The real news isn't that many Texans seemingly subscribe to an apocalyptic, delusional world view that has them convinced that a U.S Army training exercise called "Jade Helm 15" is the opening wedge of an Obama-led coup d'etat — seizing guns, importing thousands of ISIS fighters to subdue local patriots, and throwing dissenters into FEMA concentration camps.
Because where else would you start a military takeover but the strategic hamlet of Bastrop, Texas, commanding the crucial highway junction between Elgin and LaGrange? Never mind that Fort Hood, the largest U.S. military installation in the world, is maybe 75 miles up the road. Bastrop's the linchpin.
No, the real news is that name-brand Texas politicians such as Gov. Greg Abbott and Sen. Ted Cruz think it's smart to lend plausibility to what's essentially a mass psychiatric delusion. Did you know that even Walmart's involved? Rumor says recently closed stores are being re-fitted as barracks for foreign soldiers.
After a raucous hearing in Bastrop during which a regular Army colonel who pointed out that he'd served five presidents over 27 years got accused of lying and shouted down, Gov. Abbott ordered the Texas Guard to monitor U.S. Army war games this summer.
This so that "Texans know their safety, constitutional rights, private property rights and civil liberties will not be infringed."
Probably because there's lithium in the water, stuff like this rarely happens out in El Paso — home of Fort Bliss, the 1,700-square-mile HQ of the First Armored Division. But just across the border in Chihuahua, according to the Family Research Council, there's a secret ISIS base with thousands of terrorists poised to strike. Hundreds of miles of underground tunnels have been dug to facilitate the invasion.
Lending support to the nutball faction was Ted Cruz, who expressed support for Abbott's leadership.
"I understand the concern that's been raised by a lot of citizens about Jade Helm," Cruz said. "... 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, our religious liberty rights, our Second Amendment rights. That produces distrust as to government."
Hey Ted, Republicans lost two presidential elections. Grow up. Arkansas's own Mike Huckabee plays to similar fears with gratuitous twaddle about "criminalizing Christianity." All this really amounts to, as columnist and economist Paul Krugman puts it, is fear that Obama will "seize control of (Texas) and force its citizens to accept universal health care at gunpoint."
Look, it's not just Texas. Mad conspiracy theories are nothing new in American politics. Historian Rick Perlstein's book "Before the Storm" describes a similar paranoid outbreak in 1963. A California GOP senator complained about an avalanche of "'fright mail,' mostly centering on two astonishingly widespread rumors: that Chinese commandos were training in Mexico for an invasion of the United States through San Diego; and that 100,000 U.N. troops — 16,000 of them 'African Negro troops, who are cannibals' [sic] — were secretly rehearsing in the Georgia swamps under the command of a Russian colonel for a U.N. martial-law takeover of the United States."
Back then it was President John F. Kennedy, an Irish Catholic Democrat, who afflicted the John Birch Society with fear of The Other. Today, it's President Obama scaring an Austin-based talk radio and Internet conspiracy theorist called Alex Jones.
Richard Hofstadter's classic 1964 essay "The Paranoid Style in American Politics" explains: "I call it the paranoid style simply because no other word adequately evokes the sense of heated exaggeration, suspiciousness and conspiratorial fantasy that I have in mind."
Left-wing paranoia is not unknown. However, in America paranoid mass movements are almost entirely a right-wing phenomenon, partly because they fit so well with the melodramatic themes of Protestant fundamentalism.
"The paranoid spokesman," Hofstader added, "sees the fate of conspiracy in apocalyptic terms — he traffics in the birth and death of whole worlds, whole political orders, whole systems of human values. He is always manning the barricades of civilization. ... He does not see social conflict as something to be mediated and compromised, in the manner of the working politician. Since what is at stake is always a conflict between absolute good and absolute evil, what is necessary is not compromise but the will to fight things out to a finish."
Is that not totally Ted Cruz?
But you know what? Ted Cruz ain't Texas.
Early indications are that Cruz and Abbott are widely perceived to have made fools of themselves. Coverage in the statewide press has been derisive. A retired GOP legislator, Todd Smith of Euless, wondered if he should be more "horrified that I have to choose between the possibility that my Governor actually believes this stuff and the possibility that my Governor doesn't have the backbone to stand up to those who do."