Fascism comes to Philly

A protest sign during the Moms for Liberty counter protests says
(Photo by Jason Villemez)

A few days before Independence Day, Philadelphia called on its radical roots to protest the Moms for Liberty conference. The Philly queer and trans communities were front-and-center in those protests. On the final day, several protestors were arrested. Good for them.

Those of us with long histories of protesting the right-wing fascism that has been on an extended slow creep in America since the Ronald Reagan years and the rise of the Religious Right saw what happened in Philadelphia over the weekend as an essential call to arms. Since the election of Donald Trump in 2016 and the imprint of the MAGA movement on the Republican party, the influence of fascism has taken root in some of the most seemingly benign places nationally, like suburban school boards and municipal city councils. 

Old and new generations of protesters braved the heat outside the conference where the city had put trans flags on the lamp posts surrounding the conference. A surreptitious protest took place inside in the form of hang tags placed on doors throughout the hotel by Agenda PAC that read “Welcome to the Gayborhood” and “Hate has no place in Philly,” as well as “Please disturb, fascism in progress.” 

It was gratifying to see. Less gratifying was the national media response, which chose not to make either the conference or the protests a lead story on broadcast or print media. While some online news sites like The Daily Beast and Yahoo News had conference and protest coverage, the New York Times did not and the Washington Post ran a disturbing “both sides” story June 30 that leaned in to Moms for Liberty more as a rising star on the GOP horizon that “boasts more than 100,000 members in 44 states” than the hate group it is. 

That story, co-written by Hannah Knowles and Hannah Natanson, is headlined “Moms for Liberty didn’t exist 3 years ago. Now it’s a GOP kingmaker.” Meanwhile, the kicker read, “Five GOP presidential candidates attended the group’s Philadelphia convention this weekend.” 

The “mad respect” tone of the Washington Post piece was particularly alarming given that the Southern Poverty Law Center hate tracker had listed the group early last month, as I reported June 6 in a tweet that garnered just under a million views. 

Yet that was perceived as a joke at the conference itself. GOP presidential candidate Nikki Haley, former UN Ambassador and SC governor and the only woman running in the large Republican 2024 field said, “When they mentioned this was a terrorist organization, I said, ‘Well then count me a Mom for Liberty!’”

Take that in.

Not to be outdone, Donald Trump, the twice-impeached, twice-indicted and twice-convicted (in the E. Jean Carroll sexual assault and defamation case) former president currently facing 70 felony counts in two separate cases, had his own take. Trump said, taking a jab at the SPLC, “You’re the best thing that’s ever happened to America.”

Trump also said, “Our beloved nation is teetering on the edge of tyranny,” with no comprehension that it was his presidency that led the nation there, nor that the Jan. 6 assault on the Capitol was the zenith of just such a tyrannical trajectory.

For me, the Moms for Liberty summit, which one speaker called the “most important conference to happen in Philadelphia since 1776,” was a watershed event in current U.S. politics. An established hate group which has single-handedly led book bannings and helped fundraise for anti-LGBTQ+ legislation, was being courted by a half dozen presidential candidates and was a podium for many other Republican legislators, like Rep. Byron Donalds (R-FL), who played a key role in the negotiations of the Freedom Caucus to get Kevin McCarthy elected speaker back in January.

And what to make of North Carolina Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson, another rising Black conservative like Donalds, who made a strong pitch for historical fascism, telling conference attendees that dictators like Hitler, Stalin and Mao are being “taken out of context” and we should be reading their writings.

Robinson said in part, “…It is time for us to get back and start reading some of those quotes.”


That the SPLC designation doesn’t lead the Washington Post story or wasn’t a national TV news story itself is indicative of how dramatically America has shifted to the right in recent years and how inured the nation has become to the slow frog boil of fascism.

At the conference, Trump said what Moms for Liberty wants: to return education to the states (the red states have the lowest education ratings already) and withhold federal funding from any schools that teach “Critical Race Theory” or allow discourse on LGBTQ+ issues, which conservatives oppose. 

In the Washington Post story, the authors write benignly, “Liberals revile the group, which wants more parental input over what schools teach and less teaching about hot-button issues including race, gender and sexuality.”

Where to begin deconstructing this sine qua non of both-sides-ism? To start, “race, gender and sexuality” are not “hot-button issues” but facts of all human existence. And while not noted, the SPLC is not some random group of cocktail liberals but a decades-old established non-partisan group charting hate and domestic terrorism in the U.S. 

Yet this is why the protests were so necessary: because the embrace of Moms for Liberty like they are merely ladies who lunch trying to do good for their kids is frankly terrifying. PGN has reported widely on what this group has done to eviscerate libraries nationwide. But it’s not even “just” the book bans. It’s what they represent and how the GOP has made this a focal point in campaigning, along with the anti-LGBTQ+ rhetoric espoused by most of the candidates, but most notably by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who has been given an award by Moms for Liberty and viewed as an icon by the group’s leadership.

What happened in Philadelphia shortly before celebrating Independence Day was actually devastating and should be reported as such: Key presidential candidates in one of the two major parties not only spoke at this event, but did so in a way that clarified they are one with the group’s rhetorical and ideological stance. Haley saying “count me in” to domestic terrorism — how do we ignore such a comment? How do we let any candidate claim that terrorism is a joke? Or that the tyranny Trump spoke of wasn’t a direct result of his own presidency?

History repeats itself again and again — we’ve seen it, we’ve read about it, we’ve been taught it in the years before history was systematically being banned from our schools by Moms for Liberty and their predecessors. What we saw in Philadelphia this past weekend was that — history repeating. The protestors said no. But inside, where the power lay, everyone was saying yes. 

That should strike fear in every one of us. 

Newsletter Sign-up