Have you ever heard of the Council for National Policy? Wish to understand this alliance of far-right wealthy donors and operators? Anne Nelson talks to us about this and more, including her book Shadow Network: Media, Money, and the Secret Hub of the Radical Right.
Nelson is a prize-winning writer, contributing to the New Republic, the Washington Spectator, and the Times Literary Supplement. She is also a research scholar at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs.
We talk about Donald Trump and his place in what Nelson calls “at least a three-ring circus,” including how he’s not the most significant ring at this point. She discusses his historical significance, but the timeline of what we see today goes back well over 40 years. She discusses how Trump was a “plug and play” for the Radical Right, but many of them now see him as damaged goods.
While they may have moved on, Trump hasn’t. With or without Trump, they understand how destructive they can be in the House of Representatives and its management. The chaos around McCarthy’s speaker of the house candidacy shows us they are alive and well and looking to 2024.
Greedy Corporate Figures
Nelson goes into the history of the Radical Right, discussing with us the Powell Memo of 1971, in which “a bunch of greedy corporate figures wanted to figure out how to change the course of the U.S. government’s policies of providing entitlements and a social safety net, thereby lowering taxes on the wealthiest Americans.” Achieving this goal meant creating a voting block of people whom they could easily sway, which meant they would need to be people who were poorly educated. The Evangelical Christians fulfilled this role. Strategist Ralph Reed targeted 18 million Christians he believed could be easily manipulated.
The Council for National Policy (CNP) was formed in 1981, allowing major donors like the DeVos family of Michigan to have an umbrella group they could use to advance their agenda. The DeVoses and other prominent members funded partner organizations, such as the Family Research Council, the Alliance Defending Freedom, and the NRA. They were able to work strategically on certain elections and lawsuits to allow for undue influence in the nation’s politics.
Chaos and Distrust
Nelson talks about the manipulation that created chaos and distrust of experts and scientific institutions. This produced fear within people and their critical thinking skills were shut off in favor of doing whatever they were told would alleviate that anxiety. This allows an authoritarian personality to say, “trust me. We’ll fix this. I know what to do,” while the checks and balances within the system are being destroyed. Additionally, Nelson discusses the bald-faced lies sold to voters, which had to be done via a media system surrounding them with those lies. This is a strategy successfully employed in Nazi Germany, which Nelson discusses in her book Red Orchestra.
The consequences are enormous and far-reaching, with the U.S. Supreme Court influenced by those with the money and the lies. Nelson describes the current makeup of the judiciary as “the worst court money can buy.” We talk about the confirmation hearings in which many of the jurists lied or misrepresented their positions, and now, the American people are paying for it in draconian judgments.
Political Bad Actors
The use of religion in politics isn’t just confined to the United States. Of course, we discuss how it played a role in the recent uprising in Brazil. As in the U.S., some religious organizations are often the pipeline of influence for bad political actors who can prey upon the poor and uneducated with ease. In the U.S., the IRS has no real mechanisms to hold these organizations accountable, so their financial and political activities are unregulated, which allows them to continue with impunity.
Nelson discusses how people buy into these movements even though they ignore the core of Christianity, the basic principles of loving thy neighbor, welcoming strangers, and helping the poor. They cherry-pick what works for them within the dogma and leave the rest.
For many religious leaders trying to do good work, it has become much more difficult as members of their congregations stop listening to them and start listening to QAnon. Nelson points out that a new organization called the American Values Coalition is dedicated to helping pastors respond to disinformation and QAnon in their congregations. There is also an offshoot of the Southern Baptist Convention who do not want politics hijacking their faith, so they moved away from politics and disapproved of the Trumpist movement within the Southern Baptist Convention.
Some commentators point out that right-wing politics are damaging Christian churches. There has been a major exodus of young people from the churches in reaction to pollical extremism and reactionary social policies. These include the Exvangelicals, many of whom are young people who realize they weren’t taught history, science, and women’s rights in their childhood schooling. The homeschool curriculum often doesn’t allow for teaching and discussing these subjects.
Defending Democracy – An Action Plan
Nelson lays out a three-pronged action plan to turn the tide on these atrocious activities of the radical right. She suggests starting on the local level, running for offices that aren’t glamorous but contribute to ground-level democracy.
The second prong is national networking, joining organizations that connect people in various parts of the country. This allows for reaching out to people who may feel isolated. It also encompasses not writing people off who belong to traditionally conservative religious organizations, connecting with others as individuals to see where they are and whether they have good values.
The third prong is to support the institutions that are pillars of democracy. Information is vital, including local newspapers that report at school board and town hall meetings—supporting local and state-level professional journalism via subscribing to the local paper and donating to non-profit outlets, writing letters to the editor, and praising and sharing good stories on social media.
Working from the Bottom Up
Breaking through the disinformation systems requires working from the bottom up, but most importantly, we must fight together. We also must destigmatize buying into the false rhetoric because it can happen to anyone. It is not just the purview of the uneducated. We need to learn how to communicate with radicalized people respectfully and effectively. Nelson suggests watching the documentaries The Brainwashing of My Dad by Jen Senko and People You May Know by Charles Kriel and Katharine Gellein. These films illustrate how this happens. Understanding it is the foundation for fighting it.
Anne’s author page at the Washington Spectator
A Rare Peek Inside the Vast Right-Wing Conspiracy. New Republic
The COVID-19 Pandemic the Religious Right and the Threat to Our Government and World Health: A Discussion With Anne Nelson
Bill Moyer’s interview with Anne Nelson about The Shadow Network
Thom Hartmann The Shadow Network Exposed (w/ Anne Nelson)
Commonwealth Club of California: Anne Nelson: Inside the Radical Right’s Shadow Network
People You May Know documentary
The Brainwashing of My Dad documentary
QAnon Chaos and the Cross: Christianity and Conspiracy Theories (book due out May 2023