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Jacobins, Y’all
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Jacobins, Y’all

A dispatch from the Texas Nationalist Movement confab in Waco.

(via Getty Images)

WACO, TexasApostle Claver Kamau-Imani, as he prefers to be known, gives every indication of being the real deal. He is a Christian activist who spent years working with addicts and the homeless in Houston, and his is one of the few black faces you will see here at the first big confab of the Texas Nationalist Movement, a group that is institutionally committed to seeking the independence of Texas as a sovereign republic apart from the United States—Texit, as they call it.

Beyond the core of Texit true believers, it’s mostly just MAGA in Western wear from Cavender’s and Boot Barn, the detritus of various suburban Tea Party groups and Trumpist organizations and QAnon cultists that have moved on to the next obsession. Weirdly enough, surprisingly few of them are Texans of any meaningful tenure—a fair number of them are Californians radicalized by COVID-19 lockdowns and tall tales of stolen elections, people who arrived in the Promised Land about two days ago. But Apostle Claver Kamau-Imani is not one of these—he is a son of Beaumont and a fifth-generation Texan, and while he makes no apologies for his Christianity or the generally Christian character of the movement he represents, he is working hard to be inclusive, emphasizing that Texit welcomes Muslims, Sikhs, and all people of good faith. 

“Not everybody is going to be a tongue-talking, cast-out-a-demon-in-a-second Pentecostal,” he says. Truth be told, he seems to be the only one in the room, which is pretty much what you’re expecting it to be: overwhelmingly white, old, middle-to-low income, lots of disabilities. But the attendees have good manners: Almost all of the hat-wearing men remove their hats for the apostle’s invocation, and this is a room with some people who are pretty serious about hats. The news of the day being what it is, the apostle begins with a prayer for the people of Israel, asking God’s blessings on the nation.

“Texans love Israel,” he says.

“Nooooooo!” screams one member of the audience. 

“We love the Jewish people.” 

“Noooooo!” comes the same insistent voice. 

The organizers look down intently at their Tony Lama boots, as though inspecting them for scuffs, and everybody else pretty much glances furtively around sideways like somebody who had the chorizo breakfast tacos just let one rip in church—which is, in a sense, what had just happened. Where would radical politics be without emotional flatulence? The Texas Nationalist Movement (TNM) has been making a pretty obvious effort to cut down on its kook factor, but the truth remains—they’re kooks. Some of them are very smart and well-intentioned and good-hearted kooks—and most of them are unfailingly polite kooks—but they are kooks nonetheless. I can’t be the only person to whom it has occurred that the TNM motto could be—with eyes on the Red River to the north and the Gulf of Mexico in the south—“from the river to the sea.” These kooks are mostly not Jew-hating kooks, of course, but the vocal presence of at least a smattering of Jew-hating kooks is not exactly a big surprise.

Some of these kooks are kooks in denial. 

“We’re not the tinfoil-hat people anymore,” proclaims Daphne Armour, who rejoices in the title “chief of staff” of the Texas Nationalist Movement. “Now, we’re the belle of the ball. People who wouldn’t talk to us three years ago are talking to us now. We’re the mainstream.” A fellow in overalls and a “Jesus Is My Savior Trump Is My President” cap approves. Here in Waco (because of course it is Waco) at Bare Arms Brewing—where you can sip house-made beer and choose from a menu of smoked mac ‘n’ cheese, smoked beer cheese nachos, smoked jouled BBQ sandwiches, smoked tacos, smoked chicken wings, and smoked smores for dessert—the TNM folks might very well constitute the mainstream, and Daphne Armour, bright and gregarious, seems right at home. 

But does she know about the black pope and what he’s up to these days? 

Because Graham Moore is ready to talk about the black pope. The black pope—the nickname sometimes given to the superior general of the Society of Jesus, i.e., the top Jesuit, is behind a lot of things, apparently. “He resides in Venezuela, you know,” Moore tells me, as though this explains everything. The current Jesuit superior general in fact lives in Rome, as you would expect, but it wouldn’t be terribly weird for him to live in Venezuela—he is Venezuelan, he was born in Venezuela, and previously he was the head of the Jesuits in Venezuela. You get a lot of little factless factoids like this from the conspiracy-minded.

Moore goes on to inform me that every modern prime minister of the United Kingdom has been a member of the Fabian Society—well, no, he backtracks, but every Labour prime minister, “except for the one who was Jewish.” (The U.K. has had only one Jewish prime minister, Benjamin Disraeli, a Tory.) But the factless factoids keep rolling: The black pope is behind the refugee charity Care4Calais, too, which is part of a plot to flood parts of England judged “too English” by the (ubiquitous!) “Marxists” with refugees and illegal immigrants. Though the Jesuits are generally very supportive of refugees and immigrants, Care4Calais has nothing to do with the Society of Jesus; far from a black-pope project, the organization was founded by Clare Moseley, a British accountant who had a bad run at the group, her leadership marked by allegations of sexual and financial impropriety—shenanigans, sure, but of non-Jesuitical origin. Also, Moore says, the U.K. government is running a massive censorship operation in the United States—well, no, but there’s a former deputy prime minister, Nick Clegg, who works on policy at Meta—and … it goes on and on.

Moore isn’t just a fringe kook hanger-on—he is a presenter at the conference, the leader of the English Constitution Party (which boasts “hundreds of members”) who came from England to talk about national self-determination. The English Constitution Party folks were happy with Brexit, but Brexit was just a good start for them—the next step, in their dream, is the exit of England from the United Kingdom. Why? “One million white English girls raped by a different people and a different culture,” Moore informs a rapt room. Nobody asks how a white English girl gets raped by a culture. Apparently this is one of those self-evident truths we hear so much about. The great demon for Moore isn’t swarthy illegal immigrants, but the villains who are inflicting said swarthy illegal immigrants on the English—the British. The English are a nation, Moore says, while the British are only a political union, and, in Moore’s view, a political union is a rotten thing to be: “The British Union, the European Union, the American Union, the Soviet Union—all the same thing.”

That’s a big applause line—for people who think of themselves, above all, as patriots. There’s a Jeep outside with a big TEXIT sticker on it and a veteran-celebrating “Land of the Free Because of the Brave” spare-tire cover, which is a weird juxtaposition: Hooray for Texas secession, and hooray for the army that kicked the snot out of Texas the last time Texas got big ideas about seceding. The United States is pretty much the Soviet Union, Moore says, and so is the United Kingdom, but nobody has thrown him in a gulag yet—he’s here, at the Waco Convention Center, where there’s Dr Pepper and Whataburger within easy reach, after a direct flight to Austin, and just nowhere near a labor camp. Don’t look too hard at the contradictions, or you’ll get dizzy.

Moore is a cordial and affable Londoner (he will remind you of every hilariously National Front-ish taxi driver who ever has taken you from Heathrow to Kensington) and a tinfoil-hat guy of the first rank. The English, he points out, have been a nation for more than 1,000 years, while the British have been around since only the 18th century. But he has an odd interpretation of English history: As a matter of historical fact, the English became the nation he celebrates in A.D. 927 precisely through the formation of a political union, as Æthelstan conquered the various Anglo-Saxon kingdoms and formed what we now call England—a united kingdom, if you will, before it was part of the United Kingdom. Many of those Anglo-Saxon peoples were at least as different from one another as modern Englishmen, Welshmen, and Scots are—the folks up in York, e.g., were Vikings. And, of course, the notion that the English are a nation in the old sense Moore means—a people intimately conjoined by language, ethnicity, culture, religion, and a long shared history—doesn’t survive about two minutes’ experience of London. Moore acknowledges that and fumes that this situation, too, is the fault of the damnable British.

What you say about London you could say about Houston, San Antonio, or El Paso. The notion that Texans at large have a shared culture is preposterous. Texas has a whole bunch of distinct cultures: the Deep South culture of the southeastern parts of the state (of which the Cajun culture of Houston and its environs is a tributary), the hybrid Anglo-Tejano culture of the Rio Grande Valley, the westward-facing culture of Big Bend and El Paso (which isn’t even in the same time zone as Dallas or Houston), the basically Midwestern culture of Dallas and much of North Texas, a Panhandle that has more cultural connections (and economic links and even family ties) to Kansas and Colorado than it does to Uvalde or Port Arthur. Some Texans live maritime lives on the Gulf of Mexico, while people in Lubbock get nervous and confused when confronted with a body of water bigger than a cow pond.

But a lot of the TNM folks don’t seem to quite get that, possibly because they are from California, not Texas. (California has its own secessionist movement, one whose leaders are very keen to swear up and down that they are not Russian stooges in spite of all the Russian stoogery in the mix. The Texas independence movement has Russian connections of its own.) Texas nationalism is just thick with Californians. One of the senior guys at TNM moved to Texas from California when he retired in 2021, and now he wants to tell Texans how it’s going to be on some big question—like which country they are going to be citizens of—while posing in a cowboy hat that makes him look like he just won it by knocking over some milk bottles at the state fair. You’d think that he’d wait a bit before getting that bossy. To borrow from the late great Lewis Grizzard, “Nobody cares how you used to do it in Riverside. If you don’t like how we do it here, Delta is ready when you are.” Another TNM leader is a D.C.-born IT guy who just moved to Texas this year, which shows a whole lot of however you say “chutzpah” in Texan. It takes all sorts, I guess, but the Texas Nationalist Movement’s big confab attracts a surprisingly small number of, you know, Texans

On the other hand, it does attract a lot of crypto guys. 

In fact, the welcoming remarks at the beer-and-barbecue shindig the evening before the formal opening of the conference were a lot heavier on crypto stuff than on Texas independence. Matt Frazier—CEO of a company incorporated all of nine months ago and “a visionary in non-profit fundraising technology … founder of the Texan Token, and a crypto YouTube influencer with 10K subscribers”—welcomes the assembled Texas nationalists with promising talk about 10,000x (“not 10,000 percent,” he affirms, “10,000x”) returns on crypto investments and, in the next breath, begs for donations so that the organization can raise the $35,000 it needs to pay the vendor gathering signatures to put a Texas-independence question on the next ballot. All these guys making 10,000x on their crypto plays, and nobody can write a check for the price of a nicely equipped Toyota Corolla?

Seems weird, no? 

It gets weirder. Frazier claims to receive messages directly from God—messages like who he should partner up with in business and where he can find divine messages hidden in his house, in this case a few of those old state quarters in a Xanax bottle, which he interpreted as divine advice to put his crypto-entrepreneurship into the service of the Texas independence movement, because, obviously!—but he’s basically out there scrounging around for sofa-cushion change to fund the divinely appointed revolution. “We are going to see something extremely important in Texas,” he says with the utter self-assurance that will be familiar to anybody who has seen this show before. “It is inevitable, because it is not the will of man. Texas independence is divinely appointed.” The revolution also promises to be “personally financially transformative” for those who get on it in time. “You can build great relationships, get rich in the process, and help the TNM,” he says, because we are now living in a world of “abundance, not scarcity. Scarcity is man-made.” Sound sketchy? “This is not some MLM,” he says, assuming—with good reason!—that everybody knows he means “multi-level marketing” scam. And, so: “I’m not asking you to buy soap.” 

There’s more crankery and ass-hattery afoot in the exhibit hall, of course: People who want to sell you devices to improve your blood with “beneficial frequencies,” people who think you are being poisoned by Wi-Fi. No, for real:

Sheila [Hemphill] is an earnest seeker of the Truth and a relentless advocate to right the wrongs she encounters. In 2011, she became a certified health consultant. She trained in nutrition and frequency therapeutics, which led to her aid in a joint research project between NASA and a frequency technology company. In 2012, she went to battle with the City of Brady over smart meters. She championed an amendment to the city charter to include utility customer rights via the Texas Local Government Code, 9.004. With extensive training in electromagnetic fields (EMF) and an understanding of their influence on the human body, she was deeply troubled over the lack of oversight by the FCC and FDA to regulate EMF exposure from WIFI and now 5G.

There’s vaccine stuff and coronavirus stuff, of course—do you know about the Omega Brief?—and essential oils dealers and a guy selling knives, because there is always a guy selling knives. 

And then there’s the Texas independence stuff. 

Daniel Miller, president of the Texas Nationalist Movement, is an unusually well-practiced politico for a group such as this, and he will talk your ears off about the polls. And the polls are pretty interesting: SurveyUSA, a research firm with an A+ rating from FiveThirtyEight, found that 66 percent of “regular voters” in Texas—and 60 percent of its overall Texas sample—answered “yes” to the question: “Would you support Texas peacefully becoming an independent country along with other conservative states? Or not?” That’s not precisely Texit (the question was put to voters in several states about their own states) but it is pretty close. Some 77 percent of self-identified conservatives did, too. On the question, “Would you support or oppose the idea of Texas holding a vote to find out whether voters want Texas to peacefully separate from the U.S.?” the breakdown was 50 percent in favor, 30 percent opposed and 21 percent undecided. And 60 percent said that the U.S. government should let the state go if that’s what its voters want. Apply the obvious caveats—this is a hypothetical question, not a present reality, and people, especially conservatives circa 2023, answer poll questions in a way that is as much sociocultural signaling as it is an honest statement of preference.

“If Texas independence goes on the ballot today, it wins,” he says. He isn’t obviously right, but he isn’t obviously wrong, either.

I ask him the obvious questions: Why secession instead of something less radical, like a more robust and flexible understanding of federalism? He scoffs. “How’s that working out?” I reflect that there are lots of hard things in politics that take a long time to do—it took 50 years to get from Roe to Dobbs, and it may take several decades more to forge a democratic consensus on a more humane abortion policy. The fact that we have found it difficult and frustrating to do something relatively modest, I add, is hardly an argument for abandoning the modest project in favor of something that is radical and disruptive, not to mention many orders of magnitude more difficult. But Miller isn’t buying it. 

“What people need to know,” he says, “is that this is happening. It isn’t something way off in the future.” Bills for the first part of the Texit referendum have been filed in the state legislature. It is a two-part thing: The first part is a question about whether the people of Texas favor a vote on independence, and the second part, down the line, would be the independence vote itself. Because Texas does not have an initiative-and-referendum process for the general-election ballot, this will appear, if it appears, as a question on the Republican primary ballot, and possibly as a question on the Democratic primary ballot, too, which will be hilarious—or maybe not. As Miller points out, the polling for Democrats is better for independence than you might expect: Texit support in that SurveyUSA poll tilted Republican, but it was 77 percent for Republicans and 54 percent for Democrats.

But even for Miller, who is very focused on his issue, Texit is a kind of capacious vessel into which fortified versions of standard right-wing complaints are poured and mixed up with a witches’ brew of kookery: eye of newt and toe of Klaus Schwab. (George Soros gets some boos, but repeated references to Schwab, founder of the World Economic Forum, draw actual hisses.) Asked about the issues that drive him, Miller responds with familiar Republican stuff: debt and deficits, the border, inflation—with the additional factor that he believes the federal government to be unreformable and irretrievably corrupt. You know: The United States must be destroyed to save it, to save constitutional government and liberty and our culture, the great fruits of which are … judging by the room, diabetes, despair, and some not-super-great singer-songwriter stuff from a guy who sounds like Lou Reed if Lou Reed grew up in the suburbs of Houston. 

I want to like these people, mostly. Sure, a few of them are grifters and con artists, and some of them are hate-addled weirdos who shout “Nooooooo!” when someone expresses goodwill toward the Jews. It is striking, though, what a parallel reality they live in: There’s a guy who asks me about Joe Biden’s executive order mandating the replacement of the U.S. dollar with a digital cryptocurrency, and he seems genuinely puzzled when I tell him that my best guess (accurate, as it turns out) is that this did not, in fact, happen. I ask him if he read about that on Facebook, which of course he did. Another fellow, one of those Californians, tells me that 2020 was his breaking point. I ask, “Why 2020? Was it the election, or what?” He looks at me like I’m stupid. “Were you in the United States in 2020?” he asks. “Did you not notice that we turned into a Gestapo state?” It never seems to occur to any of these folks that an actual Gestapo state would not let them use the Waco Convention Center to stage a conference to denounce the Gestapo state and plot their escape from it, and that in an actual Gestapo state they wouldn’t be congregating in the Hilton next door but in a concentration camp. I have seen our government behave very badly—right here in Waco, in fact, some years ago!—and, if you ask me when I’m in a mood, I’ll tell you that some of the facts about which there is no real dispute are more worrisome to me than the fictions that command the attention of these poor, desperate, confused, angry, and anxious people trying to convince themselves that they are the spiritual heirs of Davy Crockett and Jim Bowie. These are, after all, my people: Texans. Americans. Fallen children of Adam in need of a Redeemer.

But I also want to fight them. Their politics are genuinely stupid and toxic and, at times, positively wicked. The question of secession was settled at Gettysburg by the blood of better men than any of these. And, as somebody who didn’t just move here from California, I am not ready to concede Texas to these kooks. Stephen F. Austin and Juan Seguín and William B. Travis and San Jacinto and bluebonnets do not belong to these crackpots, and, if anything, there are a good many figures from the other side of the political aisle—Ann Richards, Lyndon Johnson, Natalie Maines, Willie Nelson, etc.—who have a better claim on representing what Texas is really about than the Church of Crypto Jesus guy does. Graham Moore stood in front of a crowd of self-proclaimed Texians and Texicans and scoffed at the notion that the Civil War was about slavery, a position that would have been recognized for the complete and utter bulls—t it is by Sam Houston, among others. These guys are like the right-wing populists who call themselves “patriots” but hate everything about their country and hate most of the people who live there. They want to live in a Texas that exists only in their minds—one that is nothing like what the actual Republic of Texas was like for all nine years of its brief existence and nothing like the Texas that actually exists here in the real world today, the one where Beto O’Rourke got 48.3 percent of the vote against Ted Cruz in 2018. The one where Austin is, where San Antonio and Dallas are. 

Back in the exhibit hall, some guys are distributing pamphlets by the late libertarian economist Murray Rothbard, who once dreamt of forging a hippie-redneck alliance—the post-Vietnam Left marching with the David Duke populists—joining the extremes against the hated mainstream. I am reminded of what one prominent son of a Texas oilman (and grandson of the sheriff of Duval County), William F. Buckley Jr., wrote in his obituary of Rothbard: “Yes, Murray Rothbard believed in freedom, and yes, David Koresh believed in God.” These guys believe in Texas and liberty and a God who pretty much agrees with them on all the big issues, a God who sometimes tells them where to find a divine message hidden in a Xanax bottle. 

Waco, ye gods. Where else?

A note from the author: This being a long field report, the usual Wanderland features (Economics for English Majors, Words about Words, etc.) are on hold until we return to our usual format next week.

Kevin D. Williamson is national correspondent at The Dispatch and is based in Virginia. Prior to joining the company in 2022, he spent 15 years as a writer and editor at National Review, worked as the theater critic at the New Criterion, and had a long career in local newspapers. He is also a writer in residence at the Competitive Enterprise Institute. When Kevin is not reporting on the world outside Washington for his Wanderland newsletter, you can find him at the rifle range or reading a book about literally almost anything other than politics.