Early last year, as Moms for Liberty was receiving its first wave of national media attention, Ragan introduced “anti-C.R.T.” legislation. He wanted to ban teaching about white privilege or any other concepts that might cause students “discomfort or other psychological distress” because of their race or sex. The wording parroted talking points from Moms for Liberty, which parroted Trump, who parroted Rufo. Around the time that Moms for Liberty members began showing up at Williamson County school-board meetings, Steve Bannon, the former Trump adviser, said on his video podcast that “the path to save the nation is very simple—it’s going to go through the school boards.” Calling mothers “patriots,” he urged a “revolt.”
At a committee meeting of Tennessee House members, Ragan promoted his legislation by claiming that he’d heard about a seven-year-old Williamson County girl who had had suicidal thoughts, and was now in therapy, because she was ashamed of being white. (No such family has ever publicly come forward.) Two Black Democrats sharply challenged Ragan. Harold Love, a congressman from Nashville, asked him whether the proposed legislation would make it illegal for teachers to even mention “The 1619 Project.” When Ragan replied that instructors could talk about it as long as they taught “both for and against,” Love said, “It’s kind of hard to be ‘for or against’ slavery.” G. A. Hardaway, a congressman from Memphis, argued on the House floor that a law limiting discussion of race, ethnicity, discrimination, and bias contradicted “the very principles that our country was formed on.”
Ragan pushed ahead, arguing that “subversive factions,” “seditious charlatans,” and “misguided souls” were creating “artificial divisions” in a “shameless pursuit of political power.” His bill passed. Senator Raumesh Akbari, who chairs the Tennessee Senate Democratic Caucus, said, “This offensive legislation pretends skin color has never mattered in our country,” adding that “our children deserve to learn the full story.”
Once the Governor signed the bill into law, Moms for Liberty would be able to devise complaints arguing that certain elements of public instruction violated a Tennessee statute. Violators could be fined hundreds of thousands of dollars, potentially draining resources. Steenman, appearing on Blackburn’s video podcast, “Unmuted with Marsha,” let slip a tactical detail: the moment Tennessee’s new law took effect, Moms for Liberty would have a complaint against Wit & Wisdom “ready to go” to the state. Blackburn praised Steenman as “the point of the spear.”
Steenman also appeared on Glenn Beck’s show. As if speaking directly to Governor Lee, she said, “Stop serving the woke-left lobby!” Beck said, “Bill Lee, shame on you!” Lee signed the bill into law on the eve of the anniversary of George Floyd’s murder.
Steenman raised Moms for Liberty’s visibility by putting on events—rented plants, live music, charcuterie. One of them, C.R.T. 101, took place in May, 2021, before a large audience at Liberty Hall, a Franklin auditorium in a renovated stove factory filled with shops and restaurants. A clinical psychologist from Utah, Gary Thompson, came onstage and declared that C.R.T. engenders shame, which can trigger depression, which could “be pushing your kids to suicide.” Thompson, who is Black, showed photographs of his multiracial family: he and his wife, a white pediatric neuropsychologist, have six children. Thompson joked, awkwardly, that the overwhelmingly white audience sure didn’t look like members of the K.K.K. He noted that he’d voted for Barack Obama, and said that he approved of Williamson County Schools’ hiring of diversity consultants to assess such problems as racial bullying. He opposed C.R.T., though, because it framed people of color as “victims.” Choking up, Thompson said, “That is not the legacy that my parents left me.”
Moms for Liberty often advances its cause by enlisting Black conservatives, or by borrowing snippets from their public comments. The organization has posted a video clip of Condoleezza Rice saying that white kids shouldn’t have to “feel bad” in order for Black children to feel empowered. Steenman has collaborated with Carol Swain, a political scientist at Vanderbilt, who vocally opposes same-sex marriage and once described Islam as “dangerous to our society.” This past January, Moms for Liberty sponsored a conference organized by Swain, American Dream, whose branding heavily featured images of Martin Luther King, Jr. Before the event, King’s daughter Bernice tweeted an admonition about those who took her father’s “words out of context to promote ideas that oppose his teachings,” adding that Steenman’s chapter, having “sought to erase him,” was now “using him to make money.”
At the C.R.T. 101 gathering, the author of the original complaint against Wit & Wisdom revealed herself onstage to be Chara Dixon, a mom in her forties. Nervously holding a copy of her speech, she introduced herself as a naturalized citizen. (She had emigrated, decades earlier, from Thailand.) Dixon, whose husband, Brian, is white, recalled helping their seven-year-old son with a Wit & Wisdom assignment about a “lonely little yellow leaf.” The audience laughed when she declared, “It was boring.” A book about a chameleon: “Another boring story!” Her son had also read about King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, which was “beautiful and uplifting”; but the tale of Ruby Bridges and the “angry white mob” was depressing. Dixon said that in her son’s childhood world “there’s no color.” (She soon became Moms for Liberty’s treasurer.)
Dixon seemed to conflate Wit & Wisdom and C.R.T. Steenman, in an official complaint to the Tennessee Department of Education, wrote, “There does not have to be a textbook labeled ‘Critical Race Theory’ for its harmful tenets to be present in a curriculum.” At the C.R.T. 101 event, she took the stage and told the audience that the threat of “Marxist” indoctrination at school could be vanquished by opposing “activist” teachers, curricula, and diversity-driven policy. An m.c. cheerily ended the evening by reminding everyone that “today’s kids are tomorrow’s voters.”
The Williamson County chapter of M4L held its next big event, Let’s Talk Wit & Wisdom, at a Harley-Davidson franchise in Franklin. Steenman had been having trouble finding a venue when the dealership’s owner offered his showroom. Calling the man a “true patriot,” Steenman presented him with a folded and framed American flag that, she said, had accompanied her on a bombing mission in Afghanistan.
Moms for Liberty had invited the entire school board to the event, but the only members who showed up were the group’s three clear allies. One, a former kindergarten teacher who opposed masking, liked to hug people during breaks at school-board meetings. The other two were Cash and Galbreath, both of whom were up for reëlection on August 4, 2022.
Steenman, gesturing toward a large screen behind her, showed the “findings” of a Moms for Liberty “deep dive” into Wit & Wisdom. She elicited gasps from the audience by saying that the curriculum contained books that depicted “graphic murder,” “rape,” “promiscuity,” “torture,” “adultery,” “stillbirth,” and “scalping and skinning,” along with content that her organization considered to be “anti-police,” “anti-church,” and “anti-nuclear family.” Rhetoric about “empowering the students” was suddenly “everywhere,” she complained. Without presenting any evidence, she claimed that elementary-school students now needed counsellors to help them “overcome the emotional trauma” caused by Wit & Wisdom.
Steenman’s events often strayed far from the particulars of Williamson County Schools. At one of them, the proceedings were interrupted when someone walked onstage and breathlessly announced news from Virginia: Glenn Youngkin, the candidate for governor who’d crusaded against C.R.T., had won. The audience cheered as if Youngkin were one of their own.
Steenman’s claims about Wit & Wisdom were so tendentious that several ardent supporters of the public schools looked her up on social media. Among other things, they discovered a Twitter account, @robin_steenman. On August 9, 2020, Matt Walsh—a columnist for the Daily Wire, the conservative media site co-founded by the pundit Ben Shapiro—had shared a thread by a Philadelphia teacher who expressed concern that meddlesome parents might overhear classroom conversations during online learning and undermine “honest conversations about gender/sexuality.” (The Daily Wire is headquartered in Nashville, and Shapiro has propagated Moms for Liberty’s messaging.) In a retweet of Walsh, @robin_steenman had posted, “You little brainwashing assholes will never get hold of my kids!” After Eric Welch and others publicly challenged Steenman about the tweet—and another one declaring that her children would never attend public schools—the account vanished. (Steenman agreed to an interview, but did not keep the appointment. A Moms for Liberty spokesperson, calling my questions “personal in nature,” largely declined to provide answers.)
Privately, certain defenders of Wit & Wisdom referred to Moms for Liberty members as the Antis. In a sly move, some adopted the seahorse as a symbol of what one parent described to me as “the resistance.” This summer in Williamson County, I saw seahorse stickers on cars and laptops. When I met Rahman for lunch, she was wearing seahorse earrings. At a school-board campaign event for a candidate who opposed Moms for Liberty, a volunteer wore a seahorse pendant on a necklace, alongside a gold cross. At least one person connected to Moms for Liberty had become concerned about the group’s motives and tactics, and was secretly monitoring them from the inside. This person told me, “I’m the one in the trench, and I don’t want to get caught.”
Many Moms and like-minded parents wanted both Wit & Wisdom and Superintendent Golden gone. Golden’s contract was up for annual review before the 2021-22 school year began. (One Moms for Liberty opponent recently tweeted, “The m.o. nationwide is to fire Supt’s and hire ideologues.”) At a meeting where the board planned to vote on Golden’s future, one of the superintendent’s many supporters implored the elected officials to “hold the line” against the “steady attack on our public schools.” The Antis were louder. A man wearing an American-flag-themed shirt shouted, “We, the parents, are awake, we’re organized, and we’re extremely pissed off.” He declared, “We’re gonna replace every board member in here with people just like me. Nothing would make us happier than to surround you with a roomful of American patriots who believe in the Constitution of the United States and Jesus Christ above!”
The Antis jeered at speakers who expressed support for Golden or the district’s diversity efforts. They mocked a woman whose daughters had experienced anti-Asian slurs at school. The mom told the board, “I’ve heard people say that teaching these parts of our history is ‘racist’ or ‘traumatic.’ What’s traumatic is Black, Latino, Asian, and L.G.B.T.Q. kids going to schools where they face discrimination and don’t feel safe.” A local psychologist, Alanna Truss, said, “I’m yet to see a child in my practice who’s been traumatized by our county’s curriculum choices. I have, however, seen many students experiencing trauma due to being discriminated against and bullied within our schools, related to race, religion, gender, and sexuality.”
Six of the school-board members, who serve four-year terms, were coming up for reëlection in August of 2022. (The other six will finish their terms in 2024.) As the Wit & Wisdom furor grew, another component of the right-wing assault on schools locked into place: last fall, state lawmakers passed a bill legalizing partisan school-board elections. Moms for Liberty called the change “a huge step forward.”
Educators and policymakers have long believed that public education should operate independently of political ideology. As the magazine Governing put it last year, “The goal of having nonpartisan elections is not to remove all politics” but “to remove a conflict point that keeps the school board from doing its job.” For people who target school boards, conflict has become a tool. In Texas, a pac linked to a cell-phone company which recently funded the maga takeover of several school boards paid for an inflammatory mail campaign blaming a classroom shooting on administrators who had “stopped disciplining students according to Critical Race Theory principles.” In August, during a panel at cpac, the gathering of conservatives, the former Trump official Mercedes Schlapp warned that, though Republicans were focussed on federal and state elections, “school board elections are critical.” The panel’s title, “We Are All Domestic Terrorists,” derisively referred to recent instructions from Attorney General Merrick Garland to the F.B.I. for devising a plan to protect school employees and board members from threats of violence.