The fact that the U.S. Army Special Operations Command was planning to conduct extensive training exercises in the southwestern United States was known to local officials for several months before the right-wing fringe convinced itself that Operation Jade Helm 15 was a prelude to the Obama government declaring martial law and ushering in a New World Order.
The sheriff’s office of Victoria County, Texas, disclosed it to the press in December of last year. At about the same time, Gelid County approved the “U.S. Army’s Jade Helm realistic military training” unanimously.
By mid-to-late March of this year, though, conspiracy theorists got hold of the military’s official request, and drove the right wing into a panic over everything from gun confiscation to state-sanctioned murder to military occupation to economic catastrophe.
Nobody who’s read "The Paranoid Style in American Politics" can claim to be surprised that these theories took hold among many citizens, or even that politicians would try to gain a boost from the political energy driving that paranoia. But there’s something unusual about a mass of God-and-country conservative Texans convincing themselves that America’s most elite service members will take over the southwest—a mass so large that prominent Texan politicians, including Senator Ted Cruz and Governor Greg Abbott, have stepped in not to quell suspicion but to confirm, or at least validate, their suspicions.
Abbott has instructed the Texas State Guard to monitor Jade Helm. As for Cruz: “I understand a lot of the concerns raised by a lot of citizens about Jade Helm. It’s a question I’m getting a lot, and I think part of the reason is we have seen, for six years, a federal government disrespecting the liberty of the citizens. And that produces fear, when you see a federal government that is attacking our free speech rights, or religious liberty rights, or Second Amendment rights, that produces distrust.”
Texas Representative Louie Gohmert—a reliable conduit of conservative paranoia—got a piece of the action as well. Referring to an Army map of the training exercise, he said, "Once I observed the map depicting ‘hostile,’ ‘permissive,’ and ‘uncertain’ states and locations, I was rather appalled that the hostile areas amazingly have a Republican majority, ‘cling to their guns and religion,’ and believe in the sanctity of the United States Constitution," Gohmert said in the statement."
There’s often a steep price to pay in politics for indulging this kind of reactionary nonsense. The environmental advocate Van Jones suffered 9/11 truthers just long enough to cost him an advisory job at the White House early in Obama’s first term. Republicans eventually broke faith with birthers once they recognized that birtherism was a big political liability.
But none of these historical lessons have deterred Abbott, or even Cruz, who is a declared presidential candidate. This particular kind of theory has a unique allure. And I think it’s directly traceable to a southern—and particularly a Texan—political culture that thrives on civil war–style fantasies.
Remember that Texas’ former governor, and likely presidential candidate, Rick Perry—a relative latecomer to Jade Helm panic-stoking—made a name for himself on the right with a number of coy remarks about secession and nullification.
There’s a good amount of mythical and self-important thinking going on here, but there is also a very real sense in which these conservatives conceive of themselves as beleaguered, bent over a barrel by the federal government, living every day at the breaking point. It helps explain why Cruz believed a missive about using the Second Amendment as an “ultimate check against government tyranny” would make for a winning fundraising pitch, and why South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham (also running for president) had to remind him that armed insurrection didn’t work out so well for his state a while back.
But this reasoning collapses without a foil. The secessionist impulse can’t be attributable to the ebbs and flows of social policy alone. If we live our lives on the razor’s edge of rebellion, there must be an equally reactionary adversary somewhere in the middle distance threatening our autonomy. That's what gives rise to a projection of the kind we’re seeing in Texas today. Without an enemy, real or imagined, threatening our autonomy, we're not patriots. We're merely zealots.
If that’s a common psychology, then of course a training exercise, in which the military, under civilian control, instructs its deadliest soldiers to treat the land within Texas' borders as enemy territory, will inspire some eschatological thinking. It's an artifact of a culture that romanticizes the idea of secession. In a great irony, the fact that Texas tempts federal intrusion more than any other state in the union explains the Jade Helm story almost entirely.