Joe Basel: From U of M-Morris to Louisiana Watergate

A local boy's rise to power in America's right wing

"The reaction was probably the most visceral from the campus—and from the senators—we've written about over the years," says Bordewick.


BEN WETMORE WENT TO MORRIS to visit Basel around the same time the Johnson article came out. In his mid-20s at the time, Wetmore was already a legend among right-wing conservative activists.

James O'Keefe, with accomplice, in full pimp regalia
James O'Keefe, with accomplice, in full pimp regalia
Joe Basel strikes a pose on Facebook
Joe Basel strikes a pose on Facebook

Years earlier, he'd become an overnight star when police arrested him at Washington, D.C.'s American University for videotaping a Tipper Gore speech. The university's courts convicted Wetmore on charges of attempting to steal Gore's intellectual property, confiscated the footage, and sentenced him to 40 hours of on-campus cleanup duty.

Wetmore turned around and appeared on The O'Reilly Factor, where he accused the university of persecuting him.

"I was stripped from my offices in elected student government...I have a disciplinary probation for a year and I have a blemish on my record, which says I assaulted an officer and stole property from the university," Wetmore lamented via satellite.

"See, you should have called me," Bill O'Reilly said. "I would have gone down there and represented you in front of this kangaroo court."

That endorsement wrote Wetmore's ticket. After graduating from American University, he was hired by the Leadership Institute, an Arlington-based institution that trains young Republicans how to agitate. Among Wetmore's responsibilities was indentifying the next generation of conservatives on college campuses and giving them start-up money to spread their message.

Basel must have made an impression, because soon after Wetmore's visit, the Leadership Institute provided a grant to start a right-leaning campus newspaper at U of M-Morris.

Issues of the Counterweight showed up on campus the next month. It didn't look like much—a few sheets of poorly printed loose leaf that looked more like a church newsletter than a tabloid. Still, the message was clear: "Get Involved. Change Morris. Change the World," read the cover. Published in March 2005, it featured an interview with Morris chancellor Sam Schuman and an enthusiastic column from a student who found college and church to be a winning combination.

The newspaper also featured Basel's baby-faced grin in a small photo on page 8 above the title "Publisher."

By late spring, the Counterweight went full color and started printing on real newsprint. A few noisy articles, including one about a well-liked professor not getting tenure, gained the paper credibility, and before long it was in direct competition with the Register, Basel's former employer.

As the Counterweight continued to grow in notoriety, Basel ratcheted up the radicalism. Basel's hallmark was a raucous breed of satire that would be lost on almost everyone but him. One issue found Basel and three other Counterweight staffers dressed in aprons and holding hair dryers over the headline, "What does it take to be a feminist?"

PZ Myers, the college's renowned Darwinist bulldog, was one of Basel's frequent targets. "If it had been anybody else I would have ripped him apart," Myers says. "But he was a student here, and there was nothing much I could say."


BASEL'S RELATIONSHIP WITH WETMORE and the Leadership Institute didn't end with the grant. After starting the Counterweight, Basel and co-founder Emily Loehr flew to Arizona State University to help teach right-wing activism with Wetmore. Wide-eyed Republican radicals from all over the country came to Tempe to learn the art of right-wing political street theater.

Back at Morris, Basel had become the campus's loudest and most active conservative. He whipped the once-dwindling College Republicans into a highly active campus group, even organizing a trip to George W. Bush's presidential inauguration in Washington, D.C.

Then one day students found signs littered all over campus that read, "End Racism and Sexism Now: Kill All White Males." It was intended to be satire, but as with so many of Basel's jokes, few got the punch line.

"It seems like there is no method to his madness," says Morris alumnus Donavon Cawley. "He just jumps on these crazy trolleys."

Because of the posters' racial language, rumors on campus first pointed to the Black Student Union as their source. When it surfaced that Basel was the culprit—he'd found the slogan at the conservative website—the already agitated campus was brought to a boil.

The student government organized a public forum to try to ease the tension, and Basel volunteered to speak in his own defense.

"One thing about Joe is that he doesn't run and hide," says Kristen Strissel, a former roommate of Basel. "He isn't going to set off some political bomb and then head for the hills."

The night of the forum, students poured into the Morris auditorium—some to put a face to the controversy, others just to see Basel squirm. Dressed in a business suit and tie, Basel sat smugly in the back corner of the packed auditorium with his usual posse of young Republicans.

After the moderators laid out the ground rules, a few students talked about the harm that the signs had done to campus harmony. "This is a national conspiracy!" a Morris professor shouted at one of Basel's cohorts, who was filming the spectacle.

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