FARRAGUT, TENN. — 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.