For the last 18 months, a veteran Army intelligence officer, former Green Beret, and lawyer named Ivan Raiklin has traveled the United States and become an internet phenomenon through his obsession with one cause: undoing President Joe Biden’s 2020 election victory and restoring President Donald Trump to the White House based on false claims of widespread voter fraud.
In December 2020, the Virginia-based Raiklin penned a memo, widely circulated on the far right, titled “Operation Pence Card,” urging then-Vice President Mike Pence to reject Biden’s electoral votes from key states on Jan. 6. He warned, according to Reuters, “of conspiracies involving Pence, intelligence agencies, big tech, China, and the postal service,” and urged Trump to activate the emergency broadcast system. And Raiklin hasn’t let up since the failed coup attempt.
But on Tuesday night, there was nowhere in America more important for Ivan Raiklin to be than in Pennsylvania — to stand alongside and congratulate his former military comrade and fellow “Big Lie” conspiracy theory proponent Doug Mastriano, as the state senator won a landslide primary victory to become the Republican nominee for governor.
Raiklin posted a short clip of himself congratulating Mastriano, a 58-year-old retired Army colonel who wore an Operation Desert Storm cap and a tie emblazoned, “With God all things are possible.” With a piano slowly bashing out “America the Beautiful” from the victory party in Chambersburg, the newly minted nominee told Raiklin that “we’re going to send a message to the United States of America that things are changing in Pennsylvania …”
The Virginia activist then looked into the camera lens, and added: “Twenty electoral votes as well.”
Mastriano’s moment with Raiklin went viral online thanks to Democrats raising alarm bells about what a Republican victory in November might mean for the future of the American Experiment and its most fundamental tenet: that a democracy is led by those who receive the most votes.
Pushing ‘The Big Lie’ in Pa.
Mastriano’s primary victory and his promise to double down on the populist authoritarianism — that narrowly won the Keystone State for Trump in 2016, and came close in 2020 — has raised a flood of questions.
Would Raiklin and his cabal of election hucksters — deeply rooted in the network of QAnon-spouting conspiracy theorist and disgraced former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn — descend on Harrisburg in January to mount a crazy effort to decertify the 20 electoral votes Biden earned here in 2020? And would a Gov. Mastriano consider appointing Raiklin or a like-minded “Big Lie” proponent as Pennsylvania’s Secretary of State, with power to enforce a growing GOP ethos of voter suppression on the 2024 election?
One thing is certain, though — Pennsylvania’s fall election is now a referendum on whether voters want to continue on the flawed but hopeful democratic path launched from Philadelphia in 1776, or whether they want a ruling philosophy based on Christian domination for the fifth most-populous state in the country.
No wonder the Pennsylvania race has now become an obsession with national commentators. On Wednesday night, MSNBC’s Lawrence O’Donnell told his audience that “it is up to Josh Shapiro to save America.”
And yet no one should assume that Shapiro — the ultra-conventional center-left attorney general who won the Democratic nomination unopposed on Tuesday — is going to be a slam dunk, even though his campaign spent money trying to boost Mastriano as his most beatable November foe.
A new civil war, via Gettysburg
This make-or-break election comes right as the story that many Americans told ourselves — of expanding civil rights and an arc of a moral universe that was bending toward justice — is rapidly falling apart.
In Washington, a 50-year project spurred on by religious fundamentalists to remake the Supreme Court is shifting into high gear as justices clear a path for a state leader like Mastriano to undo women’s reproductive rights. In Buffalo, an 18-year-old with a white supremacist, anti-immigrant worldview fueled by the same Christian nationalism that animates the Mastriano campaign hunted down and slaughtered 10 African Americans in a crowded supermarket. In Gettysburg, the heart of Mastriano’s state senate district, we are seeing the roots of a second American civil war that would reverse the blood-soaked gains from that consecrated battleground.
Tempest-tossed by the gyrations of COVID-19, the spike in inflation, and now a potentially looming recession, the 2022 electorate is frazzled and angry — in Pennsylvania and across the United States.
Voters may not have time for a three-credit civics refresher course on participatory democracy when they’re shopping for tiki torches and pitchforks. But if history is any guide, voters will be more eager to throw out the incumbents they blame for paying $17.99 for bacon at Costco in 2022 than to be worried that the new guy will throw away their vote in 2024.
As a Philadelphia journalist who’ll be working almost in the shadow of Independence Hall, I am vowing today to make the antidemocratic threat posed by the modern conservative movement — epitomized by Mastriano’s win on Tuesday, but also symbolized by rising authoritarians like Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and extremist Arizona gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake — the central mission of this column between now and Nov. 8.
But to kick off the fall campaign, let’s quickly remind ourselves of the bigger picture, of what’s at risk in the voting booth this November.
Undoing Pa’s proud history
In a state where the movement for LGBTQ+ rights was launched with a courageous 1965 protest outside Independence Hall, and where our politicians have failed to enshrine those basic human rights, Mastriano promised on Tuesday night to create a climate of fear, hostility, and harassment for Pennsylvania’s young people already coping with hard issues around gender and sexuality. He vowed that “only biological females will play in biological female sports” and that “on day one, you can only use the bathroom that your biology and anatomy says.”
In a state where famed suffragists like Lucretia Mott and Frances Ellen Watkins Harper fought tirelessly for the fundamental rights of women, a Gov. Mastriano would work with a Republican legislature to enact the most extreme antiabortion bill possible in the post-Roe-vs.-Wade environment — most likely a heartbeat ban on the procedure.
In a state that was an epicenter of the pre-Civil War abolition movement and the Underground Railroad, Mastriano has vowed to work with those same lawmakers to restrict what teachers can instruct our children about America’s racial history.
In a state where pioneering delegates spent a sweltering Philly summer in 1787 debating how best to enshrine freedom of worship and create a new nation free from any imposed state religion, Mastriano has promised supporters that his stewardship of Pennsylvania would be drenched in Christian authority, that “we have Jesus Christ that we’re serving here. He’s guiding and directing our steps.”
In a state where pioneering newspapers like the 18th century’s Pennsylvania Gazette cemented the bond between the act of journalism and an engaged citizenry, Mastriano has created a goon squad that works to keep reporters out of rallies and events, to rile up his base while holding mainstream voters out of the information loop.
And perhaps most importantly, in a state where Thomas Jefferson penned in 1776 that governments derive “just powers from the consent of the governed,” Mastriano has vowed to work with his handpicked Secretary of State and the legislature to make it harder to cast a ballot by curbing mail-in voting and other conveniences, and to impose a cockamamie reregistration scheme that would disenfranchise untold thousands. His willingness in 2020 to allow the legislature to send Trump’s 20 electoral votes to Congress despite Biden’s 80,000-vote victory signals he will do whatever it takes to assign Pennsylvania’s now-19 votes to a Republican in 2024.
It’s a pretty bleak picture, but the good news for Pennsylvania’s 13 million residents is that the 2022 election won’t be conducted under that hostile, restrictive regime. There’s plenty of time for folks to register, to take part an election that will show whether or not voters are so mad over supermarket prices that we’ll throw out representative government along with the bacon grease. Legend has it that Benjamin Franklin told a 1787 citizen in this very state that he’d been granted “a republic, if you can keep it.” In November, let’s keep it.
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