Wild Bill’s, a cavernous nightclub in the Atlanta suburbs, is usually packed with country-and-western fans on a Saturday night. But the buzzing throng of hundreds on June 24 didn’t come to see Keith Urban or LeAnn Rimes. Georgia’s GOP Capitol Political Action Committee was hosting “Primary Issues,” a concert, barbecue and Republican fundraiser headlined by a different kind of star: celebrity vigilante Chris Simcox, president of the Minuteman Civil Defense Corps (MCDC).
A 43-year-old former gunfight-show actor with an Ichabod Crane physique and a self-image the size of Texas, Simcox is chiefly responsible for touching off the Minuteman movement, a grassroots prairie fire fueled by thinly veiled racism and nativist paranoia. More than anyone, Simcox has promoted the concept that vigilantism is patriotic. His pitch is that armed “citizen border patrols” must do “the job the government refuses to do”–defend America from brown-skinned “invaders.”
The message is both simplistic and chilling. It’s also a runaway hit. Since the original Minuteman Project in April 2005–a monthlong operation in Arizona that generated massive media hype–more than fifty Minuteman groups have formed around the country. At least 60,000 people (Simcox claims more than 130,000) have sent donations to MCDC that, according to Simcox, exceed $1.6 million. He further boasts that his 7,451 volunteer cazamigrantes, or “migrant hunters,” have “personally delivered 13,000 illegal aliens to the Border Patrol.”
Simcox’s success has been more the product of timing and opportunity than charisma or organizational skills. His haughty leadership style has earned him the nickname “The Little Prince.” But as the Republican Party has fractured over immigration, Simcox has become a hero of the “Build a Wall, Deport ’em All” faction of the GOP. Earlier this year he shed his camouflage fatigues for a suit and tie as a featured panelist at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington, DC, the nation’s largest gathering of conservative political activists. An increasing portion of his time is spent at fundraisers and forums far from the border he once swore to defend “by any means necessary.”
Once dismissed by establishment conservatives as a fringe wacko, Simcox has gained broad right-wing appeal. But in doing so he has alienated many of his original, hard-core followers, whose increasingly vocal allegations of corruption are threatening to rupture the “action wing” of the anti-immigration movement. The first-generation Minutemen pledged their money, their time and their guns to the old Simcox, a cigar-chomping, shaggy-haired, undiluted extremist who ranted about Aztlan conspiracy theories, issued bizarre reports of Chinese troops on the border and said of Mexican immigrants, “They’re trashing their neighborhoods, refusing to assimilate, standing on street corners, jeering at little girls walking on their way to school.” The new Simcox, groomed and scripted by neoconservative political consultants, is a frequent guest on Fox News, where he expresses sympathy for impoverished Mexicans in the same breath that he advocates “enforcement-first” immigration policies.