Obama's Invasion of Texas: When Partisanship Becomes an Extreme Sport

U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz (L) and Governor Greg Abbott hold a joint press conference February 18, 2015 in Austin, Texas. Cruz questioned the Pentagon over a military training exercise that some conspiracy theorists feared was a sign that the federal government was preparing a military takeover of Texas. Erich Schlegel/Getty

There was a time in modern history when the GOP was a party of ideas—agree with them or not, its leaders were dominated by smart people who assembled ideologically consistent policies based on facts, statistics and history. But, as Bruce Bartlett, a former senior policy analyst for Ronald Reagan, recently said, "Now it's the party of crazy people, ignorant Tea Party people—people who know nothing and are proud of it."

Look at the lunacies from the last few years: President Barack Obama is a Muslim; Obama was taught to hate America by his Christian minister (don't try to reconcile those first two); Obama engineered Hurricane Sandy with a secret military radio-wave system; Obama ordered $1 billion worth of coffins for federal detention camps; Obama faked the assassination of Osama bin Laden; the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School was a "false flag" operation so Obama could take Americans' guns; Obama told Nigeria that the United States wouldn't help it fight terrorists until its government recognized gay marriage; Obama is arranging a deal with Iran and ISIS for them to launch a nuclear attack on America so he can obtain a third term... The list of the irrational and illogical just grows and grows.

But the real danger is not that swaths of Republican voters babble nonsense that would make an eighth-grader roll his eyes. Instead, it is that policy discussions frequently jump the track when GOP leaders treat the tinfoil hatters' latest obsession as worth anything other than derision. Whether these officials are demagogues seeking votes from the unhinged or—the more frightening possibility—believers of this toxic flapdoodle, the result is the same: Cradling the crazy has made many GOP politicians midwives to madness.

The latest conspiracy theory emerged in the past few weeks, and it is so bizarre that it finally forced some Republican officials to proclaim that the party's paranoia must end.

Here it is: The federal government is preparing a military takeover of Texas using secret tunnels built under closed Wal-Mart stores so troops can move silently about the state. Take a moment to digest that. The Obama administration is sending American forces into Texas to...ummm...I dunno. Take control of NASA? (Nah, feds own that.) Seize Lackland Air Force Base or Fort Hood or Naval Air Station Kingsville? (No, they run those too, along with 28 other military installations in the state.) Overthrow the Legislature and the governor? (That would require dismantling Congress and seizing the Supreme Court, since a Texas takeover would be unconstitutional.) Wait! That's it! Obama is going to seize control of Texas for some incomprehensible reason and then launch national martial law!

Like many modern conspiracy theories, this one started on the outer fringes of the Internet, where a small truth was transmogrified into a nightmare. The real part: The military is running a multistate training exercise, from July 15 through September 15, called Jade Helm 15. The training will primarily take place in Texas because the state has lots of undeveloped land as well as access to towns. The states selected were chosen because their terrain is similar to what soldiers might face overseas.

The nutso websites seized on a public document about the exercise (because, of course, all massive conspiracies are written up in public documents) and went nutso-er after seeing that the states where the military would be pretending to confront enemies were labeled as enemy territory. So, they decided, this plan was a cover for a dastardly plot to kidnap and kill Americans on the government's top-secret "red list" of conservatives targeted for assassination, impose martial law, seize Americans' guns and imprison political dissidents. And, of course, occupy Wal-Marts.

No rational person could take any of this seriously, right? So ha-ha-ha! Let's join our elected representatives in a good laugh about the loony.

Except...Texas Governor Greg Abbott asked the Texas State Guard to keep an eye out for this possible takeover. Senator Ted Cruz, a GOP presidential candidate who in this one act showed himself unfit for the White House, questioned the Pentagon about it—and then said citizens had reason to distrust the government. Another presidential candidate and senator, Rand Paul, assured supporters he will look into the matter. Reporters asked the White House and defense secretary about it. (Journalists should get serious about their jobs or resign.) U.S. Representative Louie Gohmert (R-Texas) proclaimed that the military has to prove it is not "practicing war against its own states," and agreed there was reason to be suspicious. Other Republican politicians have responded with variations of "Well, I can see why people would want to question the civilian leadership."

In other words, this isn't funny. When politicians are stupid or conniving or cowardly enough to leave large parts of the populace quaking in fear over ideas that make the United States a global laughingstock, they have surrendered any right to be treated with respect. So it's time for all rational people—Republicans, Democrats, Independents—to get in the faces of demagogues like Cruz and Abbott and scream, "Enough!"

While it has grown far worse in recent years, kowtowing to craziness started decades ago, during the presidency of Bill Clinton. For some reason, at that point the Republicans dropped the idea of debating policy differences and instead veered into the world of purely personal attacks on political opponents based on conspiracy theories. Did you know Clinton murdered up to 50 people? Including teenagers he arranged to have hit by a train? That he aided Latin American drug cartels? That he murdered the White House deputy counsel at a love nest the lawyer shared with first lady Hillary Clinton, and then covered it up by making it seem as if it were a suicide? That, to hide other crimes, he had someone shoot Commerce Secretary Ron Brown in the head and then crashed a plane loaded with him and 33 other people in Croatia? (Seems like shooting Brown in the head would be enough to kill him, but I guess you can't be too careful.)

The Clinton presidency was subjected to a relentless series of investigations by a Republican Congress and independent counsels into such nonsense. Of course, finally something emerged: Clinton had lied about engaging in an extramarital sexual liaison with an intern rather than admitting to cheating on his wife. The GOP that controlled the House impeached him for it, knowing full well that, despite all the attention and time spent on the case, Clinton would never be removed from office by a Democratic Senate.

At the same time, a group called Al-Qaeda that was unknown to most Americans blew up U.S. embassies in East Africa; Clinton responded with a weak attempt to take out its leader, Osama bin Laden. Republicans condemned him—not for failing to hit back harder but for trying to move attention away from the all-important "sex with an intern" case. And when Saddam Hussein threw weapons inspectors out of Iraq in 1998, Clinton responded by shooting missiles at him. Once again, Republicans accused the president of trying to change the subject from the all-important congressional investigation of illicit oral sex. Government, in other words, stopped functioning as events festered that would lead to two wars within three years, killing thousands of American troops.

The government of the United States is not a trifle. It is not some shiny object to dangle in front of the infantile in hopes of gaining power. But government has been allowed to become a joke as Republican politicians not only treat lunacy imagined by their supporters with respect but also generate wacky falsehoods on their own.

For example, because of politician-generated conspiracy theories, untold numbers of elderly people in the past few years have unnecessarily died in unspeakable circumstances, with intubation tubes slid down their throats as their ribs are broken during pointless CPRs. These senior citizens might have chosen otherwise if Medicare paid for end-of-life counseling; with that, doctors could spend the enormous amounts of time required to teach the aged about the options available for them as they near death, then provide instructions on how to prepare the proper forms to make sure they are treated the way they wish during their final days or hours.

But Sarah Palin and a bunch of other Republicans—either out of ignorance or evil—declared this completely benign idea supported by geriatricians as being about the creation of "death panels." Why? Because it was a feature of Obamacare. Palin and other like-minded mindless politicians proclaimed that end-of-life counseling was a plot for government-planned murder, where bureaucrats would decide who lived or died. The idea was ludicrous on its face, but no matter; the conspiracy-obsessed lapped it up. This fantasy vomited up by a bunch of conniving politicians in their rabid attempt to kill Obamacare instead just killed end-of-life counseling. And, as a result, I watched a World War II veteran approach death with a series of horrors inflicted on him—no one told him how to properly fill out the forms required to avoid the intubation and violent resuscitations he didn't want. No doubt, Palin and her compatriots are responsible for that gruesome passing of an American hero.

So, Republicans: You want to attack Obama's policies? Go for it, but base the denunciations on realities, not boogeyman conspiracy theories. Go back to being a party of ideas. Stop sucking up to lunatics; when they scream about things like martial law and birth certificates and detention camps and false flag operations and secret tunnels under Wal-Mart, assuage their fears by telling them that they're wrong. Don't deny it with winks and nods that suggest, well, maybe they're right. Stop the craziness. You have hurt enough people by indulging it.

And if you don't have the courage or the decency to see the damage caused by this kind of psychotic partisanship, then I hope the next person who suffers the consequences of GOP conspiracy theories isn't a stranger. Instead, I hope it is you or one of your loved ones. Maybe then you will learn that governance is not a game where the irrational and the paranoid dictate the rules.