How Trump’s extremism turned the Oath Keepers from keyboard warriors into seditious coup plotters

In January former President Trump told supporters in Arizona, “If you’re white you don’t get the vaccine or if you’re white you don’t get therapeutics. … In New York state, if you’re white, you have to go to the back of the line to get medical health.”

With that, Trump said the quiet part out loud. He was endorsing “Great Replacement theory,” a conspiracy that sinister forces are replacing white people with dark hordes from backwards cultures. If that sounds like an idea halfway between red-faced Nazis screaming, “Jews will not replace us” and Tucker Carlson ranting about poor, dirty immigrants invading America, that’s because it is.

It is besides the point that the claim is a vile lie. Trump was cranking up the cycle of far-right extremism again. It’s a ploy that goes back to the 1990s when Pat Buchanan normalized “overt white supremacy” and authoritarianism among Republicans, and it’s a tool Trump has mastered to further his divide-and-rule strategy.

During the 2016 presidential campaign Trump brandished extremism as his superpower. It was more than show or shock value. Extremism allows Trump to mold the political debate in his demagogic image and it spawns far-right forces completely loyal to him.

There is a method to how Trump uses extremism and why he makes the right more and more extreme. He spreads poison that bubbles up from below, Islamophobia, bashing immigrants, crude racism, misogyny, and transphobia. The targets of his bigotry are turned into scapegoats that he uses to rile up his followers who have been primed by right-wing media to crave easy answers, enemies, and violence. Scapegoating leads to bans: on Muslims, abortion, books, teaching racism, protests, transgender people.

But bans are based on wild conspiracies that do nothing to solve the real problems America faces — the pandemic, extreme economic inequality, deteriorating healthcare and schools, global warming, racist policing. Bans are legal and ideological forms of violence. Since they don’t produce the desired results, the next logical step is physical violence.

If you can’t eliminate the problem, then eliminate the scapegoat. Trump dog-whistled about Great Replacement the moment he stepped off the escalator in 2015 and attacked Mexicans and immigrants. His words have inspired supporters who have committed Great Replacement-style massacres. The gunman who killed six Muslims in Quebec City in 2017 was angry Canada was letting in Muslim refugees while Trump was banning them. A mass shooter killed 23 people in El Paso in “response to the Hispanic invasion of Texas.” The shooter who killed 11 at the Tree of Life Synagogue was angry that Jews “bring invaders that kill our people.”

“Lone wolf” attacks are too obscene and random, however, for Trump’s goal of becoming a white nationalist dictator. To make that happen he needs organized vigilante violence, which he encourages incessantly. His calls have energized extremists such as the Proud Boys, Patriot Prayer, Identity Evropa, Atomwaffen Division, Three Percenters, Patriot Front, Rise Above Movement. Their strategy is ethnic cleansing. They seek to eliminate scapegoats whether based on demographics, immigrants, Muslims, Jews, or brown and Black people, or based on politics, Black Lives Matter, Marxists, or antifa.

Cosplay Boomers

Explicit racists are still a fringe, however, with membership ranging from dozens to perhaps hundreds for the Proud Boys. To mainstream white nationalism, Trump wraps it in the flag and “law and order.” The evolution of one group in particular shows how Trump has radicalized the right bit by bit: the Oath Keepers.

The Oath Keepers are the largest far-right group advocating violence. A leaked database in 2021 contained 38,000 email addresses of possible current and former members. Unlike many other extremists, they formed years before Trump was on the scene and were slow to join his camp. But they were eventually swept up in Trump’s violent conspiracism and are a dire omen of where the Republican Party is headed.

While notorious for leading the Jan. 6 coup, and with founder Stewart Rhodes and 10 members indicted for seditious conspiracy, the Oath Keepers were unlikely insurrectionists. Founded in 2009, the Oath Keepers focused on recruiting soldiers and police officers to prepare for “another American Revolution.” They were among hundreds of hate groups and militias that appeared as part of the racist backlash to the first Black president.

The Oath Keepers talked big but were risk averse. They banned racists, denied they were a militia, and claimed to be nonpartisan. When it came to action they were all cosplay. At Tea Party rallies with suburban Boomers role-playing in tricorn hats, powdered wigs and muskets, Oath Keepers would administer an oath to new recruits to defend the Constitution.

So how did they transform into a trained militia with an arsenal of weapons, seized by white-nationalist paranoia, and eager to “help Trump crack American skulls in the streets” by the Jan. 6 coup?

There were red flags from the start. Like the broader Patriot movement, the Oath Keepers sprang from violent white nationalists such as Posse Comitatus and their conspiratorial mindset. Rhodes was a frequent guest on The Alex Jones Show, which inflamed his manic imagination and supplied a pool of delusional recruits. Rhodes was obsessed with warmed-over anti-Semitism: a shadowy New World Order filling in for “International Jewish Conspiracy.”

Conspiracism tends to lead to violence. As the enemy is portrayed as all powerful and less than human, any means to eliminate them is justified. From their founding, the Oath Keepers allied with other violence-prone conspiracists such as “constitutional sheriffs” who reject federal authority, the Islamophobic Three Percenter militia, and old-line conspiracists like the John Birch Society.

They were all gripped by far-right paranoia that only armed men can save a society on the brink. The Oath Keepers remained keyboard warriors until 2013 when they formed guerilla-style “civilization preservation cells … necessitated by the country’s impending (and possibly government-created) economic collapse.”

The Phantom Drone Menace

A year later the Oath Keepers went into battle. In April 2014 Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy declared a “range war” after federal officials seized his cattle as penalty for stiffing taxpayers $1.2 million in unpaid grazing fees. Rhodes helped mobilize hundreds of armed extremists to aid Bundy, who said he didn’t “recognize the federal government to have authority, jurisdiction, no matter who the president is.” The standoff climaxed with a dozen militiamen with long guns surrounding federal agents as news cameras rolled, leading the government to abandon its botched operation. The Patriot movement thrilled at the rout and for striking a propaganda coup with footage of snipers taking aim at officials and then freely walking away.

The Oath Keepers shot themselves in the foot, however. Weeks after the standoff ended, Rhodes pulled his forces out of Bundy’s ranch. High on conspiracism, he claimed Attorney General “Eric Holder … has given approval for a drone strike on the ranch.” Branding the Oath Keepers deserters and traitors, remaining militiamen warned, “You’re lucky that you’re not getting shot in the back.” Rhodes countered that opposing militiamen drew guns on the Oath Keepers, and it “was this close from being a gunfight, right there inside the camp.”

Despite the fallout over the phantom drone menace, the Bundy standoff was “a bonanza” for the Oath Keepers. Their membership soared and donations poured in, according to Buzzfeed. Emboldened, they sought new confrontations that could yield publicity, recruits, and money. They showed up in Ferguson in 2014 after unarmed teen Michael Brown was killed by an on-duty cop. Armed Oath Keepers turned bureaucratic disputes at small mining operations on public lands in Oregon and Montana into armed confrontations with government agencies in 2015. The next year they acted as a self-appointed buffer between law enforcement and Ammon and Ryan Bundy’s militia that seized a wildlife refuge in Oregon.

The Trump Factor

Sam Jackson, author of Oath Keepers: Patriotism and the Edge of Violence in a Right-wing Antigovernment Group, describes three episodes that show how they veered right as they moved from the digital world to the real one. In 2014 Oath Keepers descended on Ferguson to guard local businesses, allegedly from looters. The images epitomized American history: rifle-toting white men in military outfits defending property against a largely defenseless Black community. The next year the Oath Keepers showed their true colors by refusing to support an open carry march by mostly Black residents of Ferguson. A local Oath Keeper called the decision a “racist double standard.” He said Rhodes was eager to “confront the cops” during the Bundy standoff, but not when Black people wanted to confront cops.

In July 2015, after a Kuwaiti-American killed four Marines at a recruiting center in Tennessee, the Oath Keepers initiated “Operation Protect the Protectors” to provide armed security for military recruiters, claiming they were vulnerable to “any jihadist.” Months later they offered to protect Kim Davis, a county clerk in Kentucky who infamously refused to issue same-sex marriage licenses.

By itself, anti-Black, anti-gay, and anti-Islam politics are nothing unusual for conservatives. But for the Oath Keepers it was a sign of their drift toward racism and bigotry. Then came a wild card that sent them spiraling into far-right extremism: Donald Trump.

In 2016, says Jackson, “Trump had energized the far right throughout his campaign, and … enjoyed widespread enthusiastic support” from the Patriot and militia movement. They ate up Trump’s birtherism, his hatred of anything Obama, anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim racism.

Rhodes’ estranged wife says he and Trump are “very similar in that they both push conspiracy theories. It’s like watching a demagogue be attracted to a demagogue.” Rhodes’ family makes him out to be mentally unhinged. He imagined himself “the next George Washington.” Once when the power went out at their remote Montana home, Rhodes believed an FBI raid was imminent and forced his family to bug out. Another time he made them dig an escape tunnel and practice using it.

The affinities led Rhodes to jump on the Trump train as the 2016 election drew to a close. The Oath Keepers organized covert teams, seeking out “Special Warfare veterans,” to spy on the polls to “prevent Clinton from stealing the election,” says Jackson. When that failed to happen, they declared “Communists Intend to Overthrow the United States Before Inauguration Day,” and called for 10,000 men with guns in the streets of D.C. to prevent a coup. In a sign of things to come, Rhodes attended the inauguration night “DeploraBall” organized by white nationalists.

The shift in 2016 is important for a number of reasons. While they had been anti-government and critical of police militarization, the Oath Keepers were positioning themselves to be Trump’s Blackshirts. They dropped any pretense of opposing racism. And they were caught up in Trump’s cycle of extremism, becoming ever more conspiratorial and prone to violence.

The Oath Keepers found a new mission with Trump in office: defending the free speech of white nationalists. In May 2017, at one of the “Battle for Berkeley” dustups, Rhodes came dressed for combat in helmet, goggles, and padding and joined an alt-right crowd that included neo-Nazi Tim “Baked Alaska” Gionet. A month earlier, Oath Keepers were reportedly in Berkeley when the notoriously violent Rise Above Movement sent ten people to the hospital. In June, as Portland reeled from a double murder committed by a neo-Nazi after he attended a Patriot Prayer rally, Oath Keepers guarded the Proud Boys and other extremists to “protect free speech from terrorism.” The same month Oath Keepers joined “March Against Sharia” rallies held in dozens of cities that drew white nationalists such as Identity Evropa and Vanguard America.

The Oath Keepers chummy relations with extremists came screeching to a halt that August after a Vanguard America supporter rammed a car into anti-fascists in Charlottesville, murdering Heather Heyer and injuring 19 people. (Oath Keepers were reportedly in Charlottesville guarding neo-Nazis.) After that Rhodes canceled an event with Patriot Prayer citing the presence of white nationalists.

But there was one white nationalist the Oath Keepers couldn’t quit: Donald Trump.

Follow the Leader

The Oath Keepers were among a growing number of extremists for whom Trump’s bombast was their marching orders. WhenTrump ranted in December 2018 that migrants seeking asylum were an “invasion, Rhodes called for a “border operation” to stop the “invasion [of] illegals.” The Oath Keepers were following the KKK playbook, which in the 1970s pioneered the use of terror against migrants crossing the border. The Oath Keepers may not have been explicit white nationalists, but they were increasingly indistinguishable from them. They called asylum seekers “a military invasion by the cartels and a political coup by the domestic Marxist controlled left” that was “a matter of national survival.” Months earlier Rhodes went full Great Replacement, claiming Democrats were replacing Americans “through illegal immigration en masse.”

In 2019, after Trump called the first impeachment proceedings against him a “coup,” the Oath Keepers responded, “We ARE on the verge of a HOT civil war.” They begged Trump to “call us up [to] suppress Insurrections.”

With Covid-19 and the George Floyd protests the Oath Keepers went overboard into paranoid white nationalism.

When the pandemic began in January 2020, the Oath Keepers said “the virus was worse than government officials were saying” and warned followers to prepare for chaos, according to ADL. By April they flipped 180 degrees and raved that “the Chinese government deliberately created the virus,” and Bill Gates and Anthony Fauci were “agents in a plot to control the population through a mandatory vaccine.” They protested public health measures as “Orwellian violations of liberty,” and organized armed protests to protect business owners defying lockdowns.

Protests over the police murder of George Floyd completed the Oath Keepers’ transition from being anti-government to seeing the people as the enemy. Days after Floyd’s death, Trump called protesters “Thugs,” and added, “when the looting starts, the shooting starts.”

Rhodes jumped in to dispel any misgivings Oath Keepers had about police violence against overwhelmingly peaceful protests. He wrote, “Once these thugs turned to burning, killing and looting, they became domestic enemies. Weeks later he called Black Lives Matter “a communist front organization with the central goal of the destruction of the United States.”

The Oath Keepers worked themselves into a frenzy all summer. In July, Rhodes called a brief and shambolic BLM occupation of a Seattle neighborhood a “coordinated, intentional, national and international terrorism and insurrection campaign … to also destroy our nation and our Constitution.” A month later, after a Patriot Prayer member was shot and killed in Portland by an anti-fascist, Rhodes announced, “Civil war is here, right now.”

By the time the 2020 election arrived Rhodes was champing at the bit for war. On Nov. 9, two days after Biden was declared the winner, Rhodes spoke on Alex Jones’s program, urging Trump to invoke the Insurrection Act “to suppress the deep state.” He claimed the Oath Keepers had men “stationed outside D.C. as a nuclear option.”

Rhodes’s desire to have the Insurrection Act invoked was not idle chatter. He believed Trump would authorize the Oath Keepers to crush any opponents to his restoration, whether it was “Communists” inside Congress or antifa outside. One ringleader of Jan. 6, Oath Keeper Jessica Watkins, said a week before the coup, “If Trump activates the Insurrection Act, I would hate to miss it.”

Also on Nov. 9, according to the federal indictment, coup-plotting began. Rhodes held a covert online meeting with other Oath Keepers in which he “outlined a plan to stop the lawful transfer of presidential power, including preparations for the use of force, and urged those listening to participate.”

The revolution the Oath Keepers envisioned for a decade had arrived. Under Trump’s influence, they had moved from the idea of insurrection to carrying it out. They were going to overthrow a puppet government controlled by sinister globalists and protected by Communists, antifa, and Black Lives Matter. It’s a conspiracy Trump promoted, and it’s the same one that inspired white nationalists in the Pacific Northwest who waged violent insurrection in the ‘70s and ‘80s.

To prepare for Jan. 6, the Oath Keepers stockpiled weapons and formed heavily armed “quick reaction forces” outside D.C. to bring the war home. One chapter trained in “unconventional warfare,” another in “setting up hasty ambushes, and reacting to ambushes.” They plotted using boats to ferry their armed forces across the Potomac to assault the Capitol.

Rhodes warned before the coup, “It will be a bloody desperate fight. We are going to have a fight. That can’t be avoided.”

Having started as opponents of government tyranny, fighting to preserve liberty, the Oath Keepers’ journey ended as agents of tyranny, fighting to crush liberty. They have been sidelined by the prosecution, but Trump has passed the baton of violent extremism to the Republican Party.