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Secessionists, separatists lay their path forward at conference on ‘nullification’

And these separatists have found a kindred spirit in Trump's new acting attorney general Mark Whitaker.

A secession conference in Texas on Saturday turns to leading the charge for nullification. CREDIT: CASEY MICHEL
A secession conference in Texas on Saturday turns to leading the charge for nullification. CREDIT: CASEY MICHEL

IRVING, TEXAS — A day after CNN reported that acting Attorney General Mark Whitaker was a supporter of nullification — allowing states to effectively ignore federal law — a conference full of secessionists gathered in a Texas hotel to carry the torch forward.

The conference was organized by the Abbeville Institute, a group founded in 2002 and dedicated to a so-called “Southern tradition.” The Institute has long been associated with white nationalists and neo-Confederacy, not least because its founder, Don Livingston, had previously worked with the white supremacist League of the South. (A recent post on the Abbeville Institute’s website listed “six reasons to love the Confederate Battle Flag.”)

And the tune of Saturday’s conference did little to dissuade those associations: The conference, which billed itself as the “largest secessionist conference in America,” was entitled “The Revival of Secession and State Nullification.”

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The day’s festivities took place in the immediate aftermath of Friday’s report that Whitaker, who has replaced former AG Jeff Sessions, was apparently a fan of the notion of nullification — a legal principle allowing a state to effectively ignore federal law.

The concept of nullification has been widely discredited in American jurisprudence, largely since the Nullification Crisis of the 1830s. It’s also been largely associated with opponents of American civil rights legislation. (Not surprisingly, the conference attendees this weekend were almost entirely white.)

But as Whitaker said in 2014, “[Do] I believe in nullification? I think our founding fathers believed in nullification. There’s no doubt about that.”

Whitaker’s comments, which broke only a day before Saturday’s event, hadn’t yet made the rounds among the conference’s participants. (When ThinkProgress asked one of the speakers about the acting attorney general’s comments, a crowd surrounding gasped in excitement.) Some speakers effusively praised the idea, while others helped themselves to a raft of free material backing it.

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One featured speaker, Michael Boldin, used his speech to discuss the “State of the Nullification Movement.” Boldin, whom the Southern Poverty Law Center has described as a political extremist, is the head of the pro-nullification Tenth Amendment Center.

“It’s an historic day — I’ve always wanted to give a speech on ‘Nullification Day‘!” Boldin said, referencing an 18th-century Kentucky resolution about nullification.  “Remember, remember, the 10th of November!” For Boldin, and for others in attendance, the notion of nullification remains the pre-eminent political movement worth following. They take little comfort in the fact that Republicans control the executive branch, both houses of Congress — at least for the next few months — and the current makeup of the Supreme Court.

Michael Boldin, the head of the  Tenth Amendment Center, sings his praise of nullification on  Saturday. CREDIT: CASEY MICHEL
Michael Boldin, the head of the Tenth Amendment Center, sings his praise of nullification on Saturday. CREDIT: CASEY MICHEL

For them, the federal government still apparently maintains far too much power, with far too little input and oversight.

The topics weren’t limited to just gun rights or abortion laws, but also included things like marijuana legalization and immigration policy. To paraphrase arch-segregationist George Wallace: nullification now, nullification tomorrow, nullification forever.

Other speakers picked up Boldin’s theme, and attendees had a chance to grab reading material on the topic to take home. As some 75 participants filed into the conference room, a table of books welcomed attendees with an all-caps title: “NULLIFICATION” (pictured above). The book, written by historian Clyde Wilson, claimed to provide a blueprint for “reclaiming [the] consent of the governed.”

“Everybody just needs to work for liberty the way they best think it’ll work,” said Tom Glass, the self-described leader of the “primary nullification activist organization” in Texas. “One of the ways where we might get to a climate where secession actually occurs is to start working on nullification… here in the state.”

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Of course, nullification is far easier in theory than in practice, given the massive resources at Washington’s disposal. But as Dan Fisher, a failed gubernatorial candidate in Oklahoma, said in his presentation on ignoring Washington’s writ: “I stole this one from Nike: Do it!”