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No longer fringe, small-town voters fear democracy’s demise

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HUDSON, Wis. (AP) — A word — “Hope” — is stitched onto a throw pillow in the little hilltop farmhouse. Photographs of children and grandchildren speckle the walls. In the kitchen, an envelope is decorated with a hand-drawn heart. “Happy Birthday, My Love,” it reads.

Out front, past a pair of century-old cottonwoods, the neighbors’ cornfields reach into the distance.

John Kraft loves this place. He loves the quiet and the space. He loves that you can drive for miles without passing another car.

But out there? Out beyond the cornfields, to the little western Wisconsin towns turning into commuter suburbs, and to the cities growing ever larger?

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Out there, he says, is a country that many Americans wouldn’t recognize.

It’s a dark place, dangerous, where freedom is under attack by a tyrannical government, few officials can be trusted and clans of neighbors might someday have to band together to protect one another. It’s a country where the most basic beliefs — in faith, family, liberty — are threatened.

And it’s not just about politics anymore.

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“It’s no longer left versus right, Democrat versus Republican,” says Kraft, a software architect and data analyst. “It’s straight up good versus evil.”

He knows how he sounds. He’s felt the contempt of people who see him as a fanatic, a conspiracy theorist.

But he’s a hero in a growing right-wing conservative movement that has rocketed to prominence here in St. Croix County.

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Just a couple years ago, their talk of Marxism, government crackdowns and secret plans to destroy family values would have put them at the far fringes of the Republican party.

But not anymore. Today, despite midterm elections that failed see the sweeping Republican victories that many had predicted, they remain a cornerstone of the conservative electoral base. Across the country, victories went to candidates who believe in QAnon and candidates who believe the separation of church and state is a fallacy. In Wisconsin, a U.S. senator who dabbles in conspiracy theories and pseudoscience was re-elected – crushing his opponent in St. Croix County.

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They are farmers and business analysts. They are stay-at-home mothers, graphic designers and insurance salesmen.

They live in communities where crime is almost nonexistent and Cub Scouts hold $5 spaghetti-lunch fundraisers at American Legion halls.

And they live with something else.

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Sometimes it’s anger. Sometimes sadness. Every once in a while it’s fear.

All of this can be hard to see, hidden behind the throw pillows and the gently rolling hills. But spend some time in this corner of Wisconsin. Have a drink or two in the small-town bars. Sit with parents cheering kids at the county rodeo. Attend Sunday services.

Try to see America through their eyes.

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___

There’s a joke people sometimes tell around here: Democrats take Exit 1 off I-94; Republicans go at least three exits farther.

The first exit off the freeway leads to Hudson, a onetime ragged-at-the-edges riverside town that has become a place of carefully tended 19th-century homes and tourists wandering main street boutiques. With 14,000 people, it’s the largest town in St. Croix County. It’s also replete with Democrats.

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The Republicans start at Exit 4, the joke says, beyond a neutral zone of generic sprawl: a Target, a Home Depot, a thicket of chain restaurants.

“For some people out here, Hudson might be (as far away as) South Dakota or California,” says Mark Carlson, who lives off exit 16 in an old log cabin now covered in light blue siding. He doesn’t go into Hudson often. “I don’t meet many liberals.”

Carlson is a friendly man who exudes gentleness, loves to cook, rarely leaves home without a pistol and believes despotism looms over America.

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“There’s a plan to lead us from within toward socialism, Marxism, communism-type of government,” says Carlson, a St. Croix County supervisor who recently retired after 20 years working at a juvenile detention facility and is now a part-time Uber driver.

He was swept into office earlier this year when insurgent right-wing conservatives created a powerful local voting bloc, energized by fury over COVID lockdowns, vaccination mandates and the unrest that shook the country after George Floyd was murdered by a policeman in Minneapolis, just 45 minutes away.

In early 2020 they took control of the county Republican party, driving away leaders they deride as pawns of a weak-kneed establishment, and helped put well over a dozen people in elected positions across the county.

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In their America, the U.S. government orchestrated COVID fears to cement its power, the IRS is buying up huge stocks of ammunition and former President Barack Obama may be the country’s most powerful person.

But they are not caricatures. Not even Carlson, a bearded, gun-owning white guy who voted for former President Donald Trump.

“I’m just a normal person,” he says, sitting on a sofa, next to a picture window overlooking the large garden that he and his wife tend. “They don’t realize that we mean well.”

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He’s a complicated man. While even he admits he might accurately be called a right-wing extremist, he calls peaceful Black protesters “righteous” for taking to the streets after Floyd’s murder. He doubts there was fraud in the midterm elections. He drives a Tesla. He loves AC/DC and makes his own organic yogurt. In an area where Islam is sometimes viewed with open hostility, he’s a conservative Christian who says he’d back the area’s small Muslim community if they wanted to open a mosque here.

“Build your mosque, of course! That’s the American way!”

He believes, deeply, that America doesn’t need to be bitterly divided.

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“Liberalism and conservatism aren’t that far apart. You can be pro-American, pro-constitutional. You just want bigger government programs. I want less.”

“We can work together,” he says. “We don’t have to, like, hate each other.”

Repeatedly, he and the county’s other right-wing conservatives insist they don’t want violence.

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But violence often seems to be looming as they talk, hazy images of government thugs or Antifa rioters or health officers seizing children from parents.

And weapons are a big part of their self-proclaimed “patriot” movement. The Second Amendment and the belief that Americans have a right to overthrow tyrannical governments are foundational principles.

“I’m not a big gun guy,” says Carlson, whose weapons include pistols, a shotgun, an AR-15 rifle, 10 loaded magazines and about 1,000 additional rounds. “For a lot of people that’s just a start.”

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That cocktail of weaponry and politics concerns plenty of people outside of their circles.

Liberal voters, along with many establishment Republicans, worry that men in tactical clothing can now occasionally be seen at public gatherings. They worry that some people are now too afraid to be campaign volunteers. They worry that many locals think twice about wearing Democratic T-shirts in public, even in Hudson.

Paul Hambleton, who lives in Hudson and works with the county Democratic party, found comfort in the midterm election results, which even some Republicans say could signal a repudiation of Trump and his most extreme supporters.

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“I don’t feel the menace like I was feeling it before” the vote, Hambleton says. “I think this election showed that people can be brave, that they can stick their necks out.”

He spent years teaching in small-town St. Croix County, where the population has grown from 43,000 in 1980 to about 95,000 today. He watched over the years as the student body shifted. Farmers’ children gave way to the children of people who commute to work in the Twin Cities. Racial minorities became a small but growing presence.

He understands why the changes might make some people nervous.

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“There is a rural way of life that people feel is being threatened here, a small town way of life,” he says.

But he’s also a hunter who saw how hard it was to buy ammunition after the 2020 protests, when firearm sales soared across America. For nearly two years, the shelves were almost bare.

“I found that menacing,” says Hambleton. “Because no way is that deer hunters buying up so much ammunition.”

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____

When the newly empowered conservatives get together it’s often at an Irish bar in a freeway strip mall. Next door is the little county GOP office where you can pick up Republican yard signs and $15 travel mugs that proclaim “Normal Is Not Coming Back — Jesus Is.”

Paddy Ryan’s is the closest thing they have to a clubhouse. One afternoon in late summer, Matt Rust was there talking about the media.

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“I think they’re an arm of a much larger global effort by very rich powerful people to control as much of the world as possible,” says Rust, a designer and product developer who can quote large parts of the U.S. Constitution from memory. “And I don’t think that’s anything new. It’s always been that way,” from ancient Persian rulers to Adolf Hitler.

“Is that a conspiracy or is that just human nature?” he asks. “I think it’s just human nature.”

Today, polls indicate that well over 60% of Republicans don’t believe President Joe Biden was legitimately elected. Around a third refuse to get the COVID vaccine.

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Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, the Georgia Republican known for her conspiratorial accusations and violent rhetoric, is a political star. Trump has embraced QAnon and its universe of conspiracies. In Wisconsin, Sen. Ron Johnson, a fierce denier of the 2020 election who has suggested the dangers of COVID are overblown, won his third term on Nov. 8.

This seems impossible to many Americans. How can you dismiss the avalanche of evidence that voter fraud was nearly non-existent in 2020? How do you ignore thousands of scientists insisting vaccines are safe? How do you believe QAnon, a movement born from anonymous internet posts?

But news in this world doesn’t come from the Associated Press or CNN. It only rarely comes from major conservative media, like Fox News.

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Where does it come from?

“The internet,” Scott Miller, a 40-year-old sales analyst and a prominent local gun-rights activist. “That’s where everybody gets their news these days.”

Very often that means right-wing podcasts and videos that bounce around in social media feeds or on the encrypted messaging service Telegram.

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It’s a media microcosm with its own vocabulary — Event 201, the Regime, democide, the Parallel Economy — that invites blank stares from outsiders.

While many reports are little more than angry recitations of right-wing talking points, some are sophisticated and believable.

Take “Selection Code,” a highly produced hour-long attack on the 2020 election underwritten by Trump ally Mike Lindell, the MyPillow CEO. It has the look of a “60 Minutes” piece, tells a complex story and uses unexpected sources to make some of its main points.

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Like Hillary Clinton.

“As we look at our election system, I think it’s fair to say there are many legitimate questions about its accuracy, about its integrity,” the then-senator is shown saying in a 2005 Senate speech, questioning the re-election of former President George W. Bush.

Miller laughs.

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“I’ll give the Democrats credit. At least they had the courage to stand up and point it out.”

___

Cornfields come right up to the country church, deep in rural St. Croix County and just down the road from a truck stop Denny’s. The closest town, Wilson, is little more than a half-dozen streets, a post office and the Wingin’ It Bar and Grill.

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From the pulpit of Calvary Assembly of God, Pastor Rick Mannon preaches a Christianity that resonates deeply among the insurgent conservatives, with strict lines of good and evil and little hesitation to wade into cultural and political issues. He pushed back hard against COVID restrictions.

It’s an outpost in the culture wars tearing at America, and a haven for people who feel shoved aside by a changing nation.

“If Christians don’t get involved in politics, then we shouldn’t have a say,” Mannon says in an interview. “We can’t just let evil win.”

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Religion, once one of America’s tightest social bonds, has changed dramatically over the past few decades, with the overall number of people who identify as Christian plunging from the early 1970s, even as membership in conservative Christian denominations surged.

From churches like Calvary Assembly, they’ve watched as gay marriage was legalized, as trans rights became a national issue, as Christianity, at least in their eyes, came under attack by pronoun-proclaiming liberals.

It’s hard to overstate how much cultural changes have shaped the right wing of American conservatism.

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Beliefs about family and sexuality that were commonplace when Kraft was growing up in a Milwaukee suburb in the late 1970s and early 1908s, tinkering with electronics with his father, now can mark people like him as outcasts in the wider world.

“If you say anything negative about trans people, or if you say ’I feel sorry for you. This is a clinical diagnosis’ … Well, you are a bigot,” says Kraft, 58, a member of Mannon’s congregation. “People with normal, mainstream family values- – churchgoing, believing in God — suddenly it’s something they should be ostracized for.”

But in today’s world, words like “normal” don’t mean what they once did.

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That infuriates Kraft, who energized the Republican Party of St. Croix County as its leader but stepped down last year after a quote on the party’s website – “If you want peace, prepare for war” – set off a public firestorm. He moved to a neighboring county earlier this year.

He ticks off the accusations leveled at people like him: sexist, homophobic, racist.

But such talk, he says, has lost its power.

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“Now it’s just noise. It’s lost all its meaning.”

___

The plans, if they are mentioned at all, are spoken of quietly.

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But sit in enough small-town bars, drive enough small-town roads, and you’ll occasionally hear people talk about what they intend to do if things go really bad for America.

There are the solar panels if the electricity grid fails. There’s extra gasoline for cars and diesel for generators. There are shelves of non-perishable food, sometimes enough to last for months.

There are the guns, though that is almost never discussed with outsiders.

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“I’ve got enough,” says one man, sitting in a Hudson coffee shop.

“I would rather not get into that with a reporter,” says Kraft.

The fears here are mostly about crime and civil unrest. People still talk about the 2020 protests, when they say you could stand in Hudson and see the distant glow of fires in Minneapolis. That frightened many people, and not just conservative Republicans.

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But there are other fears, too. About government crackdowns. About firearm seizures. About the possibility that people might have to take up arms against their own government.

Those prospects seem distant, murky, including to the self-declared patriots. The most dire possibilities are spoken about only theoretically.

Still, they are spoken about.

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“I pray it will always be that the overthrow is at the ballot box,” says Carlson, who seems genuinely pained at the idea of violence.

“We don’t want to use guns,” he continues. “That would be just horrible.”

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