The revolutionary Republicans who are determined to establish a Judeo-Christian theocracy in Tennessee

The revolutionary Republicans who are determined to establish a Judeo-Christian theocracy in Tennessee

Anne Applebaum writes:

Drive along the outer rim of the exurbs north of Nashville, past structures that might be barns or might be wedding venues, around developments called Vineyard Grove or New Hope Village, and eventually you will arrive at what is meant to be the new headquarters of the election commission of Sumner County, Tennessee. A featureless one-story brick warehouse with some makeshift offices attached, it has just enough space for the tiny handful of election-commission employees, the 275 voting machines that they recently purchased, and maybe some of the maintenance workers who used to share rooms with them, back when the agency was still in the basement of the county-administration building.

Dusty picnic tables crowd against the wall. An elementary school stands a few hundred yards away. Nothing about this building or its location screams “controversy.” But when Sumner County’s local elections brought a faction that calls itself the Constitutional Republicans to power last year, that is what it nevertheless became.

To fully grasp this story, you need to understand that the standard forms of American political polarization don’t exist in Sumner, a rural but rapidly suburbanizing county where Democrats are not part of the equation at all. None has won any county office for more than two decades. Instead, the main opponents of the Constitutional Republicans, who won 14 out of 17 seats on the county commission (following a general election in which only 15 percent of eligible voters cast ballots), are the ordinary Republicans—or, as their opponents would call them, RINOs (“Republicans in name only”). The Constitutional Republicans’ website explains that RINOs are different from themselves: “They raise taxes, they vote to silence the citizens, they won’t protect private property rights. They often partner with Democrats to defeat true Constitutional Republicans like us.”

Upon taking over the county commission, the Constitutional Republicans issued a document formally declaring that their activities will be “reflective of Judeo-Christian values inherent in the nation’s founding.” They also shut down the HR department, tried to privatize a public historic building, and refused to pay for the election commission’s move to the brick building, although it had been agreed on by the previous administration. The old offices—three basement rooms that recently flooded—were too small to store the new voting machines, and also insecure. The entrance to the basement stood right beside a cashier’s window where dozens of people were lined up to pay taxes on the day I visited. The county commissioners are unmoved by those arguments. “If we don’t fund it, you don’t get to do it,” Jeremy Mansfield, one of the Constitutional Republicans on the county commission, told the election commission at one public meeting about the move last fall. At a meeting in June, another county commissioner, angered because the new voting machines had been delivered to the new building, said that although he would “hate to pull the ace card,” the commission could always “declare this property surplus, and sell it.” That would leave the election commission, and its machines, with nowhere to go.

The building seems a small thing to get worked up about. But Facebook posts and videos of public meetings, all available online—the Constitutional Republicans are very transparent—make clear that this is not a trivial jurisdictional dispute and these are not petty people. They have ambitions and interests that extend well beyond their county. Their Facebook page reacted to the news of Donald Trump’s latest indictment by declaring, “The Biden family is an organized crime family,” and “Our justice system is rigged against Trump.” Another post asked whether Tennessee “should secede from the Union.” More to the point, Mansfield, who didn’t respond to my request for an interview (his view of the press is clear on his Facebook page, on which someone refers to the Associated Press as “American Pravda” and he responds “except that Pravda does more honest reporting”), wrote a long post back in February attacking early voting and voting machines: “The gold standard for election integrity would be paper ballots filled out by people and counted by people in local precincts on election day.”

The Constitutional Republicans are confident in these views for a reason. “Our beliefs are derived from the bible,” their website declares: “We pray at every meeting and we seek God in all we do! His wisdom guides our decisions.” The same source gives them confidence that their enemies are wrong. “Evil never sleeps,” Mansfield wrote on Facebook, after reflecting on the critics who he said were attacking him for fighting against new development in the county, “so we must heed Churchill’s words, never give in, and never give up fighting for what is good and right.”

Few of these ambitious goals are within their reach. The Sumner County commissioners can’t arrest President Joe Biden. They can’t secede. But the county’s election commission, whose members are appointed by the bipartisan state election commission, is right there. It’s a local embodiment of the broader culture they dislike and of the government they distrust. If they can stick the agency back in the flood-prone basement, they will.

Tom Lee, the lawyer for the Sumner election commission—it is now suing the county—has an additional explanation as well. Lee points out that the Constitutional Republicans arrived in office wanting to enact deep, revolutionary change. That means that, whatever the previous regime decided, they are against it: “They are coming to power and saying, ‘Everything that came before us doesn’t count. We represent something new and different, and we don’t have to have any allegiance to the past.’” I told him that this sounded like the language used by the Bolsheviks, among other revolutionaries. He didn’t laugh. [Continue reading…]

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