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Last Friday morning, at the beginning of a hot June day in Philadelphia, I walked through a phalanx of about a hundred protesters in order to make my way to the Joyful Warriors Summit, the annual convention of the parents’ rights group Moms for Liberty. It was early in the day, but the bass from the speakers was already thrumming, and the protesters—most were young, many were not white—danced behind the barricades that separated them from the Marriott where the convention was taking place. Bedecked in rainbow gear, the jubilant crowd waved signs: “STAND UP TO BULLIES,” “DANCE THE HATE AWAY,” “GO HOME, KAREN.”

This was my second encounter with the joyful warriors, having attended their convention last year, in Tampa, Florida. At that event, there were a few lackluster official protesters, but most of the action outside came from kids attending the anime gathering at the convention center next door. Back then, inside the Marriott, I watched Moms for Liberty heads Tina Descovich, Tiffany Justice, and Marie Rogerson present Gov. Ron DeSantis with a commemorative sword. The golden boy in Tampa, who would be speaking at breakfast in Philadelphia, had a far less prominent role this year; it was clear that the headliner would be Friday’s evening speaker, former President Donald Trump.

Demonstrators react as James Calkins, a supporter of former President Donald Trump, walks outside the Moms for Liberty meeting in Philadelphia, Friday, June 30, 2023.

Nathan Howard/AP

Founded in 2021, Moms for Liberty began in Florida as a protest against school closures and then mask mandates. But as the pandemic wore on, the group’s mission coalesced into what is now known as the parents’ rights movement, focusing on what its supporters see as the dire consequences of schools’ over-involvement in shaping the moral lives of their offspring. The Moms do not think children should be learning about institutional racism in the United States. The Moms consider schools’ social-emotional learning programs—which focus on soft skills like friendship, anger management, and being part of a community—to be Trojan horses for a Marxist agenda. The Moms want to purge school libraries of books that present gender as a spectrum rather than a binary. The Moms want the federal government out of the schools, and, while they’re at it, abolishing the Department of Education would be a good idea as well.

These positions have yielded powerful alliances with deep-pocketed conservative groups. Although as a tax-exempt “social welfare group” its finances are not public, Moms for Liberty acknowledges that it works intensively with the right-wing Heritage Foundation and the Leadership Institute, a Republican organization devoted to training conservative leaders. These groups—and others like them—have likely recognized the might of the parents’ rights movement, which, in addition to making inroads into school boards across the country, propelled Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin to victory in 2021.

The expansion of Moms for Liberty has slowed a bit over the last year compared to the previous one. As of the 2022 summit last July, Moms for Liberty said it had 100,000 members in 200 chapters across 38 states, with 500 attending the convention. This year, the group, which didn’t respond to a request for comment from Mother Jones, counts 115,000 members in 285 chapters across 45 states, and around 700 people came to Philadelphia. But the numbers only tell part of the story; Moms for Liberty’s growth in political influence has been remarkable. Of the 500 right-wing candidates the group endorsed for school board last year, three-quarters of whom had never before run, 275 won their races. In Florida, the group says, 80 percent of its endorsed candidates won.

Largely because of these victories, the group has made a name for itself on the national political stage. Last year, DeSantis, who at the time was running for reelection, was the only political candidate who spoke. This year many of the Republican candidates running for president appeared. In addition to DeSantis, former Arkansas governor Asa Hutchinson, former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley, entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy, and former President Donald Trump all vied for the attention of the moms. It was a veritable CPAC.

The group’s detractors, too, had grown their ranks since the previous year. The 2022 protest in Tampa had consisted of about two dozen graying individuals warbling earnestly for a few hours outside the Tampa Marriott. This year’s protesters, a rotating cast of perhaps a few hundred people, danced their way through all four days of the conference, sometimes heckling the attendees as they left the hotel. Inside the hotel, the session leaders seemed hell-bent on sending the message that the Moms were definitely not the book-banning, gay-bashing fanatics portrayed by the media—the real out-of-step weirdos were the protesters. As mathematician, former massage therapist, and conservative pundit James Lindsay put it in his speech, “We’re in here, we’re talking, we’re having a good time, and everything’s all dignified and fun,” he said. “They’re screaming at a building.” While the unhinged rabble raged, the Moms were getting shit done. Or at the very least, they were enjoying a grilled chicken salad with balsamic vinaigrette in a hotel ballroom while listening to someone talk about getting shit done.

On my second day at the conference, I met up with Robert Pondiscio, a fellow with the American Enterprise Institute who writes about education from a center-right perspective. He told me that he was impressed with the group’s rapid ascent to the political mainstage. “If you get this level of attention from presidential contenders, even if it is just more from one party, the perception exists among serious people that you are an organization to which attention must be paid.” Still, he told me, Moms for Liberty was working through its growing pains, the most painful of which right now had to do with messaging. On the one hand, he said, the group’s structure encourages the conservative virtue of independence—because local chapters act with relative autonomy, the national leaders have very little control over what individual members do. But then, “if you are building a national movement, at some point, to be taken seriously, you have to impose ‘message discipline’—and let the record show I’m making air quotes—because it’s the type of thing that unless taken seriously, can result in missteps.”  

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis in his return engagement at a Moms for Liberty convention.

Matt Rourke/AP

Here is a case-in-point misstep: About a week before the summit began, Moms for Liberty drew unwanted media attention because of what I began to think of as the “Hitler Oopsie.” The leader of a chapter of the group in Indiana had published a newsletter for its members that prominently displayed a quote attributed to Adolf Hitler: “He alone who OWNS the youth, GAINS the future,” it read. An image of the newsletter went viral, and the incident made national news—and, to state the obvious, not in a good way. Democratic presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. pulled out of speaking at the summit a few days later. His campaign claimed it was because his schedule had changed, but you had to wonder if the stain of Hitler didn’t have something to do with it. “We condemn Adolf Hitler’s actions and his dark place in human history,” the Indiana chapter chair wrote in her public apology. “We should not have quoted him in our newsletter and express our deepest apology.”

Earlier this year the anti-extremism nonprofit Southern Poverty Law Center designated Moms for Liberty an anti-government extremist group, largely because of its crusade against public schools that work to affirm the identity of LGBTQ students. In an article on Moms for Liberty, SPLC noted that members of the group had at times used violent rhetoric to express their opinions of these schools’ efforts. 

Being marked as an anti-government extremist group by the SPLC, however, was old news by the time of the conference, whereas the Hitler Oopsie loomed large. At first, most people I talked with seemed to acknowledge that it hadn’t been a high point for the group. A guy who sat across a ballroom table from me, for example, noted that while the quote had clearly been intended to highlight the dangers of someone—in this case the left—wanting to “own the youth,” the use of the quote in the newsletter was nevertheless clearly a mistake. This made sense to me: Moms for Liberty obviously would not want to be seen as taking a page out of the Hitler playbook. But to even leave open that possible interpretation? Suffice it to say that quoting Hitler is never okay.  

After the public apology, it appeared that the Moms for Liberty might be making a broad effort to rein in the more fanatically inclined among them. At the first session I attended—“Comprehensive Sex Education: Sex Ed or Sexualization?”—the speaker, an education researcher named Kelly Schenkoske who hosts a conservative education podcast, opened by calling for tolerance of the protesters. “There are people across the street,” she said. “They, too, are valuable. And they have a right to speak. And I’m thankful for them exercising that right.” Then, she launched into her session, in which she argued that many sex-ed books used in schools were actually how-to manuals.

Even James Lindsay seemed chastened. Lindsay, who has 413,000 Twitter followers and a podcast called “Groomer Schools,” had electrified the crowd the previous year with his theory that schools were using lessons about gender to estrange children from their parents and initiate them into a new Marxist world order.

Not that he retreated from those claims this year. He alleged in his speech over breakfast on the second full day, that the media had deliberately blown the Hitler quote out of proportion in service of the government indoctrination campaign, which was just like that of Mao Zedong in communist China at the time of the cultural revolution. The government had orchestrated this incident as a “struggle session” to alienate and break the spirit of those who objected to the leftist agenda—like Moms for Liberty. But then, unlike last year, he instructed the moms, in their fight against their communist overlords, always to keep it classy. “It’s so important that we keep this joyful warrior attitude—that we keep the poise, that we keep the dignity,” he said. He warned against interacting with the protesters outside. “It takes exactly one of you deciding to do something stupid, they catch it on camera, and then they have their proof.”

One attendee joked to me that he knew that the “fake news media” must be lying about Moms for Liberty being extremists because he had looked through the exhibition hall and hadn’t found a single table for Nazis. That was true. And indeed, an injudicious use of a Hitler quote does not a Nazi make. Still, as the conference wore on, I encountered some ideas—the demonizing of trans people, for instance, or the cleansing of libraries—that were, when you really thought about them, not not in line with authoritarian values. 

I was intrigued by the description of a session called “More Than Victims.” It promised to “counter the divisive and manipulative distortions that have attempted to sever Black Americans’ attachment to their own nation.” Attended by only 15 or 20 people because it shared a time slot with a spicier-sounding session called “Protecting Kids from Gender Ideology,” “More Than Victims” was led by a pastor named JC Hall, the husband of popular right-wing speaker KrisAnne Hall, whose workshop focused on her area of expertise, the biblical underpinnings of the US Constitution.

On the surface, Hall offered a somewhat sleepy PowerPoint presentation about the pantheon of Great Black Americans from the 18th and 19th centuries. Among the dozen or so individuals he highlighted were Revolutionary War martyr Crispus Attucks, real estate entrepreneur Elleanor Eldridge, and the first Black female school principal, Fanny Jackson Coppin. Hall argued that the admirable accomplishments of these people had been erased by a leftist narrative that is excessively preoccupied with the evils of slavery at the expense of celebrating Black excellence before emancipation. Hall explained that he had become interested in African American history in part because he himself had a Black great-grandfather whose family, he noted, had climbed out of poverty by dint of hard work rather than relying on government assistance. “Through hard work and perseverance and just learning from the plantation, [they] decided not to be victims,” he explained. “They got their own reparations the American way.”

In contrast, he disparaged the current advocacy around reparations for slavery. He described Black Lives Matter as “a bunch of transgendered Neo-Marxist revolutionaries.” The Juneteenth holiday? A kind of false flag. “If we have Juneteenth,” he said, “and that’s the celebration of our freedom, then the obvious implication is no Black person before that did anything.” Clocking in at almost an hour, Hall’s presentation ran long, and there was no time for a question-and-answer session. But I lingered at the front of the room as appreciative audience members lined up to thank him. One man remarked that Black history was often misrepresented. Take the famous photo of the 1963 civil rights protest in Birmingham,* Alabama, that shows an officer grabbing the lapel of a Black protester as his dog attacks the man. But that hadn’t been what was going on at all, the audience member said. “The officer was restraining the dog, not siccing the dog.” (In an emailed response to questions from Mother Jones, Hall emphasized that the intent of his presentation was to counter the “agenda of division that Black patriots and heroes prior to 1863 have been practically erased from American consciousness.” He added, “Black history is American history and these heroes deserve honor.”)

As the conference wore on, I noted a marked shift in tone around the Hitler Oopsie.

At the previous year’s conference, as far as I could tell, I was the only journalist attending without a press pass. After my request for one had been denied, Mother Jones paid my way as an attendee. This year, the same thing happened—but I wasn’t alone; at least two other journalists were there as attendees. This was a lucky break because we divvied up the breakout sessions and shared our notes. Without them, I wouldn’t have known about Florida Republican Party chair Christian Ziegler’s take on the Hitler Oopsie. In a session he led called “Mastering the Spin: Effective Messaging Strategies,” Christian Ziegler, who is married to former Moms for Liberty leader Bridget Ziegler, maintained that the context was clear and the chapter leader’s only mistake was to apologize for quoting Hitler. “The headline was, ‘chapter chair apologizes,’” he said. This, he said, played right into the hand of the media. “The press wants to do a story of what happened, and then they want to validate themselves with the apology.”

What Ziegler was advocating for, of course, was the pugnacious, take-no-prisoners approach to political strategy that had been used with great success by former President Donald Trump. While previous presidents and candidates had apologized for their bad behavior—or at least attempted to explain their way out of it—Trump made a brand out of owning whatever transgression and deploying it to propel him back to the presidency in 2024. A master class in Ziegler’s training took place on Friday evening, when, after waiting in an hour-long security line, I watched the former president dazzle the crowd in the ballroom while his audience munched on charcuterie at the tables. “Right in the middle of the presidential election, Biden is losing very badly, and he had me arrested,” he said. “It turns out with me, I did nothing wrong. They go after people that did nothing wrong.” The crowd cheered.

Former President Donald Trump speaking to the Joyful Warriors at the Moms for Liberty meeting.

Matt Rourke/AP

But naturally, Trump was presenting his many grievances not for his own interest, but because of his deep concern for the Moms. Over an hour and 15 minutes, his remarks were peppered with warnings that Biden was coming for the joyful warriors, too. “The greatest abuse of power in American history by far—nobody’s ever seen anything like it—is under the Biden department of injustice,” he said. “They’ve even targeted you patriotic parents at school board meetings. They go after you—it’s not even believable.” The Moms seemed eager to receive this wisdom: They waved Trump 2024 banners, wore gem-encrusted Trump brooches, and thronged to the Trump merch table, buying T-shirts with slogans like “Jesus Is My Savior, Trump Is My President.”

The Trump lovefest was still on full display on the last night of the conference. “Saturday night dinner gala is cocktail attire, but you will see fancier, too,” an email from the organizers had promised. The Moms delivered: Some wore ball gowns. Some of those ball gowns were adorned with red, white, and blue sequins. The atmosphere was festive yet urgent. (Was the string quartet really playing…”Bohemian Rhapsody”?) I struck up a conversation with a guy who told me he was there because his girlfriend was running for school board in her Pennsylvania district. I told him that I worked for Mother Jones, and he brightened and told me that he used to be a liberal. I hear this a lot—older conservatives often tell me that they used to read the magazine back in their idealistic college days. But this guy, who told me he didn’t want me to use his name because he didn’t trust me, had a much more recent history as a progressive. He explained that he had voted for Hillary in 2016, then Biden in 2020. “I was never a fan of Trump,” he said.

But then, during the pandemic, he became frustrated. He watched his girlfriend, a hairdresser, lose clients because she refused to get vaccinated against Covid or wear a mask. Of mask refusers, he said, “Time has proven that they were actually right, because the particles are too small, they go through the mask. Now we know it.” (A brief fact check: This is not true.) But the real turning point, he said, came in late 2020, when he began to read reports that President Biden’s son Hunter’s laptop contained evidence of his father’s corruption. He began to wonder whether Trump hadn’t been the good guy all along. “I started realizing that he was unfairly maligned over and over again,” he said. “Everybody was after this guy, and they still can’t get him, with multiple impeachment investigations. So at some point, it becomes obvious that that the media is working with the Democrats.”

As we took our seats for the gala dinner, Moms for Liberty co-founder Tiffany Justice, who has four kids, addressed the star-spangled Moms with a fiery speech. Pacing back and forth across the stage, she urged the crowd not to be dissuaded from their mission by bad press. “One of our moms in a newsletter quotes Hitler,” she said. Someone in the audience whooped. “I stand with that mom!” she said. The crowd cheered. Then she began to talk about the protesters outside, whom she called “very unhappy or angry.” On the other hand, inside the hotel, “It’s fun!” she said. “We’re having a great time!” But in the next breath, her cheerful tone became ominous. “If you don’t stand now, what is the future for your children?” she asked. “It will be bleak, it will be dark, there will be death.”

The keynote speaker that night was Dennis Prager, a 75-year-old conservative talk radio host and YouTube star who won the crowd over with an anecdote about his interaction with a protester on his way into the conference. One young woman, he said, had told him to get fucked. “I looked at her, and I said, ‘I do!’” he quipped. The crowd roared. But after he dispensed with his personal life, Prager got down to business. He told us that there was a civil war going on in America and the roots of it were “basically the Bible versus the left.” Prager, who is Jewish, explained that the left was inherently in conflict with the Judeo-Christian worldview. “God made order out of chaos, and the left is making chaos out of order,” he said. “The notion that there is no such thing as a male or a female human being is chaos,” he said. “It is a gigantic lie, but it is more than a lie, it is chaos. That’s what we are doing. And why? Because order reflects God, the Creator.”

He spoke of the godlessness of his alma mater, Columbia University, and then of the depravity of all universities. “There is no such thing as a secular institution with wisdom,” he thundered. “That is why the stupidest institutions are the most secular: the universities.” He added, “The post-biblical world is composed of fools, and fools create Communism and Nazism.” After this fire-and-brimstone speech that quite literally positioned secular schools as the enemy, it seemed abundantly clear to me that Moms for Liberty, despite its protestations to the contrary, was not trying to distance itself from its most radical members; it embraced them. The day after I left, North Carolina Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson would address the crowd and say of Hitler, Stalin, and “other despots all around the globe, it is time for us to get back and start reading some of those quotes.”

By the time Prager had made his speech, the first media reports on the conference already had appeared, and they were…weirdly mild? Earlier that afternoon, ABC had published an even-handed article by two journalists who painted a picture of a level-headed bunch of no-nonsense moms fed up with an increasingly illiberal approach to education. “Democrats seek to paint these moms as members of the GOP base rather than swing voters up for grabs, highlighting how Moms for Liberty has backed book bans,” they wrote. 

Reading ABC’s piece a few days after the conference ended, I marveled not at its neutral tone, but at how much simply had been ignored. Had these reporters and I actually been at the same conference? Had they heard about the breakout session where JC Hall argued that to celebrate the emancipation from slavery was to erase the accomplishments of great Black Americans? Had they not seen the Hitler Oopsie transform before their eyes from an embarrassing gaffe to a badge of valor?

But there was also a more troubling possibility: Maybe, the reporters had witnessed all that I had, and it just seemed a new kind of normal. I thought of the erstwhile liberal who had seen the light during Covid and now believed that Trump had been right all along. He had told me that he had been to the breakout sessions at the conference and was impressed with what appeared to him to be purely factual, apolitical presentations. “I’m like a total outsider, but I’m being drawn in,” he said. “And I’m like, this stuff makes sense to me.”

Correction: An earlier version of this article mistakenly identified Selma as the location of the photo of the protesters, the policeman, and the dog. The sentence has since been fixed.

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LET’S TALK ABOUT OPTIMISM FOR A CHANGE

Democracy and journalism are in crisis mode—and have been for a while. So how about doing something different?

Mother Jones did. We just merged with the Center for Investigative Reporting, bringing the radio show Reveal, the documentary film team CIR Studios, and Mother Jones together as one bigger, bolder investigative journalism nonprofit.

And this is the first time we’re asking you to support the new organization we’re building. In “Less Dreading, More Doing,” we lay it all out for you: why we merged, how we’re stronger together, why we’re optimistic about the work ahead, and why we need to raise the First $500,000 in online donations by June 22.

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