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The dangerous evolution of the Oath Keepers — and leader Stewart Rhodes

Testimony from January 6 witnesses and court documents paints an instructive picture.
Image: Stewart Rhodes
Stewart Rhodes, founder of the citizen militia group known as the Oath Keepers, speaks during a rally outside the White House, on June 25, 2017.Susan Walsh / AP file

Tuesday’s Jan. 6 committee hearing provided the most comprehensive roadmap to date of how domestic extremist groups, specifically the Oath Keepers, were mobilized to the U.S. Capitol. Testimony and private messages released by the committee have supported evidence presented during the ongoing prosecution of 32 members and affiliates of the Oath Keepers of their role in the insurrection. Taken together, a picture has emerged detailing how an anti-government organization originally formed to oppose a supposedly tyrannical federal government found itself prepared to fight on behalf of a tyrannical U.S. president. 

Understanding this evolution is crucial to understanding the motivations of founder Stewart Rhodes and his organization.

Understanding this evolution is crucial to understanding the motivations of founder Stewart Rhodes and his organization. In the years elapsed since the Oath Keepers’ founding in 2009 and Jan. 6, 2021, Rhodes recognized the strategic upside of embracing a wide range of right-wing conspiracies targeting perceived enemies and out-groups. This worldview then trickled down throughout the rank and file. In testimony on Tuesday, former Oath Keepers spokesman Jason Van Tatenhove described the group as a “dangerous militia, fed by the ego and drive of Stewart Rhodes,” who saw himself as a “paramilitary leader.” 

This description is supported by Tasha Adams, Rhodes' estranged wife, who described to me in a series of direct messages the changes she noticed over time within the Oath Keepers and Rhodes himself. Adams says the group evolved from one that clearly “tapped into the energy and politics of the Ron Paul movement that was so popular during 2008-2009” to focus more on “the politics of the much more right-leaning Tea Party movement.” Subsequently, during the events of the 2014 Bundy Ranch standoff, Adams says she witnessed how “the organization became more militant in rhetoric and actions.” By the 2016 election, Adams notes, “Stewart had completely morphed himself and his organization into a Republican militia group, one that was less about Rhodes’ anti-government ideology and more about gaining popularity” within the right-wing ecosystem.

Indeed, throughout 2020 and culminating in their alleged role in the 2021 insurrection, Rhodes and the Oath Keepers increasingly assumed an openly hostile stance toward the political status quo in the United States, latching onto the “Stop the Steal” conspiracy in particular.

The Jan 6. committee’s presentation also highlighted Rhodes’ comments at the Jericho March in Washington, D.C., on Dec. 12, 2020. In D.C., Oath Keepers provided security for VIP’s and Rhodes gave a speech to the crowd calling on Trump to invoke the Insurrection Act to remain in power. Rhodes threatened that if Trump did not invoke the act, the Oath Keepers would be forced to engage in a “much more desperate [and] much more bloody war’ to ensure that outcome.”

Rhodes’ public comments mirrored his private exhortations as plans for Jan. 6 crystallized.

Rhodes’ public comments mirrored his private exhortations as plans for Jan. 6 crystallized in the aftermath of Trump’s Dec. 19 ‘Be there. Will Be Wild!” tweet. In this moment, Rhodes was tying the fate of his organization to an illegitimate, authoritarian power grab that he feverishly hoped would give his group the fame and legitimacy it had long been seeking. 

The Oath Keepers certainly achieved the former, but the latter is a different story. Militia expert Amy Cooter offers a valuable metaphor for understanding the modern militia movement, describing it as “multiple trees on the same small plot of land…separate entities, but their roots grow in the same soil.” As such, whatever the future holds for the Oath Keepers as an organization, the mobilizing concepts that brought this violent militia to the Capitol continue to inspire a host of actors today, whether they belong to formal organizations or not.

And the danger posed by the right’s singular obsession with the “Stop the Steal” conspiracy does not end with the prosecution of the Oath Keepers, and it did not end with the events of Jan. 6. Rhodes’ willingness to answer the authoritarian call to arms in the hopes of being used as modern-day “brownshirts” further demonstrates what both Jason Van Tatenhove and Tasha Adams have claimed: that Rhodes was not driven by merely by his anti-government convictions, but rather by a hunger for power. Individually, both motivations have proven themselves to be dangerous, but combined they are even worse.