Politics does funny things to people. In March 2005, when I first interviewed Jim Gilchrist, the Minuteman Project had not yet begun, but he already gave the distinct impression that he was in over his head, and knew it. “I never thought it would get this big,” the retired CPA confided, nervously stroking a Chihuahua on the couch of his tchotchke-crowded Aliso Viejo living room. The phone rang. He let the machine answer. It was someone from ABC World News. A frightened smile twisted Gilchrist’s lips. Nearly two years would pass before he would be unceremoniously canned by the very organization he had founded, but the signs were there for those with eyes to see them. The phone rang again. It was an aide from Colorado Republican Congressman Tom Tancredo’s office. Gilchrist picked it up.
The previous fall, Gilchrist had typed an e-mail to Chris Simcox, a former L.A. schoolteacher with a John Wayne complex who had spent the years since September 11, 2001, patrolling the Arizona border in search of dark-skinned invaders. Gilchrist offered to come down and help out, and to recruit a few volunteers. His brother designed a Web site, and the effort, through the combined miracles of the Internet and the gullibility of the press, was soon harvesting headlines all over the country.
Gilchrist never had to bother with what, for the last century at least, have been the staple activities of political agitators in America. He gave no soapbox speeches, pressed very few palms. He didn’t leaflet on street corners or canvas house to house. He suffered through no endless kitchen-table strategy sessions. He didn’t even have to meet with his own followers, and encountered most of them for the first time when they arrived in Arizona. All Gilchrist had to do was spill a little spleen onto his keyboard, dress it up with patriotic allusions, and let the World Wide Web take over.
He hardly came off as a silky demagogue. Gilchrist sounded more like an addled, out-there uncle, a basically goodhearted fellow with whom you might want to avoid certain subjects, such as politics, or brown people. He had a hard time staying on topic, or even finishing a sentence. He spoke openly of the “intrusive thoughts” he had suffered since his tour in Vietnam. He had no problem admitting to being anti-war and pro-union. He despised corporate America, which he described as a den of “slave traders” who exploited undocumented foreigners at the expense of the American working class. He mourned the mythic melting-pot homogeneity (with all its shades of whiteness) of the America in which he had grown up, and he feared — to near hysteria — the fate of what he saw as an increasingly ethnically divided and class-polarized nation. If nothing was done to alter America’s course, he told me, “We’re talking the ‘R’ word, revolution, and the ‘I’ word, insurrection. We’re talking guns and bayonets and bombs, Tim McVeigh, Waco, Ruby Ridge — but a lot of it. We’re talking little homemade armies of neighborhoods.”
Before I could get a word in he was spinning out a nightmare vision of a Latino gang slaughtering a black gang “in a long, drawn-out battle.” Then, “a white gang comes in and decides they’re going to take out the Hispanic gang, so 200 white guys come in with their M-16s and AKs and flamethrowers and they kill all 200 of the Hispanic gang, line ’em up and execute them!”
The Minutemen, as he saw it, were the only thing standing between Santa Ana and Srebrenica.
That April came and went, and with it the first phase of the Minuteman Project. A few hundred anxious patriots registered by e-mail, and found their way to Cochise County, Arizona. Bush called them vigilantes. Schwarzenegger praised them for doing “a terrific job.” Gilchrist and Simcox traveled to Washington, then split up. Simcox took charge of the redubbed Minuteman Civil Defense Corps’ patrols in Arizona and beyond, and Gilchrist launched Operation Spotlight, which sought to expose and prosecute employers of undocumented workers. “We’re going after the slave traders,” Gilchrist enthused.
Between them, despite ego battles and an often dizzying degree of incompetence, Gilchrist and Simcox had spawned a movement, albeit one as fragmented and schizophrenic as its erstwhile leadership. Splinter groups began popping up from Ventura to Virginia, spreading the word via the Internet and talk radio. Most of these groups had no formal existence outside of chat rooms, and their leaders, more often than not, were the ones who ran the Web sites — and jealously so. To anyone who had followed the movement’s growth, the events of the last few weeks — Gilchrist’s ouster by a faction of the Minuteman Project’s board; allegations of gross mismanagement and missing funds; complaints lodged with the IRS, the Orange County Sheriff’s Department and the courts — came as no surprise, an amusing end to a not-so-funny story.
Locally, going after the slave traders meant hanging out in Home Depot parking lots, harassing day laborers and the contractors who hire them. Gilchrist was often only peripherally involved, but then he was distracted. In fall 2005, he told Fox News’ Alan Colmes that he was “literally pushed .?.?. by an overwhelming weight of the electorate” into running for the Orange County congressional seat vacated by SEC chairman-designate Christopher Cox. Gilchrist was the candidate of the American Independent Party, founded by former Alabama governor George “Segregation Forever” Wallace. He “was probably a bigot,” Gilchrist admitted.
In that year’s special election, Gilchrist took 15 percent of the vote, surprising everyone and forcing Republican state Senator John Campbell into a runoff. Shortly before the election, Gilchrist recast himself as a “rock-ribbed Reagan Republican” who happened to want to quintuple federal spending on border protection. The man who that March had spoken with undisguised dread about the Iraq war already having become “Vietnam all over again,” nine months later told the audience of KFI’s The John and Ken Show that he was “lockstep with the president in his handling of the war in Iraq.” But the new costume pinched, and snagged, and occasionally fell off completely.
In a June 2005 interview with a progressive webzine called the Orange County Organizer, Gilchrist admitted that he voted for Green Party candidate Peter Camejo in the 2003 recall election because he liked the idea of taxing the rich, and said that the 1999 Seattle protests against the World Trade Organization were “the greatest thing I ever saw.” Gilchrist initially opined that as many as 22 million Mexicans should be deported on “buses and airplanes. And Amtrak.” But after a few minutes of persistent questioning, he agreed that immigrants who had lived in the U.S. for decades should be allowed to stay: “Half the time I say yes — repatriate. The other half I say no.”
Confronted about these comments, Gilchrist later obediently backed off, and slammed the Greens as murderous “domestic terrorists.” At a Minuteman rally on the steps of the Capitol in Sacramento — at which, according to The Sacramento Bee, about 200 Minutemen showed up, and three times as many counterprotesters, among them Peter Camejo — Gilchrist displayed a less avuncular side, and said of his opponents on the left, “Their goal is not our domestic tranquility, it is our destruction. If it’s a war the anarchists want, then damn it, it will start here.”
Despite attempts to re-entrench himself in the hearts of his flag-wrapped drive-time followers, Gilchrist had a hard time staying focused. Any semiforceful interviewer could get him to say just about whatever they wanted. Inside of a few minutes, conservative talk-radio giant Hugh Hewitt once had him both supporting and opposing gay marriage. When Hewitt confronted him about his earlier claims that multinational corporations pose a threat to American sovereignty, the candidate, slick as 20-grade sandpaper, replied, “They could be. Who knows? What do you think?”
His congressional campaign came to a close one December 2005 evening at the Lake Forest Italian restaurant at which Gilchrist held his election-night party. Chris Simcox was there, and 50 or so supporters stood around drinking beer and eating calamari. All the votes had not yet been counted, but it wasn’t looking good. Gilchrist was upbeat nonetheless. (He ultimately took 25 percent of the vote and finished third.) “Where we’re at now, I thought it would take four to five years to get to,” he said.
An aide whispered in his ear that a supporter wanted to snap a photo. Gilchrist obliged, and held up a flimsily laminated, sepia-toned photo of Ronald Reagan grinning, both thumbs in the air. Gilchrist raised his thumbs in mimicry, and flashed a manic smile. His supporters cheered appreciatively. They had the leader they deserved. And now he is gone.