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Anne Nelson: The Future of the Right Wing

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Anne Nelson: The Future of the Right Wing

Anne Nelson talks about the November Midterm Elections, right-wing domestic extremism, and the direction of the Republican Party.

Anne is an award-winning war correspondent and author. Her newest book, Shadow Network: Media, Money, and the Secret Hub of the Radical Right, details the influence of the Council for National Policy, a powerful right-wing political coalition.

In the interview, Anne talks about how the people who helped organize and execute the January 6th insurrection intended it to be much more subdued:

“I don't think they meant for the invasion to be that violent. I don't think they meant for people to get killed. I think that it's quite possible that these aligned forces who are connected to QAnon and some of the Pentecostal, more fringe churches and the militias, came into the event and perhaps took it over. I would bet good money that the Council for National Policy did not want Mike Pence to be hung, for example. He's now a dues-paying member, so that wouldn't make sense. But the problem is that once you align yourself and agitate a mob, you don't always control it.”

To hear more from Anne, listen to her previous interview on Burn the Boats.

Also, make sure to check out her website, anne-nelson.com, and follow her on Twitter at @anelsona.


Ken Harbaugh:

Hi everyone, it’s Ken. Before we start, I want to share some exciting news: We’ve paired with Meidas Touch, so you can now watch these interviews on YouTube. Just search for the Meidas Touch YouTube channel, or click the link in the show description. Thanks, and enjoy the episode.

Anne Nelson:

As Hillary Clinton's candidacy proved, our political system is not governed by the most votes. It's not democratic. You can get the most votes and still lose if you have people who really know how to manipulate the electoral college, which these people do.

Ken Harbaugh:

I'm Ken Harbaugh, and this is Burn the Boats, a podcast about big decisions.

My guest today is Anne Nelson, an award-winning war correspondent, an author of Shadow Network: Media Money, and the Secret Hub of the Radical Right. We had her on the show last year to talk about her book in which she describes a right wing political coalition that is pulling strings behind the scenes. I brought her back to give us an update on that coalition and how things are progressing in the lead up to the November midterms. Anne, welcome back to Burn the Boats.

Anne Nelson:

Thank you, Ken. Good to be here.

Ken Harbaugh:

A ton has happened since we last spoke, and you, probably more than anyone, have this incredible insight into the thinking of the power brokers behind the scenes within the Republican party. I am wondering what you make of these twists and turns in terms of allegiance to Trump and trying to find the heir apparent. How do you think that is playing out amongst the power brokers?

Anne Nelson:

Well, as I point out in my book, Shadow Network, Trump is not driving this movement, never has been. They have had a strategy that needed a vector and that ended up being Trump. And the one thing about this movement, which is coordinated by the Council for National Policy, is that they always have a Plan B, and then they usually have a Plan C and a Plan D as well. They're very agile, I would say, unlike the Democrats.

Right now what I see is that they're hedging their bets. They were pretty much riding the MAGA wave with Trump until very recently, and now they're soft peddling the Trump part. So for example, I just got a fundraising message from the Republican National Committee, and for the first time it did not mention Trump in that message. So the problem that they now face is that in terms of the actual election, DeSantis doesn't have a lot of name recognition. He's probably the front runner as the alternate. And Mike Pence and Ted Cruz are still in the mix, but they are charismatically challenged. So at this point, I would say neither party has a strong candidate for 2024. However, Plan B and Plan C involved taking over state legislatures and invoking the state legislature doctrine, which would allow them to place whoever they wanted regardless of the popular vote or the usual selection of the electoral college.

Ken Harbaugh:

I'm going to steal your phrase, “charismatically challenged.” I'm wondering if you can illuminate for us the balance of power between the ... You refer to the MAGA wave, I'm going to lump rank and file base voter Republicans in that group. How much power do they hold compared to the CNP and the elites who have been planning this, as you exposed in your incredible book, for decades? Is this a case of the tail wagging the dog? Who's actually driving the bus on this?

Anne Nelson:

Well, I believe that a lot of Trump's base, the hardcore MAGA people who are Trump regardless of anything else, are more the foot soldiers. They're the masses who turn up for the rallies. And I think that they account for an important percentage of the vote, but I don't think they're driving the train. I don't see them as having strategists beyond Steve Bannon, who is a master strategist. But I also don't think he is an absolute Trump loyalist. I think that he views the scene opportunistically and would be very capable of switching when he saw it to his advantage.

So now you have the CNP world and a lot of prominent people, Leonard Leo, who was the Federalist Society, basically executive officer, just received this 1.6 billion with a B dollar infusion of cash from a Chicago businessman named Barre Seid. So he's got that to work with. You've got the Susan B. Anthony people, the anti-abortion people, hard at work in swing states with just millions of voter interactions in terms of personal canvasing and phone calls. They're like a third party in the Democrats and the Republicans and the CNP canvassers on top of the Republican. So it's a mistake to look only at the Presidential race because there was so much going on in terms of the state level. And if they capture the House of Representatives, then they will really cripple the Biden Administration from many kinds of critical legislation moving forward. And they'll also have the ability to limit voting rights in many places. So the hard part about this moment is keeping your eye on all three rings of the circus.

Ken Harbaugh:

Can you share with us a little bit more about how those foot soldiers, as you referred to them, are being influenced? We see the Trump rallies. That is really just the icing on the cake. There has been this long project and you go into the manipulation of church congregations and other groups, aligning these interest groups with this political and ultimately economically-driven movement.

Anne Nelson:

I think that there's a kind of new development because in my book I write about the role of religious fundamentalists from the South, especially the Southern Baptist, in joining interests with fossil fuel interests in the same region. And Ralph Reed, who's another one of the CNPs master strategist, figured out ways to really mobilize the evangelical fundamentalist vote in these states. My belief is that they've done that for so long that they've kind of tapped out that voting block. If you're an evangelical and you're going to vote Republican, you're doing it by now. So what I see them doing is initially going for conservative Catholics as a block with some success, but the real movement is among Pentecostals, and this is a block that Americans don't understand very well because it's not very formally organized. You got megachurches, each one with thousands of people, and charismatic pastors, charismatic musicians.

One of them is Sean Feucht, who is connected with the Bethel Church in Los Angeles and travels nationally, recruiting these people. And what concerns me is that this movement is also becoming a recruiting ground, not just for Republican voters, but also for Oathkeepers and other militia groups. So you see them at events like January 6th, but also in these street protests, in incidents involving weapons, so on and so forth, where you have this conflation of Pentecostal Christianity with heavily armed militia groups. And it could well be that the goal is to create enough chaos and conflict leading into the election that it disturbs the electoral process.

Ken Harbaugh:

Culture war issues are what are animating those groups, but those are really just a smoke screen for the economically-driven motivations of the groups that you dive into, the CNP and others. Is that fair to say?

Anne Nelson:

That's how I see it, because these movements could not happen without big money. For example, the Koch brothers' fortune grew just tremendously between 2000 and 2010, and they'd already failed to run David Koch as a libertarian candidate in the past. So then they started pumping huge amounts of money and creating groups like the Tea Party Patriots, who are one of the activist components of the Council for National Policy. And if you look at a Koch brothers' history, as libertarians, they didn't care about abortion. They wanted no laws governing abortion, prostitution, drug use, anything else that was a culture issue. They just wanted no taxes and no social programs that were paid for by their taxes. So this unholy alliance between these major economic interests using evangelicals to really vote against their own interests, you have these poor people in Southern states voting not to have clean water in their communities, voting to allow air pollution for their children to breathe because they're being really indoctrinated by these media systems that are created and linked to their churches. So that's for me is the American tragedy.

Ken Harbaugh:

For those who didn't catch our first conversation, can you give us the brief primer on the CNP when it originated and what its long term generational goal is?

Anne Nelson:

Yeah. The Council for National Policy was really created by three men who had worked on the Goldwater campaign and were strategists who were very frustrated with the Republican party. And so they helped to tie evangelicals like Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson to Reagan's campaign, despite the fact that Jimmy Carter was actually an evangelical Christian and Reagan was not, but it was a power move. And once they helped with the Reagan push, in 1981 they formed the Council for National Policy to profit from that victory. And it joined mostly people from the South, Southwest, heavily run by people from Louisiana, Texas, Oklahoma, where there's a real confluence between evangelical and fundamentalist Christians and the fossil fuels industries just because of geography and culture.

Another powerhouse in that mix was the DeVos family from Michigan who are very conservative, Calvinists and also want to eliminate social programs, public schools, the Department of Education, the Environmental Protection Agency. Where they all come together is really wanting to dismantle the federal government and the federal agencies and programs that benefit the mass population. That's the stated goal in a lot of their literature. So what's very interesting and important about them is that they've had over 40 years of trial and error looking at the various fault lines and defects in our political system, such as the Electoral College, which doesn't really make a lot of sense, such as Senate representation, which is not very democratic, and figuring out how to exploit that to overcome majority rule in the United States.

Ken Harbaugh:

What are the front lines right now? Are there particular state houses that for you exemplify their strategy, say in a state that is either 50/50 or majority democratic, but where their ideology holds sway in the state house?

Anne Nelson:

Well, right now, the battle royale is taking place in a very few states. The Arizona state legislature is going to be incredibly important. And in the last election, it was decided by about a thousand votes. And if you have this whole chessboard where our national future can be determined by a few state legislatures, and you look at a thousand votes, it's extraordinary. Another battleground state is Michigan, another one is Pennsylvania, and you have several factors at play. One is if the Republicans control the state legislature, which they currently do in 30 states, the majority, but the other is if they control the governorship. So the governor has veto power over state legislature bills. And so the race for the governor of Pennsylvania is a critical race right now. There are few others, but those are really in the spotlight right now.

Ken Harbaugh:

And if I'm not mistaken, there are some states in which the governor actually has the power to appoint election officials with enormous power, like in Pennsylvania, where I believe the governor appoints the top election official, the secretary of state, who can decide how elections are conducted.

Anne Nelson:

And again, sometimes I say our ship of state was designed in 1789, and most ships of that age are a little leaky after a few centuries. So every state has different election laws. Some of them even have different dates as to when the state legislators take office. So you have this incredibly complicated patchwork of legislation. And again, the Council for National Policy has been studying all of this and doing very targeted polling by a man named George Barna and figuring out exactly where they want to go tweak which state, which unit of government.

They also have something called the Precinct Strategy, which was formulated in Arizona by a military veteran. And what they do is set out to identify moderate Republicans who will work with Democrats and purge them from the party leadership on a precinct level and replace them with MAGA Republicans. So Steve Bannon has had the creator of this project, Dan Schultz, on his War Room podcast several times. He's endorsed this project. Donald Trump has written a letter in support of the precinct strategy. So really the first victim of this whole campaign has been the traditional Republican party.

Ken Harbaugh:

We had Pat Ryan on, who talked about the guardrails of democracy coming back to check these extremist impulses. He, of course, won the special election in the New York 19th against the prognostications of the pollsters. And the theory is that there is some resilience in our democracy that we sometimes don't see when the extremists go too far. Do you think his election is a portent or an anomaly?

Anne Nelson:

Well, we have so many wild cards coming into the scene right now, and one of them was the Dobbs ruling of the Supreme Court. So when they overturned Roe versus Wade and gave the state's power over abortion, it did prompt a reaction among women, especially those in the age group who were most affected. So what you're seeing is a real spike in voter registration among these women under 35. And the polling that I'm seeing says that in the past, these newly registered women used to rate five points in favor of the Democrats, and now it's 20. So you're going to have this wave of women who were very significant in the Kansas election around abortion last month, and I believe that they were also a factor in New York 19 as well as the Alaska primary. So again, you have the Council for National Policy and their organizations like the Family Research Council and Susan B. Anthony pushing people to vote against abortion for decades, and those voters may be tapped out. The question is whether this wave of voters who now come into the scene, opposing these draconian laws on abortion that are truly horrific. Whether they are going to be enough of a difference, and the early suggestions such as New York, Alaska, and Kansas, is that yes, maybe because those are three very different state.

Ken Harbaugh:

For the CNP and the others whose interests are economically-driven, but are cynically using the culture war foot soldiers to take over legislatures, is this potentially a case of the dog catching the car? Do you see any reservations or second thoughts amongst the folks that you research about this as you put it, unholy alliance with the culture warriors?

Anne Nelson:

I will say that the Council for National Policy had people who were heavily involved in organizing the January 6th protest. Charlie Kirk of Turning Point USA publicized it, and his organization sent buses of participants. Ginni Thomas, who is a member, publicized it in advance. Jenny Beth Martin from Tea Party Patriots was present with Simone Gold, a doctor who has been the point person for their COVID disinformation campaign, and she was present in the rotunda and is currently in federal prison as a result. So they were obviously planning to organize something. This is my opinion, so take it for what it's worth: I don't think they meant for the invasion to be that violent. I don't think they meant for people to get killed. I think that it's quite possible that these aligned forces who are connected to QAnon and some of the Pentecostal, more fringe churches and the militias, came into the event and perhaps took it over. I would bet good money that the Council for National Policy did not want Mike Pence to be hung, for example. He's now a dues-paying member, so that wouldn't make sense. But the problem is that once you align yourself and agitate a mob, you don't always control it.

Ken Harbaugh:

I guess that's my larger point is the mob getting out of control. And I don't just mean the literal January 6th mob, I mean the metaphorical mobs in these state legislatures that are passing these insane abortion restrictions. I'm betting the CNP didn't see that coming, or if they did, they certainly didn't anticipate the backlash that they're about to receive.

Anne Nelson:

I don't think they anticipated the backlash. When you create an information silo with your own media, you do tend to respond to your own echo chamber. But I will say that I've researched these groups and Tony Perkins, who is the former president of the Council for National Policy and has headed the Family Research Council for a long time, published a blog post against the morning after pill. And that isn't even an abortion. That is something that prevents conception. So if he's condemning that, then that's already a very extreme position. Again, if he's against something that's not even an abortion. So I guess what I'm saying is that they are not highly informed about the medical dimensions of abortion policy. And that characteristic is shared by some of these legislators who are now appearing in video saying, Oh, I didn't realize that I was condemning a woman with ectopic pregnancy to death. Well, you didn't do any homework. You didn't talk to any doctors, and you have to live with what you've done because there will be women who will be holding you accountable for this legislation.

Ken Harbaugh:

Long term, it seems like this strategy of mobilizing the religious right, it's doomed to fail if you assume that our democratic instincts prevail and that the people who get the most votes win. Are the leaders in the CNP looking to that future, or are they imagining one in which our democratic systems don't prevail and they still retain power?

Anne Nelson:

Well, Ken, that question is based on a false premise. As Hillary Clinton's candidacy proved, our political system is not governed by the most votes. It's not democratic. You can get the most votes and still lose if you have people who really know how to manipulate the electoral college, which these people do.

Ken Harbaugh:

So that's what I want you to speak to. The real threat isn't the conversion of a large section of the public to this way of thinking, it's the radicalization of an intent enough minority that will take over the democratic process.

Anne Nelson:

The battle's being fought on many different fronts right now. And sometimes in my mind, I try to imagine a military map of what this conflict looks like. And I don't think it's an exaggeration to call it an early stage of a civil war, because it's becoming more violent. But again, the different fronts are not just the electoral fronts. If you take control of state legislatures and other institutions on a state level, you can gerrymander your way into a majority when you have a minority vote. And that's going on in Texas, that's going on in various other states. So the gerrymandering has been a very powerful instrument for them, and it has nothing to do with democracy. It's all manipulation.

Another plan that they've been announcing is that if they have enough states and they're almost there, they can have a constitutional convention and change the US Constitution to their liking. That has nothing to do with democracy because it's not based on population. So what we have is a national divide where we have heavily democratic population centers on the coast and in major cities. What you have are these peninsulas and islands of blue in a sea of red. And because the framers of our government in the 18th century awarded representation to land mass, to the disadvantage of people, they can manipulate these structures. And so that's why to respond to this effectively, you need people running for office who are committed to the democratic process. And I'm talking about everything from school board to precinct chairman to state legislature, all those boring offices that most people don't want to attend to. And most people don't want to pay attention to them or invest in them because the people on the coast and the cities like the glamor of the presidential contests and the Senate. So they've neglected their state legislatures and allowed these radical right Republicans to just railroad their way in to power.

So yeah, that's how I see it. If you wanted more democratic representation, the Council for National Policy and their supporters understand they've lost the demographics of the United States. The United States is becoming more tolerant of LGBT people. It is becoming younger. It is becoming more racially, ethnically, and religiously mixed. And the vast majority of Americans are fine with that. So they're in a race against time, and it really goes up until November, the midterms. If they don't win the House of Representatives and the targeted state legislatures, their project is in danger of dying. That's why they're going for broke right now.

Ken Harbaugh:

Say more about that. Why does it fail after this election? Don't they have plenty of inertia to carry on? They've lost past elections and survived and come out stronger. What is so critical about this one?

Anne Nelson:

Oh, the prosecutions. Because we have the wheels of justice turning however slowly, but they are turning. So you have the Council for National Policies election law expert Cleta Mitchell, heavily involved in Donald Trump's efforts to steal the election back. You've got various other individuals who are high ranking Council for National Policy members who are implicated in various ways. So the scenario is that if the Democrats hold the House of Representatives and the Senate, they pass a lot of legislation that supports the Biden Administration and positions the Democrats for 2024, and they proceed with the January 6th committee and the investigations, which may well lead to prosecutions. If they lose the House of Representatives, you flip it. And the Republicans have already said that if they take the House of Representatives, they're going to impeach Biden and Kamala Harris, and it will be a nonsense impeachment, but it will grab all the air time and really halt the budgetary process and other things that help the government to function on behalf of the citizens. If they take the House and the Senate, which is not as likely, they can prevent Biden from appointing more federal judges, and they can continue to appoint people like Judge Eileen Cannon in Florida, who is Trump's own personal judge who basically lets him write the rulings. We could have the rest of the federal judiciary populated with people like this. So Ken, the premise of American government is checks and balances based on the three branches of government, the legislative, the executive, and the judiciary. Trump already made big inroads into stacking the federal judiciary with his people as illustrated in Florida. If they win Congress, they hold the legislative branch. And if they win in 2024 through whatever means they'll hold all three. And at that point, in terms of democracy, it's game over.

Ken Harbaugh:

Well that's bad enough, but the way you describe it seems almost anarchic. You're talking about a party that is going to hold hearings and run an impeachment scam in total defiance of any legal or institutional norms. And that surely that state of anarchy and government and disarray surely can't be what the establishment figures at the CNP want. So paint for us the picture of what happens in 10 years if they get their way or if they lose control of these various mobs, the ones with actual pitchforks and then the legislative mob that doesn't care about governing. What's the future look like?

Anne Nelson:

Well, I don't know that it would look like anarchy. I have written two previous books about the resistance in Nazi era Berlin and in occupied France. And I think that when you go to an authoritarian model, you increase the police and intelligence and military forces and limit freedom of expression, freedom of the press, basically hog tie your political opposition. So you don't have anarchy, you have autocracy. And in the Orwellian sense in the same way second amendment freedom means you can, a mentally unstable person can take an AR 15 and kill elementary school children. That's called freedom. They'll say that economic freedom is closing public schools and eliminating public health programs and just kind of convert ... Some economists call it the Brazilianization of America, where you have a few incredibly wealthy oligarchs who control the lives of the little people who serve them. And Ken, I'm afraid you and I would be the little people.

Ken Harbaugh:

Yeah. Well, give us some hope to close us out here. I'm an eternal optimist, and I believe elections matter, even though we have anti-democratic institutions and biases built into our system. What can we do between now and November and beyond that, 2024, to begin to right the ship?

Anne Nelson:

Oh, there is hope. There's more hope right now than there was even a few months ago because the numbers on the midterm races were very much stacked in the Republicans' favor, even as of the early summer. But the January 6th committee has made a dent. There are a lot of people who are traditional Republicans who say, "Wait a minute, I'm for law and order, and January 6th did not represent my concept of law and order. You don't attack policemen." So that has had an effect. I believe that the documents that Donald Trump held at Mar-a-Lago and the revelations that are continuing to come out about those will affect others.

So for example, I would guess that military veterans would look at his behavior with classified documents and say, "That's not okay. That's not the behavior we would expect from our commander in chief." You have the voting blocks of women, so already you have a number of races and if anybody wants to follow these closely, you can look at Larry Sabato's website at the University of Virginia, the Crystal Ball, where various races are moving from toss up to leaning democratic. In terms of what people can do, people who are wanting to defend democracy need to get out of their own bubbles. And by that I mean that if they're hyper local and they're on the East Coast or the West Coast or a big city, they need to look beyond their own environment to these states and these congressional districts and these state legislatures where a lot of the game will be determined.

So I laugh because I live in New York City, which is going to vote democratic no matter what, and people pour money into various campaigns and it's like, well, coal to Newcastle. People should be looking at these very good organizations that are analyzing close races in critical states like Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and Arizona, and putting their efforts and their support to races that are going to be definitive, according to the way the game is defined now. Get rid of the wishful thinking already, and this is a moment when Americans have a chance to defend democracy without going to war for it, which conflict is horrible. Physical violence is horrible. We can solve this at the voting booths if we so choose.

Ken Harbaugh:

Couldn't agree more. As always, Anne, it's amazing talking to you. Thanks for sharing your insights, and we'd love to have you back. Hopefully it doesn't take another year.

Anne Nelson:

Well, it's going to be an exciting fall, so stay tuned

Ken Harbaugh:

Indeed. Thanks, Anne.

Anne Nelson:

Thanks.

Ken Harbaugh:

Thanks again to Anne for joining me. If you haven’t already, check out her book Shadow Network: Media, Money, and the Secret Hub of the Radical Right. The link is in the show description.

Thanks for listening to Burn the Boats. If you have any feedback, please email the team at [email protected]. We're always looking to improve the show.

For updates and more follow us on Twitter @team_harbaugh. And if you enjoyed this episode, don't forget to rate and review.

Burn the Boats is a production of Evergreen Podcasts. Our producer is Declan Rohrs, and Sean Rule-Hoffman is our audio engineer. Special thanks to evergreen executive producers, Joan Andrews, Michael DeAloia, and David Moss. I'm Ken Harbaugh, and this is Burn the Boats, a podcast about big decisions.

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