Shame Went to Die at Moms for Liberty’s Philadelphia Summit

Michael M Santiago/GettyImages
Michael M Santiago/GettyImages
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In another era of politics, Republican presidential hopefuls may have hesitated before hitching their brands to an organization whose members have harassed and threatened opponents, fantasized about enacting gun violence, mingled with known extremist groups, quoted Nazi leader Adolf Hitler in their materials, and earned a designation as an anti-government extremist group. It’s safe to say that time is long gone.

Five 2024 candidates traveled to the birthplace of the United States to take turns auditioning for the support of a sold-out crowd of Moms for Liberty activists and rhetorically kissing the rings of the group’s co-founders, former school board members Tina Descovich and Tiffany Justice, at their “Joyful Warriors” conference in Philadelphia this week.

It’s little surprise; Moms for Liberty has emerged as a juggernaut in the conservative movement since its inception two years ago. The group claims to fight for “parental rights at all levels of government,” but it’s better known for what it opposes: COVID-19 health precautions, the contents of school libraries, and educational curricula that feature lessons about race, sexuality, and gender. Moms for Liberty has ridden its successes into statehouses across the country, where it hopes to help push anti-LGBTQ bills into law.

The Southern Poverty Law Center added Moms for Liberty to its database of extremist groups last month: a move swiftly rejected by the group as a “political hit job” and frowned upon by many of the group’s conservative media allies. For many speakers, including presidential candidates, that extremist group designation was acknowledged via a punchline.

“I’m telling you these people are sick,” former President Donald Trump said, earning laughter from the audience. “Moms for Liberty is no hate group… You’re the best thing that’s ever happened to America.”

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Even Nikki Haley, a relative moderate in the current slate of Republican candidates, shrugged off the group’s scandals.

“When they mentioned that this was a terrorist organization, I said, ‘Well, then count me as a Mom for Liberty,’” Haley proclaimed to the sold-out crowd. She was met with roaring applause.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis told Moms for Liberty that scrutiny of the group was “a sign that we are winning this fight.”

Ryan Walters, the Oklahoma superintendent of public instruction who has called teachers’ unions “terrorist organizations” and is facing fallout for his handling of federal funds, took his pushback a step further.

“You know who else was called a terrorist group, an extremist group?” Walters rhetorically asked. “Those founding fathers. That’s who you are today. You are the most patriotic, pro-America group in the country right now.”

It’s clear that the SPLC’s extremist group designation struck a chord at Moms for Liberty. The joking candor shifted briefly before Trump spoke on Friday, when co-founder Justice teased that her group would be exploring retribution, hinting at possible legal action, against its opponents and critics.

But even with that scrutiny in front of mind, Moms for Liberty made no apparent effort to tamp down on the kinds of extreme rhetoric and far-right affiliations that earned its spot on SPLC’s list to begin with. Even a passing glance at the event’s speakers lineup reveals a wash of far-right ideologues.

One featured speaker was KrisAnne Hall, who has espoused far-right rhetoric and affiliated with less-debatable extremist groups like the anti-government Oath Keepers and neo-Confederate League of the South. Others include James Lindsay, an anti-LGBTQ social media performer who has described the Pride flag as that “of a hostile enemy” and North Carolina Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson, an unabashed Christian nationalist who has declared the transgender rights movement “demonic” and “full of the Antichrist spirit.” Many speakers have publicly accused teachers and officials who promote LGBTQ inclusion in schools of grooming children for sexual exploitation—incendiary rhetoric that has undergirded surges in anti-LGBTQ threats in the US.

That sort of sentiment was mirrored by DeSantis, who maintains a fandom within Moms for Liberty, and the other presidential hopefuls, too. At one point in DeSantis’ speech, he declared that gender-affirming care for transgender youth was “wrong” and “has no place in our society.”

Haley accused transgender rights advocates of “trying to erase” the progress of women in America. Audible groans of disgust could be heard from audience members when Trump bemoaned parents who take their children to drag shows.

The incendiary rhetoric directed toward LGBTQ people and their advocates on stage was certainly hateful, but it also serves to justify a host of behaviors and policies that don’t actually help parents or their children. It also works to cast Republicans’ political opponents not just as people who disagree but as immoral villains who must be defeated by any means necessary, let alone compromised with.

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The establishment conservative movement has long sought to undermine public education, and some of its biggest players have predictably rushed to support Moms for Liberty and groups like it. Its founders have discovered allies in a host of conservative movement groups with large bases of support and dollars. Heritage Foundation and Liberty Institute, two of the most powerful and well-funded think tanks in Washington, sponsored Moms for Liberty’s summit this year.

If you believe Trump, all of this debasement is in service of fighting “a cult” of “Marxists and perverts” who are pushing a “poison” of gender ideology on children. Those who believe DeSantis might think of themselves like those who battled for a democratic Berlin after World War II. Whatever it might be, to the true believer, it must be better than the child abuse Democrats supposedly hope to normalize.

The only viable currency in the modern Republican Party is raw power: a fact made self-evident in presidential candidates’ appearances at the Moms for Liberty summit. In their run to the top of the ticket, these Republican candidates have also submitted to a race to the bottom of a barrel, where shame is a benchable injury.

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