It only took about 15 seconds for what was billed as the “largest secessionist conference in America” to drop the pretense of being anything but a conclave for neo-Confederates, white nationalists, and members of the fringe far-right who still dream of the Lost Cause.
The gathering, held in an airport hotel outside Dallas, Texas, was nominally devoted to the cause of nullification, a discredited legal principle supposedly permitting states to disregard federal law.
But as the roughly 60 conference attendees — most of whom were already graying, almost all of whom were white — took their seats last weekend, the Confederate-era “Bonnie Blue Flag” song greeted attendees. “Hurrah! Hurrah! For Southern rights hurrah!” the chorus blared.
Tucked in the chairs for each participant was a welcome letter, which warned that the U.S. is “in the midst of politically correct politicians who are leading or should I say, being led by an ignorant public currently pushing to eradicate all of the symbols of the Old South.” At the bottom of the letter, in far larger font: “Deo Vindice” — the national model of the failed Confederacy, still clinging to life some 153 years after the end of the American Civil War.
Those opening sentiments could be detected throughout the day, by the speakers fervently describing an America that could exist only in their minds, and the white supremacy simmering just below the surface. In that regard, the conference was nothing new, full of people preaching tired ideas to those who had heard it all before.
But there was one voice that clearly stood out from the others and, surprisingly, received the highest praise from conference attendees: Marcus Ruiz Evans, the token leftist and the only non-white speaker on the roster. Representing all those dreaming of an independent California, Evans shared his desire to unite far-left and far-right secession movements, bridging the partisan divide to bring an end to the American experiment — or at least to the territorial integrity the country has known for over a century.
The South will rise again, and it will only be for whites
The lingering presence of neo-Confederacy wasn’t entirely surprising considering that the secession conference was organized by the Abbeville Institute, an organization dedicated to reclaiming a so-called Southern tradition. “I can’t believe we’re in Texas and there’s no grits!” one attendee exclaimed to ThinkProgress in the buffet line. “Y’all been invaded by Yankees.”
Since its founding in the early 2000s, the group has been little more than a stalking horse for white supremacy. Donald Livingston, head of the Abbeville Institute, has claimed in the past that the organization is dedicated to certain “values,” while supporters told the Chronicle of Higher Education they wanted to focus on the “positive aspects” of the antebellum South. CDs for sale outside the conference reflected that desire, mourning that the antebellum era came to a swift close not in the Civil War, but in the “War for Southern Independence.”
“You can’t bring up secession without being labeled a white nationalist!”
While Livingston has denounced racism — much in the way modern white nationalists, claiming they’re simply interested in supporting white identity, have — his professional history points in another direction. In addition to his work at Abbeville, which recently published a post listing the “six reasons to love the Confederate flag,” Livingston founded the League of the South Institute, an organization that served as the “educational arm” for the white supremacist League of the South organization. As the Southern Poverty Law Center noted, the Abbeville Institute was itself “established… along the lines” of the League of the South Institute.
The secession conference did little to change Abbeville Institute’s reputation as a cover for barely concealed white supremacy. Not only did the MC let attendees know that he accepted “Confederate currency” (“before the liberals burn them!”), but attendees complained that “diversity” was lowering the average IQ of Harvard and asked the lone Hispanic conference-goer if he was affiliated with La Raza. During lunch, attendees swapped stories of supposed “Muslim-controlled no-go zones” in the U.K. and support for British proto-fascist Tommy Robinson.
Others shared their own ahistorical opinions on the factors that led to the Civil War. “My grandmother… said the Yankees didn’t come for the slaves, they came for the cotton,” Kurt Burkhalter, a conference attendee, told ThinkProgress. “It was actually the southern people who cared more about blacks… Segregation is a northern concept. And that got imposed on us. Which is all well and good for them to do that up there when they don’t have 50 percent black [population]. And that’s what caused racial strife — they forced their racial segregation on us.”
One attendee even complained that secessionists are unable to freely discuss their separatist views without the associations with racism that naturally follow. “You can’t bring up secession without being labeled a white nationalist!”, the woman, decrying the lack of focus on secession in academia, said.
Shortly thereafter, one of the organizers hollered that Confederate flags would be referred to as “Freedom Flags” and were available to any interested attendees, sitting next to the CDs for sale outside on topics like “Attacking Confederate Monuments” and “The Southern Tradition.”
In his opening speech, Livingston tried to adopt an academic, quasi-analytical tone. Opening the day’s festivities with a scowl and a pea-green suit jacket, he spoke of two American identities: a “Jeffersonian identity,” dedicated to creating numerous nations out of the current American map, and a “Lincolnian identity,” aimed at retaining the current iteration of America. Needless to say, Livingston, as well as those in attendance, loathes Abraham Lincoln.
“You can build two types of Berlin Walls: one for people, and one for states.”
“The [Civil War] was not about slavery, but was about suppressing secession,” Livingston railed. “The U.S. placed a Berlin Wall around the states post-1865. Any state tried to leave, they’d be shot. You can build two types of Berlin Walls: one for people, and one for states.”
Without advocating outright for breaking up America, Livingston claimed that the world, and the U.S., is “experiencing a deep paradigm shift” when it comes to discussing secession. “The genie is out of the bottle,” he said.
As evidence, Livingston pointed to the supposedly “peaceful” precedent of the 1991 dissolution of the Soviet Union. He did not mention the bloodshed surrounding the numerous ongoing, secession-related conflicts in the post-Soviet space — eastern Ukraine and northern Georgia, for instance — or the more recent murder and mayhem surrounding secession movements from South Sudan and East Timor to Xinjiang and Chechnya.
Other speakers picked up where Livingston left off. Michael Boldin, head of the Tenth Amendment Center, spent most of his rollicking talk advocating for nullification, and calling on listeners to ignore federal legislation. Failed gubernatorial candidate Dan Fisher, a self-proclaimed “abortion abolitionist,” laid out a step-by-step plan for states to break with Washington. Allen Mendenhall, a former staff attorney to disgraced Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore, went a step further than Livingston, telling the audience he “would like to see states seceding.”
And Kirkpatrick Sale, a nominal leftist, colored his pro-secession speech with the types of apocalyptic rhetoric straight from an End Times playbook.
“This country is hurtling… toward a maelstrom of collapse and catastrophe,” Sale thundered. “We’re on a sinking ship, and we don’t have long to escape it.” The only solution, Sale claimed, was to “leave this country — without leaving our homes.”
“[Texas has] to secede, number one, because we murder unborn children,” Larry SECEDE Kilgore — his legal name — told ThinkProgress. Clad in a brimmed hat and black vest, looking like he’d just stepped out of the movie Tombstone, Kilgore told ThinkProgress that he would be running for Texas governor once more in 2022. Kilgore ran in both 2018 and 2014 on an explicitly secessionist platform.
Kilgore said he doesn’t have a projected timeline for Texas secession, but that “in 2019, when the Texas House convenes, I’ll be talking with the legislators that I know of who are secessionists — but they can’t say it.”
Where left and right shall meet
While the bulk of the conference speeches covered the same well-trod territory, the highlight of the day for many attendees — based on their reactions, at least — was the one speech that explicitly came from across the secessionist aisle.
Marcus Ruiz Evans stood at the dais in a dark suit during the lunch break, slotted in between the morning and afternoon speakers. While speakers and attendees had waxed poetically for Dixie, Evans exhorted the audience to back another movement entirely: Calexit.
“I have come with a simple message: Back Calexit!”
Calexit, the colloquial name for California’s mewling secession movement, has a history as checkered as any of the recent American secession efforts, namely due to its willingness to rely on foreign support. Supported by a Kremlin-backed group, Evans’ YesCalifornia has acted as one of the most obvious fronts for Russian interference efforts over the past few years. YesCalifornia was even reportedly helped by the architects of Russia’s social media interference efforts — one of the few American organizations linked directly to the types of fake Facebook and Twitter accounts that meddled in U.S. politics the past few years.
— #Calexit (@YesCalifornia) October 21, 2018
That didn’t seem to be an issue for the conference attendees listening closely to Evans’ speech last weekend. “You all here know the threat that’s coming,” Evans said. “Divisiveness in America today… is as [bad] as it was right before the Civil War.”
With sweat starting to pool on his brow, Evans waved his arms and raised his pitch, lobbing histrionics at a surprised, supportive crowd. Where previous speakers had droned, Evans urged the audience to back his cause — not simply in order to separate California from the U.S., but because it would help attendees refute accusations that they were merely white supremacists pushing a long dead movement.
“I came today with a simple message: back Calexit!” Evans said. “You have been unfairly characterized as racist. You want to know how to get out of that? You back a progressive secession movement.” (Evans claims to be a liberal, but spent much of his talk mocking liberals; his Calexit partner, Louis Marinelli, was once one of the primary faces of the anti-LGBTQ movement in the U.S.)
As Evans called for listeners to write op-eds, to advocate for Calexit on Facebook, and to write to their members of Congress, the crowd began stirring. Heads could be seen bobbing in agreement.
Some people, Evans said, believe “fellow Americans” would never let California leave the U.S. “Is that true?” he asked the crowd. “No,” the crowd responded.
“I couldn’t hear you!”
“I still didn’t hear you!”
As Evans finished his speech, the crowd suddenly buzzing, Livingston popped up, saying he’d help the Calexit cause by lobbying South Carolina legislators he knew. Evans expressed his appreciation, and thanked the crowd. As he bent to grab his bag, the crowd, one by one, began lifting themselves out of their chairs — a standing ovation for the man who wants their support in creating an independent California. A new bridge between the far-right and far-left in the cause of American secession.
As Sale, the most prickly speaker of the entire afternoon, told the audience, “secession is the only means of escape.” But those listening to Evans heard a new option: kicking out California, letting the state-cum-nation go its own way, and hopefully taking the remaining liberals with them.
“I’m a newcomer to secession: I’ve only been a secessionist since 1967,” one attendee said to laughter, “I support Calexit. In a practical way, as part of an organization, whether it’s the Abbeville Institute or it’s the Sons of Confederate Veterans, whatever…. What can we do in a practical way back home, back in our states, back in our communities, back in our organizations, back in our churches — what can we do to help you?”
California secession will never happen, of course; there’s no reason Washington would allow a massive economic engine like California to go its own way, and California voters have never shown any real support for the movement. But on Saturday, the dreams of Dixie found an unprecedented partner. Suddenly, the neo-Confederates, those extreme right voices who want to disintegrate America, were no longer alone. They had a comrade, a kindred secessionist spirit, joining them. Partners in whipping up American polarization, all for the sake of breaking up America — all for the sake of seeing the South rise again, this time along the Independent Republic of California.