The Jan. 13 filing of seditious conspiracy charges against 11 members of the Oath Keepers militia is one of the darkest and most important chapters in the history of right-wing extremism.
The government case opens a window into the comically dangerous world of paranoid coup plotters who stormed the Capitol last Jan. 6. It shows how the Oath Keepers acted as a bridge between far-right extremists and average Trump supporters. The case sheds new light on how the “war on terror” led directly to Jan. 6 by stoking nativism, racism, and Islamophobia and created a huge pool of angry veterans ripe for recruitment by the Oath Keepers.
Most significant, the case shows how the Oath Keepers almost fulfilled the decades-long plotting by violent white nationalists to overthrow the government.
At the center of the conspiracy is Oath Keepers founder and leader Stewart Rhodes. In effect, he organized an insurrection within the government itself. He recruited police and soldiers armed with a zealous faith in the Constitution to wage a “bloody revolution” against a tyrannical government they believed was subverting the Constitution. Instead, the Oath Keepers find themselves accused of trying to violently overthrow the constitutional order.
The Oath Keepers, Proud Boys and loosely organized Three Percenter militia, are considered the main instigators of violence among thousands of Trump supporters who stormed the Capitol. But with 566 extremist anti-government groups and 169 active militias around the country as of 2020, how did the Oath Keepers, once ridiculed as “keyboard warriors,” become the tip of the spear for Jan. 6?
Tea Party Days
The Oath Keepers began with a blog post. In early 2008, Rhodes fantasized Americans would rise up to stop President “Hitlery” Clinton from imposing martial law, confiscating guns, dragging off patriots to internment camps, and with the public defenseless, ordering soldiers to “shoot old women and little children.” That post caught the attention of Tea Party activists when they burst on the scene weeks after Obama took office. On April 19, 2009, Rhodes turned his fantasy into reality at Lexington Common in Massachusetts. He held the Oath Keepers founding “muster” on the same spot and date when the first shots were fired in the American Revolution 234 years earlier. The date is deeply symbolic to the extreme right. It is also the anniversary of the fiery end to the Waco siege, the Oklahoma City bombing, and the execution of Richard Wayne Snell, a fellow traveler with the ultraviolent Posse Comitatus.
Rhodes thrived in the hothouse of hate media, earning praise from Pat Buchanan, Glenn Beck, and Lou Dobbs. He found a powerful megaphone on the Alex Jones Show with dozens of appearances and set his sights on the mainstream. On July 4, 2009, Rhodes held swearing-ins for members at 30 Tea Party rallies across the country. But Rhodes wasn’t interested in town halls, emailing, and voting.
Rhodes was recruiting police and soldiers to resist orders they saw as unconstitutional. They recited an oath he adopted from the one military officers and soldiers swear “to defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic.” They also pledged to a “Declaration of Orders We Will NOT Obey” to “prevent the destruction of American liberty.” The Oath Keepers stood apart from other militias popping up around the country: Only current or retired police, soldiers, or first responders qualified as full members.
Based on leaks of Oath Keepers databases, Rhodes’ efforts paid off with 25,000 members who joined by 2015. Some 500 members identified as having police or military experience as of 2021. Rhodes’ apocalyptic vision came to be on Jan. 6. So far at least 134 insurrectionists out of some 700 charged with crimes have been identified as current or former military personnel or police officers.
The Oath Keepers was part of the surge in the antigovernment Patriot movement during Obama’s first three years in office. The Southern Poverty Law Center recorded an eight-fold increase in “conspiracy-minded groups that see the federal government as their primary enemy.” David Neiwert, who wrote the book on the Patriot movement In God’s Country describes its mindset as an “ultranationalistic and selective populism which seeks to return the nation to its ‘constitutional’ roots — that is, a system based on white Christian male rule.”
In leading the first violent coup in American history, the Oath Keepers can trace their success back to how violent white nationalism has gone mainstream over the last 50 years.
The Roots of Extremism
The Patriot movement did not appear out of thin air. It grew out of Posse Comitatus, which nurtured the twisted branches of today’s far-right extremism. Founded in 1971 by Bill Gale, a malingering former Army Lieutenant Colonel, Posse Comitatus advocated for armed insurrection. The son of a Russian Jew who fled pogroms, Gale was a preacher in the viciously anti-Semitic, white nationalist, and anti-communist Christian Identity movement.
Posse Comitatus went on to spawn militias, “constitutional sheriffs” who claim they are the highest law in the land, “sovereign citizens” who reject federal authority, and “common law grand juries” that claim the power to arrest and try public officials. In 2016, each one of these types of extremists converged at the Bundy occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge — including the Oath Keepers and other militias.
According to Daniel Levitas, author of The Terrorist Next Door, Posse Comitatus “embraced Identity theology; preached its unique form of constitutional fundamentalism; opposed taxes, government, and gun control; promoted countless conspiracy theories; and reveled in all things racist and anti-Semitic.” It breathed life back into Klan and neo-Nazi ideologies that had retreated to the darkest corners of America after the defeat of European fascism and the progress of the Civil Rights Movement. By the 1980s Posse Comitatus had won over a thousand hardcore followers with appeals to the Constitution and sovereignty, and capitalizing on anger over the devastating farm foreclosure crisis by “blaming an international Jewish banking conspiracy.”
Posse Comitatus carried out bombings, murders, and bank robberies, and Gale told followers to “run a sword” through Jews and to lynch Black people. It was part of a network of violent white nationalists, including the Montana Freeman, Aryan Nations, and the Klan, that was largely eliminated in the 1980s through criminal prosecution, civil suits, and counter-organizing. But Gale started a process of sugarcoating extremism. He founded the precursor to Patriot militias that took center stage during the Clinton era. The militias publicly rejected racism, ties to neo-Nazis, or America ruled by white Anglo-Saxon Christians. They promoted themselves as Constitutionalists, as lawful, as defensive in posture against an out-of-control government.
But key militia figures were affiliated with the Aryan Nations and Christian Identity. They were insurrectionists like Posse Comitatus. Their plans drew from the Klan and The Order, white supremacist terrorists who took their name from The Turner Diaries, “a racist’s vision of a nightmare world, in which ‘The System’—African American enforcers led by Jewish politicians—attempt to confiscate all guns.” Patriot militias slightly toned down the racism to a “New World Order” of powerful bankers who would use the Bloods and Crips gangs to conduct house-to-house searches. Guns would be seized, resistors arrested, and the population culled in death camps. Timothy McVeigh, who in 1995 killed 168 people by bombing the federal building in Oklahoma City, came out of this world, linked to militias and inspired by The Turner Diaries.
The War on Terror Comes Home
A decade later the landscape had changed dramatically. Militias were reviled after Oklahoma City and looked foolish after their prediction society would collapse as a result of Y2K fizzling. They were further isolated by the patriotic fervor for the Republican-led war on terror. By the mid-2000s, active militias dwindled to 35. The Great Recession and Obama’s election that seemed like signs of End Times would revive their fortunes.
It’s clear there was little daylight between Rhodes’ fever vision and that of Patriot militias. From the start, the Oath Keepers traded in extremism. Board members included Richard Mack, a leader of Posse Comitatus-influenced constitutional sheriffs, and the founder of the Three Percenters, an umbrella for violent anti-government extremists that came out of the Patriot militias.
But Rhodes built one of the largest far-right outfits by further sanitizing extremism. He made the Oath Keepers palatable to conservatives by shunning the secrecy of the Patriot movement and denying it was an official militia. He sanded off rough edges by banning racists and attracting some military veterans active in Occupy Wall Street. He walked a line between warning of revolution and rejecting open appeals to violence. He used digital media to draw in thousands of new recruits. And he saw an opportunity in the upheaval created by the Great Recession, the Tea Party movement, and endless wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The Oath Keepers benefited as well from the Fox News and internet pipeline feeding paranoia and conspiracies to the mainstream. The Tea Party movement helped them mask explicit racism and Christian fanaticism even as they fell head over heels for the crude bigotry of birtherism and Obama was a secret Muslim.
At the same time, the Oath Keepers were more than a far-right retread. Just as Posse Comitatus took advantage of the farm crisis and the Patriot movement exploited the anger over the FBI’s disastrous handling of the Waco standoff that killed 76 members of the Branch Davidians, Rhodes mined discontent over the war on terror.
Willing to Die
In 2004, while at Yale Law School, Rhodes won an award for the best paper on the Bill of Rights. He argued the ability of the Bush administration “to designate any person on the planet an enemy combatant” was unconstitutional. He warned unless the Supreme Court vacated this power, not only would it remain “a loaded weapon — a perpetual threat to our liberties — to be picked up by the next overzealous, overconfident and willful president,” it would be national “suicide.”
Rhodes was obsessed with enemy combatants in founding the Oath Keepers. He envisioned police and soldiers going “house-to-house to disarm the American people and ‘black-bag’ those on a list of ‘known terrorists,’ with orders to shoot all resisters.” Militias would be declared enemy combatants and subjected to “secret military detention without indictment or jury trial, ‘enhanced’ interrogation techniques, and trial before a military tribunal.”
Rhodes was paranoid, but he wasn’t crazy. He was as incisive as an ACLU lawyer in shredding the flimsy legal architecture of the war on terror. In January 2012 he analyzed the grave dangers posed by allowing the president to declare anyone an enemy combatant, which Bush had done to two U.S. citizens. Days earlier, Obama had signed the National Defense Authorization Act “codifying indefinite military detention without charge or trial into law for the first time in American history,” according to the ACLU. Rhodes noted Obama went further by killing a U.S. citizen without due process— the drone assassination of Anwar al-Awlaki in September 2011.
It turns out the militias were right. A rogue U.S. government was waging war on its citizens. But the Oath Keepers could not leave behind their white nationalist past. Rhodes ignored that the targets of post-9/11 government repression were Muslim immigrants. Al-Awlaki was Muslim as were the two U.S. citizens placed in military detention.
White, far-right gun owners, the base of militias, were least likely to draw government scrutiny. Two weeks before the Oath Keepers was founded, the Department of Homeland Security released a report that now reads like a road map to the coup. It warned of Obama’s election and “a prolonged economic downturn … could create a fertile recruiting environment for rightwing extremists.”
DHS could have been talking about the Oath Keepers’ role in Jan. 6 when it stated, “right-wing extremists will attempt to recruit and radicalize returning veterans in order to exploit their skills and knowledge derived from military training and combat … to carry out violence.”
Predictable right-wing outrage was matched by typical Democratic gutlessness. DHS repudiated the report and gutted the unit tasked with monitoring far-right extremism, ensuring it could spread unchecked.
Even as he dissected the threats posed by the war on terror, what Rhodes advocated in response was ripe with the threat of violence rooted in white nationalism. He bluntly said soldiers should be “willing to die or lose your freedom in order to keep your oath.” If a soldier carried out an unlawful order “that violates the rights of the people, then you’re no different than a traitor who fights for a foreign enemy.”
Soldiers who don’t defend the rights of the people, Rhodes said, are “oath breakers.” To the Founding Fathers that “was like renouncing God.” This is revealing. David Neiwert points out that far-right extremists from the Patriot movement to fringe Mormons like the Bundys treat “the original text of the Constitution as though it were Biblically inerrant.”
Rhodes called on soldiers to refuse orders individually, or even better, organize their units to do a “peremptory refusal,” to revolt. He excoriated senators who voted for the NDAA. “I think they are guilty of treason. I think they should be arrested and indicted and tried for it and then once they’re found guilty they should suffer the proper sentence.” The proper sentence being death.
He saw a stark choice. The United States was at a crossroads. “We’re going to slide into Nazi Germany … or we’re going to have to fight another revolution.”
Everything Rhodes said ten years ago, about soldiers needing to revolt and be willing to die, fighting a revolution, believing members of Congress needed to pay the ultimate penalty, is precisely what happened on January 6, 2021.
But how it came to pass is the story of how Stewart Rhodes and the Oath Keepers moved closer and closer to the white nationalist roots they sprang from, and how they went from opposing government tyranny to being an enthusiastic and bloody arm of it.