The Conspiracy Theorists Are Coming for Your SchoolsRoundup
tags: conspiracy theories, culture war, Iowa, QAnon, COVID-19, local government, critical race theory, Mask Mandates
Thomas Lecaque is an assistant professor of history at Grand View University. Twitter: @tlecaque.
By now you have probably seen the videos: Grainy footage of school board meetings and other public forums, as citizens line up at microphones to comment on COVID policies. It might almost seem impressive—a significant welling up of interest in local government and civic affairs—if so many of the videos that have gone viral didn’t feature angry people making statements that are factually false, risibly dopey, or outright threatening. Watch enough of these videos and you may start to feel that we are on the brink of an outbreak of violence against public officials, teachers, and fellow citizens.
The moments documented in these videos are mostly expressions of real anger, frustration, and confusion. But they must be understood in the broader context of what has been happening to the American right—the messy, overlapping sets of misinformation, conspiracy theories, and lies about the COVID-19 pandemic and the 2020 election. We started the year with an attempted coup, laden with QAnon symbolism and apocalyptic rhetoric. The internet meme prophet “Q” may have disappeared, but like any good apocalypse QAnon didn’t die, it just changed. Deadlines for the QAnon doomsday (“The Storm”) and the extraconstitutional reinstatement of Donald Trump to the presidency have come and gone, but most of the instigators and spreaders of these ideas are still there. Some are now campaigning for office. Some are still trying to overturn the 2020 election. And now some are trying to overthrow our schools.
Over the past year, as the conspiracy theorists have come together under one big apocalyptic tent—the “stop the steal” election truthers, the anti-vaxers, the anti-maskers—we have seen organized campaigns of harassment, threats of violence, attempts to harm members of school administrations, and physical altercations at school board meetings when masks are mandated.
Remember that QAnon is a partisan murder apocalypse fantasy—because that affects everything else. Trump’s own spread of COVID-19 conspiracies and refusal to engage in basic public health measures certainly contributed to the partisan response to the pandemic, but QAnon’s adoption of COVID-19 conspiracies has spread it into the new year and made it politically important in a number of red states. We are still seeing large rallies against the federal government. But at the same time, QAnon activists are becoming ever more local in their politics. Whatever narratives were spun about suburbs as a locus of anti-Trump sentiment, they are also the place where anti-maskers and QAnon have merged to attack school boards and public health measures.
I live in the suburbs of Des Moines, Iowa, where every four years our “flyover state” becomes the center of the feeding frenzy for the national political media. School board elections don’t get that same treatment, but we have been a case study for this appalling phenomenon all year. As Iowa schools returned to full-time in-person learning at the end of last month, Governor Kim Reynolds, a Republican, was busy tweeting that “Iowa was able to reopen schools safely and responsibly over a year ago” and attacking the Biden administration’s push against states with anti-mask mandate laws. What her comments neglect, of course, is that last year there were mask mandates, mandatory quarantines, virtual-school options, social distancing, and local control to change modes of instruction based on public health issues—all of which she and Iowa’s GOP-dominated legislature banned in January.
We’ve seen versions of this in a number of states—Texas and Florida are the most prominent examples, though six other states, including Iowa, also have bans on local mask mandates. But while some local districts and municipalities in Texas and Florida are fighting back, in Iowa, a culture of fear about pushing back against the state government has made it so no district has tried to work around it. Take Ankeny (pronounced ANG-kuh-nee), Des Moines’s northern suburb, where local school board elections and an election for a replacement state representative have become a focal point for QAnon infiltration of public education. One of the candidates for school board, Sarah Barthole, opened her campaign with Gov. Reynolds in attendance, with an interesting sound bite—that Reynolds and Barthole had together organized the bill that banned mask mandates, that “we met and we strategized and we planned. And not only was she working here to bring people together to change things on behalf of the children, but she really helped me organize parents and moms and teachers and kids all across the state.”