“Mamas are the key political force in 2024 and we need to harness that energy!” Ron DeSantis called down from the stage in the Franklin Ballroom of the Marriott Hotel in Philadelphia, where 650 “joyful warriors” had gathered for the second annual “Moms for Liberty Summit.” The Florida governor was met with raucous applause—just as when he claimed that “[the Left] has awakened the most powerful force in the country: mama bears!”
DeSantis, along with fellow presidential hopefuls Nikki Haley, Vivek Ramaswamy and Donald Trump, had come to the city of brotherly love to pledge allegiance to the hot new thing in American conservatism: Moms for Liberty. The scale of the summit was impressive considering that the organization was only founded two years ago by Florida mothers Tiffany Justice, Tina Descovich and Bridget Ziegler.
But it became apparent very quickly how a group of “regular Moms” achieved such a surprising level of organizational sophistication: The main sponsor of the summit (and, according to speakers, of the organization as a whole) is the Leadership Institute—founded by Morton Blackwell, “a close personal friend” of Jerry Falwell and one of the key architects of the Christian Right’s alliance with the Republican Party. The Leadership Institute was founded to professionalize conservative activists, teach them how to fundraise, strategize, give them media training, and present a polished image while advancing rightwing causes. And boy, were they successful when it comes to Moms for Liberty.
In between speeches in the Grand ballroom, various “breakout sessions” were held by the Leadership Institute, right wing activists, and ultra-conservative foundations, teaching attendees to “win in the minority,” take over local school boards, and implement a right wing agenda once elected. Also on the agenda were media training and legal advice; one workshop by the Southeastern Legal Foundation could have been titled “how to sue your school district.”
Originally founded to oppose school closures during the COVID pandemic, Moms for Liberty have since moved on to other topics and become a force to be reckoned with in the Right’s “culture war,” threatening and harassing school districts, educators and teachers across the country. According to PEN America, the organization is one of the central forces driving the right wing moral panic and efforts to ban books on LGBTQ topics and racism in the U.S.
Given that Moms for Liberty is a very young group on the conservative circuit it’s remarkable that both Trump and DeSantis, in addition to other presidential hopefuls, made the pilgrimage to Philadelphia to laud Moms for Liberty’s message—and, in Nikki Haley’s case, to portray herself as one of them. None of the candidates appears to have been at all concerned by the fact that Moms for Liberty was just designated a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center. According to the report by the SPLC, the group’s main goals are to “fuel rightwing hysteria and to make the world a less comfortable or safe place for certain students—primarily those who are Black, LGBTQ or who come from LGBTQ families.”
In fact, this designation sparked numerous jokes and gripes about being “the face of domestic terrorism” during the summit—eerily similar to CPAC’s announcement and display of a “we are all domestic terrorists” banner at its 2022 meeting in Dallas. There was a great deal of talk of revolution, sacrifice, and of war in general for a supposedly “apolitical” event in Philadelphia. During the event I repeatedly heard the refrain that “not every mom for liberty is conservative”—despite the backdrop, which included a Turning Point USA booth with stickers of a milk carton with “liberal tears” and “pro-life” pins, and a merchandise corner with T-shirts like “Joe and the Hoe gotta go” and the Palin-esque “Mamma Bear—don’t mess with my cubs!”
The summit took place under heavy police presence—something the organizers made sure to exploit. “Thank the police officers for protecting us, ok? Every single one,” a staffer advised eagerly as we were escorted by a throng of police officers out of the Museum of the American Revolution, where Wallbuilders president Tim Barton had just butchered American history in a speech punctuated by his plea that “we have to make America great again!” In between speeches, speakers would hold prayers to bless the “hotel staff, those who serve our food, who make our beds,” and praise to God for not letting “hotel staff” be swayed by the protesters outside.
The vibe was strange, eerie, and excited—a cross between a White supremacist sorority meeting; a capitalist love-fest with deep bonding over hatred for “the Left,” the LGBTQ+ community, and anti-racism efforts (all dressed up as expressions of love for their children); and a Pentecostal revival with some distinct NAR overtones. “Our children belong to the Lord, not the government,” declared Patriot Mobile spokeswoman Leigh Wambsganss. “This is not a political war, it is a spiritual war!”
The religious character of the summit was overwhelming—so many prayers, invocations, and explicit (as well as implicit) references to a spiritual war. Earlier, DeSantis had declared, in reference to a popular Bible verse amongst those who see themselves as soldiers in a spiritual war, that “there will be arrows that we have to take.” He lauded the “sacrifice” the “Moms” were making for enduring the dance party outside, essentially equating being called “fascists” by protesters to dying on Omaha beach. “We’re not being called to make sacrifices that grand,” DeSantis said—the unspoken “yet” hanging threateningly in the air.
It comes as no surprise that a group that engages in such violent rhetoric has ties to openly violent White nationalist groups. Indeed, Vice News has uncovered numerous connections between:
“Moms for Liberty chapters and extremist groups like the Proud Boys, Three Percenters, sovereign citizen groups, QAnon conspiracists, Christian nationalists, and in one case, with the founder of the AK-47-worshiping Rod of Iron Ministries church in Pennsylvania. Around the country, Moms for Liberty has formed links with extremist groups and militias, which are joining forces with the ‘parental rights’ group at protests and school board meetings, and in turn pushing the already far-right organization toward even more extreme ideology.”
One example is Moms for Liberty co-founder Bridget Ziegler, who was a speaker at this year’s summit. Her recent election to the Sarasota County school board was, according to the SPLC:
“a victory due in part to local Proud Boys, who she was pictured celebrating with afterwards. She later attempted to downplay the connection.
Moms for Liberty also teamed up with the controversial group, Gays Against Groomers, to host an anti-LGBTQ+ ‘Protect the Children’ rally in Florida, which also included Proud Boys flashing White power signs.”
Her husband, Christian Ziegler, chairman of the Florida Republican Party in Sarasota County, held a strategy session for the Leadership Institute on media training, where he taught attendees the art of the spin. Lauding founder Tiffany Justice’s reaction to the public outcry over a local chapter that had quoted Adolf Hitler in their newsletter, Ziegler gushed:
“Tiffany is like a pitbull, just ruthless. Her response was: of course we don’t agree with Hitler, he’s vile; however, let me tell you what Hitler did in schools—and we’re trying to address that.”
He added: “You can pivot from your action, but hammer the message home” (which he promptly modeled, declaring “Never apologize, never ever”).
Especially notable, for an organization founded and still led by White women, was the prominence of women of color among the event’s speakers, all of whom echoed Moms for Liberty’s rejection of systemic racism. And Trump was introduced by Byron Donalds, a Black congressman.
The intersectionality of American fascism, as Jeff Sharlet points out in an interview with Religion Dispatches, doesn’t make the movement less White supremacist. But it does demonstrate how the Right is repackaging its message as opportunity—and even empowerment—to attract people of color. As scholar Anthea Butler says: Whiteness is a promise of power, a promise of innocence wielded with power.” And organizations like Moms for Liberty offer the people of color in their midst a sliver of the power of Whiteness.
Although it’s often caricatured as blue collar, Philadelphia is a progressive city, and it’s currently still wearing the rainbow colors of June’s Pride celebrations. And since the city did not take kindly to being used as a stage for the ahistorical bigotry of a right wing front group, it fought back, peacefully, by staging 3-day long protests despite the smoky air, which made it hard to breathe. While Moms for Liberty celebrated bigotry, protesters stood up, loudly, for LGBTQ rights.
Among the protestors were doctors, librarians and community organizers, all of whom see the politics peddled by Moms for Liberty as a mortal threat to the LGBTQ community (as well as to the fight against White supremacy). Elizabeth, a librarian and an AFSCME union member, told RD:
“Everybody thinks, it can’t happen here, this is Philadelphia. But in Bucks County, Moms for Liberty took over school boards, and everyone was surprised. We have to fight back. It is happening here.”
Zeke, a Jewish doctor holding up a sign that read “White coats against White Supremacy,” voiced his support for the LGBTQ community: “As doctors, we have a duty to protect our patients. This group wants to harm my patients.” Despite the blistering heat and poor air quality, protesters maintained their defiant presence on the third day of the summit outside the Marriott Hotel where community organizers passed out water and sunscreen.
Inside, Moms for Liberty, who claim to be champions of free speech, used this display of their fellow Americans exercising their 1st Amendment rights to paint themselves as victims of the “radical Left” and the “Marxists” who have forced them to endure unjust abuse and vilification (even as they claim that the pushback really is proof that they’re doing the right thing).
Yet the mood, amongst all this talk of sacrifice and war, was giddy, excited. And while some candidates for president like Nikki Haley received only a lukewarm reception (one woman at my table scoffed when she was accidentally introduced as “president”), DeSantis got a few big applause lines in. But no candidate was received with as much excitement as Trump. He seemed different than during events last year—not in content, of course, it’s still the same politics of cruelty, but energized now that he has the goal of 2024 to work towards.
And while some attendees had expressed interest in a DeSantis ticket in conversations earlier in the day, the ecstasy that swept the room when Trump appeared on stage felt different than even some standing ovations other candidates got. The crowd moaned and booed when he declared that “the Left” “wants to impose their sick creed of woke communism onto every man woman and child,” and roared in agreement, when he said, in response to accusations of domestic terrorism and incitement of violence: “You’re not a threat, you’re the best thing that’s ever happened to this country!” These warriors might call themselves “joyful,” but they can’t wait for the fight.