Texas transplant Glenn Beck explained to viewers of his BlazeTV show last Monday why he wasn’t in his studio in the Dallas area. Beck was out reporting north of Houston for a forthcoming documentary about “the world’s most dangerous trailer park.” This was a huge story, he told his viewers. Colony Ridge, a booming subdivision just outside the Grand Parkway in Liberty County, was an “absolute nightmare.” He called it an “unbelievable cartel-run community. . . . It is the size of Miami.” He went on: “You’re talking about corruption and gangs. They’ve had body dumps there, massive drugs going on. . . . There are only six to eight police officers. Beyond that, the prosecutor, for some reason, won’t prosecute anybody in Colony Ridge. So cops don’t have a reason to go in, ’cause nobody is going to jail.” Viewers could be forgiven for hoping he was wearing a flak jacket. “This is the most immoral legal thing I think I’ve ever seen, and it’s going to happen all over the country.” Sounds bad!

Even among the waves of hysterical coverage of Colony Ridge—a community of 40,000 or so that has been featured in right-wing media as a crime-infested hellhole for illegal immigrants—Beck’s breathless report was exceptional in its credulousness. A Republican district attorney in Texas who won’t prosecute crime? People stumbling over dead bodies on the regular? C’mon, man! 

But then, after his Monday report, Beck actually spent time in Colony Ridge. He interviewed one of the developers. He drove around the community, a mix of shabby trailer homes and sparkling new tract homes carved out of the East Texas forest. And in doing so, he changed his tune. 

On Tuesday, Beck was back on the air. He asked his chief researcher to tell viewers about “the story that you thought we were coming out for.” The researcher: “I was expecting, basically, almost what I saw in Iraq. Like UN tents–type things, crime going on all over the place, the ultimate squalor that you could think of mixed in with crime, visibly—almost like it was Grand Theft Auto.” Turns out Colony Ridge isn’t so much Grand Theft Auto as SimCity. “This story is a lot more complicated,” the researcher said. Beck, too, seemed mugged by reality.

“It might be illegal; it might be immoral. But I had a swing yesterday back and forth to these, to where I’m like, ‘Well, I don’t know—this might be something good for somebody,’ ” Beck said.

Beck couldn’t quite admit that he had been misled by his fellow travelers in right-wing media, that Colony Ridge is not a cartel-controlled “no-go zone” for illegal immigrants pouring over the border, but is in fact a relatively peaceful destination for Hispanic Houstonians—mostly undocumented Spanish speakers—seeking affordable, semirural living. Crime is relatively low, and police officers do their work without interference. Like a reckless drug dealer, Beck had gotten high on his own supply. 

I’m picking on Beck here not because he is the most important voice to have chimed in on the matter, but because his goofy about-face is perhaps the perfect coda to one of the silliest controversies in recent Texas history, a neat encapsulation of the dangers of a Republican Party addicted to a hermetically sealed right-wing media ecosystem. 

Over a few months this summer and fall, the Colony Ridge issue went from a sensational story burbling around in far-right media to a matter of grave concern for nearly every top Republican in the state. Governor Greg Abbott declared the Colony Ridge issue an emergency item for the two most recent special sessions, the latter of which wrapped last week. Now lawmakers had to actually study the issue. They had to hold hearings. Some of them even visited Colony Ridge on a fact-finding tour in early October. Like Glenn Beck, they were puzzled—How had this become an issue at all? More importantly, how could they pretend to do something without doing too much?

As I wrote in October, the Colony Ridge narrative was largely started by Todd Bensman, a former Dallas Morning News reporter and former Texas Department of Public Safety analyst who now writes for the Center for Immigration Studies, an anti-immigrant think tank founded in 1985 by white supremacist and eugenicist John Tanton. In May, Bensman published a sensational article falsely implying that a mass shooting in Cleveland, a town in a neighboring county, had occurred in Colony Ridge, “America’s Largest Illegal Immigrant ‘Colonia.’ ” Soon right-wing media was ablaze with sensational stories about Texas’s illegal alien colony. Bensman was invited on Steve Bannon’s podcast and went on Glenn Beck’s show. 

(Bensman defends his story as based on extensive reporting in and around Colony Ridge. He argues that Cleveland is “in the Colony Ridge spillover lane for crime, traffic jams, clear-cutting, and floods.” He adds that some local law enforcement officials “most definitely believe” that many crimes occurring outside of the community are “happening because of Colony Ridge.” He defends his description of Colony Ridge as a “no-go zone,” arguing that it is a “well-known cultural reference that came into use to characterize European communities where police feel so unwelcome they won’t patrol unless in force.”)

GOP politicians soon jumped on the bandwagon. All 25 members of the Texas Republican congressional caucus signed a letter that repeated unfounded claims about Colony Ridge, including that it was a “colonia” like those on the border (it’s not) and a “no-go zone” for law enforcement. (Exhibit A in the shoddiness of the letter: the footnoted citation for the “no-go” claim is a link to an episode of Dana Loesch’s show in which Governor Greg Abbott states that he has dispatched extra state troopers to patrol the community alongside the county sheriff and constable.) Attorney General Ken Paxton found time amid his various legal troubles to launch an investigation. Abbott ordered the Legislature to take up Colony Ridge as an emergency item. A group of far-right lawmakers went further, floating legislation to put Liberty County, a deeply red county, under state conservatorship. Things got stupider and stupider.

Most of these people knew better, of course. Congressman Brian Babin, the ringleader of the congressional letter, represents Liberty County. Surely he has the cell numbers of the Republican sheriff of Liberty County, the Republican DA, the Republican constables, and the Republican county judge—all of whom could have disabused him of the notion that they had ceded the largest community in their county to the cartels. In any case, once official voices tacitly endorsed the hysteria, Colony Ridge became more than just another soon-to-be-forgotten panicky story. Instead, mainstream media outlets were obliged to look into the claims. (Typical headline: “How a Houston-area development became the center of a viral anti-immigrant conspiracy theory.”) Lawmakers were forced to hold hearings and consider policy. The developers behind Colony Ridge—brothers John and Trey Harris—hired a media consultant and organized tours for legislators and media. 

Some politicians seemed confused about how we’d all gotten here. During an October tour of Colony Ridge, Briscoe Cain, a Republican from Deer Park and one of the Lege’s furthest-right members, declared that the subdivision seemed to represent “the American dream.” The two October hearings in the Legislature featured a parade of witnesses throwing water on the Colony Ridge fantasia. DPS director Steve McCraw and Liberty County sheriff Bobby Rader both testified that the area had a relatively low crime rate and that law enforcement had no issues patrolling the area. (Things got awkward when Senator Roland Gutierrez, a San Antonio Democrat, pointed out that Bensman used to work for McCraw.) State senator Royce West, a Dallas Democrat, fumed, “This is much ado about nothing. I think it’s a complete waste of time.” State representative Jay Dean, a Republican from Longview in East Texas, summed up the mood in the other chamber when, during an October hearing, he asked John Harris: “You make somebody mad? What the hell happened? Why are we even here doing this?”

A good question, but not one any of the Republicans in the Lege were interested in exploring. Instead, they seemed eager to move on to other crises, real and imagined—and Colony Ridge had become such a story, thanks to Beck and his ilk, that they were not content to sweep it under the rug. The cost to taxpayers: up to $40 million for an increased law enforcement presence in Colony Ridge. As a matter of policy, this was a dubious decision: Should the Legislature decide how to deploy police in a state of 30 million people? If crime is so low in Colony Ridge, why doesn’t the state pay for troopers where they are actually needed? Regardless, the Colony Ridge residents I spoke with welcomed more police, an irony given the way critics have depicted the residents of the development as lawless. 

The Colony Ridge story seems to have largely fizzled. Harris, the developer, said Paxton’s investigation is ongoing but that he isn’t worried. The media hubbub has died down. Bensman has moved on to other pursuits, including embedding with Steve McCraw’s special forces as they “invaded” an island in the Rio Grande. 

Beck seems oblivious to all the developments, as if the hearings at the Capitol hadn’t occurred and myriad debunking hadn’t been published. He’s just as credulous as his viewers. Except, unlike them, he has a giant megaphone, one he has used to promote the numerous falsehoods he is now so puzzled by. You can’t make this stuff up—wait, scratch that, actually you can. 

Update, January 10, 2024: This story has been updated with comments from Todd Bensman.