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.”
This was supposed to be the year Texas turned blue, or at least purple, the year female and Hispanic voters turned out in droves and carried Democrat state Sen. Wendy Davis to the governor’s mansion. Battleground Texas, a group founded last year with the bold goal of transforming Texas into a swing state, targeted the swelling Latino population, which by 2020 is projected to overtake the white population of Texas. Salty, beloved Ann Richards had been the last Democrat elected governor, way back in 1990. Just four years later, a cocky young George W. Bush, mocked by Richards as the “Little Shrub,” would unseat her in a landslide. But there was new hope in Davis, famous for staging an 11-hour filibuster in an attempt to derail a restrictive abortion bill.
By Memorial Day, however, the Battleground Texas narrative, at least in this election cycle, had begun to look like Daily Kos fan fiction. Davis was trailing Abbott by 14 points. Meanwhile, back in her old Fort Worth Senate district, a Tea Party Republican named Konni Burton seems well-placed to win Davis’ old seat in the fall. The bio on Burton’s website begins, “Konni is first and foremost a wife, a mom, and a life long [sic] Christian.”
However promising the Battleground Texas statistical analysis might seem on paper, the present-day reality is that Texas remains a very red state, and the narrow slice that represents the Republican-primary electorate – about seven percent this year – continues to move farther and faster to the extreme right. An April poll by Public Policy Polling suggested Tea Party darling Ted Cruz, the first-term senator mulling a presidential run in 2016, is the most popular politician in Texas. The question no longer is, “Would Ann Richards be too liberal to be elected in Texas today?” but rather, “Would George W. Bush?” Immigration reform? Compassionate conservatism? Stick to painting, Chomsky!
Notes Harold Cook, a veteran Democratic strategist in Texas who worked alongside Richards, “When I moved to Austin in 1989, Texas politicians were conservative in the classic sense of the term: They wanted to make sure government was small and unintrusive. There were pretty strong libertarian and populist streaks, and that still exists among the electorate, but what’s new, I think, is a litmus test driven by the Tea Party wing, where if you’re not mad enough, if you don’t demonstrate a certain level of hatred, then your motives are suspect. Your final votes on legislation don’t matter. These two politicians might be voting exactly alike – but the one the Tea Party loves is running around the district all the time screaming about how much he hates Obama.”
To Cook’s point, consider the issues animating the Gathering of the American Patriot. “Open carry” gun laws? All of the major candidates for governor – Republican, Libertarian, even Wendy Davis – support expanding them. The Bureau of Land Management? Perry, Abbott, Patrick and Cruz have all denounced the agency in terms only slightly less incendiary and borderline-seditious than those used by one of the rally’s headlining speakers, a pistol-packing pastor named Terry Holcomb Sr., who tells the crowd he has a message for the BLM: “It would be a very bad idea to bring an armed force to Texas and draw down on Texas citizens. This ain’t Nevada.”
All of the gubernatorial candidates, incidentally, were invited to Burkburnett, but the only one to show was Kathie Glass, a Houston lawyer running on the Libertarian ticket. With her peroxide-blond hair and silver-studded cowgirl top, she looks like a country star from the Seventies, like Conway Twitty might turn up onstage any minute to join her in a mildly suggestive duet. “There’s nothing to be feared by peaceful people openly carrying firearms,” Glass tells me, her accent sweet as cobbler. “I came here to protest the taking of ranch land. I want to be Texas governor to unite Texans, so we can do again what we’ve done before: defeat tyranny.”
But when she takes the stage a few hours later, her tone is darker. She talks about nullification: the “right” of Texans to ignore “unconstitutional” federal laws, a disquieting throwback to the days when Southern states resisted civil rights legislation.
“If I don’t win, I don’t care who does, because Texas isn’t going to be able to survive, I’m afraid,” Glass tells the crowd. “I know it sounds pretty dire. But I’ve read the last chapter of the book. I’ve seen the end of the movie. I know how it turns out.”
Looking around at my fellow audience members, most of them packing a weapon of some sort, I assume the book to which she’s referring is “of Revelations,” or perhaps a novelization of The Walking Dead.
But Glass surprises me. Without so much as a spoiler alert, she continues, “The good guys win. And we’re the good guys!”
In Texas, the lieutenant governor is elected separately from, and arguably wields far more power than, the governor, essentially running the Senate and setting the budgetary agenda. Sitting Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst had been the establishment favorite, with a blue-chip résumé that includes working for the CIA in Bolivia and earning a fortune as a Houston energy man. In recent years, Dewhurst had been moving increasingly rightward to keep abreast of the Tea Party – last year, he publicly called for Obama’s impeachment – but in the end, he found himself crushed by 30 points in the primary. Dan Patrick had out-fundraised Dewhurst two-to-one in the homestretch of the campaign.
Patrick, 64, grew up working-class in Baltimore, the first member of his family to graduate from college. He moved to Houston in 1979 and became a popular sportscaster, infamous for sub-Ron Burgundy shenanigans like allowing a pair of cheerleaders to strip off his shirt and paint him blue before an Oilers game. Then he bought a couple of AM radio stations (which he would later sell to Clear Channel for millions) and began hosting his own conservative drive-time show, where he attacked Bush and Perry as too liberal, while still embracing his old penchant for stunts (including having an on-air vasectomy).
While establishment Republicans have warned about the importance of reaching out to minorities and women, Patrick, elected to the state Senate in 2006, doubled down on his craven appeals to the right-wing talk-radio id. He boycotted the Senate prayer when it was led by a Muslim, spearheaded a bill requiring women seeking abortions to first receive a sonogram, and warned of the “illegal invasion” of undocumented Mexicans.
Immigration would ultimately help sink the campaign of Jerry Patterson, who also ran against Patrick in the primary. More than any single Texan, Patterson is responsible for the state’s concealed-handgun laws, back in 1994 authoring a gun bill vetoed by Richards and ultimately signed by W. The veto became a major campaign issue. All these years later, Patterson notes with pride, “I’m the reason she didn’t get her second term.” But in this year’s race for lieutenant governor, voters found him too liberal when it came to the “illegal invasion” – Patterson supports, for example, granting legal status to certain undocumented immigrants willing to serve in the military – and he came in dead last in the primary. “I was considered something just a little bit short of a right-wing nut job when I first ran for state Senate in ’92,” Patterson says dryly. “And now I find out that I’m a squish. I’ve moved so far to the left that I can’t win a primary.”
A 67-year-old retired lieutenant colonel in the Marine Corps, Patterson flew F-4 Phantom jets after serving in Vietnam, was elected to the Texas Legislature in 1993, and currently serves as state land commissioner. When I visit him in his office in downtown Austin, he’s armed; he never leaves home without his .22 Magnum, which he keeps hidden in one of his boots. He’s also surrounded by taxidermy, including the massive 12-point rack of an elk, which he shot – a cowboy hat hangs casually from one of the horns – and a coiled rattlesnake, which he received in the mail as an anonymous gift (or threat, he’s not really sure).
By any reasonable reckoning, Patterson is extraordinarily conservative. He’s the sort of politically incorrect person who takes a special, cussed relish in pissing people off. “It’s a constitutional right to be offended, and I’m happy to facilitate that,” he tells me. But he’s also funny, well-read and sneakily thoughtful. In 2011, he defied Gov. Perry by supporting a request from the Sons of Confederate Veterans to create rebel-flag license plates – but when asked about Confederate memorials by the Houston Chronicle, Patterson pointed out that he also celebrates “the U.S. flag under which atrocities like My Lai occurred or under which a genocidal war against a whole race of people, the American Indians, occurred.” He describes himself as “solidly pro-life” and “probably the most Second Amendment guy there is in Texas.” Leaning back in his desk chair, he continues in a mild tone that belies his obvious rage, “Although you wouldn’t know that from Dan Patrick. He said that I voted to ban guns on Texas campuses, when in fact that ban has been in place for 50 years. Patrick also says I quote-unquote ‘support open borders.’ That’s just horseshit. He’s being treated like a new messiah, the second coming of Elvis. ‘Oh, Dan Patrick is a Christian.’ Well, what am I, a devil worshipper?”
An Austin political insider had warned me that Patterson had “gone all Captain Ahab” on Patrick since his primary loss. And sure enough, Patterson describes the radio host as dangerous for Texas and a “pathological liar.” A few days earlier, he’d steered the press toward public-domain hospital records detailing Patrick’s battles with severe depression in the 1980s. (Patrick was hospitalized on multiple occasions and once attempted suicide, overdosing on pills and superficially slitting his wrists.) The revelations backfired, though, and actually managed the impossible: turning a political opportunist as brazen as Patrick into a figure of sympathy.
Patterson has no regrets. “You have a bunch of angry folks who are, frankly, angry for good reason, but they are also very, very gullible,” he says glumly. “All you got to do is say certain phrases and words – fill-in-the-blank cliché – and they go ‘rah-rah’ and applaud and you’re the man. ‘Secure our borders.’ ‘No amnesty.’ ‘Build a fence.’ We have a history in this state, you know? My opponent for land commissioner last time was a guy named Hector Uribe. His family had been here for, I think, seven or eight generations. He was a Tejano. He had more Texas roots than I did. Notwithstanding that, somebody made some kind of pop-off comment about, you know, ‘that Mexican,’ or something like that. And I jumped on their shit. We have Tejanos who died at the Alamo! The vice president of the Republic of Texas was Lorenzo de Zavala. Juan Seguín was a hero at the Battle of San Jacinto. Those folks are just as Texan as we are.
“I’m not worried about Battleground Texas,” Patterson continues. “I’m worried about the Republican Party. We should lose to them” – he means the Democrats – “as opposed to surrender. Some of the stuff we’re doing now is going to result in . . . well, actually, not a surrender, but a fight to the death, where all of us lose on the Republican side. We just got dumber than a rock. And immigration is one of those issues.”
Guns are another one of those issues, though Patterson would likely challenge me to a duel for suggesting as much. But even he isn’t wild about certain actions of groups like Open Carry Texas, whose members have been making headlines by provocatively turning up in public places – the Alamo, outside the state Capitol, fast-food franchises – toting semiautomatic rifles. It’s all perfectly legal in Texas, but far from winning hearts and minds, the demonstrations have only managed to prompt chains like Chipotle and Applebee’s to officially ban firearms altogether.
Open Carry Texas received even worse press after two dozen heavily armed members, some carrying AK-47s, crashed a meeting of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, a gun-control group formed after the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre. The Moms had gathered at a Mexican restaurant in suburban Dallas. Even though the Open Carry members never left the parking lot, the damage was done: As any PR novice would have warned, you simply don’t bring guns to a mom fight. Even the NRA weighed in – against the Texans, noting in a newsletter that “to see someone sidle up next to you in line for lunch with a 7.62 rifle slung across his chest is downright weird.” (A few days later, the NRA came to its senses and retracted the statement.)
Unbowed, the Open Carry evangelists continue to talk about their actions in terms normally reserved for civil rights heroes desegregating a lunch counter. These guys understand, to the very core of their being, that allowing everyone to carry heat will only make the dining experience at Chipotle safer, not more dangerous, and the fact that your average citizen is freaked out by the sight of a dude with an AR-15 ordering an adobo-marinated chicken burrito bowl is at once depressing evidence of a deep-rooted prejudice and a reminder of one’s moral duty to educate the easily spooked, blithely unarmed masses.
Open Carry Texas was one of the organizers of the Gathering of the American Patriot (along with groups like DontComply.com and Come and Take It America), and the night before the event, I meet up with the group’s founder, C.J. Grisham, at a Candlewood Suites Hotel in nearby Wichita Falls. A 40-year-old Army master sergeant stationed at Fort Hood, Grisham has spent his entire life around guns. His father, also in the military, collects weapons dating back to the Revolutionary War. Grisham initially enlisted in the Army as a Spanish linguist, working in counter-narcotics. Eventually he would serve in Afghanistan and Iraq, where he saw the fall of Baghdad and heavy fighting in Fallujah.
Squat and muscular, Grisham is wearing an Open Carry Texas baseball cap with a gold fishing hook affixed to the brim. Post-traumatic-stress-disorder triggers that yank sufferers back to painful moments are called hooks. “And obviously,” Grisham says, “because of my heavy combat, I’ve got a lot of them. But I’ve overcome some, and my therapist gave me this as a reminder, so that’s why I wear that. I know some people might think it’s because I’m a redneck, but I don’t fish.” Grisham also has a long-barreled black-powder pistol holstered to his hip. At one point, he takes out the gun to show me. I nervously glance at the woman working the front desk to see if she’s making a panicked call to 911, but she’s just staring blankly at her computer.
Last March, Grisham was taking a 10-mile Boy Scout hike with his 15-year-old son when the pair were stopped by a police officer. Grisham was carrying his AR-15, and a concerned citizen, having spotted them walking along a country road, called the authorities. Grisham was arrested and found guilty of interfering with the duties of a police officer, and received a $2,000 fine. In the world of Second Amendment purists, though, Grisham’s arrest video went viral, and he suddenly found himself the face of a movement. Not long after, he started Open Carry Texas.
“If you don’t exercise a right, you tend to lose it, and this was a perfect example,” Grisham tells me. “Nobody carries their rifles around anymore. When I was younger, it wasn’t uncommon for people to go to school and still have their shotguns and deer rifles in the back windows of their pickup trucks. When my dad was growing up, if you were going to go hunting after school, you could literally put your rifle in your locker. It wasn’t a big deal. Then we started creating these gun-free zones and regulating weapons, stigmatizing them. I call it gun shaming. Like, ‘Oh, my gosh, you have a gun? You’re a monster!'”
Grisham insists his members always ask for permission from the manager before entering a restaurant, and that the group’s actions are “not controversial” in Texas. Then he begins to tell me about his time in Iraq, where, during major combat operations, he saw daily firefights three months straight. The duties of his job as an intel officer included searching dead enemy soldiers for valuable information; sometimes it would take days before combat subsided enough to approach the bodies, which had been baking in 100-degree Iraqi heat. On his blog, Grisham has written frankly about his PTSD. Loud noises – an unexpected boom at a fireworks show, say – cause him to jump, and certain smells that remind him of rotting corpses can also serve as hooks. “Early on, there was a lot of survivor’s guilt,” he says, his arms crossed in such a tight way that he’s almost hugging his own massive shoulders. The table wobbles as he leans forward and then back. “I lost some good friends. I wrote about my road to recovery, my successes and failures, even a suicide attempt.” His 12-year-old daughter, sitting across the table, plays distractedly with the sausage McMuffin she’s been snacking on.
As much as one empathizes with Grisham, his arrest video, captured by the arresting officer’s dashboard camera, paints a more complicated and disturbing picture. Grisham is wearing black sunglasses and a ranger’s hat; a head scarf tucked into the sides of the hat covers his face like a balaclava whenever the wind blows. He looks terrifying. The police officer, a portly man with a mustache and a thick Texas accent, approaches cautiously, asking, “Some reason why you have this?”
“‘Cause I can,” Grisham replies, sounding casual, but also, if you don’t know the guy, possibly deranged.
“Well, OK,” the officer says. He begins to pull the gun away from Grisham. At this point, Grisham flips out, yelling, “Hey, don’t disarm me, man!” and attempting to grab the gun back. In a flash, the officer has drawn his own pistol and started screaming at Grisham, slamming him against the hood of the police car. Now they’re both framed by the camera. The officer’s pistol is pressed to Grisham’s back. “You’re trying to disarm me illegally!” Grisham protests. “Am I threatening you?”
He’s handcuffed, and a sergeant arrives. “Sir, is it against the law to carry an open firearm like that?” Grisham asks. “Let me answer the question: No, it’s not. I’ve done nothing illegal, and yet this guy decides he wants to throw me against the car.”
“He has a right to disarm you,” the sergeant says calmly.
Here, Grisham goes berserk and begins shouting in disagreement. When the first officer asks for his identification, Grisham screams, “Shut up! I’m talking to your freaking sergeant right now. It’s in my pocket. . . . I can walk around with a rifle!“
The video continues for about 10 more minutes. It’s difficult to watch. At one point, Grisham insists, “If you had said, ‘Sir, will you drop the gun?’ I would have done just that. . . . I’m an Iraq and Afghanistan veteran.”
“What would you do if you came up to somebody armed like that in Iraq?” the sergeant asks.
Grisham, agitated again, cries, “This isn’t Iraq, dude! We’re in Temple, Texas!”
As he continues to argue, the arresting officer says, “I’m not gonna let you put your hands on [your gun] and shoot me.”
Here, Grisham suddenly turns calm, sounding almost pained. The honest confusion in his voice is simultaneously heartbreaking and terrifying.
“Who said,” Grisham asks, “I was gonna shoot you?”
Here’s the wild thing: I can watch Grisham’s arrest video and feel not only relief, but also something akin to a swell of patriotic pride, at the sight of this lumpy, out-of-shape lawman doing his duty – risking his life, for all he knew – to serve and protect the citizens of Bell County, Texas. And yet the attendants of the Gathering of the American Patriot, to a person, I’m willing to bet, could watch the same video and witness an outrageous violation of personal liberty by a police state gone rogue.
I should note, here, that I also grew up around guns. Most of my male relatives in Detroit hunted; my father occasionally used a famous brand of shotgun called the Benelli (no relation), which he purchased at a gun shop called (seriously) Michi-Gun. I never personally enjoyed target shooting or hunting, but being around people who love guns doesn’t make me sweat or feel like I’m among an alien species.
It’s also interesting to report that nearly everyone I met at the rally turned out to be far quirkier, politically, than any caricatured preconceptions might lead you to guess. While journalistic comparisons between the rise of the Tea Party and the rise of Occupy Wall Street – as two ends of the spectrum responding to economic collapse and elite betrayal – feel like clichéd false equivalency by this point, there’s an unruly, anarchistic feel to this crowd that reminds me of the time I spent in Zuccotti Park. There are serious political differences, to be sure, but their pitchforks are aimed at many of the same villains, and at times the most salient aspect of the divide feels cultural.
Take, for instance, Austin real-estate broker Andrew Clements, who stands out from the crowd in his white dress shirt, pink tie, black Serengeti sunglasses and white visor. He’s also holding a sign reading I CHOOSE TO FIGHT BACK! and carrying a short-barreled 9mm AR-15. “Make sure you put the short part in,” he implores. “The short barrel is what makes it cool!” Clements describes himself as a fiscal conservative and a Libertarian on social issues. A protracted battle with the ATF over getting a gun dealer’s license brought him to the rally. “They spent tens of thousands of dollars to fight me,” Clements claims. “And I’m a normal guy in the suburbs like you!” Despite the sign (and the gun), Clements is more friendly than angry. “I think the country is falling apart,” he says. “You’re wasting a vote if you vote for Democrats or Republicans. They’re both the same party. Look at the NSA spying. My philosophy is about respecting everyone else’s thing: all races, sexual preferences, religions. That’s what makes us special as Americans. What’s the difference if I have a gun, or if that guy is gay?”
“We want homosexual people to protect their marijuana plants with firearms!” chimes in Matthew Short, an organizer of the event. He’s wearing a black T-shirt that reads PROUD MEMBER OF THE TERRORIST WATCH LIST and has a white-on-black peace sign tattooed on his inner forearm, though he’s also carrying a rifle. Short’s day job, working as an interior designer, takes him into some of the wealthiest suburbs in the country, around Dallas and Fort Worth. “It’s a modern-day oligarchy right now,” he says. “We’re watching banks and politicians who’ve been in charge since JFK giving away everything we have.” Short is also given to more conspiratorial lines of thought, advising me to check out some YouTube videos he’s posted about Syria, Benghazi and the massive fertilizer-plant explosion that took place last year in rural Texas, where he snuck onto the blast scene with some firefighters. He thinks Monsanto might have had something to do with it.
Wolf (“the Redneck Jew”) is also a Libertarian. He likes Ted Cruz but generally avoids voting for Republicans or Democrats. His wife is black, he says, and he’s sick of Obama “always playing the race card.” Wolf says, “I have five black- Jewish children. We’re Podunk rednecks. Everyone around here goes hunting and fishing all together. There’s no prejudice! Now, you go to New York, Austin, Boston, that’s where everyone lives separate. Down here? We’re a melting pot.” When Wolf hears I’m from New York, he asks if I like Brooklyn Lager. “It’s good, huh?” he says. “And kosher, too!”
Don’t get me wrong: there’s also no shortage of crazy talk. One of the speakers at the rally, a tall, stout man in a cowboy shirt named Doc Greene, is a talk-radio host in Houston. Onstage, he railed, “If you like the plutocracy – that’s a good ‘P’ word, I’ll let you look it up – vote for Greg Abbott.” Greene knows Dan Patrick personally, and he isn’t a fan. “Dan Patrick is for Dan Patrick,” Greene says, though he adds that Jerry Patterson “turned out to be a lot more liberal than we thought.” Greene says he has nine grandchildren and he wants them to grow up with liberty. “I truly believe there are people who would take away our freedoms and rule us by fiat,” he tells me. “We’re fighting a war with words. But if we fail, we will be fighting it with real guns, and my children’s blood.”
James Franklin, a lanky 31-year-old in a cowboy hat who has been taking puffs from a flute-size vaporizer – earlier, he’d told me he was a direct descendant of Benjamin Franklin and that Lyndon Johnson was his grandmother’s cousin, though he doesn’t normally advertise the LBJ bit –nods in agreement. “I tell everyone, ‘I want to raise awareness so this ends peacefully. I don’t want my children to have to bury me under a hail of bullets. But they’re trained to do it.'”
Greene plays in a couple of bands (one blues, one country) and has a residential audio-video installation business. He’s also handling sound for the rally. After the band wraps up, he cues Steve Earle’s “Copperhead Road,” about a pot-growing Vietnam vet in the hills of Tennessee. One of the verses, about the protagonist’s moonshine-running granddaddy, mentions a “revenue man” from the government who came snooping around the holler, never to be seen again.
The next afternoon, in Dallas, I visit Dealey Plaza. Last year marked the 50th anniversary of the Kennedy assassination. It’s a humid, slightly drizzly day, but there are still tourists out, some snapping pictures of the grassy knoll (marked, helpfully, by a big yellow banner reading GRASSY KNOLL), others pointing cameras at Elm Street from the angle made famous by Abraham Zapruder. A couple of guys have tables set up, where they’re selling pamphlets detailing elaborate second- and third-gunman theories. Three young men in baseball caps discuss the impressive difficulty of Lee Harvey Oswald’s shots. Glancing up at the old Texas School Book Depository, I look for the window where Oswald stood. Oh, there it is – the one with all the tourists creepily gazing down.
In the years after JFK’s murder, Dallas was known as the City of Hate. Local business leaders strove mightily to erase the stigma, building art museums and other cultural institutions, until finally, by the 1980s, Dallas had developed a certain cool, the city of J.R. Ewing and inordinately famous cheerleaders.
Nowadays, the City of Hate era has grown so distant that hate has been allowed to return as a winning campaign slogan in Texas. The portrait of right-wing Texas painted by authors Bill Minutaglio and Steven L. Davis in the recent book Dallas 1963 will sound unsettlingly familiar to anyone who has read the preceding pages. Fliers were passed out before JFK’s trip to Dallas with a picture of his face and the words WANTED FOR TREASON; LBJ was spat upon by protesters during an earlier appearance. Then as now, the pot was stirred by reactionary preachers, wealthy string-pullers (in 1963, it was the oil magnate H.L. Hunt, the richest man in the United States), political opportunists (Gen. Edwin Walker ran for Texas governor in 1962 on an anti-civil rights, anti-Communist platform) and organized interest groups (the John Birch Society then, the Tea Party now).
Come November, Patrick will be a difficult man to beat. When I ask Harold Cook, the Democratic strategist, if he thinks Patrick really believes the stuff he says or treats the whole exercise as an extended performance, Cook says, “Look, he knows how to put on a show – he knows how to make an ultraconservative Tea Party Republican get a little stiffy. Is he for real? Honestly, at some point, what’s the difference? If you’re a pro wrestler for long enough, you forget the deal is rigged and you start to believe you have superhuman strength. I don’t think there is a Dan Patrick, except that which exists to get Dan Patrick elected.”
The state, meanwhile, faces significant issues not involving border fences and the right to bring your gun to the Dairy Queen. Global warming has brought drought conditions to a critical juncture, to the point where Wichita Falls, where I met Grisham, might become one of the first cities in the United States to recycle wastewater as drinking water. Last November, Texas voters approved Proposition 6, which allowed $2 billion from the state’s rainy-day fund to be used for such drought-easing projects. Yet, Patterson tells me, “The Republican primary voters – the Tea Party – were unanimously, vehemently opposed to it.”
“Because it involved tax money?” I ask.
“Because they don’t understand what the hell they were talking about,” Patterson shoots back. “They were gullible. I think the Tea Party was a great thing. But it’s at a crossroads now. The problem with the Tea Party right now is, they can be had very easily.”
Then there’s Perry’s “Texas miracle” – 37 percent of all new jobs created since 2009 in the United States have been in Texas, and the state’s population has soared – which has been driven in large part by cheap housing (Texas has lots of space), low gas prices and the lack of a state income tax. Unfortunately, Texas has one of the highest percentages of minimum-wage jobs in the nation, along with one of the highest poverty rates. It’ll be interesting to see if all of the new Texans moving to the Lone Star State wind up disappointed with the miracle they’d been promised, and if so, who they end up supporting: the party of Dan Patrick, or the party of Wendy Davis?
At least one person remains optimistic about Texas’ political future: C.J. Grisham, who has been pushing for expanded open-carry laws. “For the first time, we’ve got all the gubernatorial candidates coming out in favor of open carry, so I think in 2015, we’re practically guaranteed to get the expansion,” he says with the confidence of a military man, adding with a smile, “as long as we don’t screw it up. But right now? We’ve got the momentum.”
This story is from the July 3rd-17th, 2014 issue of Rolling Stone.