Tea Party and the Right

How the Anti-Immigrant Minutemen Movement Attracted the Psychopaths That Led to Its Downfall

If ever there was a movement tailored to recruit and promote social deviants, it was the Minutemen.

 

Excerpted with permission from And Hell Followed With Her: Crossing the Dark Side of the American Border by David Neiwert. Available from Nation Books, a member of the Perseus Books Group. Copyright © 2013.

 

Editor's Note: David Neiwert’s new book tells the gruesome story of the Flores killings—the event that contributed to the decline of the anti-immigrant Minutemen vigilante movement in the American Southwest. On May 30, 2009, Raul Flores, Jr., 29, and his daughter Brisenia Flores, 9, were murdered in their home by Minutemen American Defense (MAD) founder Shawna Forde and associates Jason Bush and Albert Gaxiola in Arivaca, Arizona. Forde and Bush were sentenced to death and remain on Arizona’s death row, while Gaxiola was sentenced to life in prison without parole.

 

The Minuteman movement began crumbling apart in large part because of the kind of personalities that it attracted: contentious, prone to anger, hypercritical, paranoid, grandiose, egocentric people who found it almost impossible to coexist after only a few weeks of fitful cooperation. The strife and dissension, over issues ranging from strategy to finances, not only continued but intensified over the ensuing years, assuring that the movement would continually splinter, inevitably creating radicalized organizations like MAD, increasingly unleashed from the restraints that national organizations labored under in order to mainstream their movement.

It attracted these kinds of personalities in large part because they reflected both the politics and the rhetoric the movement employed in its appeals: resentment and anger were common features of their rhetoric—indeed, the more inflammatory the speech, the greater its audience seemed to be. The core of the Minutemen’s politics was scapegoating: blaming Latino immigrants for being forced into circumstances that they did not create and that were for that matter created by Americans as much as Mexicans. By insisting on “securing the borders” before fixing the problems that had made the borders so insecure, most of them a product of antiquated immigration laws, they actually ensured that the borderlands would remain a volatile place.

The sum of the Minuteman movement’s achievements was thus nearly nil: in the seven years between its inception and its final demise, nothing changed in American immigration policy, other than that the Obama administration, in an effort to prove its good-faith effort at securing the borders, doubled the number of Border Patrol agents and deported more immigrants—some 396,000 by October 2011—than any administration in American history.

Yet that wasn’t even nearly enough to satisfy Obama’s critics. Tea Partiers and assorted nativists continue to claim that Obama is “soft on immigration” and viciously disparage his immigration policies. In the meantime, any effort to reform the nation’s immigration laws has been stonewalled, especially after Tea Party–led Republicans took control of the House in 2010.

The only thing that did change was that the American economy took a nosedive in 2008, and the resulting recession wiped out many of the five hundred thousand or more unskilled-labor jobs that the economy had at one time produced annually. The demand for immigrant labor thus declined sharply, while simultaneously the Mexican economy began to recover from its long, NAFTA-induced downturn. The end result was that many fewer people were attempting to cross the American border, either through the desert or other means, in search of work. The Minutemen had nothing whatsoever to do with this change.

The Minutemen’s failure was not merely a product of internal dissension or obstructive politics, however. The movement crumbled under the weight of the extremists it attracted, despite numerous warnings—not merely from its critics—that because of its agenda and its politics, it ran a nearly ineluctable risk of becoming a haven for violent racists. Though the Minutemen often proclaimed their efforts to “weed out” racists from their ranks (begging the question: Why did they need to do so in the first place?), movement leaders never took seriously the need to thoroughly vet the backgrounds of their recruits, not to mention their leaders. If they had, people like Shawna Forde would never have been accepted in the first place. Whatever procedures they had were grossly inadequate—though perhaps that is because many of their leaders would not have survived a thorough check, either.

It was far easier—and in the end, more effective—to simply complain that their critics were intent on depicting them as “racist vigilantes,” even as many of them turned a blind eye to overt racism within their ranks, not to mention outright vigilante immigrant hunters like Shawna Forde. The complaint became an oft-repeated bitter joke for Minuteman spokesmen, to the point that many reporters simply began to take it for granted that the movement was devoid of racists and cazamigrantes [vigilantes].

Moreover, as the case of Shawna Forde—as well as the larger movement’s internal dynamics—amply demonstrated, the movement was vulnerable to the depredations of people with personality disorders. Just as it attracted contentious and angry people because so much of its appeal was contentious and angry, it also attracted toxic personalities—borderline personalities, narcissists, and psychopaths—because so much of its rhetoric reproduced their interior lives.

Dr. Robert Hare, a University of British Columbia psychologist, compiled a checklist of the major traits of psychopathy in the 1990s (since revised modestly) that has become a major tool for clinicians and law enforcement officers in dealing with the depredations of psychopaths in the past decade and longer. Hare’s checklist has played an important role in investigations into such noteworthy crimes as the Columbine High School massacre and the Green River Killer case. Reviewing Hare’s checklist is nearly a summation of Shawna Forde’s biography. He cites two key factors: a personality built on “aggressive narcissism” and a “socially deviant lifestyle.” The traits of the first factor include a glibness and superficial charm; a grandiose sense of self-worth; pathological lying; cunning and manipulative behavior; a lack of remorse or guilt; shallow affect in interpersonal relations, in which genuine emotion is short-lived and egocentric; a callousness and lack of empathy; and a failure to accept responsibility for one’s own actions.

A psychopath’s case history manifests a “socially deviant lifestyle” if it demonstrates a need for stimulation and a proneness to boredom; a parasitic lifestyle, sponging off the work of others; poor behavioral control; a lack of realistic long-term goals; impulsivity; irresponsibility; juvenile delinquency; and early behavior problems. Other traits, uncorrelated to either of the two chief factors, include promiscuous sexuality, many short-term marital relationships, and criminal versatility.

Shawna’s personal history is replete with multiple examples of each of these traits. Family and friends, enemies and allies alike have described Shawna’s ability to charm people, often with the intent to manipulate, often by lying. Her own pronouncements bespoke a wildly overinflated sense of self-worth and grandiosity—especially when it came to the Minuteman movement—and she never, ever took responsibility for her own miscreant behavior. Nearly everyone who knew her described how she would simulate empathy as a way to draw out people’s vulnerabilities, exposing them to her manipulations. And while at times she could be genuinely empathetic and remorseful, her history is littered with criminal callousness, culminating in three acts utterly devoid of remorse or compassion: the probable attempt to have her estranged husband, John Forde, killed for the sake of his money; her robbery of her friends Pete and Lyn Myers; and ordering Jason Bush to shoot Brisenia Flores as she pleaded for her life.

Similarly, Shawna frequently spoke of her constant need for an “adrenaline rush” such as the one her Minuteman work provided her; she constantly sponged off men, particularly her husbands, while flitting from job to job, and when she couldn’t soak her four husbands, she wrangled money out of various other men, notably including her colleagues in the Minuteman movement.

She seemed unable to control her impulses, particularly when it came to shoplifting—even while she was bidding for respectability in the form of a city council seat—and was a profoundly irresponsible parent and spouse, dumping her children with other people willy-nilly and indulging frequently in extramarital affairs and one-night stands. She was always concocting one grandiose scheme after another and substituting that for anything resembling realistic life goals, and then was incapable of even taking the initial steps toward achieving those grand plans. She was, of course, a troubled child and not merely a juvenile delinquent but a teenage prostitute. And finally, she was nothing if not a versatile criminal, indulging in theft, prostitution, fraud, embezzlement, assault, robbery, and eventually murder.

The likely presence of a central psychopathic player—and the likelihood of the symbiotic impetus given to her crimes by the introduction of another psychopath, or at least a willing and eager enabler, in the form of Jason Bush—brings to mind another great national tragedy, the 1999 killing rampage by two teenage boys, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, at Columbine High School in Colorado, in which thirteen people died and another twenty-one were injured.

As Dave Cullen explored at length in his remarkable study of the incident, Columbine, the conclusion of investigators was that Eric Harris was a cold-blooded psychopath, while Dylan Klebold likely suffered from a personality disorder and played a key role in enabling Harris’s massacre plans.

In that regard, it might be plausible to consider the Minuteman movement itself a victim of a psychopath in the form of Shawna Forde, destroyed by her insensate criminality. The problem with making such a claim is that, unlike the administrators at Columbine High School—who, if guilty of anything, had failed to adequately recognize the threat posed by a psychopath like Eric Harris—the Minutemen and their leadership in particular not only made rhetorical appeals nearly certain to attract psychopaths but embraced, encouraged, and inflamed Shawna’s own fast-rising arc of radicalization.

They empowered her psychopathic behavior even as it became manifest in the movement’s own broiling inner turmoil. The Minutemen were not Shawna Forde’s victims but her enablers.

The rhetoric of the Minutemen and their related nativist organizations—including, nowadays, the Tea Party—appealed to psychopaths like Shawna Forde and Jason Bush because it reflected so much of their interior psyches and moreover provided an irresistible opportunity for grandiose self-inflation and validation.

Minuteman rhetoric often reflected the very traits of personality disorders, particularly in its political mind-set, which sought to blame weak and helpless (contemptibly so, from the nativist view) others for their own, often self-inflicted, national problems. It was frequently grandiose, particularly in its claims to be preventing terrorist attacks and its larger claims to be in the act of “saving America”; it indulged a marked propensity to lie and dispense false information, ranging from American Border Patrol head Glenn Spencer’s Ebola rumor and Reconquista claims to Minutemen Civil Defense Corps co-founder Chris Simcox’s bogus border-fence scam to Minutemen Project president Jim Gilchrist’s bathetic, and ultimately futile, attempts to distance himself from Shawna Forde. The Minutemen also frequently distorted facts, if they did not outright falsify them, in order to manipulate public sentiment, and they did so remorselessly. Most of all, despite occasional lip service to the plight of immigrants, the Minutemen’s rhetoric was profoundly lacking in empathy for the targets of their ire; indeed, the more callous and cold-hearted the remark, the more widely it was circulated. If ever there was a movement tailored to recruit and promote psychopaths, it was the Minutemen.

 

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Shawna Forde’s symbiotic embrace of the Minutemen was not accidental nor even the random result of circumstances, as is often the case with psychopaths and the means they employ to their often criminal and sometimes violent ends. It was a virtual inevitability, given the nature of their politics, agenda, and rhetorical fuel.

What movements like the Minutemen most offer psychopaths like Shawna Forde is the opportunity to remake themselves into their own hyperinflated view of themselves as Heroes with a capital H, all without the hard work, sacrifice, and dedication that usually comprise the foundations of real heroism. This is something the Minutemen shared in common with nearly all brands of right-wing extremism: a core ethos dedicated to constructing and establishing their own heroic identities, a grandiose kind of self-validation.

The Minutemen in particular were noteworthy in promising a path to heroic status. The Arizona desert is an exotic and adventurous place, still largely wild and always potentially dangerous all on its own. Add to that the thrill of hunting down and catching lawbreakers in the act, and you have something straight out of a testosterone-fueled action film. All in the name of saving America from “illegals.”

David Neiwert is an investigative journalist and author based in Seattle, whose most recent book is Of Orcas and Men: What Killer Whales Can Teach Us (Overlook Press, 2015). He is the senior editor of Crooks and Liars and has won a National Press Club award for his reportage on domestic terrorism.