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How Did Maryland Republicans Nominate Two Extremist Screwballs for Statewide Office?

The gubernatorial nominee was at the Capitol on January 6. The attorney general pick says public schools belong to Hitler. What is going on?

Dan Cox, the Republican nominee for governor in Maryland
Nathan Howard/Getty Images
Dan Cox, the Republican nominee for governor in Maryland, on election night last week

Last Tuesday, Republican primary voters in Maryland picked two radical extremists as their nominees in November’s race for governor and attorney general. In electing Dan Cox as their gubernatorial candidate and Michael Peroutka as their nominee for attorney general, Maryland Republicans showed not just that they prefer the Trumpier brand of the GOP. They showed that a long campaign by radical right theocrats to take over the party has borne more fruit in the age of Trump than ever before, coalescing in a toxic merger of white Christian nationalism and the stolen election lie.

Cox, a 47-year-old one-term representative in the Maryland House of Delegates, is a relative newcomer to Maryland’s fringe politics compared to Peroutka, 70, a longtime activist operating at the intersection of right-wing Christian and neo-Confederate politics. Although Peroutka has been elected to county-level office, serving one term on the Anne Arundel County Council from 2014 through 2018, and ran in 2004 for president on the far-right Constitution Party ticket, the nod from the Republican Party’s statewide base is by far his biggest political success. It also shows how even blue states like Maryland, which Joe Biden won by more than 30 points, will have to contend with a state Republican Party bent on perpetuating election fraud lies ad infinitum. 

Both Cox and Peroutka have appeared alongside Pennsylvania’s GOP gubernatorial candidate and coup enthusiast Doug Mastriano, at an event back in April featuring the interplay of QAnon, Christian nationalism, and wild and false election fraud conspiracy theories. Peroutka has falsely claimed that “there is a lot of evidence that some of these, what you might call voting anomalies, serious anomalies, that have existed across the country, exist here in Maryland as well,” and pledged to “investigate those things, empanel grand juries to get to the bottom of that,” if elected. He claims to have spoken with and plans to coordinate with like-minded attorneys general in other states. 

Notably, Peroutka did not claim there were any “anomalies” in his own election victory last week. Instead, on his campaign website, he thanked his supporters and promised, if he wins the general election, to “prosecute unlawful officials, secure the right to bear arms, defend life, restore election integrity, and protect our borders. Above all else, Michael Peroutka will bring God back to our great State of Maryland.”

Peroutka’s twin pledges to “prosecute unlawful officials” and “bring God back” to state government emerge from Christian Reconstruction, a far-right theology and political ideology that has left a profound imprint on the Christian right. Christian Reconstruction holds that God granted extremely limited authority to government, chiefly law enforcement, and that government officials have an obligation to impose “biblical law.” So when Peroutka threatens to use his power as attorney general to prosecute “unlawful officials,” he’s referring to government officials he maintains have exceeded the authority God granted them. Among the government activities Peroutka considers illegal are entitlement and health care programs, enforcement of any environmental regulations, gun control, and the very existence of public schools. 

Guns, unsurprisingly, loom large here. A central tenet of this ideology is that guns are an essential tool for citizens to rise up against a “tyrannical” (i.e., secular) government. In a May 2021 interview with a radio program called Gun Freedom Radio, Peroutka said “enemies” of America have tried to “use various methods and methodologies to try to undermine a system of government that is based on a biblical worldview.” He claimed the goal of public schools, which he also called “Pharaoh’s schools” and “Hitler’s schools,” was to “de-Christianize America.” Under Peroutka’s radical ideology, he is a victim of secular government, obligated to respond with force if necessary. “If the government wants to control us and enslave us, they need to first of all get rid of the idea of God,” he said. “They have to get rid of guns, because guns are a practical way, obviously a practical way, the citizenry can fight back.”

Back in the 2010s—when Tea Party politics were all the rage and few political observers grasped the religious motivations at the movement’s heart—I made several trips to Severn, Maryland, where Peroutka’s organization, the Institute on the Constitution, or IOTC, held monthly “First Friday” lectures. These lectures, which featured Peroutka’s friends and fellow proponents of “biblical law,” were just one small part of his IOTC. For at least a decade, the IOTC has offered classes on the “biblical” basis of constitutional law to right-wing activists. Kyle Sefcik, an organizer of the short-lived trucker convoy that spent several hapless but annoying weekends last spring circling the Capital Beltway, has credited the IOTC for inspiring him to act.  

During these First Friday meetings, Peroutka, who has also served on the board of the secessionist League of the South, often gleefully displayed his affection for the Confederacy. In giving an award to Ten Commandments judge Roy Moore in June 2011, he made note of the fact that he was doing so on Jefferson Davis’s birthday. He said that Tom Parker, another Alabama state court judge who spoke to the group in January 2011, attended Dartmouth, which is on the “wrong side of the Mason-Dixon line.” But his hard-core commitment to “biblical law” dominated his conversations with fellow lawyers. During the presentation with Parker, Peroutka said state court judges in Iowa who had ruled in favor of marriage equality should have been impeached because they did not base their ruling on Leviticus 18:22.

Peroutka’s friend and First Friday guest Herb Titus has led the way in remedying what Peroutka considers a failure of legal education to teach the “biblical” foundations of the Constitution. Titus has long practiced in the law firm of William Olson, who has been in the news since The New York Times reported this month that he wrote a memo for Donald Trump in December 2020, outlining a plan to overturn the election and declare martial law. In the late 1970s, Titus, a Harvard-educated lawyer who later fell under the sway of these Christian Reconstructionist ideas, co-founded a law school at Oral Roberts University to carry out a “dominion mandate” to “restore the Bible to legal education.” The school later moved to Pat Robertson’s Regent University, where Dan Cox earned his law degree in 2006.

Cox has not spent decades publicly promoting the imposition of biblical law, but he’s no wallflower when it comes to subverting democracy. At 3:21 p.m. on January 6, 2021, well after the violent armed mob stormed into the Capitol, Cox, who had chartered three buses for constituents to travel to Washington with him, tweeted: “Pence is a traitor.” Cox later deleted the tweet and has said he did not enter the Capitol that day. But he remains an unrepentant promoter of Trump’s stolen election and election fraud lies. His campaign website features a glossy video that portrays him as a hometown family man who just loves freedom, but his list of trumpeted endorsements reveals someone at the fringe of even Trump’s radicalized GOP. In addition to Mastriano’s backing, Cox touts the endorsement of Arizona state Senator Wendy Rogers, who is a member of the Oath Keepers militia, whose top lieutenants have been indicted for seditious conspiracy for their role in January 6. She spoke at a conference hosted by the Holocaust-denying, Hitler-admiring antisemite Nick Fuentes, where Roger said Fuentes was “the most persecuted man in America” and called for hanging “traitors who have betrayed our country.” Not incidentally, she tweets frequently about Jesus and attending church

In a state where Democrats hold a 2-to-1 edge over Republicans in voter registration, both these candidates seem like long shots in November—although if the Trump era taught us anything, it is not to take anything for granted. After all, the state’s popular Republican governor and Trump critic, Larry Hogan, had endorsed Cox’s opponent, Kelly Schulz. But the state’s GOP base had other ideas, a sign of the fever gripping Republican voters in 2022.

Many of the January 6 rioters may have been energized by Trump himself, but the groundwork for waving a Bible at an insurrection was in place long before Trump entered politics. The convergence of God, guns, and rising up against secular authority considered religiously illegitimate predated Trump—and, perilously for our democracy, will outlast him.