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GOP Presidential Candidates Blow Their 'Sister Souljah' Opportunity to Denounce Right-wing Extremism

05/11/2015 03:52 pm ET | Updated May 11, 2016
Justin Sullivan via Getty Images

George W. Bush had one in 1999 when he criticized the fundamentalist right, as personified by Robert Bork. Bill Clinton's in 1992 gave rise to the term itself, after he denounced activist and hip-hop artist Sister Souljah's outrageous remarks about white people. Now we're gearing up for 2016, and the time has come for someone to step out of the clown car that is the Republican presidential field and have his or her own such moment by condemning the off-the-charts extremism represented by those pushing the Jade Helm 15 conspiracy theory.

Apparently, there are some people down in Texas who are very concerned about a set of military exercises called Jade Helm 15. The purpose of the exercises is to maintain troop readiness, but some super-patriots (thank God for Chuck Norris) have ferreted out that they are actually an elaborate cover for the coming implementation of martial law. OK, so we've got some people on the right who see tyranny lurking around every corner. No big surprise there to anyone who's heard of FEMA concentration camps or Agenda 21.

Back to Jade Helm 15. For a sampling of the level of paranoia out there, take a look at this letter from a Texas Ranger (not the baseball-player kind) about these exercises that was sent to Dave Hodges (whose own site offers a veritable cornucopia of right-wing conspiracy theories), host of the The Common Sense Show:

Let me drop a bombshell that I have not seen you address. There are trains moving throughout Texas that have shackles inside some of the cars. I have not personally seen them, but I know personnel that have seen this. This indicates that these trains will be used to transport prisoners of some sort. I know from reading your articles that your default belief will be that these are for American political prisoners and will be transported to FEMA detention camps of some sort. We have been told by Homeland that these trains are slated for transporting captured terrorists, non-domestic. We are not sure we can trust this explanation because Homeland is keeping a lot from us and we are growing increasingly uncomfortable with their presence in Texas.

Map, Jade Helm 15 Military exercises

The question was whether any politician would enable the brewing panic over these exercises to make the jump from the fringes to the mainstream. Enter newly elected Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, who felt it necessary to call out the Texas State Guard to keep an eye on the U.S. military as it carried out its training. "It is important that Texans know their safety, constitutional rights, private property rights and civil liberties will not be infringed upon," Abbott said.

Wait a minute, you might be saying. Wait one darn, cotton-pickin' minute. These people are, well, batshit-crazy. Yet the governor of Texas is going along with them? Yep. And he wasn't the only one. Among presidential candidates, Rick Perry, Rand Paul, and Ted Cruz all commented on Jade Helm 15, and while none was as sickeningly sympathetic to the conspiracy theorists as Abbott, each in his own way sucked up to them. Perry -- even as he gently chided his successor in Austin -- couldn't resist throwing in a dig about our elected "civilian leadership" (that's President Barack Obama he's talking about, for anyone not hearing the dog whistle) being less "trustworthy" than the military. Cruz and Paul, for their parts, said that they would "inquire" and "look at" the exercises, respectively.

What none of them did was call out these extremists -- not to mention Abbott -- for what they truly are. If any of them would like to see how it's done, here are excerpts from a letter to Abbott from former Republican state legislator Todd Smith:

Your letter pandering to idiots ... has left me livid. ... I am horrified that I have to choose between the possibility that my Governor actually believes this stuff and the possibility that my Governor doesn't have the backbone to stand up to those who do. I'm not sure which is worse.

In an interview, Smith further commented:

I have been an eyewitness to the sort of radicalization of Republican primary politics in Texas, but this was just a shocking extension of this fanaticism. I was really shocked to read that a governor was issuing press releases employing the Texas State Guard at taxpayer expense to protect us from the U.S. military, and that he felt like that was either something that was important from a policy perspective or necessary from a political perspective. Either one is unbelievable to me.

Now that's a denunciation. Rand Paul and Ted Cruz should be ashamed of themselves. There isn't anything to look at or inquire about regarding Jade Helm 15, other than the lack of courage those two showed in pretending that there is. Rick Perry should be ashamed as well, given what he failed to say about extremism in his party and in his state. But that brings me to my broader point.

When he condemned Sister Souljah's comments ("If black people kill black people every day, why not have a week and kill white people?" and "If there are any good white people, I haven't met them."), Bill Clinton was attacking something that no one within his party supported. Sister Souljah provided him with a convenient punching bag, something that allowed him to show that he was no radical without having to criticize the man from whom he was actually trying to distance himself, Jesse Jackson, whose serious runs for the Democratic nomination in the previous two cycles scared many among the moderate whites Clinton was courting. Clinton offered his condemnation at a gathering of Jackson's Rainbow Coalition, and Jackson hit back hard at him. Mission accomplished.

In the case of those promoting conspiracy theories about martial law and Jade Helm 15, it would have been so easy, especially given how crowded the Republican presidential field is, for one or more of the candidates to separate himself or herself from the pack by condemning this obvious nutballery, this paranoia shared only by a small sliver of the Republican electorate -- unless, of course, it's not such a small sliver after all, in which case the silence of the Republican sheep speaks volumes. The candidates' unwillingness to repudiate the extremist wing of their party makes clear that it is far, far more powerful than the nonexistent Sister Souljah wing of the Democratic Party ever was. What's so truly frightening about all this -- scarier even than the fact that Greg Abbott and Ted Cruz pandered to these, yes, idiots -- is that more serious presidential candidates like Marco Rubio, Scott Walker, and even the supposedly moderate Jeb Bush were afraid to denounce them.