Almost two months after the election, President Donald Trump still has not acknowledged his loss, even as members of his own party reject his electoral fraud conspiracy theories. “You’re heading for the cliffs that keep the Earth flat right now, brother,” Republican Denver Riggleman recently told Yahoo News, comparing Trump’s claims to those of the Flat Earth movement.
This is exactly where Trump is headed. Although no modern president has refused to concede an election, his tactics are not without precedent in American politics. With an 1873 Texas governor barricaded himself in office after losing reelection, Trump benefits from a remarkably marginal society – in particular, people who believe the Earth is not a flattened spheroid, but a flat disc.
In 1909, a notorious Flat Earth preacher led a ballot box coup to maintain his grip on an Illinois city. With declarations of “war,” two competing governments claiming to be legitimate, and an armed siege between police chiefs from both factions at the county jail, the forgotten saga of Zion, Ill. Is proof that the situation US policy could still be a lot dumber.
Wilburn Glenn Voliva was a flat Earther who lived on a strict Brazil nut and buttermilk diet. He also, for a time, exercised dictatorial control over an entire city.
“When Voliva called his political party the “Theocratic Party”, it was a simple statement of fact.“
Born in 1870, Voliva trained as a preacher and became a leading member of a faith healing church led by John Alexander Dowie. Dowie was a gifted grifter, amassing a great wealth of subscribers and absurd while performing false “miracles” on the desperately ill (some of whom later pursued him when their ailments remained). When authorities finally cracked down on Dowie for practicing unlicensed medicine, he founded the city of Zion, a new “utopia” ruled by strict religious law.
Maybe the city was a utopia for Dowie, but not for many others. He spent generously on himself and drove the city into debt. Eventually, Voliva deposed him in a church coup, in part accusing the old faith healer (whose health was failing) of trying to build up a harem of young women.
Now as head of the “Apostolic Christian Catholic Church” in Dowie, Voliva effectively ruled the town. Sion had a mayor and a government, but all responded to Voliva, who bore the title of “overseer general”. After wresting control from Dowie (who died shortly thereafter, a broken and betrayed man), Voliva set out to make Zion even less fun. Alcohol and dancing were banned, smokers were taken to jail, and many newspapers were verboten.
When Voliva called his political party the “Theocratic Party”, it was a simple statement of fact.
“I hired two great lawyers to prosecute those who committed these electoral fraud. I mean business.“
– Wilburn Glenn Voliva
In 1909, the anti-Voliva mutiny was brewing. In this city where theaters, dancing and eventually even whistling were banned, the rivals wrote “a little song about Voliva which is hummed sotto voce by some of her opponents”. Chicago Tribune reported in April. The lyrics of the song are sadly lost in history, but the verse was “decidedly unbiblical in composition,” the diary writes.
As ungodly verses about Voliva drifted around Zion that month, the city prepared for one of its most important elections in its history. For the first time, a slate of anti-Voliva candidates had a decent chance of beating the preacher’s cronies, who controlled the entire city government.
The opposing slogans of the two groups oddly resembled those of 2020. Anti-Voliva “independents” accused him of trying to build a “wall” around the city – an echo of the future when Democrats campaign against the wall border crossing of Trump. Voliva’s side accused the independents of being degenerate worshipers of Satan. “Down with the devil’s ticket!” they chanted, according to Chicago Inter Ocean newspaper.
Voliva even deployed one of Trump’s favorite slurs more than 100 years before the future president, calling his opponents “hateful.”
Voliva’s camp printed cards contrasting their “Zion ticket” with their opponent’s “devil ticket”. The brochures accused the independents of pushing for “free whiskey”, “free theater”, “doctors”, “dance” and “democracy”, as opposed to Voliva’s platform: “anti-saloons” “no theaters” “,” Divine healing “,” No dance halls “and” theocracy “.
Incredibly, the advertisements for a joyless theocracy did not inspire voters, and the independents won by a slim margin. Voliva accepted her loss as well as Trump.
Just as Trump would later accuse his opponents of relying on illegitimate voters, Voliva accused independents of smuggling votes from farmers living outside the city. “Voliva claims that there are no more than 735 bona fide voters in the city of Zion,” the Kenosha News wrote three days after Voliva’s candidates failed. “Tuesday’s reports revealed that 837 ballots were cast.”
Furious and alleging electoral fraud, Voliva’s Theocratic Party simply refused to step down.
The pro-Voliva mayor has denounced reports of his loss as false news. “You are therefore warned not to pay attention to the senseless statement in the streets or in print that there are other officials at the present time besides the former mayor and the council,” wrote ousted mayor W. Hurd Clendinen in a proclamation.
The police sided with Voliva. “Zion City is shaking on the brink of riot”, Detroit Free Press wrote on May 2. “The town hall is filled with heavily armed police, supporters of Voliva, while the independent or anti-Voliva faction insists that it sit its newly elected officers.
“It means war,” Voliva said in a proto-Trumpian speech, reported by the Inter Ocean May 2nd. “We are fighting for the law and for the religion and we do not intend these men to take control of the city by illegal voting. Former city officials have been re-elected and are to be given the posts. I hired two great lawyers to prosecute those who committed these electoral fraud. I mean business.
At a press conference that day, pro-Voliva police chief AK Walker (who by rights should have left when his party lost the election) hinted that he would use force to keep the power. “I am for law and order,” Walker said. “I will keep the town hall if I have to swear that half of the men in town are deputies.
The pro-Voliva faction was ready to beat their opponents with clubs, if they attempted to take office. After a rumor claimed that the newly elected officials were about to enter an administrative building, Mayor Clendinen called Walker, who issued a call to arms among Voliva supporters, who took up arms and clubs and walked towards the building.
The rumor turned out to be a false alarm and everyone went home.
While physically preventing their opponents from gaining access to City Hall, the theocrats began to organize bogus city government meetings. Due to an anti-Voliva lawyer who seized keys to city coffers, theocrats did not have access to important documents like ballots. They attempted to conduct a recount at a May meeting, but “having no records, no cash and no ballots, the council simply renamed AK Walker police chief,” the Inter Ocean reported.
It took a brawl of 300 people to finally oust the theocrats from office. Fed up with being labeled fraudsters, the independent mayor, five newly elected independent councilors and hundreds of their supporters stormed the town hall in an all-out melee: “With bare fists from the start of the evening until” see you after midnight ”, reads one title. The report documented hundreds of injuries.
The theocrats retreated to the upper floors of town hall, where they barricaded themselves while the independents finally stepped in.
Even then, the struggle for power was not over. AK Walker, the pro-Voliva police chief, stranded in the local jail with stocks of food and water, preparing for a siege.
“Stay away or I will shoot,” he yelled through an upstairs window of new anti-Voliva leader John Jaap, according to one. Inter Ocean report May 5.
“I am the regularly appointed chief of police,” Jaap replied.
“You are not!”
“I ask that you abandon the city jail!”
“You will never get this prison!” Cried Walker. “I am here to stay another two years.”
Ultimately, as with Trump’s attempt to overturn the election, the courts have ruled against Voliva’s candidates. Raging from the pulpit, Voliva threatened to muster an army of 4,000 men to defend his throne, and even called for the courts to be abolished.
“I haven’t finished fighting yet, I want you all to know that!” cried Voliva. “I will take the whole case to the country’s Supreme Court. I will not stand this lie, this theft and this cheating. I am fighting to stay. I want to make an official announcement right now that in 10 years I will own all the feet of Zion City. Take it and remember it.
Unfortunately for progressives, Voliva was somehow correct. the independent candidates were able to take office and the prosecution of independents briefly hampered Voliva’s political ambitions. But he was effectively able to take over Zion the following year by repurchasing much of the land from a state receivership, which had held the properties since Dowie had put the town in debt.
Entrenched in power, Voliva has implemented even more draconian moral rules. Couples were prohibited from swimming within 15 meters of each other, writes historian Christine Garwood in her book Flat earthand swimsuits have been criminalized. He imposed his rules with an 800-strong Zion Guard, whose members carried Bibles in their cases.
Less than four years after regaining control of Zion, Voliva went all-in on Flat Earth, dissolving the city’s public schools and creating a new neighborhood under her control, which taught the globe to be a satanic lie. .
But the marginal beliefs under which Voliva ruled also led to his downfall. Over the following decades, the Flat Earth Schools became a melting pot for political opposition in Zion, with school board elections acting as proxy wars for the city’s political battles. A victory for the candidates for the independent school board in 1934 would signify the beginning of the end of Voliva’s reign.
At the end of the decade, a secular government took control of Zion and closed the Flat Earth schools of Voliva. One of the first tasks of the new government was to design a new vehicle tax sticker to be displayed on cars. As the last, big riddance of the old theocrat, the new officials chose a globe.
Like Trump fleeing New York for Mar-a-Lago, vilified in the city where he made his fortune, Voliva quickly fled to Florida to spend his last days fantasizing about his rise to power.
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