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The Q-Anon Crowd Has a Familiar Face: How Rightwing Cults Have Plagued Our Politics

The latest white guy going on a rage-bender before being “respectfully” taken into custody for “mental health evaluation” was at the Miami airport, an incident that broke the internet last week.

Since Trump began his campaign of self-centered, self-entitled whining, preening and racist “straight talk” in 2015, hate crimes and violence against women have exploded by around 20 percent.

Meanwhile, “conservatives” have created a “watch list” of college professors suspected of teaching “liberal” climate science or the actual racial history of America; fossil fuel billionaires and their buddies, with the Supreme Court’s blessing, have corrupted Joe Manchin, Kyrsten Sinema and the entire GOP; and school boards, teachers and election officials receive daily harassment and even death threats.

All across the internet, we’re hearing weird theories that Trump and his followers have stolen some obscure idea from Roy Cohn and Roger Stone or are trying to reinvent German Nazism in an American wrapper.

But the misogyny, hate and intimidation that the newly-Trumpy GOP have embraced since 2015 isn’t new, and certainly isn’t unique to America; indeed, it’s played a huge role throughout the centuries of our history.

Today’s “proud boys,” for example, are just a modern version of the New England “churchmen” of the 1700s, the Klan riders of the 1800s, and Joe McCarthy’s fervent followers of the 1950s. Our sold-out “conservative” anti-Critical Race Theory politicians are just this generation’s versions of white supremacist John C. Calhoun fronting for morbidly rich “plantation” owners in the mid-1800s.

Historically these bullies lose, but in the process they cause extraordinary pain and disruption to our nation. We must revisit, and learn from, history.

When authoritarian men seize power, they always go after advocates for broader democratic rights and even modernity itself. And they particularly go after objective science, women, and minorities of every sort.

The Catholic Church went after Copernicus and then promoted repeated wars — “crusades” and pogroms — against Jews and Muslims. Authoritarians throughout history, motivated by deep-seated fears and ignorance, similarly hate science, egalitarian values, and those who think or look different from them.

Benjamin Franklin was one of the most influential of the Founders when it came to the shaping of the Constitution and our nation, and he was horrified by the power that right-wingers (rationalizing their largely economic and political power grabs with religion) had seized in his birth state of Massachusetts and nearby New Hampshire.

As a teenager, he fled the state for Philadelphia, where there were no religious tests and people weren’t required by law (as they were in most of Massachusetts and New Hampshire) to tithe and attend church every week.

“Scarcely was I arrived at fifteen years of age,” he wrote in his first autobiography, “when, after having doubted in turn of different tenets, according as I found them combated in the different books that I read, I began to doubt of revelation itself.”

Today, churches and radio/TV/YouTube preachers are the second largest vehicle for promoting anti-democracy behaviors and protests, behind social media. Franklin knew that even when their style of threats and violence were used to “enforce morality,” it’s really about power and political control.

This knowledge led him to campaign against authoritarianism and in favor of “free thinking” for much of his life. As his peer Joseph Priestly wrote of him, “It is much to be lamented that a man of Dr. Franklin’s general good character and great influence should have been an unbeliever in Christianity and also have done so much as he did to make others unbelievers.”

Louise and I used to live just a short drive from Dover, New Hampshire, the fourth-largest city in the state, near the Maine border and the Atlantic seacoast. Generations ago, rightwing politicians and preachers were enforcing social control, and John Greenleaf Whittier’s poem “How the Women Went from Dover” tells the tale of three young women who dared to challenge that day’s powerful men, that early generation of what today we would called Trump followers.

Whittier’s poem begins:

The tossing spray of Cocheco’s fall
Hardened to ice on its rocky wall,
As through Dover town in the chill, gray dawn,
Three women passed, at the cart-tail drawn!

The three women were Anne Coleman, Mary Tomkins, and Alice Ambrose, and their crime was adhering to and promoting peace-promoting Quaker beliefs in a rabidly rightwing town.

This so enraged the minister of Dover’s Congregational church, John Reyner, that he and church elder Hatevil Nutter (yes, that was his real name) lobbied the crown magistrate, Captain Richard Walderne, to have them punished for their challenge to Reyner’s authority.

It was a bitter winter when Walderne complied, ordering the three women stripped naked and tied to the back of a horse-drawn cart by their wrists, then dragged through town while receiving ten lashes each. As Whittier wrote:

Bared to the waist, for the north wind’s grip
And keener sting of the constable’s whip,
The blood that followed each hissing blow
Froze as it sprinkled the winter snow.

A local man, George Bishop, wrote at the time, “Deputy Waldron caused these women to be stripped naked from the middle upwards, and tied to a cart, and after a while cruelly whipped them, whilst the priest stood and looked and laughed at it.”

It was a start, from Reverend Reyner’s point of view, but hardly enough to scare the residents of the entire region from which he drew his congregation. So, he got the young women’s punishment extended to 11 nearby towns over 80 miles of snow-covered roads, all following the same routine.

So into the forest they held their way,
By winding river and frost-rimmed bay,
Over wind-swept hills that felt the beat
Of the winter sea at their icy feet.

The next town was Hampton, where the constable decided that just baring them above the waist wasn’t enough. As Sewall’s History of the Quakers records, “So he stripped them, and then stood trembling whip in hand, and so he did the execution. Then he carried them to Salisbury through the dirt and the snow half the leg deep; and here they were whipped again.”

Once more the torturing whip was swung,
Once more keen lashes the bare flesh stung.
“Oh, spare! they are bleeding!” a little maid cried,
And covered her face the sight to hide.

Whipping, beating, stoning, hanging, nailing, being pilloried (publicly clamped to a post through neck and wrist holes, often naked and sometimes for days at a time), dragging, burning, branding, and dozens of other techniques were employed by religious and government authorities in the early American colonies to enforce thought and behavior.

And Trump and his “boys” who strut around with T-Shirts celebrating General Pinochet’s practice of throwing “liberals” out of helicopters in Chile in the 1970s would bring it back if they gain power again.

If her cry from the whipping-post and jail
Pierced sharp as the Kenite’s driven nail,
O woman, at ease in these happier days,
Forbear to judge of thy sister’s ways!

On July 17, 1658, for example, Massachusetts Puritans seized Quakers Christopher Holder and John Copeland and chopped off each man’s right ear. They were then imprisoned and brutally whipped “on a set schedule” for “nine weeks straight.”

Expelled from the Massachusetts territory, Holder and Copeland were told that if they returned, their left ears would also be cut off and a hole would be bored through each of their tongues with a hot poker.

In 1850, Nathaniel Hawthorne published The Scarlet Letter, set in Puritan Boston, which dramatized how rule-breakers were stigmatized in Massachusetts. In Hawthorne’s telling, Hester Prynne was forced to wear a scarlet “A,” stigmatizing her as an adulterer.

It’s why there was debate about admitting Massachusetts to the new United States if they wouldn’t drop their laws supporting hard-right religion; the state finally, after massive debate and over the objections of multiple churches, complied and agreed to ratify the Constitution with its hated free speech and freedom from religion clauses.

So this generation of democracy-hating, bizarre-religious-cult-Qanon-believing right-wingers are really nothing new.

Instead of public whippings to humiliate their enemies, they use social media, truck caravans with semiautomatic weapons and giant flags, and pick fights in airports and public parks.

Instead of denying the Earth goes around the sun, they deny the dangers of Covid and global warming.

Instead of closing schools they force teachers to expose themselves to disease while harassing and threatening them if they dare teach science or actual American history.

Instead of requiring the payment of church taxes to vote, they require elaborate proofs of citizenship and purge “undesirable” people from voting lists with a nod and a wink from the Supreme Court.

From Ben Franklin’s time to today, every generation of Americans have confronted rightwing authoritarians bent on maintaining violent white male supremacy using the twin levers of religious fanaticism and concentrated wealth.

It’s probably beyond the power of human nature to prevent this from ever happening again, but we must not resign ourselves to another authoritarian movement now rising to power in America. Get active!