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The amazing Jade Helm conspiracy theory, explained

The UEFA Champions League Trophy Tour presented by Heineken at the Alamo on April 15, 2015, in San Antonio, Texas. (Photo by Rick Kern/Getty Images for Heineken)
The UEFA Champions League Trophy Tour presented by Heineken at the Alamo on April 15, 2015, in San Antonio, Texas. (Photo by Rick Kern/Getty Images for Heineken)
Rick Kern/Getty Images

From July 15 to September 15, a large body of American military personnel will sweep through the Southwestern United States to conduct Jade Helm 15, which, depending on whom you ask, is either an unusually large training exercise or a plot to shred the Constitution and place Texas under martial law.

As far as conspiracy theories go, it's not especially juicy. But it's gained legs because Texas Republican politicians have been curiously reluctant to actually say that the US isn't attempting a military takeover of Texas. Instead, Texas Governor Greg Abbott ordered the State Guard* to monitor the exercise, while Ted Cruz reached out to the Pentagon seeking more details. Each politician who goes fuzzy on Jade Helm further fans the flames of in-state paranoia and out-of-state media rubbernecking, driving this sideshow story deeper into the national spotlight.

What is Jade Helm 15?

It sounds like a Magic: The Gathering card or a Dungeons & Dragons artifact, but Jade Helm 15 is what the Defense Department calls a realistic military training (RMT) exercise. According to the Pentagon, American special operations forces will do some make-believe counterinsurgency in the Southwestern United States. The scenario planning includes this slide, which, if you are reading it very literally and completely out of context, could be construed as an effort to label the conservative states of Utah and Texas as hostile territory primed for a military takeover.

Jade Helm 15 (DOD)

Jade Helm 15. (DOD)

Related to some of the conspiracy theorizing is that hostile territory is colored in red and friendly territory is in blue. In military exercises it's convention to label the hostile force the red team; this convention, by coincidence, lines up with the post-2000 convention of labeling Republican-held states as red and Democratic-held ones as blue, and that's helped fan the flames of paranoia about President Obama trying to occupy Texas. Even Chuck Norris is worried.

What are some versions of the conspiracy theories around Jade Helm?

Unfortunately, the nature of conspiracy theories is that they don't always exist in canonical form. The funniest version of the Jade Helm conspiracy comes from the website All News Pipeline, which connected the dots between Jade Helm and the closure of several Texas Walmarts to ask, "Will these massive stores soon be used as 'food distribution centers' and to house the headquarters of invading troops from China, here to disarm Americans one by one as promised by Michelle Obama to the Chinese prior to Obama leaving the White House?"

Ahiza Garcia of TPM obtained an official denial from Walmart that the store closures were related to an imminent military takeover, but of course that's what you would expect them to say.

Alex Jones's Infowars has walked a tight line on the story, eager to attract the attention of the conspiracy-minded with heavy Jade Helm coverage while also being clear to add disclaimers like, "That is not to say that a military takeover is imminent." Rather, Jones's milder version of the theory is that Jade Helm basically is a training exercise, just a training exercise whose purpose is to practice a military takeover of Texas.

How did this become a national news story?

It's basically Texas Governor Greg Abbott's fault. Internet conspiracy theories are fun, but a little commonplace. Things took a turn on April 27 when a crowd of about 150 people turned up to a county commissioners' meeting in Bastrop County, southeast of Austin, full of Jade Helm concerns.

The next day, Governor Abbott sought to put those fears to rest without wanting to sound dismissive of his constituents' anti-Obama paranoia. Consequently, he wrote a letter to the Texas State Guard requesting that they monitor the proceedings, because "it is important that Texans know their safety, constitutional rights, private property rights and civil liberties will not be infringed." This managed to elevate the level of attention on the issue, to validate the conspiracy theorists, and to give bored reporters the opportunity to ask other Texas politicians to weigh in.

That's how we got Senator Ted Cruz asking the Pentagon for reassurances. (The Pentagon's official line is that they are not planning a takeover, but again, that's what you would expect them to say.)

But it took Rep. Louie Gohmert to really kick things up to a level of gross irresponsibility. In a statement on the matter he says he "certainly can understand" the Jade Helm worries, and casts blame for the matter not on conspiracy theorists but on the military and the Obama administration:

Once I observed the map depicting ‘hostile,' ‘permissive,' and ‘uncertain' states and locations, I was rather appalled that the hostile areas amazingly have a Republican majority, ‘cling to their guns and religion,' and believe in the sanctity of the United States Constitution. When the federal government begins, even in practice, games or exercises, to consider any U.S. city or state in 'hostile' control and trying to retake it, the message becomes extremely calloused and suspicious.

Is Gohmert even characterizing the map accurately?

No. It is true that Utah and Texas are Republican-majority areas, but the map also depicts Southern California in red, solidly Republican Arizona in blue, and Democratic-leaning New Mexico in brown ("leaning hostile"). That's because it is not a map of partisan politics in the United States. It is a map of a military training exercise.

What larger point about American politics does this illustrate?

Ezra Klein recently wrote about new political science research into an interesting paradox — Americans are growing less likely to identify as Democrat or Republican, but more likely to exhibit highly partisan voting behavior. The reason, it turns out, is that partisanship is increasingly driven by hatred and fear of the other guy rather than love of your team.

Jade Helm illustrates this in two directions.

On the one hand, the willingness of Texas conservatives to believe that Obama wants to go beyond the whole job-killing tax hike agenda to actually facilitating a Chinese takeover of the US Southwest says a lot about where we are hatred-wise, and what some of us, at least, are willing to believe about the other side.

At the same time, perhaps more telling is the response of elected Texas Republicans who are showing they are aware, on some level, that their own standing in office depends more on their constituents' hatred of the other guys than on affection for themselves. Consequently, while they certainly don't want to embrace wild conspiracy theories, they want to signal solidarity for the over-the-top anti-Obama zeal that gives rise to them.

* Correction: An earlier version of this story said the letter was sent to the Texas National Guard; the Texas State Guard is a different institution.