The Decline and Fall of the Oath Keepers

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On January 13, 2022, the FBI arrested Oath Keepers founder Stewart Rhodes for his alleged role in last year’s riot at the U.S. Capitol. According to the charging documents, Rhodes and other Oath Keepers formed a “quick reaction force” ready to “rapidly transport firearms and other weapons into Washington, D.C., in support of operations aimed at using force to stop the lawful transfer of presidential power.” He and 10 other defendants have been charged with seditious conspiracy and several other offenses, ranging from assault to evidence tampering.

Their plotting was inept, and the plan went nowhere. While several Oath Keepers did storm the Capitol on January 6, 2021, they left their guns behind; the so-called quick reaction force appears to have stayed at the hotel. The whole operation, in the words of Reason‘s Jacob Sullum, amounted to “a sideshow in a much broader spasm of vandalism and violence that was itself utterly futile.”

But even as an unrealized fantasy, those hotheaded plans contrast sharply with Rhodes’ original pitch for his organization.

When the Oath Keepers were launched in 2009, the group’s central idea was simple and direct: It urged cops and soldiers to remember their oath to uphold the Constitution, and to lay down their arms if ordered to violate Americans’ rights. To that end, the group circulated a list of commands its members would not obey. Some of these hypothetical orders (“to detain American citizens as ‘unlawful enemy combatants'”) were more plausible than others (“to assist or support the use of any foreign troops on U.S. soil against the American people”). But in each case, the upshot wasn’t violent revolt; it was nonviolent refusal.

If you squint, you might spot a trace or two of those ideas in Rhodes’ post-election scheming. (In one chat message cited in the charging documents, he pointed to the largely unarmed Bulldozer Revolution against Slobodan Milošević as a model.) But his thinking had clearly taken a turn toward violence. Rhodes reportedly said after the election that if Joe Biden took office, a “massively bloody revolution” would be in order. In another message quoted in the indictment, sent two and a half weeks before the riot, an alleged conspirator who said he had just spoken with Rhodes reported that “the time for peaceful protest is over in his eyes.”

This isn’t the first time a group’s purpose has evolved radically. Just ask any historian of the 1960s to compare what Students for a Democratic Society was like in 1962 to what it was in ’69. But while the Oath Keepers have certainly undergone their share of splits and detours since their founding, they did so while one man stayed at the group’s helm. The story of the Oath Keepers’ evolution is ultimately the story of Stewart Rhodes’ evolution. And the last decade saw two big changes in how he viewed his organization and the world.

The first of those shifts was tactical. The group’s original mission sounded like something straight from a classic text on nonviolent political action. (Pick up Gene Sharp’s The Methods of Nonviolent Action and turn to method number 148: “troops, police, or both may mutiny and flatly refuse to carry out orders.”) But over the course of the 2010s, the Oath Keepers started finding new methods and new missions.

In 2013, the organization started forming armed cells. These “training cadres,” Rhodes told U.S. News & World Report, intended to go into communities and “train the local population in how to provide their own security and to help lead them.” You can find something sort of like that in Gene Sharp too (method 198: “the creation, or acceptance, of some type of a parallel government”). But this initiative clearly involved a new relationship between the Oath Keepers and their weapons. As Rhodes’ estranged wife later complained to the Los Angeles Times, they now looked like they “were running around playing army.” The group was soon lending out its protective services—guarding shops against rioters in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014, for example, and turning up as security at various right-wing protests.

Why did those protesters welcome armed guards? Not, by and large, because they were afraid of the authorities. They tended to be worried about counterprotesters, especially the ones associated with the loose left-wing network known as antifa.

That leads us to the other big change. Groups like the Oath Keepers often bristle when they’re called “anti-government,” since they don’t oppose all government action. In the Oath Keepers’ case, there’s the added issue that they recruit mostly among current and former public employees. But most of their fears, in the beginning at least, involved the ways state power could be abused. To the extent that they now focused instead on nonstate groups such as antifa, some basic dynamics changed.

Those dynamics changed even more when a candidate supported by many Oath Keepers—Donald Trump—became president. It’s hard to be “anti-government” if you feel committed to the head of state. And Rhodes was certainly feeling that commitment in the aftermath of the 2020 election: Fully embracing conspiracy theories that claimed the election had been stolen, he announced that “enemies foreign and domestic” were “attempting a coup.”

Rhodes and company have not gone to trial yet, and we have yet to see what defense they’ll offer. The government has certainly blown sedition cases before: The last time it brought such a charge, against the Michigan-based Hutaree militia in 2010, a federal judge decided there wasn’t sufficient evidence that the defendants’ chatter about killing cops had been more than First Amendment–protected bluster. There are, to be sure, some notable differences between that case and this one, including the fact that one of the accused Oath Keepers has pleaded guilty and agreed to cooperate with the prosecution. We’ll see what a jury has to say.

But whether or not he’s found guilty on any counts, Rhodes clearly has traveled a long way since the Oath Keepers began. The Capitol riot isn’t even the most striking sign of that: Violent though it was, it was the sort of violence that often crops up adjacent to peaceful activism. (“Whether in 1980s Poland, Serbia in 2000, Egypt in 2011, or the ongoing situation in Belarus,” Daniel Trombly noted in Foreign Policy last year, “even overwhelmingly nonviolent movements employ barricades, throw stones, brawl with cops, or ransack state buildings.”) No, the strongest sign of a change was Rhodes’ reaction to a different burst of unrest. During the protests and riots of 2020, Rhodes told The New Republic that the president should “call all of the National Guard units into federal service, under his command, and use them to suppress the insurrection in the streets.”

Trump did not take that advice. But if he had, I sure hope some of those Guardsmen would have been willing to refuse unconstitutional orders.

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