Texas secessionists feel more emboldened than ever

Former state Rep. Kyle Biedermann, R-Fredericksburg, and current Legislative Advisor for the Texas Nationalist Movement's Advisory Board, speaks during the Saturday opening event at TEXIT in Waco, on Nov. 11, 2023. (Evan L'Roy For The Texas Tribune, Evan L'Roy For The Texas Tribune)

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WACO — Standing in front of a massive state flag on Saturday, Claver Kamau-Imani outlined his utopian vision of a Nation of Texas that he believes is just on the horizon.

No taxes or Faucis, no speed zones or toll roads. No liberals, no gun laws. No windmills, no poor people. A separate currency, stock market and gold depository. “Complete control of our own immigration policy.” World-class college football, a farewell to regulators. And unthinkable, unimaginable wealth.

“We are going to be so rich,” he chanted. “We’re gonna be rich. We are gonna be rich. We. Are. Going. To Be. Rich! … As soon as we declare independence, we're going to be wealthy. I personally believe that our personal GDP will double in five to seven years.”

“The independence of Texas is good for humanity as a whole,” he added to cheers.

Kamau-Imani, a Houston-based preacher, was among 100 or so people who spent the weekend at the Waco Convention Center for the first conference of the Texas Nationalist Movement, which since 2005 has advocated for the Lone Star State to break away from the United States — a “TEXIT,” as they call it.

Supporters of the movement said they are more energized and optimistic than ever about the prospect of an independent Texas, and pointed to appearances or support from current and former lawmakers — including state Sen. Bob Hall, R-Edgewood, who spoke at the event — as evidence that their movement is far from fringe. The get-together also came as TEXIT supporters celebrated what they believe is crucial momentum: Days before the meeting, the Texas Nationalist Movement announced that it was more than halfway to the roughly 100,000 signatures needed to put a non-binding secession referendum on the Texas Republican primary ballot.

Though they might not cross that threshold by the Dec. 1 deadline, TEXIT supporters nonetheless hailed it as a clear sign of progress.

“We’re getting there,” Kamau-Imani said to cheers from the crowd. “60,000 signatures is nothing to sneeze at. We’re going to get to 100,000. Our vote is going to be on the ballot. And we are going to win!”

The movement for an independent Texas is not new. In the 1990s, a group called the Republic of Texas argued that the state was never legally admitted into the United States and, thus, was still its own nation. After splintering, the movement culminated in 1997 in a weeklong standoff between police and a secessionist leader who had taken a couple hostage in West Texas. The man, Richard McLaren, believed that Texas had been illegally annexed by the federal government. He remains in prison.

Daniel Miller, the President of the Texas Nationalist Movement, speaks to a crowd at TEXITCon in Waco, on Nov. 11, 2023. Miller founded the organization in 2005, and spoke to attendees during an event titled

Daniel Miller, president of the Texas Nationalist Movement, speaks to a crowd at TEXIT in Waco, on Nov. 11, 2023. Miller founded the organization in 2005, and spoke to attendees during an event titled "Why Texas is a Nation." Credit: Evan L'Roy for The Texas Tribune

In 2005, Daniel Miller, a Nederland-based tech consultant and sixth-generation Texan, created the Texas Nationalist Movement, aiming to advance the secessionist cause through more peaceful means. Since then, he has been the face of the movement, arguing that Texas must break free from its stranglehold by the federal government and the “globalists we detest.” Miller argues that Texas is a “stateless nation,” not unlike that of the Kurds, the ethnic group that’s native to modern-day Syria, Turkey and Iraq and has for years sought independent statehood.

He claims that Texas — and Texans — have all the same trappings: Distinct culture (“Texans recognize internally that we are something unique,” he told the crowd on Saturday); distinct history (“‘Come And Take It’ is more than a bumper sticker”); distinct economic and political philosophies (“Leave us alone… and for love of Pete, government, stay out of my pocket”); demarcated territory (Texas-shaped waffle makers, Miller joked); and a claim to self rule, which Miller argues is outlined in Article 1, Section 1 of the Texas Constitution.

“Texas is a nation in every sense of the word,” he said on Saturday.

For years, experts have thrown cold water on Miller’s movement, saying that secession is patently illegal and unconstitutional, and would be economically catastrophic for the United States and Texas alike. (Miller vociferously disagrees, arguing that there is no constitutional ban on secession and that the post-Civil War court case often cited by experts — Texas v. White — is also unclear on the issue).

Walter Buenger, a history professor at the University of Texas at Austin and chief historian at the Texas State Historical Association, said the movement’s modern supporters have sanitized Texas’ brief, nine-year stint as an independent nation from 1836 until 1845, which came after it was initially denied entry to the United States because of its support for slavery.

“It was a disaster,” Buenger said. “They couldn’t get their taxes right. They couldn’t defend themselves. They couldn’t get a rational foreign policy. It was a disaster, and I think it would again be a total disaster.”

The movement, however, continues to gain traction amid growing political polarization and distrust in American institutions. The Texas Nationalist Movement’s Facebook page currently has 210,000 followers, and a long list of Texas GOP figures have either endorsed the movement or flirted with its ideas.

In 2022 alone, three conservative primary challengers to Gov. Greg Abbott – including former state Sen. Don Huffines and former Texas GOP Chair Allen West — agreed to participate in a town hall held by the Texas Nationalist Movement; after failing in 2016 and 2020, delegates at the Republican Party of Texas’ annual convention successfully added a plank to the party platform that called for a voter referendum on secession; and the Texas Nationalist Movement announced that more than 100 officeholders and candidates, including Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller, had signed a pledge to support secession if voters do.

Former State Rep. Kyle Biedermann, R-Fredericksburg, and current Legislative Advisor for the Texas Nationalist Movement's Advisory Board, speaks during the Saturday opening event at TexitCon in Waco, on Nov. 11, 2023. In 2021, during his last term as a State Representative, Biedermann introduced a bill to create a referendum election on whether Texans should create a joint legislative committee “to develop a plan for achieving Texas independence.

In 2021, during his last term as a state representative, Kyle Biedermann introduced a bill to create a referendum election on whether Texans should create a joint legislative committee “to develop a plan for achieving Texas independence." Biedermann recently announced his intention to run against incumbent state Rep. Ellen Troxclair, R-Lakeway, and spoke to the crowd about continuing to push for Texas independence through legislative means. Credit: Evan L'Roy for The Texas Tribune

Last week’s TEXIT conference also featured prominent right-wing groups such as True Texas Project, a prominent mobilization group for right-wing candidates and movements with ties to West Texas oil billionaires. And the event's lineup included Hall, the Edgewood senator, who discussed “securing” Texas’ elections and power grid, and Kyle Biedermann, a former state representative who in 2021 proposed putting a referendum on secession to voters.

Biedermann is running for House District 19 against freshman state Rep. Ellen Troxclair R-Lakeway.

Speaking on Saturday, Biedermann framed Texas independence as part of a divine plan to preserve state culture.

“We’re going out there in the name of God,” he said. “We’re going out there in the name of Texas.”

Hall did not respond to requests for comment. Biederman promised to refile his secession legislation, should he win reelection. In an interview, he also framed the bill not as an outright endorsement of TEXIT, but as a bipartisan discussion of what it would look like to leave the United States altogether.

“This is just a debate, a discussion,” he said. “It is not a vote to leave. ... It’s not political.”

Other Republicans have been critical of the movement, however. After former Royse City Rep. Bryan Slaton, who was expelled from office in May, filed a bill this year to put a secession referendum to voters, Plano Rep. Jeff Leach called the bill “the very definition of hypocritical and seditious treason.” The bill had no traction in the House. But a TEXIT supporter, Morgan McComb, later sued Leach for defamation over the comments. The suit was dismissed in August and, last week, Leach requested in a motion that McComb cover $90,000 in attorneys fees.

An uphill climb

In the hallway and scattered meeting rooms adjacent to where Biedermann spoke, attendees were similarly high on the prospects for an independent Texas. For three days, they attended panels on “affirming Texas culture” through strong borders and “Texas Token” cryptocurrency. They intently listened to speeches on the grave threat of socialism and “three-letter agencies” like the FBI and ATF.

They recoiled at warnings from speakers about the “climate cult coming for your car” and “kill switches” that would allow the government to control their vehicles at will. They cheered as an attorney who was outside the Jan. 6, 2021 U.S. Capitol insurrection regaled them with stories of his legal battles against online “censorship,” Facebook and TEXIT critics like Leach. And they took notes as ultraconservative activists explained how to remove books from public libraries or oust Democrats from office via obscure legal challenges.

Packed in a small exhibit hall between amateur knife traders, book publishers and essential oil sellers, they commiserated in their intense distrust of government – a sentiment that they said has become more normalized since the COVID-19 pandemic, to the boon of their movement.

“There’s much more excitement now,” Steve Ravet, chair of the Libertarian Party of Hays County said as he manned his booth, passing out treatises on Libertarian economic policies and buttons to “FREE ROSS” Ulbricht, the Austin native who is currently serving a life sentence for running the online black market, Silk Road.

Julie McCarty, the founder of the True Texas Project, speaks to a crowd in front of a slide with images of people criminally charged for their involvement in the Jan. 6 riot, during the Saturday closing event of TEXITCon in Waco, on Nov. 11, 2023.

Julie McCarty, the founder of the True Texas Project, speaks to a crowd in front of a slide with images of people criminally charged for their involvement in the Jan. 6 riot, during the Saturday closing event of TEXIT in Waco, on Nov. 11, 2023. Credit: Evan L'Roy for The Texas Tribune

For years, Ravet has pushed for Texas secession, hitting gun and trade shows to help garner the 100,000 signatures needed to put a referendum to Texas Republican primary voters. Even a few years ago, he said, only about one in five people agreed with the idea — a far cry from today, when he said about four in five people are at least somewhat supportive.

Like others, Ravet chalked the growing support up to a broader discontent with the U.S. government — specifically under President Joe Biden and the socialist, dictatorial regime that many TEXIT supporters claim he presides over.

“They want us to go to them for everything,” Carlton Stovall, a 75-year-old retired corrections officer, said of the government. “They want us dependent on them, to have to go to them and say ‘Mother, may I?’”

Beyond grievances about federal overreach and corporate welfare, though, few attendees offered concrete details on what a new Texas nation would look like, or how it would operate or confront the many intractable economic, cultural or political problems that could follow. The prevailing wisdom was straightforward: Unencumbered by regulations and federal mandates, Texas’ massive economy — particularly its oil and gas sectors – would thrust the state into a utopian state of prosperity, peace and stability.

Experts say it’s a much easier sell in theory than in practice. Roughly one-third of Texas’ annual budget is supported by federal funds, according to the budget and policy nonprofit Every Texan. And, upon breaking from the United States, experts note that Texas would immediately have to supplement key programs like social security.

“To replace the government services we rely on, the nation of Texas would have to find a way to get an additional nine thousand dollars or so per person living here — possibly through income or sales taxes,” Eva DeLuna, a state budget analyst at Every Texan, told Texas Monthly last year. “For a two-person household, that’s eighteen thousand dollars coming out of your pocket.”

In an interview, Miller acknowledged that secession would be a steep hill to climb. But he was firm in his belief that Texans should have the right to make that decision.

At a Veteran’s Day parade that snaked past the TEXIT convention on Saturday, Miller’s fellow Texans were less convinced. While some said they supported the idea in practice – “because America has become a crapfest,” as one man put it — others said they feared the unintended consequences of such a move. Many of those in opposition were veterans who, despite their many disagreements with their neighbors and issues with the government more broadly, resolved to continue fighting for their country rather than simply leave it.

“We used to be a stronger nation, but remaining is a better choice,” said Preston Kirk, a 78-year-old from a military family who also served in the U.S. Army. “There is strength in numbers. If we all hold hands, we will get across the street more safely.”

Others agreed.

“I supported and defended the constitution,” said Miguel Valverge, a 50-year-old who served in numerous military conflicts, including during the Iraq war. “I was born in America. And I will die in America.”

A block away, someone waved the Confederate flag as a truck blasting Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless the U.S.A.” rolled past.

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