A far-right convoy calling itself “God’s army” rallied in three cities near the southern border last weekend to decry what they called a migrant “invasion” as a result of escalating tensions between Texas Gov. Greg Abbott and the federal government in Eagle Pass, Texas.
The convoy, which was led by organizers known for promoting election denial narratives, QAnon and anti-vaccine conspiracy theories, formed amidst Abbott’s disapproval of President Joe Biden’s handling of the southern border.
“Texas is on the frontlines of this battle for freedom and state’s rights for their constitutional right to close the border if the federal government will not,” Texas congressman Keith Self said at a rally in Quemado, Vice reported.
The convoy that passed through Eagle Pass attracted a blend of Christian nationalists, MAGA influencers, Jan. 6 rioters, QAnon conspiracy theorists and militia-style groups. The participants espoused anti-government conspiracies and dehumanizing language about migrants.
Mark McCloskey, who gained notoriety for brandishing guns at Black Lives Matter protesters in June 2020, addressed the crowd, alleging a conspiracy involving the government and cartels in child trafficking.
“These people are evil, they are pedophiles, they’re monsters, they run our government, they hate us, they think they know better than us,” McCloskey said. “This is all the culmination in their minds of a century-old progress towards a single-world socialist government.”
He claimed that the “forces” that want to destroy “our republic” are “genuinely the forces of evil,” who hate “our republic” and “freedom,” according to Vice.
Sheriff Brad Coe from Kinney County, Texas, who previously characterized the border crossings by migrants, some of whom are seeking asylum from countries afflicted by violence or political and economic instability, as “a flat-out invasion,” also addressed the crowd.
“As Christians, we’re called to speak the truth and that’s something that, if you’re trying to control people, is very dangerous to those in power,” Coe said. “There's a reason why they make fun of calling yourselves God's Army because it’s God’s Army being called to tell the truth. That means that your loyalty is to God, it’s to the Constitution.”
Dehumanizing rhetoric, especially “comparing people to animals and to trash,” are common “extremist tactics,” Libby Hemphill, a professor at the University of Michigan's School of Information and the Institute for Social Research, told Salon. The goal is to make some other group less relatable and seem less valuable so that extremists can justify actions and policies that hurt those groups.
Abbott has intensified border enforcement as part of a deepening conflict with the federal government over control of a section of the Texas-Mexico border in Eagle Pass, a town with approximately 29,000 residents, The Texas Tribute reported. While immigration law enforcement falls under federal jurisdiction, Abbott asserts that the Biden administration's lenient approach to immigration enforcement has compelled the state to take matters into its own hands.
Texas has for months continued to lay razor wire along the Rio Grande to repel asylum seekers from crossing the river. Last month, the Supreme Court sided with the Biden administration in allowing Border Patrol agents to remove the wire put in place by Texas. The ruling neither explicitly provided Border Patrol agents access to the park nor mandated the removal of the concertina wire, leading Abbott to reaffirm his stance.
Abbott last week posted on X that Texas “will not back down from our efforts to secure the border.”
His sentiment echoed previous ominous statements he has made, where he “declared an invasion” and vowed to take “unprecedented action” to halt illegal border crossings. Abbott’s defiance has earned him support from prominent Republican figures including former President Donald Trump, House Speaker Mike Johnson and 25 Republican governors, Mother Jones reported.
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Last month, 25 governors released a joint statement supporting Abbott for "stepping up to protect American citizens from historic levels of illegal immigrants, deadly drugs like fentanyl, and terrorists entering our country".
Half of them even traveled to Shelby Park and praised Abbott for his efforts in building a border wall, using razor wire and floating buoys at the border.
Abbott as well as the other governors supporting his stance, assert that “because the Biden Administration has abdicated its constitutional compact duties to the states, Texas has every legal justification to protect the sovereignty of our states and our nation.”
When people buy into these “dehumanizing narratives, or become immune” to them because they're so common, they stop seeing other people as equally deserving, making it easier to “set up false battles and stoke intergroup violence,” Hemphill said.
“There was a time when most of the violent extremism we saw in the United States was not politically motivated,” said Patrick Riccards, the CEO of Life After Hate — a nonprofit that helps deradicalize people from violent far-right groups and other extremist organizations. “There was still hating all sorts of groups, but it was it was not part of the political infrastructure. That's not true anymore. All of this is intertwined.”
From the very top, there's language and buzzwords that are serving as “rallying cries” to draw individuals, Riccards said.
The “God’s army” movement is a “frightening development” for our country, Riccards explained, adding that “the disorganization had been the one saving grace that we had.”
But now, as extremist groups band together in the United States, they begin to understand the potential power they have as a united front. “It becomes incredibly frightening,” he continued.
“Extremist networks are effectively all feeding off one another and snowballing,” Hemphill said. “They use grievances and othering to set up false ‘us versus them’ battles and make things seem like zero-sum games. These battle narratives rile people up and make them feel part of something.”
Contrary to the rhetoric echoed by some of these groups, local residents of Eagle Pass Border express a starkly different sentiment. They have told reporters that the recent presence of Republican officials and the trucker convoy promoting Abbott's divisive rhetoric have contributed to spreading "hate and dissension" in their community.
“We are constantly being told that we’re being invaded, and that never felt true until today, when the convoy came to town in anticipation of the governors’ event,” Jessie F. Fuentes told WOAI NBC News Channel 4. “This is political theater by outsiders. The reality is that it has brought dangerous, violent groups into our beautiful, peaceful city. Eagle Pass is safer than most cities in America if you look at crime statistics. This is just a fact. We don’t appreciate these staged events that dramatically misrepresent our reality on the border and that invite extremist groups that pose a real danger to people in our community.”
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Much of the rhetoric around issues of immigration at the border is not being used to signal to extremist groups to come defend the border, but is instead being employed to tell individuals who share that ideology that “I believe in you,” Riccards said.
“My greatest fear is that we're going to see some very real, ugly violence,” he explained. “These are individuals that have a specific belief, and they intend to enforce it.”
When it comes to maintaining public safety and addressing “safe paths” out of extremist organizations, Hemphill advised that individuals have to think of extremism as an “epidemic,” not just treat the symptoms like violence.
“Retribution against extremists or debating on their terms will not prevent violence or reduce their effectiveness,” Hemphill said. “People are susceptible to extremism, in part, because of real feelings of isolation, worry, financial strain and disempowerment. We need to recognize that folks are hurting and offer honest counternarratives about shared benefit and common humanity. People need something to be a part of and to feel like they matter; we can all understand that. Addressing the underlying reasons someone felt like extremists were a good fit for them will be more effective than trying to debate or punish people who are already bought in.”
about the Texas border battle