Michael Peroutka thinks American leaders must “take a biblical worldview and apply it to civil law and government.”
He’s a former board member of the neo-Confederate League of the South, has said he’s “still angry” that Maryland was blocked from seceding during the Civil War.
He thinks public education is a communist plot, says laws protecting abortion and gay marriage are illegal and unenforceable because they violate God’s law, and called the concept of the separation of church and state a “great lie.”
And on Tuesday, he may win the Republican nomination for Maryland’s attorney general.
Peroutka is facing establishment favorite and former federal prosecutor Jim Shalleck in a primary contest race that’s flown under the radar for most voters. There’s been scant public polling, but Peroutka is better-known, better-funded and GOP strategists are worried he could actually win the nomination.
His views are extreme even for the modern Republican Party, and once would be considered disqualifying for any major party nominee for statewide office. But his emergence as a serious candidate shows just how far the door has been thrown open to extremism in the Republican Party. The GOP base’s embrace of election falsehoods and anti-science COVID-19 conspiracy theories, and flirtation with white supremacist rhetoric has given once- fringe figures like Peroutka an opening to push into the political mainstream.
To be clear, Peroutka has not changed. But the party base that’s embracing him has.
“He was kind of ahead of the curve,” said Peter Montgomery, a senior fellow for People for the American Way who has monitored Peroutka for years for the liberal group’s Right Wing Watch. “Now we’re seeing that within the religious right and that wing of the Republican Party there is an increasingly overt and aggressive Christian nationalism. Peroutka was kind of out front on that.”
Peroutka spent decades on the fringe of the conservative movement, but now he’s found a message that’s in sync with current GOP voters. He’s promised if he wins he’ll investigate Republican Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan’s efforts to curtail COVID-19, and has said Maryland’s election system is susceptible to widespread fraud.
“What happened was so notorious, it was so blatant, so obvious,” Peroutka said at a March event, blasting Hogan’s mask mandates. “A constitutional God-fearing attorney general of Maryland can do something about that. He can empanel grand juries, he can bring prosecutions against the people who violated your rights.”
At a Thursday evening candidate forum in the basement of an Italian family restaurant in suburban Washington, D.C., Peroutka drew cheers from the crowd of a few dozen local activists when he referred to the response to COVID-19 pandemic as a “hoax” that was “used trample the Constitution and destroy our economy,” called it the “plandemic,” and repeatedly declared that “we are at war” while warning that “the enemy has coopted members of agents and agencies of our government.”
“The enemy has coopted members of agents and agencies of our government.”
“We need to get rid of machines, we need to return to hand-counted ballots and get this thing back under control,” he said. “Anybody who has falsified either election processes or election results needs absolutely be brought to justice.”
Peroutka’s yard signs and campaign literature have the blunt slogan “Liberty forever, mandates never!”
A recent conference in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania organized by QAnon influencers shows how deeply Peroutka’s brand of conservatism has crept into the GOP.
Peroutka was joined there by Trump spokeswoman Liz Harrington; former Trump attorney Jenna Ellis; Doug Mastriano, a Christian nationalist who recently won the GOP nomination for Pennsylvania governor; and Trump-endorsed Maryland GOP gubernatorial candidate and Delegate Dan Cox, a close Peroutka ally.
Cox is in a tight race against establishment pick and former Maryland Commerce Secretary Kelly Schulz. Trump’s endorsement has helped bigly, and Democrats have spent heavily to boost Cox’s profile. He’s neck-and-neck with Schulz in recent polls, and strategists in both parties think Cox’s coattails could help his buddy Peroutka.
The attorney general race, on the other hand, is so low-profile and with so little public polling that no one’s sure what might happen on Tuesday. A mid-June survey by Goucher College found Peroutka leading Shalleck by 17 percent to 11 percent, with more than 70 percent of Republican primary voters undecided.
“The problem with the race is, it's not it's not a headline, race, you know?” Shalleck told VICE News. “I tell people I'm running for Attorney General, they think it's the state's attorney in the county. It's not a marquee or front-and-center race.”
Either Republican faces an uphill battle—it’s been a century since a Republican won a race for Maryland attorney general. But mainstream Republicans worry that if Peroutka wins the GOP nomination, he could badly damage the rest of the ticket.
“I think he probably has a better chance at building a time machine and traveling back and actually fighting in the real Civil War than becoming Maryland's attorney general. Unfortunately for normal Maryland Republicans who are running, having someone like him on the ticket would do nobody any favors,” said Maryland Republican strategist Doug Mayer, a Shulz adviser and former Hogan aide.
“Based on what he has said and done, he’s either a bigot or a Confederate fanboy that gets his rocks off by living in some romanticized version of the past.”
How we got here
It’s remarkable that a man who less than a decade ago mocked the Republican Party’s “brand of worthless, Godless, unprincipled conservatism” may soon be the party’s candidate for attorney general.
Peroutka, a former debt-collection attorney, was the Constitution Party’s presidential nominee in 2004 (winning 150,000 votes nationally), helped bankroll Alabama Republican Roy Moore’s various theocracy-tinged endeavors (as well as his 2017 Senate bid), and served one term as a Republican the Anne Arundel, Maryland County Council from 2015-2018 before establishment Republicans rallied to defeat him in the 2018 primary.
He is also an avowed creationist whose family charitable foundation donated an Allosaurus dinosaur skeleton valued $1 million to the Creation Museum in Petersburg, Kentucky in 2014. The museum contends the dinosaur skeleton, nicknamed “Ebenezer,” isn’t millions of years old like science shows but only a few thousand years old, and may have died in the biblical great flood.
Until 2014, Peroutka served on the board of League of the South, a group which for years has explicitly called for the southern states to secede from the United States. At times its rationale was explicitly racist. Its website at one point called for secession to save the South’s “Anglo-Celtic” culture against “cultural genocide” from political correctness and immigration.
Michael Hill, the League’s longtime leader, reportedly wrote in a 2000 essay that the group “supports a return to a political and social system based on kith and kin rather than an impersonal state wedded to the idea of the universal rights of man. At its core is a European population.”
Peroutka gave a speech to the League during his 2004 presidential bid, in which he declared that he was “still angry” that Maryland was blocked from seceding from the union at the beginning of the Civil War. He praised his son for calling the Confederate rebel flag the “American flag,” and proudly joked that his daughter had refused to play the Battle Hymn of the Republic at school and was nicknamed “Beth Booth” (a seeming reference to Lincoln assassin John Wilkes Booth), and talked about the beauty of visiting Confederate President Jefferson Davis’ grave.
“There should have been more of us in 1861,” he said.
The organization endorsed Peroutka’s presidential campaign.
By 2012, Peroutka had joined the League’s board. Its website at that point declared that “the South must throw off the yoke of imperial oppression” and said the organization backed the “secession and subsequent independence of the Southern States from this forced union and the formation of a Southern republic.”
Around that time, Hill wrote that “the cold facts of history tell us that blacks have never created anything approximating a civilization in the Western sense of the term”—comments that generated headlines in Maryland given Peroutka’s connections.
There’s no evidence Peroutka himself has ever advocated for the explicitly racial views of the organization, and he says it’s unfair to judge him by Hill’s remarks.
“During the time that I was there, I was never aware of any racist or untoward remarks at all,” Peroutka told VICE News Thursday night after a candidate forum with Shalleck in Rockville, Md. “My affinity with that group had to do with their opposition to overreaching, bloated, tyrannical central government. I generally agreed with that.
Peroutka broke with the group in 2014 as he was running for Anne Arundel County Council. He said that it was because he disagreed with Hill’s statements opposing interracial marriage and has rejected Hill’s racist comments, though he has repeatedly said over the years, including during this campaign, that he won’t disavow the organization.
And Peroutka repeatedly danced around questions of whether he supported the South seceding from the United States.
“If what you mean by secession is the right to self-government, of the people to be self-governed, I'm all in favor of it.”
“If what you mean by secession is the right to self-government, of the people to be self-governed, I'm all in favor of it,” he told VICE News. “The very first sentence of the Declaration of Independence is a statement about secession.”
But what about the League’s longtime position that the South should secede from the United States?
“That's not my call or my judgment. I mean, I would have no comment on that. Whether they should or shouldn't, that's up to them. It's up to them to self-determine,” he said.
Peroutka was less coy during a speech at the League of the South’s 2012 national convention, when he said he agreed with Hill that the U.S. was doomed, suggested southern secession as a possible way forward, and stressed that they must “take a biblical worldview” in its new government.
“I don’t disagree with Dr. Hill at all that this [national] regime is beyond reform. I think that’s an obvious fact and I agree with him. However, I do agree that when you secede or however the destruction and the rubble of this regime takes place and how it plays out, you’re going to need to take a biblical worldview and apply it to civil law and government,” he said. “I don’t want the people from the League of the South to for one minute think that I am about reforming the current regime and studying the Constitution is about reforming the regime. I, like many of you and like Patrick Henry, have come to the conclusion that we smelled a rat from the beginning.”
Peroutka told VICE News that he stood by those remarks, but repeatedly refused to clarify what he meant by them.
“I don't think I want to change from exactly that statement. I was fine with that. What I said then I say now,” he said. “It means what it means.”
Peroutka closed that 2012 speech by asking the crowd to “stand for the national anthem”—then played “Dixie,” the Confederacy’s de facto national anthem during the Civil War.
Peroutka recently claimed he was joking when he called “Dixie” the National Anthem, while accusing the Southern Poverty Law Center, a liberal watchdog group that has long monitored his organization, of slandering and defaming him.
“The Southern Poverty Law Center has called me a racist, a white supremacist, a neo-Confederate, and other names. Other similarly left-leaning newspapers have picked up and repeated these defamatory statements. They are false, and I deny them,” he said.
Peroutka clearly doesn’t like the term “Neo-Confederate.” But it’s the “neo” that he takes issue with. In 2014, he called the term a “code word” that’s “meant to stir up hatred against us.”
“If anything, I want to be just a true Confederate,” Peroutka said.
The League of the South has grown more explicitly racist since Peroutka left the organization, and helped organize the violent, white supremacist 2017 “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Va.
Hill and the League of the South were among the defendants sued for the Charlottesville riots. During the trial, he proudly declared that he was “a white supremacist, a racist, an anti-Semite, a homophobe, a xenophobe, an Islamophobe.” Hill and the organization were found liable in the case last November and hit with $2 million in punitive damages, part of more than $25 million in total damages awarded by the jury. They are appealing the decision.
It’s Not Just The Confederacy
Peroutka holds a number of other views far outside the political mainstream.
He has long advocated ending public schooling, which he has called “the 10th plank in the Communist Manifesto.” In May, Peroutka said that the public school system was succeeding in its goal “to transform America away from a Christian worldview.”
He’s said he would refuse to enforce Maryland law protecting abortion rights, arguing that God’s word supercedes man’s law.
“The higher calling would be to protect innocent life. There’s no statute—you have no right to do what God says is wrong,” he said at a candidate forum in May. “On questions such as ‘thou shalt not murder,’ God's word is clear on that.”
What about state law and federal constitutional protections for gay marriage?
“That's not law. It can't be law, because it violates God’s law,” he said at that forum.
Shalleck, a former federal prosecutor and president of Montgomery County’s Board of Elections who once prosecuted the Son of Sam serial killer, is running a more standard law-and-order, tough-on crime campaign. He has the endorsement of the Washington Post, Baltimore Sun, and outgoing Republican Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan. Peroutka’s views are fringe enough that he lost his renomination to the Anne Arundel County Executive Board in a 2018 primary, after establishment Republicans rallied to boot him from office.
But it’s unlikely that many people know much about either man: primary voters are overwhelmingly focused on the governor’s race, and neither candidate has spent much.
Peroutka raised about $50,000 for his campaign, including a $10,000 loan to himself, and his advertising has mostly been limited to yard signs, bumper stickers and small radio ad buys. Shalleck has raised even less: Around $10,000 total. He said most of that money has gone into yard signs and targeted Facebook ads.
Shalleck told VICE News that if he loses to Peroutka on Tuesday, he’s not sure if he would vote for him in the general election.
“That's a very tough decision for me to make knowing what his history is,” Shalleck said. “His background concerns me very much in terms of his involvement with the League of the South, and his singing of Dixie as the national anthem and his position that public education should be eliminated because it's part of the Communist Manifesto. Issues like that are very, very concerning to me.”