Threats to Liberty

Conspiracy theorists worried about imaginary government oppression dismiss real government oppression.

A woman faces down a line of Baltimore Police officers in riot gear during violent protests following the funeral of Freddie Gray.
A woman faces a line of Baltimore police officers in riot gear during protests following the funeral of Freddie Gray on April 27, 2015, in Baltimore.

Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

The two big news events of the past few weeks are not completely unconnected. The death of Freddie Gray in police custody led to rioting, curfews, and the National Guard in Baltimore. Perhaps serving as a comic counterpoint, rising panic over “Jade Helm 15,” a U.S. military training operation, has led to panic, bluster, and wild theories about military plans to invade Texas.

At first blush, the two events have nothing in common. Folks in Baltimore took to the streets to protest yet more lethal police violence directed at black men. People in Texas, inflamed by shock jocks and conspiracy theorists, protested that President Obama plans to take over Texas by way of underground tunnels built to jail “insurgents” under the nation’s abandoned Walmarts.

As a matter of partisan politics, the two situations have been accorded almost equal gravitas. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott has opted to take the alleged threat to the liberty of Texans seriously. Last week he ordered the Texas State Guard to “monitor” the military exercises, evidently because “it is important that Texans know their safety, constitutional rights, private property rights, and civil liberties will not be infringed.” Pretty much everyone else, outside the tin-foil beanie world of AM radio and Chuck Norris, dismisses the whole controversy as absurd at best and profoundly wrong-headed at worst. But politics is politics, so Ted Cruz and Rand Paul are also now on board with the radical cry for protecting our citizens from our military.

Both protests express deeply held anxieties, fears, and mistrust of authority and government power. But race and regional anxieties make the citizens of Baltimore all but invisible in Texas.  So the people warning against government oppression in Texas see their own fears as valid and Baltimore’s as trivial, illegitimate, or self-created.

Instead of finding common cause with the citizens of Maryland, conservative media attempted to demean and erase them. Fox News took to the streets of Baltimore to attempt to show that “thugs” and rioters—and not centuries of injustice—were to blame for the riots and looting. Ana Marie Cox notes the bizarre coining of the phrase “voluntary head injury” to attempt to blame Gray for his own severed spine. James Rosen observes that conservative commentators rushed to blame liberalism itself for the unrest in Baltimore—policies that supposedly increased poverty and inequality and social injustice.

The paranoid delusion that animates Jade Helm protests can likewise be seen as entirely self-inflicted. It bubbles up from Tea Party nuttery about President Obama’s hostility toward Texas. In the words of Texas Rep. Louie Gohmert, “People who have grown leery of federal government overreach become suspicious of whether their big brother government anticipates certain states may start another civil war or be overtaken by foreign radical Islamist elements, which have been reported to be just across our border.” Shock jocks on the far right push the idea that underground tunnels will move federal troops around the country, confiscating guns and penning conservatives in camps. Alex Jones is floating the theory that all this is a precursor for a third Obama term. The leader of the pro-gun Oath Keepers told listeners on a “patriot movement” radio show that the purpose of the operation is to enable the federal government to identify possible resistance leaders for a future military takeover.

What does it say about the possibility of a postracial America when whites in Texas are more motivated by the imagined danger of a black president than by the real dangers faced by black people in American cities? And what does it say about race in America when black protesters fear local government, while whites fearing military takeover turn to state militias? And what does it mean when groups like the Oath Keepers—terrified of Obama’s Walmart invasion—were all but silent in Ferguson, evidently untroubled by a militarized police force so long as it’s deployed only against poor blacks?  

Certainly it’s easy to dismiss the paranoia now spreading its way through the Jade Helm websites as loony, cartoonish fever dreams (which it is) and to see our concerns about government and militarized police as valid, empirical, and legitimate (which they are).

But there are commonalities here as well: Both are inflamed by social media, old media, and the porous boundary between news and entertainment. Travis Gettys notes that video clips purportedly showing a military buildup in the rural Southwest—including the parking lots of Walmart stores—“have been widely shared in recent days on social media, where the conspiracy theories have taken on lives of their own.” Baltimore protests were not only fueled by social media but became conflated with popular movie plots, even taking on elements of the franchise The Purge.

But perhaps the single most ironic similarity between the two stories is that both stem from similar fears: fears of a militarized police state, anxiety over lawless authorities, worries about privacy and personal property, a yawning gap between haves and have-nots. These grievances are fueled by what we know about police, the military, and the collapse of the line between them. And—perhaps this is the tragedy—while the events in Baltimore last week were a reaction to genuine abuse and injustice, those people on the far right who are pushing the Jade Helm narrative, who doubtlessly believe that their fantasy takeover is equally plausible, cannot find common ground with people who are living out their very fears.

To be sure, we can’t begin to reasonably compare the realities of social injustice in American cities with the imaginary ISIS fighters massed on the imaginary tunnels on Southern borders. But it’s a sad comment on the polarization of America that we can’t see that in both cases, the real fear is state power and police militarization, and we will never manage to work together to address that problem. Back in the earliest days of the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street, more than one observer suggested that the two groups always had more in common than their leaders would have you believe. And even though we are more certain than ever that this can’t possibly be true, the fact that our nightmares and theirs sometimes overlap is surely more than a coincidence.