HUDSON, Wis. (AP) — In a picturesque corner of western Wisconsin, a growing right-wing conservative movement has rocketed to prominence.
They see the broader America as a dark place, dangerous, where democracy is under attack by a tyrannical government, few officials can be trusted and neighbors might have to someday band together to protect one another. It’s a country where the most basic beliefs — in faith, family, liberty — are threatened.
John Kraft looks beyond his quiet rural community and sees a country that many Americans wouldn’t recognize.
And it’s not just about politics anymore.
“It’s no longer left versus right, Democrat versus Republican,” says Kraft, a software architect and data analyst. “It’s straight up good versus evil.”
He knows how he sounds. He’s felt the contempt of people who see him as a fanatic, a conspiracy theorist.
But he’s a hero in a growing right-wing conservative movement that has rocketed to prominence in this part of western Wisconsin.
Just a couple years ago, their talk of Marxism, government crackdowns and secret plans to destroy family values would have put them at the far fringes of the Republican party.
But not anymore. Today, despite midterm elections that failed see the sweeping Republican victories that many had predicted, they remain a cornerstone of the conservative electoral base. Across the country, victories went to candidates who believe in QAnon and candidates who believe the separation of church and state is a fallacy. In Wisconsin, a U.S. senator who dabbles in conspiracy theories and pseudoscience was re-elected – crushing his opponent in St. Croix County.
Take Mark Carlson. He’s a friendly man who exudes gentleness, loves to cook, rarely leaves home without a pistol and believes that despotism looms over America.
“There’s a plan to lead us from within towards socialism, Marxism, communism-type of government,” says Carlson, a St. Croix county supervisor who recently retired after 20 years working at a juvenile detention facility.
He was swept into office earlier this year when insurgent right-wing conservatives created a powerful local voting bloc, energized by fury over COVID-19 lockdowns, vaccination mandates and the unrest that shook the country after George Floyd was murdered by a policeman in Minneapolis, just 45 minutes away.
In two years they have taken control of the county Republican Party, driving away leaders they deride as pawns of a weak-kneed establishment, and helped put well over a dozen people in elected positions in county and town governments and school boards.
In their America, the U.S. government orchestrated COVID-19 fears to cement its power, the IRS is buying up huge stocks of ammunition and former President Barack Obama may be the country’s most powerful person.
Today, polls indicate that well over 60% of Republicans in the U.S. don’t believe President Joe Biden was elected in 2020. Around a third refuse to get the COVID-19 vaccine.
Carlson, a bearded, middle-aged, gun-owning white guy who voted for former President Donald Trump, knows he looks like a caricature to some. But he’s not.
“I’m just a normal person,” he says, sitting on a sofa, next to a picture window overlooking the large garden that he and his wife tend. “They don’t realize that we mean well.”
He can be confounding. He calls peaceful Black protesters “righteous” for taking to the streets after Floyd’s murder. He makes organic yogurt. He drives a Tesla. He’s a conservative Christian who loves AC/DC. In an area where Islam is sometimes viewed with open hostility, he says he’d back the small Muslim community if they wanted to open a mosque here.
Sometimes you’ll hear people around here talk about what they intend to do if things go really bad for America.
There are the solar panels if the electricity grid fails. There’s extra gasoline for cars and diesel for generators. There are shelves of non-perishable food, sometimes enough to last for months.
There are the guns, though that is almost never discussed with outsiders.
“I’ve got enough,” says one man, sitting in a Hudson coffee shop.
“I would rather not get into that with a reporter,” says Kraft.
The suggestions of violence worry people like Paul Hambleton, who lives in Hudson and works with the county Democratic party.
“Something’s really wrong out here,” says Hambleton.
He spent years teaching in small-town St. Croix County, where the population has grown from 43,000 in 1980 to about 95,000 today. He watched as the student body shifted. Farmers’ children gave way to the children of people who commute to work in the Twin Cities. Racial minorities became a small but growing presence.
He understands why the changes might make some people nervous.
“There is a rural way of life that people feel is being threatened here, a small town way of life,” he says.
But he’s also a hunter who saw how hard it was to buy ammunition after the 2020 protests, when firearm sales soared across America.
For nearly two years, the shelves were almost bare.
“I found that menacing,” says Hambleton. “Because no way is that deer hunters buying up so much ammunition.”