One of the first acts of the new far-right governing board for Ottawa County, Michigan, after taking over in January was a symbolic one: changing the county’s motto. The old one, “Where You Belong”—instituted in 2017 by the old mainstream Republican board—was deemed to have promoted “the divisive, Marxist ideology of the Race Equity movement,” and so replaced with “Where Freedom Rings.”
As symbolism goes, the change rang true: As we have seen with far-right takeovers of local democratic institutions around the nation, the new cadre running the show has embarked on a path of dysfunction and disruption, not to mention malfeasance and incompetence. At the same time it changed the motto, the board also fired the longtime county administrator, shut down the county’s relatively new Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, and replaced both the county’s administrative health officer and its corporate counsel.
Their replacements all met the requirements of the new board—nine of whom were elected through a local campaign in the 2022 elections by a far-right activist group called Ottawa Impact, which pledged to “recognize our nation’s Judeo-Christian heritage and celebrate America as an exceptional nation blessed by God”—for ideological alignment:
- The new administrator is failed Republican congressional candidate John Gibbs, a former Trump administration official and Christian missionary who once suggested women should not have the right to vote, and is an avid election denialist.
- The new counsel will be Kallman Legal Group, a champion of conservative causes, including opposition to Michigan’s statewide mask mandates.
- The new public health officer, if the state approves, is an HVAC service company safety manager who once suggested ivermectin and neti-pots as effective COVID countermeasures.
- And there will be no replacement for the DEI office.
The county’s 2017 slogan, as the now-fired administrator said at the time, was “intended to let everyone, regardless of color, ethnic background, sexual identity, religion or any other qualifier, know they are welcome in Ottawa County.” In contrast, the new board considers their new motto a more appropriate embrace of the county as a place “where individual freedoms, parental rights, and freedom of religion and conscience are protected, all people belong.”
It's a scenario we have watched unfold already in a number of locales around the nation:
- In Idaho, where a far-right faction operating in conjunction with a statewide far-right takeover operation assumed control of the governing board of North Idaho College and promptly engaged in a similar rampage of dismissals and dysfunction—to the point that the longtime Coeur d’Alene institution is in danger of losing its accreditation.
- In Berkeley County, South Carolina, a far-right majority took over the local school board and promptly fired the school district’s first Black superintendent and its Black staff attorney, prompting the teachers gathered in the meeting room to walk out en masse. The board—which had earlier heard concerns about the massive teacher shortage the district currently faces—clearly was pleased with that response.
- In Grand Blanc, Michigan, the school board’s monthly meetings—once the most mundane and boring of affairs, typical for communities everywhere—have become battlegrounds for conspiracists who pack the seats with people who take over the open-question sessions and dominate the gatherings with talk about critical race theory and grooming. The problem is aggravated by the presence of a QAnon-quoting extremist already on the board—one who now claims no connection to the conspiracist cult.
- In Shasta County, California, voters turned out longtime establishment Republicans after an aggressive campaign by “Patriot” movement ideologues. Militiaman Carlos Zapata—fond of threatening county supervisors that “it’s not going to be peaceful much longer,” and “good citizens are going to turn to real concerned and revolutionary citizens real soon”—led a successful recall against Supervisor Leonard Moty, a Republican and the former police chief of Redding.
- In Oregon, the state’s Republican Party apparatus has been overwhelmed by extremists: Three GOP candidates are given an onstage benediction by a QAnon preacher praying over them. At a local “Lincoln Day” dinner, a group of Proud Boys—including a man under indictment for felony assault—share drinks and applause for their cohort running for a state House seat. At a debate among U.S. Senate candidates, the QAnon-loving 2020 Senate nominee compares aid to Ukraine with Donald Trump’s border wall, while she and her cohorts all condemn the nonexistent teaching of “critical race theory” for “breeding racism” in Oregon schools.
- In Eatonville, Washington, local voters elected a second “Three Percent” militia activist—a woman who homeschools her children—to the school board. The campaign was fueled by the larger embrace of extremist propaganda in such rural areas, an embrace that began manifesting itself in an environment of fear and threats directed at anyone who failed to support the far-right agenda, particularly mainstream liberals.
As Politico’s David Siders reports, Ottawa County board meetings are now packed with fervent True Believers. County residents warn the board about the “sexualization of our children” and the “unhinged caterwauling fascists” of the left, as well as the “tyranny” of mask mandates (which was a key campaign issue for Ottawa Impact). They thank the commissioners “for trying to bring our freedom back,” and read them reassuring Old Testament verses.
Roger Bergman, the sole Republican incumbent remaining on the Ottawa County board, told Siders: “It’s becoming more and more evident that these people are Christian nationalists.” He later explained why: “The phrase I was looking for yesterday,” he said, “was ‘They have chosen to weaponize Christianity.’”
One of the striking aspects of Ottawa County’s embrace of far-right politics is that it flies in the face of statewide political trends: In the 2022 elections, voters powerfully threw out election denialists and replaced Republicans’ longtime control of the Statehouse with full Democratic control of both houses, as well as re-electing Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and other statewide officials by wide margins.
Onetime Republican state House speaker Paul Hillegonds told Siders that “when you look at the statewide election results, it’s clear there are a lot of disaffected Republicans, and more Republicans voting independently, and I think we’ll see more of that in Ottawa County, I’m guessing, if the party continues to move in the direction it’s going.”
But the radicalization of local governance reflects what’s happened to Republicans statewide—which, instead of reeling in the extremists, has doubled down on them. Last weekend, the Michigan State GOP elected rabid election denialist Kristina Karamo—who has called abortion “child sacrifice” and a “satanic practice”—as the new party chair, defeating the Trump-endorsed favorite, Matthew DePerno, largely because he had conceded his 2022 race and Karamo had not.
“This is a microcosm of what is happening nationally — the changes that are threatening American democracy,” Field Reichardt, a Michigan businessman with a long resume as a Republican campaigner, told Siders. “This Christian nationalist movement truly frightens me.”
As these kinds of scenarios—organized efforts to hollow out democracy from the ground up—become increasingly common, ordinary citizens will be looking for ways to fight back and revive their local democratic institutions. In fact, a simple blueprint does exist: The smallish Washington seaside town of Sequim, for example, found its city council overtaken by a QAnon faction that immediately began turning local governance on its head. But a determined group of local citizens organized a counter-slate for the following election and drove them all from office, primarily by appealing to citizens’ common good sense.
The key, as Devin Burghart of the Institute for Research and Education on Human Rights told CityLabs’ Laura Bliss, is for citizens to end their reflexive denial and recognize that they have a real problem on their hands. He noted that the candidates’ success began with repeatedly calling attention to their opponents’ affiliations with QAnon, as well as their excessive devotion to non-local issues, and was sealed by their strategic and energetic combined organizing and door-knocking during the campaign.
“That combination is going to be a key for defeating far-right efforts to take over local government around the country,” he said.