The Oath Keepers' Leader Was Just Convicted. The Far Right Will Keep Thriving
Oath Keepers founder Stewart Rhodes is seen on video during the hearing of the U.S. House Select Committee to Investigate the January 6 Attack on the United States Capitol, on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., on June 9, 2022. Credit - Jonathan Ernst—Reuters
The conviction of the leader of the far-right Oath Keepers militia on seditious conspiracy charges was hailed as a significant win for the Justice Department and a “victory for the rule of law.” But the verdict against Stewart Rhodes and his associate Kelly Meggs, who face up to 20 years in prison after being convicted on the extremely rare charge in connection with the Jan. 6 attack, is unlikely to dampen a growing anti-government movement that has long since moved on from Rhodes’ Oath Keepers organization, splintering into new extremist groups that are younger, more aggressive, and more online.
“We shouldn’t conflate this tactical victory against the Oath Keepers as a final kind of silver bullet success against what is unfortunately a thriving anti-government, anti-authority movement in the United States today,” says Jon Lewis, a research fellow at the Program on Extremism at George Washington University. “The life or death of the Oath Keepers as an entity…doesn’t change the fact that they have a significant number of individuals who continue to support the ideals, the ethos, the conspiracies that made the Oath Keepers who they were.”
Prosecutors alleged that members of the Oath Keepers organized, equipped and trained ahead of Jan. 6, and coordinated their actions during the attack on the U.S. Capitol using hand signs, cell phones, and encrypted apps. Some members were caught on camera forcibly entering through the rotunda doors wearing tactical vests, radios and helmets.
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The jury found that Rhodes, a 57-year-old former Army paratrooper and Yale Law School graduate who founded the Oath Keepers in 2009, played a central role in the violent plot to block the transfer of power and keep Donald Trump in office. Rhodes encouraged members of the self-styled militia to consider themselves as “the last line of defense against tyranny,” and adopted slogans that cast the group’s mission as defending the nation against perceived enemies. Last fall, a leaked roster of 38,000 members revealed dozens of elected officials in its ranks, along with large numbers of police officers, sheriffs, and current and former military.
The testimonies of some of the Oath Keeper members on trial alongside show how effective these tactics could be. Jessica Watkins, a defendant who was found guilty of obstruction and other Jan. 6-related charges but not seditious conspiracy, is a transgender U.S. Army veteran who struggled after she was “forced out of the military after her sexual orientation was discovered,” according to court documents. She worked as a firefighter, an EMT and a bartender before co-founding the small Ohio State Regular Militia. The group soon became a “dues-paying subset” of the Oath Keepers, according to the FBI.
Watkins became obsessed with right-wing conspiracies, testifying that she watched Alex Jones’ InfoWars show “five or six hours every day,” feeding her fears of a United Nations invasion, forced vaccinations and the bombing of U.S. military bases by China. After hearing about the Oath Keepers on the program, she saw her involvement with the group as a way to “still serve in another way” after losing her military career, she said. Many members of the group are drawn by what they see as an existential struggle against a government “co opted by a cabal of elites actively trying to strip American citizens of their rights,” in the words of the indictment against one of the Oath Keepers involved on Jan. 6.
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But even before the insurrection, the group had “lost a bit of steam” as younger, more Internet-savvy far-right organizations like the Proud Boys and the Boogaloo movement entered the broader right-wing ecosystem, says Lewis of GW’s Program on Extremism. Rhodes saw the attack on the Capitol as an opportunity to push the Oath Keepers into the spotlight, amplifying fears of impending conflict with the U.S. government. After Jan. 6, however, Rhodes’ reputation among Oath Keepers took a hit as he stayed in Texas while fellow members were being arrested and accusations of informants roiled the group. Some local militia groups split away from the Oath Keepers, becoming disillusioned with the lack of responsiveness from the national organization, but have continued to actively organize and hold recruitment sessions.
While analysts expect the Oath Keepers to wither in the absence of its leader, “these groups aren’t going away,” says Roudabeh Kishi, the director of research and innovation at the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED), a nonprofit that tracks political violence and extremist groups. “If anything they have adapted to the post-January 6 landscape and they’re continuing to adapt and evolve.”
Far-right groups are increasingly mobilizing around anti-LGBTQ or white nationalist narratives, bringing in new groups of people, Kishi adds. “Some of these bigger names that people have become increasingly familiar with, like the Oath Keepers, are just scratching the surface of these groups,” she says. “The far right isn’t a monolith led by Stewart Rhodes. It’s very, very splintered.”
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Even with Rhodes and other leaders likely in prison and the Oath Keepers’ national organization diminished, the leaders of far-right groups are increasingly reliant not on local chapters or dues-paying member but rather the online forums and encrypted messaging apps where they recruit and organize. “The threat is the network,” says Lewis. “And those have not gone away since Jan. 6. If anything, they have become more prominent, more mainstreamed.”