Democracy Itself at Stake in Defeating the Republican Culture War

Interview with Peter Montgomery, senior fellow with People For the American Way, conducted by Scott Harris

When Donald Trump ran for president in 2015 and 2016, he made the demonization of immigrants and people of color the centerpiece of his successful campaign, exposing the deep racism and xenophobia within the GOP base. Responding to Trump’s toxic rhetoric, many white supremacists across the country felt safe to publicly spew hate and threats of violence targeting racial minorities and the LGBTQ community.

Now, as the country approaches the 2022 midterm congressional election, the Republican party has once again launched a repressive culture war. In states across the country, GOP governors and legislatures are passing laws to attack LGBTQ and transgender rights, ban books, outlaw abortion and prohibit the teaching of America’s slave-era history and racist politics. Many Republicans have also adopted QAnon tactics to smear opponents as pedophiles and groomers. All this, while the party imposes voter suppression laws to make it more difficult for communities of color and young people to vote.

Between The Lines’ Scott Harris spoke with Peter Montgomery, senior fellow with People For the American Way and Right-wing Watch, who outlines the very real dangers of the GOP culture war to democracy and effective ways for the public to fight back.

PETER MONTGOMERY: There are historical roots to all of this. You know, we saw the religious right, you know, ran a campaign to take over school boards back in the ’90s around the country. We’ve had textbook battles off and on over the years as they seek to control what can be taught in classrooms and what cannot be taught in classrooms. And so the current wave of censorship targeting both the teaching of honest history about race in this country and the teaching and availability of books reflecting the lives of LGBTQ people. You know, they both have have roots in the right-wing.

I do think Donald Trump’s campaign really energized and electrified elements of the far right that had been kind of staying in the shadows because they were not welcomed into public discourse. And Trump has made people think that it’s okay for them to let their bigotry flags fly. And other politicians seeing how that worked for Trump in terms of energizing his base have picked it up and run with it.

And that’s really been appalling to see just how much the Republican Party has not only fallen in line with Trump and has really embraced his strategy for building power by demonizing opponents, by fear-mongering about different groups of people by trying to convince parents that their children are at risk from gay people, from public schools, from teachers.

It’s really a broad attack. And it’s a broad attack in the service of taking and holding political power.

SCOTT HARRIS: Peter, I’ve read some commentary that talks about how the culture war aimed at schools and classroom curriculum is in actuality an attack on public education with a goal of dismantling America’s public education system. How would you weigh in on that question?

PETER MONTGOMERY: Yes, I would agree with that completely. There is a very long running, well-funded campaign against public education in the United States. It’s a pincer movement. In some ways, it’s from Christian right activists who want to promote Christian schooling and home schooling and they want to divert tax dollars into those things. But it also comes from sort of the corporate and libertarian right to sort of have principled opposition to public institutions generally and to public schools in particular, and have sought to dismantle public education through vouchers and other means.

And the fact is, they’ve tried all that for a long time and they have made headway. The one thing that stands in the way is the fact that most Americans support public schools. The vast majority of American kids are still educated in public schools. And so in order to achieve their political objectives, the right has to sow mistrust.

And that’s what we’re seeing now. That’s what all this fear-mongering about LGBT issues is in schools, all this fear mongering about critical race theory in public schools, it’s all about telling parents that they can’t trust public schools to take care of their kids, educate their kids. It’s all about sowing suspicion toward public institutions so that they can try to build political momentum for further dismantling the idea of public education or diverting public education funds away from public schools and to private and religious schools, home schooling and the, you know, right- wing for profit groups that make curriculum for home schools.

You see that Hillsdale College, which is the axis intellectual point of the spear for the right, is now going to be opening 50 charter schools with its so-called patriotic education curriculum in Tennessee, funded by Tennessee taxpayers. And that is the kind of thing that the anti-public education movement has been working toward for decades.

SCOTT HARRIS: What are some of the most effective ways to combat the disinformation that feeds this culture war and damages public institutions and creates this distrust that you described here tonight? It seems to me and many other people that the Democrats are avoiding the topic and when they do respond, the response is quite tepid and not really working very well.

PETER MONTGOMERY: There is a lot of sense of that, which is why people gravitate so strongly when they see examples of that. But the Michigan state legislator whose video went viral, where she just directly and powerfully took on some of the lies of the anti-LGBT movement and people around the country were like, yes, that is what we need. And so I think that that’s what we need.

You know, unfortunately, just putting out the facts, it’s not enough. There’s a lot of, you know, science about the fact that sometimes, you know, people who are totally committed to a worldview are not easily swayed by facts. So that’s a big challenge. But I think putting the truth out there in a compelling way, encouraging people to ask questions of their friends and family members who have gone down this rabbit hole, but to to make a real commitment to putting out the truth, to exposing the lies, to hopefully holding up the lies to public scrutiny in a way that will convince people who are either in the middle or who have accepted some of those lies to start questioning what they’re told.

And I think that is a major undertaking for, you know, Democratic leaders, for progressive activists and thinkers, and for average Americans who, you know, may have lost their parents to Fox News, you know, the way some people put it. I am not immune from having family members who live in the Q continuum.

And it’s a major challenge.

Listen to Scott Harris’ in-depth interview with Peter Montgomery (28:33) and see more articles and opinion pieces in the Related Links section of this page.

For more information, visit People For The American Way at pfaw.org and Right-wing Watch at rightwingwatch.org.

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