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Theory of Change Podcast With Matthew Sheffield
Seeing the bigger picture of Moms for Liberty
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Seeing the bigger picture of Moms for Liberty

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Summary

Moms for Liberty, the dishonestly named far-right Christian group, is in the news after Bridget Ziegler, one of the group's co-founders, has been reported to have been in a relationship with another woman and her husband,. Christian Ziegler, her husband, has been accused of raping the woman in Sarasota, Florida.

As shocking as that allegation is, it's important to note that Christian Ziegler says he is innocent. There are no criminal charges that have been filed.

But nonetheless, it is still worth looking at Moms for Liberty in the larger context of astroturf right wing organizations, especially in the discussion that we're having on Theory of Change about how the Democratic left is less able and willing to promote grassroots organizations.

And as we'll see in today's episode, this is not how things were for Moms for Liberty.

Joining the program to talk about all this is Kelly Weill, she is the creator of a new website called MomLeft, which focuses on reporting about the activities of far right parent organizations. And she's also the author of a book called Off the Edge: Flat Earthers, Conspiracy Culture, and Why People Will Believe Anything, which is about flat earthers.

The video of the conversation is available. A computer-generated transcript of the edited audio follows. The recording was made on December 6, 2023.

Cover photo: Moms for Liberty co-founder Bridget Ziegler and her husband Christian Ziegler post for a selfie photo.

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Audio Transcript

MATTHEW SHEFFIELD: Welcome to Theory of Change, thanks for being here.

KELLY WEILL: Thanks so much for having me.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah. All right, so let's start our discussion here by talking about the current news story that is, seems to be a ever growing scandal concerning Christian Ziegler, who is the chair of the Florida Republican Party, but also the husband of a woman who is a [00:02:00] co-founder of the Moms for Liberty group, Bridget Ziegler.

At this point in time, and things might change during the time that we're recording this versus when it airs, but as things stand right now, what is the deal with this whole scandal concerning Christian Ziegler?

WEILL: It's a mess, in a word. Christian Ziegler, he's the chair of the Florida GOP. He's been really close with Ron DeSantis and he and his wife Bridget are real power players in both Florida politics and specifically Florida educational politics. Bridget is a co-founder of Moms for Liberty, which is a group that has been instrumental in pushing anti LGBTQ legislation related to students in Florida.

Now, Moms for Liberty will say that Bridgette Ziegler is no longer with the group, but she's very much a model for the kind of school board warrior that Moms for Liberty wants to promote. So, earlier this month it came out that a woman who had been sexually involved with both [00:03:00] Christian and Bridgette Ziegler in some capacity had filed a police report against Christian Ziegler.

She said that the couple had planned some kind of three-way and then that Bridget said, Oh, I can't make it that day, that the woman had canceled because Bridget wasn't going to be there. And she alleges that Christian Ziegler attacked her in her home and raped her on that day. The woman went to a hospital, got treated with a rape kit, right after this.

They have a good number of text messages from Christian Ziegler and members of the Florida GOP are calling on him to step down. He is not doing that, claiming that the incident was consensual on both parties.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah, that's right. And basically saying that we've got a country to save. And he's just too important to everything. Now, it's my understanding, though, that there were two different boards with Moms for Liberty, and she had been involved with an [00:04:00] advisory board. Is that correct?

WEILL: The exact details of her Not the board of directors. Yeah. Right. The exact details of her involvement are I'm sure you could drill down. I don't have them committed to memory. She was a co-founder, and she is involved in a lot of groups that are also involved with Moms for Liberty.

These are groups like I believe the Liberty Institute, just a number of right wing organizations that are adjacent to this sphere and that are very, invested in getting moms like her involved in school board politics, running for these school board roles and really mobilizing around educational issues.

SHEFFIELD: The other thing about the Zieglers with regard to Moms for Liberty is that their connection to the group is actually really what helped them get a pipeline directly into the Republican party elite. Christian Ziegler was not in, he wasn't the chair of the Florida Republican party, but he was the assistant chair [00:05:00] and seems to have gotten them, heavily involved with this very wealthy group called the Leadership Institute.

Do you want to talk about that at all? Who they are, the Leadership Institute and what they do.

WEILL: Sure. They're an organization that, helps to sort of groom up-and-coming Republican voices. They're quite hard right. And they have been plugging in with Moms for Liberty.

They have been offering training for promising moms in that space who might want to become the next school board rabble rouser. And so. You are right that this is a very well-funded sphere Moms for Liberty has received significant payments from, say, the heiress of the, Publix fortune, the Florida supermarket chain.

So there's a lot of money and specifically a lot of Florida Republican money sloshing around here.

SHEFFIELD: And where did they, like what was their original impetus? It wasn't about getting angry at books [00:06:00] originally, right?

WEILL: Right. Bridget Ziegler is actually a really interesting figure to follow in the origin story here because she's tried this a couple times getting right wing mom organizations up and running.

She had a conservative school board. member group that she tried starting a couple of years back, didn't really go anywhere, but I think where Moms for Liberty really got its initial momentum was in debates over mask mandates at school. Masks obviously became this intensely polarized issue with a lot of, I think, performative politics on the right.

And. I think Moms for Liberty in its very early stages was able to tap into that anger and tell parents that we're a group with which you can mobilize. You can take back your school board. You can reclaim your child's education. And of course, a lot of these things are euphemisms for other grievances that they're already pushing.

And so that's why when the mask fight died down. Moms [00:07:00] for Liberty didn't die down. It pivoted into those harder right grievances like banning books related to LGBTQ issues restricting education about race, gender, sexuality. So that's, that's how it got its foothold and how it's moved forward since then.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah. their transition in that regard is actually pretty common in, in the history of Republican social movements, such as they are. Like the Tea Party, for instance. I mean, I used to be a Republican activist before I had my own little transition as, my audience knows it, but you may not.

And I did speak at some tea party events, local tea party events in Virginia a couple of times. And I was always shocked at when I was invited to speak how, almost invariably. With the people who were there, the attendees would try to turn every conversation over to, God created America and that sort of stuff.

And I was not [00:08:00] religious at the time. So I was like well, can't we just focus on the topic here? Why are we talking about this? But they did just kept pivoting toward that. And so I'm curious. What do you think? Were they responding to demand or were they responding to what they actually wanted to do? The co-founders, the leadership.

WEILL: I think they always wanted to do this. I think they always wanted to get some kind of right wing moms group off the ground. And I think that's pretty savvy for Republicans. We're a few years out now from the election cycle where it seems like mobilizing conservative parents for age was really a good way to win office.

And I think that's the message that a lot of people took from Virginia governor, Glenn Youngkin's election was that he was able to tap into anger that. Some parents had about say LGBTQ issues in schools. And that's not to say that those in many cases, bigotries are valid, but it does mobilize some people [00:09:00] does get some people to the polls.

And I think groups like Moms for Liberty were able to see this maybe underplayed political block and. Identify them as a group that they could really mobilize that could really get going in a concerted direction. All they had to do was dangle a few hot button issues. And suddenly people are in a group and can vote and mass.

And I, do think, you hate to give credit, but it has been effective to a certain degree in certain swing districts.

How reactionary groups use low-turnout elections to impose their extreme agendas

SHEFFIELD: Who are the other key leadership figures with moms for the, for people who don't, aren't too familiar with the group?

WEILL: Right. The other the other main leaders right now are a woman named Tiffany Justice and a woman named Tina Descovich, I believe.

And they're the ones that you see these days on stage at say, Moms for Liberty convention. But. After the 2022 cycle, 2021 and 22 election cycles, Moms for Liberty was able to sweep a lot [00:10:00] of elections. I think a combination of novelty and rage. They weren't a really known quantity, but because they were so organized in these school board races that are usually pretty passive or certainly don't have the--

SHEFFIELD: And they're low turnout. Yeah, they're low turnout.

WEILL: Exactly. Exactly. And so they were able to, I think, hijack these elections in ways that Were unexpected. And so I think a lot of Republican leadership saw that they saw these Republican wins, they saw this new mobilization and they really did key into groups like Moms for Liberty being a good vector electorally for them.

So that's why the summer at Moms for Liberty's convention, yes, you had the the founders, the leaders like Descovich and justice, but you also had pretty much every prominent. Republican was speaking there. You had Donald Trump spoke, Ron DeSantis spoke. This is a group that was only getting started.

I think like two, three years ago.

Many journalists seem unaware of Moms for Liberty's extremism

SHEFFIELD: Yeah, no, it's true. And [00:11:00] well, one of the other things about the coverage of a lot of the media out of that convention in Philadelphia is. I feel like that a lot of, and because I read a lot of it and a lot of the coverage was really, and not just of the convention, I will say, but even a lot of their local chapters, a lot of the news media coverage, it seems like they don't know how to cover this group.

And they don't understand how radical that the leadership and the membership are. And it was only after that a Indiana chapter that had used a quote from Hitler and if Hitler in one of their newsletters which and you can remind me of what the phrasing was.

It was something about. If those who control children's minds control the future or something like that and they put that on their newsletter and got some flack for it. And then Tiffany Justice basically mentioned that she supported the mom who did that. And at the mention of Adolf Hitler, people in the crowd started cheering, [00:12:00] for apparently Hitler, or quoting Hitler. And that caused them a lot of problems and actually she and I guess I should say I had a small role in that in that I posted that video clip on Twitter and they started attacking me for doing that. But like that was, but before that moment regarding this Hitler quote, a lot of news organizations, and I'm interested in your thoughts on that, but a lot of news organizations, especially local ones, when they would find these, astro turf, fake grassroots groups showing up at school boards, they would take it at face value. And they would just say, Oh, these are just regular parents showing up here.

When in fact, these were people in many cases, especially in Virginia, who were you know, hardcore professional political consultants paid hundreds of thousands of dollars a year. They're not just regular, parents showing up.[00:13:00] And you didn't, and you didn't say anything about, people talking about their agenda or anything like that.

It was just, they, limited it only to that surface- value analysis. Would you agree with that?

WEILL: Yeah. And I think you're totally right to call them astroturf to a degree, because this is a tightly managed nationally run organization. I mean, Media Matters this summer, I think, ran their like national playbook, which is so anti gay. Like, it's just it's homophobia.

And yeah, Because it's, it's run on local chapters and also, I think, because the face of it is moms, we have, I think, a very paternalistic, very infantilizing view of motherhood where we say: 'Oh, she's just a mom. This isn't a savvy political organizer. She's a mom.

SHEFFIELD: Operative, yeah.

WEILL: Exactly. And that's not the case. These are people who have political training. These are people who are very organized, who are very networked, who are well funded. [00:14:00] And so I, I think when a local news outlet covers maybe a, bit of a debate at a school board meeting. They're missing the broader context, which is how is this being replicated across the country? What messaging are they following? What message are they often copy pasting? And most importantly, how is this affecting the children in their district?

Because what really grates at me and, if I might also spotlight myself as a mother here, there's so much discussion here about parental rights. We, the parents, some candidates in my town recently had signs, lawn signs, the year of the parent. Where are the kids in this?

Because it's this centrality of parents and their rights, and I think it overlooks the oppression and the control of children that they're suggesting, especially when it comes to queer kids, especially when it comes to kids who need extra support in any capacity.

I think that's where they're really doing students dirty. [00:15:00]

Normal people are now asserting their own parental rights

SHEFFIELD: Mhm. Well, and it's also, they never specify that they only want some parents to have rights. They don't want other parents to have rights. And or to have input into the curriculum. So, if they're a, if they want their child to learn about slavery or they want their child to realize that not being heterosexual is okay.

Like those parents don't get any rights. And I think that's also something that's missing often, I feel like.

WEILL: Absolutely. And I mean, this group has been part of a real broadside on some of those parents. I mean, bringing it back to the Zieglers on a school board where Bridget Ziegler sits, there's a gay member, there's one gay board member. He has been attacked and smeared in these meetings completely baselessly as a groomer. They use the slur against queer adults, and it's completely to undermine the support network that kids get.

It's completely to tell young people that it's not okay to be gay. And it's to, I think, really put [00:16:00] terrifying legal pressures on gay adults for existing.

And so, yeah, when they talk about parental rights, they're talking about a very, small subset of the parental base. One thing I broke down in a recent newsletter is the overwhelming unpopularity of book bans and the overwhelming popularity of certain basic liberal programs like free school lunches, that sort of thing.

That is the majority of parents who support that. Moms for Liberty is a small minority in that. And so to cast themselves as the voice of parents, the parents crusaders. I mean, even factually, that's not right.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah, that's true. And and yet, despite all the machinations and local level achievements in, when people weren't paying attention to them that they, Moms for Liberty was able to achieve.

it Seems to me that, the people in the Democratic Party or people in the broader center to left still haven't fully [00:17:00] understood, how they were able to do things and what they were able to achieve and there isn't any real analog to it that's emerged on the, I mean, there, there are some people are trying, but they're not getting so like that, that, that's kind of the, one of the core differences, I think, between the Democrats and the Republicans is that, When, people are trying to do something on the right, and I can say this having been on both sides of the fence now, that when people are trying to do something on the left, no one supports them in the leadership.

Whereas when people are trying to do something on the right, money is thrown at them. And people are constantly saying, how can I help you? What can I do for you? Who can I introduce you to? How can I help you achieve the cause and help what we're doing? No one does that on the left. And you had, I guess, must have some sense of that because you started your own website called Mom [00:18:00] Left. You want to talk about that in this context here?

WEILL: Yeah. So a couple months ago, I got a newsletter blog up and running called Mom Left. It's a new newsletter for moms on the left. Title's little tongue in cheek, but it emerged out of, being a relatively new mother looking for progressive voices in this space, seeing that there's a huge demand for it, seeing that it's quite popular, but also hearing that the loudest voices in the room are these well funded, very fringe right wing voices.

I think there's a few reasons for that to your point, all the funding really gets thrown at the right. And I think maybe that's to counteract the real popularity of left leaning programs when it comes to parenthood, people support public education, people support freedom to read, lack of censorship, that sort of thing.

So, I think a Moms for Liberty type group can really be the tip of the spear for a lot of more insidious mainstream [00:19:00] Republican activities

SHEFFIELD: And Christian right, especially.

WEILL: They are hugely networked through the Christian right, absolutely. And that was very evident in their conference this summer. This is very evident in the legal groups that they network with when they are called into any kind of legal jeopardy.

So when I was thinking about launching this newsletter, I was looking for the alternatives. I was looking for the voices for moms who are acting in opposition to that. And what I did find was that overwhelmingly moms are opposed to this sort of thing, but that. There's no central organization because I think to organize a group like, Moms for Liberty is a kind of weird thing to do.

People aren't really drawn to the antagonistic school war politics that they represent. People don't really want to get into those battles. And so I thought that, there's a void on the left born out of, weirdly, its popularity with parents.

SHEFFIELD: [00:20:00] Yeah, no, it's true. And so what's been the response so far that you've been getting from since you've launched it,

WEILL: It's been really cool. It's been really affirming. Some of the best messages I've received are from parents of queer kids who are saying, that that there is.

An attack on their Children and that they do feel under supported that they do feel like there has been an under investment of resources where they're desperately needed. There's been just a good amount of camaraderie in response to these pieces. I think a lot of. Parents feel similarly or a lot of parents are frankly just appalled at what they're seeing in school board meetings.

They're appalled at the right wing takeovers of their school districts, and they want some mechanism for fighting back. And I think some of my writing is certainly spoken to that, and I would love to see other voices in the field. There are others, and I'm just hoping that the discussion around this may be surfaces a few more.[00:21:00]

SHEFFIELD: Okay, well, that's great. Good to hear. And, to your point about what parents actually want versus what Moms for Liberty pretends that they want, in the 2023 elections, the Moms for Liberty candidates did very terribly, almost like 100%. I mean, there were, there were some pockets here and there, but overwhelmingly in their big high profile efforts, they failed except for in, the most right wing areas and that we're probably going to do that anyway.

And, so it's been interesting to see because, as you were saying, I think people misread the Glen Youngkin victory last in 2022. And actually on, on this podcast, I'm proud to say that we called it that that would not work, that people could not replicate Youngkin's victory because, in Virginia, the party that has control of the presidency and almost never wins the Virginia governorship the [00:22:00] following year historically speaking.

And of course, that doesn't mean it's going to always be that the case, but overwhelmingly, like, I believe that in the past 30 or 40 years, only two candidates from the president's party have won the Virginia governor's race in that lineup.

And so people, they, seem to misunderstand why he won. And the reality is he probably was going to win just by running a not completely disastrous campaign. And that's what happened. He won and, and, so the Republican party, and unfortunately a lot of the media had also fallen for that narrative as well.

But yeah, it, it just didn't work for him in 2023 because people were actually paying attention. It seems like.

WEILL: Absolutely. Yeah, I think there's this weird tendency to kind of use Children to argue one's existing priors. And so I think kids really became like this load bearing argument for a much larger discussion [00:23:00] about, gay rights about transgender existence.

And so, these, were going to be debates that folks were having anyway, but people on the right found it much easier than to argue. The trans person face to face saying, are you allowed to get medical treatment that you need or not? They found it much easier to say, what about this hypothetical kid who might say that they're trans?

Should we allow them to use the preferred pronouns in school? And I think that became just a, very loaded argument that bears a lot of emotional weight for parents. And so was it something that really played a critical role in Virginia? I think to your point, maybe not, maybe it was already a lost cause for Democrats there, but for people who wanted to extract that message from a yunk and when it was very easy for them to do so.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah, it was. And we'll see, of course, going forward, but it seems like that the Republican party nationally is kind of [00:24:00] trying to edge away from this organization. But of course I'm sure they're not going to be going anywhere because they do, they, the right wing has, wanted for a long time to be able to try to mobilize the minority of women who have reactionary viewpoints.

And so they perform a useful function if, it's only that for, for the Republican party and, I'm curious what your sense is, but, in the research that I've done and, the, in my own observation, it does seem like overwhelmingly women who lean right word.

Are, extremely religious and there are almost none who are either not religious we're not religious or as best for particularly non Christian. Is that what's your sense on that?

WEILL: Yeah, Moms for Liberty is an extremely Christian organization. They'll say that they're not, they'll say that they're [00:25:00] open to everyone.

You go to a conference. It is, it's Bible flipping. And. A lot of the justification is offered for their policies is couched in a language like, oh, we're teaching Judeo Christian values. And 1st of all, as a Jewish person, I'm not sure I necessarily feel so comfortable in those circles, but that's a different story.

But, yeah, it's an intensely religious. Movements and 1 other thing that I would highlight is that a lot of activists involved for mom with Moms for Liberty are not necessarily people with children in public schools. We have people who are religious homeschoolers who are going to school board meetings and arguing against the right of those children to receive a public education.

Often on, grounds of their own religious objections, these are not far removed from people who have argued against evolution being taught in schools. It's just the latest [00:26:00] permutation and they're arguing a very religiously right program in these schools, but sometimes under more updated language.

SHEFFIELD: And I think it does, it does also make sense that the to the extent that they would have success in mobilization, it would be of women that it would be through motherhood rather than any other. Organizational paradigm what do you think?

WEILL: Absolutely. And, I think to some degree they're onto something because the U. S. does not treat mothers well, we're a country without maternity leave. Our social safety net is paper thin. There's a lot of sense of neglect for mothers, a lot of sense that we've been done dirty. I think a lot of women will take that feeling and look for new outlets for it. Some women are able to find that in reaction.

Some of them will lean into this paradigm that's [00:27:00] very common on the Christian right that says that if you want to be truly valued, if you want to be a really good mother and wife and, fulfill your job as a woman, you need to be the subservient figure who doesn't work. Maybe she homeschools her children.

She's very cloistered away from society, from solidarity, from power. And for some women, that's, it's a comforting message. It says that at least somebody is going to care for them and look after them. And it affirms their womanhood in a way that I think is appealing for some people. And so it doesn't surprise me at all that.

Groups like Moms for Liberty and, zooming out, I think a lot of maybe the like trad wife influencers on TikTok, they're all speaking to that message that you know, dissatisfaction. But the difference is that I don't think most of the women who join up with those movements are ultimately.

Going to get the rights and the dignity that they're looking for.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah, [00:28:00] no, I, that's a, it's a good point.

Why many right-wing women don't live the lifestyle they preach to others

SHEFFIELD: And there's also even attention with these, we'll say traditionally feminine or anti feminist women that, they don't actually fully believe the things that they say, even though they claim to so like, and you can see that.

So, like, there's there's this woman named Alex Clark, who is kind of big in that space for anti feminist women and she also is. Has never been married and she's like 29 or 30 or something like that. And yeah, I guess actually in her 30s, I believe, and is constantly lamenting how she can't get dates.

(Begin video clip)

ALEX CLARK: Every time I tell a guy at the bar, when he asks me, you work in politics, what does that mean? You're conservative? Oh. And they will say, does that mean that you're pro life? And I say, yes. Their eyes light up. Their eyes light up. They grab their friends and like, dude, get a load of this. This girl says she's pro [00:29:00] life.

And they're like, so wait, what does that mean? Do you ever agree in abortion in any circumstance? Is there any, circumstances where you think abortion is okay? And I will say, no. I am pro life. No exceptions, no matter what. And then, they're always fascinated by this and floored by this, and they're like, Dude, I've never heard a girl say this.

Like, I'm so curious. Like, I always hear the other side, like, a woman's right to choose, her body or her choice. Like, I, like, what do you say to people when they say that? Guys love this! Guys love a conservative woman. At least at the bar. And then, you know, they don't really, they're like, into it, and then they don't text me back.

But, hey, you know, tomato tomatoes! Semantics!

(End video clip)

SHEFFIELD: There are a lot of these anti feminist commentators, women. And they are in this situation, Ann Coulter, Laura Ingraham, those are the ones that come to mind, but a lot of these women, they want something that can't exist, it seems like.

They want to be able to have their own agency. But they also think that women should not have power, and it's like, those [00:30:00] things don't work.

WEILL: Right. I think a lot of these women have made a very cynical deal where they know that they need the agency that they have. They need the agency that's provided by their careers, by their rights by their independence from men.

They've also bought into, and sometimes I mean literally, bought into, they make their money from espousing this paradigm in which, women's worth is derived from their relationships with men. Women's worth is derived by having a man who's like, who she's subservient to and who is her provider and that, her currency is her attractiveness or.

Something like that. And I think it's, I think it's extremely, I think it's morally bankrupt to be selling that to young girls as Alex Clark tries to do. We see this in a lot of, I think, TPUSA videos. I mean, it's, untrue. It's, she would be, I think, tremendously dissatisfied in the [00:31:00] life that she is pitching other women on.

And she is, outside of this clip, pitching women against going to college, she's saying that your value is, again, it's, contingent on your getting a man. And I don't know how many young women you have listening to your podcast, but I'm telling you that if you're normal and you want a normal partner, you can just do that.

And that also does not determine your value, but you do not have to be Alex Clark. That just sets my teeth on edge.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah. And the other thing, it's like, I'm sure that there had been plenty of men that, who agree with her, far right Christian viewpoints that she has found one way or the other over the years, but she hasn't chosen to marry any of them. So in the clip, she bemoans that, we'll say regular men are not interested in someone with her extreme viewpoints.

But I'm sure there are guys out there that have those same viewpoints. But she hasn't chosen to marry them. And I think a lot of that [00:32:00] just simply is that, if you're a man who has those views and wants to, quote, unquote, provide for a woman, it's also usually a code for you want to control her. And Alex Clark doesn't want to be controlled. So, that's probably why she hasn't gotten married to somebody who has her viewpoints.

It's like they live in a bubble of cognitive dissonance, their entire existence is wrapped in it. And it's tough to say, I mean, ultimately, whether this is just purely cynical or it's cognitive dissonance or whatever it is, but it's not, it's clearly is not a good way to live for her, based on what she said.

WEILL: It's not, and, I've seen this born out another right wing women's influences, all of them quite far. Right. White Christian women. And they're unhappy. I'm thinking about figures like Lauren Southern, who made this, who was fielding all these questions about why she wasn't married.

Finally, I think did get married, [00:33:00] husband left had some kind of breakdown where she lived in a trailer park for a bit. You're not pitching yourself in a world that values your dignity. I, can go on. There are other figures. There's a like radical Mormon figure who was huge on having as many kids as possible and was blogging about it.

And I was reading her blog and it's all the comments are men saying, if you're really this good wife, why are you online? Why are we hearing from you at all? So again, this is not a paradigm in which these women can exist in as influencers. So I think maybe to a degree, they know that the life that they're pitching for themselves, that they're pitching for their followers would make them unhappy.

And so they are getting, The freedom afforded to them, ironically, by a culture that provides at least some abortion rights, that provides no fault divorce, that has some [00:34:00] value for women's independence and dignity. And they are, actively campaigning against that while also profiting from it.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah. Yeah. No, it is a really it's, just, it's sad in a number of ways, but it's also, upsetting as well. And for those who haven't seen it, the TV series The Handmaid's Tale actually does deal with this dynamic very well, with one of the characters who was definitely doing that. So if you haven't seen that, I definitely would encourage you if you're interested in that, this sort of exploration of this type of subject.

Have you seen it?

WEILL: I saw the first couple seasons of it. And yeah, I agree. I mean, ultimately, if you're a woman cheering on this sort of thing, you're cheering for the wrong team. I think some women on the far right do understand either explicitly or tacitly that they are arguing for their own ends to the extent that they [00:35:00] are arguing against queer parents that they're arguing against women of color.

So they are trying to get some measure of edge over people who are, not straight white women. But, if their preferred program ever did come into existence, it would place them wildly inferior to men. And I think, yes, they do dress that up with this romantic talk about having a provider and being a real woman and that clearly, and as is evidenced in their personal choices, would not make them happy.

SHEFFIELD: And of course there's nothing wrong if that's what somebody wants to do. But what's wrong is forcing everybody else. To make that so it's actually not a choice, that it's mandatory. That's ultimately what the problem is here.

All right. So, just going back to the Moms for Liberty and the Christian Ziegler scandal, that's to what you were saying about some of this there, there's also a lot of hypocrisy involved [00:36:00] as well, because, in the case of Bridget Ziegler, this is a woman who very clearly is bisexual, and having a relationship with a woman, but at the same time, actively going and trying to not allow other people to be something other than heterosexual in public as a matter of public policy. It's, just really, it's really disgusting, frankly.

WEILL: It is. It's upsetting. And, we don't know the full extent of this relationship. We only know from a police report that Bridget did say, I have been in a relationship with this woman before.

Clearly, they planned on doing it again. And, that's completely her business. And those are absolutely her right to do.

The trouble is, though, where she is part of a movement that teaches children that it's degenerate to do exactly what she's accused of doing. It's the trouble is that she sits on a school board where she has enabled the harassment of a gay colleague, not just, [00:37:00] the harassment, but smearing him as a quote groomer for, being gay.

She didn't say that, but she allowed those comments to continue while she was chairing the board.

I think the hypocrisy there is it's stunning, but it also reminds me that for a lot of folks on the right. It's not so much about internal ideological consistency as it is about power. They can, you can be gay on the right and still advance an argument that ultimately does not work in your favor, but is working to crush people who don't have who are much more vulnerable to anti gay legislation.

So, if. It were punishable to be by in Florida. Well, I don't think someone like Bridget Ziegler would really be the the first person in line to be harmed by these kinds of policies. So, they are exacting this very like Christian hegemony while also,[00:38:00] doing a lot of the same things that they're, that they denigrate in their enemies.

It's just, it's wildly hypocritical. And yet there are. March toward power advances.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah. Yeah. No. And that's a good point because, ultimately their main motivation is will to power rather than a policy agenda. Like there, there, are some policies that they want, but ultimately, they could in their ideal world basically all be passed in one week, and they wouldn't really have any other policies left to put forward-- in the sense that, they don't have fully formed policy viewpoints. And you see this with the Trump administration that ended in 2021 that, they, had no idea how to manage the bureaucracy.

They had no idea who to hire. They had no idea how to execute anything that they wanted. Because they, or like what they said they wanted, they, once they had the power, they [00:39:00] couldn't really do anything with it. Other than engage in retribution against disfavored groups. But in terms of actually helping the people that they voted for them, they really had no idea or apparent interest.

WEILL: Right. I think a lot of these people run and govern on grievance politics, right? Trump, I think his, True dream would be someone who calls into Fox News and gets called, sir, all the time. Well, in vain against immigrants and that sort of thing with a lot of these folks, it's not so much about having a fully realized ideology or program so much as it is about domineering and aggression about being at the top of a hierarchy.

And certainly you can advance that while also holding some attributes that. Your ideology, if implemented consistently, would hammer down. And so that's why I, I think it's so interesting that Trump won [00:40:00] so much of the evangelical vote, even though he is, on his face should be repugnant to them, right?

He's a womanizer, he's been divorced. Bunch of times he's been accused of sexual assault a bunch of times, but if you drill down into it, and I'm very grateful actually for the work that some Christian scholars on the left have done, they said, it looks like theologically he is misaligned with evangelicals, but in the actual political underpinnings, this will to power, this will to domination, he represents a lot of this aggressive, masculine Christianity that they're lining up behind.

And so, I think there's a real disparity between what they preach, what they say their political program is and what they really want to enact.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah, no, exactly.

Republicans show they will throw away lower-level politicians but they fear dumping Trump

SHEFFIELD: But it is interesting that with regard to Christian Ziegler it seems like he's getting thrown under the bus by the Republican party in Florida and, and, we kind of saw that recently [00:41:00] with George Santos getting expelled and.

Just under half of the Republican caucus in the house voting to expel him. But at the same time, they refuse to take any action against Donald Trump that is meaningful. What do you think is the dynamic? Why is there a, why are they willing to not defend certain people, but, are willing to do anything seemingly for Trump?

WEILL: I think Trump is just too useful for them to discard. He represents this huge base that is, not necessarily aligned with the orthodoxy of the Republican party. He speaks to so much latent bigoted rage that I don't think any previous candidate was able to tap that he has this cult of personality around him.

And for the GOP to discard him would be certainly, it would be earth shaking for them. It would be very I think maybe politically unwise. He's certainly far and away the. [00:42:00] runner for the 2024 election. But when you get to a figure like Christian Ziegler, I think a lot of people say who, or you get to a George Santos, who, I mean, a man, he's just criming left and right.

He has like some scam with stolen puppies from an Amish puppy mill. Like you just can't make it up with this guy. There's nobody really lining up to say, Hey, I'm behind the puppy mill guy. It's so I think occasionally someone will have to take the fall. Occasionally someone is a combination of too toxic and not valuable enough for them to defend.

And so you can swap out the Florida Republican chair quite easily. It's not a big deal. You can, you can get somebody else to run in a hard right district in Long Island. It's not a huge deal. So I think they understand that, not everything is not every scandal needs to be fought to the death.

Flat Earthers are more of a thing than you might think, and almost all are far-right Christians

SHEFFIELD: And so your interest in sort of, far right groups and organizations, you've had that for a while and you came out with a book on that topic. Let's talk about that book called Off the Edge. What was tell us about what, did you cover in that book?

WEILL: Sure. So off the, yeah. Off the Edge is the product of my years long fascination and involvement with the Flat Earth Movement. I have, for ages, been so fascinated with conspiracy theories, what they say about how we believe, what we allow ourselves to believe, and increasingly their role in politics.

And that also, overlaps with some of my interest in weird and, Dark internet spaces. So while working as a reporter at the daily beast covering the far right, I started seeing a lot of neo Nazis who seem to believe in flat earth. And I said, they must be kidding. This [00:44:00] must be a joke. And I dug into it and it was not a joke.

So I spent years going to flat earth conferences, hanging out with these folks, meeting some really interesting characters, some characters who I think are a lot smarter than people would. Imagine of flat earthers, a guy who built his own rocket ship to blast up and see how, if he could see any curvature really I'll say unique thinkers.

Some of that is not necessarily praise, but some of it was certainly challenging to me and interesting in the way that I interrogate how people think and believe. And so off the edge is the culmination of that.

SHEFFIELD: Okay. And then. No, it's, and it's interesting you you touched on something that I think that does, it bedevils a lot of, public reaction to conspiracy movements is that, I think a lot of people, they, find it hard to believe [00:45:00] that these things are real.

Even with Donald Trump, a lot of these extreme policies he's talked about doing, like building concentration camps for unauthorized immigrants, rounding them up and putting them into a concentration camp with, millions of people in it and, and these are things that he's, is people actively say, and, person, imprisoning people who don't do what he says who are government employees or firing them or even executing them in the case of of general Millie, he had said yeah.

there is this, I don't know, it's, to some degree, people, these ideas are so out there. They're so crazy. They're so awful that do people who disagree with them, like. Is there, is that, a challenge in your viewpoint of getting people to accept these things are real and they're coming for you?

WEILL: It is challenging. And I think part of the reason I took [00:46:00] up flat earth as an example, when I was looking to write a book about conspiracy beliefs is that flat earth is almost the hardest to believe that anybody believes is it's so out there that I think it really served as a stand in for, look, people can believe.

Anything. And so in writing that book, not only did I speak to a lot of folks who believe in flat earth, I talked to a lot of psychologists. I read a lot of studies. And, what I learned was that conspiracy belief. It's not necessarily it's not a logical. Brain process, but what it is doing is it's it's serving as a coping mechanism for a lot of folks.

It's providing stability for people who don't want to believe the available answers or who think that there's not a satisfactory answer for the world that they're presented with conspiracy theories. And I think this is especially important in politics are also, I found a form of identity formation when [00:47:00] you don't want to believe some reality in front of you, say that Joe Biden won the 2020 election, conspiracy theories allow you to link with other like minded people to form this sense of self and the sense of community, really, with other people who agree with you.

Flat earthers are almost like building their own reality, a very small one, but this circle of people who say it's us against literally the rest of the world. And I think for people of the community who do feel very isolated, who do feel very lost or maybe confused or antagonistic against the rest of the world, having a flat earth community for them is huge.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah. Yeah. So if you were to make some generalizations though, is this religious reasons or other reasons predominantly that the flat earthers are into it?

WEILL: Religion is the biggest one. One way that a lot of people I've spoke to have gotten into it is [00:48:00] by extreme biblical literalism, also very cherry picked biblical literalism. So they'll go looking for some, in the case of one guy I spoke to looking for some answer about, say, the floods of the Bible, and they'll find a YouTube video that says, actually, if you read it the way that the Bible was meant to be read, you'll see that there are all these references to circles and to the plane. And that, the only way to be a real Christian is to accept the reality of God's perfect, flat earth.

So for a lot of them, it is religious. And I also, to go back to the point I made earlier about this, not necessarily being logical. I think having a conspiracy to that degree, a conspiracy that's so out there and invalidating of every other fact is that once you accept it on extremely tenuous, like religious grounds, It allows you to throw away all the other facts that you don't want to contemplate either.[00:49:00]

So you could say that you know, Bible says flat earth. Oh, wow. Everybody else is wrong. Let's see what else is wrong about. And you get into all kinds of anti Semitic conspiracy theories. You get into a bizarre health hoaxes, anti vax belief, things that are more immediately dangerous for you than flatter.

So I think a lot of it is religiously, it has a religious hook, but then it has a real ideological selling point for people who believe,

SHEFFIELD: Yeah, it's, a way of constructing an alternative reality for yourself to live in and and like, that's, that is ultimately the, larger sort of meta crisis of this moment in human history is that, we, for, most of humanity's history, our people who.

Who didn't believe in reality or who had false beliefs, they couldn't organize themselves, but now they can. [00:50:00] and they're, trying to go against everybody else. And, that's, I think is, the challenge. But anyway it's, been a great discussion. I'm glad you can join me today.

WEILL: So thanks so much for having me. Yeah, it's been wonderful.

SHEFFIELD: All right. So that is the program for today. I appreciate everybody joining us for the discussion and you can always get more if you go to theoryofchange.show, you can get the full archives of the podcast with video, audio and transcript of all the episodes.

And if you are a paid subscriber, you can have unlimited access. Some of the content is available only for paid members and my great thanks to those who are contributing in that regard. And then also if you are on the Theory of Change website, you get access to the two other podcasts that I am co hosting, Doomscroll, which is a [00:51:00] satirical look at the news. And then also So This Just Happened, which is a look at the people and personalities behind the news as well.

So I encourage everybody to check those out and you can get more also by going to Flux.community. This show is part of that, and I appreciate everybody for joining us today and I will see you next time.



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Theory of Change Podcast With Matthew Sheffield
Lots of people want to change the world. But how does change happen? Join Matthew Sheffield and his guests as they explore larger trends and intersections in politics, religion, technology, and media.