As in an antidemocratic fever dream of Ralph Reed, a slew of conservative Christians, white nationalists and QAnon followers are running for school boards across the nation.
Many are doing so as quietly as possible, not admitting to voters who they really are, but hiding behind anodyne campaign slogans for "parental rights" and "school accountability." Former Christian Coalition leader Reed, who spoke of duping voters in this way as far back as 1992, must be proud.
Some of these parents might be running independently, given the stresses experienced by both parents and children during the pandemic. But many of the school-board candidacies by conservatives appear to be coordinated, much in the same way that Republican bills (and, uh, fraudulent election documents) are written as templates and sent out to state legislators.
In some states, conservatives are asking that school board campaigns, against tradition and even current law, become more partisan, with candidates declaring their political affiliations. Tennessee has already passed such a law. Their thinking must be that in some red states, a candidate with no affiliation, or a D next to their name, won't do as well. As they reflexively do with every criticism, conservatives claim that liberals and progressives are the real stealth candidates. In this case, their I know what you are but what am I? schoolyard taunt is particularly fitting.
As Salon's Kathryn Joyce exclusively reports in a three-part series, Hillsdale College, a private Christian college in Michigan, is the center of the right-wing effort to undermine — they would likely say "rescue" or "transform" — America's public education system by creating charter schools all over the country which will be "classically based," with emphasis on teaching traditional Christian values and a bowdlerized American history to make every student proud. Speaking of Tennessee, Joyce notes that the Volunteer State has put in an order for 50 of the charter schools.
RELATED: Salon investigates: The war on public schools is being fought from Hillsdale College
Meanwhile, current school board members across the country continue to face harassment and even death threats from political and religious zealots, according to a recent special report from Reuters, which makes for some very disturbing reading (and listening).
But with stealthiness, that major Trumpist ploy is necessarily missing — claims beforehand that if their preferred candidates do not win, the elections are rigged, and claims afterward that voter fraud stole the election. (Oh, yes, or if the candidate actually prevailed, that he would have won even more bigly. I almost forgot that last one.)
In fact, Trump is so big on pre-stolen elections, he's got his minions around the country working to fix the next one and to make the United States a sham democracy.
With all the Russian dirty money trading hands in the West, you have to wonder how many Republicans are really working for their constituents.
The Republican poor loser's "If I don't win, the thing was rigged" is just a step away from the autocrat's "Vote for me. Or else." But, of course, many Republicans these days seem to have no problem with autocrats. With all the dirty money of Russian oligarchs trading hands in the West, one wonders how many Republicans in Congress are really working for their constituents. Think of how often, and in how many ways, they and their disgraced, twice-impeached president have heaped praise on Russian President Vladimir Putin. Recently, the former president admiringly said Putin's strategy in declaring parts of Ukraine independent was "genius" and saying it showed his "savvy" (while, as always, working in his unsubstantiated claims about the 2020 election having been rigged). Just the other day, he openly asked Putin — the man who is destroying the lives of Ukrainians and reducing their cities to rubble — to help him dig up dirt on the Bidens.
It's more uncomfortable to do this stuff now, but they're still shamelessly at it.
Still, maintaining your stealth status as a candidate for the school board keeps you from complaining like that, at least before the election, lest you reveal yourself. But the Christian right has long understood the value of a hidden agenda. In the aftermath of Bill Clinton's elecction in 1992, they set out furiously to take over the Republican Party, by putting up stealth candidates and flooding the precincts with voters to overwhelm their opposition.
In 1996, Reed, noting the importance of local control for the Christian right, wrote, "I would rather have a thousand school-board members than one president and no school board members." The fight then was to "save the country" by stopping the teaching of evolution and sex education and mandating school prayer. The battle lines drawn now by conservative political operatives and fundamentalist leadership are about mask mandates, critical race theory (well, American history in general) and gender identity.
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As Salon contributor Paul Rosenberg writes, in an excellent piece on the well-funded Astroturf movement in Colorado by Christian conservatives to take over school boards, "If secular liberals and progressives are to successfully fight back, they need to understand what they're up against."
Groups like Red Wine & Blue and Run for Something are stepping up to speak up and encourage people to run for school boards who don't have a hidden antidemocratic, religious or conspiracy-based partisan agenda.
But I wonder when it will happen: When will the first conservative loser of a school board election claim voter fraud? Will school districts have to go to the expense of conducting multiple recounts of the vote?
Perhaps even these stealth candidates understand that in the "full forensic audit" of the vote in Maricopa County, Arizona, pushed by Trump and the Arizona Republican Party, Biden garnered 99 additional votes, while Trump lost more than 261. In fact, the only instances of voter fraud that have turned up have been minuscule and have largely belonged to Republican voters. Most recently, Mark Meadows, Trump's former chief of staff, is under investigation in North Carolina for voter fraud.
Conservative candidates hiding their true intentions is just another form of voter fraud — or fraud against the voters — is it not? Many of them may be against masking to protect the public's health, but they're apparently quite happy to put on a mask to run for office.
Since the Republicans have long turned psychological projection into their modus operandi, given their re-energized claims that Democrats are pedophiles, why shouldn't we be worried about conservative Christian school board members being around our kids? After all, it has been conservative-leaning organizations like the Catholic Church and the Boy Scouts that have infamously been deeply embroiled in sexual abuse scandals.
Given the GOP's obsession with pedophilia, shouldn't we be worried about right-wing school board members being around our kids?
Indeed, given the GOP's remarkable history of this psychological projection, when senators the likes of Lindsey Graham, Josh Hawley and Ted Cruz confront Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson on being soft on child pornography — something even a contributing editor at the conservative National Review called "meritless to the point of demagoguery" — what, again, are we to think about them?
Our strength as a nation lies in our diversity and our diverse thought. Parents who want their children to get a religious education — that so-called "classical" education of what they consider "the good, the true and the beautiful" — certainly have the right to do that. The rest of us are happy with science, history, free speech and human rights. We enjoy the freedom to have our own conceptions of what is good, true and beautiful.
In short, those parents have no right to try to destroy public education in this country for the rest of us, who do not have any desire to live in a theocracy.
The main claim they point to, that the United States was founded as a Christian nation, is not true. As Garry Wills writes in his masterful "Head and Heart: A History of Christianity in America":
Almost all the framers of our government were Deists. Their influence was not, for a crucial period, countered by a strong Evangelical counterweight. This goes against a myth fondly held by modern Evangelicals — that America was founded in a time of deep religiosity and that this religious fervor has been cooling ever since. The truth is exactly the opposite.
As a one-time Presbyterian and a grandson of a minister, I do understand the appeal of religious belief and sometimes wish I could access it myself. But as an American I strongly say, God save us from the fervor of the religious right.
Just as a practical matter, look at how Russia was doing economically even before Putin's terror war on Ukraine. With a huge landmass and an abundance of natural resources, Russia nonetheless has a very limited economy, almost totally based on oil and natural gas, with massive side hustles in spewing disinformation, election interference, cyber-attacks and money laundering. If you want evidence of how America would fare under a Trumpian or a DeSantian white nationalist Christian autocracy masquerading as a democracy, look no further.
I have a note here that I should mention that we live in the best country that has ever existed on this planet. A country with a troubled history, yes, but even so, a great country. The note says, "Work that in, because it's true." And the main reason it is true is the separation of church and state. As Wills puts it: "Disestablishment was a stunning innovation. No other government had been launched without the protection of an official cult. This is the only original part of the Constitution."
And, yes, it all starts at school. Members of the Christian right say that they don't want children indoctrinated, but that is precisely what they want for their children, and yours.
None of this is about religion; it is about power. It should be noted here that in this country, most distinguished by its separation of church and state, we somehow find ourselves with a majority of conservative Catholics on the Supreme Court.
Getting back to the local stealth candidates, I say they ought to at least consider claiming voter fraud. A school board candidate in my town is emphasizing "Stop the Slide," in terms of academics, which seems a clever bit of signaling. In any case, crying "Stop the Steal" even at the local level would be consistent with the overarching political philosophy of today's GOP, who have proven themselves to be a bunch of losers, no matter what the election outcome.
Read more on the school board battles across the country: