One Saturday in late March, I drove west on a traffic-clogged freeway toward Fort Worth, inching toward state Rep. Craig Goldman’s office. According to the Texas Nationalist Movement, a flag-waving rally was scheduled to take place between 1 and 4 p.m., one of half a dozen around the state where Texans were meant to be fighting for nationhood. Why they wanted to rally outside a state representative’s office on a Saturday, when it would be closed, wasn't clear.
The parking lot was empty at the office complex where Rep. Goldman’s suite is located. After a few minutes, a blue pickup crept into the lot and parked briefly. A sticker on the truck’s back window read “Texas First,” but the driver rolled away, disappearing down the frontage road. Later, a green Jeep rolled up, the word “TEXIT” scrawled in chalk on the rear window. The driver waited a moment and then sped off.
None of us knew it yet, but organizers had canceled the rally. I didn’t learn that the revolution had been postponed until the next weekend when I found local Texas Nationalist Movement organizer Joe Shehan and a handful of supporters waving flags on the side of a busy road in Arlington. A towering 41-year-old from Aledo, Shehan is a newcomer to the Texas independence movement, but he already oversees local actions for the movement in the state’s Senate District 10.
Standing outside Rep. Tony Tinderholt’s office, Shehan held a placard that read “TEXIT NOW,” his pickup parked in the lot behind him, the speakers blasting country music. Their flags beating in the breeze in the bright afternoon, his fellow nationalists waved at cars blasting past. Drivers flip them off sometimes, they said, but today it was all encouraging honks.
Shehan lives and breathes Texas. The day I met him, he wore sneakers adorned with the Texas flag and a Rangers shirt, a TNM cap with a pin that says “1836,” the year Texas broke away from Mexico and became its own country. He spoke enthusiastically about his home state, hardly taking a breath.
“One of the things I like about the movement is we are pretty diverse,” he said. “The Texas Nationalist Movement, we’re not conservative, liberal, left-wing, right-wing. We try to be open to anyone and everyone. Our biggest concern is Texas and wanting a free and independent Texas for all people of all stripes, no matter which way they come.”
But Shehan admitted most of the new recruits come from a conservative or libertarian background. He himself a longtime conservative, Shehan told me he joined the movement after the November 2020 elections, when Joe Biden beat Republican incumbent President Donald Trump. He now works as a Texas history teacher and football coach, but he has a background working in politics. Years back, he’d spent a while in D.C., and he had grown as disillusioned with the GOP as he was at odds with the Democratic Party.
He read a few books that convinced him the U.S. was coming apart at the seams. Robert D. Kaplan’s 2001 book The Coming Anarchy, named after a 1994 article published in The Atlantic, suggests the end of the Cold War would lead to a spike in tribalism and cultural divides. Another book that reinforced Shehan’s worldview was American Conservative editor Rod Dreher’s The Benedict Option, which argues that Christians should strive to segregate themselves from the parts of society that don’t line up with a traditional view of Christian morality.
“I see Texit more as a way of kind of creating … a bulwark or a bastion or a haven that can stop the slide into chaos,” Shehan explained, “because that’s where I see it’s going. I see it’s moving into chaos, and I have three daughters, but I have 64 sons because I’m a coach. … I care about them and I care about their families.”
He also had doubts about the deadly Jan. 6 riot, when hundreds of Trump supporters raided the U.S. Capitol. Some had reportedly come with impromptu weapons — canes and crutches, for instance — and zip ties, apparently to allow them to bind and kidnap politicians who intended to certify Biden’s victory. Shehan, though, had watched videos on TikTok that convinced him the whole thing appeared staged. Of course, federal authorities disagree. In North Texas alone, the FBI’s Dallas office has arrested at least 20 people for allegedly participating in the riot.
Since signing up, Shehan had his hands full. Nearly every week, the movement had flag-waving events around the state, mostly in Northeast Texas and in the greater Houston area. The events are designed to win over state representatives to the secessionist cause. A bill filed in the Texas House this session would allow Texans to vote on secession. Shehan and others in TNM want these lawmakers to get behind the vote. Still, he admitted, “We do see a lot of pushback from Republicans against this.”
Earlier this year, state Rep. Kyle Biedermann, a Republican from Fredericksburg, filed House Bill 1359, which would allow Texas to hold a referendum on a single question: “Should the Legislature of the State of Texas submit a plan for leaving the United States of America and establishing an independent republic?”
Biedermann didn’t reply to numerous requests for an interview or comment, but he explained the motivation behind HB 1359 in a statement. “For decades, the promises of America and our individual liberties have been eroding,” Biedermann said. “It is now time that the People of Texas are allowed the right to decide their own future. This is not a left or right political issue. Let Texans Vote!”
Although unlikely to pass, Biedermann’s bill is one of the reasons TNM founder Daniel Miller thinks there has never been a better time to support an independent Texas. By the time the group was born in 2005, Texas had been a part of the United States for 160 years, and Miller had been “working on the Texas independence issue” for a decade, he said. At the start, he had the backing of a small group of like-minded Texans, but throughout the last 16 years, the movement has swelled into a force that, by its own estimate, enjoys the support of nearly 410,000 Texans.
This year, Miller is staying busy, shuttling around the state as part of the “Texit tour,” stopping over in spots from southeast Texas, where Miller now lives, to northeast Texas, where he hails from. Often, the group has events scheduled five to 10 times a week, sometimes more, and some gatherings bring out dozens of people.
Things are looking up for the movement, the way Miller sees it. Earlier this year, Bright Line Watch conducted a poll that found around half of Republicans in Southern states support secession. Biedermann’s bill has attracted a lot of attention, and Texas GOP Chairman Allen West has said Texans should be able to vote on whether or not they continue living in the United States.
When Miller speaks about the referendum, he points to separatist movements the world over: the Catalan independence movement in Spain, the Scottish effort to break away from the United Kingdom, the U.K.’s departure from the European Union and Greece’s failed effort to part ways with the Eurozone. “We knew that when it came time to actually begin to advance this issue, that it had to 100% be a real political and social movement, like we see in so many other places,” he said on a Zoom call.
Miller says that because Texans have a “commitment to democracy,” the hypothetical break from the Union would have “to come down to a vote.” The movement wants to stick to a “peaceful, legislative process … and we’re going to win it.”
But TNM was born in the shadow of a more confrontational movement, the Republic of Texas. Founded in the 1990s, the Republic of Texas movement has gone head-to-head with authorities on several occasions. In March 1997, that group’s leader, Richard McLaren, took hostages during a standoff with the Texas Department of Public Safety, an ill-fated decision that landed him a nearly 100-year prison sentence. In the years since, Republic of Texas splinters kept at it, provoking state authorities by filing false liens against public officials. In 2015, the FBI and several state law enforcement agencies raided a Republic of Texas meeting in Bryan.
These days, Miller and his group take a different tack. And there’s no doubt that they’ve reached a broader audience than outfits like the Republic of Texas. “The Texas Nationalist Movement is not a group,” Miller said. “At the end of the day, when it comes to Texas independence, it’s the TNM.”
I asked Miller whether he truly believed the U.S. would allow Texas to separate or whether such an effort would be quashed by force, if it came down to it. Perhaps implausibly, he struck an optimistic note.
“We cannot discount Texas’ economic strength globally,” he said. “And as such, it’s far better for the United States and Texas to part as friends and allies that will trade with one another, defend one another, engage with one another — much like the relationships the United States has with countries around the world — than to be adversaries.”
I pressed him on it. I wanted to know whether there’s a hypothetical scenario in which American troops come in and prevent secession. “Why would the federal government decide to utilize force to suppress that?” he said, adding that he couldn’t see soldiers marching into the state to clamp down on “Texans whose only crime is to vote the wrong way.”
Some Texas lawmakers have spoken out against talk of secession. State Rep. Jeff Leach, a Republican from Plano, lashed out at Biedermann earlier this year. When Biedermann announced his bill on Twitter, Leach responded by describing the legislation as “a ridiculously outrageous waste of time.” (Leach didn’t respond to a request for comment.)
Biedermann shot back sarcastically, saying he was “guessing” Leach wouldn’t sign on as a coauthor.
“Based on what you’ve said the bill does, it seems like the most anti-American bill I’ve seen in my 4+ terms in the Texas House,” Leach wrote back. “It’s a disgrace to the Lone Star State. The very definition of seditious. A true embarrassment. And you should be ashamed of yourself for filing it.”
If Texas nationalists needed a modern-day Davy Crockett, Biedermann may prove an awkward pick. The 61-year-old legislator has prompted controversy time and again throughout his political career.
Biedermann won his first term in the state House in 2016 despite controversy during his campaign. As the GOP primary runoff approached in March that year, local media had unearthed photos of the conservative dolled up in a Halloween costume described as “gay Hitler,” a character from Saturday Night Live. Along with a Nazi uniform, he wore a purple scarf, a novelty Hitleresque mustache and a wig. The photo showed him posing, performing a signature Nazi salute.
Voters didn’t seem to mind. Biedermann defeated the Republican incumbent in the primary runoff and ran unopposed in the general election. In office, he’s filed or supported one hard-line piece of legislation after another, such as proposals to ban sanctuary cities for undocumented immigrants, to establish Texas’ own protocols on the southern border and to chip away at reproductive rights, among others.
In 2017, Biedermann weathered a wave of criticism after he mailed surveys to Muslim organizations and tried to probe them about their religious views, after which he distributed his supposed findings as part of an effort to “expose radical Islamic terrorism in Texas.”
Voters reelected Biedermann last November, but the state representative took President Joe Biden’s victory poorly. On Jan. 6, he joined protesters in Washington as they marched on the U.S. Capitol. Although he later denounced the deadly violence that erupted when Trump-supporting rioters stormed the Capitol, he insisted that he only “peacefully marched on our nation's Capitol to make our voices heard.”
Biedermann isn’t the only one who supports the secessionist movement. Earlier this month, several Republican state lawmakers held a panel discussion in Senate District 18. During a question-and-answer session after the panel, someone asked whether the legislators supported Texit. State Rep. Jacey Jetton said no, as did state Rep. Geanie Morrison.
But state Sen. Lois Kolkhorst took the microphone and delivered a monologue that concluded with the suggestion that she supports putting Texit to a referendum. She argued that the question wouldn’t be an issue if states’ rights weren’t supposedly in peril. “But Texas was once its own nation, and if Texas, to secure liberty and freedom, has to do that again, I would stand with the people and do that,” she said.
In the crowd, Lavaca County Judge Mark Myers took aim at Jetton and Morrison. “I gotta say, I heard a couple answers that seem like we’re more dedicated to the federal government than we are to the people we serve, and that’s disturbing to me,” he said. “I serve Lavaca County. I can’t speak for other counties here, but I can tell you this: In Lavaca County, this bill has overwhelming support.”
History is at the heart of the debate. Texas offered bleak conditions for early colonists. The brief period of French colonization, starting in 1685, was marked by Native American raids and epidemics, among other hardships. It only lasted a few years. The Spanish fared better, occupying the state from 1716 until Mexico shook off colonial rule in 1821 and took Texas with it.
But in October 1835, American colonists and Tejanos revolted against Mexican rule and broke away half a year later. In March 1836, the Republic of Texas was born as a sovereign nation. The nearly decade-long experiment in nationhood that followed still animates Texas secessionists. Their heroes include the likes of two-time Texas President Sam Houston and frontiersman-turned-revolutionary Davy Crockett, who died at the Alamo in March 1836.
Passed on for generations and taught in public schools, the story of the Texas revolution is imbued with romanticism. Scholars agree, however, that the nine years of self-rule stand out as especially bloodstained. The Republic of Texas was marked by a harsh commitment to preserving slavery (previously abolished by Mexico) and overwhelming violence targeting Mexicans and indigenous people.
Academic consensus or not, many Texans still promote the Republic of Texas as an honorable period. In early March, state Rep. Tan Parker, a Republican from Flower Mound, filed HB 2497, which would establish the so-called “1836 project,” an apparent jab at The New York Times’ 1619 Project. Headed by reporter Nikole Hannah-Jones, the 1619 Project is a series of articles that reexamine American history “by placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of black Americans at the very center of our national narrative,” according to the Times.
The project attracted a backlash. In addition to some historians raising objections to the 1619 Project’s framing of certain historical events and details, conservative politicians, including Trump, took aim at the series. U.S. Sen. Tom Cotton, a hard-line Republican from Arkansas, blasted the project as “a racially divisive and revisionist account of history” and then introduced a bill to block any federal funds from being used toward teaching the project in classrooms. In November, Trump signed an executive order creating the 1776 Commission, a body designed to promote “patriotic” education.
Parker’s bill proposes establishing an advisory commission “with the task of preserving the state’s founding principles through patriotic education,” according to a press release. “Many of our children are taught to denounce Texas history and do not understand what it means to be a virtuous citizen,” Parker said in the release. “By filing House Bill 2497, we celebrate Texas and work to always protect and remember the legacy of the Lone Star State.”
Contacted by the Observer, Parker replied with a prewritten statement that said his goal was to highlight “the Lone Star State’s culture of opportunity for every citizen and [preserve] our state’s diverse history while celebrating the strong values that have enabled decades of boundless prosperity.”
“It is our story, together,” the statement said. “The grit and determination that has shaped our beloved land began long before our independence from Mexico in 1836 yet remains in the bedrock of our strength and prosperity as modern-day citizens.” He said the project would also emphasize education that highlights the experience of indigenous people, Tejanos and enslaved people.
But Texas Democrats have their doubts. Gilbert Hinojosa, chairman of the state Democratic Party, sees the project as an attempt to “whitewash the history of Texas through indoctrination disguised as legislation.”
“The 1836 project is another attempt to reinstate whiteness as the foundation of Texas heritage by erasing the long and vibrant history of indigenous peoples, Mexican-Americans, African-Americans and the many cultures that make up the fabric of our state,” he said by email. “Texas has a rich and complex history, and while there is much to celebrate, there are also immense stains that we must not gloss over.”
Those immense stains are what historian Gary Clayton Anderson examined in one of his books, The Conquest of Texas: Ethnic Cleansing in the Promised Land, 1820–1875. I phoned Anderson, curious to find out what he thought about the secessionist movement. Simply, he said the movement “would fall flat on its ass when these crazy people look at the impact of what might happen as a result of that.”
Although the notion of breaking away has remained a theme in conservative Texas politics, especially when the federal government angers the movement, Anderson says the original Republic of Texas was more of a political necessity than the end goal of the state’s politicians following the revolution against Mexico.
“As far as secession is concerned, historically Texas was anxious to get into the Union right after the [revolution], primarily because they realized Mexico would come back and bite them in the ass,” he said. “And in fact, Mexico did try and invade … The obvious protection of the American army was a major factor in the political move to get into the Union.”
Although President Andrew Jackson wanted to admit Texas into the Union early on, political conditions made that an elusive hope until 1845, Anderson explained. In fact, although the Republic of Texas’ first president, Sam Houston, supported slavery and disapproved of Abraham Lincoln, he remained a staunch Unionist until the end, convinced secession was both unconstitutional and dangerous, a position many constitutional scholars maintain today.
Later still, by the time the Texas Troubles flared in 1860, the state had aligned itself with the pro-slavery states that tried to secede during the Civil War. At the time, enslaved people made up around one-third of Texas residents. In the summer of that year, fears over a widely held belief that the enslaved population would revolt washed across the state. A heatwave caused deadly fires around North Texas, but white vigilante groups formed, blaming supposed insurrectionists. They hunted down slaves, abolitionists, Northerners and Mexican Americans. By the time the troubles subsided, “dozens and perhaps hundreds” of people had died, according to Texas Observer.
In 1869, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Texas v. White, a case brought by the state’s reconstruction government following the Civil War. In short, Texas claimed that its bonds had been illegally sold by the Confederate state Legislature during the Civil War, a charge which brought with it the question of whether secession was legal. In part, Chief Justice Salmon Chase ruled that Texas couldn’t separate from the Union by its own accord.
“The union between Texas and the other States was as complete, as perpetual, and as indissoluble as the union between the original States,” Chase said. “There was no place for reconsideration or revocation, except through revolution or through consent of the States.”
History aside, Anderson had more current questions for secessionists. He wanted to know how Texas would fare on its own once all the oil dried up. He wondered how hard the economy would be hit if the U.S. military removed more than a dozen military bases and installations around the state. How many civilian jobs would disappear overnight?
According to the Texas comptroller, U.S. military bases provided more than 226,000 direct jobs in the state in 2019 and contributed $75.3 billion to the state’s gross domestic product. Zooming out, the comptroller estimated that the military installations support upward of 634,000 direct and indirect jobs while also generating more than $123 billion in economic activity each year. According to the Federal Reserve Economic Data website, the state’s entire GDP in 2020 was $1.76 trillion.
Anderson said, “I don't think anything like secession is going to go very far.”
Back at the flag-waving rally in Arlington, 58-year-old Chris stood roadside holding up a Texas flag with the Tea Party logo emblazoned on it. Like Shehan, she’s a newcomer to Texas independence advocacy. She didn’t want to provide her last name, but she explained that she had gone from regularly rallying for Trump to attending Texas secession events around North Texas following the former president’s loss last November. The election results, she told me, “smell like dung,” and she decided it was best for Texas to go its own way.
Her husband doesn’t get it. He doesn’t understand why she takes the time to attend flag-waving rallies and other TNM events. He doesn’t like the Texit yard sign she staked in their front yard, but Chris says she’s all in for Texas’ independence. “People have been receptive,” she said of their advocacy. “Texas is known for its independent spirit, and it’s a very normal reaction to what Washington is doing right now.”
Chris recently traveled to Laredo to hear Daniel Miller deliver a speech about Texit, and she phones state Rep. Tan Parker's office every week to try to persuade the Republican lawmaker to support Biedermann’s bill.
Standing down the sidewalk, two men held Texas flags. One wore an NRA hat and said it was his third or fourth time coming out to a TNM event. The other, a stocky man who wore a Texas Rangers T-shirt and sunglasses, said his name was Andres. He smiled and waved each time a car whizzed past. Like Chris, he didn’t provide his last name, but he explained that he was born and raised in Texas and had lived in El Paso and the Arlington area.
Andres only recently learned about TNM. He had been wondering what was best for Texas, and after a few Google searches, he landed on the group’s website. The group piqued his interest, and he started showing up to events, even putting a Texit sign in his front yard. He had always felt “Texan first, American second,” he said. “I knew people who supported independence before this, but no one was involved.”
Every now and then, a car pulled off the road into the parking lot. Each time, the driver wanted to know what the group was up to. Shehan walked over to one car and made his case, explaining to the driver that the TNM crowd was “just here raising awareness.”
A young man hopped out of his car and told Shehan he was interested. Shehan gave him a couple of yard signs, encouraged him to check out the movement’s website and asked him to consider signing up.
I wanted to know what he and the others wanted an independent Texas to look like in 2021. I mentioned that critics found references to the Republic of Texas worrisome. After all, the short-lived country was an abysmal place for people of color, the indigenous and Mexicans. But Shehan dismissed analogies to the past. What the country would look like would be up to Texans once they forged their own path, he said.
“It’s not an 1836 or an 1860 movement,” he said. “This is a 2020 movement. We’re going to live in the reality we have today, and the reality we have today is there's a patchwork of people in the state of Texas that deserve representation, that deserve a voice, and that’s what we wanted to see represented in Texas.”
Keep the Dallas Observer Free... Since we started the Dallas Observer, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Dallas, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Dallas with no paywalls.