In Tennessee, far-right groups flex newfound muscle
“Culture war” language enters local elections and national figures hold rallies for right wing causes
U.S. President Joe Biden delivers a primetime speech at Independence National Historical Park Sept. 1, 2022 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. President Biden spoke on “the continued battle for the Soul of the Nation.” (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)
This story is the final entry in a weeklong series.
Monday: A darker shade of red
Tuesday: Evolution of the Christian right in Tennessee
Wednesday: COVID-19 and controversy in Tennessee
Thursday: “Medical freedom” at the forefront of 2022 Tennessee elections
Independence Hall’s bricks were awash in red light, giving the president a red-and-shadow backdrop. A U.S. flag hung over his left shoulder, within camera-shot. A pair of U.S. Marines in dress uniform flanked Biden from a distance. In front of him, a well-dressed crowd listened.
“Too much of what’s happening in our country today is not normal. Donald Trump and the MAGA Republicans represent an extremism that threatens the very foundations of our republic,” Biden declared, before quickly pointing out that not all Republicans are extremists.
They promote authoritarian leaders, and they fan the flames of political violence that are a threat to our personal rights, to the pursuit of justice, to the rule of law, to the very soul of this country.
– President Joe Biden of supporters of former President Donald Trump
“MAGA Republicans do not respect the Constitution,” he said about a minute later. “They do not believe in the rule of law. They do not recognize the will of the people. They refuse to accept the results of a free election. And they’re working right now, as I speak, in state after state to give power to decide elections in America to partisans and cronies, empowering election-deniers to undermine democracy itself. MAGA forces are determined to take this country backwards — backwards to an America where there is no right to choose, no right to privacy, no right to contraception, no right to marry who you love.”
He wasn’t done.
“They promote authoritarian leaders, and they fan the flames of political violence that are a threat to our personal rights, to the pursuit of justice, to the rule of law, to the very soul of this country. They look at the mob that stormed the United States Capitol on January 6 — brutally attacking law enforcement — not as insurrectionists who placed a dagger at the throat of our democracy, but they look at them as patriots. And they see their MAGA failure to stop a peaceful transfer of power after the 2020 election as preparation for the 2022 and 2024 elections.”
The game wasn’t over. America hadn’t yet lost, Biden assured. But help was needed. He called on Americans to come together and stand for democracy.
Less than 24 hours later, Robin Steenman posted deridingly about the president and his speech in Moms for Liberty-Williamson County’s private Facebook group.
“Not sure the evil ones can control their actions much longer,” Charlotte Kelley wrote in a comment on the post. Kelley is a member of the Tennessee Republican party’s state executive committee. “Satan is powerful over them.”
It’s important to remember that far-right extremism in the U.S. exists on a spectrum. On one end it’s non-violent. On the other, quite the opposite.
A NPR/Ipsos poll published in Jan. 2022 reported that 64% of Americans who took part in the poll thought the country’s democracy was not only in a crisis, but that there was a risk of it failing. That same poll also found that 17% of respondents thought what had transpired at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, wasn’t an insurrection. And as for the 2020 presidential election, the poll showed that 35% of respondents didn’t accept that Trump had lost.
Later, on June 7, 2022, , the U.S. Department of Homeland Security issued a new periodic National Terrorism Advisory System Bulletin. It detailed how on online forums in which domestic violent extremist and conspiracy theory-related content are posted, the May 24, 2022, mass school shooting in tiny Uvalde, Texas, had been praised. Copycat mass shootings had been encouraged on these forums, per the bulletin. The bulletin also noted that the suspect in the May 14, 2022, mass shooting in Buffalo, New York, said he was motivated by white-nationalist conspiracy theories that are known as “great replacement” or “white genocide.” Also in the bulletin, it was assessed that there would likely be more calls for violence by domestic-violence extremists targeting democratic institutions, political candidates, party offices, election events and election workers as the U.S.’s 2022 midterm-election season got going.
There’s more. In late August 2022, a The Economist/YouGov poll reported that 62 percent of respondents thought political violence in the U.S. would increase during the next few years, while 43 percent of people believed civil war in the U.S. was very likely or somewhat likely to happen within the next 10 years.
And on Oct. 28, 2022 just days before the midterm elections, a far-right extremist broke into the California home of then-U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, though he didn’t know Pelosi wasn’t there at the time. He attacked her elderly husband and wanted to hold Pelosi herself hostage and potentially break her kneecaps, according to the suspect’s interview by the San Francisco Police Department that was detailed in a federal criminal complaint.
The suspect told SFPD that he thought Pelosi was the “leader of the pack” when it came to what the suspect thought were lies told by the Democratic party. Eight days after the attempted kidnapping, on Nov. 5, protestors gathered in Joliet, Illinois; Biden was going to give a speech there that day. Some protestors had flags. Others, signs. One person held a yellow sign with the words “WHERE’S NANCY” handwritten in dark ink and all-capital letters. That question echoed what was said by at least one far-right extremist during the Jan. 6 Capitol insurrection and what was said by the suspect in the attempted kidnapping of Pelosi in California.
Fear-based, culture-war language in local elections
A few minutes before 12:45 p.m. on May 11, 2022, a Wednesday, Elizabeth Madeira was behind the wheel of her red 2008 Honda Civic; its air conditioning was struggling to fight the nearly 90-degree heat. The 38-year-old’s long, dark hair was up in a messy bun. Gray plastic glasses framed her brown eyes. She was headed to Brentwood, a nearby city in Williamson County, to pick up one of her kids from preschool.
Williamson County had recently held its county primary elections, and was less than three months away from its Aug. 4 general election for county positions. As she continued to drive, Madeira said she had a lot of thoughts about how the county primary elections had played out. However, she was clearly being careful about which she wanted to share.
“To me, it’s really disappointing how much some people running for elected office are not aware of the role that a school board member or a county commissioner plays, and, instead, just spews fear-based, culture-war language in their messaging to try to win votes,” she said.
In the general election on Aug. 4, Williamson Families — a self-described conservative, Judeo-Christian political action committee — would have five candidates win seats on the 24-seat county commission. Just two Williamson Families-backed candidates won seats on Williamson County Schools’ school board.
To me, it’s really disappointing how much some people running for elected office are not aware of the role that a school board member or a county commissioner plays, and, instead, just spews fear-based, culture-war language in their messaging to try to win votes.
– Elizabeth Madeira, former Democratic state House candidate
Also on Aug. 4, incumbent Jack Johnson beat Gary Humble in the Republicans’ state Senate primary. As for the Republican gubernatorial primary, Lee didn’t have anyone run against him. When the general election arrived on Nov. 8, 2022, both Johnson and Lee won.
“Liberal tears and exploding heads”
Less than a week after the Nov. 8 general election, Humble sent an email to subscribers of Tennessee Stands’ listserv. Humble had some things on his mind.
The email included a link to an editorial on Tennessee Stands’ website that Humble had written. The editorial was riddled with conspiracy theories: about COVID-19, about vote counting, about the war in Ukraine potentially being a money-laundering scheme to help Democrats financially in the 2022 midterms. Humble finished the editorial by saying liberty in Tennessee was at risk from forces nationally and globally; he wrote he was going to try to secure that freedom.
Toward the end of the email, there was another link. It led to a video monologue from Humble on an online video-sharing platform called Rumble. For nearly 23 minutes, he discussed a piece of far-right legislation for the 2023 Tennessee state legislative session that would ban gender-affirming care for minors.
The pro-LGBTQ+ advocacy group Human Rights Campaign defines gender-affirming care as “age-appropriate care that is medically necessary for the wellbeing of many transgender and non-binary people who experience symptoms of gender dysphoria, or distress that results from having one’s gender identity not match their sex assigned at birth.”
Tennessee’s legislation had just been filed for introduction in both the state’s Senate and House a day prior to Humble’s Nov. 10 video. Not even three weeks before the legislation’s introduction last November, there had been an anti-trans rally at the state capitol held by Matt Walsh — a national figure among the far right.
“If you can imagine with me,” Humble said about the legislation toward the end of his video, “should we get this passed — and I imagine that we will here in Tennessee — the liberal tears and the exploding heads that are going to be happening around this state and around this country will be monumental to watch.”
Tennessee’s legislature went on to pass the legislation. Lee signed it into law on March 2 of this year.
Twenty states, including Tennessee, have passed bans on gender-affirming care for people up to age 18, according to data from June 6 of this year from Human Rights Campaign. At least three have had their bans at least partially overturned in courts, either temporarily or permanently, but appeals to challenge the legal decisions are in the works or expected. Seven other states are considering banning it for people up to age 18, per that same data from Human Rights Campaign
UCLA School of Law’s Williams Institute is a research center that studies sexual orientation and gender identity law as well as public policy. According to a study published in June 2022 by the Williams Institute, there were approximately 300,000 minors between the ages of 14 and 17 in the U.S. that identify as transgender. Using that population estimate, Human Rights Campaign put into perspective its own data from June 6 of this year about the number of states that have passed bans on gender-affirming care for people up to age 18 and the states that are considering it for people up to 18 years old: 92,700 minors who identify as transgender and are between the ages of 13 and 17 live in states that have passed bans. That’s 30.9 percent of the Williams Institute’s 300,000-person population estimate. And 39,600 live in states that are considering banning it; that’s 13.2 percent. Put it all together: 44.1 percent live in states that have either passed bans or are considering doing so.
Tennessee’s ban was slated to go into effect on July 1 of this year, but then the United States Department of Justice stepped in.
On April 26, the Justice Department filed a complaint in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Tennessee. The Justice Department alleged that the law violated the Equal Protection Clause of the U.S. Constitution’s Fourteenth Amendment.
With less than 72 hours until the law was set to be enacted, Judge Eli Richardson — a 2018 Trump-appointee to the district’s bench — gave the Justice Department and the trans community a momentary win, albeit not a full one. Richardson issued a preliminary partial injunction as the case plays out in court. The preliminary partial injunction stopped the part of the law that was going to ban health-care providers, establishments and facilities from “prescribing, administering, or dispensing of a drug or device” regarding gender-affirming care, according to the law’s bill summary. What the preliminary partial injunction didn’t stop? Medical procedures.
That same day, June 28, Tennessee filed an emergency notice of appeal to try to get the preliminary partial injunction overturned. Ten days later, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals granted Tennessee’s wish. Immediately, the full ban went into effect. The Justice Department’s case challenging the ban is still being adjudicated.
Regardless of what happens in the court system, at least for now, the far right in the U.S. isn’t going away. Neither end of its spectrum is.
The FBI arrested 25-year-old Joshua Hensley from Kansas on June 25, according to a Department of Justice press release. An indictment that would get unsealed and referenced in the press release revealed Hensley was being charged with two counts of “transmitting an interstate threat” regarding a Pride event that was scheduled to take place in Tennessee just before the end of June.
I think the far right has kind of captured enough sentiment in the Conservative base that a lot of politicians and media figures who know better and could do a lot of good by speaking against it and leading a rebuttal against it, I think a lot of them are just kinda scared to go against it.
– Jared Holt, Institute for Strategic Dialogue
The press release said, “According to the indictment, on April 26, 2023, Hensley posted comments to a Facebook post for Nashville Pride and threatened to ‘make shrapnel pressure cooker bombs for this event.’ In another comment posted the same day, Hensley threatened to ‘commit a mass shooting.’”
On the spectrum’s non-violent side, Moms for Liberty’s national body flexed its political muscles in Philadelphia this summer, with its 2023 Joyful Warriors National Summit. The conference was the national body’s second national conference since the group’s founding in 2021. Speakers at this year’s event included the current frontrunners in the 2024 Republican presidential primary: Donald Trump and Florida’s governor, Ron DeSantis.
Robin Steenman, then-chair of Williamson County’s Moms for Liberty chapter, attended this year’s conference. There, during a gala on the third night of the four-day summit, she received one of the national body’s seven annual Founders Awards. Steenman won the Mercy Otis Warren Award, given each year to a Moms for Liberty member “for activating liberty-minded leaders to serve in elected positions” — specifically, “to someone who inspires others through the written word, engaging programing and timely training to take action in the fight for liberty.”
“I think the far right has kind of captured enough sentiment in the Conservative base that a lot of politicians and media figures who know better and could do a lot of good by speaking against it and leading a rebuttal against it, I think a lot of them are just kinda scared to go against it,” says Jared Holt, a senior research manager at the international non-profit Institute for Strategic Dialogue, where he specializes in working on U.S. hate and extremism.
“And we’ve seen politicians who have — like Jeff Flake and Liz Cheney, Mitt Romney — who have gone against it, not even overly aggressively, you know, just saying basic things, like what happened on January 6 was wrong and Trump is responsible for it, they just get cannibalized by their own party.”
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