Conspiracy theories that originated in the anti-government extremist right continue to cross over into the political mainstream as elected officials -- including a Republican presidential candidate -- question the Jade Helm 15 military exercise planned for this summer.
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott defended his decision to order the State Guard to monitor the three-month training exercise planned for seven states, saying he was simply addressing the concerns of citizens who fear their constitutional and property rights may be infringed.
"We are playing a pivotal role of government, and that is to provide information to people who have questions," Abbott said. "It's clear that people (who attended an information meeting last week) in Bastrop (County) had questions."
Those questions were based on theories promoted by websites such as Alex Jones’ Infowars and organizations within the right-wing Patriot movement.
The leader of one of those groups, the pro-gun Oath Keepers, told listeners on a “Patriot movement” radio program that the federal government was using Jade Helm 15 to identify possible resistance leaders for a future military takeover.
“Who raises questions?” said Stewart Rhodes, founder of the Oath Keepers. “Who has any serious, meaningful questions about what we’re doing with this exercise? They put their name down. I think they’re figuring out who is loyal and who is not loyal and who is likely to go along, with the town councils and county commissioners as well.”
Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) has asked for and received assurance from the Pentagon that no military action was planned against Americans, but he said he could understand those persistent fears.
“When the federal government has not demonstrated itself to be trustworthy in this administration, the natural consequence is that many citizens don’t trust what it is saying,” the GOP presidential candidate said.
Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY), another Republican presidential candidate, promised a conservative radio host he would examine concerns about Jade Helm 15.
Actor Chuck Norris also lent his support to the conspiracy theorists, whom he compared to the nation’s founding fathers.
“To those who merely think we should check our brains at the door of the White House and trust what the government does, I would reiterate to you the words of one of our government’s primary founders, Benjamin Franklin, who said, ‘Distrust and caution are the parents of security,’” Norris said in an online column.
Walmart issued a statement knocking down rumors that underground tunnels were being built between some of its closed stores to transport troops or political prisoners during the exercise.
"There’s no truth to the rumors," company spokesman Lorenzo Lopez said.
Video clips purportedly showing a military buildup in the rural southwest – including the parking lots of Walmart stores – have been widely shared in recent days on social media, where the conspiracy theories have taken on lives of their own.
Some, such as Rhodes, speculate the military is softening up the nation for martial law, while others believe elite troops will team up with Islamic State militants or maybe Russian or Chinese troops to take control of sparsely populated areas that are already home to dozens of U.S. military bases.
"We have a government that’s made it very clear it considers veterans and gun owners and anybody who’s a constitutionalist to be the future enemy," Rhodes warned.
Abbott, the Republican Texas governor, dismissed criticism by a GOP former state lawmaker who accused him of “pandering to idiots.”
“I frankly think that there was an overreaction to the simple fact that someone has to be in charge of gathering and disseminating information, and we stepped in to play that role, which is a role to be applauded," Abbott said. “What the letter (sent to the State Guard commander) did was quite simple and non-inflammatory, and I think that’s the way it should be construed.”
Watch this video that allegedly shows military vehicles parked behind a Texas Walmart in preparation for Jade Helm 15: