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Devon Campbell Newman and David Allen Brutsche are scheduled to appear at a preliminary hearing Sept. 9. Authorities say the two plotted to kidnap a policeman, put him on “trial” and then execute him, all on video, of course.
Newman and Brutsche are part of the Sovereign Citizens movement. Some Sovereign Citizens believe that we get Social Security numbers when we’re born because that’s how a malevolent federal government assigns our lives to foreign investors as collateral. That’s just one of the conspiracy theories that might be held among the estimated 100,000-300,000 Sovereign Citizens in the United States — a nation, by the way, that was taken over by secret forces decades ago, or so many in the movement believe.
The theories are fanciful, often complex and always paranoid. Most Sovereign Citizens refrain from violence — but not all of them, as demonstrated by the foiled plot in Las Vegas and a handful of deadly encounters between Sovereign Citizens and law enforcement.
The temptation is to dismiss them as, yes, perhaps occasionally dangerous crackpots, but crackpots nonetheless, whose connection with mainstream public opinion is limited to making people roll their eyes and say, “Jeepers, what a bunch of weirdos.”
But Sovereign Citizens are more rightly understood as another exhibit in what Richard Hofstadter famously termed “the paranoid style in American politics.”
“The modern right wing,” Hofstader wrote,
… feels dispossessed. America has largely been taken away from them and their kind, though they are determined to try to repossess it and to prevent the final destructive act of subversion, the old American virtues have already been eaten way by cosmopolitans and intellectuals; the old competitive capitalism has been gradually undermined by socialistic and communistic schemers; the old national security and independence have been destroyed by treasonous plots, having as their most powerful agents not merely outsiders and foreigners as of old but major statesmen who are the very centers of American power.
When Hofstadter wrote that half a century ago, his “modern right wing” included John Birchers and other extremists who populated a radical right fringe of America’s political spectrum. But virtually every word of Hofstadter’s analysis of mid-20th century extremists accurately describes the message delivered by, to use but one example, Tea Party darling and Republican presidential aspirant Ted Cruz while courting Iowa Republicans this summer.
The Tea Party embodies contemporary paranoid style. But more disturbing is a historical tendency, especially pronounced in recent years, among ostensibly “mainstream” Republicans to reinforce the paranoia by ingratiating themselves with the “dispossessed.”
Long before he hit his career’s self-destruct button, former Republican Sen. John Ensign perpetuated and exploited fact-free anti-government sentiment for political gain. There are a number of examples but my favorite was during his first successful run for Senate, in 2000, when he told a group of Republicans in Elko that “most of what the United States government does is unconstitutional.”
In fairness, lots of Sovereign Citizens would probably disagree, contending that everything the federal government does is unconstitutional. But when a candidate for U.S. senator declares that most of what the U.S. does is unconstitutional, and wins, it’s easy to see how hostile anti-government conspiracies can take hold.
A paranoid-style poster child, Sharron Angle is also a has-been. So in retrospect, even more troubling than Angle was the cowardly unwillingness of other Nevada Republicans on the ballot in 2010 — Brian Sandoval, Dean Heller, Joe Heck — to denounce the ignorant zealotry, extremist nonsense and racism at the center of Angle’s campaign. Sandoval, Heller and Heck didn’t dare unsettle Angle’s fire-eating supporters.
Speaking of Heck, he was subjected to all manner of paranoid stylings during a town hall meeting with constituents last month. Heck was circumspect, mostly trying to appease the impeachment-demanders and the birthers and the Mexican-haters by reciting legislative gobbledygook and assorted sweet nothings. But one attendee was flabbergasted that Heck would not show proper respect and honor Maricopa County (Arizona) Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s tireless investigation into the authenticity of Barack Obama’s birth certificate. Why doesn’t Heck stand with law enforcement? the man asked.
Heck responded that he does stand with law enforcement, but not necessarily the law enforcement in Maricopa County. So, good for Joe Heck! And even better, if later that evening the Nevada Democratic Party hadn’t circulated a photo of a grinning Heck standing, literally, side-by-side with the sheriff at a 2010 campaign event.
Media coverage of the judicial process awaiting our would-be cop-killing Sovereign Citizens will prompt head-scratching from news consumers asking something along the lines of, “How do these people get these crazy ideas?”
Some of those ideas — for instance, that any official document with your name in all caps is illegitimate so never mind — come from flim-flam artists dressing up their con in techno-legal-sounding gibberish. Fraud is a big part of the Sovereign Citizens movement.
But the central idea underpinning the Sovereign Citizens ideology — that an illegitimate and illegal federal government has hatched a deliberate plot to destroy liberty and all the educated “elites” are in on it — eh, that’s pretty much the Republican Party platform.
HUGH JACKSON co-hosts The Agenda on KSNV Channel 3.