An Insurrectionist Could Be the Next Governor of Pennsylvania

Earlier this week, Doug Mastriano, a Pennsylvania state senator who used campaign funds to send six charter buses to the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021, won the G.O.P. primary for governor by a significant margin, earning forty-four per cent of the vote. Mastriano, a fifty-eight-year-old retired U.S. Army colonel, was recently subpoenaed by the House select committee investigating January 6th, for his role in the day’s violence. Some of his supporters are currently facing jail time for their participation in the riot, including Samuel Lazar, who goes by #facepaintblowhard online, and who stormed the barricades and urged others on with a bullhorn, shouting, “Hang the motherfuckers!” That afternoon, Mastriano was scheduled to address the crowd from the Capitol steps. (Mastriano told viewers during a Facebook Live chat that night that he left after the violence kicked off, but video footage, crowdsourced online, seems to establish his presence there after the rioting began and the Capitol was breached.)

Mastriano first rose to national prominence by leading the “Stop the Steal” campaign in Pennsylvania, which sought to overturn the results of the 2020 Presidential election, in which Biden won the state by about eighty thousand votes. Mastriano earned Trump’s favor—and, this spring, his endorsement—after he called for an audit of the 2020 results. J. J. Abbott, a Pennsylvania political analyst, told me that he believes Mastriano is even more dedicated than Trump to overturning elections. “Unlike Trump, Mastriano really believes what he’s saying,” Abbott said. “He’s seriously committed to mobilizing and organizing people who share his world view and has been working his whole life on the ability to implement these ideas.” (Mastriano did not respond to a request for comment.)

Mastriano continues to exhort his followers, whom he calls his “army,” to overthrow democratically elected leaders. He has vowed, if elected, to throw out all current voter registrations and to appoint a like-minded secretary of state, who could reverse election results. “As governor, I get to appoint the secretary of state,” he said recently, on a far-right radio show. “And I have a voting-reform-minded individual who’s been travelling the nation and knows voting reform extremely well.” He has also threatened to dismantle the mechanics of voting in Pennsylvania. “With the stroke of a pen, I can decertify every single machine in the state,” he has said. At a recent campaign event, he urged his followers to “rise up and secure our state.” On Tuesday night, after winning the Republican nomination for governor, he likened his Democratic opponent, Josh Shapiro, the current attorney general of Pennsylvania, to a tyrant, calling his leadership “an oppressive regime. Not unlike East Germany, where your freedoms are snatched away.”

Mastriano grew up in New Jersey and served in East Germany as an intelligence analyst while in the U.S. military. He also took part in the 1991 U.S. invasion of Kuwait. He believes that his wife, Rebecca, waged spiritual warfare while he was there, praying for his victory, and that, in response, God sent down a sandstorm to help his unit vanquish the forces of Saddam Hussein. Afterward, he urged the American military to exercise less caution about harming civilians when coördinating strikes. “This U.S. hypersensitivity about civilian casualties is an enormous weakness,” he wrote, in a 2002 military paper. “This is not to say that the U.S. should intentionally kill innocents. The goal is to keep that at a minimum, but not to hesitate to strike at locals where the regime is hiding.” After completing three tours in Afghanistan during the two-thousands, Mastriano retired from the U.S. military in 2017.

Mastriano was elected as a state senator in Pennsylvania the following year, and gained attention early on in the coronavirus pandemic for leading “freedom” events that opposed masking and other public-health measures. (On social media, he has shared the false claim that the coronavirus vaccine, “the government’s poison,” causes autism and kills people.) He has spoken at political rallies that take on the trappings of revival meetings, where participants carry Bibles, blow on shofars, and invoke scripture while Mastriano rails in support of gun rights and against abortion, which he has recently called “a barbaric holocaust.”

Mastriano has allied himself with an effort of the religious right called Project Blitz, which has targeted state legislatures across the United States with a series of bills intended to inject Christian ideals into law and public life. In addition to curtailing abortion rights, the proposed legislation would mandate prayer in public schools and render it illegal for same-sex couples to adopt children. The measures are intended to make America into what adherents see as an ideal Christian nation. “Mastriano wants to replace our representative democracy with a Christian theocracy based on the Book of Leviticus,” Michael Weinstein, of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, an advocacy organization that monitors possible religious bias in the military, told me.

Mastriano has compared himself to Old Testament prophets and the military leaders who commanded the armies of Israel. He laces his speeches with an admixture of conspiracy theory and Biblical allusion. Some scholars have come to describe his blend of American nationalism and religious zeal—centered on the idea that God intended America to be a Christian nation—as “Christian nationalism.” (Most alleged adherents deny this label; Mastriano has rejected it by e-mail, writing to me, “Is this a term you fabricated?”) During Trump’s Presidency and its aftermath, beliefs associated with Christian nationalism—often blended with elements of white nationalism and other lines of thinking that embrace violence—have become increasingly influential within a newly energized Christian far right.

“Mastriano is peddling industrial-grade Christian nationalism,” Philip Gorski, the co-author of “The Flag and the Cross,” told me. “It combines so many different elements: QAnon, the Big Lie, and Dominionism”—an ideology that became popular in the sixties through the work of the widely discredited Christian theorist Rousas John Rushdoony, and which encouraged believers to take over the government and return America to its Christian values. Many who hold Christian-nationalist beliefs take the view that America is rightfully a Christian nation, and any leader who does not align with their beliefs must be illegitimate. Such thinking, scholars have argued, makes it easier to justify overturning an election. “This shift to taking control is really different from the old culture-war style of the Christian right,” Gorski said. (Mastriano has defended his election claims to me in the past, writing, “Is it not appropriate to ask questions and seek answers to ensure each person has a legal vote?”)

The reach of these ideas stretches far beyond Pennsylvania. In political races across the United States this spring, politicians held rallies that melded religion and right-wing politics. “There’s a lot of this at the local and state level,” Gorski told me. He named Cindy Hyde-Smith, a U.S. senator from Mississippi, whose campaign was marked by a mix of election misinformation and religious fervor, along with Wendy Rogers, a state senator from Arizona whose radical platform reflects similar views. In North Carolina, Ted Budd, who won the Republican Senate primary, received Family Research Council Action’s True Blue Award this year for “his unwavering commitment to religious liberty and the rights of the unborn.” Katherine Stewart, the author of “The Power Worshippers,” told me, “The Family Research Council is one of the Christian-nationalist movement’s leading policy groups.” For proponents of this ideology, gaining control of the government goes beyond elections. “The most important leaders of the political movement are not necessarily the elected ones,” Stewart said. “They include the leaders of the organizations that funnel votes and money to politicians, control the messaging to the public, establish policy objectives, and have commandeered the judiciary.” It would be a mistake to dismiss some of the movement’s most conspiratorial claims as simply outlandish, and therefore irrelevant. “Just because Mitch McConnell doesn’t espouse these ideas doesn’t mean they’re not powerful on a national level,” Gorski said.

It may be hard, he noted, for those in liberal bubbles to appreciate the seductive power of these arguments. A year ago, in mainstream circles, Mastriano’s bid for governor seemed politically impossible. Yet his extreme positions have helped him build a clickbaity political platform, an army of digital soldiers to push it (at one time, he controlled more than seventy different accounts on Facebook, each posting such similar content that the site mistook him for a bot), and a groundswell of real-world support. “His supporters aren’t just a small number of folks from super-red counties, and it would be really, really ill-advised to discount them as kooks,” Ari Mittleman, the host of the “Pennsylvania Kitchen Table Politics” podcast, told me. “These are people we go to the supermarket with, and who stand next to us on the sidelines of kids’ soccer games.”

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