DeSantis, Furries, and Trump Merch: I Went to the Moms for Liberty Summit

(unattributed) The Daily Beast, July 5, 2023.

Last Thursday night, I stepped off a bus in Philadelphia and was faced with colorful signs condemning my presence and spirited shouts of “Go home!”

“You should be ashamed!”

“See you tomorrow!” another protester promised.

They believed I was a member of Moms for Liberty (M4L), a far-right faction that in just two years has skyrocketed to the national spotlight through its “parental rights” platform and push to ban school books and curricula that delve into race, gender, and LGBTQ rights.

Demonstrators turned out in full force for M4L’s second annual summit, which drew hundreds of people to a Marriott hotel downtown and served as an important stop for Republican presidential candidates including former President Donald Trump and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. During his own stump speech that weekend, multimillionaire GOP hopeful Vivek Ramaswamy would joke that M4L was his “favorite hate group in history.”

In recent weeks, the Southern Poverty Law Center classified M4L as an “anti-government extremist” group, and one Indiana chapter caught heat for quoting Adolf Hitler on the front page of its newsletter. “He alone, who OWNS the youth, GAINS the future,” read the text, which M4L defenders argued was taken out of context. The chapter later clarified that the Führer’s words were meant to “put parents on alert” to government overreach.

The Momfest backlash had police and private security swarming every corner of the convention, including this particular reception at the Museum of the American Revolution, which was vandalized after resisting pressure to cancel the event.

I followed the herd of M4L disciples—who market themselves as “Joyful Warriors” who “do not co-parent with the government”—past cops and the clamor of protesters, who bore colorful signs that read “Transphobes are not welcome here,” “No quarter 4 the Klanned Karenhood,” and “Moms for Liberty members don’t season their food.”

Inside, the mostly white and female crowd clad in business casual hovered around a cash bar and hors d’oeuvres, waiting for a dubious history lesson from conservative minister Tim Barton, the son of Texas evangelist and religious right “historian” David Barton, on how America was founded on religious principles and the founding fathers were against slavery. (He didn’t mention that George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison enslaved people.)

“The most influential source for the Founding Fathers was the Bible,” Barton lectured from the museum’s staircase, alongside M4L co-founder Tina Descovich. “If we’re looking at our nation today, going, ‘Man, I’m not sure we’re gonna survive,’ do you wanna know why? Because you removed the Biblical foundation that allowed freedom to work.”

“It’s not just stopping tyrants and evil,” Barton added. “You have to replace it with something. What our nation needs is a resurgence of religion and morality.”

I clapped and whooped along with everyone else to avoid suspicion. My mission was to blend in and get the full experience of this ideological sisterhood, one that came with a swag bag holding a Trump air freshener, comic book on the Pilgrims’ journey aboard the Mayflower, and “awake not woke” sticker with a passage of scripture. Throughout the summit, once people asked where I was from and whether I was with a M4L chapter, they didn’t dig much further. Only one person, a fellow infiltrator, asked about my profession.

After Barton’s speech, we waited for a glimpse of General Washington’s Revolutionary War tent in the museum’s dimly lit theater. The breathtaking linen-and-wool relic was unveiled behind a glass wall after a 12-minute introductory video on its history.

Near me in the front row, a middle-aged president of a conservative education nonprofit began chatting about his work in training right-leaning school board candidates.

“We need to lower our sights and go to the school boards,” he told me. “Because if we don’t get all of our schools, this country is gone.” He distributed handbills that inquired, “Do you feel like you’re fighting a battle alone? A battle against destructive policies and ideas that are harming children and families?”

The man said that stopping schools from teaching critical race theory may be a strong motivation to run for office, but if someone gets elected and doesn’t have a clue what they’re doing, “You’re gonna fail and that makes it bad for everybody.”

The exhibit’s video began, imparting the history of Washington’s private quarters as he battled the British. The narrator solemnly noted that the tent was “still bearing witness, reminding us of times when the nation’s future hung in the balance.”

“The tent, like the Republic, survives,” the voice concluded. “It remains a symbol of the fragile American experiment. The power of the people to secure their own freedoms.”

“That is why we’re here, folks,” the nonprofit executive turned to us and said. “That is why we’re here.”

Back at the Marriott, a handful of protesters waited to heckle us some more. One appeared to be someone I saw wandering the museum. I ran after her, introduced myself as media, and we traded numbers to stay connected in this foreign territory.

It made me wonder: How many Joyful Warriors weren’t there as true believers?

Friday’s breakfast included eggs, sausage, and Ron DeSantis strutting out to Hulk Hogan’s rocking “Real American” theme. He regaled the Moms for Liberty with anti-woke soundbites, and we moseyed to our choice of breakout sessions.

None of these training workshops were open to the media, but several reporters would still gain access. I selected “Mastering the Spin: Effective Messaging Strategies” with Christian Ziegler, the chair of the Republican Party of Florida and husband of M4L co-founder Bridget Ziegler, who is a Sarasota County school board member.

As we waited for the GOP strategist to begin, I gabbed with two warm and friendly women who hailed from North Dakota and New Jersey.

“I’m reading a great book called Battle for the American Mind by Pete Hegseth,” the Midwestern mom told me of the Fox News host’s latest work. “It talks about how long they have been working in our school systems and indoctrinating your children. It is incredible.”

The New Jersey woman chimed in that at a high school just 40 minutes away, “teachers have to honor the furries and kids who say they’re cats, and they have to let them bring litter boxes to school.” She was referring to the subculture of people who invent alter-egos as anthropomorphized animals and which the GOP has seized on to generate moral panic. (Claims of litter boxes in schools, it should be noted, are widely and repeatedly discredited.)

The North Dakota mother said her son’s high school had furries, too. “He’s taken pictures of them,” she said. “There was a kid that was wearing a tail and the principal, we talked to him about, you know, the dress code …. Like, these are the kids. But they just let him be, let him wear this tail everywhere he went.”

Sadly, our furry talk was cut short. “I’m not a big fan of the media,” Christian Ziegler told us. “I like bypassing the media as much as you can. But unfortunately, they’re a key component to this process. And you guys play a key role in that key component of the process. Because you’re the grassroots, you’re on the ground.”

Local news, Ziegler continued, is where M4L could reach the undecided voters; he advised people that “the media is not your friend” and “once you become friendly with a reporter, I promise you, you will get burned.” He later said, “Reporters lie, you don’t.”

Moms could completely avoid press or talk to them every chance they could. Ziegler said there was no in-between. He suggested they use local TV clips as their own free video content. And he was one of multiple speakers who was unapologetic over the Hitler-quoting newsletter.

“I feel comfortable enough that I’ll take, you know, I’ll take a Daily Beast call,” Ziegler said, and I imagined he and his collaborators were onto me.

Ziegler suggested making ourselves useful to the press, saying, “They will not misquote you if they need you.”

“There have been times where big national reporters were going to do some hit piece on me that I thought was very unfair,” Ziegler said, “and I literally got to the point, I said, ‘Dude, I take your call every time you call, I give you any information you want. You run that, I promise you I’ll never take your call again.’ And they didn’t run the story.”

“So you can push them around,” he told the room.

“You guys have all heard it, ‘mama bears,’ but you really want to be a pitbull.”

Former South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley was slotted for lunch, but the Joyful Warriors near me weren’t energized by her presence on the dais. “I wouldn’t vote for a woman just to have one,” one person at my table said. “She has to be very powerful.”

After Haley, we heard a discussion from education officials in other states, including embattled Oklahoma State Superintendent Ryan Walters, who received plaudits for crowing, “This is the most important conference to happen in Philadelphia since 1776.”

It was during this Q&A that women at a neighboring table began whispering and pointing a cellphone camera in my direction. I began to sweat. Was my cover blown? Not far away, I could see Pennsylvania chapter leader Nicole Prussman, whom we wrote about after she was accused of harassing opponents, leaving scathing voicemails for teachers, and impersonating a dead woman on Facebook. Did she pass a note?

Feeling the heat of a camera light, I turned to the mom behind me to ask what was going on. She motioned to a stylish young woman in the corner of the room, recording video. This stranger was supposedly with a progressive local website and secretly recording conversations of participants and posting them online. “Watch out,” the mom told me. (Later, I saw that a M4L follower posted a video of yet another covert scribe writing on a notepad.)

Outside, protests raged on. One group told me they’d driven seven hours to take a stand against Moms for Liberty. I looked out onto the dissenters from a sky bridge filled with women headed to a private meet-and-greet with DeSantis, who strolled past with his entourage. “What are you taking pictures of?” one mom called out, to which another replied flatly, “The mob.” A third said, “I’m just glad there’s police around.”

That weekend, some conferees suggested the protesters were only paid agitators and even warned me to cover up my name badge, insisting these dancing, middle-finger-raising activists were trying to dox the moms. Time and again event speakers told M4L that the ruckus was a sign all of them were doing something right in their crusade against the “Marxists.”

The taunts of the opposition only seemed to invigorate them.

The security line for President Trump snaked down a Marriott hallway, partly blocking visitors from another convention from getting to their own workshops.

Members of the Federation of Jewish Men’s Clubs were forced to cross Moms for Liberty to reach their rooms in the narrow hallway. One man wore a shirt with the words “Stronger Than Hate” and an image combining the Pittsburgh Steelers logo with the Star of David. I chatted with a woman running their convention, who seemed a little suspicious of me and my M4L lanyard. As another Jewish man passed us by, he muttered, “Disgusting.”

To my front were a California man who didn’t have kids but was a Moms for Liberty chair, and a Republican atheist who clearly didn’t share the chapter leader’s views. “I don’t give a shit what’s in the library,” the atheist said. “If the kids are going to the library, I’m thrilled.”

Behind me, a couple from Pittsburgh learned I was a reporter but didn’t treat me as an enemy; instead they were eager to have someone get the full picture of M4L. The mom shared worries that mirrored what I’d heard from other members—that schools are teaching inappropriate lessons on race and gender, and companies like Disney are behind shows (in this case, The Proud Family) that are teaching kids to “repent for your whiteness.”

As we inched closer to Trump’s Secret Service screening, she said that her temporary foster son, who was part Black, came home one day and declared she was lesser than him because she was white. He’d learned that, she said, from a white teacher.

More than a few moms wore MAGA hats to the Donald’s ballroom, and some chapter leaders had just enjoyed a private photo session with him. He was the only candidate to have a table in M4L’s hall of vendors with his Trump Store, and before DeSantis’ breakfast speech, a blonde woman with the shop doled out Moms❤️DJT stickers.

Each speech at the summit, whether in general sessions primed for media or the private breakouts, broadcast the version of America that M4L is working to create. Trump’s vision, as he declared himself, was “the most aggressive.”

Standing before a row of American flags and the Moms for Liberty logo, Trump announced a plan to “liberate our children from the Marxist lunatics and perverts who have infested our educational system.”

“On day one, I will sign a new executive order to cut federal funding for any school pushing critical race theory, transgender insanity, and other inappropriate racial, sexual, or political content on our children,” he said, before adding he’d put states in control of the education system.

He raised the specter of the radical left, calling it a “cult” that takes kids to drag shows instead of church and teaches pronouns over prayers.

“For any public schools that are engaged in these militant and country-destroying practices, I will instruct the DOJ to pursue them as violators of the establishment clause, of the free exercise clause, of our constitution,” he said.

Trump vowed to eliminate all Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) programs in the federal government and grant preferential funding for states that make “revolutionary reforms,” such as abolishing teacher tenure for grades K through 12.

Among his puzzling proposals was the direct election of school principals. “If you have a bad principal who’s not getting the job done, the parents will, under the Trump Administration, be allowed to vote to fire that principal to select someone who will do a great job,” he declared. “This will be the ultimate form of local control and parental rights.”

Finally, he addressed the gathering’s primary bugbear, promising to instruct every federal agency to “cease the promotion of sex or gender transition at any age.” Any hospital or health care provider who participates in “the chemical or physical mutilation of minor youth,” he said, will see their federal funding terminated.

Before he exited, he stiffly waved his arms in a little dance to “Hold on, I’m Comin’” by soul duo Sam & Dave. People around me chanted, “We love Trump! We love Trump!”

“He has so much charisma,” a man told me in the elevator afterward. “The guy is just electric!”

“I love DeSantis, he’s my guy, but he doesn’t have the same charm.”

As the Joyful Warriors dined on egg muffins the following morning, Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson sold himself as the only presidential candidate with state and federal experience and boasted of signing a bill that banned trans women from women’s sports.

Then came Jaimee Michell, the founder of Gays Against Groomers and a right-wing content creator who said she was thankful Pride Month was over—before launching into a polemic against gender-affirming care. “We never consented to woke doctors sterilizing and mutilating children in our name,” said Michell, who is reportedly known for sharing QAnon conspiracy theories and defending Jan. 6 insurrectionists as “political prisoners.” “We never consented to radical trans activists taking over and speaking on our behalf.”

“They can try to shut us up but we will never keep quiet,” Michell continued, before soliciting donations. “We will not make peace with an ideology that seeks to sexualize, indoctrinate, and amputate the healthy body parts of children.”

Moms for Liberty speakers and attendees seemed laser focused on defeating what they perceived as a cabal of educators, doctors and woke leftists who they claimed wanted to brainwash children into believing they were born in the wrong body. The end goal of such a conspiracy wasn’t entirely clear to me.

Canadian dad Chris Elston, also known as “Billboard Chris,” shared a post-prandial lesson titled “Protecting Kids from Gender Ideology.” It was the only workshop I attended that was standing-room only, and Chris shared how he protested on street corners and visited universities to rail against gender-affirming care for minors. His purchase of a billboard with the words “I❤️J.K. Rowling” apparently catapulted him to conservative darling.

He then showed the audience videos from Boston Children’s Hospital where a physician discusses performing hysterectomies. After the Twitter account Libs of TikTok circulated the videos, falsely claiming the hospital was performing such surgeries on kids, some far-right extremists called for hits on its doctors and inundated them with emails and calls.

Chris used the video to shock M4L attendees despite claims about the footage being debunked, and told the women he refuses to send his daughters “into a world that is trying to change the sex of children.”

He spoke of the injuries he suffered as part of his three-year awareness tour across the globe, claiming he was assaulted by “antifa” and hospitalized with a broken arm and mobbed by 200 university students as police laughed at him. He claimed that during a stop in Texas, he joined a Twitter space with M4L co-founder Tiffany Justice and decided to introduce himself to her. (That evening, moms angled for photos with Chris after he spoke at the awards dinner and called the transgender movement “the greatest child abuse scandal in modern medicine history,” and roared, “There is no such thing as a transgender child!”)

The dad closed his workshop with a video from Prisha Mosley, an activist who began transitioning when she was a teenager and diagnosed with borderline personality disorder. “I can’t believe this happened,” she said in her video diary. “I ruined my life.”

“When you break it down, I decided that I didn’t want to be a woman before I had ever even experienced being a woman,” Mosley continued, adding that people in the trans community and doctors “target the most vulnerable of us.” Her doctors, she said, knew she had a mental illness. “I wasn’t happy as a girl, so that meant that I was a boy, that I was trans,” Mosley said through tears. “I was told that I was being given a cure and that I wouldn’t want to kill myself anymore.”

I glanced across the room. Some of the women were murmuring sympathetically during the video. Others were sobbing or quietly wiping away tears.

“I lost my voice,” Mosley said in the clip. “I lost my chest. I don’t know if I’m going to be able to have kids. I feel like no one wants to date me or love me, because I’m ruined.”

“Nobody is going to fix this,” Chris warned them. “Except for moms.”

At the next private workshop, education consultant Deb Fillman targeted the teaching concept of Social Emotional Learning (SEL), which has become a bête noire for conservative groups. One called it a “Trojan Horse for woke indoctrination,” but proponents say SEL teaches children about empathy, maintaining relationships, and managing emotions.

Fillman said she wasn’t there to detail what SEL was, but instead what it wasn’t: “transparent and easily comprehensible to parents.” The presenter—who tweeted that summit protesters were paid and flown in from out of town—urged moms to question SEL lest our world become the 2006 film Idiocracy, where an average Joe emerges from a government hibernation experiment 500 years later to find human intelligence has declined so severely that a sports drink called Brawndo was used to grow crops; It never occurred to government experts to put water on the dying produce.

“So as you can gather, SEL is Brawndo,” Fillman said, later comparing the concept to processed foods and high fructose corn syrup. She took aim at educators’ professed benefits of SEL such as academic achievement and improved mental health and reduced economic inequities.

“Our children aren’t obligated to society,” Fillman seethed. “Well, they’re definitely not responsible to fix adult problems. They’re kids, they’re new here! How much do they know?”

At one point, Fillman asked who would be accountable if kids developed mental health problems from SEL. “Guess what? You, mom and dad, are paying those therapy bills, or dealing with the tragedy of loss if something really awful happens.”

She showed a video of a trans tween speaking in a U.S. Department of Education webinar, bragging that a bully got detention and discussing feeling heard by her principal. “And honestly, I don’t trust, like, much cis/het men over 50,” said the girl in the video of the school official, laughing. “But I trust him enough at this point because the number of times I’ve had to report people this year I feel like we’re just kind of buddies now.” Fillman warned that kids were being disciplined for failing to use classmates’ preferred pronouns.

She pivoted to a local news segment about a cluster of teens attacking a Pennsylvania boy while filming it for social media. “They have had SEL their whole school careers,” Fillman said, before questioning whether all the discussion in schools about inequality and privilege was actually having a negative effect.

But for some protesters I interviewed, the discrimination they endured in education altered their lives. Stella Moore told me they were raised Mormon and kicked out of BYU after someone reported they were in a relationship with a woman. “They took away your scholarship and left you $10,000 in debt for being queer,” their friend, Portia Maidment, pointed out.

“I understand you want to protect your kids,” Maidment added, “but what school is supposed to do is prepare you for life, and it’s not serving anybody to promote ignorance.”

LaTarndra Strong, who runs a North Carolina group called the Hate-Free Schools Coalition, noted that some people were simply on the wrong side of history. Those who “were fighting against the civil rights movement were wrong then and they’re wrong today,” she told me.

“We want to stand with our trans community, and we want to fight against the white supremacy,” Strong said. “Freedom is supposed to be for everybody if it’s really freedom.”

That afternoon, a small troupe of Moms for Liberty smiled on the scene of protesters. Among them was a Florida man in a cowboy hat who livestreamed them, saying he was “keeping an eye on the antifas.”

“Get the fuck out!” one protester shouted on repeat, while another yelled with a clap, “Fuck you, racists!” An activist wheeled over a speaker that blasted the rap song “(FDT) Fuck Donald Trump” by YG featuring Nipsey Hussle.

On the other side of the barrier, protesters of all ages began to dance.

The final night of the summit was a parental-rights prom.

I again hid my M4L name badge as I passed the gantlet of demonstrators, but this didn’t spare me any teasing. As I crossed the security fence, someone called, “Have fun tonight! Don’t quote Hitler!” When they spotted a power-fist tattoo on my back, they added with confusion, “And you’ve got a Black power fist. My sister! And you like Hitler!”

Women in ball gowns and other fancy dress flocked to the hotel’s third-floor ballroom, waiting for a professional photo before a Moms for Liberty backdrop. Another undercover reporter and I lined up behind a gaggle in sparkly studded American flag heels.

While a string quartet played “Bohemian Rhapsody,” the Joyful Warriors bought drinks from the cash bar and gazed out over downtown from the balcony.

This is when myself and two reporters from other outlets, who’d quietly masqueraded as one of the gang for two days, began to approach moms for comment.

One Florida mother, Michelle, registered for the summit to hear the presidential candidates but ultimately learned a lot from the breakout sessions. “​​I had no idea, the great things I was going to learn here,” she said. “So I was very pleasantly surprised.”

Michelle told me she abandoned a 16-year career in health care because the hospital “was getting into the sterilization of kids.” That wasn’t Michelle’s only problem with her job. To her, it seemed that there was “more diversity training than patient safety training.”

She said employees were forced to wear pride buttons, too. “If you didn’t, they bullied you,” she said. “All of a sudden, they got woke.”

“It just kind of broke me to my core because it’s just not morally what I believe in,” she added. “And as much as I had staked my entire career on this place… I couldn’t keep contributing to an organization that was making money, that was going to do this to kids.”

One Pennsylvania couple, Terri and Ken, initially bought tickets to see Democratic presidential candidate RFK Jr., who would cancel on the summit, much to the chagrin of Moms for Liberty bigwigs. They were new to the M4L world, and Terri said she came to see if they were the “real deal” on parental rights. While their children were grown, they were concerned about students encountering sexual content in schools at a young age.

They said nothing about M4L seemed “hateful” and “extreme.” Instead, Ken saw people telling protesters, “I’ll pray for you” when faced with their jeers. “And it’s like, who’s the extremist here?” said Ken, who asked to not be identified by last name because of a job search.

“Moms for Liberty cannot take their foot off the gas,” Ken told me.

“If you’re looking at the Civil War,” he said, “and you’re thinking about Gettysburg, and at the very core you have Joshua Chamberlain, and he’s told to hold his spot. And if he doesn’t hold this spot, the entire Civil War ends with a loss of Gettysburg. That’s the Moms for Liberty right now. It’s that important, what they’re doing.”

The swarm was soon ushered into a ballroom for the “Such A Time As This” awards show, named after the Bible verse Esther 4:14 and in reference to God putting them in a position to fulfill a purpose. The honors included the “Abigail Adams Award for Public Policy,” given to M4L leaders who hold officials accountable, and the “Mercy Otis Warren Award for Inspiring To Service,” for those who motivate “liberty minded-leaders” to take office.

My table was a ragtag circle: two atheist interlopers, two journalists, a student working on her dissertation, and a trio of seemingly unsuspecting Joyful Warriors. One reporter had attended M4L’s inaugural summit in Tampa last year and told me the awards dinner was like their version of the Oscars—there were video tributes, tearful acceptance speeches, and a sense that the organization had imbued their lives with meaning.

Co-founder Tiffany Justice told the assembly, “I just feel like we have been called to do this in a very special way.”

“The mission statement of Moms for Liberty is that we’re fighting for the survival of America by unifying, educating and empowering parents to defend their parental rights at all levels of government,” Justice continued, adding, “And it has helped us to stay on mission, right, to be controlling the national conversation right now in the media.

“America is seeing who you are right now. And it is beautiful, beautiful.”

Justice warned that leftist detractors were coming for Moms for Liberty. That they’d get in their faces, give them a hard time, and dox their kids online.

“You and I both know, if you don’t stand now, what’s the future for your children? It is bleak. It is dark. There will be—there will be death. I do not know how else to say that except for the fact that if you are a student of history, if you watch what has happened in this world before … There are beautiful times, there are some very dark times.”

Justice said that M4L has an opportunity to “save” America. “We are building an army,” she told us, “and we will lead this country because it is a beacon of light for the rest of the world.”

Conservative talk show host Dennis Prager, whose network PragerU saw videos banned from YouTube for violating hate speech policies, gave the keynote address—one that was decidedly inflammatory, excused the Hitler quotation, and called leftists “evil” and inveterate liars who seek to undermine God’s order with transgender chaos. “If quoting someone means you agree with them, then the left always agrees with me,” he said of the Hitler allusion.

“You owe no one any apology,” Prager insisted.

Prager then went on to condone a neo-Nazi demonstration outside of an Atlanta area synagogue last week. “Those scum had the right to speak on behalf of Hitler, the Holocaust and Nazism around the Jewish synagogue,” Prager said. “That’s America, my friends. You’re allowed to do that. Because if Nazis can’t speak, nobody can speak.”

Before the last award was given, Pennsylvania chapter leaders were called to the stage to commemorate their supposed martyrdom. Among them was chapter chair and alleged Facebook catfisher Prussman, whom a court fined for allegedly harassing a member of opposition group Stop Moms For Liberty.

From the podium, M4L director Marie Rogerson claimed these local members’ saw their private property surveilled and social media groups infiltrated. They received bogus citations, Rogerson continued, claiming that “elected officials have colluded with government agencies and the media to smear their names and bring false charges.” One mom was almost mowed down while standing at the polls, she said.

“When we announced that we were bringing the summit here,” Rogerson said, “the hatred and attacks only intensified, but they have responded with courage and they have continued to grow and fight despite it all.”

Several women confided in me about what they’d lost for their beliefs. One Pennsylvania woman was booted from her roller derby team for sharing posts on social media in opposition to trans women in women’s sports. She was asked to sign a paper promising to stop such posts but refused. A North Carolina woman lost her high-paying municipal job for speaking out against vaccines and masks and was escorted out of school board meetings by police.

M4L seemed to be a sorority for women who saw their ideas branded as too extreme.

After the awards dinner, I spoke to two Erie County, Pennsylvania, women about why they launched a chapter last year. When it came to masks, vaccines, and other health concerns, they believed they should have complete control of the decision-making for their children.

“I don’t care if it’s health or curriculum or ideologies, I get the final say with my kids,” chapter chair Samantha Lupher said. “I always tell the protesters, or anyone who is against us locally or anything like that, how would you feel if we shoved the Bible into the curriculum? You know, you would want to fight that. And I say, ‘Guess what, we would help you fight that.’

“It doesn’t matter what you’re against. The fact is, that’s your child, you have every right to have a say,” Lupher continued. I didn’t point out that based on Prager’s and other speakers’ remarks over the weekend, M4L wants the Bible to be the polestar of America’s future.

Still, Lupher and her colleague Elizabeth Smith believed the protesters had a right to be in the streets. “I think if they sat down and had conversations with any one of us, they’d realize that at our cores we have a lot in common,” Lupher said. “We’re not against gay kids. We’re not against gay adults.” She clarified that they oppose gender transition surgery for children.

“It’s terrifying to be on this side of things,” she said, “because everyone is against you.”

M4L “allows us to have our voice back,” Smith said. “It never should have been taken out.”

Late Saturday night, the atheist infiltrators joined me for a debrief at a hotel bar.

One, whom we’ll call Tina, was inspired to attend the summit after she saw the M4L protest lineup. She thought, “Someone should be on the inside reporting back on what’s going on in there.”

Once she arrived, she ran into a registered Republican whom she knew from atheist circles. He asked not to be identified for this article as he mulls running for office and instead preferred the pseudonym Hollingsworth. “Sometimes if you can keep your meal down,” Hollingsworth said, “extremist politics can be entertaining maybe in the same way that a severe accident on the roadway might be—”

“Titillating,” Tina offered.

“So, how badly am I going to regret this language?” Hollingsworth asked me.

To Tina, $249 for the M4L summit was a bargain. Not only would she attend a multi-day conference, but most of the meals were included. She said that as a community organizer herself, she’s interested in why people come together. This curiosity brought her to events hosted by people she actively opposes, including a White Lives Matter rally and rally for then-candidate Donald Trump in 2016 in Buffalo, New York. She also wanted to see how other bigger groups run their conferences.

“I heard about this event when I was attending pride as a queer person,” Tina said. “This is a group that’s working against people like me and people in the community that I care deeply about, in ways that don’t just result in psychological harm, but even suicide and physical assault. There’s a danger to this kind of group, and they see people like me as a danger.

“I need to work harder against them and I can learn more about them and do that more effectively if I attend this conference,” she added.

Tina wanted to attend as much of the summit as possible without being ejected.

“As a local and a non-white person, as a probably-being-perceived-as-queer person,” she laughed, “I knew that the cards were stacked against me, and that there was a high likelihood that I would be seen as a suspicious interloper, potential disruptor, and could be kicked out of this private event. So I tried my darndest to fit in and to not trigger too many suspicions in my conversations.”

On the first night, she said, someone affiliated with M4L trailed her in a loose crowd and peppered her with questions: Where are you from? What organization are you with? Why are you here?

She said one man had also approached her at a coffee shop in the Marriott lobby and said, “So who do you work for?” She answered, “I’m not here for work.”

“But who are you with?” he allegedly pressed.

“I’m not with a Moms for Liberty group if that’s what you’re asking,” Tina answered.

“Well, tell me about yourself,” he said.

Tina said she shimmied through the conversation without revealing where she worked or her political affiliations. “Mr. Friendly,” she joked of her alleged snoop.

For his part, Hollingsworth said he was initially impressed by M4L’s goal of trying to make things better for their kids and communities. “Are they going about it in the best ways?” he told me. “Now that I understand what they’re trying to do, I think there might be some room for improvement. I think dialogue with the groups that they don’t understand might be helpful. And, you know, sort of promoting things like tribalism and demonizing their opponents is not as constructive as perhaps a more sincere dialogue might be.”

Hollingsworth said he had constructive conversations with the moms. “A lot of these people are white Christian women or men that live in very insular societies,” he said. “They don’t live in a city where you’ll see people dancing in the street with the freak flag going.”

“Part of their narrative is that children are being victimized by some kind of conspiracy to convert them and make them feel that they’re a different gender,” he continued. “I cannot possibly believe that narrative is accurate.”

Tina said she spoke to rank-and-file members in the lobby bar one night and heard stories about more liberal-minded or lefty relatives chastising them.

“Almost all of them had a relatively recent experience that pushed them along the path,” Tina said. “Many of those experiences happened during the pandemic or were directly related to school curricula. Some of it was family members turning on them, that made them seek out other information and then feel like they would be more welcome in a conservative environment.”

“It was because they felt uncomfortable with something ‘woke’ or challenged by something that was identified as woke,” she said.

I asked the atheists about M4L’s rise to power. For Tina, it’s frightening to see how much impact they will have as a well-funded machine. They have only existed two years and already lured nearly half a dozen presidential candidates in one weekend.

“This was not a trick,” Hollingsworth said.

“From my perspective, just as a rational human being, it’s really scary, because I do not have buy-in for the Christian dominionist stuff, and I don’t have buy-in for the Christian nationalist stuff and the intolerance and demonization of opponents stuff.

“So they could be pretty harmful. We’ll see.”

 Image Credits: Photo illustration by The Daily Beast, Photos by Getty Kate Briquelet