At noon on 8 January, the first day of the 2013 legislative session, around 200 Texans stood stubbornly in the rain on the north steps of the capitol building in Austin. Some carried state flags, others placards bearing messages such as “I want off the sinking ship”. To cries of “Remember the Alamo!” and “Liberty or Death!”, Daniel Miller, the leader of the Texas Nationalist Movement (TNM), stepped forward to speak.
The 39-year-old in the suit and cowboy boots has been the leader of the TNM, which organised the rally, since 2001. His recent book, Line in the Sand, is the movement’s core text. Miller turned and pointed to the figure of Lady Liberty at the summit of the capitol’s domed roof. “You’ll notice,” he joked, “that Liberty has her back turned to the North.”
There has been enthusiasm for the notion of independence at the far fringes of Texan politics for decades, but the re-election of Barack Obama has significantly broadened the TNM’s base. The organisation claims more than a quarter of a million members, and has registered more than three million hits on its website since November. It even formed its own Political Action Committee, or PAC, to back candidates that share its goals.
As the President prepared to deliver the State of the Union address, he will have been aware that some in its second-largest state would rather leave the Union altogether. Last month, the Obama administration rejected a petition calling for the state’s secession from the US. Posted on the White House website in November by a student from Arlington, the petition drew 125,746 signatures in just eight weeks. Similar appeals emerged from all 50 states, but the Texan’s was by far the most-signed. In his response, the director of the White House Office of Public Engagement, Jon Carson, claimed the US Constitution, “enshrined… the right to change our national government through the power of the ballot – a right that generations of Americans have fought to secure for all. But they did not provide a right to walk away from it.”
The petition was rejected, but this week Texas got its first taste of international diplomacy – and its first ally – in the shape of the former Soviet state of Belarus, ruled by brutal dictator Alexander Lukashenko. Apparently fed up with constantly being criticised for abusing human rights, the Belarus Ministry of Foreign Affairs levelled the same accusation at Washington for rejecting Texas’s call. Whether Minsk’s intervention will help the secessionist cause is open to debate.
Texas was briefly a nation, between securing independence from Mexico in 1836 and annexation by the United States in 1845, during which time it had embassies in London and Paris. Alone, the state would boast the world’s 15th-largest economy. At a Tea Party rally in 2009, Governor Rick Perry gave hope to secessionists by suggesting, “When we came into the nation in 1845… we were a stand-alone nation. And one of the deals was, we can leave any time we want. So we’re kind of thinking about that again.” (Last year, Perry’s office informed the Dallas Morning News that the Governor, “believes in the greatness of our Union”.)
One person who could reasonably expect support from the TNM PAC is Larry Kilgore, a 48-year-old telecommunications consultant, who changed his middle name to “SECEDE” in December. Kilgore received 250,000 votes when he contested the Republican Senate primary in 2008, and has announced his intention to run for Perry’s job in 2014. His aim, he told The Independent, is to become Governor and then immediately hold a referendum on independence, before stepping down. “I don’t want people to think I’m just interested in power,” he explained. Kilgore’s reasons for advocating secession are partly economic. He resents paying social security and federal income tax. Also, “We’re not even allowed to execute people who molest children,” he said. “We don’t want the US coming in and saying, ‘You can’t perform this judicial punishment.’”
Soon after the presidential election, Peter Morrison, treasurer of the Hardin County Republican party, wrote in his regular Tea Party newsletter in favour of the state’s “amicable divorce” from the US and from the “maggots” who’d voted for Obama. “When citizens of Czechoslovakia decided to peacefully separate into the Czech Republic and Slovakia,” he explained in an email, “it was not a case of a sore loser, but rather two free groups deciding they wanted to govern themselves independently.”
Morrison believes there is a “serious possibility” of Texas gaining independence in similar fashion during his lifetime. Daniel Miller grew up in White Oak, a town of around 6,000 in northeast Texas. His father was a unionised ironworker, his mother a secretary. When he graduated from high school in 1991, he immediately ran for mayor. He lost, and resolved to give up politics. But three years later, he recalled, an acquaintance, “handed me a copy of the US Constitution and a copy of the Communist manifesto. They said, ‘Read both of them and tell us what you feel like you’re living in right now.’ I saw a lot more of Marx in society than the Constitution. That flipped a switch for me.”
The TNM leadership’s post-secession aims sound reasonable – small government; low taxes; a balanced budget – and their chosen means are peaceful. “Our members must be committed to the peaceful, non-violent approach,” said Miller. “Like the SNP in Scotland, or Gandhi in India. We look at the SNP as a model for modern-day independence.”
But not all their members agree. Alan Daves, 70, an insurance and real estate broker who calls himself “The Texas Mob-Father”, wore a military-style poncho to the rally, to protect himself from the drizzle. “We’re liable to fight the Alamo all over again,” he said. “We’re not interested in legislation; we’re interested in bullets, body-bags and bayonets. If the ‘Gestapo Government’ starts trying to take away our guns, we’re going to have another revolution.”
The TNM also has ideological differences with the other leading independence group: the Republic of Texas, which won’t discuss secession, on the basis that Texas was never “ceded” to the US in the first place. Bob Wilson, 76, is one of eight senators in the Republic’s shadow legislature. Unlike the TNM, he’s unwilling to negotiate with the US or Texan governments. “There’s nothing to negotiate. We’re right; they’re wrong… The Texan state is just a subsidiary of US Incorporated.” Miller, Wilson claimed, “is a profiteer who won’t change a thing.”
If anything, the Republic of Texas is less radical than it used to be: its former leader was involved in a week-long armed stand-off with Texas Rangers in 1997, which left one of its members dead, and a number of others in jail. The group now has its own currency, minted in Dallas, which it claims is accepted by more than 20,000 merchants. Wilson, a mechanical engineer by trade, says he’s designing a seat of government in Waco. “It has become abundantly clear that we’ll be receiving foreign dignitaries,” he said. What Wilson and the TNM share is a conviction that independence is coming, and sooner than anyone else expects.
“The likely scenario is that Obama’s government will collapse sometime in 2013 or 2014,” Wilson claimed. “Then people will look to who’s best equipped to take over.”
Factfile: Texas the country would be...
46th largest in the world by population, with more than 26 million inhabitants
40th largest in the world by area, at 696,000 sq km
15th largest economy in the world, just behind Spain and ahead of Mexico. Its GDP of $1.2trn is 8 per cent of the US total
17th in the world oil production league with two billion barrels per day – putting it ahead of Libya, Qatar and the UK
Texas was once home to the US nuclear assembly line, in Amarillo, and still posseses large stockpiles of weapons-grade plutonium.
The state has its own fighter-jet plant in the shape of Lockheed-Martin, maker of the F-16.
It is also, of course, home to Nasa’s Mission Control in Houston (but not, alas, a rocket-launch site).