The new quests for a(n) (un)holy grail

I haven’t been on the road much lately—I’m waiting for a new car to arrive, hopefully now around July 9th—but judging from the news, I’m guessing those Trump flags continue to fly high around southwestern Pennsylvania.

Some Pennsylvania legislators are exploring the possibility of following Arizona’s footsteps in “auditing” last November’s election results. Even so, activists pushing the idea are unsatisfied:[1]

In a message to supporters in its Telegram channel, an encrypted social media messaging app, Audit the Vote told supporters that [Senate State Government Committee Chairman Dave] Argall did not commit to an audit in the meeting, so they were proceeding to a “Plan B.”

“We served Senator Argall with a notarized affidavit for maladministration for not listening to the people he is hired to represent,” the group said.

The group claimed violating this affidavit would result in a $1,000-a-day fine for every day Argall “chooses to do nothing.”

One legal expert scratched their head at the threat.

“A private group of citizens — without filing any suit in court — just announces that it’s going to ‘fine’ a legislator $1,000 per day if he does not respond to their requests?” Widener University Law School professor Mike Dimino said in an email. “No, such a threat would not carry any legal authority.”[2]

It’s not like Dave Argall has been hostile to the effort. He “said a forensic audit was a ‘very real possibility’ Thursday [June 17] after meeting with activists Wednesday [June 16].”[3] A “forensic audit” would presumably be like the effort in Arizona, which has been widely condemned, which seems to employ dubious—and evolving—methodology, and which seems to lack adequate safeguards.[4] And it occurs as part of a larger picture including a Republican voter suppression project, threats of another coup attempt, and Donald Trump’s promises that he will somehow—no one other than his crackpot lawyers seems to know how—be restored to the presidency in August.[5]

Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro responded in a tweet,

I don’t disagree. But I do think Shapiro and others who object to these efforts miss the point.

This anti-intellectual movement is about an irrational struggle towards an unattainable victory, where reason itself is to be disdained, in an effort to assert an ideology—“Make Amerikkka Great Again”—which is foundationally held to be right, simply because it is held to be foundationally right, and which seeks to vindicate many deplorable aspects of the Amerikkkan experience, both historical and contemporary, as virtuous.[6] This struggle exists for its own sake. As Umberto Eco said of ur-fascism, “there is no struggle for life but, rather, life is lived for struggle.” This movement indeed exemplifies his description of fascism[7] and fails to fulfill Laurence Britt’s[8] only for want of the power to do so.

It’s not new. Thomas Frank described it, writing of the same movement at an earlier stage,[9]

the leaders of the backlash—the same canny people, remember, who are responsible for such masterpieces of political strategy as the Florida 2000 election result and the campaign for Social Security privatization—have chosen to wage cultural battles where victory is impossible, where their followers’ feelings of powerlessness will be dramatized and their alienation aggravated. Take, for example, the backlash fury-object du jour as I write this, the Alabama Ten Commandments monument, which was erected deliberately to provoke an ACLU lawsuit and which could come to no other possible end than being pried loose and carted away. Or even the great abortion controversy, which mobilizes millions but which cannot be put to rest without a Supreme Court decision overturning Roe v. Wade.

As culture war, the backlash was born to lose. Its goal is not to win cultural battles but to take offense, conspicuously, vocally, even flamboyantly. Indignation is the great aesthetic principle of backlash culture; voicing the fury of the imposed-upon is to the backlash what the guitar solo is to heavy metal. Indignation is the privileged emotion, the magic moment that brings a consciousness of rightness and a determination to persist.[10]

Fig. 1. Photograph by author, August 25, 2020.

Kim Messick described it further as

an electorate that is largely rural, Southern and white. These voters, who figure prominently in the Tea Party, often decline to interpret political conflict as a struggle among interest groups or a good-faith clash of opinion. Instead, they tend to identify the country as a whole with an idealized version of themselves, and to equate any dissent from their values with disloyalty by alien, “un-American” forces. This paranoid vision of politics, I argued, makes them seek out opportunities for dramatic conflict and to shun negotiation and compromise.[11]

This struggle might be likened both in its futility and in its persistence to that of the quest for the Holy Grail. These people are sometimes heavily armed.[12] They have sometimes been violent.[13] They have sometimes threatened violence, even if only implicitly.[14]

And remains utterly unclear that any quest to stop them will be any more successful than their own quest. Or that quest for the Holy Grail.

  1. [1]Stephen Caruso, “Pa. election audit a ‘very real possibility,’ top Pa. Senate Republican says after meeting activists,” Pennsylvania Capital-Star, June 17, 2021,
  2. [2]Stephen Caruso, “Pa. election audit a ‘very real possibility,’ top Pa. Senate Republican says after meeting activists,” Pennsylvania Capital-Star, June 17, 2021,
  3. [3]Stephen Caruso, “Pa. election audit a ‘very real possibility,’ top Pa. Senate Republican says after meeting activists,” Pennsylvania Capital-Star, June 17, 2021,
  4. [4]Jennifer Morrell, “I watched the GOP’s Arizona election audit. It was worse than you think,” Washington Post, May 19, 2021,
  5. [5]Stephen Collinson, “Revolt by Texas Democrats heaps pressure on Washington to act on voting reform,” CNN, June 1, 2021,; Fred Kaplan, “How the Military Should Deal With Its Michael Flynn Problem,” Slate, June 1, 2021,; Bess Levin, “Trump Has Reportedly Been Telling People He’s Going to Be President Again by August, Which Would Suggest He’s Planning a Coup (Or Has Fully Descended Into Madness),” Vanity Fair, June 1, 2021,; Alex Shephard, “Trump’s Republicans Want a Coup,” New Republic, June 1, 2021,
  6. [6]David Theo Goldberg, “The War on Critical Race Theory,” Boston Review, May 7, 2021,; Michael Harriot, “Why White People Hate Critical Race Theory, Explained,” The Root, March 30, 2021,; Michael Harriot, [Twitter thread], Thread Reader App, June 11, 2021,; Barbara Sprunt, “The Brewing Political Battle Over Critical Race Theory,” National Public Radio, June 2, 2021,; Benjamin Wallace-Wells, “What Do Conservatives Fear About Critical Race Theory?” New Yorker, June 10, 2021,
  7. [7]Umberto Eco, “Ur-Fascism,” New York Review of Books, June 22, 1995,
  8. [8]Laurence W. Britt, “Fascism Anyone?” Free Inquiry 23, no. 2. (Spring 2003),
  9. [9]Thomas Frank, What’s the Matter with Kansas? (New York: Henry Holt, 2005).
  10. [10]Thomas Frank, What’s the Matter with Kansas? (New York: Henry Holt, 2005), 121-122.
  11. [11]Kim Messick, “Modern GOP is still the party of Dixie,” Salon, October 12, 2013,
  12. [12]Barton Gellman, “The Secret World of Extreme Militias,” Time, September 30, 2010,,9171,2022636,00.html; Michael Kimmel, “America’s angriest white men: Up close with racism, rage and Southern supremacy,” Salon, November 17, 2013,; Mary B. McCord, “Armed Militias Are Taking Trump’s Civil War Tweets Seriously,” Lawfare, October 2, 2019,
  13. [13]Jane Coaston, “The Virginia gun rights rally raising fears of violence, explained,” Vox, January 17, 2020,; Jeremy Herb et al., “Congress completes electoral count, finalizing Biden’s win after violent delay from pro-Trump mob,” CNN, January 7, 2021,
  14. [14]Moriah Balingit, “Armed militia helped a Michigan barbershop open, a coronavirus defiance that puts Republican lawmakers in a bind,” Washington Post, May 12, 2020,; Eric Cortellessa, “US far-right extremists are now calling social distancing a Nazi policy,” Times of Israel, April 17, 2020,; Ryan Deto, “Photos: About 120 protest in Downtown Pittsburgh, calling for Pennsylvania to reopen during coronavirus pandemic,” Pittsburgh City Paper, April 20, 2020,; Bryan Armen Graham, “‘Swastikas and nooses’: governor slams ‘racism’ of Michigan lockdown protest,” Guardian, May 3, 2020,; Fred Kaplan, “Is America in the Early Stages of Armed Insurgency?” Slate, September 8, 2020,; Jamie Martines And Tom Davidson, “Protesters in Pittsburgh demand Gov. Wolf to reopen businesses amid coronavirus pandemic,” Tribune-Review, April 20, 2020,; Luke Mogelson, “The Militias Against Masks,” New Yorker, August 17, 2020,; Joshua Partlow, “Politics at the point of a gun,” Washington Post, July 28, 2020,; Rashawn Ray and Rebecca Shankman, “How COVID-19 is changing the gun debate,” Brookings, June 17, 2020,; Isaac Stanley-Becker and Tony Romm, “Pro-gun activists using Facebook groups to push anti-quarantine protests,” Washington Post, April 19, 2020,

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