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'Stop the Steal' has moved beyond Trump. Now it's threatening future elections

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. The movement to reinstate President Trump has gone far beyond him and now threatens the future of American elections. That's one of the takeaways of Sunday's New York Times Magazine article "How 'Stop The Steal' Captured The American Right" by my guest, Charles Homans. He tracks how Stop the Steal morphed into a movement geared toward future elections. Homans says scores of groups at the state and local levels, with the help of right-wing media figures and activists, are taking aim at the electoral system. He also tells the backstory of Stop the Steal and traces its roots in the Tea Party movement that started after President Obama's election. Some Tea Party leaders were active in trying to overturn the 2020 election. The Stop the Steal movement didn't succeed in reinstating Trump, but it did succeed on another level. Homans cites polls showing that only about one-fifth to one-quarter of the Republican electorate considers Biden's presidency legitimate. Charles Homans is a New York Times reporter covering ideas and activism shaping domestic politics. He's a former politics editor at The New York Times Magazine.

Charles Homans, welcome to FRESH AIR. Let's look at one example of a politician who kind of represents the continuity of Stop the Steal into the future, and this is Doug Mastriano, who I think is fair to say is a Christian nationalist. He's running on the Republican ticket for governor of Pennsylvania, which is a swing state. And he was very active in Stop the Steal. We'll get to how in a moment. But if he wins as governor, what control will he have over elections in this Pennsylvania swing state?

CHARLES HOMANS: Well, in Pennsylvania, the governor directly appoints the official who has the most direct oversight of elections in the state. And this is different in every state, which is part of why this all becomes very complicated. But in Pennsylvania, it's somewhat unusual in that the governor himself or herself has that authority to appoint that person. So he would, in effect, be picking the person who would be directly overseeing the next election in the state where he still very loudly believes the last election was stolen.

GROSS: So let's talk about his role in the Pennsylvania state legislature, where he is still a state senator - his role in trying to overturn the election.

HOMANS: Right. So Mastriano is an interesting figure because he bridges really kind of multiple phases of this big - the big story of how Stop the Steal evolved. You know, he was somebody who, you know, first came to prominence - he's still very new to politics. You know, he was first elected in a special election, you know, I think about a year and a half before the 2020 election. And, you know, he originally came to prominence in - over the course of the protests against the quarantine measures and lockdowns in Pennsylvania in the spring of 2020. And he really built a profile very much outside of the statehouse there. You know, he was not a huge player in Pennsylvania politics qua politics, but he had this real following that he'd build over the course of the pandemic.

GROSS: Because he was adamant in opposing any kind of masking mandate.

HOMANS: Right. And he was, you know, often present for these protests outside of the Capitol in which he was serving and was a very vocal opponent of pretty much all the measures that the - that Governor Tom Wolf's administration had put in place by that point. And after the election happened, he very quickly became - you know, he had been a Trump supporter before that, and he very quickly became a real, you know, amplifier of the claims that Trump and Trump's lawyers were making about how the election had been stolen. And the sort of key thing - I mean, I write in the story about how he was - you know, literally within hours of the election being called for Biden, you know, Senator Mastriano is at the barricades outside the Capitol again in the same place where he had often been present for these anti-lockdown demonstrations. And he's speaking to the Trump supporters who gathered there about how the election had been stolen and about how the Democrats are cheaters and liars and sort of the need to address this.

GROSS: So Mastriano, as a state senator, became known for opposing all of the governor's - all of Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf's masking mandates and other COVID mandates. And, you know, he gained a following for that. And then after the election, when Stop the Steal started, he was one of the leaders of trying to get the Pennsylvania state legislature to appoint fake electors. Tell us about his role in that scheme.

HOMANS: That's right. Well, so what we know - I mean, so he kind of first shot to prominence in the claims about the election late in November after the election, when he convinced this Republican Policy Committee to host this hearing, which really spotlighted both Trump himself and his claims, and also Rudy Giuliani, who testified before the committee. And after that, you know, the Trump team, I think, recognized that he was an important figure in pushing these claims in the state, which was one of the half dozen states that they really saw as key to being able to overturn the election through this - you know, this whole strategy that had been advanced by John Eastman, a lawyer close to Trump, that states - state legislatures could appoint their own slate of electors if they thought the election outcome was in doubt.

And Mastriano became that person for Pennsylvania. We now know from my colleagues Maggie Haberman and Luke Broadwater reporting in the Times there was a real effort to sort of shore up his support for that project of sort of convening this slate of electors - this sort of shadow slate of electors in Pennsylvania, which could then be submitted as an alternative to the ones who were being sent to certify that Joe Biden won the election.

GROSS: So to connect the dots here, if they're not already obvious, if he becomes governor of Pennsylvania, a person who wanted to appoint fake electors to overturn the 2020 election would now be appointing the equivalent of a secretary of state who oversees the Pennsylvania election.

HOMANS: That's right. And he's already spoken about how he would sort of appoint a like-minded person to that position.

GROSS: Mastriano's speeches sometimes use the language of Christian nationalism. First of all, what is Christian nationalism?

HOMANS: I think you can define it as a vision of - I mean, there's a lot of different definitions of it, but I think the - you know, the one that's sort of most germane here is that it's a way of thinking about the identity of the country as being a fundamentally Christian nation and that it's - exists on Earth by some divine providence and to achieve a certain purpose on Earth and is intended to be governed according to that purpose, which is important to distinguish from, I think, a lot of other, more conventional strains of kind of activist conservative evangelical thinking, which we've known in this country in the past, which have sought to sort of maximize evangelical influence on the government, but have not quite gone where, you know, this stream that we think of as Christian nationalism has gone in terms of really proclaiming the extent of the degree to which Christianity is just central to the country.

GROSS: And some Christian nationalists believe that the Constitution was divinely inspired.

HOMANS: Right. There's a whole sort of, you know, theology built around the founding fathers in this, which, you know, very much informs the way that somebody like Doug Mastriano talks about politics today.

GROSS: Mastriano's slogan is walk as free people. What does that mean in the language of Christian nationalism?

HOMANS: So that is a reference - if you see Mastriano's campaign literature, there is always - or often in small letters sort of around the margins of it, the verse John 8:36, which is the verse that reads, if the sun therefore shall make you free, you shall be free indeed. And that's what walk as free people as he's described it is referring to. And it's interesting to think of that in the context of the Bible, where it occurs. You know, this is Jesus. He's - you know, it's sort of early in his proselytizing. He's got basically a still skeptical audience that he's addressing. And he's trying to describe to them a law and order that goes far beyond the old laws of Abraham, which they had been following to that point. And he brings up this verse a lot. And I think it's - you know, it's a way of talking about a form of politics that is sort of, you know, operating on a different plane from politics, as we've known it, is sort of my read on that.

GROSS: And one of the things about Mastriano is that he's very connected to the far-right. He paid $5,000 to the platform Gab, which is very far-right. And the founder of Gab, Andrew Torba, said that the money was for an ad campaign. And to give a sense of what Gab is like, Andrew Torba posted, look at the fruits of what happens when we allow pagans, Jews, nonbelievers, atheists to run our country - massive inflation, a border invasion, billions and billions of dollars being sent to foreign countries. So he's talking about allowing pagans, Jews, nonbelievers and atheists to run our country and how dangerous that is. Mastriano's opponent is the Democratic attorney general, Josh Shapiro, who is Jewish.

HOMANS: Right. You know, I think the way that Torba kind of wraps the broader project of Gab in this religious language is sort of exemplary of something you see a lot on the right, right now, which is not new. But it is sort of in a space that's much more proximate to Republican politics than it used to be, where you see a lot of groups that are quite extreme and, you know, sometimes openly white nationalist, sometimes, you know, more quietly so, really wrapping what they're doing in the language of religion in a way that really parallels the way that that language is being used now in, you know, right-wing politics, electoral politics in this country.

GROSS: So Mastriano won the primaries by 20 points or more than that. What does that tell you?

HOMANS: You know, I think it's an interesting primary to look at because pretty much all of the serious contenders in that primary - in the Republican primary - were in one way or another sort of genuflecting towards Trump's claims about the 2020 election, but in different ways. But Mastriano is something different, I think. He really kind of articulated a way in which Trump's claims about the elections fit into a much bigger political story, one that reaches back to the pandemic and the way that state governments - Democratic state governments handled the pandemic and paints this much bigger picture of this real sort of ideological struggle, which began before Trump, which kind of reached its fever pitch during Trump's presidency, and then was sort of capped off by, you know, what they claimed to be the theft of the election, which is this great crime that had sort of opened the door on to these politics on the other side of it, where politicians speak much more openly about, you know, something that, you know, sounds much less like normal politics and much more kind of, you know, we must punish our enemies and reclaim power.

And I think that that is a story that you see recapitulated in a lot of the politics around, you know, the sort of extended afterlife of Stop the Steal now, which is different from the way that Trump even himself talks about this. I mean, if you listen to how Trump talks about the election, it's still very much in the language of personal grievance and sort of his own wronging and not in the sort of much bigger canvas that somebody like Mastriano is working on.

GROSS: Let me reintroduce you here because we need to take a short break. If you're just joining us, my guest is Charles Homans. And his latest piece in The New York Times Sunday magazine is titled "How Stop The Steal Captured The American Right." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF SOLANGE SONG, "WEARY")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to the interview I recorded yesterday with Charles Homans. His latest article in The New York Times magazine is titled "How Stop The Steal Captured The American Right." It's about how the Stop the Steal movement has its roots in the Tea Party movement and now goes beyond Trump and is threatening the future of American elections.

So another politician who was active in Stop the Steal and is now charting a path beyond Trump is Couy Griffin, who is one of the Otero County commissioners in New Mexico. And he's the founder of the group Cowboys for Trump. What was his role in Stop the Steal?

HOMANS: He was one of these sort of minor figures in the protests leading up to January 6 - between the election and January 6. He was - before that, in 2019, he started this group called Cowboys for Trump, which was sort of enough of, you know, an interest on social media that they, you know, got a meeting with Trump at one point. And after the election, he was one of a number of these local officials who became sort of part of this rolling bus tour that, you know, crisscrossed the country in those months. It was called the March for Trump. And it was one of the sort of main vehicles for the Stop the Steal protests in that time period. And its organizers went on to organize some of the big rallies in D.C. that immediately preceded the attack on the Capitol.

And a lot of the people who spoke along a tour were local officials, local activists. And Couy was one of them. He - you know, he ended up joining the tour and was, you know, appearing across the country on this bus tour and you know, believed, I think, going into January 6 that he was going to speak at the rally at the Ellipse and was not actually included in the bill but was outside the Capitol as the crowd was storming in.

GROSS: He has a role that would have been considered, you know, very minor in the past. He is a county commissioner in Otero County, N.M., but he has power in that position that he has been using. What has he done to challenge votes?

HOMANS: Right. So after January 6, Griffin went back to New Mexico. And he was eventually charged and convicted with a misdemeanor offense related to going into the excluded area at the Capitol on January 6. But while his sort of legal proceedings around that were going on, he returned to his county commissioner position. And when the 2022 election rolled around in Otero County, he and both of his fellow commissioners refused to certify the results of the primary this spring. And they claimed that it was because there were still outstanding questions over the 2020 election in Otero County.

And to outward appearances, this is very strange 'cause Otero County, New Mexico, went for Biden, but Otero County is a very Republican county that, you know, was clearly won by Trump and by - you know, by, I think, a double-digit result. But Griffin argued that there was a need to sort of revisit what had happened there in 2020. And until that was squared away, the subsequent election results, however inconsequential they might have been one way or another, needed to be considered suspect.

And so, you know, they launched a whole audit in the county, which itself found no evidence of voter fraud that had occurred. But Griffin kind of continued to push this case and continued to the point of refusing to certify the election even after the state Supreme Court intervened and said that they had to. At that point, the other two county commissioners agreed to do that. But Griffin kind of remained a protest vote on the certification.

GROSS: So he's an example of how people in politics who were connected to Stop the Steal can have an impact even at very local levels of government. How many people know who their county commissioner is? How powerful do people think of county commissioners as being? But they can interfere with elections.

HOMANS: Griffin is a good example of somebody who's already in office who, you know, is sort of extrapolating the lessons from, you know, Trump's narrative around 2020 to a local action. And you've also seen since the 2020 election, a lot of people volunteering or, you know, running and, in some cases, winning seats that have direct oversight over elections who share those views that 2020 was stolen. And I don't think we know yet, you know, all the directions that's going to go once people, you know, with those views are really overseeing, you know, pieces of the election system on the local level.

And Griffin is a good example of how even in, like, a pretty minor office, that can have real consequences. You know, this is - you know, he was able to sort of throw sand in the gears of the election in New Mexico, you know, from where he was sitting on the county commission. And it became a thing that went up to the state Supreme Court. And, you know, that's sort of exemplary of the kind of, you know, the power that some of these positions in theory would have if people chose to use them that way.

GROSS: Griffin is an example of what you're saying in your article about a lot of people in politics have moved past Trump and are charting a post-Trump future. He said - and he is Christian - I don't know. Would you describe him as a Christian nationalist before I read this guy?

HOMANS: He was - I think he would fit that description. Yeah, he - I mean, he's a pastor, like a former cowboy church pastor, and he prayed over the - you know, the rioters on Jan. 6. So, yes, I would - yeah, I think that's fair.

GROSS: So here's his quote. "I truly do believe that we're past the point of being rescued politically. If God wanted to bring our nation back through the realm of politics, President Trump would be sitting in office right now. Instead, it's almost like we started forming this golden calf with Donald Trump thinking that he was going to be our savior." So he's saying, like, Donald Trump isn't going to be our savior. He was just, like, a false god, a golden calf, so he's moving past Trump. It's a little unclear to me where he's moving.

HOMANS: Yeah. I think it's interesting 'cause I asked him about that comment. He had said that in a podcast interview, and I asked him about it when I met him outside of the courthouse in Washington where he was being sentenced for his Jan. 6 case. And, you know, he said - you know, he spoke - when I asked him and when I brought that up, he spoke about, you know, like, how Trump kind of delighted in sort of being that object of adoration a little - you know, in a somewhat unseemly way. And I think that it was - for people like Griffin, it was a lesson to sort of look to the broader project rather than to leaders. And I think, you know, as he made pretty clear in that interview, he has these sort of, you know, basically religious, you know, views of how this country should be run and a vision in which what local officials like him do is sort of in direct concert with those plans.

GROSS: Well, let's take another break here, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is Charles Homans, and his latest article in The New York Times Sunday magazine is titled "How Stop The Steal Captured The American Right." We'll be right back after a short break. I am Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF TERENCE BLANCHARD'S "FOOTPRINTS")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to the interview I recorded yesterday with Charles Homans about his latest article in The New York Times magazine, which is titled "How 'Stop The Steal' Captured The American Right." It's about how the Stop the Steal movement has its roots in the Tea Party movement and now goes beyond Trump and is threatening the future of American elections. Charles Homans is a New York Times reporter covering ideas and activism shaping domestic politics. He's a former politics editor at the New York Times Magazine.

You write about the connections between the Stop the Steal movement and the early days of the Tea Party and also the birther movement. So I want to start with the birther movement, and that was the movement that claimed that President Obama was illegitimately elected president because he wasn't qualified to run in the first place 'cause he wasn't born in the U.S.; he was born in Kenya. And, of course, he was not born in Kenya. He was born in Hawaii. He showed his birth certificate proving that. That was never good enough for the birthers. One of the loudest voices in the birther movement was Donald Trump. So what connection do you see between challenging Obama's legitimacy and Stop the Steal?

HOMANS: I think that the birth certificate claims - or the birther claims, which, you know - as late as the end of Obama's presidency, you know, 40% - more than 40% of Republicans, you know, believed that he - you know, by some polling, that he was not born in the United States. So this was not a fringe position necessarily. But I think that the birther claims reflected a broader sense of the illegitimacy of the competition, the political competition. And that was something that Trump, of course, himself very personally latched onto and I think informed - and the language - if you go back and see sort of the language that attended the discussion of the - you know, the birther conspiracy theory in 2009, it really echoes very directly forward to the way that the 2020 election was discussed.

GROSS: So one of the people clearly connecting the Tea Party movement to Stop the Steal is Amy Kremer, who was a prominent birther. She was a leader of the Tea Party, one of the organizers, and one of the people who protested President Biden's victory and wanted to overturn the results of the election. So what was her role as a Tea Party leader? What were her greatest contributions to getting the Tea Party off the ground?

HOMANS: She was an early organizer of the Tea Party Patriots, which was one of the first really important Tea Party groups. And then she went on to be a principal of the Tea Party Express later on, which was a somewhat slicker and, you know, more kind of - more directly connected with Republican politics sort of wing of the Tea Party later on.

GROSS: And what was her role in the 2016 election of Trump?

HOMANS: In 2016, Kremer was one of the first real stars of the Tea Party world who threw her weight behind Trump in a series of political action committees starting very early in 2016. And notably, I mean, her - the first political action committee that she was a part of supporting Trump in that election cycle was sort of one of the organizations that was really advancing the idea that this election - the primary election in 2016 was going to be stolen from Trump at the Republican convention and sort of promoting that idea and using that idea to fundraise during the Republican primaries that year.

GROSS: So she was concerned about the Republicans stealing the primary election from Trump before she was concerned about the 2020 election and wanting to overturn the results, planting the idea that you could steal - that even the Republican Party could steal an election.

HOMANS: Yeah. And I think that's an important part of the history to understand - is that when Stop the Steal as a sort of slogan and as an idea first surfaced, it was not in the context of a Democratic, you know, challenge to Donald Trump. It was in the context of the Republican primary in 2016. And its main - the sort of main villain of the narrative as it was sort of, you know, originated in that election was Ted Cruz, not Hillary Clinton, although it was eventually turned towards Clinton in the general election. But when this first became a thing that people were rallying around and the, you know, sort of advisers to Trump were sort of encouraging people to rally around, it was really about the Republican primaries and the very first Republican primaries of 2016.

GROSS: Roger Stone, who was a 2016 Trump campaign adviser and was deeply involved in the Stop the Steal movement - he registered the URL stopthesteal.org in February of 2016, the day after the Nevada Republican caucuses. So what do you know about why, back in 2016, he registered the web address of stopthesteal?

HOMANS: Well, at this point, Stone, who had briefly worked for the Trump campaign the previous year, was sort of nominally out of Trump's orbit and running his own political action committee aligned with Trump. And one thing that's important to remember is that Trump, from the very beginning, was claiming that these elections were stolen from him. Literally going back to the Iowa caucuses, he was making these baseless claims that there had been voter fraud swaying the election away from him. But very quickly, around that time, after, you know, Trump proceeded to win most of the immediate following early primaries - and it was in that context that Stone started to advance this claim.

And he, you know, wrote about this often at the time in places like Infowars and Breitbart about how there was going to be this Republican establishment plot to, you know, to take the election away from Trump. And he connected it in some of these interviews to what had happened to Barry Goldwater in the party, who he's always, you know, identified as one of his real heroes, and that there was going to be a plot afoot in the Republican Party to marginalize Trump the same way that Goldwater had been marginalized after his loss in 1964. And that was sort of - you know, he, from the very beginning, was drawing this big picture of this sort of cabal of elites who really transcended party but were, you know, there to stop this nationalist, as he described him, candidate from winning the nomination of the party.

GROSS: And Trump was sowing the seeds of illegitimate elections after he won in 2016 when he insisted he also won the popular vote. There was his famous tweet - I won the popular vote if you deduct the millions of people who voted illegally. And, of course, there were not anything like millions of people who voted illegally. It's totally false. And in 2020, he told a rally, the only way we're going to lose this election is if the election is rigged. So, you know, people like Stone and Trump were setting the stage to challenge the election before the election.

HOMANS: Yeah. And I think that's an important thing to remember here. And I do think it's what distinguishes the movement that grew up around this and around Trump from kind of what I would characterize as more normal skepticism or even conspiracism around elections, which has, you know, been a feature of American elections, you know, as long as we've had them, really. I mean, the - you know, we do have an election system in need of security updates from what we use now. But - and there are people who are legitimately, you know, lobbying for that and pushing for that and have ideas for how to do that. But the important thing that's always distinguished Trump and the movement around him is that all of this actually precedes him and really has sort of progressed independent of what's actually happened in any election involving Trump. You know, he's always found a way to claim that he was being robbed even when he was winning, and he's claimed that he was going to be robbed before elections even happened in many cases.

GROSS: So to end our interview, I want you to read something that you wrote in your new New York Times Magazine article, and it's about how Trump basically opened up a hole that other people have walked through to start something new. Would you read that for us?

HOMANS: (Reading) Trump had jolted American politics, probably irrevocably, by urging his supporters to see themselves as an American people distinct from the American population, a people whose particular loyalties, identities and values designated them as the nation's true inheritors regardless of what the ballots might have said. If this vision was enabled by his ego, which took him to places no other American president had dared to go, it was also constrained by it, limited by Trump's inability to imagine much of anything outside of himself. This was the paradox of the final, desperate act of his presidency. The hole he punched in American democracy out of sheer self-interest had allowed his followers to glimpse a vision of the country restored to its divinely ordained promise that lay beyond that democracy but also beyond him.

GROSS: And is that where we are now - that Trump opened up this door to people who will take it further beyond him, and they don't necessarily need him anymore even though he still is a central focus?

HOMANS: I think that's right. I mean, I think one way of thinking about what he did in the wake of the election was as this act of imagination that he was sort of brazen enough to pursue that no other president before him had pursued. And even though it failed in the moment, it enabled other people to think of what might be possible and to think in terms that were beyond the pale of democracy in this country before. And I think that that's a very dangerous door to have opened, and I don't think we know what's on the other side of that door. I think you see a range of thinking and kind of experiments in this space, you know, at the local level or the organizational level now, but we don't really see what it adds up to yet. And that, to me, is maybe the most important question of American politics in the years to come.

GROSS: Charles Homans, thank you so much for talking with us.

HOMANS: Thanks for having me.

GROSS: Charles Homans is a New York Times reporter covering ideas and activism shaping domestic politics. His latest article, "How Stop The Steal Captured The American Right," is published in The New York Times Magazine. After we take a short break, jazz critic Kevin Whitehead will review a new tradition-minded album that includes standards performed by the Tyshawn Sorey Trio. It's a departure for Sorey, who's known as a composer and free improviser as well as a drummer. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF PHIL KEAGGY AND HOLT VAUGHN'S "BITTER SUITE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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