It’s an ironclad rule of right-wing-extremist political movements and organizations: The longer they remain in operation and pursue their underlying agendas, the more they become travesties of the causes they originally claimed to address. No American far-right group currently manifests that truism like the Oath Keepers, the hyper-paranoid “Patriot” outfit that feeds on conspiracism and paramilitary while tailoring its appeal to the ranks of law-enforcement officers and veterans.
Mike Giglio of The Atlantic recently took a deep look at the Oath Keepers and the group’s founder, Stewart Rhodes—particularly examining the likelihood that its armed members will engage in acts of intimidation and perhaps violence around the coming election. The portrait he creates is illuminating, especially the contrast between Rhodes’ anti-government rhetoric when he was creating the group in 2009-10, and the group’s current fervent authoritarianism in the service of Donald Trump.
Giglio remarks on how fungible the Oath Keepers’ devotion to Americans’ civil rights not only have become, but in reality always were—reflected in Rhodes’ recent declaration of “civil war,” for which he was booted from Twitter:
Rhodes had been talking about civil war since he founded the Oath Keepers, in 2009. But now more people were listening. And whereas Rhodes had once cast himself as a revolutionary in waiting, he now saw his role as defending the president. He had put out a call for his followers to protect the country against what he was calling an “insurrection.” The unrest, he told me, was the latest attempt to undermine Donald Trump.
The piece goes on to explore the multitude of ways that the Oath Keepers and Rhodes have systematically ignored the Trump administration’s multifarious attacks on civil rights, including the use of federal Homeland Security contractors in unmarked vehicles to abduct and arrest protesters on the streets of Portland—a policy that would have had Rhodes setting his hair on fire under the Obama administration, but which he now ardently approves under Trump.
The Oath Keepers’ alignment with Trump came early and often in his tenure, and in typically paranoiac ways: The group was among the more prominent promoters of far-right conspiracy theories—which later metastasized into the current mainstream-right narrative depicting antifa and leftists as violent Marxists intent on destroying America—claiming that “Marxist coups” against Trump were in the offing: first, during Trump’s inauguration in January 2017, and a few months later, in November 2017, amid the aftermath of the white-nationalist violence involving antifa at Charlottesville, Virginia, two months before.
At Trump events, Oath Keepers began showing up to provide “security” intended to deal with protesters and “antifa.” When Trump tweeted out the suggestion that America was on the brink of a civil war should he be removed from office via impeachment, Rhodes responded enthusiastically: “We ARE on the verge of a HOT civil war. Like in 1859. That’s where we are.”
Giglio describes how the “Boogaloo” movement—predicated on the idea that American civil war is on the very near horizon—arose in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic and the summer-long Black Lives Matter protests around the nation, creating a situation in which Rhodes apparently felt compelled to take a leading role in the oncoming “civil war”:
The moment lacked the clarity of the era in which Rhodes had gained prominence, when Patriot groups positioned themselves against Obama and the federal government. Some “boog bois” were white supremacists. Yet when police tried to separate the protesters into opposing sides, some of the young men in aloha shirts insisted on standing with Black Lives Matter. There were alleged shootings by white supremacists and also by people who’d come out to protest against police brutality. Patriot groups became obsessed with a new Black militia called the Not Fucking Around Coalition; the two sides confronted each other at a march honoring Breonna Taylor, and police had to intervene. Sales of guns and ammo were surging.
As Giglio mentions, the Oath Keepers’ servile authoritarianism on Trump’s behalf starkly contrasts with Rhodes’ rhetoric during the Obama administration. Go back to 2009, and you can find him pledging to “prevent a dictatorhship in the United States” to a sympathetic Las Vegas Review-Journal:
"The whole point of Oath Keepers is to stop a dictatorship from ever happening here," Rhodes said. "My focus is on the guys with the guns, because they can’t do it without them.
"We say if the American people decide it’s time for a revolution, we’ll fight with you."
Rhodes also insisted he wanted nothing to do with white supremacists and distanced himself from the militia concept: "We’re not a militia," he said. "And we’re not part and parcel of the white supremacist movement. I loathe white supremacists."
In reality, the Oath Keepers brand has been associated with violent, threatening extremists from the very outset, and he later proved very tolerant indeed of white supremacists. One of the first prominent members of the group was a man named Charles Dyer, whose online nom de plume was July4Patriot, and who represented the Oath Keepers at early tea party events in 2009, when he wasn’t producing ominous videos urging his fellow “Patriots” to prepare themselves for armed civil war and violent resistance to the newly elected Obama administration.
About a year later, Dyer was arrested for raping his daughter and eventually convicted. Police found a missile launcher in his personal armory. Stewart Rhodes and the Oath Keepers claimed he actually was never really a member and distanced themselves from Dyer as fast they could.
Rhodes has always attempted to present Oath Keepers as a mainstream organization, but the façade was thoroughly exposed in 2009 by Justine Sharrock at Mother Jones, whose in-depth report revealed a cadre of armed and angry extremists with paranoid ideas and unstable dispositions behind the claims of normalcy and civic-mindedness, with the patina of authority that having military and law-enforcement veterans on your membership rolls can provide.
The Oath Keepers played a prominent role in the 2014 Bundy ranch armed standoff in Nevada. A significant number of Oath Keepers responded to Cliven Bundy’s initial plea for support that April in his conflict with the Bureau of Land Management, and so the organization wound up playing a key role both in organizing the armed resistance to federal officers in mid-April, as well as in the nearly lethal mess into which the scene devolved later that month, in the weeks after the initial standoff.
The Oath Keepers were also present at some of the earliest far-right rallies on the West Coast in 2017, notably the ultraviolent riots in Berkeley, California, in April, as well as the large Patriot Prayer rally in Portland, Oregon, that followed the murder of two commuters on a MAX train by a far-right extremist. At the Berkeley event, Rhodes spoke to the crowd in front of an alt-right “Kekistan” banner, and he was followed on the dais by notorious white nationalist Brittany Pettibone. That protest was organized by the Proud Boys, and featured the open participation of a number of white-nationalist groups, including Identity Evropa and the Rise Above Movement.
Subsequently, Rhodes’ reputation among his far-right cohorts has waxed and waned, particularly as the Oath Keepers have increasingly backed out of participation in various events. They failed to appear, for instance, at a protest against Democratic Rep. Maxine Waters that they themselves had organized. At the most recent Proud Boys march in Portland on Aug. 17, Rhodes raised hackles by loudly announcing he was pulling Oath Keepers out of the event because of the likely presence of racist bigots among the Proud Boys and their allies, notably the American Guard.
“We do not, and cannot, knowingly associate with known or suspected white nationalists,” he claimed then; apparently his April 2017 Berkeley appearance fell into a different category.
Rhodes’ vision for the Oath Keepers appears to be to attempt to legitimize their paranoid vision not just by distancing them from overt racism, but also by becoming increasingly associated with the Trump campaign. After all, it has been in service as a kind of ad hoc security force to counter antifa ever since Trump’s inauguration in 2017.
The endpoint of this vision is for Oath Keepers to become an unofficial adjunct paramilitary force that could be deployed by President Trump at his own discretion—say, if he were to be impeached. Rhodes was explicit about this when he announced plans to provide a kind of specialized “Spartan” training program to prepare Oath Keepers for combat with “antifa” and whatever evil leftists might be lurking out there.
We’re going to have our most experienced law enforcement and military veterans, as well as firefighters, EMTs, Search and Rescue — guys that we’ve vetted that are qualified to teach, to go and train average Americans in how to organize their own neighborhood watch, their own security teams, their own event security, and walk them up the ladder in proficiency, so that they are available for the sheriff as a posse, under a Constitutional governor to be a state militia, or if it was called out by the President of the United States to serve as a militia of the United States to secure the schools, protect our borders, or whatever else he asks them to do to execute our laws, repel invasions, and to suppress insurrections, which we’re seeing from the left right now.
So we want to see a militia, basically, reestablished in this country and trained up. So we’re calling them training groups, we’re not calling them militia, because we believe that we want them to be a pool of people that can be utilized by the governor, by the sheriff, or by the president of the United States.
The danger that groups like the Oath Keepers—along with their affiliated street-brawling gangs like the Proud Boys and Patriot Prayer—is the rising likelihood, as Giglio explores, that they will bring their tactics of weaponized intimidation into play on Trump’s behalf during the coming election, as well as its aftermath. Many of them, it seems, are gearing up for violence regardless of the outcome, including a 29-year-old ex-Marine named Joe Klemm:
“It’s going to change in November,” Klemm continued. “I follow the Constitution. We demand that the rest of you do the same. We demand that our police officers do the same. We’re going to make these people fear us again. We should have been shooting a long time ago instead of standing off to the side.”
“Are you willing to lose your lives?” he asked. “Are you willing to lose the lives of your loved ones—maybe see one of your loved ones ripped apart right next to you?”