Donald Trump and the FEMA Camps Crowd

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President Barack Obama speaks about the government shutdown at the Federal Emergency Management Agency's National Response Coordination Center in October 2013. Obama reportedly thanked FEMA employees for doing their jobs during the shutdown. Conspiracy theorists have been floating the idea that Obama is in cahoots with FEMA in a plot to detain Americans in camps in 2017. Shawn Thew/Getty

When Donald Trump says he expects this presidential election (the one he looks increasingly likely to lose) will be “rigged,” he’s not just throwing out an empty phrase: The Republican is actually dog-whistling to a deeply paranoid subset of his supporters.

Paranoia is nothing new in American politics, but some in the current paranoiac generation—weaned on The X-Files and distrustful of institutions like the U.S. government (with many having nothing better to do with their gun collections than take aim at the occasional rabbit)—seem to be taking their beliefs to new heights. According to them, President Barack Obama soon will institute martial law and cancel or nullify the election in November, after which his Federal Emergency Management Agency will disarm and herd all the anti-abortion, religious-right, gun-owning, home-schooling folks into secret “FEMA camps” that his administration has spent years preparing.

Obama’s election in 2008 led to an explosion in hate groups spouting such ideas, and as their numbers have swelled some of their beliefs have gone mainstream, stoked by broadcasters like Michael Savage, Alex Jones and Glenn Beck; right-wing filmmakers; and a host of websites featuring screaming headlines such as: “UPDATE: All Armed Americans to Be Detained in FEMA Camps Starting In 2017!??!”

Taking their cue from the popularity of such thinkers and theorists, some American politicians can’t resist adding their official encouragement to the discussion. Among those joining Trump is Texas Governor Greg Abbott, who last year gave credence to the rumor that the Department of Defense was preparing to invade his state during a training exercise called Jade Helm.

It is now possible to meet Americans who have made major life decisions—such as leaving homes and jobs and yanking children out of school—based on the belief that it is only a matter of time before their own government comes to get them. A Florida radio host has been exhorting people to join colonies of conservatives in Central America before the U.S. government rounds them up. At the Republican Convention in Cleveland, I met martial law conspiracy theory believers who were convinced that only Trump stands between them and one of the secret FEMA camps, those with the electronically operated turnstiles that rotate in, not out.

Right-wing anti-government conspiracy simmered down during the George W. Bush years—even though paranoia could have shot up, seeing as the president was the son of a former CIA director. Also, in 2006 W signed into law the John Warner National Defense Authorization Act, which conspiracy theorists now propose Obama will use when he declares a “public emergency” at his own discretion and places federal troops throughout the United States.

As the minutes tick down toward the end of Obama’s presidency, chatter about martial law and the commander in chief’s supposed tyranny ratchets up. It doesn't matter that martial law—replacing civil authority with military authority—has been applied only sparingly in U.S. history. President Abraham Lincoln imposed it during the Civil War; General Andrew Jackson applied it within his encampment in New Orleans during the War of 1812; and local authorities suspended civil law during labor uprisings in 1892, 1914 and 1934. Martial law was also imposed following the San Francisco earthquake in 1906, and after Hurricane Katrina the state of Louisiana imposed a public health emergency that constituted a de facto suspension of civil authority.

But what the paranoiacs envision is something much, much broader, something nationwide—more Germany under Hitler or Cambodia under Pol Pot.

Last summer, Savage, the radio host, started suggesting that Obama would “nullify” the next presidential election. On TV, Beck has devoted airtime to the FEMA camp theory, saying he “wanted to debunk it” but could not. He eventually did debunk it, but only after much criticism. When Beck backed down and finally conceded FEMA wasn’t locking up Americans or planning to do so, according to a right-wing watchdog group, radio host Alex Jones went after him, calling Beck “an operative,” a “sick bastard” and “a piece of crap,” among other things.

Author Jerome Corsi—who launched the infamous “Swift boat” attack on Vietnam veteran John Kerry’s war record, and who promoted theories (repeated by Trump) about Obama’s supposed noncitizenship and birth in Africa—has warned that the Obama administration is preparing a type of detention center that “could be used as concentration camps for political dissidents, such as occurred in Nazi Germany.”  

More obscure purveyors of the FEMA camp and martial law conspiracy theories include the late William Lewis, a filmmaker who produced one of the hit films of the movement, the 90-minute Camp FEMA: American Lockdown, available for viewing on YouTube. Actor Chuck Norris’s son, Mike Norris, who lives in Texas, just released a feature film (written by the owner of the Curves exercise franchise, Texas businessman Gary Heavin) called Amerigeddon, in which the American government initiates a power grid failure in order to impose martial law and seize guns.

Norris now travels with bodyguards after claiming that a mysterious man in a gray suit approached and somehow poisoned him at a screening of his film in Columbus, Ohio, in late June, causing his face to break out in itchy pustules. “He got up close behind me, brushed my neck and said, ‘Interesting movie’ over my shoulder,” Norris told reporters. “By the time I turned around, he was walking away, so I never saw his face. I think, What did this guy look like? And nothing jumps out of me. Just the gray suit, because he was the only one in one.”

For those in the know, no signal is too small to overlook.

A writer at a website called TheLastGreatStand.com who publishes under the nom de guerre “the Voice of Reason” found clues about the coming totalitarianism in a speech Obama gave to FEMA in May. The writer said, “During his speech, Obama didn’t hesitate to mention something anyone who’s been following FEMA for a while must have cringed at hearing. Obama told Americans that now there is ‘a FEMA app’ that can direct you to the nearest ‘FEMA shelter’ in the event of a major emergency. A ‘FEMA Shelter’ is about as much of a ‘shelter’ as Obamacare is ‘affordable.’”

The same website includes posts with headlines such as “FEMA Concentration Camps Disguised as Shopping Malls Being Built Everywhere” and “13 States Obama Is Using for His Nefarious Secret Agenda.”

The signs are everywhere, such people say, if one looks closely enough. A retired Phoenix police officer named Jack McLamb has claimed that the government is placing small colored dots on people’s mailboxes so that when martial law is declared, foreign troops serving the “New World Order” will know how to deal with residents at each address. A blue dot: off to the FEMA camp. Pink: slave labor. Red: shot in the head immediately.

In this mixed-up and mostly white world, no one seems to notice or care that the prisons of America are in fact disproportionately packed with black and brown people. On the contrary, among this crowd it is white people most in danger of being incarcerated—for their conservative beliefs.

Trump has gleefully mainstreamed some of these ideas. He and his black-ops surrogate Roger Stone appear on Jones’s show almost weekly.  The conspiracy site WorldNetDaily (WND) named Trump its “Person of the Year.”

Researcher Brian Tashman, who writes the “Right Wing Watch” column for People for the American Way, says the current conspiracy theories about FEMA camps and martial law “really took off” after Obama’s re-election in 2012, an outcome that “really spooked” conservatives, who had been talking about 2012 as their “last chance.”  

The 2016 election is infused with the same apocalyptic hysteria, which was on full display at the Republican Convention in Cleveland and in Trump’s acceptance speech, in which he painted a dystopian America in need of rescue. Tashman says, “Alex Jones and WND are two of the favorite sites for Donald Trump and his campaign, and we have seen him post messages from WND and Infowars [Jones’s site] throughout his career. When Donald Trump talks about the rigged election, it’s code, not just about the right-wing voter fraud theory of the election—they believe Obama stole his second term—but also the fear that Obama is a tyrant and he’s just waiting to seize permanent power.”

Tashman notes that many of the martial law and FEMA camps conspiracy proponents are pushing their beliefs in sidelong, Trumpian language. They will use the phrases “some people say” or “I’ve heard” or “I’m just asking the questions” or “we are just putting it out there,” and then proceed to lay out the bogus evidence.

Newsweek emailed FEMA to inquire about the FEMA camps rumors. Press Secretary Alexa Lopez replied, “We are currently focusing our efforts on providing assistance to disaster survivors, and the ongoing response and recovery efforts in Louisiana. As to your first question, over the years there have been many myths or rumors surrounding FEMA, and I am glad I have the chance to set the record straight with you. There is absolutely no truth to these rumors—they are nothing more than conspiracy theories.”

But this being the mainstream media and FEMA being FEMA, her denial is unlikely to change any minds. Unless, maybe, Trump tweets it.