Discover more from The Bulwark
This Cult Is Ruining People's Lives
How the Republican party failed Christine Priola.
1. It’s a Cult
I can’t stop thinking about the woman in this picture.
We all saw her last Wednesday when she approached the VP’s chair inside the Capitol.
At the time, I was struck by the sign she was holding, which suggested that she was a QAnon follower who had come Washington because she believed she was bringing down a cabal which ritually murders children. You could see on her left leg that she was also wearing “Make America Great Again” tights.
I know: Books, covers, etc.
But still. The blonde woman inside the chamber looked nothing like most of her confederates. She looked like an elementary school teacher.
And it turns out that this was pretty close to the mark. Her name is Christine Priola. She lives in Cleveland. And up until last week, she was an occupational therapist who worked for the Cleveland school system.
But not anymore.
How does this happen?
Here’s what I’ve been able to piece together about Priola from various news accounts:
She had been employed by the Cleveland public school district for 10 years.
She worked as an OT with (presumably) special-needs kids.
The day after the insurrection she resigned from her job.
Her resignation letter states the following:
I will not be taking the coronavirus vaccine in order to return to in-person learning.
I will be switching paths to expose the global evil of human trafficking and pedophilia, including in our government and children’s services agencies.
I do not agree with my union dues, which help fund people and groups that support the killing of unborn children.
Let’s acknowledge that we have only the barest sketch of Priola’s life. But the broad outlines are of a middle-aged, professional woman who had dedicated her career to helping kids. Who had a steady job. Probably with a pension.
And suddenly she’s storming the Capitol with a bunch of clearly insane people.
Twenty-four hours later she quits her job. Says she wants to dedicate her life to fighting a global pedophile ring that involves the U.S. government. Then she’s arrested and is now facing up to 2 years in jail.
How does this happen?
When you look at people whose lives suddenly fall apart, the most common culprit is substance abuse. Maybe that’s part of the story here and we just don’t see it.
What we can see is a sudden and cultish devotion to conspiracy theories and a single political figure that is so far out of the mainstream that there’s no analogue in recent American politics.
But there are analogues:
The communist sympathizer who joined the Soviet underground during the Cold War.
The Irish nationalist who got sucked into Sinn Fein and then the IRA.
The unwitting person who joins Scientology or the Hare Krishnas.
The Muslim who was radicalized and joined ISIS.
I don’t know about you, but what happened to Christine Priola scares the hell out of me. Because it suggests that a big chunk of mainstream American politics has moved into the realm of extremist cults. And the object of this new cult devotion isn’t national pride or some random, charismatic figure. It’s the president of the United States and his political party.
Something is happening at a very deep level. Donald Trump, QAnon, the Republican party, and much of American Christianity—both Protestant and Catholic—have congealed into an incoherent belief system. Something that’s not quite politics, not quite religion, and not quite ideology, but rather a hybrid of the most dangerous aspects of all three.
This new belief system is unfalsifiable. It is powerful. It is virulent. It convinces normal people to take drastic actions that ruin their lives.
And because this system has the support—sometimes outright, sometimes tacit—of the Republican party, it is still in its expansion phase.
Every Republican who has played footsie with this movement—from Marco Rubio to Rob Portman to Kevin McCarthy—should look at what happened to Christine Priola and be ashamed of themselves.
The rest of us should look at her and feel pity and compassion. The Christine Priolas of the world have become enemies of democracy—but they are also victims. And saving America means saving them, too.
I don’t have the answers here. I don’t know how to save someone like Christine Priola. But I’m pretty sure that if we don’t figure out some answers, then January 6 will have been prologue to a dark future.
Working through this mess is what we do at The Bulwark. And we do it with you. I hope you’ll join up with our Discord group, or our subreddit. These are unofficial gathering places put together by readers—genuine pieces of civil society where people can talk to one another and think through what’s going on openly and honestly.
And if you haven’t already, I hope you’ll join Bulwark+. Because we tell the truth.
What I wish I could have told Christine Priola is that the things she was being told by Republicans, over and over, simply weren’t true.
The truth—the real truth—is that we’re all in this together.
We talked about why we need more social media bans earlier this week and a friend who works in a tech-adjacent sector sent along something great. My buddy drafted the “Terms of Service” agreement he would use in the event he created a social network. Here they are:
This social network is like a party I’m throwing at my house, and you’re all invited. So here’s the deal. I’m not gonna write a whole list of rules on a chalkboard like I’m your third-grade substitute teacher. I don’t mind you being rowdy because this is a fun party in my house. But if you cross the line, I’ll kick you out on your ass. Where is the line? I’m not going to try to explain it to you, so just keep yourself in check so you don’t cross it.
But I’m not going to make any pretense here that I’m “fair” or “objective”. If I like you, I’ll probably let you get away with more. If I don’t like you but you’re still making the party cool, I’ll probably cut you some slack. You might get a warning, or you might not. Look, I’m partying too, and I don’t always have time to do warnings. Sometimes there will be a misunderstanding and I’ll kick you out when I should not have, and maybe I'll regret it later. But probably not.
But if you’re a real ass, you’ll be kicked out so hard that you’ll be staggering your drunken way down the street, mumbling to yourself about how unfair it was, and hearing the loud music from my amazing party which will be going on without you. And we won’t even miss you.
So don’t complain to me about my party. Behave yourself and know that I am arbitrary and capricious in defense of the rocking time we are having. And don’t ask me to be “fair” because I’m just not.
This is exactly right. A TOS is not Hammurabi’s Code. It’s a set of guidelines subject to change at any minute that exist not to protect any individual “rights” but to make the product the company owns function better.
And people who pretend that this isn’t the case are either lying. Or socialists.