A well-respected leadership camp for teenagers recently gave Republicans a platform to spread election lies to 800 Missouri boys.
“This country is in the middle of a civil war right now,” St. Louis attorney Mark McCloskey declared from the stage during a GOP candidates forum at Missouri Boys State, a weeklong camp designed to teach students how the government functions.
In fairness to the Missouri Boys State organization, they invited all the candidates seeking the state’s next Senate seat to speak to the students, who were selected from around the state. They asked a respected local journalist, political correspondent Jason Rosenbaum of St. Louis Public Radio, to moderate the forum with the four Republican candidates who chose to attend.
“We take pride in being a nonpartisan, pro-democracy organization,” said director Brad Lear.
Since my son was attending the camp, I checked out the livestream for the event. I was surprised to hear speakers undermining the institutions and values Boys State was created to uphold.
When they were asked who won the 2020 presidential election, McCloskey said, “I don’t know who won the last election, but I know who didn’t -- that’s Joe Biden.”
U.S. Rep. Vicky Hartzler, who was among the 147 Republicans who voted to overturn the election results, said “we will never know” who won because of “irregularities.” She referenced a debunked and discredited film, claiming people improperly stuffed ballot boxes. U.S. Rep. Billy Long rambled about how changes in state laws meant “the election was wrong.”
Even Senate President Pro Tem Dave Schatz, who focused most of his response on election integrity, also cast doubt on the 2020 election by saying there were “irregularities” that need to be addressed.
The truth is that there was no evidence of systemic voter fraud in any U.S. state during the 2020 presidential election, according to dozens of judicial rulings, cybersecurity experts and election officials.
The election was valid, and Joe Biden won. That is not a partisan statement. It’s a fact -- even if you don’t like it.
During that forum, I listened to plenty of hyper-partisan rhetoric, on issues like gun safety and abortion, that I didn’t like. While I may disagree with those beliefs, I see the value in future voters hearing candidates state their positions.
But Boys State missed a critical opportunity to stand up for the democratic ideals it seeks to promote by letting the Big Lie go unchallenged that night.
Lear said the educational programming the rest of the week focused on protecting and preserving democracy, and provided a context for students to evaluate the statements made during the forum. He added that management of the forum was deferred to Rosenbaum, a job that involved making “hard judgment calls.”
Rosenbaum said his duties as moderator were to come up with questions, make sure the participants stuck to their allotted time and didn’t interrupt or attack one another. There weren’t clear guidelines on how follow-up questions, which may have challenged some of the false claims, would impact the other candidates’ allotted time, he said.
Given that violent political rhetoric and disinformation are now part of the public discourse, this is a situation that ought to have been anticipated. Allowing these lies to spread has real-life consequences.
Consider the heartbreaking testimony from former Fulton County (Georgia) election worker Shaye Moss and her mother, Ruby Freeman, during the Jan. 6 commission hearings. They were falsely accused of election fraud by Trump officials, their reputations smeared with lies. They faced an onslaught of threats and hateful messages. The FBI advised Freeman to leave her home for two months.
Innocent people, participating in the very democratic process Boys State is trying to promote, were threatened and run out of their homes because of the same election lies shared at the forum.
In chilling sworn testimony before the Jan. 6 committee, members of Trump’s own administration -- and family -- have debunked the Big Lie. Arizona House Speaker Rusty Bowers, a lifelong Republican, choked up describing the pressure Trump officials put on him to overturn his state’s results and betray his oath to uphold the Constitution.
Not a single Republican Senate candidate from Missouri has indicated that they would have the integrity to resist that kind of political pressure.
Unlike McCloskey’s claim about a civil war, there actually is a calculated war on truth in this country. Our young people deserve better than lies and cynicism designed to undermine our country’s entire foundation.
There could have been an opportunity to speak truth to power at that forum.
But no one was there to say it.