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Burn the Boats is an award-winning podcast featuring intimate conversations with change-makers from every walk of life. Host Ken Harbaugh interviews politicians, authors, activists, and others about the most important issues of our time.

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Fred Wellman: What’s Next for Democracy?

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Fred Wellman: What’s Next for Democracy?

Fred Wellman is a Senior Advisor to Voters of Tomorrow, an organization dedicated to building political power for Gen-Z. He’s also an Army combat veteran, a West Point and Harvard graduate, a former republican, the former Executive Director of the Lincoln Project, and the host of the podcast On Democracy.

Fred was on the show back in 2021, and you can find that interview here.

Fred Wellman:

This concealed carry law in Florida. Now, we got more people, all fantasizing to be the guy who's there that day at 7-Eleven, when that kid comes in to rob the place, he takes out the bad guy. It shouldn't be a human fantasy. Murder should not be a human fantasy. And our society is in danger when so many amongst us have a desire to kill, and the tools are readily available.

Ken Harbaugh:

I'm Ken Harbaugh, and this is Burn the Boats, a podcast about big decisions. My guest today is Fred Wellman, a democracy advocate and army combat vet, who now serves as senior advisor for Voters Tomorrow. He also hosts the On Democracy Podcast.

Fred, great to have you back.

Fred Wellman:

Hey, Ken. Good to see you, bro. It's been too long.

Ken Harbaugh:

You too. I got to say, I really miss your old Twitter bio, the one that had the line, “West Point and Harvard, but truly educated in Iraq.” Do you know the one I'm talking about?

Fred Wellman:

That's right, yeah, I've heard that. Yeah. No kidding. That's a while ago, now.

Ken Harbaugh:

How is the new Twitter treating you because it's not the same place?

Fred Wellman:

Well, for a while there I went way back. Like I lost a bunch of followers, and I wasn't with the cool kids, nothing.

And then for some reason, about a month ago it started picking back up again for me. I don't know why, I can't explain it, but suddenly I was back in the business again and doing well. And I stuck with it. We'll see what happens.

But I've built a following there for 13 years, and I'm not ready to quit yet.

Ken Harbaugh:

It is a bit of a hellscape, and I am always on the fence about do I participate in this or not? But if it advances the work of preserving and defending democracy, I'll stay while I can.

Fred Wellman:

That’s the thing. And I'm very generous with the block button. I get the usual shit from people for my past work, if you will. But I've got an audience there. I'm able to engage with people. I'm able to jab with people and joust with people I want to joust with and have ideas.

It is what it is. Not that I have to say I haven't built up my other platforms, but that's still where I have my most fun.

Ken Harbaugh:

On the subject of democracy, you've got this great podcast on democracy, and it's your calling. I'm talking about the larger sum of all your advocacy work.

I am looking at our political landscape today, and I have this nagging worry about … we all have this worry about the strength of American democracy in particular.

But on the heels of this epic win in Wisconsin, where we had a Supreme Court Justice who believes in the rule of law, who believes in civil rights and women's rights in particular, she won the day. And now you have the Republican dominated state legislature talking about impeachment.

It makes me wonder if we're putting too much faith in the power of voters when a minoritarian system like in Wisconsin, can overrule what they want. You have minoritarian rule cemented by gerrymandering and voter suppression, and no wonder voters get frustrated. Right?

Fred Wellman:

There you go. And I live in Missouri. It's another majority Republican, super majority state. They do whatever they want. They pass whatever laws they want, for the most part, the Democrats tend to fight a pretty good rear battle. We have found by splitting their caucus, because they're caucus is completely united. It is what it is.

Now, will they do these things? There's a lot of talk. They tend to talk a lot. They tend to say they're going to do things. You have to have a justification for any of these things.

But you look down in Tennessee and you see the same thing, right? Three reps are talking about being expelled from the House of Representatives of Tennessee. They have not expelled anyone from the House of the representatives in Tennessee since the Civil War.

And because these three representatives spoke out, supported these gun protestors, now they're being threatened with it.

So, we do have a movement, I believe, at the state level of Republicans who are in these majorities, who are using the power government to be ruthless. Some would call that, I don't know, fascism. If you know the elements of authoritarianism, they're using those elements.

Now, there's ways to become pressure. But you're right, it is hard not to be discouraged saying, well vote, you got to vote, voting will save us. And then you turn around and see stuff like that.

There is also my belief, and I've talked about it quite a bit in the last few months about we had to fight everywhere. And so, I did tease in my show today. As a matter of fact, I live in Missouri. We just had local elections for school boards.

We did really well, actually, it was the folks on the right side of this, the common sense folks learned their lessons from the last time we did just … it's every year here, a few school boards, and they ran like tickets of candidates. They did a lot of support for these candidates. They did a lot of grassroots work. They did that social media effort, the takes on a local election, if the local elections are fought on Facebook, believe it or not, and they prevailed.

So, I think it's easy to get discouraged. I tell people all the time, it's easy to get discouraged, easy to believe that we're losing this battle. But I also kind of want to take a minute, take a victory, and go on to the next fight.

I think they'll have their hands full if the first thing they try to do is impeach someone without any basis or merit for it. So, we'll see. The thing is, for a slim majority, they do have to get everybody. And what stopped us here in Missouri is the ability of the minority caucus to be able to kind of split them up a little bit and pressure them. And I hope they'll do the same thing in Wisconsin, so they won't have this lockstep business.

Ken Harbaugh:

Yeah, me too. I don't get discouraged. I'm doing this every chance I get, but I do want to be realistic. And when you talk about those Republican super majorities, you're talking about legislative super majorities.

Often the existent states that are more or less split. In Ohio, Ohio's only slightly red if you look at voter behavior. But our state house is blood red. It's disgusting the way gerrymandering and voter suppression has entrenched these super majorities, or in some states like Wisconsin entrenched minorities who actually don't reflect the will of the majority of voters of those states.

And I want to be sympathetic for those who get discouraged about the power of democracy. But I want to convince people, and I know you're in the same trench with me, that the only way to change this is to vote in such overwhelming numbers. And like those kids in Nashville, to show up, demand accountability so that their tactics at least suffer from the glare of the public spotlight.

Fred Wellman:

Well, that's it. We have to show up and you have to turn out and that really is the key. Here in Missouri, 40% of the state legislature, 40% of the Republicans ran unopposed. If we seed this ground, if we continuously seed ground, don't get in the fight, even if it means we might lose, we just keep on losing.

And we have to create more Democrats in this case. And here in Missouri, we need about 70,000 more Democrats. Where are those going to come from? They're going to come from the youth, they're going to come from people who are discouraged like us with the Republican Party and what it's become.

But you have to actually seek them. You have to actually find ways to talk to them and drag them out and find the issues they care about.

We're fighting abortion in works, believe it or not. Women believe is one of those issues that crosses party lines. And that's one you can't … the common sense measures we need for safety.

Even guns, there are things we agree on. 93% or 94% of Americans believe that expanded backgrounds checks is just a common sense change. And you look down in Florida where DeSantis got rid of their concealed — their permitting process worked just fine.

No one asked to get rid of their permitting process. And DeSantis and his rubber stamp legislature just passed law to expand concealed carriers. And everybody's packing in Florida.

Now again, if we come to the table, show our cards and open the tent up and make sure we're fighting for these things.

But it's something I say quite a bit, that the cultural wars as they're accused of being are real wars out here in red states where we live. The states where they're controlling. Even a purple state with a red legislature, they have gerrymandered it. So, they've got control.

But people's lives are at risk. Women's healthcare is at risk. Our LGBTQ community is at risk of suicide, increased suicide. Our kids' educations are at risk because they're defunding schools.

So, there really isn't much choice but to do the work, to create more people on our side, and then turn them out. Because in the end, you said something key. If we don't show up, we don't win. And when we're seeing the record number turn out, in spite of the suppression laws, we win.

So, get them the fuck out, man. Get them, get them to vote. And when they do, here we are.

Ken Harbaugh:

I don't know if you saw the lines to vote on college campuses in Wisconsin.

Fred Wellman:

Yep.

Ken Harbaugh:

But it gave me such incredible hope. Before this particular election, I kept revisiting Ezra Klein's ideas about the democracy doom loop, which predicts that the less responsive government becomes, because it is so gerrymandered and entrenched by voter suppression and things like that, the more discouraged voters become, which means the less faith they have in the system, the less often they vote. And it just becomes a vicious cycle.

I don't think that's going to take hold. It didn't take hold in Wisconsin primarily because of so many young people who are saying the only way to change this is to show up. Young people and others who advocated and rallied and organized, so much organizing done by particular communities there in Wisconsin to-

Fred Wellman:

And the grassroots, this is all grassroots. That's why I like working with Voters of Tomorrow. I love what they're doing with the Gen Z, understanding how this Gen Z, how it works. I've had a couple great conversations. I had Santiago Mayer on my show. I've become good friends with John Della Volpe from the Institute of Politics at Harvard.

John's done nothing but study this generation and millennial generation for over 25 years. And he knows intimately what drives these guys. And they are driven differently.

The Gen Z voters are driven by, they're much more aware of the culture issues that affect all of them. They go to the voting booth saying, “I'm voting because my mom’s losing her rights. My sister is losing rights.”

And that sister may not be related. That sister may be a sister who just lives in another state. And they feel this connectedness much more than our generations have in the past.

You remember when we were kids, your community was your community. I live in Kirkwood, Missouri growing up. It was where I could ride my bike. It was the high school I went to, that was my community.

This generation grew up wired differently, literally wired differently. Their community is the larger community of people who look like them across the country. People who have shared experiences like they do across the country.

And I take great hope in that. It's a demographic time bomb. As somebody described it today, I saw that the Republicans were facing as this generation grows and is sick of the bullshit. And I think, the job of people like us is to help them do that. Help them organize and provide them whatever kind of mentorship we can do as they take on this fight and grow into a generation with real power.

You see what Maxwell Frost is doing. I mean, I just love watching the guy in action. He's brilliant. He knows what he is doing. He's doing a great job. And that's really exciting for me. So yeah, I think there's real hope there. I think we could really find hope in this next generation and all guys like you and I could do is get the fuck out of their way.

Ken Harbaugh:

I'm so glad you are calling us out, you and me, because I am fully aware that this is a show with two old white guys talking about Gen Z.

Fred Wellman:

Exactly. Hey, I got to tell you, Santiago Mayer and I were on the phone. He's the head of Voters of Tomorrow. And we were on the phone the other day and I was telling him about how I'm going to Odesza concert. I'm going to two Odesza concerts, which is an electronic band. And I'm a big follower.

I am not the oldest person that goes to their concerts, but Santiago always jokes that he wants to send me an honorary Gen Z member certificate because I'm more read in on modern electronic music than he is. So, I guess that comes with growing up with people of this generation and raising a few of them myself and now living with them.

But it’s — I had such great respect for them, and I saw the change again, seeing my own kids grow up and seeing my daughter sitting in a sandbox. Look, and it struck me that we lived on a military base. It's a very diverse community, as you know. The military is very diverse.

They didn't care. They didn't know who anybody was. They didn't know there was black or brown, or in the military world they didn't know enlisted versus officer. It was just this really nice kid, they were playing in the sandbox, and they're good friends.

And I just saw my role was to not let them change their mind about that. That my role as a white guy who grew up in Missouri, parents who survived the depression and have a very different worldview than I did in many ways because of that, my job was to make sure my daughter and my son’s daughters and sons never deviated from the belief they had as a small child, that we’re all created equal.

And that if we're a different color or a different sexual orientation or whatever, that didn't matter. We're still just people. And you and I are raising children, the worst thing we do is raise our children to share our beliefs sometimes.

And I'm proud, I think in a lot of ways my kids tease me because they made me a liberal. And it's hard not to argue that that's true. I saw them, I saw the struggles they have. I see the struggles my daughter has in healthcare. I see my son's struggles with getting the education he deserves.

And so, I've kind of made it a lifetime mission to not let their beautiful belief in our society be damaged by me telling them it's not the way they think it is.

Ken Harbaugh:

I think the first time you and I met you were a Republican, if not a Conservative. This was probably the mid-2000s.

Fred Wellman:

Yep.

Ken Harbaugh:

Hopefully nobody does the research on what I'm about to say. But this was the mission continues era. And you were just getting off the ground. I think that's when we met. What flipped the switch for you? Was it-

Fred Wellman:

2011.

Ken Harbaugh:

2011. What happened?

Fred Wellman:

Yeah. Well, for me, the switch … and it's funny you asked that question because I actually had the conversation with my ex-wife and I said, “When did I become such a liberal?” And she's like, “You always were, it just that you fit within the Republican Party.”

Look, I ran for Mayor Peachtree City, Georgia in 2000. This is a little Fred fact. I got in the army after 13 years, joined the Reserves in Atlanta, was living at Peachtree City of Georgia, got a wild to run for mayor.

And I was running for mayor. And that then was the Republican stronghold of all of Georgia, by the way. And they were checking me out and inviting me in. Because it's a nonpartisan race in Georgia.

But I remember distinctly, if the issue of LGBT rights came up, I don't care who you sleep, I don't care who you love, that's none of my damn business. I didn't care about getting into people's marriages.

Abortion, I've always been a supporter of the right to abortion, the right to women's healthcare. Again, none of my business.

I was a defense hawk, if you will. I believe it needed a strong national defense. My version of fiscal conservative was the idea — and this is an old school version, the idea that I should pay taxes, but if I do pay taxes, the government should spend them for the greater good and not on ridiculous things.

But the greater good means strong defenses. It means good roads. It means health and welfare, social net that rises all Americans up equally.

Those are … at the time we're conservative. But now I sound like a freaking flame and liberal, right? And so, what you saw was a movement.

And then I did truly change. I did truly see the arc of it where I saw my LGBT family members and what they were going through. I saw the healthcare and the challenge to get decent healthcare. And somewhere along the line, I just started kind of fading away.

And then of course, the Republican party, everything humanly impossible would get rid of me. People think it was Trump. But even before Trump, the Republican party was doing everything they could to get rid of me as a person who wasn't staunchly Christian, staunchly conservative, certain way of thinking.

And then of course, Trump came down the golden escalator. And I tell a story often, Ken, I don’t know if I've told to you, but for me, the final straw for all of it was when he talked about how he likes people that weren't captured, and as you said, we were both in the veteran's community, you were a veteran's advocate. And like I was, and what struck me to be very honest brother, was how our own community wasn't upset.

That large swaths of the veteran community accepted this man, this vulgar man because he had the right letter next to his name and in many ways he had to — I don’t know if you remember. You might not remember, but he was welcomed at the Rolling Thunder in 2015.

Ken Harbaugh:

Right afterwards.

Fred Wellman:

Right afterwards.

Ken Harbaugh:

Right afterwards.

Fred Wellman:

He was the speaker of honor-

Ken Harbaugh:

In DC, yeah.

Fred Wellman:

In DC, he was the speaker of honor at the Lincoln Memorial. They put him on a podium for him after he said he didn't like people who were captured. The whole fucking existence of Rolling Thunder was to honor POWs and MIAs. And a guy who said, I don't like people who get captured, was their honored guest.

And nothing to me crystallizes the disconnect of our community we worked in with the politics of the day and accepting a man who literally pissed on us, pissed on the memory of our fellow service members, pissed on those who were captured serving their country and then was honored.

And Rolling Thunder went away, if you remember, they went out of business, I think a AMVETS took them over because a lot of their corporate sponsors were like, see ya.

But yeah, so my arc, I was considered a Conservative. I laugh because you'll appreciate it. When one of my first employees came work for me in 2011 or 2012, Paul Rieckhoff at the IAVA reached out to us and said, “How can you work for that right-wing nutjob?”

And now he calls himself an independent, and I'm a flaming liberal. But I think the circumstances, our time have changed. And I say it often I didn't leave the Republican party, the Republican Party left me. And where I was able to be a centrist, if you will, and find a home there, I did.

And I also think for the final thing I'll say on that, and you'll appreciate this as a veteran as well, there was a cultural pressure to not be a lib. Like there was a culture of pressure. Just go along, be a good little Republican, and especially as an officer, I think, and I think I hang on that too long.

But I've certainly flipped in the last four years. I think even more so, my girlfriend's a former Republican as well. And she jokes often that I'm more of a flaming liberal now than she was ever. So, but people change. Old dogs, new stripes.

Ken Harbaugh:

Yeah. We had Paul Rieckhoff on a while back. I should get him back on the show, he’s always a great guest. What responsibility do vets who have seen the light and increasingly that's a positive story. I think for the first time in modern history in the 2020 election, a majority of active-duty personnel voted against a wartime Republican sitting commander-in-chief.

So, the arc is bending. But not quickly enough as given the behavior of today's Republican Party. What responsibility do we have, especially to call out our brothers and sisters in arms who either stray or people like Ron DeSantis who wore the uniform and aren't just misled into following Trump, but going all in and worshiping that altar. What role should we play?

Fred Wellman:

Well, I was very aggressive in that. I'm very proud of the fact that so many of our fellow service members and veterans left behind the Republican party of that election. That was actually the focus of my work at the Lincoln Project.

I was brought in by Steve Schmidt, specifically to run our veteran and military family members and military members pillar, community organizing with the idea being, if we could convince enough of that pillar of our community that supported Trump, the Trump base, to turn away to the tune of 4 or 6% of at least that that would, that would be part of it.

And we were very aggressive in that. People don't realize that I actually it was — I won't take all the credit. Kurt Burdella, my friend Kurt Bardella had the idea that … he came to me one day and said, “Hey, what do you think of running ads on military times and Stars and Stripes website against Trump?”

I'm like, “I love it.” Bold move. I'm not even sure it's legal, though, so God bless him. We looked it up and found out, yeah, you can run political ads on those sites. So, we actually ran anti-Trump ads on Military Times and on Stripes. People thought I was crazy. I got all kinds of hate mail.

And we were very selective in the ads we picked, we picked like our Sully Sullenberger ad where you have somebody like an icon, a veteran airline pilot who turned away from this, who said, this is unacceptable. He should not be commander-in-chief.

The Vinmand ad, which I thought was a powerful ad where we brought Rachel and Alex Vinmand in, and I actually co-wrote that ad. And the voice of my ad that I did wasn't Alex, we've seen Alex speak.

I wanted Rachel to talk about as a military spouse, what it was like to be attacked by the most powerful man in the world. She was just an army wife at the time when all that stuff started. And here she was having the hate mail sent to her.

Ken Harbaugh:

And they’re Republicans.

Fred Wellman:

Yeah. They’re Republicans, they are. And so, I ran those ads very directly with the idea being, hey, you have to understand that this is not who we should be following, that as a commander-in-chief, he should not be the commander-in-chief, and you should not follow.

And then the horror to find out that so many of our peers were veterans and shockingly active-duty military participated in the insurrection on January 6th. They just arrested another navy sailor who went into the Capitol. Of course, an active-duty marine major from Quantico, made his way up there and pulled a cop off one of the doors. We have a problem.

Ken Harbaugh:

Yeah, we have a problem.

Fred Wellman:

We have a problem. And I know you're very involved in the — and I think you did a whole day of documentary on the topic. I think you've done the work; you've done the work on this.

So, I do believe that we who are out here and had the ability to use our voices, need to use those very powerfully to show our peers that this is not a movement you want to follow.

The danger in any authoritarian movement. Look Hitler didn't build those camps; Hitler didn’t invade Poland. That was loyal troops.

And so, it's everything we can do to ensure the momentum doesn't gain that these authoritarian movements are allowed to overwhelm the decent people of this country.

But yeah, I believe it's part of our duty. People ask me all the time, why do I keep doing this? I take a lot of flak. I've had a couple of jobs come and go. It definitely hurt my work when I was a veteran's advocate, when I was out so out so outspoken.

But I think the most important thing, I never want to be sitting there 20, 30 years from now when I'm on my deathbed thinking I should have done more. I'm not going to do that.

Ken Harbaugh:

Well, your work with the Lincoln project targeting vets and military communities was impactful on multiple levels. Obviously, it's not just a one for one because you're pulling votes away from Trump and delivering them to the …

But vets are also (and I think this is often overlooked), such a force multiplier in politics. They're one of the few demographic groups that still have significant influence over the years and in their communities. And if you flip one vet, you're probably flipping two or three other voters that you don't even know about.

Fred Wellman:

Yeah, no, you're right. And the community is so uniquely tight. It's a community that trust each other. And we saw this in our … I think, I'm sure you saw this in your veteran's work as an advocate where you're trying to deliver services to our veteran and military communities.

They want to hear from other veterans and our military community members. It's a trust network like few others. And so, you can convince those with the community to speak to each other and say, “Hey, this isn't a direction we want to go. That's a very powerful tool.”

And that was one of the reasons I did, like when I built my … it's kind of a funny story, Steve Schmidt, whom obviously I go way all back to 2005 with Steve. And when I first joined Lincoln Project, Steve said, “Hey, I need you to build us our own like council generals. Like I want like 10 or 15 generals who are going to really talk to the troops and move them.” I said, I'm not going to do that. I said, because believe it or not, first of all, everybody's got their own fucking list of generals.

But two, that's not the voice that is going to actually turn them — you have to understand the military community, it isn't a general talking down to them say, “Hey, you should do this. That works. Believe it or not, it's actually almost a negative.”

No, it was military spouses. It was the old veteran uncle, uncle Bob, the veteran. It was enlisted soldiers with experience. So, when I built my military veterans advisory council, I called it, it was very, very diverse. It was Jess Piper from Missouri who ended up running for office later.

It was gold star moms. It was blue star moms, like Jess. It was National Guard members. It was enlisted, it was officer, I had one general, and he kept quitting on me. Because the goal was, I wanted to create a committee and use their voices on town halls and use their voices and commercials to say, “Hey, we're one of you. If me a military spouse sees just how bad this person is and how bad they are for our community, then you should trust me.”

And I really believed in my heart that having a bunch of flag — like transmitting that, because let's be honest, that's what general officers do. They transmit, they hit the microphone and go, “I am important.” And they let go of it. They don't listen with …

To me, I felt very important that we reach all the way down to the very lowest levels of the community so that the community could talk to each other and have an impact. I don't try to claim credit. We did this, oh, we did this all by ourselves.

But I do believe that the approach of having the community have these conversations amongst themselves and hosting those conversations, I think is key. I think we just described grassroots move as period 101. I think that's grassroots 101.

It's you've got to have people from within your community talking to other people within their community to turn the tribe. And that was the approach I took with Lincoln. And frankly, I guess all my political work this day, I can do the same thing.

Ken Harbaugh:

Well, that's the grassroots piece. There's another element of it though when you're talking about someone, like, for example, Ron DeSantis running on his military record. It's going to take fellow vets to call his BS.

There's this recent one that infuriates me even more than Ron DeSantis parading around a flight line, like he's a top gun graduate. It's rep Andrew Clyde from Georgia, the guy Republican responsible for dealing the AR-15 lapel pins and-

Fred Wellman:

Pins. The pins, yeah.

Ken Harbaugh:

He bills himself as a combat vet. And there isn't a single thing in his military bio, not a single decoration that validates that. How do we as vets call out this kind of BS from high flyers, no pun intended, like Ron DeSantis to these manipulators like Andrew Clyde sharing their 15 pins because they claim to have fought in combat, which they didn’t.

Fred Wellman:

Yeah, I've been doing it for ages and there used to be a real robust community of like these fact checkers and what they call the stolen valor hunters. Unfortunately, a lot of them ended up being MAGA, that kind of ruined it.

But that's what you do. And I did it. Look what we did to J.R. Majewski. J.R. Majewski is a perfect example, that he came out-

Ken Harbaugh:

That’s a great example because this network and I was part of it, we went to the mat to take that guy down. Do you want to refresh people's memory on who this guy said he was?

Fred Wellman:

So, J.R. Majewski ran for Congress against in Ohio against Marcy, right?

Ken Harbaugh:

That's right.

Fred Wellman:

And his big claim to fame was that he was an Air force had combat veteran. He was going on these right-wing podcast about how he'd been down range or he'd been in Afghanistan.

Ken Harbaugh:

Couldn’t talk about it though, right?

Fred Wellman:

Couldn't talk about it. Yeah. Secret, secret location. And of course, some couple of us started asking questions because when you've been downrange, look, that's a clue right there. Anybody who says they can't talk about where they were is fucking lying. That's just a fucking lie, right?

Nothing's that secret, it just isn't. And so, we knew he was full of shit and then you look him up. So, somebody got hold of his DD214 it was a damn aircraft load. He wasn't a cargo loader, he was literally a passenger specialist for cargo. He wasn't even a stewardist for God's sake, he literally loaded people.

He took the manifest, got out on the airplane and got off. And he was based in cutter. He never touched, there's no proof whatsoever he even touched foot in Afghanistan. And so, we really went hard and the community did. The community went hard. We went really hard.

Hey, this is bull. You need to answer this. And put a lot of pressure on him to come up with the proof. He never had proof. He just kept going round and round and round and it threw him off. It threw him off his game.

His campaign ended up going completely off the rails. And he'd done such a job. There was so much evidence of him lying and not telling the truth. But yeah, he ended up losing pretty handily, thank God. And he should have won.

But, and now of course now she's being targeted. She's one of the Republicans targets because he should have won. And but that's a perfect example of how we do it. I think that is the answer, almost the gold standard.

Because this community for what it's worth … and I was delighted to see that even people on the right joined us in that one, Ken. Even our brothers and sisters on the right said, wait a minute, this is bullshit. There's just too much. We all have to agree on, again, it's one of the things we have to do for this next phase of our country. We're going to have to find the things we fucking agree on.

We agree. Most of us agree background checks are good. Most of us agree that lying about your military service is bad. And I think we can agree on that. If we can come together on those things. Say, look, I don't care what his political spectrum is. I don't care where he stands on it. If his guy's lying about his combat service or lying about his actual service for a gain, then he should pay a price for it.

And I'm thrilled that J.R. Majewski did. It was great. It was great to see a guy flail around and he never had answers. Same with Andrew Clyde, would — no proof. There's just so many nuances. The challenge that our community too is I like, I'll be honest with you, here's one that bogs me and you may disagree with me better apologize.

You know how people are always going after Tom Cotton for saying he as a ranger, okay. It's just like I'm a ranger. I'm a ranger qualified. What did I do? I went ranger school as an aviator. I been there for a divers and a ranger unit? Fuck no, I was an aviator, but I went to the damn school. I went to school so much. I liked to stay for an extra phase, because I washed out in Florida and I recycle Florida.

But he's a ranger. It's just this, oh well he is a ranger qualified. Well, this is the stuff that actually chases people out way Ken, I think when we, we all get so down in the weeds about these nuanced words. Well is he a ranger, is he a ranger qualified?

Who fucking cares? Literally, the army itself says if you get the tab, you're a ranger. That I think hurts us in the end when you've got real people like J.R. Majewski who have completely made up a story that is not factually based or is using it for serious gain.

I'm not necessarily sure that Tom Cotton gained a Senate seat by saying he was a ranger versus only being ranger qualified. I just don't think the grammar and litera gave two shits about the deuces in the word qualified versus not qualified as a ranger.

But we have people who are so blatantly using their military service to pad their resume and use it truly for gain. I think we have to come after them.

But yeah, I get beat up every time because I'm white ranger qualified. And I learned my lesson, my shit says ranger qualified on it, but the fact of the matter is only 3% of the entire the United States ever goes to ranger school at all. So, I'm not going to besmirch a guy who earned the tab.

Ken Harbaugh:

Got it. Well, I take it when it comes to someone like DeSantis, we have to be extra careful and extra vigilant. Because he's going to have a layer of defense around him that these clowns like Andrew Clyde do not, that the J.R. Majewskis do not.

So, we got to be buttoned up. I loved though seeing his, it wasn't his DD214, it was a fit rep that came out of a FOIA request that showed his collateral duty as not the urinalysis coordinator, but the assistant urinalysis coordinator.

Fred Wellman:

It’s the guy that puts the lid on the jar.

Ken Harbaugh:

Let's use that. Right?

Fred Wellman:

He puts the labels on the jar. It's just ridiculous. He's a lawyer. And what drives me crazy about his is when they try to show that he was some kind of badass with the Navy Seals when he was the lawyer.

Look, you and I know that the lawyer signed the … look you're assigned to the Navy Seal task force, you sat in a fucking fob, he never missed steak night. He never missed lobster night. He flip flopped his ass to the gym every day and he sat in an air conditioned trailer saying, “Don't blow up that mosque. Go ahead and blow up that mosque.” And they tried to spin like-

Ken Harbaugh:

That's what we can do. As veterans, that's the story that we can help clarify. Like he was not kicking indoors, he was not risking his life. He's going to tell you he was and he's lying.

Fred Wellman:

And for me, the red flag I've always seen, my favorite red flag for any veteran who claims service, combat service or some kind of heroic shit is where's the pictures? Because look, man, you and I both know service members take a lot of fucking pictures. Everything, man.

I did a story once. I wrote an article once talking about how basically military people are … combat veterans are basically just heavily armed tourists. You know that famous picture of the 3ID guys taking the bridge in Baghdad, they're undercover and they're getting ready to take the bridge. I guaran-fucking-tee to you, one of those guys is like, “Yo bro, let's take this bridge. Hold on. Yo. Taking a bridge.”

Because that's what we do. So, any service member, any combat veteran, I'm doing the air quote combat veteran who says, “Oh yeah, there's no pictures of my service, because it's super-secret.” That's fucking horse shit. Come on.

There's always pictures, there's metric shit tons of pictures. Don't you remember the Navy Seals doing like TikTok dances back in the day. Come on, give me a break.

So, that's your biggest fucking red flag when a guy can't, and that's Ron DeSantis. He's got one picture, allegedly, one picture of him allegedly down range. And he looks decidedly like he's not in actually a combat zone. He is actually in a training game.

So, that's a red flag. I'm sorry. Even if it's a picture you flip flopping to. Hell I got pictures of the Thanksgiving ice carving at the damn embassy. We all got pictures. So, when a combat veteran says, “I ain't got no pictures because I'm so super-secret,” you know he's full of shit because we take pictures of everything.

Ken Harbaugh:

I bet Ron DeSantis does have pictures. He just doesn't want to see in him. We had-

Fred Wellman:

Doesn't want to see him. That’s it.

Ken Harbaugh:

Doesn't want us to see him. We just had Brett Jones on the show. Great conversation.

Fred Wellman:

Oh yeah, I saw that.

Ken Harbaugh:

That openly gay Navy Seal really sticking it to Trump and this guy left the teams and went CIA covert ops after that. And he's got pictures of that. There's nothing more secret than that.

Fred Wellman:

That's why this is bullshit. Come on Ron. Where's the pictures? The pictures of him flip flopping to the damn gym. It's him at the pool. It's him at the fucking steak night taking … he sent pictures of the wife with a lobster. And by the way, circling back, there's nothing wrong with that, that that's still honorable service that. We all did that.

I went, one tour, I was getting shot at my helicopter next tour I was working in the green zone driving a fucking Bronco around, eating steak night. Actually, when you lived in the green zone, you knew which people had the best steak night. You what I mean? It's still honorable service.

The point being don't try to twist that to something it's not. You weren't a door kicker. There's nothing wrong and there's a distinctly thing on the right. Ken, it's like for some reason the right, you, you had to be a door kicker or you're nobody.

And I was like, I'm sorry, when only 1% of the mil of the American people serve in the military currently, when about 7% or less are actually veterans at this point, I don't give a fuck what you did when you were down range. You were down there.

And I'm telling you man, night before I got to my last tour of flying into Iraq, I get there, they put me in a hooch that first night, a temp hooch that first night. I get my third tour Iraq, my fourth combat tour. I get there and it smells like shit. It turns out the trailer next to mine was a smoking hole because that day it got hit by rocket for Sadr City.

So, I'm sorry if you were down range, there was no safe place. See, any one of us could have gotten smoked any minute. We had a guy get killed in the damn stair stepper for God's sake at the men’s sticky gym. A rocket came to the roof of the gym. We had a guy get taken out over on the airport, in the shower.

So, if you're down range, if you're in Iraq or Afghanistan, your life is in danger, period. Just going in the airport. So, there's nothing ignoble about having served in something that wasn't a door kicker job. And so, that's what I think makes me the craziest is like, look, you're a veteran, great.

J. R. Majewski, great. You served the honor. So what? You loaded fucking planes in cutter, that's fine. You did more than what 98% of America, is you actually stepped up and went. It just makes me crazy when we take these and have to turn them into more, I think it's a psychological break. It's just something fucking wrong with people I think.

Ken Harbaugh:

Well, I agree totally with that. It is a window into a fragile person's insecurities. And to have front runner or, I mean he's falling fast, but in the person of Ron DeSantis, would be front runner for the Republican nomination with that fragile of an ego, that should be-

Fred Wellman:

Yeah. Or with the top gun commercial, that fucking ridiculous commercial in the jet, which it may have been meant tongue in cheek. I don't know because he doesn't seem like a funny fucking guy. And J. R. Majewski, remember his first ad was him kicking down a door and taking his giant fat ass and running through the building in the smoke-filled room with an M4.

It's like, dude, you loaded airplanes in cutter. It's just these guys have to build themselves into something that work. I flew helicopters. Was I kicking the doors? No, hell no. I was flying to get good food. But I did it and lost some weight. But it just is what it is. It just yeah, it's that fragile ego.

But that's when you get in trouble. It's claiming to be more than you were. Taking what was perfectly honorable service and trying to make it more than it was. It's distinctly — you have to admit there's that misogyny streak of it. There's that toxic masculinity streak that runs through a lot of these people. Because they got to prove they're more masculine and more manly than everybody else is. Like, I don't know. I know women that could kick my ass and I have no problem admitting that.

Ken Harbaugh:

That toxic masculinity streak is really on a tear in the Republican Party today. I'm thinking about Josh Hawley's book that's coming out. Nobody should be lecturing anybody on masculinity. But this idea has really taken hold on the Republican Party, that manliness is a certain thing.

You know what, Dan Barkhuff, we both know who I had on, he put it best. He characterized the Republican view of manliness as wanting people to be afraid of you. And that is exactly the opposite of what a confident person seeks.

Fred Wellman:

Right, right, right. And my dad was in World War II. That's pretty fucking manly. And he was soft as they come. He had a good laugh. He had a soft body. He bought my mom's shoes, she loved shoes.

So, he had, she want shoes, I’ll get her shoes. Just quite confident in his manhood. And I assure you that as a marine war too, no one should ever question his masculinity in any way. And somewhere along the line, that intimidation factor.

And Dan, God, he's fucking brilliant. I love talking. We actually just talked today and that's why I loved working at Dan during the campaign, he's a brilliant man. He's a Navy Seal who went on to medical school.

And that's the thing, you can be all those things and how we define our masculinity, how we define these rules is unique. And it has taken a weird — I hear in Missouri, I think I posted my newsletter yesterday. We've got this weird toxic, that front seat truck bearded bro thing going on, like all of our state delegates on the Republican side are all growing out these beards and carrying guns.

And it's funny, there's one I love to drag Ben Baker, he's a state delegate here in Missouri. And this fucking guy ran with like Mr. Middle School dad with no beard. And the button up shirt and you know, his kid pictures. And then as soon as he gets an off seat, there's this fucking weird makeover. He got this giant beard and he's packing guns.

And I always like to drag them on Twitter. Every time you post a picture, like, isn't this you right here? It's just this weird toxic posting memes to drag their constituents. It's like, where did you get so lost? You think the service to your country means intimidating people or telling … it's a weird, weird thing.

And it's always funny. My favorite of all these stories is Charlotte Clymer. If you know Charlotte, so Charlotte, of course, transgender, served in the military as a dude, and the old guard and the infantry. She was an infantry leader.

And one of my favorite Twitter gotchas is when some guy goes, "Oh yeah, he probably knows more about you and the machine than you ever have.” And she just loves to go on there and list all of her different qualifications, machine guns.

And again, I assure you Charlotte is every bit the soldier probably, honestly, she saw more combat than I did as an infantry probably. And I just laugh because this conceit that you need to be a bearded bro, to be a manly man and to be a proper veteran. I get it all the time. It just cracks me up.

Ken Harbaugh:

We're laughing about it, but I am getting more and more afraid about the violent rhetoric coming from the top of the Republican Party from-

Fred Wellman:

And being echoed all at the bottom.

Ken Harbaugh:

Yeah. And let me be clear, I don't sugarcoat this. You and I at a time in our lives were men of violence. We joined willingly the most efficient fighting machine in the history of the world.

Fred Wellman:

Yes.

Ken Harbaugh:

But that violent tendency was constrained by our oaths, by our commanders, by the law itself. And the difference between that and today is it is completely unconstrained. It's not just unconstrained, it's fantasized about, it's celebrated.

There's this idea about violence as a solution that is totally unrooted in reality, and it's being promoted by people who I don't think have ever seen the aftermath of an engagement.

Fred Wellman:

No. And I say that a lot too, here's the thing, I don’t know about you, but amongst my peer group, what I have found is the most difficult people, the people doing the worst PTSD I've met are not generally people who killed someone, or excuse me, had someone killed or had violence struck against them.

Typically, the people I know with PTSD the most are ones who killed or were forced for a choice to possibly kill. Or the ethical dilemma we run into as many of us raised in the Judeo-Christian values of which, or whatever you want to call them, and the values of our community that all life is precious.

The people I know with the worst kind of PTSD are those who were forced to kill someone or someone they commanded. Like my situation, I admit freely as a survivor's guilt situation where two of my soldiers flew a mission where we argued over who would fly it. They flew the mission, they died.

And just think about that for a second. It's our nature as humans to think life is precious. And those of us who have had to make that choice of killing, and I made that choice. People like to drag me as a little softy pilot.

Well, as a scout pilot for Apache in Desert Storm, I assure you, we made the choice to end people's lives many times. And literally the choice of this is the vehicle. It's got four guys, take it out.

And it leaves you. Decent humans, real humans with a moral and ethical framework, they're built upon, carry the burden of taking another's life or a life being taken from them, from orders they gave very seriously.

It's why I always say that Kyle Rittenhouse is so deeply broken. A normal human would feel some remorse and guilt for having killed two other human beings. The fact that he celebrates it, and allows it to be celebrated, tells me very much about his psyche.

And so, those, like you said, circling back to the point you made, is these guys who fantasize about killing somebody, these guys who have this weird, perverse desire to use violence, to carry guns, call themselves sheep dogs, which is the most fucked up analogy they could possibly come up with, have never been in the situation, I believe, where they had to actually act on that and make the choice that a human who's lived a long life will have it ended at your hands, leaving a mother or father or daughter or wife, family because the choice we made to end that life.

So yeah, I have great disrespect for those who fantasize about it or celebrate those who murder. I think it's one of the things I hate so much about the Rittenhouse situation, where he's celebrated for having murdered people.

So yeah, I think you're right. I think these people who live these — it's very dangerous, by the way, because they are walking around, now like we just … back to what we talked about earlier, circling back this concealed carry law in Florida.

Now we got more people, they’re all fantasizing to be the guy who's there that day at 7-Eleven, when that kid comes in to rob the place he takes out the bad guy. It shouldn't be a human fantasy. Murder should not be a human fantasy. And our society is in danger when so many amongst us have a desire to kill and the tools are readily available.

Ken Harbaugh:

What is so glaringly absent from that sheep dog analogy is the sheep dog protects the sheep against the wool. You've got those three pieces of it is the absence of the shepherd. The person who is wise enough to know when to employ violence versus going straight to the trigger.

And I think there's an entire population of people who think that violence is the first resort, and you see it coming straight out of the mouth of people like Donald Trump. And if it hasn't already, it's going to get someone killed.

I don't know if you saw about the founder of the Tennessee Holler, who's done amazing work documenting corruption in Nashville, he's following these kids protests in the State Capitol, his house just today was shot up.

Fred Wellman:

Saw it.

Ken Harbaugh:

They don't know who did it, but bullets are flying because of this fantasization of violence.

Fred Wellman:

Yeah. And it is dangerous. And look, you studied a little bit of history. I used to have a thing called the Beer Hall Project, I guess stuff I had to still do. And the Beer Hall project, our focus of the Beer Hall Project when we had, it was the, the historic analogy of what happened with the Beer Hole Putsch in Germany in 1923, and then the following.

And the key that a lot of people will talk about the Beer Hall Putsch as a failure in many ways, but it wasn't, it’s what propelled Hitler to power all these years … to do it. Well, first of all, he was barely punished for it. His movement continued. But if you followed the Nazi history from there, they used violence, creating violence in the streets was part of their plan.

And they did the same thing in Italy with the fascist with Mussolini, which is, oh, we're going to fight the Bolsheviks and we're going to fight the communist. And they would have street fights.

And then they’d present themselves as the people who can stop the violence. Well, yeah. And so, violence is inherent in authoritarian power grabs. I think you've had Ruth Ben-Ghiat on, I know that I had Ruth on my show, and I've gotten to know her a couple times. I've had her on another activity I did once.

And she lays it all out for you that this is the system. These leaders encourage violence, and they will go, the violence will occur. You see where a Nazi, an actual Nazi tried to firebomb a church that was having a drag show.

Ken Harbaugh:

In Ohio.

Fred Wellman:

In Ohio. So, the violence is occurring whether or not we want to admit it and I see it, but this is what they want. They want these soft minded people to enact their dreams of violence. And then they could say, “Oh, see the violence, this is the system. We could protect you from that. We're going to save you from that.”

It's happened before. It can happen here. And I would argue, as you said, it is happening here and now we've got a nation awash in AR-15s just dying to shoot something. It's this very dangerous time.

What’s funny to me is looking back now, two years, how many people thought when Trump lost, that all this would just go away? And I think even people in power today whom I respect sort of had this belief that things will just go back to normal at some point. And I'm scared that there's people in power right now, who still think maybe normal might come back on its own. And it won't.

Ken Harbaugh:

It won't. We got to fight for it. Thank you so much for being in the trenches with us, Fred. We got to be vigilant.

Fred Wellman:

Yeah, man, it's a pleasure. I'm proud of the work you do. I'm glad you're doing well. It's exciting to see your success and if I can ever help any way, I'm always happy to help.

People could find me online anytime. I'm still on Twitter @FPWellman, so-

Ken Harbaugh:

Yes, you are. Yes, you are. And definitely worth it.

Fred Wellman:

Yes, I am.

Ken Harbaugh:

Thanks so much for joining us, Fred.

Fred Wellman:

Thanks, brother. It's good seeing you again.

Ken Harbaugh:

You too.

Thanks again to Fred for joining me.

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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