On the eve of a Nullification Now! conference in Jacksonville, Fla., last week, the Tenth Amendment Center issued a warning: The Southern Poverty Law Center was sending someone to report that “those of us who want political decentralization as the Constitution requires [are] ‘dangerous.’” Then, when the conference began, every speaker repeated the warning. Someone from the SPLC was there, they said.
And you know what? We were.
We were there when Oath Keepers founder Stewart Rhodes warned that the federal government was laying the groundwork to freely kill American citizens. We were there when John Bush, who runs the Foundation for a Free Society in Austin, Texas, stoked the audience’s already inflamed fears that a one-world government was coming in the form of a U.N. plan for sustainable growth. We were there when Doug Tjaden, director of the Sound Money Center, called for the nullification of the Federal Reserve. “Nullification of any federal law will only have long lasting effect if we take away the bankers’ ability to buy back our liberty,” he said with a thump of his fist on the podium.
Roughly 100 people attended the conference organized by the Los Angeles-based Tenth Amendment Center, a group focused on how to weaken the reach of the federal government through nullification. Their central idea—that each state has the constitutional right to invalidate and disregard virtually any federal law—relies on a spurious interpretation of the Tenth Amendment, which reserves to the states and the people any power not explicitly given to the federal government, and flies in the face of more than two centuries of jurisprudence.
Much of the conference seemed to be focused on distancing the movement from those members of the extreme right that tend to be the most attracted to the nullification concept.
That’s hard to do when the League of the South (LOS) has a table at the event, which it did. It was attended by Michael Tubbs, a former Green Beret demolitions expert who, in 1987, robbed two fellow soldiers of their M-16 rifles during a routine exercise at Fort Bragg, N.C., in the name of the Ku Klux Klan. Tubbs is president of the Florida chapter of the LOS, which envisions a second Southern secession and holds to a distinctly white supremacist ideology.
There were also representatives from groups advocating for the legalization of raw milk—to limit the government’s regulatory power to ensure food safety—and for the Oath Keepers, a group that peddles antigovernment “Patriot” paranoia about federal tyranny.
The force behind much of that paranoia is Rhodes, a former Army paratrooper and Yale-educated lawyer who founded Oath Keepers. Rhodes cautioned that the recent killing of Anwar al-Awlaki, a radical, U.S.-born Muslim cleric who had been designated by the U.S. government as a global terrorist, was merely a preview of what will eventually befall Americans citizens at home. Assassination? Kidnapping? Internment? All will be possible in the tyrannical future the far right fears is unavoidable. “I’m not being paranoid. I’m just connecting the dots,” Rhodes said. “It will be done at home. Mark my words.”
It’s not surprising that such a ragtag mix of extreme ideologies would find common ground under the banner of nullification. The idea is universally applicable to any idea that defines the federal government as evil—or any regulation that is disliked. And its appeal has grown explosively in recent years. State lawmakers have introduced, but not passed, numerous bills to nullify federal initiatives like gun regulations and the new health care reform act. Some have sought to deny the authority of federal agents to act in state jurisdictions—and in more extreme cases hung that authority on the approval of the county sheriff.
The highlight of the day was Thomas E. Woods Jr., the author of Nullification: How to Resist Federal Tyranny in the 21st Century. He argued that nullification was the principle tool of the northern abolitionists who combated slavery—a fact, he said, the progressive left conveniently dismisses.
Woods couldn’t avoid calling out the SPLC “agent provocateur” in the audience. To do so, he somewhat mockingly employed Godwin’s Law to dismiss any criticism of nullification. Godwin’s Law states, essentially, that as any discussion progresses, the odds increase that someone will eventually invoke Hitler. Woods warned that the SPLC and others would seek to marginalize nullification by creating negative associations.
Woods was once a member of the LOS and remains a senior fellow at the Ludwig Von Mises Institute, a conservative think tank in Auburn, Ala., that views social justice as destructive. Who needs Hitler when paranoid antigovernment figures, hair-trigger Aryan militants and an academic extremist are there to glad-hand the audience?