instagram @activistnyc

What led you to write a book about hate and the role that it plays in our politics? 

KAY WHITLOCK: I wrote a piece for Political Research Associates in 2012 about reconsidering the “hate frame” as a useful progressive political frame. Michael and I had worked together before on my book, Queer (In)Justice, which he helped acquire for Beacon Press. Michael shared my PRA article with Beacon. Beacon was interested in the two of us joining together, opening up the discussion far beyond just specific kinds of progressive politics.

What is the “hate frame”?

KW: We think of a frame as a conceptual, and often rhetorical, path that shapes how people think about an issue. It always suggests a particular direction we ought to go in to address the situation.

In U.S. progressive politics the hate frame has four main assumptions: First, that hate is rooted purely in irrational, personal prejudice and fear and loathing of difference. In fact, it’s also rooted in ideologies and supremacy, in a historical and cultural context. Second, that hate is hate, and the specificities don’t matter. Third, that the politics of hate is about that crazy irrational feeling, which is caused by personal prejudice gone amok. In this view, hate is not about structures, not about power hierarchies, not about institutional practice. Finally, that hate is perpetrated by extremists, misfits, and loners who are violating agreed-upon standards of fairness, and that hate violence is unacceptable and abhorrent to respectable society.

The hate frame disappears considerations of structural violence and substitutes in their place the idea that there are these crazed extremists

In fact, what is called “hate violence”—violence directed at vulnerable and marginalized groups—is not abhorrent to respectable society. On the contrary, respectable society has provided the models, policies, and practices that marginalize people of color, queers, disabled people, and in many respects, women. The hate frame disappears considerations of structural violence and substitutes in their place the idea that there are these crazed extremists, and that’s who we have to go after.

The overarching question of the book is how hate is mobilized for political purposes and in what ways that destroys the possibility for good discourse on structural issues.

Do you think it’s counterproductive for watchdog organizations to monitor hate groups?

But the “hate group” descriptor is imprecise and subsumes many different histories into a single, too-simplistic template.

KW: It’s certainly important to understand how readily blatantly racist, xenophobic, and anti-queer ideas that gain steam on what we think of as the margins seem to migrate into mainstream politics. But the “hate group” descriptor is imprecise and subsumes many different histories into a single, too-simplistic template. It also gives the false impression that the hate is “out there” and “extreme,” when the problems are embedded in mainstream U.S. civic life and culture. It’s never easy to distinguish between the messages of many “hate groups” and the actions of respectable civic and religious leaders as they set back or dismantle progress in civil rights and economic justice.

While nativist, white supremacist, and virulently anti-LGBT groups may be horribly blunt in their supremacist beliefs, the ideologies themselves are as old as the entirely “respectable” projects of settler colonialism, Native genocide, chattel slavery, the eugenics movement, and economic exploitation. Hate is important in our politics. But people don’t want to own it. Even the people we think of as hatemongers, like neonazis, are often loath to say they hate people in so many words.

MICHAEL BRONSKI: They do and they don’t. I was teaching Intro. to LGBT studies at Dartmouth. I wanted to do something about the Matthew Shepard case. All the students knew about it. They’d all seen “The Laramie Project,” and they identified very strongly with Shepard. I think most of my students came pretty close to saying they hated Shepard’s killers. People are sort of eager to own a certain form of hatred and express it in more careful terms. It feels good.

Considering Hate

I tried to get my students to think outside of the hate frame. It wasn’t just a case of simple homophobia where a relatable, young, cute, blonde gay man was murdered senselessly. I wanted them to see the larger issues, like gender behaviors, poverty, and even geography. Everybody sees themselves not as haters, but as being hated. But once they’re hated, they quickly access the desire to hate back.

KW: Most neonazis will frame their essential message as love. In fact, almost everybody will frame their political message as love. But then you watch all the little side conversations and the message boards…

People—whether we’re from the right or the left, or anywhere in the middle—will often identify our own virtue by who it is that we loathe and despise and who it is that we’re against. That happens as much in progressive circles as in right-wing circles.

So, on the left, we’re defining ourselves by hating the prison industrial complex or brutal police officers?

KW: The language of hate is an easy placeholder. Probably all of us use it. I use it too. But what I keep trying to do is to get very specific about the issues.

 It’s quite possible to treat someone with great brutality, or contempt, as if they don’t matter, because you’re simply indifferent to their fate. 

You can’t just say that the reason the Ferguson police have such extraordinarily oppressive ways of policing is just because they hate Blacks. It’s much more complicated. There is a root in supremacist ideology, but it’s quite possible to treat someone with great brutality, or contempt, as if they don’t matter, because you’re simply indifferent to their fate.

Is brutal policing in Ferguson rooted in societal ideologies about the non-personhood of Black people, the notion that Black lives don’t matter? As opposed to visceral hatred?

It’s so tempting in policy to go after the people who commit hate crimes, because we know who they are. The bigger problem is a Ferguson, a Cleveland, a Chicago, an Oakland. 

KW: I think all of that is there. The callous disregard of Black lives in U.S. policies and practices since the inception of the country is so total that [non-Black] people don’t even recognize where their indifference or contempt comes from. It’s not necessarily boiling over as obvious racism, but it’s still woven in. That’s why it’s so tempting in policy to go after the people who commit hate crimes, because we know who they are. The bigger problem is a Ferguson, a Cleveland, a Chicago, an Oakland.

MB: One of the hallmarks of people who do hateful things is how often they see themselves as being victims. Police in Ferguson probably see themselves as being put-upon. An extreme example would be the Klan, who see themselves as victims of black people getting too much. It’s a mistake to leave that out of the equation. They see themselves as being victimized by the system, more so than their victims, often.

KW: The white, male, heterosexual power structure will almost always, in the face of protest, present itself as the victim of the group that’s challenging it.

Disability is a major theme of the book. You describe how, for centuries, disability has been cast as something that’s hateable and therefore something that justifies coercion—like exiling disabled people from towns, or putting them in institutions. If disabled people are seen as monstrous or inherently criminal, it becomes easier to see their mistreatment as something society does for its own protection.  

KW: Disabled people are often imagined as monstrous, degenerate, or defective. Then these labels get used to characterize any group that’s not in the central power hierarchy. So debates about disability start to include questions about American Indians, and Black people, and voting rights and citizenship; they start to include debates about women.

There’s often a contradictory dynamic. It all works to manage a great deal of anxiety. People with disabilities are construed as criminals, as objects of fear and loathing, but also as objects to be felt sorry for and cared for in a patronizing kind of way.

MB: I got an email from a friend who’s teaching a class on disability at Tufts. He said he’s teaching a clip from Fredric March’s 1931 Hollywood version of Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde. When the very handsome March drinks the potion, turning him into Mr. Hyde, the transformation is really remarkable. He actually becomes black and gets misshapen teeth. The insane, murderous Mr. Hyde becomes stooped over and disfigured, and he becomes African-American-looking. It’s very much part of this mythos that some people who are not in the mainstream—including African Americans—are disabled and therefore evil. There’s that easy leap. A Hollywood classic shows it to us quite viscerally in about 90 seconds.

In the book you talk about how disfavored groups get inter-defined, for example: disabled people are defined as inferior, and then femaleness and Blackness get construed as physical defects relative to the white male ideal.

KW: We decided to use the lens of disability, but we could have picked race or gender, or queerness, and gone in as deeply. Gender, gender conformity, class, race: they all collide in these stories. One of the reasons we try to tell the story emphasizing the overlap of different oppressions is to demonstrate the pitfall that happens for progressive people when we fight in disconnected, parallel, single-issue ways.

Is your argument that the “hate” component of hate crime is rooted in the same impulse that makes communities hire oppressive police forces?

MB: That may be true in some simplistic ways, but we would all do better by really looking at every interest and trying to understand each instance in itself to see how it fits in a larger structural pattern. It’s important not to lump people together just because the behaviors look somewhat similar.

KW: It’s very easy to arouse justified outrage for specific, dramatic, sensational acts of violence that are intended to dehumanize someone from a marginalized group. [Like when attackers set out] to get a transgender woman, or “teach a Latino immigrant a lesson.” Those things are horrific, and we need to respond. We fixate on spree killings and assassinations because they’re so visibly terrifying. As we say in the book, fear has a kind of payoff: it makes us feel alive.

But regardless of who’s in power, we also have these structural forms of violence that continue year after year in the most respectable civic and private arenas.

But regardless of who’s in power, we also have these structural forms of violence that continue year after year in the most respectable civic and private arenas. The violence is steadfast, consistent, and it’s absolutely massive. I’m talking about the violence of prisons, detention centers, psychiatric hospitals, and public schools with school officers who are armed to the teeth and who have absolute discretionary power to send kids into the criminal/legal system for minor infractions. We have lots of violence against people with disabilities who are penned up in institutions where someone has absolute power over them.

I did my first work challenging the hate frame in 2001 for the American Friends Service Committee. Everywhere I went to speak [about the limits of hate crime legislation], good people who cared passionately about social justice would get furious if you talked about the structural violence of prison. It seemed impossible for people to accept that the legal system wasn’t the appropriate place to lodge our concerns. Just the thought of them having to engage with the massive violence of a system that dealt with hardened criminals….

So, they wanted to address the violence against “innocent” people but didn’t feel comfortable condemning violence against “bad” people?

KW: Right. This is not to put people down. This is part of my life’s work, working at this intersection of places where people don’t even recognize it as violence.

What violent things do people fail to recognize as violent?

KW: There’s the school-to-prison pipeline. A lot of white people have no idea how pervasive that is, or what the heavy presence of school resource officers can be like. Basically, what goes on in prisons and jails is not recognized as violence. Solitary confinement is not seen as violence or torture, though it is.

MB: When it comes to violence people don’t recognize as violence, at Dartmouth there’s a very strong Greek system. The embedded violence of hazing is completely and totally accepted. It’s everything from physical assaults to sexual humiliation. Eating certain foods to make them throw up. Forcing diuretics on them to make them sit in the bathroom for hours on end. Hazing is constructing masculinity by humiliating people to the point of being physically ill. On many college campuses this is regarded as completely acceptable or even good behavior, until somebody dies.

Like when Abu Ghraib became public and all those pundits were saying it was no big deal because they do this stuff in fraternity hazing?

MB: Precisely.

KW: We talk in the book about how cultural strategies are really needed in order for us to take a look at some of these realities in disruptively intelligent ways. [Ed: Whitlock is talking about innovative protest tactics, like ACT-UP air-dropping condoms into a prison because the prison wouldn’t distribute condoms to prevent the spread of HIV, and the eye-catching actions of the Chicago Light Brigade,2 which mobilizes flash mobs bearing glowing LED panels that spell out progressive slogans.]

Until we work towards deeper shifts in consciousness, we’re always going to be tinkering with the machinery, and finding new ways to let old systemic problems persist. If we think culturally about telling the story in fresh and unexpected ways, then we may have some fresh and welcome insights.

You write about the importance of refocusing on goodness. What are some of the ways that we can refocus on goodness instead of defining ourselves in terms of who we hate?

MB: Everybody wants to see themselves as a good person. It’s a really invigorating question. Rather than redefining it, what I’ve learned in talking about the book and to students, is actually getting people to think of what it would mean to be good. What it would mean to step out of descriptions of ourselves as business of usual? What it would mean to do something that is counter to the usual?

Considering Hate: Violence, Goodness, and Justice in American Culture and Politics was published by Beacon Press in 2015. This discussion has been edited for clarity, length, and flow.