Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), has denounced the former secretary of state Mike Pompeo for calling her "the most dangerous person in the world" and asserting that the nation's schoolteachers teach "filth".
Speaking to the Guardian Weingarten said Pompeo's remarks were not just demagogic, but also dangerous, warning that they could incite violence. She said Pompeo, who also served as Donald Trump's CIA director, attacked her because she is "Jewish, gay, teacher and union" and was clearly stoking rightwing hate as he considers a presidential run.
"This is initially directed to the Republican donor class so he can tap into the boatloads of money that billionaires have given to wage this culture war," Weingarten said, adding that Pompeo - widely expected to run for president in 2024 - was "trying to garner money from that donor base that gave $50m for anti-trans ads, during the recent election".
"Separate and apart from that," she continued, "it's also an attempt to pull away the Maga Republican base from Trump and [the Florida governor, Ron] DeSantis, to show he's an even more extremist Maga than they are."
In an interview with Semafor this week, Pompeo said: "I get asked, 'Who's the most dangerous person in the world? Is it Chairman Kim, is it Xi Jinping?' The most dangerous person in the world is Randi Weingarten. It's not a close call. If you ask, 'Who's the most likely to take this republic down?' It would be the teachers' unions, and the filth that they're teaching our kids, and the fact that they don't know math and reading or writing."
Weingarten, who has been president of the AFT since 2008, told the Guardian she thought Pompeo was attacking her because she is "Jewish, gay, teacher and union".
"It's all of the above," Weingarten said. "It's an anti-public school strategy. The antisemitic tropes are there. The anti-gay tropes are there. It's anti-union. It's anti-teacher. It's all of the above. But the effect is it really hurts what teachers are trying to do to help kids every single day."
Weingarten was especially upset about Pompeo's assertion that the nation's educators were teaching "filth" to children. She saw that as a dangerous smear that built on QAnon conspiracy assertions that teachers were grooming children. Her union, the AFT, has more than 1.5 million members and is the second largest teachers' union, behind the National Education Association.
"I'm really concerned about his use of the word 'filth' to talk about what teachers do," Weingarten said. "It's not just the new code for groomers and all the other lies they tell about what teachers are doing at school. But it is intended to worry and divide parents. It is intended to create danger and chaos. How do you call teaching The Diary of Anne Frank or teaching about Ruby Bridges or helping kids be who they are or helping ease their anxieties or teaching math, or science or social studies or English, how dare he call that filth?
"For him to call what teaches do filth is pathetic," Weingarten continued. "It's politically expedient for him, but it's dangerous to teachers across the country. He's a guy who clearly knows better.
"Words really matter. There's a lot of people who are starting to talk about stochastic terrorism and what the effect of that is," she said. (Stochastic terrorism is the public demonization of a person or group that incites an individual's violent act against the demonized group.) "I am really worried with every passing day about this extremist rhetoric. It has a real chance of turning into violence. Look at what just happened in Colorado Springs. Look at what happened in the Buffalo grocery store in a primarily black neighborhood."
After Pompeo's attack, Weingarten has received plenty of public support.
The MSNBC anchor Chris Hayes said Pompeo's comments were "truly deranged". Congressman Jamaal Bowman, a New York Democrat, said Pompeo's remarks were "outrageous, dangerous and asinine". He added, "Radical Republicans hate education, because it cripples their lies and fearmongering." Representative Pramila Jayapal, a Washington Democrat, said, "@rweingarten is a national treasure, representing the voices of millions of educators who are essential for the wellbeing of our families."
Lee Saunders, president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, said Pompeo's statement that Weingarten is the most dangerous person in the world shows that Pompeo "is the most clueless person in the world". "This is just a stunt by a politician desperate to get attention for a long-shot presidential run," Saunders said. "While Pompeo continues to bluster, Randi will keep working for safe, vibrant schools that enrich our children and strengthen our communities."
Weingarten said that Pompeo resorted to such extreme rhetoric because he realizes that his potential candidacy can only work if he attracts some billionaire donors who will give to him rather than Trump or DeSantis. "The donor class that he's looking for are the ones that are anti-public schools, anti-teachers, anti-teachers' union," Weingarten said. "They're using fear and divisiveness in the culture wars to drive a wedge, a wedge between teachers and parents. The fact that he [Pompeo] would do this shows just how demagogic people like him are in their pursuit of power."