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Burn the Boats is an award-winning podcast featuring intimate conversations with change-makers from every walk of life. Host Ken Harbaugh interviews politicians, authors, activists, and others about the most important issues of our time.
I think that a lot of people are stunned because this is unprecedented. There aren't any rules because nobody thought that these norms would be violated. So, you have a long list of infractions here, and because the idea has been that Supreme Court justices are above reproach, we don't really have the mechanisms to reproach them yet.
I'm Ken Harbaugh and this is Burn the Boats, a podcast about big decisions.
My guest today is Anne Nelson, an award-winning war correspondent playwright, the author of Shadow Network, and a previous guest on this show.
I asked her to join us today, to help us understand how ultraconservative wealthy networks have corrupted the Supreme Court and accelerated both polarization and extremism.
Anne, welcome back to Burn the Boats.
Good to be back, Ken.
We need to talk about SCOTUS money has corrupted the court. Are you struck by how one-sided this is? It's because of how muddied interests, a blend of religious and ultra conservative activists have coordinated on the right to capture the court. That sounds a lot like a shadow network.
Well, it does. And as it happens, I laid out the procedure in my book and thoroughly documented it.
Basically, what happened was some ultraconservative religious and economic interests objected to the court some years ago, even though it was in step with public opinion in the United States and represented the public, but it did not represent their minority interests.
So, they worked on cutting a deal with Donald Trump, and they used three organizations in particular to imagine a more conservative court. The Federalist Society, the Heritage Foundation, and the NRA (the National Rifle Association), which I didn't think would have a role in shaping the courts. But it turned out that it did.
And the deal they cut with Donald Trump was that their network organized under the umbrella of the Council for National Policy and some other organizations would throw their money and their strategists and their ground game behind Trump in return for his nominating federal judges from their list.
And this was very much in the public eye when it happened. And yet somehow when you have these three Supreme Court justices coming in, Kavanaugh, Gorsuch, and Coney under Trump, people seem to be surprised at the outcome.
Which is rulings that are the most regressive on social and environmental issues that we've seen in our lifetimes.
Now, that's not the only place to watch. This happened in the federal judiciary appointments down the line. So, there are three levels of the federal judiciary. And Trump worked with these organizations to salt them full of conservatives.
In many cases, people who had very low ratings from the American Bar Association. In some cases, they had never even tried a case. Their only real qualifications were their right-wing political affinities.
So, there was a reshaping of the judiciary under Trump that is changing the complexion of American society.
And it's not just that conservatives have captured a greater share of seats in the American judiciary, it's that they have done it through corrupt means. And we see this playing out now, in the headlines in terms of coverage of the Supreme Court. God knows what's happening in lower courts.
But can you give us a summary of the top line scandals affecting the court right now, and the justices that they implicate?
Yes. Well, a key figure in all of this is an ultra-conservative Catholic named Leonard Leo. And he had been in a leadership position of the Federalist Society, which is a key organization for implementing this strategy.
And then recently, he was given basically a $1.6 billion war chest. It was over a billion dollars, I'll have to confirm how much over a billion dollars, from a Chicago businessman named Barre Seid.
And this money has been used to lobby various aspects of a court and working often through organizations like Alliance Defending Freedom and others, Council for National Policy partner.
And you also, have influence pedaling with several justices in particular Clarence Thomas, who has benefited from a lot of financial relationships with conservative donors and more recently Justice Alito.
And how have they been implicated? Because you say influence peddling, which makes it sound like a bottle of wine here and there, but it's not that, it's much bigger than that.
No, it's very much bigger than that. It's expense paid vacations at the most luxurious level you can possibly imagine. In Clarence Thomas' case, it involves the purchase of his mother's house.
This is really elevating the Supreme Court justices who are supposed to be representing all of us into the realm on the way of life of not the 1%, but the 0.001%.
And yeah, I mean, it's really the realm of the plutocrats and the way of life, which they seem to feel is justified, but in terms of ethics in the legal profession and the judiciary is unprecedented.
And it's so unprecedented that there aren't even strong rules and guidelines on laws governing them because you haven't seen this happen before.
And it's going to take a while for the regulatory framework and the ethical guidelines to catch up with this new outrageous reality.
Well, speak to that briefly because we are used to ethical rules that govern the behavior of elected officials, even other justices, I should say judges in lower courts. But the Supreme Court doesn't have at least a codified ethical code. Right?
Right. I think that in terms of the founders, they assume that these appointments would be of individuals who were above reproach.
And some time ago you had an individual, a fortis who was tied to the Democratic party on much, much lesser grounds. I mean, they look insignificant compared to what has been going on with Clarence Thomas and Alito.
But the other element that is extremely concerning is the political activity and the hyper politicized activity of Clarence Thomas's wife, Virginia, otherwise known as Ginni.
Now, she is on the board of directors of the Council for National Policies lobbying arm, CNP Action. She has been on the board of directors of Turning Point USA, which is another CNP partner.
She encouraged people to come to the January 6th protest that turned into the insurrection, and she's been under scrutiny from the January 6th committee in the house.
So, again, I think that a lot of people are stunned because this is unprecedented. There aren't any rules because nobody thought that these norms would be violated.
So, the other set of questions comes up with the money because she's been on a sizable payroll for these activities. And Clarence Thomas has not always been diligent in reporting this income. So, you have a long list of infractions here.
And because the idea has been that Supreme Court justices are above reproach, we don't really have the mechanisms to reproach them yet.
People who are familiar with this show know what CNP is, and its long history that has led us to this point. But can you give us the 30 second overview because I want to dive a little deeper today.
Sure. It an organization that's an umbrella coordinating group that was formed in 1981 by right-wing fundamentalists and televangelists (think Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson) and fossil fuel interests to promote an ultraconservative agenda.
And basically, to destroy the Republican party as it existed then and turn it into an ultraconservative battering ram against democratic norms.
And for the last 40 years, they have been making gradual and then rapid progress in this goal.
That time span is really important to emphasize because I sometimes hear people in my orbit try to explain the corruption of conservative justices by saying, “Look, this is just a feature of conservatism. This is why we oppose it.”
But it wasn't inevitable. I mean, this was a long game launched by the CNP and others to corrupt the court over time, to capture the court. And it has captured the Republican Party in a significant way as well.
But this isn't some endemic feature of conservatism. It's the result of a long-term strategic plan and literally hundreds of millions, maybe billions of dollars put in play by this shadowy network as you describe it. Right?
Absolutely. And I really value conversations with people like yourself who military veterans, because I think the metaphors of the military experience are very valuable here. There's a form of guerrilla warfare that has taken place on multiple fronts.
So, what they do very well is function in various theaters. So, you've got their attack on the judiciary, which was really accelerated under the Trump administration.
But their attack on Congress was accelerated in 2010 when they really went after Republican moderates in Congress, successfully including Don Boehner.
And they really had no use for Jeff Flake. They had no use for John McCain. They were too willing to work with Democrats for the common good of the country.
Whereas these are spoilers. They would rather see the economy go down than work with Democrats to enhance it. And of course, we've seen what they've done initially with the presidency under Donald Trump. And that's just the beginning of the story.
I mean, Trump has made it very clear recently. And if he gets a second term, he is going go after the federal agencies and the civil servants, the various departments and concentrate more and more power in a dictatorial interpretation of the presidency.
Let's double click on this idea, though, that the CNP and this movement existed before Trump. It will long outlive Trump. Trump has been a useful tool in affecting this shift in politics, in the judiciary.
But if Trump is beaten or goes away in some other way, the danger hasn't passed, right?
The danger hasn't passed. But they also, realize that the people they represent are a smaller and smaller percentage of the American public. It's not that they've ever been able to make the argument of majority rule. It's how to manipulate an impassioned minority.
And I just heard Richard Haass, formerly the Council on Foreign Relations make an interesting point, which is that the outcome of our elections are rarely determined by actual majorities of the population. It's by the intensity of feelings that they can rouse in minorities that are then motivated to vote.
And that's manipulating religious congregations, evangelicals, and fundamentalists has been the superpower of this organization. They manipulate them through lies and gross misrepresentations on abortion, and LGBT populations, and more recently, on public education.
And motivating these people to go to the polls, especially in the battleground states.
So, in military terms, it's an impressively effective strategy, and the Democrats have been very slow to comprehend it and respond.
You talk about manipulating an impassioned minority, that's part of it, but the other half of it is making it difficult for democracy to fully express itself.
I'm thinking about this referendum in Ohio where the Republican controlled legislature changed the rules halfway through the game and said, “We have to get 60% of the vote now, to express the Democratic will.”
They suppress votes, they make it harder to vote. They intimidate voters along with manipulating their impassioned base.
Absolutely. And in my book, Shadow Network, I give various historical examples. One of their active members, Ken Blackwell, used to be Secretary of State in Ohio, and he managed to throw out a whole bunch of votes because he argued that they were printed on the wrong weight of paper stock.
But you add that to incredible gerrymandering and states like North Carolina where you can have the majority of the voters be Democrat, but the gerrymandering means that they have a minority in the state legislature. That's just one case among various.
And I'll have other cases of where they’re arguing against having polling places on state university campuses, because guess what? Students at state universities tend to be Democrats, so they should make it as hard for them to vote as possible.
Now, the voter suppression issues of minorities in Georgia are well documented. You can't hand out water to people waiting in line in the sun for hours, because I don't know why. You don't want them to vote, that's why.
So, every state has its own machinery where they're really trying to suppress democratic votes and elevate the Republican votes through every … I mean, that's the other half of it. So, they've got all kinds of apps. They use churches to register voters, to inform voters how they should vote, and then physically take them to the polling places on election day.
But they manage to go through church directories and compare them to voter rolls and avoid offering these services to likely democratic voters. So, they go right up to the line of what's legal, and then they cross it.
And then they cross it. I'll never forget a story recounted to me by some union guys. When I was campaigning in Ohio, they had collected hundreds of thousands of signatures for a referendum.
And they stored them in a bank vault before the time they had to be submitted because there was a credible threat that there was an arson planned attack to burn these signature petitions before they made it to the Secretary of State. So, yeah, it's a real fear and a real threat in democratic circles.
When you're writing about shadow networks, and the interlocking interests, and the money that's flowing in and the secrecy surrounding it, how do you avoid the accusation of conspiracy mongering? Which really upsets me when the right does it. How do we avoid that same charge?
Well, usually the charge comes in the form of conspiracy theory. And anybody who looks at my book will see that it has a thousand footnotes documenting from their sources what I state. So, if they go on YouTube and make a statement and I quote it, that's not a theory, that's a fact. That's a documented fact.
And I've taught journalism for various years. I've worked with human rights lawyers closely. I believe in documentation, and I practice it vigorously. So, I haven't really found people, at least directly, talking to me about that.
And if you go to the digital version of my book, those footnotes are live links in many cases where you can go straight to the YouTube video and see it for yourself. You can go straight to the campaign financing and see the numbers for yourself.
So, where I find the big problem with the coverage, and unfortunately, it's still a big problem now, is that because they work with so many different partner organizations, there is a tendency on the side of the mainstream press, including the New York Times especially, to go to these individual organizations and call them grassroots.
A grassroots conservative organization of these local citizens in Florida who suddenly decided to protest X, Y, and Z spontaneously. And the documentation, as I say, is there.
Look at Moms for Liberty, which is causing a lot of disruption of public schools, causing a lot of pain among students, and teachers, and parents. And just indulging in ugly, ugly behavior.
Well, guess what? They publicize their relationship with the Leadership Institute, which is a core organization of the Council for National Policy. It's all there. I mean, anybody can look it up online.
You can see the relationship of Turning Point USA, which was just called a grassroots organization. Which was founded with money from a core member of the Council for National Policy, the head of it, Charlie Kirk is a member of the Council for National Policy. Ginni Thomas, as I mentioned earlier, was a board member.
Those relationships are visible in bold, neon light. And yet, for whatever reason, the coverage of these organizations makes them sound like they're spontaneous and independent. They're part of an operation that is highly calculated.
And I'll tell you why. Because Biden won significant votes from suburban white college educated women who didn't like Donald Trump, for reasons I find very easy to understand.
So, how do they target these women? With their kids. “Oh, your kid isn't going to get into an elite college because of affirmative action.” We'll organize this organization, Moms for Liberty, and like sound the subliminal race arguments and get you scared on behalf of your kids. And that's how we'll pry you away from the Democrats.
TP USA is going after the student vote, and it's going after it through mass organizations, through mass conventions, through basically paying these students to go on junkets, and through a massive media campaign.
And again, there's nothing independent about it. My book has all of the origin story, and the financing, and the relationships.
We spent a lot of time covering Moms for Liberty on this show and our companion show, Against All Enemies, and it is anything but grassroots.
I hope though that the exposure of, for example, their decision to quote Hitler and then double down on that is going to really illuminate for the suburban female demographic you're talking about, the reality of organizations like this.
Talk a little bit about Turning Point USA, a group that operates in the same vein.
Charlie Kirk just said on his show, referring to black women, Michelle Obama in particular, “They do not have the brain processing power to otherwise be taken really seriously. So, they had to steal a white person's slot,” referring to college admissions.
And yet a week later he's hosting the TP USA conference and every Republican presidential candidate shows up and doesn't say a word about that kind of overt racism.
And Charlie Kirk happens to be like a junior college dropout. So, he's standing up for the would-be Ivy Leaguers of the white race when he couldn't even make it through college himself. This is the kind of hypocrisy that we're dealing with.
So, the mediocrity of their leadership is truly stunning. But you see, when you have people bankrolled and offering junkets, his organization paid for several busloads of students from Arizona to go to the January 6th protest that turned into an insurrection.
They have these mass events. And then you also, have him bankrolled for his YouTube channel and his various online platforms. So, he's a manufactured media personality whose depth is a quarter inch thick.
Now, he claimed that his place at the military academies was also usurped by a person of color. And there's no suggestion in anything in his background that he would've ever had a chance against anyone.
So, all that he's doing is suggesting that his whiteness is his only qualification, which as a white person, I find really insulting.
You recently tweeted out a reference to this campaign that we're seeing everywhere now, the Jesus Gets Us Campaign. How much do you know about that? And do you have any — or are you beginning to track where the money is coming from?
The reason I ask is because I always get suspicious when churches spend millions on recruiting, when they're surrounded by homelessness and hunger. What's going on there?
Well, there's no mystery. And I was going to say, if your listeners would like to know more about Moms for Liberty, there's an excellent political scientist named Maurice Cunningham who's on Twitter. It's something like ProfMassPol.
We'll find it.
Yeah. And he is a ranking expert on how Moms for Liberty operate. And a ranking expert on TP USA is Kyle Spencer, who's an author of a book on the subject. Excellent book. So, yeah, both of these people have the receipts on these organizations.
In terms of He Gets Us, you're really putting me on the spot here, Ken, because as an Oklahoman, I have to confess that Oklahoma is the root of this particular affliction.
A researcher in Australia, Brent Allpress has thoroughly documented all of their origins. He is also on Twitter as Brent Allpress.
So, it goes back to a store chain in Oklahoma owned by the Green Family. And the store chain is called Hobby Lobby. And I used to shop there for my needle, and thread, and homemade jewelry supplies. And it has made a lot of money from people other than me.
And the green families, especially the patriarch, has invested loads and loads of money in his own form of commercialized evangelization. So, they're the major money behind the Museum of the Bible in Washington.
And if your listeners are not familiar with it, I have a description in my book, but you can also, go and see the Bible presented as a Disneyfied theme park. Where you can have a sound and life show walking across the desert with Moses and you can eat bread and milk and honey in the cafe. It's a wild experience.
And it also, had a whole floor full of biblical era artifacts, many of which turned out to be fake or plundered. So, look it up. It's quite a story.
So, yeah, the Greens decided that fundamentalism didn't have adequate branding and they launched this project, He Gets Us, which was supposed to appear across social media, and in the Super Bowl, and be couched in the language of modern youth. I don't know how effective it is, but it's been expensive.
One more pop culture question, the Sound of Freedom. Are you following the apparent virality of that film?
Well, I would call it AstroTurf virality because this is a phenomenon. I'm following it as closely as I can. A lot of Mormon money behind it.
Give us a synopsis of the film real quick.
Well, Ken, I confess I haven't seen it. I probably should.
We know what it's about.
Yeah, it's supposedly built on the subject of a man who intervened in the business of child trafficking. And this original figure is very controversial and there's a lot of questioning of whether his story is true and whether his actions have been altruistic or for profit.
Their MO is to make these films that are highly emotional and not very factual. And then really, they have a whole cultural component.
For example, so many of their books are bestselling. And as an author of a number of books, I know how that works is that they buy in bulk in a given week, so it makes the bestseller list artificially, and then they can call it bestselling from then on.
Well, they've done the same thing with this movie. I'm getting reports from correspondents in various parts of the country, and they've seen the film advertised it's for free, but you have to go online for tickets.
Well, you have to put in your email and personal information to get a ticket. And that results in data harvesting and a whole scam load that hits your inbox. And I would bet good money that that will play out in additional ways as the election approaches in terms of political communications.
Then in some cases, they've gone to the theater, the cinemas. And remember like movie theaters are struggling economically right now, and these screenings are advertised as sold-out screening. And they get there and there are three people in the theater and the rest of it's empty. So, if it's sold out, it's sold out to whom?
Now, the theaters are taking the money and not questioning the mechanics. But some people are questioning whether this is a money laundering operation. I can't say, but I would certainly argue that it has the look of a data harvesting initiative.
What do you think it says about the cultural moment we're in, that a story that significant (parts of which are manufactured) is having this kind of resonance, at least online? And its lead character is an actor who is so deep into QAnon, he makes Marjorie Taylor Greene look like a moderate.
Where's, I guess, the critical judgment you want to see among the movie going or just the voting public?
Yeah, I think that its purpose is to remind us that we should be very worried about our kids, but they're doing it by distracting us from the real threats.
We've got gun violence in our schools. We've got people with mental illnesses who get automatic weapons and express themselves by shooting little children in schools. That's a disaster. We should be all very worried about that.
We have an opioid crisis that is going on. Our young people are dying in record numbers from various illegal substances that have not been controlled and have spread like wildfire across the country, especially in economically challenged areas. We should be very, very worried about that.
We have this whole raft of what they call deaths of despair.
So, yes, we should be worried, but what they're saying is, if you blame all of our troubles on people who look like Latin American immigrants, who serve as predators of our little white children, then we don't have to worry about the real threats. We can just hate on immigrants and that'll get us all off the hook.
And it's just such a tragic deception because as I say, it distracts us from working on our real problems.
You've written quite a bit about the resistance in Nazi Germany. I believe Red Orchestra and Suzanne's Children were about a broad coalition of people who otherwise would've had very little in common and probably would've been at each other's throats except for the threat of fascism.
And they put their differences aside, and they banded together, and they did what they could to push back.
What from that research are you drawing upon today, as you look at America and the moment we're in?
Well, thanks for mentioning that and my book on the Anti-Nazi Resistance in Berlin, Red Orchestra is coming out in a new paperback edition in September, and it very directly addresses how this applies to our time.
I've thought a lot about the experience of these anti-Nazi resistors, as you can imagine. I lived with that book for nine years in writing it.
And one thing that struck me so, so forcefully was that the attacks on German democracy happened over time. And we were just talking about the appointments to the federal bench.
Well, it was necessary in order to implement Nazism in Germany to purge the German judiciary and legal profession.
That happened fairly early on in the regime. It happened between 1933, 1936. They couldn't have passed their repressive measures without doing that first. So, they had to take over the legal system.
That's why it's so concerning to watch the appointment of unqualified judges and politically skewed judges under the Trump administration.
And this process could be complete if he has another term. I mean, there's no question that he would continue that to the point where it would take over the entire judiciary effectively.
Something else that strikes me is that they really fought against the control of the media. And what the Nazi regime did was take over the newspapers, and the broadcasting, and the educational system, and all sources of information for people until Germans had no other sources of information.
Of course, you're going to believe it, the propaganda because that's all you encounter, that's all there is in your world.
And by the way, the Nazis never won the majority of the German vote in a free election. They did it by manipulating the passionate minority in the way I'm talking about.
So, when the resistors swung into action 1935, 1936, one thing that they tried to do was get accurate factual information and make it available to the German people anyway that they could.
And I see providing professional journalism and fact-based journalism to voters in swing states as absolutely critical.
I mean, everybody who is thinking about politics and certainly trying to defend democracy, whether as a donor or an activist, needs to think about informing voters in swing states who are being bombarded by disinformation from these sources.
So, yeah, there's a lot to ponder here. And in the conclusion of Red Orchestra, I quote one of the members where she says, “No, we didn't win.” She barely survived with her life. But she said, “If there'd only been a few more of us, we could have.”
Again, speaking in military terms, the forces that prevail are not always in the greater number. Often, they're not. You have to think about the roles of strategy, and commitment, and understanding the field of battle.
And in that case, there's potential there that does not rest on numbers or money. And sometimes the good guys can win.
Yeah. You sent me an article a couple of days ago that I think touches on this. It's about Florida's state guard and it makes me think of the other devious master stroke of the Nazis beyond controlling the press and controlling the judiciary.
It was their ability to operationalize populism by deputizing the most radical elements in their movement. You had the brown shirts in Nazi Germany, of course.
And we're beginning to hear out of Florida that the state guard, which in its conception is not a bad thing. Other governors have these kinds of resources at their disposal to help with disasters and things like that.
But just give us the Cliff's notes of what we're learning out of Florida about how Ron DeSantis’s state guard is beginning to look like exactly what the people feared it might be, a militia.
Well, yeah. The state guard is not supposed to operate as a state militia. It is supposed to operate as an auxiliary of the national military under the control of the federal government.
And I think that what's going on is that DeSantis is trying to throw his weight around to look more Trumpist than Trump. That's the contest that's going on right now.
And he is adopting a lot of positions that are quite extreme that he wouldn't have, even a few years ago.
So, this approach to the state guard is shocking to me. My dad was in the National Guard in Nebraska back in the day. There was no idea that the governor of Nebraska would send them into battle against anyone else. They were there as a very significant support service for the national interest.
And so, this kind of leads to a broader set of issues. One is that there is a militarization of the militias through the involvement of both veterans and active-duty military. Which your documentary, All Enemies, Foreign and Domestic, lays out in a very powerful way.
You have the Constitutional Sheriffs Organization, which is a political takeover of various county sheriff's offices that's having an impact politically in various states.
And you have a question that's being circulated more and more about whether the country is headed towards civil war. And I think any of us who had an historical education think in terms of the blues and the grays in the north and the south. And that doesn't sound right.
The most informed people say it looks more like Northern Ireland, where you have heavily armed gangs who are identified with political movements running around committing acts of terrorism.
And certainly, the insurrection in the halls of the US Capitol bear a resemblance to this idea. The ways that election workers on a state level are getting credible death threats is certainly consonant with this idea.
So, if the extreme right and these organizations are not triumphant as they move into the 2024 elections, it may mean that we're moving into a situation of greater violence. And it is unfortunately a fact that these organizations and movements have a lot more guns than their adversaries.
Last question from your Twitter feed, what is [Speaking German 00:44:38]?
Ooh, yes. That's again from my book, Red Orchestra on the Anti-Nazi Resistance. And that was process the Nazis used to really make sure that their propaganda sank in. And where they took over the media, and the broadcasting, and education, and the universities and made it all coordinated.
They even took over fashion magazines. They surrounded people with what I call a wallpaper of disinformation, where the Jews were responsible for every problem that existed in society and every Jew was a communist.
And just lie after lie after lie, which was how they achieved enough cohesion to do their damage.
[Speaking German 00:45:28] literally means make it all coordinated, make the gears mesh.
So, every time that Trump says he wants to eliminate federal agencies and fire thousands of civil servants and stack the courts with his judges, and DeSantis wants to fire professors in Florida who teach about race and gender, that's the kind of social coordination that the Nazis were talking about.
Thanks, Anne, once again for your incredible insights into all that is going on. I appreciate your time.
And I appreciate yours. Thank you.
Thanks again, to Anne, for joining me. Thanks for listening to Burn the Boats. If you have any feedback, please email the team at email@example.com. We're always looking to improve the show.
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Burn the Boats is a production of Evergreen Podcasts. Our producer is Declan Rohrs and Sean Rule-Hoffman is our audio engineer. Special thanks to Evergreen executive producers Joan Andrews, Michael DeAloia, and David Moss.
I'm Ken Harbaugh and this is Burn the Boats, a podcast about big decisions.