Kitty Werthmann has made quite a career out of warning Americans that fascism is on its way. The 84-year-old native Austrian survived the excesses of the Third Reich and, in her dotage as a leader of the South Dakota branch of the Eagle Forum, recorded tapes and videos explaining just how Hitler took power. She made her case during George W. Bush’s presidency, but the audience was small – fringe conservative activists, radio hosts like Alex Jones. Then came President Barack Obama. On Saturday, at the “How to Take Back America” conference, Werthmann found herself speaking to an overflowing room of conservative activists about the parallels between Obama and the rise of Hitler.
“We had prayer in school before we started class, and after class,” said Werthmann. “One day I came into the classroom and the crucifix was gone, and there was Hitler’s picture, and the Nazi flag on either side. And our teacher said, ‘Today we don’t pray anymore. We sing ‘Deutschland, Deutschland Uber Alles.'”
The audience of mostly female conservative activists murmured; some of them scrawled out detailed notes, shaking their heads at what they were hearing. It had been a few days since Fox News reported that a New Jersey school had children sing a song of praise to President Obama. They kept on writing and listening as Werthmann explained how Hitler had euthanized mentally handicapped children, and how he’d kept lists of political enemies.
“What would you suggest we do,” asked one activist, “if we are asked to give up our guns?”
“Don’t you dare give up your guns!” thundered Werthmann. “Never, never, never!”
“Give them back one bullet at a time!” called out another activist. The tense atmosphere melted a little bit; the room broke up with laughter.
According to Phyllis Schlafly, founder of the Eagle Forum, the “How to Take Back America” conference was the largest summit the group had held in all of its 38 years. Schlafly, who turned 85 in August, moved slowly through the halls of the Hilton St. Louis Frontenac, a 30-minute drive west from the center of the city, as new attendees shook her hand and begged her for autographs and photos. She told the Washington Independent that the registration topped 600, beating the previous record of around 300, and the size was overwhelming as hurried hotel staff tried to break down and build up tables for meals, for books, for punch at the end of the day.
“Kitty has pointed out the parallels between the slow, incremental Hitler takeover of Austria and some of the things that are happening today,” said Schlafly, asked about Werthmann’s “How to Recognize Living Under Nazis and Communists” session. “She’s an expert on that. I see what [Obama] is doing as absolute socialism, as government ownership of the means of production.”
The “How to Take Back America” conference was no place for soft critiques of the Obama administration. It was a weekend of speeches and training sessions that were laden with doom, cries of mounting fascism, and long prayers for salvation. It was the kind of event where Schlafly, a conservative icon who’s often seen as a leader of the movement’s far right flank, could take the role of a pragmatist, sticking to the sort of criticism of the Obama administration that might appear on Fox News and asking activists to elect a Republican Congress in 2010. And Schlafly succeeded in bringing big Republican stars to the conference. Former Gov. Mike Huckabee (R-Ark.) was the biggest draw, but six members of Congress attended, too-Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.), Rep. Trent Franks (R-Ariz.) Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa), Rep. Tom Price (R-Ga.), Rep. Tom McClintock (R-Calif.), and Rep. Todd Akin (R-Mo.). Several 2010 Republican candidates hosted workshops, including Ed Martin and Vicky Hartzler, both running for Democratic-held U.S. House seats in Missouri. But some of the rhetoric went beyond partisan politics. At worst, the speakers argued, fascism was on the horizon. At best, this was a pivotal time in a war on Christian values. Some of the speakers split the difference.
“If you look at the classic model for moving to Marxism,” said retired Lt. Gen. William Boykin, who would give the conference’s opening speech, “you look at what every Marxist organization has done, they nationalize. They redistribute wealth. They restrict gun ownership. They then go out and suppress the opposition. And then, finally, they censor the media.”
In his speech, Boykin – who has gotten into hot water for speaking out against Islam while in uniform – begged the audience to pray for their country. “It’s only because of intercessory prayer that we haven’t been hit again since September 11,” said Boykin. “Pray for America for 10 minutes a day. If we can mobilize millions of prayer warriors that can pray for 10 minutes a day, we can open the gates of heaven.”
In the halls and from the stages of the conference, there were constant warnings of fascist, anti-Christian campaigns to break down American morals and sovereignty. Rev. Rick Scarborough, a pastor who advised Mike Huckabee’s presidential campaign, pounded the podium at his Friday afternoon speech, warning that the president’s pro-gay agenda was endangering Christians who spoke out against gay rights.
“The day the president put his hand on the bible,” said Scarborough, “his minions were changing official White House Website to reflect a whole new understanding of civil rights, to refer to homosexuals.” The Bible, said Scarborough, called these people “sodomites, which no one wants to talk about because it reminds them of their behavior.”
Some activists followed this up with a breakout session on “How to Counter the Homosexual Extremist Movement,” where they learned about transgender awareness days at public schools. And some went to “How to Stop Feminist and Gay Attacks on the Military,” where they were informed that upwards of 200,000 active duty members of the military might quit if “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” is repealed.
Those worries about the “gay agenda” came in the context of other alleged threats to the Constitution. Frank Gaffney, president of the Washington-based Center for Security Policy, hosted two panel sessions; one on the United Nations, one on “How to Understand Islam.” The theme throughout was that “transnationalists” of either the Islamic school or the secular school were targeting the Constitution. Conservatives, said Gaffney, could combat this by “picking fights” over seemingly obscure issues, and he cited the work he’d done slowing the nomination for Harold Koh, now the legal advisor to the State Department. Lawyers like Koh, said Gaffney, were dangers to national sovereignty.
“The North American Union is a real thing,” said Gaffney. “It is a real transnational agenda to try to forge out of Mexico, Canada, and the United States, a real competitor to the American Union.” Beseeching his audience not to treat the NAU as “black helicopter stuff,” he claimed the existence of “something like twenty-five different trilateral working groups, each and every one of which is beavering away at new transnational regulations.”
The activists, mostly female and Midwestern, but included people who’d traveled from both coasts, moved in and out of these sessions taking copious notes. Some of them were hearing about this stuff, with this spin, for the first time. “A lot of people don’t think the U.N. is any big threat,” said Karen Clark, an activist from Utah, telling what she’d learned from Gaffney’s speech. “I hadn’t heard about the two schools of transnationalism before.”
Off the stage, the fears and conspiracy theories about President Obama grew more obscure. One activist said that Obama may have been “installed” after decades of lessons from Communists. Peggy Carter, an Eagle Forum leader from North Carolina, fretted that Obama was “anti-white,” and had only stealthily revealed that to Americans because “he can’t afford” to make it obvious.
Some of the most prominent attendees expressed doubts about the president’s birth records. Rep. Cynthia Davis, a Republican state legislator in Missouri who has worked with “birther” lawyer Orly Taitz for most of this year, said that lawsuits demanding proof of the president’s citizenship were chiefly about the integrity of the Constitution, and that because Obama’s father was Kenyan, Obama’s eligibility problems extended beyond his birth records.
“Her credibility is questioned because she has an accent,” said Davis, defending Taitz, “and yet the reason she has an accent is because she came from a Communist country, and she knows how awful that is, to have a government usurped.”
Other Republican politicians who’d gotten in hot water for indulging in “birther” jokes or conspiracies led popular breakout sessions. Kris Kobach, a candidate for Kansas secretary of state who had joked that neither Jesus Christ nor Obama had a birth certificate, said that he wouldn’t bother with the issue if elected in 2010, and expected it to be dealt with in one of the various outstanding lawsuits. Rep. Trent Franks (R-Ariz.), who had pondered a lawsuit over the president’s citizenship, said he had no doubts about Obama’s citizenship, but suspected that something was being hidden by concealing the original 1961 document on file in Hawaii.
“President Obama could solve this problem and make the birthers back off by simply showing us his long-form birth certificate,” said Franks.
Kobach and Franks stayed away from that topic in their sessions. Kobach hosted two, on immigration and on the threats that ACORN and voter registration reform posed to America’s electoral systems. Franks introduced Maafa 21, a documentary which argues that legal abortion in the United States began as a plot to commit genocide against American blacks. During a short clip from the film-which Franks said he’d shown to members of the Congressional Black Caucus-the congressman quietly commented on the most powerful interviews.
“When we said we would no longer go to the back of the bus,” said anti-abortion rights activist Alevda King on the screen, “there was a place being reserved for us at the abortion clinic.”
“Hear, hear,” said Franks.
Whenever he got the chance, Franks told activists about his current project, the Susan B. Anthony and Frederick Douglass Prenatal Nondiscrimination Act of 2009, a bill that would make it illegal to perform abortions based on the race or gender of the fetus. By his logic, this could force a lawsuit that would define fetuses as people. Franks, like the other members of Congress who appeared at the conference, tied the cause of Eagle Forum activists to the goals of the founders, of Abraham Lincoln, and of true adherents to the Constitution.
By the close of the conference on Saturday night, the focus had returned to Schlafly. The boisterous, ever-present Christian radio host and conference co-sponsor Janet Porter played a series of clips from the 84-year-old activist’s career and gave her a prize: the “American Hero of the Century” award, a glass eagle with a verse from Isiah scrawled into it. And while his 2008 rival Mitt Romney spoke to the Mackinac Republican Leadership Conference in Michigan, Mike Huckabee flew from New York, where he’d filmed a new episode of his show, to give a closing speech that paid tribute to Schlafly and all of the ideas that the conservatives in the room had forced into the Republican mainstream. He called for slicing the United Nations off of Manhattan, and said that with the help of conservative activists, he might “live to see the day” when abortion is banned in America.
“God bless you,” said Huckabee, “and God bless Phyllis Schlafly most of all.”
David Weigel is a politics reporter for the Washington Independent.
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