Jimmy Smith's ranch sits on the Texas side of the Texas-Oklahoma border, in a little town called Burkburnett, named after a wolf-hunting buddy of Teddy Roosevelt's. In 1918, a local farmer discovered oil on his land, and the population soared from 1,500 to 15,000 in a single year, inspiring a Clark Gable movie, Boom Town.
Those days have long passed. As I drive along the lonely dirt road wending through Smith's property, the only Texas movie that comes to mind is the one about chain-saw massacres. I pass junked cars, barns in various states of collapse, cattle skulls dangling from iron gates, rusted metal drums of indeterminate purpose, no sign of human activity. The scene could have almost evoked nostalgia for some lost cowboy era, had it not been for the men with assault rifles guarding the main entrance. I was driving a rental car, a red Prius, in hindsight not the greatest choice for first impressions. But I waved, they nodded, and I kept driving.
The road eventually opened onto a clearing, where about 300 people milled about, eating barbecue, parked in folding campfire chairs, watching a band set up on a large professional stage. If nearly everyone present hadn't also been heavily armed, it would have felt like a low-key rock festival. A guy in a polo shirt and stonewashed jeans, sipping from a Big Gulp, walks by with a scoped rifle on his back. A woman wearing a mesh Lane Bryant top, a semiautomatic hanging from a shoulder strap, stands beside a bored-looking six-year-old poking around in the dirt with a stick.
The Gathering of the American Patriot, as the event was called, took place on Memorial Day weekend – though you quickly got the sense that the patriotism being displayed was tethered primarily, perhaps exclusively, to the Republic of Texas. Lone Star flags greatly outnumbered the American kind, and a group of bikers hung out near a long white banner decorated with a pointing Uncle Sam and the words OBAMA YOU ARE A DISGRACE TO THE OFFICE OF THE PRESIDENT.
A burly, bearded man with an M-15 over one shoulder and an SKS rifle over the other introduces himself to me only as "Wolf," before adding cheerfully, "but everyone calls me the Redneck Jew." Wolf has a Star of David tattooed on his shoulder and a verse from the Torah written in Hebrew on his back. He's retired military, originally from southeast Texas – so close to Louisiana that his accent sounds almost Cajun – and he's wearing a JEWISH HEROES OF THE CONFEDERACY muscle shirt celebrating Judah Benjamin. When I ask who Judah Benjamin was, Wolf gazes at me with thinly veiled disgust.
"Secretary of war under the Confederacy. You don't know that?" Wolf shakes his head morosely. "Most Jews don't know that. Most Jews don't know what the Yankees did to us during the Civil War. And now everyone hates us for this gun-control thing. But we're not all like Bloomberg. Don't put us all in the same cattle car!"
American Patriots like Wolf, excited by concerns both real and obviously paranoid – revolving around gun rights, land rights, the surveillance state, genetically modified food and assorted other "liberty issues" – have come to this field to make their voices heard. The two central issues of the rally are guns – specifically, the right to openly carry weapons just about anywhere in the state – and an opposition to the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, inspired by the recent standoff with cattle rancher Cliven Bundy in Nevada. Smith's ranch and others in the area border public-domain land running alongside the Red River. The BLM is conducting a standard periodic review of the region and drawing up a new land-management plan, which has some of the ranchers crying communist land grab. Smith's neighbor Rick Bradley, a former world-champion steer wrestler who's been nominated to the Texas Rodeo Hall of Fame, shows up with a hand-painted sign reading "Thieves we have a deed leave our land alone." When I ask if there have been threats to take his property, he says, "I don't know! That's the problem."
I couldn't have put it any better myself. They don't know; that's the problem. After nearly six years of pumping out cynical horror stories involving our nefarious president and a Washington bureaucracy run amok, the right-wing fear machine has managed to reduce its target audience to a quivering state of waking nightmare, jumping at shadows. If, to paraphrase Baudelaire by way of The Usual Suspects, the devil's greatest trick was to convince the world he didn't exist, the modern GOP's greatest trick might have been convincing its electorate that he does, and that the federal government exists as some kind of infernal machine. While impressive, this trick has also proved to be a very dangerous one, as states of panic have a tendency to produce rather extreme results.
Three days after the rally, Republican primary voters in Texas overwhelmingly chose ultraconservative Houston talk-radio host Dan Patrick as their nominee for lieutenant governor. If Patrick wins in the fall, which seems likely at this point, he will be one of the most reactionary figures to hold a major statewide office anywhere in the country. His triumph caps a Texas primary season like no other. As GOP leaders attempt to squash or at least temper the influence of the Tea Party, Texas conservatives have embraced their state's prideful independence and long history of right-wing zealotry – "We're heading into nut country," President Kennedy told his wife before his fateful trip to Dallas in 1963 – and raced to the farthest fringes of acceptable political debate. Departing governor Rick Perry, who appears to be preparing for another presidential run, has managed to pander to the right while keeping his focus primarily on the economy – the so-called Texas miracle he's presided over, in which, in his telling, low taxes and lax regulation have produced a booming state economy.
But Republican primary voters in 2014 weren't interested in hearing about jobs. Instead, Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott, the Republican running to replace Perry, used Ted Nugent for campaign appearances a month after the singer referred to President Obama as a "subhuman mongrel." One of the lieutenant-governor candidates, Texas agriculture commissioner Todd Staples, ran a television ad in which he declared, "Mr. President, you are not a king, and Texans bow to no one" – followed, chillingly, by footage of Staples hoisting a rifle at a gun store. Meanwhile, Cathie Adams, the former chair of the state GOP, suggested in a speech that Republican anti-tax fanatic Grover Norquist might actually be part of a stealth jihad because he is married to a Palestinian and "as you see, he has a beard."
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