VENICE, Fla. (AP) — It was less than three weeks before the Sarasota County, Florida, school board election when the former White House national security adviser weighed in on the local political race.
“These ‘woke’ members need to be defeated in detail this upcoming election,” Michael Flynn posted on Telegram on Aug. 6. “Our children’s lives and futures are at risk when our school boards here in Florida and around the nation shove (critical race theory) and transgender nonsense down their throats.”
A few days later, the retired three-star Army general who spent decades enmeshed in international conflict weighed in again on the local election: “‘WOKE’ SOBs operating in many counties and on many school boards across the country” have to be voted out or censured “and some just need to be arrested.”A sign for The Hollow, in the shape of a U.S. flag.
Later that month, Flynn’s chosen candidates — who were also backed by Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis — defeated three school board candidates backed by Democrats.
Flynn, who just eight years ago under President Barack Obama led the U.S. military’s intelligence agency, now is at the center of a far-right Christian nationalist movement that has a growing influence in the Republican Party. In speeches across the U.S., he urges his supporters to get involved in local politics as a way to change the country from the bottom up.
“Local action equals national impact,” Flynn says at nearly every stop.
This story is part of an ongoing investigation from The Associated Press and the PBS series “Frontline” that includes the upcoming documentary “Michael Flynn’s Holy War,” premiering Tuesday on PBS and online.
In Sarasota County, Flynn and his allies have created a kind of laboratory for his approach, energizing local conservative activists through social media and public appearances, and gatherings at a venue called The Hollow that has become a meeting place for the far right. He questions American democratic institutions, repeats lies about the 2020 election, attacks the news media and embraces conspiracy theories about COVID-19. One of the groups he’s welcomed into the fold is the violent extremist group the Proud Boys.
The political marriage between a man who once sat at the right hand of President Donald Trump and local extremists in Sarasota County starts in some ways on Jan. 6, 2021, and with their failed attempts to thwart the democratic process and keep Trump in power.
It was insurrection day and Flynn, American flag hat atop his head, sat in the VIP section of the rally as Trump urged his supporters to march on the U.S. Capitol and stop Congress from confirming that he had lost the election.
Less than 2 miles (3.2 kilometers) away, James Hoel, decked out in tactical gear, a walkie-talkie on his chest, advanced past the Capitol barricades with fellow members of the Proud Boys, at the vanguard of the deadly riot.
There’s no evidence the two men knew each other on that day. But in the 21 months since Trump’s fight to stay in office came to an end, their paths and interests have crossed again and again.
The Associated Press and the PBS series “Frontline” reported last month that Flynn’s movement envisions Christianity as the basis of American life and institutions; where the right to bear arms is paramount; where abortion is illegal; where concepts such as systemic racism and gay or transgender rights have no place in the schools; and where people who disagree are called “Marxists,” or perverts, and are excluded from American civic life.
Flynn has drawn together election deniers, mask and vaccine opponents, insurrectionists and leaders in state and local Republican parties who are continuing the attack on American democracy and institutions that came to a head on Jan. 6.