One hundred and seventy-six years have passed since Texas called itself an independent republic. But to hear Daniel Miller, president of the Texas Nationalist Movement (TNM), tell it, “Texit,” the campaign to sever the Lone Star State from the United States, has never been so fashionably on-trend. “Given the ridiculous circus coming out of Washington, D.C., the number of people who at least want a chance to vote on it increases every day,” Miller told me over the phone in September. “We tell our volunteers that independence is not a hope, a wish, or a dream—it’s an inevitability. The only thing we’re debating is the timeline.”
Miller—who speaks with the friendly, authoritative twang you’d hear from a radio DJ at a big country music station—cited some developments that give him and other Texit advocates hope. In June, he noted, the Republican Party of Texas added a plank to its platform at its annual convention calling for a voter referendum on “whether or not the State of Texas should reassert its status as an independent nation.” And during the 2021 legislative session, state representative Kyle Biedermann, a Republican from Fredericksburg who was videotaped at the U.S. Capitol during the January 6 riot, filed a bill that called for a similar ballot initiative that would ask voters whether the Legislature should develop “a plan for leaving the United States of America and establishing an independent republic.”
In a Facebook post announcing the Texas Independence Referendum Act, Biedermann argued that “the People of Texas are allowed to decide their own future.” His bill, which was referred to the State Affairs Committee, had one joint author and four coauthors, all of them Republicans. Although it was never debated, the proposal garnered the support of influential Republicans, including state senator Lois Kolkhorst, of Brenham, and then–Texas GOP Chairman Allen West. (Neither Kolkhorst nor West responded to interview requests.) Following the 2020 election, West falsely claimed that if Texans “voted and decided, we could go back to being our own republic.”
Last November, while speaking to students at Texas A&M University, U.S. senator Ted Cruz said he wasn’t quite ready to endorse secession—before revealing how little stood in the way of him changing his mind. “If [Democrats in Washington] pack the Supreme Court, if they make D.C. a state, if they federalize elections and massively expand voter fraud, there may come a point where it’s hopeless,” Cruz said. “We’re not there yet. And if there comes a point where it’s hopeless, then I think we take NASA, we take the military, we take the oil.” A year earlier, just after the 2020 election, Congressman Randy Weber, a Republican whose district covers an area that stretches from Freeport to Beaumont, posted an image on his Facebook page showing giant cowboys using barge poles to separate Texas from the larger U.S. landmass. “I think it’s getting about that time y’all,” the caption reads.
More recently, in the wake of the FBI’s raid of former president Donald Trump’s home at Mar-a-Lago, polling showed that more than half of Americans who identify as “strong Republicans” think civil war is at least somewhat likely in the next decade. That ominous attitude has helped to renew calls for secession, and it aligns with a Bright Line Watch survey from 2021 that found that half of Republicans in the former Confederate states (plus Kentucky and Oklahoma) were amenable to secession.
Miller, whose group claims to have more than 425,000 members (it has nearly 210,000 followers on Facebook), said support for Texas independence was in the single digits as recently as 2005. But by 2009, following President Barack Obama’s election, a Rasmussen Reports poll found that 31 percent of Texas voters believed the state had the right to secede, and 18 percent said they would vote to do so. In the wake of Obama’s 2012 reelection, sales of pro-secession bumper stickers spiked, and a petition asking the White House to “peacefully grant” Texas’s withdrawal from the U.S. accumulated more than 100,000 signatures (less than 1 percent of the state’s eligible voters at the time). Over the years, Miller said, even mainstream Republican voters have steadily warmed to the idea of Texas breaking free.
One of the clearest signs of said warmth is the sheer volume of candidates and elected officials who have signed the TNM’s Texas First Pledge. The document asks signatories to promise to secure the state’s border with Mexico, maintain its cultural and economic independence, and, most important, to “support any and all actions or legislation that fully realize the freedom and independence of Texas.” More than a hundred candidates for local and statewide offices have signed the pledge.
Many of those candidates—including Miller, who won just 6 percent of the vote in an unsuccessful Republican primary challenge to Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick—were defeated in GOP primaries. But agriculture commissioner Sid Miller (no relation), the highest-ranking Republican official to sign the Texas First Pledge, is expected to win a third term in November. Another signee is the vice chair of the state GOP, Dana Myers. (Neither Sid Miller nor Myers responded to interview requests.) At least nineteen candidates who signed the pledge remain on the ballot for the general election in November, including state representative Bryan Slaton, an East Texas Republican who coauthored the Texas independence bill and will be unopposed on Election Day.
The swelling number of pledges coincides with the TNM’s success at this year’s state GOP convention. The group’s efforts to add a plank calling for a referendum on secession to the party platform failed to advance in 2016 and 2020. On the heels of the 2022 breakthrough, Miller said he expects a referendum bill similar to Biedermann’s to be filed during the legislative session that commences in January. (Biedermann, who did not respond to an interview request, did not seek reelection this year, but has tweeted in support of Texit in recent months.) Miller said his group is lining up cosponsors and coauthors for a new bill, while increasing the pressure on additional candidates and elected officials to sign the pledge.
Even if Miller and his compatriots are successful in recruiting more Texiteers, few seasoned political observers take the notion of secession seriously. Among experts, right-wing Texans’ flirtations with independence are talked about like a lunar phenomenon, an eye-catching but harmless recurrence dictated by mostly predictable political cycles—and almost always cropping up when Democrats are in control of the federal government. They point to former governor Rick Perry’s remarks about secession, the most notable occurring at an Austin tea party rally in 2009 and also during a chat with a group of bloggers in the governor’s office. “When we came into the nation, in 1845, we were a republic; we were a stand-alone nation,” the governor can be heard saying in a recording of the exchange, which was posted to YouTube that same year. “And one of the deals was, we can leave anytime we want. So, we’re kind of thinking about that again.”
In 2010 Perry’s right-wing challenger in the GOP primary, Debra Medina, kept the secession chatter going. A former chair of the Republican Party in Wharton County, southwest of Houston, Medina combined antigovernment, tea party messaging with aggressive secessionist bombast to garner nearly 20 percent of the vote in her failed bid. “We are aware that stepping off into secession may, in fact, be a bloody war,” she told a crowd of supporters during a speech outside the state capitol. “We understand that the tree of freedom is occasionally watered with the blood of tyrants and patriots.”
As Texas Monthly noted back in 2009, Miller’s history dovetails with that of the tea party movement—though he has long said, contra Medina, that he opposes the use of violence for political ends. Miller also said he regrets the attendance of the TNM leader Nathan Smith at a 2015 conference of far-right groups in Russia. Quotes from Smith were used by a Russian troll farm in secessionist propaganda aimed at fomenting unrest in the United States. Miller said that the TNM rebuffed subsequent attempts from Russian online operatives running the infamous Heart of Texas Facebook page to help organize secessionist rallies across the state.
Before the tea party movement, during the Clinton administration, a fast-talking militia leader named Rick McLaren became convinced that Texas’s 1845 entry into the United States was illegal. In 1997, only a few years after the Oklahoma City bombing and the law enforcement siege of the Branch Davidian compound outside Waco, McLaren’s fringe cohort, the Republic of Texas, wound up in a six-day standoff with state authorities before eventually laying down their arms. McLaren is serving a 99-year prison sentence stemming from that incident.
Fast-forward two and a half decades, and Cal Jillson, a professor of political science at Southern Methodist University, sounds slightly amused when asked to gauge the seriousness of current secessionist rhetoric, which he views as little more than a byproduct of political polarization. “I think these are partisan and ideological talking points and positions that one must hold to be in the club,” he said. “But if you walk up and down your street and talk to people you know to be Republicans—and who are by all appearances normal, thoughtful people—they may tell a pollster they want to secede, but in their heart of hearts they know that the election wasn’t stolen and that Texas isn’t going to secede.”
William De Soto, a professor of political science at Texas State University, echoed that sentiment and pointed out that Republicans who attend state conventions aren’t reflective of the party as a whole, much less of Texas. “Right now, I can’t imagine too many people would say that they’re so frustrated with Democratic control of the federal government that they’re willing to sacrifice their peace and social order,” he said. “The rhetoric is concerning, but I don’t see secession is being given serious consideration at this point.”
De Soto and Jillson’s confidence is bolstered by Texas v. White, an 1869 U.S. Supreme Court case in which the justices ruled that individual states could not unilaterally secede from the Union. Secession skeptics also regularly cite the late justice Antonin Scalia’s declaration, in 2006, that “if there was any constitutional issue resolved by the Civil War, it is that there is no right to secede.” Still, Texit advocates point out that the White ruling did allow for a referendum on secession. But as Jillson notes, the Supreme Court didn’t allow the kind of referendum that’s called for in the Texas GOP platform or in Biedermann’s bill. “Texas has it backwards!” Jillson said. “It’s not us [Texas] doing a referendum; it’s the other 49 states that would agree, or not agree, to let us leave.”
Jim Henson, director of the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas at Austin, notes that secessionist sentiments often include a racial overtone that shouldn’t be ignored. “I think that the more reactionary politics—whether we call them nativism or white resentment—become more mainstream and more a part of accepted discourse within the Republican party, the more that the resonance of talking about secession becomes politically important.”
In the days after the FBI raid on Mar-a-Lago, in August, Miller released a blistering statement on his website saying Texas “can no longer be yoked to a ‘Banana Republic’ masquerading as a Constitutional Republic.” He called on Governor Greg Abbott to summon a special session of the Legislature to decide whether Texans should vote on becoming an independent nation once more—which, of course, the governor did not do.
When I spoke to him a week later, Miller seemed to view Abbott’s lack of action not as a defeat, but instead as evidence that his cause is increasingly formidable. “If the political establishment is right about nobody believing in this cause, then why not bring it to a vote and prove us wrong?” he said. “The reason is because they’re scared we have public sentiment on our side.”
There’s also, of course, the possibility that even norm-shattering conservative politicians like Abbott believe secession would unleash chaos well beyond their control. It’s not hard to understand why that may be the case.
Texit advocates are notably short on details about how a split actually would play out. Miller argues that there will be time to iron out the details of immigration and economic policy. There would be a lot of ironing out to do. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, when the federal government sent billions of dollars in relief funds to the state, Texas was receiving more money from Washington each year than it was contributing. In 2019, for example, Texas paid $272 billion in federal taxes, but received $300 billion from the federal government. Federal funds typically account for about one third of the state’s annual budget, according to Every Texan, a nonprofit budget and policy center.
If Texas were to secede, shutting off the fire hose of federal dollars pouring into the state each year, the new nation’s leaders would face a series of daunting budgetary dilemmas. Among the most pressing: how to replace Social Security and Medicare. Although Texas has the highest uninsured rate in the country, with millions of employed but uninsured individuals, Texans older than 65 (about 3.8 million) have a 98 percent health insurance rate thanks to Medicare. The same cohort has only a 12 percent poverty rate, in large part because of its access to Social Security, according to Eva DeLuna, a state budget analyst at Every Texan. As an independent nation, Texas would have to come up with its own way to replace such massive federal programs or leave elderly citizens to fend for themselves.
The obvious answer would be as ironic as it is straightforward: raise taxes. In all, DeLuna said, “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. For a two-person household, that’s eighteen thousand dollars coming out of your pocket.”
Texas independence would unleash countless other problems. For starters, the new nation would need to create a postal service, an aviation administration to oversee air traffic control, and a border patrol to enforce immigration and trade. New revenue would be needed for the upkeep of formerly federally managed roadways. At least one estimate suggests that an independent Texas would need more than a trillion dollars to build a national defense and create requisite government agencies and programs.
To make matters worse, the U.S. government might demand a refund for its shuttered military bases, national parks, prisons, and courthouses, shackling the new country with debt from the moment of conception. And even the TNM website acknowledges that “there is no softening the blow” when it comes to resolving Texas’s share of the national debt, which is about $2.3 trillion. “When Texas leaves, it will have to take its share of the national debt with it,” the site says. “After all, in any divorce, outside of custody battles over children, money is the most heated issue. This will be no different.”
If secessionists ever manage to put the question of independence to voters, these repercussions will surely come to the fore of the debate—and raise doubts among those who fancy the idea of a divorce from the U.S. During educational outreach seminars conducted by Every Texan over the years, DeLuna said she’s discovered that many Texans have little comprehension of how much of their day-to-day lives is subsidized by federal dollars. When it’s broken down for them using real-world examples, she said, frustration with the federal government tends to diminish. From her perspective, many quality-of-life issues in the hypothetical nation of Texas might not be addressed by government at all. Instead, she predicts, complex issues like homelessness would fall to churches and neighbors, with wealthy communities pooling resources and poor communities growing increasingly disadvantaged.
“If you don’t like seeing people living under Interstate 35 in downtown Austin right now, just imagine what we might see without any federal grant money available,” DeLuna said. “How do you pull yourself up by your bootstraps if nobody around you has any boots?”
This article originally appeared in the November 2022 issue of Texas Monthly with the headline “Are Texas Republicans Serious About Secession?” Subscribe today.
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