Eagle Forum conference helps inject fringe ideas into Utah’s political mainstream

Speakers pushed COVID and vaccine misinformation and falsehoods about the 2020 election

(Bryan Schott | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes chats with Rep. Chris Stewart at the Utah Eagle Forum convention on Jan. 8, 2022.

The persistent political influence of the Utah Eagle Forum and president Gayle Ruzicka was on full display on Saturday at the organization’s annual conference at Salt Lake Community College.

Republican lawmakers once feared the group for its ability to quickly mobilize members through its formidable phone calling tree. The advent of social media has dampened some of that power in recent years. Yet Ruzicka’s reputation has not waned during her 31-year reign leading the respected conservative organization. How else to explain five of Utah’s six members of Congress showing up to bend the knee at the event? Sen. Mitt Romney was the lone holdout.

Saturday’s event was an opportunity to connect with the pulsing Id of the Utah Republican base, which is why several current and former lawmakers, along with a handful of political hopefuls, were on hand.

There was plenty of political “red meat” on the menu Saturday, as the parade of speakers touched on many of the greatest hits from the cultural war that is flowing through our current political moment.

Attacks on vaccines and COVID denialism

Dr. Janci Lindsay, a toxicologist who has come under fire for falsely claiming the COVID vaccines cause infertility in women, treated attendees to a COVID misinformation tour de force. She dubiously claimed vaccines caused strokes, heart attacks and death and statistics about vaccine-related deaths were being purged from systems to hide that information from the public.

Lindsay also said hospitals were avoiding treatments for COVID like hydroxychloroquine and ivermectin because they had a financial incentive to use therapies that she claimed killed people.

“People are afraid to even go into hospitals because they know they’re not using correct treatments. People go there to die. I hate to say that, but that’s what’s happening,” Lindsay said.

There is no evidence that either hydroxychloroquine or ivermectin is effective against COVID-19.

Lindsay also warned COVID vaccines damaged or destroyed immune systems, which is a key element to a conspiracy theory that the vaccines are part of a plot to depopulate the Earth. That is the same conspiracy pushed by former Entrata CEO Dave Bateman in a deranged email blaming “the Jews” for the vaccine-induced genocide.

Attendees gave Lindsay a standing ovation after her speech.

Park City business owner Doug Yeaman, a leader of the anti-vaccine mandate group “Utah Open for Business,” warned attendees against joining what he called “the religious cult of COVID.”

“The vaccine is the baptism, the mask is the sacrament, and Fauci is the leader,” Yeaman said.

Yeaman also claimed masks don’t work and scaremongered about vaccine passports, quoting Fox News host Tucker Carlson’s claim it is a totalitarian plot from the Democratic Party.

“That is not a conspiracy theory. That is quoting word for word Tucker Carlson,” Yeaman said.

False claims of election fraud

During his speech, Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes railed against overreach and tyranny from the Biden administration, which was another favorite talking point.

“Biden is not a dictator!” Reyes said.

“And he’s not the president!” a member of the audience shot back to a round of applause from the crowd.

Reyes then pointed to the man and said, “There you go,” to an even larger round of applause.

Reyes appeared to walk his endorsement of the conspiracy theory that Biden is not the legitimate president back a bit, adding “I don’t know about that,” with a chuckle.

Reyes left the event before taking questions. His longtime adviser, Alan Crooks, denied Reyes was suggesting that Biden’s election was fraudulent.

“Sean repeatedly referred to Biden as ‘president’ throughout his speech,” Crooks said.

In the aftermath of the 2020 vote, Reyes traveled to Nevada to help Trump’s team investigate allegations of illegal votes. He claimed he had seen irregularities but had not revealed what he saw. Reyes also joined a lawsuit from the Texas Attorney General seeking to throw out votes in four states Biden won.

Rep. Chris Stewart asked the audience if they thought Republicans would regain control of the House in the 2022 midterm elections. To nobody’s surprise, they overwhelmingly believed that was a certainty.

“Easy peasy, if people will vote,” Stewart said.

As with Reyes, a comment came from the audience about the 2020 election being stolen. Instead of disputing that fact, Stewart indulged the falsehood by bringing up election integrity.

“Why would you ever do anything not to assure the American people that an election is free and fair?” Stewart asked.

It is not the first time Stewart has suggested the 2020 election was not legitimate. He was one of 147 Republicans in the House who voted to throw out the election results from Pennsylvania based on no evidence of fraud.

Stewart’s office disputed that he had cast doubt on the outcome of the election.

“There is nothing to indicate that Rep. Stewart is suggesting the election was illegitimate. He has also repeatedly stated in a variety of interviews that he believes the election was legitimate and that President Biden was rightfully elected,” Spokesperson Liam Anderson said in an email.

Other speakers tackled hot-button issues of great import on the political right.

Rep. Burgess Owens attacked the teaching of critical race theory, which has become an all-purpose stand-in for how race, inclusivity and equity are taught in classrooms. He also touched on trans athletes participating in women’s sports.

“You now have biological men. All you have to do is say, oops, I think I feel like a woman right now. I’m going to go out and break every record a woman ever made and feel no shame,” Owens said.

Several predominantly Republican states, including Utah, limit or ban transgender girls or women from competing in female sports events. Owens blamed fathers who didn’t stop their sons from competing against women.

“What about the father who would sit there and let his son do that? It blows my mind that a dad doesn’t say if you want to compete, you compete against other boys and deal with it. You don’t steal the value of womanhood,” Owens said.

Rep. John Curtis, who launched the “Conservative Climate Caucus” to add a conservative voice to the climate debate, characterized the left’s focus on climate as an effort to dismantle capitalism.

“The liberal climate takeover isn’t about being good stewards over the Earth. It’s about social engineering. They don’t care about reducing pollution. It’s about attacking capitalism and controlling us,” Curtis said.

Rep. Blake Moore and Sen. Mike Lee discussed abortion and reproductive rights, a tremendously important topic for Ruzicka and her group. This year, the issue took on greater importance with the Supreme Court seemingly on the verge of delivering a significant win to the anti-abortion movement.

It would be a mistake to dismiss Saturday’s conference as nothing more than overheated rhetoric coming from the political fringe. Many of those ideas lead to action from policymakers. If you have ever wondered how some of these concepts become proposed bills in the Utah Legislature, look no further than Saturday’s conference.

For example, Yeaman is working with legislators on a bill to stop the use of vaccine passports, which he calls the “most threatening idea ever proposed in the United States.” Rep. Phil Lyman, R-Blanding, who spoke at the conference, plans legislation on election integrity that has its genesis in falsehoods about the 2020 vote. There also is legislation targeting transgender athletes and how race is taught in schools.

Ruzicka and her supporters can be a valuable ally, or formidable enemy, in electoral politics. Winning their endorsement can be a big help in securing the party nomination or fending off an intraparty challenger. The advent of the signature path for candidates to get on the primary ballot has diluted that influence, but the group still has tremendous pull among Republican delegates.

Consider Sen. Mike Lee, who was the first speaker on Saturday. He is facing what could be his most challenging election cycle this year. Republicans Becky Edwards and Ally Isom hope to force him into a primary election this year. Should he secure the GOP nomination, he will face independent candidate Evan McMullin along with the Democratic nominee. Even though Lee is the odds-on favorite to win a third term in Washington, every measure of support could be crucial ahead of November.

After Lee’s speech focused on the Constitution and fighting against tyranny, Ruzicka practically gushed about the two-term Republican.

“If there were any doubts, I think we know after that who we’re going to be voting for, right?” Ruzicka asked.

In response, the crowd applauded for Lee again, letting him know their marching orders had been received and accepted.