President Donald Trump is being roundly criticized for saying that he may not accept the results of the Nov. 3 election if he loses. Critics, in turn, accuse him of undermining American democracy.

But the undermining has been taking place for four decades, spearheaded by an alliance between evangelical leaders and conservative political activists. Trump has merely been the conduit for advancing their agenda, such as stacking the courts with justices who will ensure that, even if Democrats win an election, real power will reside in a minority committed to returning the country to the era of religious and political rightwing domination sustained by perpetual cultural warfare while protecting the property owners or wealth generators from the labor class or rent-seekers, as they have been called.

The puppet masters have been hiding in a “secretive organization,” the Council for National Policy (NCP), whose machinations are detailed in the book “Shadow Network” written by Anne Nelson, a journalist, author and professor at Columbia University and published a year ago

The CNP was founded in 1982 “by a small group of archconservatives who realized that the tides of history had turned against them,” Nelson writes, “They represented an American past dominated by white Protestant male property owners. They dreamed of restoring a 19th century patriarchy that limited the civil rights of women, minorities, immigrants and workers, with no income tax to vex the rich or social safety net to aid the poor. Now they faced a future in which minorities, women, gays and atheists were gaining in number, rights and political influence. If the country abided by a clear-cut democratic process, these constituencies, leaning Democratic, would consolidate their power based on majority rule.”

To counter this trend, the CNP “set its sights on the Republican Party, conducting a decades-long crusade to promote right-wing extremists and drive moderates out of office,” spending “years building party machines at a state level” especially where Republicans controlled statehouses. This “also allowed the CNP and its allies to use state governments as staging grounds for aspirants to national office.”

According to Nelson, “a sizable contingent of fundamentalists believed that God had chosen them to impose His will on the nation. These demographic trends – and the anxiety they provoked – contributed to the forces that brought Trump to power.”

The Southern Baptist Convention, a major player, born out of the turmoil of the changing demographics, came to embrace “a belief in authoritarian principles, linking ‘biblical inerrancy’ to theocracy.”

Also part of the approach: “strict constructionism which upheld a literal interpretation of the Constitution and other laws, restricting their meaning to their supposed intent at the time they were written. The key players learned how to achieve minority rule through long-term strategies which they would soon apply to the country as a whole, manipulating the electoral process and reshaping the judiciary. They would achieve astonishing success.”

The movement’s architect was the late Paul Weyrich, a co-founder of the CNP, as well as of the Heritage Foundation, incubator for young conservatives; the Federalist Society, which supplied all of Trump’s judicial nominees; the American Legislative Council (ALEC), which wrote laws for Republicancontrolled state Legislatures; and the Leadership Academy, which trained the foot soldiers. The Republican Study Committee went after votes; the Moral Majority mobilized the masses.

“We are talking about simply spreading the gospel in a political context,” Weyrich said. He also said, “I don’t want everybody to vote . . . our leverage in the elections, quite candidly, goes up as the voting populace goes down.” Votersuppression, therefore, is all right because it serves what Bob Jones said was “God established order.”

Weyrich found through polling that conservative Christians were willing to let their pastors enter politics. They ran with it and pastors have led the mobilization of evangelicals, especially in the South.

Congregants are brainwashed by lies to the point where many of them are living in a fact-free bubble. A woman going to a Trump rally told a TV reporter why she was not wearing a mask, “There is no COVID. It’s all fake news,” at a time when the pandemic had killed more than 170,000 Americans and infected more than six million others. Some clamor for an end to the Affordable Care Act, possibly the only health insurance they have ever had. Some deny that global warming is real even as fierce storms and devastating fires rage around them.

Donald Trump has indeed waged war on democratic norms but the greater damage has been coming from the alliance of conservative religious leaders and political activists. When he campaigned for the presidency in 2015, his goal may indeed have been to burnish his fading, false, reputation as a business genius, as some analysts have said. But his being in the White House has provided the accelerant for the fire that has been burning through more than a half-century of progressive policies.

Even if Trump loses re-election, the stage is set for the overturning of settled law on important issues such as abortion rights, the Affordable Health Care Act, civil rights, same-sex marriage and LGBT rights, environmental protection, the death penalty and law enforcement, His defeat will at least temporarily halt the conservative push but ,if he is reelected, laws going back much further, such as barring prayer in public schools and allowing interracial marriage, may be in jeopardy, along with the remnants of the social superstructure of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal and Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society.

If he wins, the result could eventually lead to a nightmare lasting for much of this century: a state underpinned by a literal interpretation of the Bible and an originalist interpretation of the Constitution and ruled by an autocrat heading a minority regime, aided by an acquiescent Supreme Court and fawning sycophants in high positions.