Experts in extremism say fanatical far-right groups and ideas have solidified their grip on the Republican Party since Jan. 6.
Pennsylvania Republican nominee for governor Doug Mastriano posed for an Army War College faculty photo wearing a Confederate uniform in 2014, according to images published by Reuters. A few days later, Media Matters' Eric Hananoki posted video from 2020 of Mastriano complimenting a man wearing a Confederate battle flag as a cape in front of a statue of General Robert E. Lee.
But Confederate imagery is only the most obvious and familiar example of Mastriano's deep connection to a vast constellation of far-right groups and ideas: His campaign has employed militia members; he counts a number of self-proclaimed prophets as supporters and staff; he has pushed a legislative agenda based on Christian nationalist policies as a state senator; and he has repeatedly used sometimes violent far-right Christian symbolism in his public life.
Mastriano, who received former President Donald Trump's endorsement during the Republican primary, spent thousands of dollars from his campaign coffers to bus Pennsylvanians to Washington, D.C., on Jan. 6 and was present on the Capitol grounds during the insurrection that day by Trump supporters.
Several of Mastriano's supporters have been convicted of crimes related to their participation in the insurrection, including at least one who rode on a bus chartered by Mastriano. At first, the Republican denied being present on the Capitol grounds after violence broke out, but a radio interview unearthed by the website Pennsylvania Spotlight revealed that he had seen at least two attempts to break into the Capitol building. Footage uncovered by online activists showed Mastriano and his wife, Rebecca, breaching barricades abandoned by police outside of the building.
The House committee investigating the Jan. 6 attack subpoenaed Mastriano in February to ask about his presence at the Capitol that day and his role helping the Trump campaign assemble a slate of fake Republican electors in Pennsylvania, a state that Biden won. After winning the Republican primary, the candidate agreed to a voluntary interview and provided documents to the committee but refused to answer questions during the interview and left after less than 15 minutes.
Mastriano is now suing the committee, alleging that it does not have the proper authority to make witnesses testify.
Dr. Heidi Beirich, the co-founder and leader of the Global Project Against Hate and Extremism, told The American Independent Foundation, "There's no question that Confederate symbols are racist and directly tied to the Confederacy's defense of slavery and Black oppression."
"It may appear that the Confederate flag is a 'soft' representation of white supremacy, but its ubiquitousness in those circles shows white supremacists know exactly what it means. We shouldn't forget that the riots in Charlottesville in 2017 came about because racial extremists wanted to protect a Robert E. Lee statue," Beirich added.
Insurrectionists and militiamen
A member of Mastriano's security team, Scott Nagle, was listed in January as the Lancaster County regional leader for the Oath Keepers, the website LancasterOnline reported last month. The Oath Keepers are a far-right militia group that was extensively involved in the insurrection. Eleven members of the militia, including founder and leader Elmer Stewart Rhodes III, a U.S. Army veteran, were indicted on charges, including seditious conspiracy, by a federal grand jury at the beginning of the year.
According to prosecutors, several Oath Keepers established a makeshift base of operations in a Comfort Inn outside Washington ahead of Jan. 6, which they stocked with explosives and firearms in preparation for overturning President Joe Biden's victory.
Nagle has reportedly been photographed on several occasions with Mastriano.
Beirich noted that Oath Keepers members are also involved in election races this year: "Self-declared Oath Keepers members are running for office in some states. In a way, the line between the far right of the GOP and these extremist groups has become blurred, and their ideas are finding even more footing in the mainstream."
At the Fourth of July parade in Glenside, Pennsylvania, Mastriano supporters were reported to have marched with a Three Percenter flag, a symbol of a right-wing extremist anti-government ideology within the militia movement, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center.
Theocracy by any other name
Mastriano is deeply tied to Christian nationalist extremists who say they want to govern America on the basis of religious principles. Many challenge the notion of a separation between church and state; Mastriano himself in April called it a "myth."
In March, Mastriano campaigned with Julie Green, a self-described "prophet" who says that Nancy Pelosi drinks the blood of children — a claim that Media Matters notes is aligned with the QAnon conspiracy theory that former President Donald Trump is fighting a Democrat-led "deep state" that runs an international satanic child-trafficking ring.
Mastriano is closely associated with regional leaders in the New Apostolic Reformation, a movement of charismatic and Pentecostal preachers who believe that America ought to be governed according to their interpretation of Biblical law. NAR-affiliated leaders are reported to believe that God has bestowed the gift of prophecy on some in the movement and that demonic forces are at work in the world and must be fought by spiritual means.
Abby Abildness, who has worked in the Pennsylvania state Capitol as a lobbyist, is a prominent figure in the New Apostolic Reformation. She has interviewed Mastriano for her podcast and, in one incident, walked the grounds of Gettysburg National Military Park on Jul. 4, 2021, with Mastriano and his wife, praying that God defend the park from antifa amid online rumors that members of that movement planned to deface monuments and burn Americans flags — rumors that were later revealed to be the work of a social media prankster.
Salon's Frederick Clarkson reported in July that Mastriano had sponsored bills based on model legislation distributed originally through the so-called "Project Blitz," produced by the Congressional Prayer Caucus Foundation, with which Abildness is affiliated. The bills would have required that the Bible be taught in public schools and allowed adoption agencies to refuse to work with same-sex couples.
An appeal to heaven
Mastriano's gubernatorial campaign and public life are steeped in right-wing Christian nationalist symbolism, including the use of Jewish ritual items that have taken on meaning in Christian nationalist circles, such as the shofar, or ram's horn, blown as a trumpet by Jews on certain holidays and used now by some Christians to declare spiritual warfare. A man wearing a Jewish prayer shawl blew a shofar at the launch of Mastriano's campaign.
The New Yorker reported in 2021 that Mastriano has hung a flag bearing the phrase "An appeal to heaven" on his office door in Harrisburg. The phrase, taken from 17th century English philosopher John Locke, refers to the right of people to revolt against their leaders when they become tyrants, and the so-called Pine Tree Flag bearing the phrase was first flown by Continental Army warships during the American Revolution.
More recently, the flag has reportedly been adopted by the pro-Trump Christian preacher Dutch Sheets as a symbol of "gathering a network of fellow believers serving Christ in public office to fellowship, encourage, and serve one another in our common mission." It was carried by participants in the Jan. 6 insurrection.
Mastriano's campaign has paid Gab, a social media platform that is a haven for antisemites, white supremacists, and Christian nationalists, to promote his campaign. The website's founder, Andrew Torba, publicly espouses a multitude of conspiracy theories and anti-semitism.
Mastriano has been reportedly playing down his more extremist views and associates since winning the Republican primary. Reports note that he rarely talks about abortion on the campaign trail, despite having said during the primary campaign that passing a ban on the procedure is his "number one issue." In July, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported that he had deleted social media posts containing videos about conspiracy theories and his extreme views.
Despite his efforts, more than a dozen prominent Republicans have rejected Mastriano as too extreme and have endorsed his Democratic opponent, Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro.
However, many state Republicans figures have closed ranks around Mastriano.
Jared Holt, senior research manager at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, told The American Independent Foundation, "The entity that could course-correct [extremism] most efficiently would be the Republican Party."
Beyond that, Holt stressed the importance of participation in the democratic process and government. "If there are 20 conspiracy theorists showing up at a school board meeting to intimidate members, there's no reason why there shouldn't be at least 20 people there to offer a countermessage," he said.
Shapiro has led Mastriano in every poll of the race taken so far, although some, such as Emerson College's, conducted in late August, have the candidates within the margin of error. And while the campaigns haven't had to release fundraising numbers since June, those reports showed Shapiro with $20 million on hand to Mastriano's $954,000. The next round of campaign finance reports are due in late September.
Published with permission of The American Independent Foundation.