This week’s entry: Jade Helm 15 conspiracy
What it’s about: Usually when Alex Jones and Russian trolls promote a conspiracy theory, it’s something sane and plausible-sounding, like Hillary Clinton running a child slavery ring on the moon. But in 2015, the conspiracy-minded faction of the far right was whipped up into a frenzy because the sinister U.S. government was going to invade… the United States. Specifically, the Lone Star State. And so Jade Helm 15, a routine military training exercise, moved to the center of what The New York Times called, “the outer edges of political paranoia.”
Biggest controversy: Jade Helm probably wouldn’t have sparked conspiracy theories if not for the map. Although the exercise itself was limited to eastern Texas, Army Special Operations Command used a map of the entire Southwest, color-coded with Texas and Utah as “hostile”; California, Colorado, and Nevada as “permissive”; New Mexico as “leaning hostile”; and Arizona “leaning friendly,” with an unexplained “insurgent pocket” on the California-Mexico border (can’t trust those San Diegans!) That these designations lined up roughly with the electoral map probably didn’t help quell theories, which included the following: normalizing military forces in civilian areas to prepare for a domestic invasion of Texas; removing “key political figures” who might object to martial law; stockpiling supplies in Walmarts to set the stage for a Chinese invasion (carried out, for reasons unexplained, with the help of the U.S. military); forcing “patriots” into internment camps; and of course, the Democrats taking everyone’s guns away, “like they never have, but always might,” as Amy Schumer once put it.
Strangest fact: One of the strangest theories involved a meteor strike. Jade Helm was scheduled to end on September 15, 2015, and as every good conspiracy theorist knew, September of ’15 was when an asteroid was going to hit and cause widespread devastation. The “proof” of this was a statement made the previous year by the French foreign minister that we had “500 days to avoid climate chaos.” And by “climate chaos,” he clearly wasn’t talking about unprecedented levels of CO2 in the atmosphere, he was talking about an asteroid hitting. You know, climate stuff. NASA denied knowing of any asteroid, comet, or other heavenly body on a collision course with Earth, which of course was taken as proof that it had been tracking the object for years. Supposedly, Jade Helm 15 was practice for the martial law that would be imposed when the meteor strike caused chaos. As Wikipedia drily notes, “the apocalypse failed to happen.”
Thing we were happiest to learn: Besides that the apocalypse didn’t happen? As usual, Snopes was there to debunk the nonsense, but one wonders whether it’s even worth the effort to try and convince someone that, no, the government isn’t taking over Walmart locations near you as “guerrilla-warfare staging areas and FEMA processing camps.” Despite the best efforts of people trying to get the facts out there, 32% of registered Republicans in Texas believed the government was planning on invading their home state, and both Governor Greg Abbott and Senator Ted Cruz publicly expressed concern. (The Dallas Morning News’ Jacquielynn Floyd criticized Abbott for giving into “this nut-studded fruitcake of fear.”) President Obama, for his part, told GQ that Jade Helm was the “most entertaining conspiracy theory” of his presidency.
Thing we were unhappiest to learn: The Jade Helm conspiracy theories may have been a dry run for Putin interfering in our elections. The FBI first started to notice Russians spreading misinformation on social media in 2014, and by the following year they were out in full force fueling Jade Helm hysteria. By 2017, even Facebook—not known for its tough stances on politically motivated lies—shut down a page that had been heavily involved in Jade Helm conspiracies called “Heart of Texas” that was in fact based in Russia.
Best link to elsewhere on Wikipedia: Jade Helm was far from the only large-scale military exercise to attract conspiracy nuts. In 2017, Operation Gotham Shield simulated a nuclear attack on the Lincoln Tunnel, as FEMA, the FBI, the New Jersey National Guard, and several state and local agencies practiced a response for such a catastrophic attack. The army and New York National Guard took part in a simultaneous exercise, Ardent Sentry 17, which practiced rolling out military assistance to the civilian response to an attack, while Canada also simulated nuclear attacks against Ottowa and Halifax in the wonderfully-named Staunch Maple 17. The conspiracy-minded naturally assumed this was cover for an actual nuclear attack on New York by the United States, which obviously has a vested interested in destroying its own financial center. British tabloid The Daily Express even got in on the act, promising that “a major incident [would] happen to US President Donald Trump” the day Gotham Shield began. We’re pretty sure he spent that day golfing.
Further down the Wormhole: The Daily Show weighed in on Jade Helm 15, pointing out that similar military exercises happened when Rick Perry was governor, and no one lost their minds back then. Perry was both Abbott’s predecessor as Texas governor, and until recently, a secretary of energy who famously didn’t know what the U.S. Department Of Energy did when he took the job. He also once said, in the same breath, that government shouldn’t “espouse a specific faith” while also chastising atheists’ supposed attempts to “sanitize our civil dialogue of religious references.”
Atheism is the lack of belief in any higher power or adherence to any religion. While most atheists are content to not believe in things and not go to meetings about those things, some are politically active in attacking what they see as hypocrisy or oppression among the religious. One such politically active atheist is Jennifer McCreight, who organized an event known as Boobquake to protest Iranian Islamic cleric Hojatoleslam Kazem Seddiqi’s bizarre insistence that women dressing immodestly was causing earthquakes. Boobquake is just one of the bizarre 2010 controversies on Wikipedia’s list, which is mercifully light on politics and heavy on weirdness. We’ll run down the list next time as part of The A.V. Club’s weeks-long farewell to this shitshow of a decade.