Stewart Rhodes, the founder and executive director of Oath Keepers, a far-right national militia network, spoke to a group of retired cops and military veterans at a private campground outside of Winston-Salem, North Carolina in early April.
From his exaltation of the drafters of the Second Amendment in 1789, it might be hard to guess that Oath Keepers is assuming the role of a paramilitary security force within the ultranationalist movement backing President Trump.
“They had seen standing armies turn against the people throughout history,” said Rhodes, a former U.S. Army paratrooper who served as an aide to U.S. Representative Ron Paul and graduated from Yale Law School. “The government becomes oppressive. They view the standing army—who are professional soldiers who have an interest in their profession—they saw them as a threat to the life and liberty of the people. They preferred to leave the military power almost exclusively in the hands of the people themselves.”
Oath Keepers’ name refers to the oath taken by military service members to not only “support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic,” but to a list of orders Oath Keepers believe enlisted service members and law enforcement should not obey. They run from bedrock Second Amendment (“We will not obey orders to disarm the American people”) and standard civil libertarian (“We will not obey orders to conduct warrantless searches of the American people”) to the seemingly improbable and paranoid (“We will not obey any order to blockade American cities, thus turning them into giant concentration camps”).
None of the language in Oath Keepers’ manifesto hints at a connection to the angry White nationalism, anti-immigrant sentiment, and Islamophobia that fueled Trump’s rise.
As a law student at Yale in 2004, Rhodes published an analysis on “enemy combatant” status that might have heartened those on the political left alarmed at President George W. Bush’s widening war on terrorism. Concluding that the Constitution does not allow for the indefinite detention of U.S. citizens like José Padilla who are declared “enemy combatants,” Rhodes wrote, “In no case can a U.S. citizen be treated like an enemy. Our Constitution and its Bill of Rights is structured to keep a sharp separation between civilian and military legal jurisdictions and to prevent the dominance of the military over the civilian and the destruction of our civil liberties and constitutional procedural protections.”
Chatting after his speech at the statewide gathering outside of Winston-Salem in April, Rhodes mused that, as an undergraduate at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, he took some left-leaning friends to a shooting range, adding that he probably wouldn’t provide firearms training to leftists in the current political environment.
Also part of Oath Keepers’ origin story is Hurricane Katrina, another national trauma that transpired during the George W. Bush administration. Rhodes has said that one of the reasons he started Oath Keepers is the official gun confiscation that occurred during the disaster. Yet the organization’s founding, in April 2009, coincided with the start of President Obama’s administration. Far-right militias, also known as the patriot movement, have flourished during recent Democratic administrations, with groups proliferating in the 1990s during the presidency of Bill Clinton, declining during the Bush years, and then surging again under Obama.
While Oath Keepers identifies itself as “libertarian” and “constitutionalist”—a seemingly awkward fit with Trump’s flamboyant authoritarianism—the militia network is unmistakably aligned with the new president, fielding what they call “roving security teams” at Trump’s inauguration on January 20. Since then, Oath Keepers have sent members to provide security for pro-Trump rallies in Berkeley, California that were the scene of running street battles between right-wing nationalists and the militant leftists known as Black Bloc or antifa—short for “antifascist.”
“By being out there in front and protecting people you now have the best chance of influencing the Trump supporters to make sure that they understand the Constitution and make sure that they hold his feet to the fire,” Rhodes said in an interview on a right-wing program called “The Liberty Brothers Radio Show”, “So I think it’s important for all of us in the patriot movement or the broader liberty movement to be very active, even if you don’t care for some of the things that Trump said during the campaign.”
While claiming to oppose both White supremacists and their antifa opponents, Oath Keepers appeared in Pikeville, Kentucky in late April for a joint-rally of the avowedly fascist Traditionalist Workers Party and National Socialist Movement. Matthew Heimbach, the leader of the Traditionalist Workers Party, was charged with shoving a Black protester at a Trump rally in Louisville, Kentucky last July, but is now reportedly claiming that then-candidate Trump encouraged the behavior in a counter-suit against the protestor.
“We’re here to support freedom of assembly, protest, and all that sort of thing,” an unidentified spokesman for a group of Oath Keepers told reporters in Pikeville. “We don’t support any of the views of both of the groups. But we’re here to make sure this stuff doesn’t get violent. We’ve seen a lot of burnings, a lot of injuries, and we’re just not having that in our town.”
Despite claiming a mediator’s role at these rallies, Oath Keepers have had to police their movement to prevent infiltration from overt White supremacists.
Rhodes denounced White nationalists at the April 8 North Carolina Oath Keepers Summit, including Richard Spencer, a prominent figure in the nascent alt-right movement who hailed Trump’s election but has since broken with the president over the U.S. military strike against a Syrian air base.
“Over my dead body will I live in a White nationalist America,” Rhodes said. “That’s not how it’s supposed to be. My great-grandfather and great-grandmother came from Mexico, immigrated here in 1917, and became American citizens. Their sons—three of their sons—fought in the Pacific as Marine riflemen—all the way across the Pacific. To assholes like Richard Spencer, they’re not real Americans because they’re not White. What do you think? If you go to Arlington Cemetery, there are Native Americans buried there, guys like Ira Hayes… the guy who raised the American flag at Iwo Jima. The Navajo code-talkers. Are you kidding? They’re not real Americans?”
While the 30 or so people who turned out for the North Carolina gathering as either current members or prospective recruits were overwhelmingly White, Rhodes mentioned Korean shopkeepers and African-American veterans as prospective members in a “warrior class” he envisions to protect private property from rioters protesting police abuse. Videos on the “About” page of the Oath Keepers website also emphasize diversity, with interviews with an African-American man who attended the group’s first national conference and with the former Ohio chapter president, now deceased, whose wife was Black.
Yet for all its efforts to promote an image of racial inclusion, the group consistently lands on the side of reaction in the nation’s continuing conflicts over racial justice. As tensions mounted in New Orleans recently over plans to remove a statue of Confederate general Robert E. Lee, Oath Keepers put out a call on its website for Three Percenters—an allied far-right militia group—military veterans, bikers, and “other patriots” to show up at the monument “to help defend free speech and also to defend the Civil War monuments from illegal destruction by antifa and other radical leftists.”
While pledging to protect the Lee monument from leftist protesters, the Oath Keepers post omitted any mention that the city council already voted to remove it. The post continued: “In particular, we are sending some of our most experienced retired police officers and military veterans from Louisiana, as well as some of the same Oath Keepers police and special warfare veteran leaders we sent twice to Berkeley—men who are very experienced at shutting antifa down.”
The rationale of Oath Keepers’ armed presence in flashpoints of social conflict switches from libertarian—where the rights of White ranchers are at stake—to law-and-order, where it opposes Black people seeking liberation and freedom from police violence.
Speaking to the National Press Club in 2014 after an armed standoff between Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy and the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, Rhodes said, “Here’s the message for the federal law enforcement that were there: You need to understand how close you were. It was not gonna be a Waco, where it was gonna be you well-trained professionals against untrained men, women, and children in a church. It was gonna be you against other well-trained American fighters…. It was gonna be sheepdog on sheepdog, bloodbath that day. And the why? Because those other oath takers had forgotten their oath, and they had agreed to take the money and go serve as the muscle to go treat their own people like an occupied enemy nation.”
In August 2016, during an uprising in Milwaukee after a police officer killed Sylville Smith, a 23-year-old Black man, an Oath Keeper identified as NavyJack published a post on the organization’s national website typical of the group’s portrayal of Black Lives Matter.
“In addition to Sheriff [David] Clarke, the timing of the Milwaukee riots may provide [Black Lives Matter activist] Deray McKesson and the BLM movement with a mechanism to inflict political damage on two additional high-profile targets of their movement,” NavyJack wrote. “Presidential candidate Donald Trump is scheduled to host two campaign rallies in the Milwaukee area tomorrow, Tuesday, August 16, 2016. He will appear first at 6 p.m. at the Pabst Theatre in an event hosted by Fox News and conservative political commentator Sean Hannity.”
NavyJack reported that Oath Keepers would be monitoring social media to provide reports to local law enforcement “should there be an attempt by BLM or other agents to instigate activities that could jeopardize the safety of citizens attending either event.”
The author went on to characterize Black Lives Matter as “just one of the social movements involved with the destabilization of the United States of America,” also purportedly including La Raza (a name claimed by both a Latino street gang in Chicago and a mainstream national civil rights organization), various revolutionary communist groups, ISIS, and the other “Islamic jihadist movements.”
Clarke, a Black law enforcement officer known for his outspoken conservative views, is reportedly under consideration for appointment by the Trump administration to lead the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Partnership and Engagement, which coordinates interaction and outreach to state and local law enforcement. Clarke’s name had even been mentioned on Fox Business Network’s “Mornings with Maria” as a long-shot prospect to replace sacked FBI Director James Comey.
A darling of conservative media, Clarke’s positions largely mirror Oath Keepers’ racial double standards on liberty and order—defending Cliven Bundy’s White vigilantism against the federal land grazing policies, while denouncing Black uprisings against police violence. In a guest editorial, published by The Hill, he wrote, “We have several forces internal and external attacking our rule of law: ISIS, Black Lives Matter, Occupy Wall Street—just to name the most recent iterations of the elements who brand themselves as unique but seek the same revolutionary aim: take down the West, the philosophy of equality before the law, and replace it with their authority, their rules, their hate.”
For all its avowed commitment to free assembly, the right to bear arms, and other constitutional rights, the Oath Keepers website is rife with paranoid talk about “communists,” “radical Islamicists [sic],” and “international globalists” attempting to destabilize and overthrow the government, and articles stoke a climate of suspicion against the broader anti-Trump movement, Muslims, immigrants, and police accountability activists in general.
In early February, expressing views strikingly similar to those of White House Chief Strategist Steve Bannon, Rhodes described a domestic “axis of evil” on “The Hagmann & Hagmann Report,” an internet broadcast that claims to “transcend the left-right paradigm and delve into the issues behind the sugar-coated news.”
“They have a common enemy and a common aim against Western civilization: ‘We’ll wipe it off the face of the Earth,’” Rhodes said. “And they each have their own vision of a utopia, worldwide utopia, and worldwide system of government. The communists believe it will be a communist worldwide system of utopia…. The globalists, who actually are fascists, see their own ideal vision of the future, which is them in charge. Then you have the Islamicists [sic], who also see a global caliphate. So they all have the same goal, but they are competing totalitarian ideologies that are temporarily in alliance, much like Hitler aligned with Stalin first. Eventually, they’ll turn on each other, but their first goal is to wipe us off the face of the Earth first. And that is anyone who believes in retaining their own culture, anyone who believes in retaining Western civilization here in the United States, anyone who believes in retaining the Constitution and individual liberty. They hate it and they loathe it.”
Black Lives Matter and other Black liberation groups constitute, in Oath Keepers’ view, a fourth pole of opposition that is closely tied to communists. In language reminiscent of the red-baiting attacks on the civil rights movement of the 1950s and ’60s, Rhodes charged during the North Carolina Oath Keepers gathering that Black Lives Matter is part of a conspiracy to intentionally divide people along racial lines for the purpose of undermining and conquering “the American people.” For Rhodes, Black Lives Matter and communists are hardly distinguishable in their ultimate aims. Speaking of those who caused property destruction in Ferguson, Rhodes said, “They were outsiders from Black Lives Matter and other Black radical groups. There were also White radicals coming in—communists—coming in with the intent and purpose of stirring up trouble and encouraging people to light buildings on fire.”
Among groups targeted under Trump’s presidency, Oath Keepers’ aggressive rhetoric isn’t limited to Muslims and Black communities organizing against police violence. Recent immigrants—at least those who don’t conform to Oath Keepers’ narrow definition of patriotism—are also under scrutiny.
“Now all the immigrants are being taught not to assimilate, to hate this country, and to instead have loyalty to the country they came from,” Rhodes said during the same program. “That’s why you see, you know, Mexican flags being flown at these protests. It’s why you see communist flags being flown. They’re being taught to hate their own nation and want to overthrow it. I think Trump is absolutely correct. In fact, I would call on him to impose a wall of troops right now. Don’t wait for the wall to be built. Put the troops on the ground.”
On “The Liberty Brothers Show,” Rhodes asserted that antifa and other militant leftists once viewed themselves as pushing forward a gradual “communist revolution through the electoral process,” first through Obama and then through former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, before gaining a permanent lock on power through mass immigration.
Rhodes’s monolithic view of the left fails to recognize the wide gulf between the Democratic Party establishment and the revolutionary sensibility within antifa, which encompasses both clandestine organizations and situational mobilizations. According to a Durham, North Carolina-based antifa member, who would not offer their identity for security reasons, antifas include anarchists, state communists, and people at the progressive end of liberal. While some antifas organize around electoral politics, the mobilization on the whole stands in counterbalance to electoral politics. Most antifas despise Clinton and viewed Obama at best with ambivalence, while holding a range of views on foreign policy questions such as the civil war in Syria.
While declaring victory against antifa in a YouTube “after report” following its security mobilization for a mid-April pro-Trump rally in Berkeley, California, Rhodes predicted a future escalation of violence at such events.
“One concern that I have is that as time goes on—as [the antifa] gets thwarted because people stand up against them, they’re gonna start going lethal,” he said. “And so I think it’s important if you’re gonna organize an event to be prepared for the worst.”
Rhodes makes no secret of his view that the United States is headed for a second Civil War.
“It’s essentially a rapidly heating civil war,” he said on “The Hagmann & Hagmann Report.” “I know a lot of folks don’t like that terminology. But you can call it an insurrection against the Constitution, which is very accurate…. On our side, it’d be a battle for restoration, but it’s gonna take the same characteristics as any civil war in human history. We have an immensely divided nation. We have essentially communists in the Democratic Party; that’s what they are. Bernie Sanders is a communist. And the entire left of this nation is pretty much Marxist in ideology.”
Far from retreating to rural strongholds of conservatives, Oath Keepers view progressive cities as the focal point of an imminent battle. One point of contention is Oath Keepers’ criticism of the Berkeley Police Department for, in its view, failing to protect Trump supporters during events in February and March.
“Any of the cities dominated by Democrats, you can expect a stand-down order,” Rhodes said. “That’s why people must be prepared to defend themselves. They must go in groups of six to a dozen at least, and be ready to fight. And I really think that’s what we need to see in this country now, is for the people themselves to stand up and re-institute the militia that we’re supposed to be. And I know it’s a scary word and it’s been demonized by the left. It really amounts to you and your neighbors coming together for mutual aid and self-defense. We need to do that together as a community. That’s the real way to counter this.”
As Rhodes shared with the audience at the April statewide gathering in North Carolina, Oath Keepers is recruiting first responders, including firefighters and emergency medical technicians, in addition to its core constituency of military veterans and retired law enforcement officers.
“The local volunteer fire department, when I served on one, I was around myself and there was a room full of about 30 guys,” Rhodes said. “There were some pretty brave people in that room—guys who would go right into a burning building. I realized that was the best we had, the closest thing we had left to a real honest-to-god people’s militia was that volunteer fire department sitting there with me. Who would I want to rely on if things got dicey? The guys in that room, along with the veterans in our community, along with the retired cops in the community.”
Rhodes toned down his rhetoric for the North Carolina Oath Keepers, which broke up into groups by geography, including the coastal plain, the Raleigh area, and the western part of the state, after his talk. He joined Lane “Gunny” Reynolds, a retired Marine Corps gunnery sergeant who serves as state coordinator, in making the rounds to talk to the groups about how to effectively utilize each person’s respective skill set to activate effective chapters.
To prepare for both natural disasters and civil disorder, Rhodes encouraged his audience to organize local community emergency response teams under the auspices of the Federal Emergency Management Agency. He didn’t mention a “rapidly heating civil war,” “communists,” Black Lives Matter “rioters,” disloyal immigrants or “Islamicists [sic]” as he instructed them on how to go door to door to recruit their neighbors.
“You’re not even wearing an Oath Keeper hat,” he said. “You’re just going in there as Joe Blow or Jane Blow. ‘I’m here because I’m starting a CER team. [I’m the] local CER instructor, working with the sheriff’s department. Oh and by the way, I’m on the local volunteer fire department. Oh hi, how’re you doin’? We’re doing a CER team in the neighborhood in case we’re cut off and [have to] self-rescue.’”