The Oath Keepers are an underrated threat that the United States is facing right now. They have been causing trouble for a long time, while they continue to build up their ranks and develop teams and protocols. Most recently, several high-ranking members have been indicted in the attack on the Capitol in D.C. on January 6th, 2021. The group’s threats to our country, politicians, and citizens, are not finished yet. Lets start with some background about their organization, to give us some idea what we’re up against.
Who they are. The Oath Keepers are a right-wing extremist, anti-government militia. They will tell you different, but if it looks like a duck, and quacks like a duck, its probably a duck. The ADL, the Southern Poverty Law Center, and many other organizations and publications agree that this is their purpose. The group was formed in 2009, just 2 months after President Obama’s inauguration. The founder is one Elmer Stewart Rhodes, touting credentials such as his service as an Army paratrooper, a Yale Law School graduate, and working as a former staffer for Republican Ron Paul. He was disbarred in 2015 by the Montana Supreme Court for a citation of poor professional conduct.
The group’s mission is to recruit former and active-duty military, law enforcement, and firefighters to defend against what they believe is a tyrannical government in the United States. While those groups are the primary target for their membership, any US citizen can become an Oath Keeper if they are sworn in to the group. One of the unique strengths that the Oath Keepers have in their organization is the built-in training, structure, and connections that come from thousands of people who have lived dedicated lives to military, police work, and public service.
Most of the rhetoric that they spout at their meetings and in their publications is focused on complete distrust of the government, but appears to be more finely directed at the liberal side of the government, and any citizen who supports the left. Since 2015, the Oath Keepers and many other militias took an odd turn from being completely antigovernmental, to mixing that ideology with full, cult-like support of Donald Trump. As the 2020 election came closer, and the inauguration of Joe Biden was impending, Oath Keepers (among many others) felt that violence, insurrection, and civil war were imminent. They still believe this, even after President Biden has been sworn into office. In October of 2020, just before the election, Mike Giglio went on NPR to discuss the increasing extremism and violent rhetoric within the group that had even led some of it’s own members to leave. This has not slowed down their growth, however. At current, their membership is over 40,000 strong, and growing.
The Oath they are Keeping. The group is made up primarily of active duty and retired military, law enforcement, first responders, and elected officials. Each of those groups takes an oath to protect the rights of the American people, and to defend the Constitution. The group exists to continue that work outside of government-organized and funded groups. The oath that these veterans vow to, and the oath that new members are required to recite upon swearing in to the group is, “I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; and that I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office on which I am about to enter: So help me God.“ There is a heavy focus on domestic enemies, which includes whatever person or organization meets their vision of what an enemy to the Constitution is. This can include opposing political groups, individual politicians, citizens, or our own United States government. They are motivated by an unrelenting sense of moral duty (fueled entirely by right-wing conspiracy) to protect our country and it’s most sacred document. In this way, they feel their actions to “defend” the Constitution in whatever ways they see fi, are justified, and in their minds should be legal.
Their history. The Oath Keepers have a long history of militia-organized activities that have highlighted their dangerous sense of superiority and power over the government. Fueled by conspiracy, members believe that they are acting on defense, but have consistently responded to their perceived threats with offensive, aggressive, and intimidating tactics. Here are some examples:
– The Bundy Ranch stand-off of 2014. This event came to a head after over 20 years of disagreement between the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and Cliven Bundy over cattle grazing rights. Oath Keepers founder Stewart Rhodes can be heard giving a speech at the stand-off in this linked video.
– Presence after Ferguson unrest after the shooting of Michael Brown. In 2014, the Oath Keepers felt that the police response to unrest in Ferguson was insufficient, so they mobilized to provide “security” to local businesses by stationing themselves on rooftops, armed to the teeth. To further espouse their sense of superiority over government, these actions were continued even after there was a police order telling them to stop. An article in the Washington Post said, “The men—all of them white and heavily armed—said they were in the area to protect someone who worked for the Web site InfoWars, which is affiliated with talk-radio conspiracy theorist and self-described ‘thought criminal against Big Brother’ Alex Jones.” The police chief in St. Louis County said to journalists that the presence of the Oath Keepers was both inflammatory and completely unnecessary.
– Unauthorized armed presence at military recruitment centers. In 2015, two tragic shootings occurred at a military recruitment center, and a Naval operations center in Tennessee. This action moved multiple militias to act in defense of the military’s safety, even as the various branches of our military asked them not to do so. In contrast to their primary “mission” in this case, the military had to create an entire security plan simply to deal with the militia that showed up to presumably “protect them” while they were working at recruitment offices. Stewart Rhodes, founder of the Oath Keepers, put out a national call to members to stand guard at recruitment centers across the country. He told journalists that it is “absolutely insane that recruiters aren’t allowed to be armed. They’re sitting ducks. They’d be better off if they were walking down the streets of Baghdad, because at least in Baghdad, they could move. Here, they’re stationary.” Needless to say, their actions caused more harm than good. In regards to the strengthening of the Oath Keepers organization, it was a smart move for Rhodes to have told his members that they were solely responsible for protecting the greatest defense force in our country, our US military. It elevated their perceived sense of power and importance above the capabilities of our own armed forces.
– Kim Davis offer of protection. In 2015, county clerk, Kim Davis was held in contempt of court for refusing to issue same-sex marriage licenses. After she was released, the Oath Keepers offered her their constant armed protection, promising that they would not allow her to be “illegally arrested” again. She declined their offer, though the Oath Keepers remained available. While the organization itself does not advertise that it has any particular political leanings, actions like this, among others, show a clear bias toward right-wing extremist politics. It also further promotes the idea that they have more power and clout than the courts of the United States of America.
– Unrequested “security” of schools throughout the country. After the tragic school shooting at Stoneman Douglass High School in Florida, the Oath Keepers announced that they did not trust the government to adequately protect our children. As a result, Rhodes put out a national call to arms for Oath Keepers to arm themselves and patrol around the perimeter of school grounds to protect children from threats like this.
The Capitol attack on January 6th, 2021. The United States Capitol Building was stormed and held under siege by hundreds of right-wing extremists inside the building. Thousands participated in the siege outside as well. After intense investigations by the FBI, it was determined that at least three members of the Oath Keepers were present inside of the Capitol Building, wearing Oath Keepers gear, and allegedly working with a team of 30 or more other members who were also present. Jessica Watkins, one of the Oath Keepers who was arrested after being identified by the FBI as one of the people inside of the Capitol building, was recorded in a walkie-talkie-type app as saying, “We have a good group. We have about 30-40 of us. We are sticking together and sticking to the plan.” Another unidentified member replied, “You are executing citizen’s arrest. Arrest this assembly; we have probable cause for acts of treason, election fraud.” Yet another man chimed in with the phrase, “This is what we’ve been training for.” The belief that fueled this insurrection is centered around the ultimate enemy of the Oath Keepers, the fictional “Deep State.”
This is a perfect example of what can happen when an organization such as the Oath Keepers perpetuates the idea that the government is inherently corrupt and has turned against the people of the United States. This is what happens when Stewart Rhodes convinces his followers that only the Oath Keepers have the power, clout, and responsibility to save the nation from itself. Members who stormed the Capitol that fateful January day were fueled with a concrete sense of justice, pride, and strength. Because of the actions of Donald Trump, among other political leaders, many militia groups and citizens rose to the call for violence, believing that their President was imbuing them with a mission that only they could accomplish. After Trump turned his backs on them and refused to pardon any of them, several came to their senses, but many more have had the fires of insurrection stoked within them. As a result, the Oath Keepers are growing bigger and stronger as an organization.
The Oath Keepers have, are, and always will be a threat to the American people and to the United States government. We must keep careful watch, and learn to prepare ourselves for what may come of it.