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Fred Wellman: The Signs of a Violent America

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Fred Wellman: The Signs of a Violent America

Fred Wellman is the former Executive Director of the Lincoln Project. He is a Westpoint and Harvard graduate, and served in the Army as an aviator and public affairs officer for 22 years.

The Lincoln Project is a political action committee that was founded in 2019 by former and present Republicans, with the goal of preventing the re-election of Donald Trump and defeating ‘Trumpism.’

Fred and Ken also discuss the challenges faced by our Afghan allies now fleeing the Taliban. Thousands have already been resettled in the US, but thousands more need our support. If you are able, please consider chipping in here. All donations go to the US Committee for Refugees and Immigrants field office in Cleveland, which is one of six key US cities supporting resettlement efforts.

You can find Fred on Twitter at @FPWellman

Ken Harbaugh:

Burn the Boats is proud to support VoteVets, the nation’s largest and most impactful progressive veterans organization. To learn more, or to join their mission, go to VoteVets.org.

Ken Harbaugh:

Hi, I’m Ken Harbaugh, host of Burn the Boats. Before we start the episode, I want to take a moment to highlight an organization that we talk about in our interview. Together with my daughter, Katie, and a group of local military veterans, we have been supporting the Cleveland field office of the US Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, as it works to resettle our Afghan allies arriving in Northeast Ohio, many of whom fled Afghanistan with nothing more than the clothes they were wearing.

Katie Harbaugh:

I’m Katie Harbaugh, and, working with USCRI, I helped coordinate an effort to deliver 90 thanksgiving meals to Afghan families who just celebrated their first Thanksgiving in America. From the moment a refugee family steps off the plane, USCRI is there to provide them with food, clothing and safe, secure housing. With your help, USCRI connects refugees to the tools they need to find gainful employment and achieve self-sufficiency. Please visit refugees.org to donate to Ohio’s refugee resettlement effort and help our allies build new lives with dignity in the United States.

Ken Harbaugh:

Thank you, and enjoy the episode.

Fred Wellman:

At some point, if you trace the history of the Conservatives in America, it's just a different code each time. Today's code is CRT. What does that mean? Nothing. It just means we don't want people to learn about the historic racism in our country, which was founded on. I do think that Trump has just dressed it in a new coat.

Ken Harbaugh:

I’m Ken Harbaugh, and this is Burn the Boats, a podcast about big decisions. On Burn the Boats, I interview political leaders and other history makers about choices they confront when failure is not an option.

My guest today is Fred Wellman, the Senior Advisor of The Lincoln Project, which I'm going to assume most of our listeners are familiar with. Fred's resume could fill an entire podcast episode, but his Twitter bio summarizes it pretty well. It reads, "West Point, Harvard, and Ranger School. Truly educated in Iraq. #WelcomeThemHere.” Fred, we'll get to all that. Welcome to Burn The Boats.

Fred Wellman:

It's great to be here. I appreciate it Ken.

Ken Harbaugh:

You started out with Lincoln Project as their veteran's guy.

Fred Wellman:

Yep.

Ken Harbaugh:

Why was that perspective important to them, and just to give you the context, we love interviewing Republican Dissidents on this show. We've had Steve Schmidt, your colleague and Miles Taylor, and a litany of others, but the Veteran's Voice has become a pretty powerful one within this movement.

Fred Wellman:

Yep. Yep. Yeah, I started off as a senior advisor. Actually, I'm technically back to being a senior advisor again, but I was a senior advisor for Veterans Affairs starting in July of last year. It came with a recognition with the co-founders of the Lincoln Project, that there was a place there for us to influence the election, and show that the Trump and the Trump movement really wasn't supportive of veterans. It wasn't a clear-cut win. We always said traditionally the veteran community and the military community has been Conservative and Republican, but you and I know that that has been a changing factor in the last 20 years, especially as the new generation of veterans and service members serve for various reasons. We saw an opportunity to go directly at organizing that community, and say, "Look, there's other options." That was pretty much my mission when I started. We went very directly with that in the campaign. I placed ads in Military Times. We placed ads in Stars and Stripes. People thought we were crazy, but you did see a change in the numbers.

Ken Harbaugh:

Do you think veterans are in some ways more susceptible to that kind of persuasion given, I don't know how to put it, but there's less of a stove piping of information in military communities, especially when deployed, than there is in some political groupings here stateside?

Fred Wellman:

Well, I think there's a host of good reasons why the veteran community is more [inaudible] than it used to be, and is more available to talk about the real issues and recognizing the changes in our country. I mean we do swear an oath to the Constitution, and what we've seen in the last, I think, five years especially, has been some very direct attacks on what that oath means, and we've seen some vast politicization of the military in those efforts. A lot of us have really changed.

You talk about a Republican Dissidence, I walked away. Really the final straw for me was when Trump said John McCain wasn't a hero. He likes his heroes that weren't captured. That was Trump, but what bothered me was that so many within the Republican Party were like, "Eh, okay." I was like, "Wait a minute." That was a big sign for me because a lot of our fellow veterans- I mean that would have been a red light for any other candidate in history. Any time in history, if Obama had said something like that, or Clinton, my God, it would have been ... I mean fire and brimstone. That would have burned the building down.

Instead, we found ourselves in a political time where many in our community are like, "Eh, well yeah, he was kind of a bad guy." The justification for this sort of authoritarianism ‘macho-ness’ that Trump tries to portray, and I knew that I didn't have a home anymore in that party. I knew I wasn't alone in that as I talked to more and more of our peers, and more fellow veterans and service members that are horrified that the values that we swore an oath to, and the loyalty that we saw to each other was so easily eroded.

I knew we had an opportunity to have that conversation within the community more than we had in the past. I knew that our opponents in the political spectrum were taking for granted that vote. I mean they just assumed that no matter what they did, the military and veterans would line right up behind the Conservative movement, and I think that's not true anymore.

Ken Harbaugh:

Can you talk about that phony ‘macho-ness’ that you just called out, and why it has such a weird appeal? I mean you call this out on Twitter sometimes with folks like Josh Hawley, and his appeals to manhood.

Fred Wellman:

Yeah. Right.

Ken Harbaugh:

I'll let you editorialize. I'm not going to question Josh Hawley’s manhood, it's too easy. But why has that become just such an important plank in this new Republican platform? The appeals to manhood?

Fred Wellman:

I think you've always- I mean if you look at the history of authoritarianism, look at the history of movements that are more fascist, that dirty word, you do see it's always an appeal to manliness. It's the strong man, right? They want to see strength. Look at the rise of the movements in Germany and Italy. It was the strong man. The country was downtrodden, and now we need a strong man. There's always been this sort of fetishization of the macho, the masculine, the manly man.

I mean some people call it toxic masculinity or not, and so you see that so often within authoritarian movements because that's what they're looking for. "Ah he's a strong man. He's not going to take shit from anybody." Let's be honest, the military is full of a lot of those folks. We love it. We love the strong man. We love the General. We venerate our heroes, as we should, but that when those two paths cross, it could become a toxic and dangerous mixture.

Then, you see people like you said, like Josh Mandel, or the most ridiculous things. The lady who's running for Lieutenant Governor of Virginia right now, Sears. She did an ad with a gun, this hodgepodge weapon she had built for her, I guess, and "I'm going to take on the bad guys like I did Semper Fi." She was a Marine like 20 years ago for like three years, and I think she was a logistics tech. It's like, "Okay."

You see in the last campaign someone I went after very hard down in, Oh God, Georgia who had been a chaplain, and was posting pictures of his uniform, how he was going to take on the left. I was like, "You're a chaplain. You don’t even carry a gun for God's sake." It's just ridiculous fetishization of military service and ridiculous fetishization of this masculine- and again it leads to people like Josh Hawley, who's now made masculinity his framework. It's like, "My God, you and your tucked-in polo at the Wine Store doesn't scream Mr. Bad Guy, or how every single ad now starts with a gun." It seems like every Republican has to run with an ad at the range or some ridiculous thing. It does go to ... You're exactly the thing, Ken. You're saying to yourself, "I don't understand how this is Conservative." Well, it's not. It's not Conservative. It's authoritarian. That's where the line, I think, if you take our political framework right now, and you draw a straight line through it, it's not necessarily a political party issue. It's become tied to a certain political party, but this fetishization of the strong man, the fetishization of victimhood, and how we have to overcome it, and fight back, runs like a bright red line through the Republican party right now. What do we got? We've got a guy who took a gun illegally, and crosses state lines. Wasn't even allowed to have a gun at 17.

Ken Harbaugh:

Kyle Rittenhouse.

Fred Wellman:

Kyle Rittenhouse, and he's being venerated as a hero for killing people that he had no right to be there. He had no reason to be there, but that strong man-I literally saw a post today, one of our colleagues in the Marine Corp posted, a former Marine, posted screen grabs of Marine Corp E-9 posting on Facebook about the night of Kenosha, and how you should do the Kyle Rittenhouse mile, where you run 638 feet, being chased by rioters, then gun them down. It's terrifying is what it is.

Ken Harbaugh:

Does it depend on Trump? I'll tell you what I mean by that. You're describing a political culture of the strong man, and a lot of people tie that inextricably to Trump himself, but I'm wondering if Trump isn't bigger than a single person.

Fred Wellman:

Well, that's the thing that we said. That's why you use the term in the Lincoln Project as Trumpism. It is a modern authoritarianism movement that latched onto Trump as the guy, and that's the big question now is if Trump's going to be the leader of that movement or is that movement able to be picked up by somebody else? I do think that's why you see Josh Hawley talking about masculinity. You see pear-shaped Josh Mandel wanting violence for a Judeo-Christian and there is this great effort by people who have no right to have any sort of masculinity argument fighting for that mantle.

I guess that is the question. I think too many people thought, and it does get us to where we are today, I think too many people thought that with the departure of Trump from the White House, that everything was going to be okay. We're going to go back to normal. It's something I say a lot if you follow me. The desire to go back to normal. "Now that Trump's gone, we can go back to normal." No, we can't." The movement that encouraged Trump, and the January 6th events that occurred, show us that there is a great desire for more of that movement, and that what we've seen is just the beginning of it. January 6th was a practice run, and we have to treat it as such.

Ken Harbaugh:

I've heard former President Trump described as the consummate follower. That he has his finger on the pulse of where his most radical, I shouldn't call them followers because their followers become leaders, right?

Fred Wellman:

Yeah.

Ken Harbaugh:

Where they want to go, and he was able to pick up on that before anyone else. Now, you have a major American political party that is terrified of its own mob.

Fred Wellman:

Yep.

Ken Harbaugh:

Which it feeds, and it becomes a vicious cycle, which suggests to me that it endures post Trump. Is that the Lincoln Project's assessment? When you talk about defeating not just Trump, but Trumpism?

Fred Wellman:

Yeah. That's exactly what it is. That the GOP as a whole, that the Republican party as a whole has given in to their phase instincts. If you saw one of our most recent ads, we talked about the Southern strategy of Lee Atwater. And It's funny how people beat us up because many of my co-founders, my bosses there, were part of that movement. Yeah, exactly. We were. Stuart Stevens literally wrote a book called It Was All a Lie. There's no question in my mind that my bosses there at the Lincoln Project don't understand their role in all of this. It's kind of funny when you see people attacking him for ...I love it. Hell, I get beat up for ... My favorite one is the right wing nut jobs, especially the veteran nut jobs, love to post the screen grabs of me criticizing Joe Biden back in 2012. It's like, "Yeah, I was a Republican then. Anyway, you caught me!”

What we realize is that the Republican party, there's always this appeal that it was the Southern strategy back in the day. There was always the dog whistle, sort of a head nod to the base or elements of racism, the base or elements of upon fear of socialism, all those things in the past, so there was always that element, and then at the growth of the social conservatives, the growth of the religious right conservatives within the movement, very much encouraged all the way back to Ronald Reagan has grown to the point where there is no longer a Reagan Republican.

I talk about it quite a bit, that the Republican party is almost in three ways now. There are the Reagan Republicans who still are trying desperately to hold on to what was a party, and that's maybe your McConnells per se, and others, but it's still about power. You've got your Trumpists, and then those are the guys that really love the manly man, the "We're going to take our country back. Make America Great."

Now, you even have this third element, which is even scarier, which is I call them the January 6th insurrectionists where not only ... They're ready to act on it, and there is a large swath, there's recent polls showing something like a third of Republicans believe that violence will be necessary to take over the country or to lead the country. We're in a very dangerous place in America today where a large portion of a major American party believes that violence is a part of the political spectrum, and should be, and constantly have this weird fetishism for a new Civil War, which is hilarious because they forget that many of us on the other side also have guns, so good luck with that.

It is a very scary movement, so we at Lincoln Project have recognized ... I think for us, we always knew that it would not die with Trump. We talked about it before the election even if we won, but I think January 6th made it extremely clear to everyone at the Lincoln Project that we were far from over, and in many ways were just starting. That is why we can't slow down. You can't take your foot off the gas.

Ken Harbaugh:

I'd love your perspective on this. As a former Republican who spends most of you professional daylight hours with fellow former Republicans, is that appeal to authoritarianism, that harkening back to better times, is it simply in the nature of Conservatism, it's definitional appeal to a status quo and the fear of disrupting power structures that benefited for generations those at the top. Is it Conservatism itself that is part of the problem?

Fred Wellman:

Always, without question. I mean let's be honest. It was always the issue right? It was always about conserving the status quo, conserving a power structure based on, and let's be honest, in America it's been based on, in many ways, a white power structure, a financial structure that allows very rich white people to stay in power. It really has only just got through writing a fascinating article in the Post about the analysis of the Virginia campaign today, and how this whole CRT thing, which the Glen Youngkin is trying to pile onto, has traces throughout, it's right back that the daughters of the Confederacy, there's always been this line drawn between maintaining the power structures that they liked.

I laugh when people go, "Oh God, everything is Socialism." Like, "Dude, you don't have to look far for that. It's always been that way." Social Security was called Socialism. The New Deal was called Socialism. The Federal Highway System was called Socialism back in the day by "Conservatives." Anything that had to do with allowing larger access to our economy, larger access to our society by those who weren't deemed the correct people at that moment.

It's easy to forget it wasn't always just white people. It was also the right white people. I'm Italian. I'm half English and half Italian. My English side came over in 1640, and my Italian side came over early in the 1900s. We were forced into bad parts of town as Italians. The Catholics, it's easy to forget when John F. Kennedy ran for office, he had to convince a large swath of America that a Catholic could be President. You don't get much whiter than John Kennedy, so there's always been this long line of very specific, Conservative movement to maintain a certain power structure.

I think in my ways, it's just a different code every time, right? I mean what we've seen is, and I bought into it, I used to call myself a defense hawk, Conservative Defense Hawk. I was a fiscal conservative. In many ways I still am, but I now realize that just means I just don't want people wasting my damn tax money on stupid stuff, and I don't want to be weak as a nation. I want us to be sure we can win our wars when we fight them. 20 years of war taught me we don't need to be at war all the freaking time.

At some point, if you trace the history of the Conservatives in America, it's just a different coat each time. Today's code is CRT. What does that mean? Nothing. It just means we don't want people to learn about the historic racism in our country, which was founded on. I do think that this Conservatism and then Trump just dressed it in a new coat.

Ken Harbaugh:

I think this is a good segue into your Twitter bio, “#WelcomeThemHere.”

Fred Wellman:

Yes.

Ken Harbaugh:

Why is that important enough to you to put at the very top of your bio? I think I know what it's about, but why don't you explain.

Fred Wellman:

Yeah. It's about our Afghan allies. It's about all of them. I fought for many years for our interpreters and others who had the opportunities to come here and it was constantly being battled. I was a mentor for No One Left Behind. Matt Zeller, he now just got a job at Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America as a matter of fact. The idea that those who fought by our side should be welcome, but I've also matured to the point where I believe all refugees, we should welcome refugees. We should welcome immigrants.

The ultimate irony right now is that while the same people who are saying they are angry because they can't get take out from their favorite restaurant because there's just not enough employees, don't see the bright red line to Stephen Miller and Donald Trump's complete stipend of refugees and immigrants. We bring our kind to a halt, and we stop new people coming in. I'm just a big believer. Of course for the last three months since the events in Afghanistan, I've been very passionate about making sure our allies are welcomed and already seeing the racism.

You just have to look last weekend this ridiculous, which it turns out to be completely false terrorist warning of ISIS, an ISIS sleeper cell, which was twisted into one, by the way it was fake too, it was being twisted by Conservative commentators into, because we have Afghan refugees in Northern Virginia, so it is now our Afghan allies are apparently terrorists. It's just this constant battle to convince people.

Where is the start for me? 2004, four months after I left Iraq, my first interpreter, Bassam Yousef Sabry, was murdered, beheaded by Al-Qaeda because he was an interpreter for the United States Forces. I spent the next nine months working with a wonderful team of smarter people than me who managed to extract his wife, his widow, and his kids out of Iraq, and get them settled in the United States where now his widow is an American citizen.

We owe them a debt of gratitude, and a debt of their lives to protect them. I watched in horror as the events in Afghanistan unfolded. Having never served in Afghanistan, I couldn't be one of the guys that was like guiding people to the airport. One thing that I've learned over the years is I try to stay in my lane. I'll do anything that you'll ask me to, but if I don't know what I'm doing, I'll try to stay out of it. There were smarter people than me on that job. I could welcome them here so I did what I do, which is I'd found a local refugee settlement organization, and volunteered. That's what I ask of people.

Ken Harbaugh:

Can you talk about that just as a plug? We've got USCRI here in Cleveland which is doing an incredible job.

Fred Wellman:

Yeah.

Ken Harbaugh:

Which one are you supporting here?

Fred Wellman:

The International Institute of St. Louis is the local settlement organization here in St. Louis. They handle refugee settlement in St. Louis and then about 100 mile circle around St. Louis. They plug right into the US government. They're expecting somewhere around 1,600, probably, Afghans from this movement right now. The amazing thing, the gratifying thing is what I've done for them in the past now is help them with the overwhelming number of donations they got from the people of St. Louis. At one point, cars were literally circling the block around the facility because they were dropping off so much stuff for our Afghan allies.

I always tell people- people come to me all the time, "What can I do? How can I help?" Start local. Google refugee resettlement and your city, and believe it or not it will come up, like you said, USCRI in yours, or it could be Catholic charities, or Luthern services. There's a number of organizations across the country in each city, and they're all handled locally. Start local.

Ken Harbaugh:

Yep. We dropped off food, and diapers, and a crib, and a bunch of stuff just last night. One more plug before we get back to our topic. Housing is just such a critical bottleneck right now in Cleveland, and I'm sure everywhere. Hats off to Airbnb for providing a bit of a stock app for some of these families, but you're talking 10s of thousands trying to get out of the camps, and we just don't have the housing for them. If you've got spare room, reach out.

Fred Wellman:

Or a house. It's been gratifying here in St. Louis to see this incredible coalition come together between the city and their local representatives and the various housing authorities, the various business authorities, business organizations have all been coming together to create opportunities with housing and then plugs to our core partner. What I've seen gratifying too Ken, is those organizations that I've worked with for years at my previous job at ScoutComms, my firm that focused on veterans, Starbucks, Home Depot. Companies have been stepping up. Starbucks is reaching out saying, "Hey, we want to try to give these guys jobs." It's really been gratifying to see the close parallels between those who serve veterans, and those who want to serve our Afghan allies as they come over. It's been really gratifying to see them step up to the plate.

Ken Harbaugh:

Awesome. Are you a dog person, Fred?

Fred Wellman:

I am. I am.

Ken Harbaugh:

Do I hear a dog drinking from the water now?

Fred Wellman:

Yes, I apologize. Yes. River came over to check out what's going on over here. At some point, my cat will walk across the screen as well.

Ken Harbaugh:

We're animal people too. It's all good.

Fred Wellman:

There it is. Yeah.

Ken Harbaugh:

I want to get back to the Lincoln Project. You have an MO that really sets you apart, and this part of the conversation is going to be about the role, frankly, of anger in politics, but I want to read how James Carville described the Lincoln Project, and man, I wish I had it in his voice. I'm not going to try to recreate it, but he said, "Let me tell you, the Lincoln Group and the bulwark, these ‘Never Trump-er’ Republicans, the Democrats could learn a lot from them. They're mean. They fight hard, and we don't fight like that." Where does that come from? Is that also in the nature of being historically Republican? Do you just have that mean streak?

Fred Wellman:

Well, it's funny being a black hat guy in a white hat world. It's really unusual for me when I joined the group. I remember when I joined the Lincoln Project, one of my first meetings I said, "Well, what if our policies ..." "We don't do policies. We're just trying to win elections." I'm like, "Huh." The one thing I've learned that Republicans do really well compared to our Democratic colleagues is the focus on winning elections.

Look, your great policy, and your huge plan is great, but if you don't win the election, it's moot. Too often, the Democrats are looking past the election to the big policy, right? Too often, as you know, they're happy to lose an election for the right reasons. There's a fundamental lack of understanding. Some people call it a purity test on the left that is infuriating, which is a whole separate topic, but the thing about us, at the Lincoln Project, is we recognized early on that the choice was decent versus indecent. It was authoritarian versus Democracy.

I think January 6th made our point clear. We have an entire party, and a political organization dedicated to rolling back our rights as Americans, the very foundations of our voting rights, the very foundations of our ability to access our elected leaders, adding violence to our spectrum, whereas again, on our partners in the Democratic Party just seem to want to get back to normal. There's still the belief that they just passed good legislation. Name one piece of legislation that Mitch McConnell passed in all those four years under Trump, the tax cut. That's it. They're not trying to do big things, but yet they keep winning elections, right? I think there's what we believe, the Lincoln Project, and as former Republicans, is win the election. Then you can pass your policies. Win a lot of elections, then you can pass a lot of great policies. Now, we're at a point now where we win an election, or lose Democracy. Yeah, we will be cutthroat. We've pulled some stunts.

The thing about us is I'll be honest. Not everything works. Some are bad ideas. Some blow up in our face. Some ads have been a disaster. Some stunts have been a disaster recently. We're not perfect but the thing about us that I've enjoyed being both the senior advisor and now as executive director is that we're willing to take the shot. We don't overthink it. The process is not a long- People would probably be shocked in the process we use within the Lincoln Project to get things done. It's not long, it's just act, go, go, go.

I tell the story often of just in my experience, we're days from the election. It was a Friday before the election. I had pretty much done all the organizing I could do at that point, and so I got the idea. We saw Trump saying that he only wanted votes counted on November 3rd. After that, they should be cut off. Those are absentee ballots. You and I know that most military ballots arrive after the election day, very often many absentee ballots don't make it from overseas. With the postal service slowed down, that he managed to implement, there are even more absentee ballots, so what I heard very clearly was we're going to disenfranchise military voters. I went to my leadership. I said, "Hey, I'd like to do an ad with a celebrity, highlighting the fact that absentee ballots are mostly military. Literally, Reed Galen is like, "Great. I love it. Go." I'm like, "Okay." At that point, I'd written a couple of ads. I wrote one for the [inaudible]. I wrote one for Sully Sullenberger. I helped write one. I was like, "Okay."

Literally within eight hours I'd recruited Mark Hamill. I'd gotten our videographers up and running. I'd help write a script- I actually wrote a script, got Mark Hamill over the weekend. Saturday he cut his tape. Saturday night it was in edits. By Sunday, I had my ad, and we issued it about 48 hours before the election. That's how, kind of, our process is very simple. It gets things done. Throw it against the wall. See what works. That's very different. You didn't hear a focus group did you? You didn't hear a poll. You didn't hear A and B beta testing. No, we just go, which is fun.

Ken Harbaugh:

As you said, it does lead occasionally to some backfiring attempts.

Fred Wellman:

Oh yeah.

Ken Harbaugh:

How do you respond to that criticism that your shoot first, aim later approach, and I'm paraphrasing. I'm putting words in your mouth, that it adds to the vicious cycle, and I've got to call out the Tiki Torches stunt.

Fred Wellman:

Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Ken Harbaugh:

How do you respond to the criticism that your appeal to anger and fear is just part of this larger vortex that's damaging our politics?

Fred Wellman:

Well, I would say that people should be angry about the fact that Glenn Youngkin was in Charlottesville during the trial, the civil trial, against those who organized that event, and still refused to condemn it. That was the point of that trick. Was it perfect? I didn't put that one together, but it is what it is. The point was very clear that the Republicans are madder about the stunt than they are about the fact that five years ago, or four years ago, there was a mass march of white supremacists carrying Tiki Torches saying, "Jews will not replace us," and the Republican candidate for governor refuses to condemn that, refuses to condemn the guy who thought there was good- Again, my frustration with my friends in the Democratic side is they're more worried about that than they are about the actual fight. They're more worried about- They're afraid to be angry. It's a strange thing. It's like it's okay to be angry because you know why Republicans show up to vote is because they're fighting. They believe they're fighting for the whole soul of our country.

Tumoff and I think my peers on the Democratic side are wanting to freaking hug it out or something. No, I have no problem appealing to people's anger and their emotions because if you wonder how Republicans win elections, that's why. Just watch the video that came out yesterday from The Good Liars, whom I love, just love. Have a movie coming out with our friends at The Midas Touch called The Believers, but just look at the gentleman who's a retired Air Force guy wearing an Air Force hat saying the most important issue for him in this election in Virginia is critical race theory, teaching critical race theory. The guy is like, "They don't teach it here." He goes, "Well what is it? What is critical race theory?" They go, "I don't know what it is, but I'm against it." He literally has no F-ing idea what he's talking about. He has no idea that CRT isn't taught in any school in Virginia, but what they've done successfully on the right is painted any kind of teaching of history that's uncomfortable for white people.

The lady at the circus the other day was interviewed. Literally said that teaching about slavery makes white kids feel guilty about being white, and she doesn't like that. That's not up to the schools to teach that. It's like that's what they're angry about. That's what they're going to the polls to stop. No amount of us saying, "Yeah, but what about our policy? We're going to try and get a child tax credit." They just don't get it that people do- Look, I took a class from Mark McKinnon in grad school. Mark is, of course, now the host of The Circus on Showtime, but he is a famous ad maker for the Republicans before that.

Mark taught a great story. The point was that story telling hasn't changed from the caveman days. That a story, there's the hero's journey. The chief of the tribe in the cave would get up and say, "Our spirit is the most powerful one in the valley. We have slayed the Mastodon. We've slayed our enemies. Oh, great story." He's not talking about, "Look, my policy for us is that everybody should have one fire, and it would be equal amongst ..." I think from the day we were cavemen, we have to understand that there is an emotional aspect to our lives as human beings that has to be tapped into. Too often, my Democratic cause is like, "Yeah, but great policy." It's like, "No, you're fighting for the..." Right now I get it. I have no patience for these- I mean I know what criticism is all about. I have no problem with that, but I also have no patience for the idea that we shouldn't be doing this. We shouldn't be going after him every time we can. You take your shot.

It’s no different in the military. You're going to take a shot, even if it just keeps their head down. Maybe you won't land every bill that you send, but maybe you just suppress them a little bit. I'm comfortable with that. We make a lot of people uncomfortable because we're willing to take some shots, and put heads down instead of overthinking every piece of what we do, and go on emotions, but my frustration right now with our politics is that too many people are just not passionate. You should be angry that our Capitol was invaded. You should be angry that the guy running for governor in Virginia is saying one thing on right wing media. He's going on the Seb Gorka show. He's going on the Mark Levin Show. He's going on f-ing Steve Bannon Show saying one thing, and then going on regular media and speeches saying a completely different thing, and those of us who highlight that are told, "Well, you shouldn't be echoing Steve Bannon." I'm not. I'm trying to get you to wake up. It's just this belief that if they put their head in the sand, that it will go away, and that doesn't work. Evil doesn't go away just because you don't like it. You want to ignore it. The enemy gets a vote. It was a long answer to a short question, but I guess it took me a little while to get comfortable, but I'm willing to be the guy who gets beat up for the right reasons.

Ken Harbaugh:

I think it's obvious to those listening that we're talking on election day in Virginia and around the country, but that all eyes are on the Virginia gubernatorial. This is going to come out after we know who won, but it has become clear that part of the Republican playbook in the run up to these elections is laying the groundwork to claim it was stolen.

Fred Wellman:

Yes.

Ken Harbaugh:

That is new. I mean you can point to a lot of things that we're upset about in our politics today that we've seen before, but the idea that we're not going to accept the results of an election, and the fact that that idea has taken root within, at this point, a majority of Republicans who voted for Donald Trump, that is new, and that is really an existential threat.

Fred Wellman:

It is. This morning I was looking at a ... I think it was a ... Yeah, it was a tweet from one of the right wing guys, Eric Ericson, and literally every reply, his poll was showing the Youngkin is up by two points, and literally every response was, "You don't think the Democrats will allow that. They're going to steal it. They're going to stop it." This ridiculous belief that somehow elections are easy to steal, or they're commonly stolen has become such- Again, Walter Shaub, who I love dearly, a government ethics lawyer, has been really, really hitting President Biden hard, and his criticism and it's hard to disagree is that Biden's only given one speech on voting rights. I like the Build Back Better plan. I like all of it, but all this is moot. Every single one of these spending packages and programs can be turned back in a heartbeat if we can't get people to vote. My colleagues at the Lincoln Project really say it well. Steve Schmidt, which you said in your interview before, Steve and Reed talk about a lot is in many ways, the Republican party right now, in the form that it's in now is like a shrinking star. It's like a dying star. It's shrinking. It's getting smaller. The minority rule is what they need as the majority of their voters shrinks essentially, but if you know anything about astrophysics, you know that as a star shrinks, it gets hotter, more radioactive, and more dangerous until it freaking explodes.

I think a lot of people kind of fool themselves into believing that perhaps that explosion was January 6th and I'm here to tell you, that was nothing. That was a solar flare. What scares me is as they're party desperately holds onto power, as they undermine our Democratic institutions unfettered, it could lead to an explosion that nobody dreamed could possibly happen in America, but then again, none of our founding fathers dreamed a President like Donald Trump, who simply just didn't care about traditions, and ignored them. It really showed how many of our institutions were unprepared for this moment.

Ken Harbaugh:

Get specific for us. What's the worst case scenario? What do you really mean when you say a political supernova?

Fred Wellman:

Well, I mean violence obviously. A larger violence. A large-scale violence. Violence at state houses across the country. Actual murders, actual coordinated assaults on our democracy. Maybe the next assault on Congress is more successful. In a subtle framework, it's simply throwing out elections they don't like. In theory, the Georgia legislature could just throw out an election. "Well sorry, it's tainted. We're getting rid of the election people." I mean literally the ability to throw out election results they don't like is what many of these people are poaching for like in Arizona and elsewhere.

They're literally trying to make it so that the Republican legislator can simply say, "Well no obviously we have our doubts. We're not going to take that election. We're going to throw it out." Until they get the results they want. Literally, voting would be meaningless in our country. For me, I do have fear. I have great fear of actual violence. I don't think people are paying attention to what happened on January 6th. I don't think they are paying attention to the growing movement of those who say, "Well, I think violence is the answer." You can't ignore the people. At what point do you have to take it seriously when people- When do you listen? When they say they're going to shoot Joe Biden? When they say they're going to- At what point do you take them seriously, that somebody's going to do it? I just don't recall this level of threats, and what bothers me the most is just how many people just want to ignore it like it isn't real. "Oh, that's just talk." Is it, because you read this Washington Post series right now about January 6th, and you should be horrified because there were a billion red flags going off, and it's ignored because people just couldn't believe it. I'm just saying a lot of us are out here saying, "Believe it. You have to believe it." I know it sounds outrageous, that the American Democracy could die in violence, but why would that be outrageous? It's happened throughout history. Why are we any different? Why are we so much more immune to it than anyone else throughout history has been? If you believe that we're that special that we're immune to that, I think you're goin g to be ... I mean January 6th should dissuade you of that notion in every way possible.

Ken Harbaugh:

How do you divide the moral culpability for all of this? Of course, you've got the foot soldiers, the agitators, the ones who actually stormed the Capitol, and they need to be held accountable. The FBI has to do what it's got to do. Then, there are those who held back. Who know where the legal lines are, who fist-bumped them on. I've got to think that you have considered how to lay blame fairly between those who actually carried the flag poles and beat the cops, and those who stood back and cheered them on, but with language that they could disavow if they had to.

Fred Wellman:

100%. I mean they've gotten very good at that. A lot of these guys, that's how they've managed to make it this far. They've managed to keep their fingerprints off of it, but you have to believe, at what point do we say that this was encouraging violence? This is a sign of sedition. We just found out yesterday, Marjorie Taylor Greene spent $25,000 for ads on Parler, encouraging people to come to the January 6th rallies. Where does a person who just got seated in Congress like three days before that event, find that money, and put that … There's real questions that had to be asked of those who organized these events, and the delusions that they had nothing to do with the violence. The violence was encouraged. I am frustrated by the pace of the investigations but I am hopeful. I know Denver Riggleman, who's now working for the January 6th committee, and I know the folks involved in that. I have faith that they understand the stakes that are in play here.

At what point do we recognize the organizers and those who encourage it- and then what's disheartening is the media, the propaganda. We now see Fox in a fallen effort to convince us the whole thing was fake. We've really got a very dangerous situation in America. There's so many institutions that should be scared. Our political press is failing us in every possible way right now in their inability to avoid that ‘both side’-ism. Our institutions like our government ethics watchdogs are completely failing us because they have no idea how to deal with the things we're seeing and the rules that we have in place are not being adjusted. Our electoral system is failing us because it can be manipulated by legislatures now. I think so many pieces of the puzzle that built this country and made it great, were situated on people of good character, and moral being, being the people in power, and we were unprepared for a moment where people who just want raw power, and care nothing for the rules, who's sole functionality in life is to find holes in the rules are still in power.

Look at Kellyanne Conway. Kellyanne Conway broke the Hatch Act like 60, 70 times. Nothing happened. Nothing, because the system was designed so that her boss would be mad about that. Her boss said, "Great. Go for it." They don't care. I think a lot of us get nervous when we realize that so much of our country was built on infrastructure and institutions that were never prepared for the modern world, never prepared for social media, never prepared for many ecosystems that are separate from the rest. I don't know. Maybe I sound like I'm freaking out, but it's possibly that I am. For a guy, like in my position, the work I've done when I was the executive director of Lincoln Project, especially when we had our own crisis, the death threats, the kind of violent rhetoric that's thrown at us, it makes you really think, "At what point does someone actually take it seriously? At what point does someone say, 'You know what, everybody forgets the whole QAnon thing started with the whole guy at Ping Pong Pizza and shooting up a pizza shop because Hillary Clinton had kids in the basement of a restaurant that didn't have a basement. It's a miracle to me that more of those haven't occurred, but I do believe that day of reckoning may come sooner than we like.

Ken Harbaugh:

Do you have any insight into what the provocateurs are thinking? What's their- I'm talking about the ones who know better. The Josh Hawleys, the Josh Mandels. Two fellow Yale law grads. Where do they think this ends? The house they're setting on fire is still the house they live in. Driving out the responsible voices like Kinzinger, and Gonzales. They're going to wind up in a party that is so extreme it's going to destroy the country.

Fred Wellman:

I honestly believe that most of these guys think they can control it. That they've got this under control. That they don't understand the forces they're unleashing. I honestly believe that there's this delusion that they can control it, and they can take charge, and it wont' blow up in their face too, but you know how it is, when a raging wildfire gets lit, it burns everything. I think too many of them want the power, and they're just ...

I mean you look at Eric Wright. You look at Josh Mandel, JD Vance, why is JD Vance running at all? Why is Peter Thiel buying an election? It's this lust for power, and they're willing to do whatever it takes. Josh Hawley seems to have no morals. It's interesting being in Missouri now. We're watching the Republican contest. You've got Josh Hawley, as a senator. Now you've got Eric Wright running. You've got Eric Schmidt who's the Attorney General, who's basically about the last year and a half using the power of his office to propel his senate campaign by suing his school districts for mask mandates, by participating in the law suits for the border. Missouri doesn't have a border with Mexico. Why are we ...

It's just that these men and mostly men, have forsaken the most basic instincts of appropriateness and the good of our country for power. I mean I used to really think that was crazy, but they just want to be in the seat of power. Sadly, I think the side of it is too, that too many Americans just don't even know what they should expect anymore. I think there's a large swath of America that thinks that their Congressman's job is just to be on Fox News causing fucking trouble. They don't know that those are the guys they're supposed to go to for getting their kid home from a Saudi Arabia deployment when his grandma dies, and helping out, doing their most basic constituent services, or being a representative of that organization, of that community. They just think it's great. "Oh my God, he's on Fox News again. This is so good for us." How is it? How is Marjorie Taylor Greene serving the people of Northern Georgia when she doesn't even sit on any committees? She's not even representing them. She has no power. Her big thing is going up and making four speeches that no one listens to, and going on OAN? She's not a congressman. She's a troll, and I'm just going off on the deep end, but yeah, I do believe that’s a lust for power, and let's be- It's funny, you'll appreciate it Ken.

I was in Iraq in 2003, and I was talking to my local Iraqi shake in my village. I ran civil affairs around Key West, and I'll never forget it. I said, "Why are these kids doing these bombs and what is it?" He said, "It's simple. It's simple." This is an Iraqi who's never left Iraq. "Money and power." I was like, "Okay." It literally goes back to what you said about communications earlier. It goes back to the most basic instincts. Money and power. It's just, sadly, how often can we trace so many of these individuals from their humble roots to be multimillionaires and a lifetime of being called senator, or whatever?

Ken Harbaugh:

Yeah. Well Fred, you have painted a sobering picture. I hope it's more than that, and a wake-up call. Keep doing what you're doing, mostly. Fewer backfires, but really ...

Fred Wellman:

Well, I'm a senior adviser now, so I'll caveat everything I said. I don't do strategy at the organization, but I do coalitions and partnerships. The guys are, again, we'll take a shot. I wish more people would.

Ken Harbaugh:

Good. We end the show every episode with the same question, what's the bravest decision you've ever been a part of?

Fred Wellman:

The first time Bassam got a death threat, and by name. I said, "You've got to quit. You can't do this." Bassam's like, "No, I can't stop now. I've committed to this. I'm taking care of my family, and the good of my country." Then, probably six months later he was dead. I have seen men like Hal Reichle and Mike Daniels, my crew from Desert Storm who did an intervention for our night vision goggle mission into Iraq during the air war because I was the lowest rated NVG pilot of our team, even though I was the platoon leader and said, "No, Owen needs to be the most senior pilots going into this dangerous environment," and they didn't return.

I've seen a lot. That's a very difficult question to answer because I've seen very brave men and women make very difficult decisions that sometimes, too many times, led to their own deaths, so I wish I had a better answer, but I've seen incredibly brave people do incredibly brave things in this life.

Ken Harbaugh:

Thanks Fred, and for what it's worth, that's why I ask it that way. I find that when I ask veterans the bravest decision they've ever made, they always point to someone else. It's better, I think, to talk about the bravest decision you've ever been a part of. Appreciate your perspective. It’s been an honor having you. Let's do it again.

Fred Wellman:

Likewise. I appreciate the time.

Ken Harbaugh:

Thanks again to Fred for joining me.

You can find him on twitter at @FPWellman

To learn more about his service in the Army, listen to Fred’s interview on Warriors In Their Own Words, out next Thursday

If you enjoyed today’s episode of Burn the Boats, please rate and review us on iTunes - it really helps other listeners find the show.

Thanks to our partner, VoteVets. Their mission is to give a voice to veterans on matters of national security, veterans’ care, and issues that affect the lives of those who have served. VoteVets is backed by more than 700,000 veterans, family members, and their supporters. To learn more, go to VoteVets.org.

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.

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