The battle over who the 'real Americans' are is taking us to the brink
For the followers of the former president, and for the GOP leaders paving the way for his return, freedom is about power. It’s about what they can do to you without consequence and what you can’t do to them without consequence. The social contract is tantamount to tyranny. They owe nothing to you, but you owe everything to them.
They call themselves “real Americans.”
For everyone else, freedom is democracy and self-government. That requires respect for social contract, which itself requires respect for the truth, as the truth is independent from human agency. The truth not only binds equal citizens but enables compromise between them. At root is the recognition that the common interest and common good are achievable through shared purpose and sacrifice. We are all in this together. Only when we honor that can we all of us be truly free.
In my view, these are real Americans.
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You could call this the difference between conservative and liberal. But after January 6, 2021, and the ongoing effort to sabotage voting rights in GOP-controlled states, does that apply anymore? After all, many conservative Republicans still prefer democracy. A bright line has been drawn. The difference, to me, is now between traitor and patriot.
Fred Wellman is preoccupied by that bright line. But he sees a lot of Americans sitting on it. “Fence-sitters” he calls them. They are critical to his success as co-founder of the Beer Hall Project, a PAC focused on reminding everyone of the bright line between fascism and democracy. “If we can bring them around to the right side, we win,” he told me.
Fred is a 22-year Army veteran who served in Desert Storm and Operation Iraqi Freedom as a helicopter pilot. He then served two more tours as a spokesman and advisor to the Iraqi government.
We talked about his project, the problems of political engagement and why J6 is like the 1923 Beer Hall Putsch that led, a decade later, to the rise of Hitler and the demise of the democratic Weimar Republic.
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Unlike other projects, yours seems intent on influencing the political culture, not just individual voters. It aims to remind Americans of the dangers we face even if they don't habitually vote. Why is that?
My cofounder, Cyrus Schick, and I felt there was a hole in the pro-democracy coalition for a group that’s laser focused on the events of January 6 and its aftermath that looks at how we can reach disaffected Americans and better reach more citizens. Most political campaigns and even PAC's don't have time to do long-term research or detailed investigations. We hope to add firepower to those efforts.
There are historic examples of events like the January 6 insurrection in the past so we are tying a direct line from them to what we face here and using modern tools to get more Americans to see that connection.
Let's talk about those examples. Why are they important to people who don't vote? I think we should presume everyone cares about democracy, but we should also realize that's probably not the case.
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That's just the issue, isn't it?
I saw a focus group today that said independent voters only care about the economy. I get that. But I also know autocracy is bad for the economy. How do we get people to care about their actual freedom as much as they care about other issues? By looking to history.
Our name refers to the 1923 Beer Hall Putsch. That’s when Hitler and his nascent Nazi Party attempted to take the Bavarian government and march to Berlin, as Mussolini had done in Italy months before.
He failed but learned the path to power was through manipulating the weak democratic institutions and structure of the Weimar Republic. Ten years later, he was Chancellor. In only a month, the Reichstag Fire allowed him to implement sweeping dictatorial actions that decimated German society and would eventually lead to the deaths of millions.
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I would rather be accused of being overly reactive now than be sitting in a jail cell 10 years from now wishing I had done more.
Part of me wonders if our political culture understands fully what freedom is. I suppose you just have to scare people in the right ways.
That reminds me of a story I often tell about a time in Iraq in 2003. The local sheik I partnered with was chatting with me over lunch in his village. We had been traveling in my sector and we were taking a break to discuss the situation in the country.
He explained we have fundamental differences in understanding what "freedom" means in our countries. In America, freedom meant voting for who you wanted, traveling the country without checkpoints, educating your children and not fearing your government.
In Iraq, freedom meant, "You stole my sheep. Now I’m free to kill you!"
I think about it often and wonder how far are we sliding into that kind of society as we see the insanity at school board meetings, the attack on the Capitol and other actions by those who claim to love "liberty" and "freedom" on the right.
By focusing on J6, you are in a sense asking people, whether they are engaged or not, to look at the biggest possible picture and pick a side. Are you on the side of America, democracy and freedom? Are you on the side of mutineers trying to bring it all down in the name of "freedom." The Beer Hall Project seems intent on drawing a line that many don't see as one needing to be drawn. Thoughts?
That's precisely it. But also remember the aftermath of the Beer Hall Putsch. Hitler deployed his brownshirts (the Nazi Party’s paramilitary wing) and a campaign of lies and misinformation while manipulating the democratic institutions to gain power after Munich.
We want our fellow Americans to see the thread that runs from that time to what is happening here today.
Over 500 bills have been proposed in 49 states by GOP lawmakers to roll back voting rights. They continue to believe in the Big Lie – that the election was stolen. They call anyone that opposes them communists or socialists. (The Nazis did the exact same thing.)
They are rolling back our teaching and education. They are deploying their own supporters at every level of our government and specifically targeting local school boards and election officials so they can have the keys to power in the future.
It took Hitler a decade with his tiny party. How long will it take here when the opposition is an existing major party that has control of dozens of legislatures and governorships already?
We hope to loudly and directly draw those connections in hopes of turning them back before it’s too late.
We have been singing the same tune at the Editorial Board. The chief obstacle is Americans having too much faith in democracy.
Exactly. The old "it can't happen here" challenge.
What are you proposing to overcome this?
The cornerstone of our efforts will be research. We will conduct focus groups, polling and analyze existing work to divine the common threads of messaging and how we can reach more Americans.
Second, we will produce original investigations and work that are designed to lay out these issues and draw the connections in a factual and honest way, and present them in ways that will reach people, be it traditional media or online videos.
On top of that we intend to fund efforts that truly infiltrate and undermine violent groups, misinformation networks and others who are attacking our democracy. Our intent is not to sit idly by talking about the danger but invest in active efforts to roll them back.
Let's talk about patriotism. If some people don't care about democracy, they probably care about loyalty and love of country. A lot of Trumpists believe they are the "real Americans."
That is a big part of the challenge, isn't it? How do we define these terms for ourselves?
The cops who stopped them and the insurrectionists who attacked them on January 6 thought they were "defending the Constitution.”
We have a fundamental breakdown of how we communicate in our nation after years of misinformation and disinformation, much of it fueled by malicious foreign and domestic actors.
It's no coincidence that Brian Sicknick and Ashli Babbitt were Air Force veterans and the representation of active military and veterans in the ranks of those charged is larger than their representation in society.
We have a huge swath of Americans convinced that attacking our government and the political opposition, even violently, is patriotic.
We must push back and educate. We must change the conversation and we have to start right now.
Too many people are willing to throw their hands in the air and say, “Well, what can you do?" I reply, ``How can we afford to not try?”
What drew you personally to this?
Watching the events of January 6 unfold was a gut punch. Watching the erasure of those actions and re-writing of the history by the GOP and their propagandist allies pushed me over the edge, almost.
When Cyrus approached me with his idea, I found a partner with whom I could build something unique and laser focused.
I call myself a pro-democracy advocate, which is admittedly a little cheesy, but I am at this point.
I believe in my heart I am, fundamentally, still fighting for what I swore with my first oath to support and defend from all enemies, foreign and domestic, on the Plain at West Point on July 4, 1983.
I am in some small way still fighting for our Constitution, for the Republic and for my kids to have a better life.
If that takes the form of a PAC, I will do what I can. We all have roles and I want to be part of the good guys on the right side of history.
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