It’s a wide-open secret that the American South has long been a haven for right-wing political nut-baggery. There are a multitude of reasons for this, many of which I discussed in a piece for Salon. But over the last few decades, a particular style of extreme, far-right, anti-government, gun-humping circle-jerkitude has found fertile ground in the good ole’ U.S. of A’s scattered rural hamlets. In America’s amber-waves-of-grain littered Heartland — much of which is still in the South — far-right populist movements have multiplied like deranged Donald Trump statements. They don’t share much by way of organization, coherent goals, or even basic levels of sanity, but they’re all united in their core belief that the federal government is the root of all evil in the modern world and is hell-bent on snuffing out every backwoods, freedom-firing, bible-believing Bubba from Mayberry to Hooterville.
In the spring of 2015, America’s rural anti-government movement soiled its collective overalls over Operation Jade Helm 15, a coordinated, special operations U.S. military training exercise set in seven states, including Deep South stalwarts like Mississippi, Louisiana, and Texas. Immediately after the army announced the exercise, the internet’s seemingly inexhaustible population of boneheaded conspiracy dingbats decried Jade Helm as a covert attempt by the army to invade and conquer vast parts of the United States that were already part of the United States.
The various conspiracy theories about Jade Helm read like they came straight out of a wingnut Wizard of Oz: the government was going to murder “free-thinking” U.S. citizens; ice cream trucks would serve as refrigerated morgues to cold-store recently whacked, anti-government dissenters; closed Walmarts would be converted into headquarters for invading Chinese troops, and Vladimir Putin would, for some reason, conquer rural America for the Ruskies.
Jade Helm began in July, and so far none of the above predictions have come to pass, but this didn’t stop some dedicated rural freedom-fighters in Mississippi and North Carolina from taking it upon themselves to foil the coming of the New World Order. In the span of two days, two men fired gunshots from a pickup truck (of course) into Camp Shelby in Hattiesburg, Mississippi. The camp is serving as a Jade Helm training site. Police detained at least one feller in connection with the shootings.
Meanwhile, in rural North Carolina, the Feds busted a covert plot hatched by three paradigms of American salt-of-the-earth virtue who planned to lure government forces into a trap and unload on them with the kind of stockpiled arsenal that only the United States is crazy enough to designate as legal. Walter Eugene Litteral, Christopher James Barker, and Christopher Todd Campbell claimed that their plot was an attempt to fight the tyranny of Jade Helm 15. Two of these bozos told an FBI informant that “the federal government intended to use the armed forces to impose martial law in the United States,” and that they would “resist with violent force.” Unsubstantiated reports also allege that Bigfoot was attached to the plot as the men’s designated forest scout.
These types of right-wing, anti-government freakouts proliferate in America’s rural Heartland. Historically, rural areas inside and outside of the South have been deeply suspicious of perceived outside power sources exercising control over the individual freedoms of farmers and other rural residents.
Among the most famous of American rural revolts was the Whiskey Rebellion of 1791-94. In March of 1791, on the suggestion of Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton and President George Washington, the federal government instituted a Whiskey Tax in an effort to raise revenue to pay down the national debt (you know, the same debt that modern rural wingnuts constantly decry). The Whiskey Tax raised the ire of backwoods farmers who lived west of the Appalachians and often relied on spirits to supplement their income. After several years of public protest, outrage over the Whiskey Tax turned into outright revolt in 1784 when a bunch of pissed-off western Pennsylvania farmers launched an armed rebellion against tax collectors and other federal representatives. President Washington, fearing domestic insurrection, eventually used military force to quash the farmer’s revolt, but the rebellion still serves as a template for the kind of violent, anti-federal government sentiment that still drives contemporary militia nuts and far-right populists.
As the recent incidents in Mississippi and North Carolina demonstrate, the South in particular is a fertile breeding-ground for anti-government loony toons. This stems, in part, from the fact that the South is still the most rural region of America. But it’s also no coincidence that far-right views proliferate in a part of the country where conservative politics — fueled by a long-festering suspicion of meddling outsiders — have long dominated the regional culture. The idea that the federal government represents the ultimate nefarious outsider dates back at least to the antebellum and the Civil War eras, when southern slaveholders vilified abolitionists and other Federally backed buttinskies who threatened the South’s slave property.
In the 21st century, however, powerful economic, political, and cultural forces have coalesced to keep the flames of anti-government extremism burning plenty hot in Dixie’s rural areas. The internet, in turn, soaks up these forces and acts like a dank, cultural compost pile, where reactionary ideologies and conspiracy theories sprout like so many right-wing toadstools.
Chief amongst the forces that fuel rural, anti-government rage are the economic and political changes wrought by globalization and neoliberalism, which have come to define the late 20th and early 21st centuries. As sociologists Elizabeth Ransom, Conner Bailey, and Leif Jensen write, globalization and neoliberalism have accelerated the deregulation of financial markets and the consolidation of vast corporate power. The result has been “the rapid decline in rural and urban manufacturing employment over the past two decades” that has “created increased inequalities in society.”* Moreover, rural America, especially the South, has been hit hard by the growth of the urban world at the rural world’s expense. “Because human populations in North America and most other parts of the world increasingly live in large urban settings, rural issues and concerns are marginalized in social and political discussions,” they write.*
The rise of the urban world has left rural America with a declining standard of living characterized by under-employment, cultural anomie, a blood-thirsty, anti worker/anti-Union corporatist culture, the destruction of once tight-knit communities through population loss and “brain drain,” and conservative ideologies that identify the liberal-infiltrated federal government and its nefarious, international allies as the sole source all of rural America’s ills. In this type of reactionary maelstrom, it’s no wonder that something like Operation Jade Helm 15 would stoke conspiracy theorists’ paranoid fires. Could there be a more malevolent symbol of the changing modern world than an interventionist U.S. military power whose Commander-in-Chief is a cosmopolitan, Muslim-Communist black guy with a funny foreign name and a (probably) faked birth certificate?
Every day, the world seems to change for the worse, and America’s largely white, rural population is feeling left behind. To be fair, they’re right to be angry at the destruction that neoliberalism and globalization have wrought on their lives. The problem however, is that it’s easy to identify the federal government and “foreign” influences as the source of these changes. Indeed, rural rage has galloped alongside the forces of neoliberalism and globalization for several decades now, but far-right subcultures’ fixation on the federal government continues to let private corporate power structures off the hook.
As Lane Crothers documents in his book Rage on the Right, corporate power has gone hand-in-glove with suburbanization and urbanization to devastate rural America. “The late 1980s and early 1990s were a time of remarkable economic and social transition in the United States,” Crothers writes, “globalization and economies of scale increasingly led to the transformation of the American farming industry from family to corporate-owned enterprises.” As family farmers looked for a culprit to explain their loss of status and income, militias and other anti-government groups provided answers: it was blacks, it was Mexicans, it was Jews, it was liberals, it was the New World Order — and the federal government sanctioned them all. The decline of the family farm coincided with the increased political power of the growing suburbs and cities at rural America’s expense, and far-right extremist movements multiplied alongside these social and economic changes.*
The men who shot at U.S. military personnel in Mississippi, and the would-be North Carolina revolutionaries who stockpiled an arsenal to fight the coming New World Order all have a vague sense that forces beyond their control are upending the world as they know it. The problem, however, is that these guys have been marinating in a right-wing cultural sauce that identifies the federal government and its seemingly endless list of domestic and international toadies as the prime source of rural American malaise.
As long as the roots of American rural rage continue to be watered with scapegoatism, incidents like the reactions to Jade Helm will continue to soil rural American culture. This is a damn shame, because rural America deserves better. The blind, reactionary violence of ill-informed hayseeds makes for punchy headlines and deserves close scrutiny, but these outbursts mask a deeper, darker cultural decay that’s eating away at the heart of America’s Heartland. It’s enough to make you rage.
* See Elizabeth Ransom, Conner Bailey, and Leif Jensen, eds., Rural America in a Globalizing World: Problems and Prospects for the 2010’s (Morgantown: West Virginia University Press, 2014), xv, xxviii.
* See Lane Crothers, Rage on the Right: The American Militia Movement from Ruby Ridge to Homeland Security (New York: Rowman & Littlefield, 2003), 4-5.