With his face tattoos and rocker-style denim jacket, Jason Van Tatenhove stood out among the buttoned-up Capitol Hill crowd at Tuesday’s select committee hearing examining the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol.
Instead, Van Tatenhove’s role was to lay out the apocalyptic worldview that underpins far-right movements such as the Oath Keepers, which he said dreamed of and trained for the kind of high-profile uprising that unfolded in the waning days of Donald Trump’s presidency. His grim warnings about the potential for future violence also underlined the House committee’s central theme that Jan. 6 was not a single event, but part of an extremist agenda to weaken public trust in democratic institutions and make political violence more palatable.
“I think we’ve gotten exceedingly lucky that more bloodshed did not happen because the potential has been there from the start,” Van Tatenhove told lawmakers.
Tuesday’s hearing revealed little new intelligence about the key extremist movements involved in the Capitol attack, but it did underscore how Trump’s rhetoric about “fighting” political opponents on a “wild” day instantly was received as an order to mobilize. Van Tatenhove spoke alongside another witness, Jan. 6 rioter Stephen Ayres, who testified that he and other Trump supporters acted directly in response to the president’s tweets. Members of the committee described Trump’s posts as a call to action for his millions of followers, even “a call to arms.”
Rep. Jamie B. Raskin’s (D-Md.) opening statement portrayed extremist organizing as one of three rings of attack that day, along with political maneuvering inside the White House and the “large and angry” crowd assembled outside. The middle ring, Raskin said, was where “members of domestic violent extremist groups created an alliance both online and in person to coordinate a massive effort to storm, invade and occupy the Capitol.”
Sam Jackson, an assistant professor at the University of Albany who wrote a 2020 book about the Oath Keepers, called the committee’s presentation “compelling,” but said he’s eager to hear more details about the planning extremist groups engaged in beforehand, particularly about coordination among rival extremist groups and any potential links to members of the Trump administration.
Bringing down the Oath Keepers, Jackson said, is “not a silver bullet that fixes the problem of domestic extremism.” While some violent actors might be spooked by the federal government’s prosecution of those who participated in the Capitol siege, the risk for more unrest remains high because state and local politicians are openly parroting far-right talking points, and demonizing democratic institutions and political opponents, he said.
“We shouldn’t fixate on Oath Keepers as an organization,” Jackson said. “We should recognize them as a concrete example of a broader phenomenon. So even if Oath Keepers is Stewart Rhodes, and even if Stewart Rhodes is convicted of seditious conspiracy and spends 20 years in jail, there are other actors out there who aren’t going to be deterred by that.”
Van Tatenhove told the committee he first connected with the Oath Keepers during high-profile standoffs with the federal government. He spent around three years promoting the group before growing concerned as he witnessed an embrace of white nationalists and other “straight-up racists.” Van Tatenhove said he finally broke with Rhodes after hearing senior Oath Keepers denying the Holocaust.
The vilification of “the other side” that’s now common in this polarized political environment was ingrained in the Oath Keepers long ago, Van Tatenhove said. He testified that he once refused a request by Rhodes to create a deck of playing cards of Democratic enemies like the ones the Pentagon issued showing high-value targets in the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. Rhodes wanted Hillary Clinton to be the queen of hearts, Van Tatenhove said.
Van Tatenhove summed up the group as a vanity project for Rhodes, whom he said envisions himself as a powerful paramilitary leader, a description that jibes with other former members who say that, for all his bravado, Rhodes commanded few actual forces.
Still, Van Tatenhove stressed, the group should be considered dangerous because of its ability to widely disseminate violent messaging and radicalize followers. And he said that thinly veiled tweets like Trump’s essentially “gave the nod” to Rhodes and his ilk that it was time for action.