Is there a “red line”?

Gerald Ott of Ankeny was a high school English teacher and for 30 years a school improvement consultant for the Iowa State Education Association.

FOX News canned Tucker Carlson last month. I didn’t watch his TV show, but I’ve seen enough segments to recognize his face and, eight of ten times, recall his name. The New Republic provided a sampler of what it described as his “fascist” commentary. Not pretty.

As soon as I heard the news, I started asking myself if Carlson had ever appeared in Iowa. I assumed he had.

Carlson was in Des Moines as recently as July 2022. I found a 26-photo gallery in the Des Moines Register chronicling his appearance at the FAMiLY Leadership Summit, hosted by The FAMiLY Leader and its founder/president-for-life Bob Vander Plaats. How I missed that story, I’ll never know. Every Republican of note is pictured, with Governor Kim Reynolds speaking and looking on, her face frozen in an expression of fond admiration.

The Leadership Summit’s website still carries Carlson’s full remarks—to a crowd, as the group’s newsletter says, of more 1,800 at its eleventh annual summit.

I listened to Carlson’s speech and found it a harrowing ride into the depths of right-wing politics, but performed with the skill of a stand-up comedian. He baited the audience to applaud his mockery of climate concerns, Black Lives Matter and the murder of George Floyd, and among others, the LBGTQ community, of course.

In full disclosure, I haven’t met Vander Plaats, but I do remember, not fondly, the Vander Plaats of 2010. He faced off with Terry Branstad redux in the Republican primary for governor, and lost. At the time he believed so strongly that same-sex unions violated the “sanctity of marriage” that he led a successful campaign against retaining three Iowa Supreme Court justices. The three, along with all their colleagues, had found in Varnum v. Brien that Iowa’s Defense of Marriage Act was unconstitutional. That 2009 decision legalized same-sex marriage in Iowa.

Not to let his fame wither, Vander Plaats started an umbrella organization he called The Family Leader, a group that included the Iowa Family Policy Center, Marriage Matters, and a political action committee. Through this new socially conservative organization, he planned to play a more influential role in the Iowa caucus campaigns, which he has done.

Vander Plaats has since grown his anti-LBGTQ, anti-abortion business into a full fledged cottage industry, a sizable nonprofit with a staff of 21 (including both him and his wife) and outreach to churches of his “faith” and politicians and legislators galore. Witness the 2023 legislative session as an example of his prowess.

Back to Carlson. Nick Confessore, a political writer at The New York Times Magazine, wrote in a three-part long-form exposé that the former FOX star’s show “teaches loathing and fear.” Confessore has closely followed Carlson’s career and explains that while Carlson may claim to be a person who opposes racism and prejudice, what the show tells you every night is to be afraid. Be afraid of people who are in the street asking for police officers to not shoot Black people. Be afraid of Afghan refugees who helped us in the war and want to live here now. Be afraid of Dr. Fauci. And be afraid of immigration in general, which Carlson posits is part of a cabal, a plot to destroy Western civilization.

Carlson’s speech to The Family Leadership Summit in 2022 did nothing to dispel Confessore’s account. From the New York Times magazine article:

Accuracy isn’t the point on “Tucker Carlson Tonight.” On the air, Mr. Carlson piles up narrative-confirming falsehoods and misleading statements so rapidly — about George Floyd’s deathwhite supremacists who took part in the January 6 riot, falling testosterone levels in men, Covid vaccines, the Texas power grid and more — that The Washington Post’s media critic, Erik Wemple, has made a sideline of cataloging them. Though Mr. Carlson claims his show to be “the sworn enemy of lying,” Fox’s lawyers acknowledged in 2020, in a lawsuit accusing the host of slander, that “spirited debate on talk-show programs does not lend itself well to statements of actual fact.”

The New York Times

My big find is that Carlson is again scheduled for the 2023 FAMiLY Leadership Summit. I did wonder if Carlson’s dismissal at FOX had startled Vander Plaats into second-guessing his invitation to the TV star. There must be a red line, I thought. Silly me.

Carlson, like former President Donald Trump, has a fan base loyal to him regardless of his proclivity for lies or his un-Christ-like violations of the Golden Rule. Bill Cosby still has fans. The Family Leader’s tweet from April 20 (just a few days before Carlson’s ouster) advertises,

We’re excited to welcome back Tucker but in a different capacity this time as he will be moderating and performing individual interviews, designed to educate and equip Americans to discern a positive vision for America’s future as the country prepares for the 2024 election.

All Republican presidential hopefuls have been invited. Which makes me wonder if the shindig will be on C-SPAN or some religious channel.

You’d think a Christian gladiator like Vander Plaats would have watched enough of “Tucker Carlson Tonight” to recognize the man’s explicit promotion of racism and white supremacy. A righteous leader like Vander Plaats might want to inoculate his flock against those character flaws, or at the very least, station a guard dog at the gate, instead of inviting the wolf into the fold.

The media are inundated with new Tucker Carlson revelations. As a primer, I suggest an opinion piece by David French from the May 7 New York Times entitled “Tucker Carlson’s Dark and Malign Influence Over the Christian Right.” 

What strikes me as important to know is that French is a conservative evangelical Christian, and an attorney who, as the Times explained, has lived and worked among secular liberals. He is a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom. As per the New York Times, French “understands better than most that coexistence with people of radically different backgrounds and beliefs is not only possible but necessary, and that it requires a basic respect for pluralism that fewer and fewer Americans seem willing to show.” It’s a message that should hit hard in every Republican’s ear and nestle in their brains, but won’t.

That “basic respect for pluralism” that French sees vanishing in America is also disappearing in Iowa—in inverse proportion to the rise of the GOP numbers in the governor’s office and legislature. Legislation since 2017, and doubly so in 2023, confirms that Republicans will take no prisoners in their fight to smother civility and ban (ostensibly) naughty books.

In his 2020 book, Divided We Fall: America’s Secession Threat and How to Restore Our Nation, French discussed the conundrum that, as he says, “… there is not a single important cultural, religious, political or social force that is pulling Americans together more than it is pushing us apart.” He means the forces that push us apart are so strong as to (theoretically) lead to a state seceding. It’s disturbing, but he’s not kidding.

In the final chapter of that book, French urged leaders and ordinary people to speak out for biblical values (love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control) and American principles, despite what others may say or think. But he also called for them (leaders and ordinary people) to “show humility and mercy, to show malice towards none,” to borrow (as he says) from a phrase from Abraham Lincoln. If Vander Plaats were a true reformer, he’d scratch Carlson and sign French. But, of course, he won’t.

It has been my policy to stay as far away as possible from Vander Plaats and his band of Family Leaders. I prefer my religion served up with faith, hope, and charity, but I’ll tune into the Summit if it’s on C-SPAN or streamed on Facebook. I’m doubting Vander Plaats’ flock is any less eager to be triggered by Carlson’s lies now than last year, but I could be wrong. Like last year, when he was still in prime time at FOX, Carlson is still Vander Plaats’ much needed star, a draw that puts diamonds in his crown and votes in Republicans’ pockets.

This year, a lesser headliner is a Scot preacher whose list of published homilies and compelling oratory should make Vander Plaats envious. If Alistair Begg, the Scot, stumbles, the spirit-speakers behind him are pretty lackluster, unless the gospel trio Selah can be persuaded to do a few extra sets.

After the songbirds, Governor Kim Reynolds comes up on the program. She’s fresh off her savage raid on the outposts of public education, the LBGTQ crowd, books, Black Lives Matter, diversity, inclusion, and SEL (social-emotional learning)—subjects so repugnant as to turn a pious mind to mush. By mid-summer, though, the governor will be tanned, rested, and ready to take another victory lap before the strain of eleven days of glad-handing at the State Fair.

Following Reynolds, the chosen ones who attend this year’s summit, will hear from Dr. Bill Lile, whose “powerful and passionate” (pro-life) speech last year was “one of the day’s most memorable,” according to Vander Plaats’ newsletter. That’s saying something, since the headliner was Carlson himself.

I guess Vander Plaats’ policy of “principle over politics” (the 2023 summit theme) must have been relaxed in favor of star power. I gotta think Carlson was as much a liar last year as now, making the altered motto “politics over principle” seem much more appropriate.

When I look at the poster advertising this summer’s conference, I do wonder whether there is a bottom to Vander Plaats’ campaign against gay marriage, abortion, and LBGTQ affirmation. Is there a red line that will turn him back, discouraged but admitting he has done wrong?

I wonder the same about Reynolds. Will she turn her attention away from mockery of books like the award-winning memoir All Boys Aren’t Blue? Will she refocus on her otherwise governmental duties of healing the sick, feeding the hungry, educating all kids, and sheltering the homeless? Is seems doubtful.

Iowa Republican lawmakers introduced more than 30 bills this year targeting LGBTQ+ residents. One was House Joint Resolution 8, a proposed state constitutional amendment introduced in March. It reads (in part), “In accordance with the laws of nature and nature’s God, the state of Iowa recognizes the definition of marriage to be the solemnized union between one human biological male and one human biological female.” Eight House members cosponsored the legislation.

The proposed constitutional amendment did not advance this year. But there’s time for more mischief next year when the same bumbling majority returns to their stalls.

Top image: Screenshot from the video Tucker Carlson recorded in April 2023 to announce his forthcoming return to the Family Leadership Summit.

About the Author(s)

Gerald Ott

  • To add insult to injury...

    …the Polk County Board of Supervisors recently gave Vander Plaats their okay to build a rural-sprawl Family Leader Headquarters development that goes against the official Polk County land use plan. And the Supervisors gave Vander Plaats what he wanted against the recommendations of their own county planning staff and the Polk County zoning board.

    If there was any significant public protest against that bad land-use decision, I didn’t hear about it. If objections were absent, that probably says something about Iowa 2023. A lawsuit has been filed against the proposed headquarters, however. I hope it will be successful.

    • Thanks

      I knew it was pending, but hadn’t heard that it was okayed. I’m really not sure how his outfit makes the kinds of money it would take to maintain a staff of 21. Maybe churches pay dues.

      • I share your curiosity about funding, and would like to know for certain...

        …that Family Leader is not classified as a charity in terms of donations and taxes. I was part of the leadership of a small local non-profit conservation group a few decades ago, and to protect our charitable status, we were extremely careful to stay non-political.

        Family Leader is obviously political. Here is what it says on the home page of their website: “Inspiring the Church to engage Government for the advance of God’s Kingdom and the strengthening of Family.”

  • Bob Vander Plaats

    I recognize your sarcasm with respect to the disconnect between Bob Vander Plaats’ words about principles above politics, and the fact, that’s all nonsense.

    I take issue, though, with your assessment that Mr. Vander Plaats has grown a “cottage industry” of conservative thought that was evident over the past five months.

    “Witness the 2023 legislative session as an example of his prowess,” you say.

    Bob Vander Plaats is hardly running the show in that way. He’s simply a two-bit charlatan profiteering off of the Tucker Carlsons of the world, who are providing sound bytes provided to them by really cynical think tanks who are enjoying a great deal of success by, as you point out, scaring insecure people.

    Tucker Carlson’s sources are Kim Reynolds’ sources. And Kim Reynolds isn’t letting the likes of Bob Vander Plaats shade her moment in the sun. He doesn’t call any shots in Iowa. He just collects checks written by partisans who thrive on keeping up the fear because it keeps up the hate — hate toward people these donors hate.

    Vander Plaats is a failed educator who was in the right place at the right time when the same sex marriage case came to town through Sharon Malheiro, who cut-and-pasted her case from a template provided by an organization in Chicago.

    That is not a knock on Sharon. It’s just how that came about. You will recall that prior to that row, Iowa law was silent on the matter of gender in marriage. There was an age requirement (which could be overridden by parental consent); there was a consanguinity limitation, there was a waiting period. But the law was silent with respect to gender.

    And Iowa was late in the game. The Federal government enacted the “defense of marriage act,” which was an over reach, since marriage — like insurance — is a state matter. So states started writing their own. Iowa eventually wrote its version, and the briefs were already written in other states, and needed only to have the case citations made local in order to demonstrate the laws were unconstitutional.

    Sharon was all over that.

    The overall points here are two: first, much like the litigation with respect to same sex marriage, Vander Plaats’ arguments had been made previously by lots of losers like him. He found the script. Second, Vander Plaats did get a bit of recognition, as did Sharon, but unlike Sharon, who continued to play in the majors with an incredible win record, Vander Plaats shimmied into the darkness, receiving checks, forming a corporation, hiring a staff and collecting a pay check.

    His one big thing every year is that “summit,” which is about as effective at changing hearts and minds, or being a serious contender in the national Republican primaries, as the Ames Straw Poll used to be. It’s just a show and when it’s over, he will crawl back beneath the rock where he survives.

    • He'll have a much fancier rock in future...

      …thanks in part to the Polk County Supervisors.

    • Thanks

      Where does the cash to employ his 21 gun war ship? To built a new office in Polk Co? The tickets for the July shindig are $100 times 1500 is $150K (before expenses) , not enough to run his outfit. I don’t doubt your estimate of VP’s brilliance, but (even if only from under a rock) he is working a clandestine operation that keeps him in dough and the rightwing squawking.

      Happy to change my mind, but your rebuttal needs more meat. Cheers.