There would be no screaming at Rand Cardwell's meeting tonight, no histrionics, no playing to the cameras. The atmosphere was PTA. Garden Club. Kiwanis.
Cardwell had called this second meeting of the local chapter of Oath Keepers, and on a recent Tuesday night about 16 of his fellow Tennesseans trickled into a suburban Town Hall community room. Now they sat quietly around some folding tables, with all eyes on Cardwell, the chapter president.
Cardwell, a 48-year-old laid-off aluminum plant worker, was new to this activism stuff, but he wasn't nervous. He'd led enough meetings back in his days as a Marine Corps sergeant.
The group who had answered his call was made up of men and women. Some were just off work, while others were dressed in the casual garb of the retired and unemployed. All were white, which was no surprise in this white-majority Appalachian county. But they brought a diversity of worries.
Bobby May, 44, a laid-off salesman, feared that the Obama administration would restrict his gun rights.
Ben Kazinec, 31, an employee with Kraft Foods, had heard that the U.S. armed forces were training with foreign troops to respond to domestic emergencies. "I feel threatened by it," he said with an incongruous smile.
A woman who gave her name, and then retracted it, harbored doubts about the president's citizenship.
"All right," Cardwell said, in a low, firm voice touched with his native mountain lilt. "Let's kick this thing off."
The first order of business was a recent report from the Southern Poverty Law Center, which called the Oath Keepers -- which claims more than 1,000 members nationwide -- a "particularly worrisome example" of a "virulently antigovernment 'Patriot' movement" that has been reinvigorated, in part, by the fact that the president is black.
The center documented angry videos that had been posted on the Oath Keepers website; in one of them, a man called Obama an "enemy of the state."
Cardwell betrayed only a hint of the exasperation that this line of criticism stirs in him. Nothing, he said, could be further from the truth. He served side by side in the Corps with African Americans. One of his best friends is a black guy.
"Our goal," he said, "is to support and defend the Constitution, and that's where it begins and ends at. . . . We're not a hate group. We're not a racist group. We're not calling for armed revolt against the government."
Founded this year by Stewart Rhodes, a Yale-educated lawyer and former staffer of Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas), the group calls itself nonpartisan and features on its website a 1776 quote from George Washington warning of an incipient moment that would determine whether Americans will be "Freemen, or Slaves; whether they are to have any property they can call their own; whether their Houses, and Farms, are to be pillaged and destroyed."
"Such a time," the site says, "is near at hand again."
That kind of sentiment helps explain the disconnect that has come to define popular political discourse in Obama's first tumultuous year.
A vociferous group of Americans is warning that the country is not just headed in the wrong direction -- but over a cliff. They are mainstream media commentators, like Fox News' Glenn Beck. They are religious leaders, like "Bible Answer Man" Hank Hanegraaff, who told radio listeners last month that "socialism and fascism" were "slipping quietly through the back door."
And they are everyday people like Rand Cardwell.
Other Americans, meanwhile, are struggling to understand the dire language that has erupted at town hall meetings, on talk radio and at anti-tax Tea Party protests. Some fear that the rhetoric, with its emphasis on gun rights and harsh words for a black president, could be paving a path to tragedy.
To Cardwell, these fears are nonsense, though he concedes that the anti-Obama crowd contains some angry and even unsavory elements.
He says his opposition is rooted in deeply American values -- the same ones Obama acknowledged in his recent speech to Congress, when he noted "our rugged individualism, our fierce defense of freedom and our healthy skepticism of government."
But as Cardwell watched federal power grow -- first under President George W. Bush -- that healthy skepticism has led him to conclude that now is the time to sound an alarm.
And that is why Cardwell found himself standing before hundreds at a July 4 Tea Party in Asheville, N.C., two hours away from here, reading out Oath Keepers' "Declaration of Orders We Will Not Obey."
Although Cardwell welcomes all concerned citizens to his meetings, the Oath Keepers' main message targets military and public safety personnel, active and inactive. It reminds them that they swore allegiance to the Constitution, not to politicians or bureaucrats. As such, they have the right to refuse orders they deem unlawful.
Cardwell barked them out at the Tea Party, to great applause: They will not obey orders to disarm Americans or confiscate property, including food. They will not help the government blockade American cities or confine Americans to concentration camps. Nor will they assist foreign troops brought onto U.S. soil to "maintain control."
Cardwell doesn't think the country is in immediate danger of having Obama-imposed concentration camps. But he is haunted by a lesson he has drawn from reading history -- that bad things happen when government grows.
"You might be going out on a limb saying, 'This is what's happening in the United States,' " he said over coffee recently. "But let's go back to the German concentration camps, and the people who were saying, 'If we would have done something from the beginning, so many millions of lives would have been saved.' "
There is a reasoned calm, even a gentleness, when Cardwell says such things. He and his wife are Lutherans, but not regular churchgoers. Gay rights don't get him very riled. Legalized abortion he finds "unsettling." He admits that it bugs him when he calls somewhere, and has to press "1" for English.
He's a gun owner, and he frets about Democrats' commitment to gun rights. He takes in his share of Fox News and right-wing radio, but not uncritically: He suspects Beck, who has fomented so much anti-Obama protest, to be a "patriot for profit" who is mostly in it for the book deals.
About 45 minutes before the chapter meeting, Cardwell had pulled his black Dodge pickup into the Town Hall parking lot. He affixed a big vinyl Oath Keepers sign -- one he'd paid for himself -- to the tailgate, and waited like a Realtor at an open house.
Cardwell had voted for Republican John McCain as the lesser of two evils. But he doesn't see himself as much of a party man. The individualist streak in him, he said, goes a long way to explaining his belief in limited government. It is an outgrowth of the pioneering spirit that helped the Scots-Irish settle the rugged mountains of Tennessee -- a spirit, he said, of "leave us the hell alone, we don't need your help."
For most of his life, he kept his opinions to himself. He was too busy to get too involved in politics. There were kids to raise, Little League to coach, and an education to be earned -- not just at college, where he received a two-year computer science degree, but in various jobs, from roofer to salesman to Marine Corps sniper.
He remembers feeling a vague sense of worry about NAFTA's effect on American manufacturing jobs. A few years ago, at a Knoxville City Council meeting, he protested the city's plan to install cameras to monitor traffic at red lights. Cardwell gave a little speech and handed one councilman a copy of Orwell's "1984" -- to no avail.
His concerns began massing toward the end of the Bush administration. There was warrantless wiretapping, the Patriot Act, and the 2005 Real ID Act -- the proposed law, currently in administrative limbo, that would establish national standards for driver's licenses.
But it was the Troubled Asset Relief Program, the multibillion-dollar bailout of the financial system launched under Bush in autumn 2008, that compelled him to act. Cardwell feared TARP would give government unprecedented sway over private sector companies.
"That was the spike going into my forehead," he said. "Because our nation was already in huge debt. The fact that you've got the federal government that's going to take our tax dollars and give them to financial institutions violates the very principles our nation was founded on."
He called his congressman for the first time ever, and urged him to vote against TARP. In November, Obama was swept into office.
In May, Cardwell was laid off from his control room job at the Alcoa plant. In July, he was standing at the Tea Party podium, basking in applause.
He was pleased enough with the turnout tonight. A few miles away, over at Knoxville City Hall, the council was discussing a new state law allowing gun permit holders to bring their weapons into parks. Tennessee cities and counties have the right to opt out of the law, and Cardwell figured a number of his supporters were in the council chambers, arguing that the city should opt in.
Those who had come to the chapter meeting listened politely as he rattled off the items on his agenda.
He told the group he would be a featured speaker at Nashville's version of the then-upcoming Sept. 12 tax protests. There was talk of carpooling and caravaning.
He told them that Oath Keepers was hoping to raise money to send 40,000 care packages to military personnel overseas. He encouraged them to read the testimonials of the servicemen who had signed up on the Oath Keepers website.
He told them about an upcoming Tennessee appearance by one of the highest-profile Oath Keepers, former Arizona Sheriff Richard Mack, described by the Southern Poverty Law Center as a "longtime militia hero" who once collaborated on a book with Randy Weaver, the white separatist and target of the Ruby Ridge raid.
Mack has called the center's charges "hate speech," and noted his admiration for Rosa Parks. At the Tennessee meeting, Cardwell emphasized Mack's 1994 legal challenge to the Brady Act, which called for background checks on gun buyers.
He turned his laptop around and showed the group an Oath Keepers video. The room swelled with music befitting a Hollywood epic as various images appeared -- Iwo Jima, a World War II beach landing, Revolutionary War soldiers. Text flashed on the screen:
(italics)"They Fought Fascism and Communism Over There. Will we Suffer Fascism and Communism here?" (end italics)
News footage from Hurricane Katrina followed. TV reporters described people being kept in the Superdome by government authorities, and turned back as they tried to leave the city limits. A New Orleans police officer said, "We will take all weapons."
Later, as the meeting was about to adjourn, somebody said they should all pray for Cardwell's wife, Cathie.
A week earlier, Cathie Cardwell had a cancerous spot on one of her lungs removed. On the day of the meeting, she was feeling nauseated. So her daughter had driven her back to the hospital.
Rand would've driven her under normal circumstances, but Cathie is worried about the country too and insisted he hold the meeting as promised.
The family's health insurance runs out at the one-year anniversary of his layoff from Alcoa. He said he would keep looking for a new job with benefits. But he won't be looking for some big solution from Washington.
"Socialized healthcare. . . . It's not the government's responsibility to ensure that I'm insured."
As the meeting ended, the new Oath Keepers mingled for a few minutes in the parking lot, exchanging ideas and pleasantries. Cardwell pulled the sign off his tailgate and roared off into the darkness, toward the hospital and his wife.