Even before Moms for Liberty had wrapped up its second annual national conference—bearing the Margaret Atwood–esque sobriquet “Joyful Warriors Summit”—in Philadelphia on Sunday, the event was a messaging triumph. That’s because the Florida-based right-wing school takeover group, launched in 2021 to protest Covid lockdowns, could count on an amnesiac and credulous press to dress up its race-mongering, anti-LGBTQ+, and hard-right organizing profile in the image of a standard-issue interest group steeped in the homespun politics of local citizen outrage at the grassroots level.
Don’t take my cranky left-critic word for it. NBC News’s Bianca Seward and Gabe Gutierrez attended a breakout session at the five-day Philadelphia confab dedicated to media strategizing. Leading the training workshop was Florida Republican Party chair Christian Ziegler, the husband of Moms for Liberty cofounder Bridget Ziegler—who now helps run Governor Ron DeSantis’s Disney oversight commission. “The media is not your friend,” Ziegler announced, and advised the group’s culture-war faithful to pursue a starve-them-out strategy: “If you give [the media] the least amount possible, you’re fully controlling the message. The more you give them, the less you control. The less you give them, the more you control.” This approach, he went on to note, exploits the key weakness of political reporters: “They’re lazy. They have no idea what’s going on at school board meetings. Oftentimes they don’t even know how local government works.”
The press wasted little time in proving Ziegler right. New York Times reporter Jonathan Weisman opens his own report on the event with an account of a recent PR fiasco for the group, when the Hamilton County, Ind., Moms for Liberty chapter quoted Adolf Hitler in a newsletter and issued a shamefaced retraction along with a public apology. But instead of allowing readers to dwell on the autocratic tendencies of a Hitler-quoting political faction, Weisman instead cites the Hamilton County chapter’s antics as a case study in movement-building by means of “controversy”:
The group’s reputation for confrontation and controversy is very much intact, but as Moms for Liberty convenes on Thursday in Philadelphia, it is doing so not as a small fringe of far-right suburban mothers but as a national conservative powerhouse—precisely because of chapters like Hamilton County’s and their energized members.
It’s true that admirers of fascist leaders are generally a high-energy cohort. But Weisman suggests that not much is to be made of the group’s penchant for extremist thuggery, since, well, GOP presidential hopefuls are thronging to court its support:
The Southern Poverty Law Center, a left-leaning human rights organization, deemed Moms for Liberty an anti-government “extremist group” this year. But five Republican presidential candidates, including former President Donald J. Trump and Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida, will be addressing its Joyful Warriors National Summit.
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Left-leaning activists decry the group’s methods and agenda, but the lead GOP front-runners don’t! Who knows what civilian bystanders are to make of such unfortunate quarrels? Weisman makes no mention of the conservative movement’s half-century crusade to overthrow public education in America, so he can only shrug at how free-floating “confrontation and controversy” attaches itself to the partisan forces feuding over the place of public schools in the American polis. Moms for Liberty, then, is but an organic expression of conservative Covid-era outrage. Wiesman cites Christian Ziegler—the same Christian Ziegler who preaches full-throated press enmity to the movement faithful—retailing this soft-focus fable: “What Covid did was fast-tracked and expedited the concern about the materials in our children’s education. It forced parents to basically become assistant teachers. We all became teacher aides.”
It gets worse. Here’s Weisman’s account of Moms for Liberty’s great political growth spurt:
Conservatives who flocked to school board meetings in places like Carmel, Ind., and Franklin, Tenn., either on their own or under the auspices of local groups like Unify Carmel, soon formed chapters of Moms for Liberty, whose funding sources remain mysterious but seemingly plentiful. As the pandemic receded, issues of race, gender and sexuality rose to the fore among these parents, just as they did in the Republican Party.
“Just as they did in the Republican Party”: In this goggle-eyed narration of causeless political coincidence, there is of course no mention of the Leadership Institute, which was present at the creation of Moms for Liberty and has compiled a prodigious four-decade record of fomenting culture warfare in the service of right-wing power brokers. This connection wasn’t exactly concealed at the Philadelphia summit, as Jenny Cohn, a reporter on the Christian nationalist movement, noted: The group awarded Leadership Institute head Morton Blackwell a “Liberty Sword” at the gathering to honor his career of organizing and white-washing right-wing reaction for mainstream mass consumption.
Blackwell also sits on the board of the Council for National Policy, another long-standing institutional bulwark of the Christian right, which has also placed MAGA hustlers Charlie Kirk, Michael Flynn, and Steve Bannon in its orbit. Council leaders have gone on record, Cohn adds, describing the cause of religious liberty as a blunt instrument designed to abridge the actual liberty of anyone professing belief in rival, non-Christian faiths. The Leadership Institute actually sponsored the Joyful Warriors summit, and Bridget Ziegler serves as “vice president of school board leadership programs” for the Institute, and yet this web of right-wing interlocking directorates rates no mention in Wiesman’s dispatch. Instead, he grants more bandwidth to another Moms for Liberty cofounder, Tiffany Justice, to dismiss critics in just the sort of selective burst of non-signifying agitprop the group is seeking: “Parents ‘came to the schools to express their concern and to try to see what could be done,’ she said, ‘and instead of the schools listening to the primary caregiver of that child, the person that is responsible for directing the upbringing of the child, they shut them down.’”
This tale of the persecution of innocents is, to put it charitably, incomplete. Moms for Liberty has a lengthy record of harassing school officials, LGBTQ+ students, and others, in some cases resulting in arrests and court-issued restraining orders. Group members have threatened gun violence against the figures they target; a favorite refrain in these blow-ups is “we’re coming for you!” alongside the MAGA standby “pedophile.” Justice herself was threatened with expulsion from her son’s elementary school campus for “disruptive and disrespectful” conduct, and announced via text messages that she would be “starting the takedown” of a local news outlet reporting on her behavior.
Toggle over to the Associated Press dispatch from the event, and things are more bloodless still. Where Weisman at least managed to mention a recent school board meeting where a Moms for Liberty member had a handgun fall out of his pocket, the AP report doesn’t even bring up the Hitler-quoting fiasco. Instead, it hurriedly dispenses with the Southern Poverty Law Center’s designation of the group as “extremist” and otherwise treats it as a business-as-usual power broker on the right, one that has evidently accrued power simply by standing in place:
As the group has amassed widespread conservative support and donor funding, its focus on education ensures that even as voters turn their attention to the 2024 presidential race, school board elections will remain some of the most contentious political fights next year. Moms for Liberty started with three Florida moms fighting Covid-19 restrictions in 2021. It has quickly ascended as a national player in Republican politics, helped along the way by the board’s political training and close relationships with high-profile GOP groups and lawmakers. The group’s support for school choice and the “fundamental rights of parents” to direct their children’s education has drawn allies such as Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, a leading GOP presidential contender, and the conservative Heritage Foundation.
This brand of rhetorical whitewashing is especially negligent given its most consequential precedent in recent history: the mainstream press’s colossal failure to treat the 2010 Tea Party movement as a made-to-order creation of the donor-activist nexus on the right. Back then, too, armed and belligerent right-wing extremists shut down town halls for elected officials; lead Tea Party figures were aligned with Christian nationalist (and just plain white nationalist) forces, while the national political press obligingly played along with the approved movement talking point that it was monitoring and punishing racist and antidemocratic excesses in its ranks. When the political press was especially hesitant to get out of bed in the morning, it grouped the Tea Party movement together with the Occupy uprising. Since both criticized the post-meltdown bank bailouts and both galvanized popular followings beyond the reach of major party strategists, they had to be exactly the same thing!
Now, with a whole new set of moral panics convulsing the right in precisely the same autocratic fashion, mainstream reporters can’t be bothered to connect the dots—while mainstream pundits are declaring themselves bored with the whole idea of moral panics in the first place. Really, the only mystery in all this rampant and intellectually inert appeasement of the movement right is that activists like Christian Ziegler continue to believe the press is not, in fact, their friend.
Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly identified members of the Council for National Policy’s board. Though the people identified have been associated with the council, they are not on the board.