Sandy Hook, Republicans and the Mainstreaming of Conspiracies

In January 2016 — three years and one month after 6-year-old Noah Pozner was murdered at Sandy Hook his father Lenny was enjoying a day with Noah’s two sisters. The pleasant day was interrupted by phone calls from an unknown number. Four calls in five minutes. Lenny listened to the first message and closed his phone returning to his daughters. Later that evening, at home, he put on headphones, so his daughters could not hear, and played the rest of the messages. The first two said:

Did you hide your imaginary son in the attic?

Are you still fucking him, you fucking Jew bastard?

Sandy Hook: Ground Zero For Post-Truth World

As a lifelong Southwest rural Ohio resident, I’m accustomed to red hats, Fuck Joe Biden flags, and conspiracy theories posted on Facebook. In 2020 I read them in the comment section of the Preble County Health Department. Today I read them in the comment section of Ohio GOP politicians who represent Southwest Ohio. Some, though, are not in the comment section. They are posted by the GOP politician. The willingness to spread, and not silence, these lies prompted me to read Sandy Hook: An American Tragedy and the Battle for Truth by Elizabeth Williamson.

It’s a long read — 450 pages — and the first four or five chapters are difficult. Williamson does an excellent job forcing the reader to face this dark moment in American history. But the book, as the title suggest, is also a deep dive into the danger conspiracies pose to our democracy. Williamson interviews amateur conspiracy theorists and online agitators. She interviews attorneys and reports on academic research and political theorists. She also, of course, interviews Alex Jones and his ex-wife Kelly, the pair who built a financial empire at Infowars — on the bodies of murdered kids.

Due to the book’s length, and the depth of the reporting, I won’t write a traditional book review. However, it is important to note one of the main heroes is Lenny. Williamson details Lenny’s years-long battle to end the conspiracies — culminating with his courtroom victories against Alex Jones.

GOP Leverages Conspiracies

As Williamson weaves Lenny’s story — and the story of other Sandy Hook families — together she builds her argument that Jones may have laid the groundwork for a post-truth world, but conservative politicians like Ted Cruz and charlatans like Donald Trump — whose Big Lie is lifted from the Infowars playbook — perfected the game.

Trump rose to power posting whataboutisms, insinuations and conspiracies and, after he was elected, he pushed even more conspiracies. In 2017 when many hoped he would transition to becoming more presidential, Newtown officials sent him a letter asking him to publicly acknowledge the Sandy Hook massacre occurred — town officials thought it might silence the hoaxers. Trump ignored the letter.

It will be a 2018 U.S. Congressional hearing about Sandy Hook that further underscores the lack of humanity, accepted as normal, by the GOP.

When a father, whose daughter was murdered at Sandy Hook, is asked to testify before Congress, Cruz shows there is no bottom. The father, one of Alex Jones’ first targets, moved to Oregon in the aftermath of the mass shooting, yet years after the murders — and 3,000 miles away from the crime scene — he is confronted on a public street near his home by a hoaxer ginned up on YouTube conspiracy videos. But Cruz, unconcerned about the man’s plight, begins his questioning — first by mangling the slain girl’s name — then by using his time, not to better understand Sandy Hook, but to push conspiracy theories that conservatives were being silenced on social media (despite Ben Shapiro receiving the most daily interactions on Facebook.)

Sandy Hook, The Big Lie, The Insurrection

Countless GOP minions would promote the Big Lie (that the election was stolen) and this led to the January 6 Insurrection. In the aftermath of the attack, 147 GOP politicians would vote to overthrow the election. Although immoral, this is unsurprising. As a Standford University professor Williamson quotes in the book says,

“For those who are pushing the fraud narrative, the actual truth is beside the point. The idea that the election was stolen is becoming a tribe-defining belief. It’s not about proving something at this point. It’s about showing fealty to a particular description of reality.”

This is visible in Southwest Ohio. GOP representatives currently in office took to social media, on Jan. 7, 2021, in the aftermath of the violent attack to condemn the Insurrection. On the first anniversary, in 2022, they were mute. The lie mainstreamed by the GOP. It may be Lenny’s attorney who best explains why.

“A large portion of our political culture has perhaps correctly deduced that there are things that are way more useful, more potent, and more powerful than truth.”

What’s Next?

Surveys show 70 percent of Americans get their political news from social media — a troubling trend. But even more troubling when you understand that social media’s bread and butter is content that generates outrage. The more outlandish, the greater the interactions, so algorithms push the content, further amplifying outrage. This is why nearly every post by Jim Jordan, a Republication Congressman from Ohio, follows a basic format:

  • Name a legitimate problem
  • Offer no viable solution
  • End with a polarizing statement (for Jordan its often ‘Joe Biden’s America’)

Jordan, who is unskilled at legislating, but highly skilled at provocation, now has an ally on Twitter. With Twitter firmly under the control of a billionaire oligarch — whose understand the monetary value of controlling content — a new wave of misinformation and outrage is unfolding.

It’s detrimental to our freedom because angry, confused and misinformed voters are the easiest to manipulate.

Williamson does offers suggestions, and if you only have time to read part of her book, just read that section (at the end of the book). A major part of the solution, she says, is de-platforming bad actors. As she, and others, have reported, the origin of the Covid vaccine misinformation campaign — those lies peddled by GOP politicians — can be traced back to 12 entities*. As Williamson notes, deplatforming those 12 would have saved lives. Another approach is following in the footsteps of Lenny. Lenny educated himself on U.S. laws. He wrote op-eds. He filed complaints with Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and Google to have content removed. He sued Alex Jones (and won). He painstakingly, and humanely, confronted hoaxers online. He concludes stronger regulation of social media companies is needed. He would know. His personal information — everything: social security numbers, cell phones numbers and home addresses – is online. That’s how the demented conspiracy theorist was able to leave those disturbing messages on his voice mail. It’s why credible threats on his life occurred.

The attack on his freedom was caused by bad actors protected by bad public policies.

Ending this assault on freedom begins at the local level. State and local politicians — including members of the U.S. Congress — need their feet held to the fire whenever they amplify conspiracies. And, if they choose not to confront conspiracies posted in the comment section of their posts — call them out while also posting the correct information. But more importantly create new content streams. Write posts. Write op-eds exposing their lies. Because, in a country where the fathers, mothers, grandparents and siblings are denied the freedom to visit a murdered child’s grave we deserve elected officials with the moral courage to silence the voices of bad actors.

If we, as individuals, let the lies go unchecked the U.S. will be controlled by a political party that lacks the integrity to confront George Santos.

*Sorry to break it to you but your local commissioner or state representative did not do exhaustive Covid vaccine research — or even have an original thought — they just pushed Covid misinformation spoon fed to them by conspiracy theorists.

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‘Believe Me’ Examines Evangelical Loyality To Trump

Raised in an evangelical church, I was deeply interested in reading Believe Me: The Evangelical Road To Trump by historian John Fea.

Fea, a self-described evangelical (as the book jacket cover notes) was not surprised when 81 percent of evangelicals supported Trump. Instead he argues, it was the ‘logical outcome of a long-standing evangelical approach to public life.’ An approach Fea describes as,

‘the politics of fear, the pursuit of worldly power, and a nostalgic longing for an American past.’

The relatively short  book (191 pages — hardback edition) explains those three pursuits.

Politics of Fear

As a child, I learned firsthand this element of the movement. Raised during the Cold War era, I remember as a 8 or 9-year-old child waking up from nightmares where I was facing a Communist firing squad. These dreams were fueled by our minister stating, from the pulpit, that ‘when (not if) the Russians took over’ they would ask everyone if they believed ‘Jesus was the Christ.’ Those who said yes, would be executed (but go to heaven). Those who said no would survive, but spend eternity in Hell.

Fea bypasses personal anecdotes and, instead, looks at America’s history and shows the various fears that captivate evangelicals. These fears began with an unhealthy view of Native Americans in New England — even those who converted to Christianity. The fears progress through every era of our history. Fear was behind the evangelicals support of the Know-Nothing (American) Party of the mid-1800s. Evangelicals supported the party mainly out of their fear of immigrants. Fear was drove the movement to add ‘under God’ to the pledge and our coinage. In the current era, fear was the motivating factor behind the aversion to president Barack Obama — whose progressive policies moved society at a pace that panicked evangelicals.

But, as Fea demonstrates, many of the fears have no basis in fact (like Obama being a secret Muslim). This, however, does not prevent unscrupulous politicians from exploiting the misinformation. But, it may have been the Supreme Court ruling on same-sex marriage that really galvanized evangelicals in their opposition to Obama. As Fea notes,

“Rod Dreher, an Eastern Orthodox Christian with a large evangelical following, offered a more apocalyptic response to the legalization of same-sex marriage…. Dreher echoed what many ordinary evangelicals were feeling. ‘We are living in a post-Christian nation. LBGT activists and their fellow travelers really will be coming after social conservatives…adding that believers in traditional marriages ‘are going to have to live as exiles in their own country.'”

Pursuit of Power

In this section, Fea pulls no punches concerning the inner circle of evangelicals who advise Trump. He refers to them as court evangelicals — a reference to medieval times when ‘holy men’ advised kings. As Fea notes, though, not much has changed from the medieval era since, then as now, few spoke the truth for fear of losing access to power.

Fea builds a case that Trump is using the evangelicals to pursue his own agenda. Fea quotes A. R. Bernard, who abandoned Trump after Charlottesville (2017). Bernard said the advisers had little power, noting that ‘meetings (with Trump) took place, but nothing substantive was discussed.’

But, a bigger role this advisory group has, Fea reveals, is to explain Trump’s moral failures to followers. Fea writes,

“Falwell Jr. claims that Trump called him immediately after the infamous Access Hollywood tape was released to the public… (Falwell) implied that Trump was looking to Falwell for help in smoothing things over with evangelical voters who might be disgusted by these revelations.”

Fea notes that the court evangelicals come from three sources: the Religious Right, followers of the Prosperity Gospel, and members of the Independent Network Charismatics. One minister who receives considerable space (and justifiability so) is Robert Jeffress. Jeffress encouraged Trump to move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem — because of Jeffress’ belief that, in doing do, a biblical prophecy would be fulfilled.

Make America Great Again

This section opens with a discussion Fea had with a black minister — a minister that opened Fea’s eyes to the reality there is no historical place for Blacks to look back on when America was great. The current era, as bad as it is with modern-day lynching — White officers gunning down unarmed Black men without repercussion — is the best time in their history.

Fea, the historian, while acknowledging the hypocrisy of the ‘again’ statement (with regards to minorities) moves forward by skillfully breaking down the reality that there is no great era in U.S. history.

Since Trump never (by design) alludes to a specific era, Fea attempts to reconstruct from Trump’s words what era he may be referring to — and, comes to the conclusion, that many of us have, that Trump is simply referring to times when Whites were favored even more than they are today.

Fea concludes his book with an example of American Christians who built their legacy on hope, humility and history — championing it as a better way to interact in our diverse society.

Rated 4/5. This book is an excellent candidate for a weekend read. Those who practice the Christian faith will find the depth of Christian philosophy enlightening. Those who enjoy American history will find the narrative — and logic — easy to follow even if they are not familiar with the tenets of evangelicalism. Those who want ‘their country back’ will find a sliver of hope that, at least, one evangelical is pushing back against the madness.

Categories: Books I have read, Politics, Religion

‘Red State Blues’ Puts Trumpism Into Perspective

I have grown to appreciate the various small, independent publishing houses and authors that have spoken their truth in the age of Trump. Belt Publishing is one I especially enjoy. They published What You Are Getting Wrong About Appalachia which is a much more balanced view of the region than Hillbilly Elegy.

Their latest book I read is Red State Blues: Stories from Midwestern Life on the Left. The book is divided into five sections and contains about 25 essays. The essays are written by people from a wide range of backgrounds and are intriguing looks at the communities they represent. There are stories from immigrants and first-generation Americans, African Americans, college students, activists and reporters. The most well-known name (to me) was Sarah Kendzior, a Missouri reporter (and author of The View from Flyover Country) who has been uncannily accurate in her predictions about the Trump administration.

In her essay, The ‘Other Forgotten People’: Feeling Blue in Missouri, she opens with her attendance at a Palo Alto, California conference, ‘where the average home sells for three million dollars.’

“That’s would be two million, eight hundred and seventy thousand more than the average home sells for where I live, in St. Louis, Missouri: a struggling, blue city in a once purple, suddenly bright red state.”

This direct approach to the problems — like wealth inequity — is just one of the attributes of Kendzior’s writing I find appealing. In the essay she exposes the rage that many, who feel left behind, feel. She notes, though, that anger is intensified when the forgotten are morphed into ‘white, male conservative manual laborers.’

As she says,

“It is a terrible thing to be in pain and ignored — as a place, as an individual. It is perhaps worse to finally be recognized, but only as a symbol — to be given a mask and told that it is your face.”

Her quote, for me, summarizes what each of the essays attempt to do — remove the mask and show what is beneath the surface.

Black Lives Matter

An essay, written by Mark V. Reynolds, hit very close to home. Reynolds writes about Yellow Springs, Ohio (about 45 minutes from my residence), known locally for its laid-back atmosphere, bike trails and progressive politics (not to mention its most famous resident Dave Chappelle). The town also has a rich Civil Rights history. Coretta Scott King graduated from Antioch College in Yellow Springs, and two of the three Civil Rights workers killed in Philadelphia, Mississippi in 1964 were students at Antioch.

But, the essay centers around an incident that made the local news a few years ago during the village-wide New Year’s eve celebration. The event has been held in the town’s center for decades and, after the ‘ball drops’ the crowd disperses without incident.

A few years ago, though, the event was marred when white officers ‘roughed up’ a black man.

After the incident, the progressive town was forced to re-examine itself — and the essay does an excellent job retelling the story, not as a news event, but as a reminder that race relations are abysmal in the United States.

Say No To ICE

The essay about Elkhart, Indiana, though, was my favorite — because of the story it told. It’s the tale of an unlikely pair taking on the private prison industry (CoreCivic). The organization was attempting to build a civil detention facility for ICE in Elkhart. The pair, a 50-something professor and a 22-year-old female (the eldest child of Mexican immigrants) went to work educating the community on the downsides of bringing the facility to the region which has a significant Hispanic population. Eventually, the mayor of Elkhart, a Democrat, would post on Facebook:

“CoreCivic…would create jobs we don’t need at wages we don’t want. Any tax dollars generated by the project wouldn’t be enough to offset the long-lasting damage such a facility would do to our county — both in terms of perception and in terms of creating an unwanted unwelcoming reputation.”

The community succeeds in keeping the facility out of their town — proving Goliaths can be defeated.

Rated: 5 out of 5. Anyone who, like me, is a blue dot in an ocean of red, will find the book enlightening, thought-provoking, and occasionally humorous, but mostly it feels like you’re sitting down with 25 or so like-minded friends.

Categories: Books I have read