Silvina Salcedo hands me her smartphone and points to a pyramid-shaped diagram titled la elite mundial.
“I know it sounds like conspiracy theories but this is who is in charge,” she says.
The chart contains a who’s who of the global elite. There are the usual suspects—secret societies like the Illuminati and the Freemasons, and famous families like the Rothschilds—but also eyebrow-raisers like the lizard people who Salcedo and others claim are taking over the planet.
“We’re being controlled by corporations,” Salcedo says, scrolling to an image of Google companies, then a flowchart of Facebook subsidiaries, and another linking Kraft, Nestlé, and Fortune 500s. “That’s why I’m here.”
Here is Rudy’s Bar-B-Q in Denton, Texas, a stone’s throw from a spaghetti junction of freeways outside Dallas. Every third Saturday, Rudy’s doubles as a town hall for the Republic of Texas, a sovereign citizen group that’s been around since the mid-1990s and claims to have around 10,000 members. The FBI estimates there are around 300,000 U.S. citizens who claim no allegiance to the elected government in any form—and their numbers are rising.
For some members of the Republic, their goal is to meet and vent at town halls like this one. Others want a full secession. In the meantime, they’re busy figuring out how to disobey the courts, avoid taxes, and generally find ways to circumvent the U.S. government.
Salcedo discovered the Republic just a few months ago after a long soul search. She began to lose hope in the American dream in 2012 when her family restaurant near Sacramento failed. When her father died of Covid-19 just days after getting the jab, she says she gave up on medicine, too. By then she was working at a hospital kitchen, and when she was asked to get vaccinated, she quit.
She started studying alternative medicine and cryptocurrency as well as self-published texts like the Common Law Handbook. Then online channels claiming the government is hiding the truth from its citizens led her to the sovereign citizen movement.
“I had to lose everything to see clearly,” says Salcedo, who’s 46 and divorced.
The Republic of Texas was founded by winemaker Rick McLaren in 1995. Not long after, he took rival members hostage over a leadership dispute and shot it out with the law, and is now serving a 99-year prison sentence. In 1998, another Republic group schemed to kill President Clinton with a cigarette lighter that shot cactus thorns dipped in HIV and rabies. The plan never came to fruition, and the plotters were jailed.
But the vibe at Rudy’s today is more angry PTA than hardcore militant as folks with gray beards and grandma glasses trade concerns about government overreach before breaking for pulled pork. Linda Capuano, the Republic’s local congresswoman who is running the town hall meeting, calls freedom “a mindset change.” She looks like a school principal in a pantsuit and speaks calmly, telling those who are lied to “to do something.”
After a retiree in HOKA sneakers quotes Thomas Paine and another in boots hawks a miracle fertilizer, swallowing some to show how safe it is, Salcedo whispers, “This is great.”
Members of the Republic prefer to be known as “Texians,” an old term for people who lived in Texas before it became part of the U.S. They claim that the state was never legally annexed in 1845, which makes them a legitimate authority exempt from U.S. laws and taxes. They use 1800s-era maps to define their boundaries from Montana to New Mexico, and have established their own parallel government with common law courts that elect sheriffs, congresspeople, senators, and presidents.
The Texians also mint their own silver and gold currency, and sell IDs, license plates, and passports online. If you ask a sovereign, they say their IDs work just like any other identification, on the road or even in the sky. But the TSA—and law enforcement—say otherwise. In March this year, Chase Allan, a 25-year-old sovereign, was pulled over for driving with an invalid license plate that said “American State Citizen”—and was killed by cops when he refused to comply.
You have to live in Texas for six months and sign a form to be a Texian; an official-looking ID costs $35 and is valid for five years. While some Texians celebrate the Fourth of July, others claim July 2 is the real Independence Day, because our first congress voted to separate from England on that date.
“People want answers. And we have them,” Mike Blackwell, 74, the Republic’s vice president, explains in a hotel lobby just a few miles from Rudy’s. “Call me a conspiracy theorist if you want. Lotta conspiracies happen to be true.”
Blackwell used to be a true believer. Growing up in Atascadero, California, he idolized his older brother and followed him into the military after high school at a time when many were burning their draft cards. Later, he joined the Special Forces, running secret missions in Laos and Cambodia to stop Communism.
“At least that’s what they told me,” he says, ominously.
He says he learned how politicians “lie to the people” when his fellow soldiers were left behind enemy lines, in places the government swore we weren’t fighting.
“You might not believe it,” Blackwell drawls, “but the government doesn’t operate according to the law. If they don’t operate according to the law, are they lawful—or are they lawless?”
An easy story to tell about Blackwell and his fellow sovereigns is that they are paranoid and delusional and not that bright. That they are poor, lost souls who stumbled down a QAnon rabbit hole trying to make sense of an increasingly confusing and unfamiliar world.
But the sovereigns are symptomatic of a larger feeling in this country. In 1958, around three-quarters of Americans trusted the federal government to do the right thing. Last year, just 20 percent believed their government “always” acts in their best interests, according to Pew.
If our collective trust in Washington was already plummeting, a pandemic in which truth-tellers were framed as “conspiracy theorists” and experts were revealed to be telling noble lies didn’t help matters. Neither did echo chambers like talk radio, social media, and cable news, where culture warriors pitch grievance and alienation.
On top of this was the decline of truth. We used to take certain truths for granted: news events were more or less whatever we read in the newspaper or watched on TV; math was not racist; and so forth. But for decades, there had been a war on truth—on the idea, or possibility, of certain things being irrefutably, universally the case. We began to hear about all opinions being created equal, and don’t judge me, and how do you know Sandy Hook really happened?
Stripped of truth, we were at sea, vulnerable to the speculations of all species of con and demagoguery—the illiberalisms of the left and right crowding in on what we used to call rational discourse.
Today’s sovereigns are racially diverse and spread out all over the country. There are black sovereigns who call themselves Moorish citizens and claim they’re the real indigenous Americans. Hawaiian sovereigns want to reclaim their ancestral land. In New Hampshire, a political party called the Free State Project has convinced 6,500 libertarians to move to the state, get elected to public office, and dismantle the government from within.
The journalist James Pogue tells me “the quiet alienation” of everyday life is causing everyone to feel that this country is wobbling “like a stack of Jell-O.”
Now living in a remote pocket of Northern California where he’s prepping a book on the state of Jefferson, a secessionist movement eager to break away from the Golden State, he says, “sovereign citizens have helped nurture the secessionist mindset.”
“Removing yourself from this system of control is something that’s bred into American life,” Pogue says. “To me, that’s the sovereign citizen ethos. The kooks are becoming the normies and the normies are becoming the kooks.”
Texian Joshua James Lawrence, 40, used to be a film grip. Now he’s a common law sheriff for the Republic, who describes his fellow Republic members as “patriots.”
“We’re growing dramatically,” he says, adding that conventions and meetings like the one at Rudy’s bring in recruits but most “find us” online.
Lawrence was elected as sheriff, but he doesn’t have a license or act as a vigilante or wear a uniform. His main purpose, he says, is to educate other locals about Texian rules and values, “teaching them their rights.”
For many sovereigns, “their rights” translates as “their money.” A popular Republic idea, called the Redemption Theory, maintains that the U.S. went bankrupt when it ditched the gold standard in 1933, and the government has been using citizens as collateral to cover the national debt ever since. They say a birth certificate or Social Security card registers you as a tradable commodity—and it’s why some sovereigns encourage faking tax returns with huge refund requests. (When Wesley Snipes took a page out of the sovereign playbook in 2006 and told the IRS he was a nonresident alien, it didn’t work.)
Some sovereigns believe they can renounce their U.S. citizenship by presenting a written affidavit to any court, which will then unlock the money the government is secretly keeping from them. Salcedo says a free form on the Republic’s website is all you need. Just hand it to a clerk at a courthouse and the feds will start the process to release your cash, she tells me. “Any courthouse accepts it.”
But she admits that she and her friend Claudia Hernandez, a Dallas-based nurse in her 40s, have been driving around Texas for days and every court has turned them away.
The sovereign movement was founded in the 1970s by William Potter Gale, a white supremacist and Christian Nationalist whose group, Posse Comitatus, believed in common law based on the Bible and refused to pay taxes. Gale was eventually convicted of tax-related crimes and sent to prison, dying there in 1988.
In 1995, Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols became the most notorious sovereigns in history when they tried to spark an anti-government revolt by detonating a fertilizer bomb in Oklahoma City, killing 168 people.
For a while, sovereigns went underground, as the feds became more preoccupied with fighting foreign terrorists after 9/11. But the 2008 economic downturn reenergized the movement, and now interest in sovereign ideas and organizations has skyrocketed. The FBI and Homeland Security call sovereigns one of our biggest domestic threats. In 2016, sovereign rancher Ammon Bundy led an armed occupation of Oregon’s Malheur National Wildlife Refuge that ended in one death.
“They’re outlaws,” says Christine Sarteschi, a professor of social work and criminology at Chatham University. “Sovereigns try every way to skirt laws.”
But many Texians are trying to change the perception they’re armed and dangerous. Sporting a caterpillar mustache and Caterpillar boots, Blackwell says people shouldn’t buy how the press portrays him and his ilk.
“It’s not right that the media labels us as terrorists,” he says. “We’re a peaceful assembly of liberty-loving people.”
Back at Rudy’s, Salcedo says she still plans to renounce her citizenship and cash out. She’s convinced that, one day, she will achieve financial freedom and be able to pursue her dream of opening a convalescent center for sick children in Mexico.
As the meeting wraps, she whips out her phone once again to show me something even more shocking than the pyramid of people who “secretly” run the world. It’s photos of illegal immigrants who can’t get legal IDs and are now getting sovereign IDs.
They’re using them to be part of the system and build credit, she tells me.
“America is a melting pot,” she says, scrolling. “This is the first guy after twenty years of living and working here, he received his identification. He can go to the bank and give it instead of a driver’s license. If you’ve worked in this country for years and paid taxes, but you’re illegal, you’re driving in fear of getting stopped.”
“That’s why we want to help,” adds Hernandez.
“Somebody has to,” replies Salcedo.
She drops her leftovers in the trash, wipes barbecue sauce off her hand, and tells me she’s even willing to go to jail for her beliefs.
“Fear prevents us from doing many things,” she says. “I’m not afraid. When you do something for the right reasons, what have you got to lose?”
CORRECTION: A previous version of this article stated that the Oklahoma bombing happened in 1998. In fact, it happened in 1995.
Adam Popescu is a writer for The Free Press. His last story was about the movement to rename the National Audubon Society.
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