Remember Jade Helm?
After a summer of heated racial justice protests that drove President Donald Trump to dispatch federal law enforcement officers to liberal cities — and prompted a sitting senator to call for the president to “send in the troops” against the American people — it’s quaint to look back on a crackpot conspiracy theory about former President Barack Obama enacting martial law.
“Jade Helm 15” was a multi-state military training exercise that took place in the summer of 2015 and spawned a constellation of delusions I wrote about as a TPM reporter covering right-wing extremism. The basic theory held that the exercise provided cover for Obama to declare martial law, and there were more outlandish offshoots, including speculation that China would amass troops in shuttered Wal-Mart locations around the U.S.
These ideas were objectively batty and easily mocked. It was a simpler time, when Trump hadn’t yet announced his presidential candidacy and “fake news” wasn’t yet part of our collective lexicon. Given what we know now about how conspiracy theorists and far-right groups manipulate the media and spread disinformation online, the path Jade Helm paranoia traveled was disturbingly straightforward and effective. Conspiracy theories percolated in the right-wing fever swamps of the internet, most notably Alex Jones’ InfoWars. Then politicians “just asking questions” amplified those theories and drew mainstream media attention.
TPM was one of few outlets consistently reporting on the far right in the years before Trump’s election because Josh and the team knew that fringe groups and characters like Jones have more influence on the GOP than the party acknowledges. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) first catapulted Jade Helm into national news when he directed a state-run militia to “monitor” the exercise, writing, “It is important that Texans know their safety, constitutional rights, private property rights and civil liberties will not be infringed.”
Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) added fuel to the fire when he asked the Pentagon for more information, saying, “When you see a federal government that is attacking our free speech rights, our religious liberty rights, our Second Amendment rights. That produces distrust as to government.” These nods to a voter base primed for political conspiracy theories foreshadowed how the Republican Party would construct its own alternate reality under Trump.
There are consequences when a conspiracy theory jumps from fringe blogs to the nightly news, according to a 2017 Data & Society Research Institute report: “Even if the mainstream news was reporting on it in shock or disgust, it still led millions of viewers and readers to be exposed to these ideas.” So the possibility Russian trolls manufactured some of the chatter around Jade Helm, as former CIA director Michael Hayden has asserted, is worth noting. He claimed in a May 2018 interview with MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” that fake social media accounts’ successful promotion of Jade Helm wingnuttery gave Russia the green light for a much larger influence campaign. “At that point, I’m figuring the Russians are saying, ‘We can go big time,’ and at that point I think they made the decision, ‘We’re going to play in the electoral process,’” he said.
Hayden’s bold claim didn’t land with a splash. He didn’t back it up, and in the spring of 2018 there was more pressing news for reporters and readers to digest, including Trump’s separation of migrant families at the border and withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal. But as Casey Michel reported at now-defunct ThinkProgress, there was evidence to support what Hayden said. Several fake Russian Twitter accounts and at least one Facebook account funneled readers to Jade Helm conspiracy sites. The conspiracy theories got substantial play in Russian propaganda outlets as well.
If Jade Helm was a dry run for Russian disinformation in the 2016 campaign, it also heralded acts of violence conspiracy theorists and anti-government extremists carried out in 2020. The 2015 training exercise came and went without incident — almost. Federal agents arrested and charged three North Carolina men with conspiracy after they stockpiled weaponry to combat what they thought was an impending military takeover. Court documents detailed how the men amassed a cache of body armor, rifle ammunition, homemade grenades and pipe bombs ahead of Jade Helm’s July 15 start date. One of the co-conspirators told an FBI tipster that the group’s plan was to set up on a 99-acre plot of land in South Carolina, “booby-trap the camp and draw government’s forces into the camp and kill them.”
There’s an echo of this failed plot in the arrest earlier this year of three Las Vegas men who allegedly sought to start a violent uprising against the government under cover of protests against the police killing of George Floyd. The FBI found booby traps, weapons and explosives while serving search warrants on the men, who authorities say are part of the “Boogaloo” movement. The Boogaloo is meme-speak for a second civil war, and an amalgam of militia and gun rights supporters, white supremacists and anti-government types have been agitating for it since 2019. This year alone, “Boogaloo bois” were charged with murdering local and federal law enforcement officers and conspiring to kidnap Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, a Democrat Trump targeted for her efforts to slow the spread of coronavirus.
Trump put flesh on fears of the government going after its own citizens in July, when federal agents who refused to identify themselves arrested antiracist Portland demonstrators and whisked them away in unmarked vans. The conspiracy-minded shock-jocks who railed against Jade Helm notably did not leap into action against this injustice. We laughed five years ago when Jon Stewart mocked the “Lone Star lunatics” who believed Obama was sending in troops to grab their guns, but there’s nothing funny about seeing a headline reading “What to Do If You’re Kidnapped by the Army While Protesting” in your feed.
Or listening to a Michigan sheriff who is friendly with one of Whitmer’s would-be kidnappers recast that debacle as a justified citizens’ arrest. Right-wing anger and susceptibility to conspiracy theories predates the Trump era, as Jade Helm illustrates, but it’s those elements of the GOP voter base that Trump dialed up from the White House. And those beliefs will remain after he leaves office.