“I want to say a few things before they send me off to a gulag,” Oath Keepers founder Stewart Rhodes told the audience at a right-wing anti-immigration rally in Texas this week—obviously still looking over his shoulder as federal prosecutors continue to circle in an ever-tightening pattern around Rhodes’ role as a participant in the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol.
Rhodes’ admission was of the self-martyring kind. But by speaking at a Laredo rally intended to bolster the hollow right-wing rhetoric about a faux “crisis” at the U.S. Mexico border, he demonstrated how far-right disinformation campaigns—in this case, around both the Capitol insurrection and border immigration issues—frequently overlap and commingle. It’s all one big stew of lies.
“I may go to jail soon,” Rhodes said, according to The Daily Beast’s Kelly Weill. “Not for anything I actually did, but for made-up crimes. There are some Oath Keepers right now along with Proud Boys and other patriots who are in D.C. who are sitting in jail denied bail despite the supposed right to a jury trial before you’re found guilty and presumption of innocence, were denied bail because the powers that be don’t like their political views.”
He also claimed innocence for his members. “If we actually intended to take over the Capitol, we’d have taken it, and we’d have brought guns,” Rhodes said. “That’s not why we were there that day. We were there to protect Trump supporters from antifa.”
Rhodes is indeed in real legal jeopardy. Though federal indictments handed down against his Oath Keepers and Proud Boys cohorts have not named him personally, he is referenced in several of them as “Person 1,” a central player in what prosecutors are describing as a conspiracy to “stop, delay, or hinder Congress’s certification of the Electoral College vote.” As Marcy Wheeler notes, Rhodes is implicated in both the Oath Keepers indictment and the separate complaint, primarily for harassment of police, against member Robert Minuta.
It’s unclear who invited Rhodes to speak at the March 26 “We The People Stand For Border Security” rally in Laredo, and no official Republican entities claimed affiliation with the event, but numerous Republican leaders attended and spoke, including Texas GOP chairman Allen West. Appearing onstage a little before Rhodes, West urged the audience to uphold “the rule of law.”
The rhetorical connective tissue between the “border crisis” crowd and the “Capitol insurrectionists were the real patriots” bloc apparently is a shared belief in a widespread “Patriot” movement conspiracy theory that “Chinese communists” secretly control the Biden administration and the Democratic Party, leading thus to both the persecution of good American “Patriots” and an “open borders policy” designed to flood the nation with immigrants.
The rally featured a roster of speakers who repeatedly claimed that immigration was out of control under President Biden. Rhodes was introduced by a speaker who acknowledged that “Oath Keepers get a bad rap,” but insisted: “These are real patriots who get what the Constitution is and want to make sure that that constitution is protected. So if you’re looking for the front line of defense against the communists, I’d say that the reason why the media hates Oath Keepers is because they’re standing in their way.”
Rhodes’ speech featured similar claims, including his running characterization of Biden and the Democrats as a “puppet” of “the Chinese communists.”
“We’re facing a communist overthrow of our nation, and this is a fact,” Rhodes said, harkening back to the Revolutionary War for comparison with the current moment. “You now have a foreign power, the Chinese and the globalists, who have illegitimately installed their puppet, the ChiCom puppet Biden, through a stolen election,”
This was nothing new. At a Dec. 12 “Stop the Steal” rally in Washington, Rhodes had characterized the Democratic administration in identical terms, calling on Trump to invoke the Insurrection Act to help him remain in power, adding that a failure to do so would require groups such as the Oath Keepers to mount a “much more desperate [and] much more bloody war.”
The Oath Keepers founder has been agitating for a new American civil war for some time, which began reaching a fever pitch this summer amid lethal shootings between pro-Trump “Patriots” and leftist counterprotesters. And by his own acknowledgement, he may now be facing the consequences of having spurred his members into insurrection in the process.
Moreover, Rhodes’ inclusion at a ginned-up “border crisis” event speaks volumes about the nature of the disinformation- and conspiracy-theory-fueled alternative universe occupied by the Republican right post-Trump. It’s a truism of scholarly research on conspiracy theories that conspiracists never believe just one theory; rather, the whole universe predicated on such demented epistemology blends one into another after another.
Allen West, the Texas GOP chairman who appears to have spearheaded the event, has a long history of dalliances with the extreme conspiracist right. Most recently, he has been among the leading Republican advocating for Texas’ secession from the United States, an idea largely circulated by far-right extremists. He also dismissed the attack by a “Trump Train” caravan in Texas on a Biden/Harris campaign bus as “fake news and propaganda.”
Rhodes and West were joined onstage at the rally by a host of Republican figures, including Sandra Whitten, the 2020 GOP nominee for Texas’ 28th congressional district; Jennifer Fleck, an unsuccessful Texas House of Representatives candidate; “Big Dan Rodimer,” another Republican congressional candidate and former pro wrestler; and Kimberly Fletcher, founder/president of Moms for America, the group that organized the “Stop the Steal” rallies in D.C. on Jan. 5-6.