With his signature eye patch and fiery speeches, Stewart Rhodes is among the most recognizable leaders of the anti-government movement — and one of its most controversial.
In reality, according to extensive interviews with his associates and extremism trackers, Rhodes is a couch-surfing propagandist whose thousands of recruits paid membership dues but mostly acted as “keyboard warriors,” disseminating violent rhetoric but rarely showing up in great numbers when Rhodes called.
The Oath Keepers contingent that participated in the U.S. Capitol attack was among the biggest showings researchers have seen from the group — about two dozen members or associates, including Rhodes, have been charged with conspiracy, and a handful more face other charges related to individual actions they allegedly took that day.
It was also a moment that would implode the organization and alienate Rhodes from other anti-government leaders. Oath Keepers members, including those charged in the Capitol attack, bristled at what they see as Rhodes’s pattern of calling on followers to rise up and then abandoning them when they faced legal consequences.
“He sets the stage for other people to very quickly make the decision for themselves to engage in criminal or violent behavior,” said Sam Jackson, an extremism scholar whose book “Oath Keepers” traces Rhodes’s path from Army paratrooper to Yale Law graduate to far-right figure.
Rhodes’s record of eluding arrest ended Thursday, when he was taken into custody and charged with seditious conspiracy, along with 10 other Oath Keepers members or associates. The news spread quickly among far-right militants and the researchers who study them, with both camps parsing what the development might mean for the broader movement.
The Oath Keepers origin story begins in 2008, during the mobilization of the anti-government movement in response to the election of President Barack Obama. Rhodes introduced the concept at an April 19 rally in Lexington, Mass., echoing the date and location of the first shots of the American Revolution.
Tasha Adams, Rhodes’s estranged wife and a vocal critic, said her husband had become increasingly radical in the years before Obama was elected. Adams said she cared for their children while Rhodes studied constitutional law at Yale and then served as an aide to libertarian then-Rep. Ron Paul (R-Tex.).
By 2008, Adams said, Rhodes was on a more militant path, imagining himself as “the next George Washington.” When she expressed misgivings about the then-fledgling Oath Keepers project, Rhodes reassured her, she said.
“He swore to me there would never be any actual militia training,” Adams recalled. “He said this is about pushing the First Amendment to the absolute limit and that’s it. We called it the libertarian version of the ACLU.”
Instead, researchers say, the Oath Keepers evolved into a major plank of the anti-government movement, a collection of far-right armed groups that share conspiratorial beliefs about an overreaching government that seeks to disarm and subjugate citizens. The idea is implicit in the Oath Keepers slogans of “Guardians of the Republic” and “Not on our watch!”
Rhodes appealed to veterans and former police officers to “defend” the Constitution, through armed rebellion if necessary. Researchers say the group was instrumental in pushing such once-fringe rhetoric into the mainstream. Even without large numbers of Oath Keepers showing up for standoffs with federal authorities, extremism trackers say, their role in the spread of far-right ideology is dangerous.
“If you have 10,000 people who start using this language of calling sitting congresspeople ‘oath breakers,’ or saying military members have the right to refuse vaccination because that’s an unlawful order,” Jackson said, “well, Oath Keepers there are still having some sort of effect.”
Experts say Rhodes and other far-right leaders grew more visible during the rise of Donald Trump, whom they perceived as an ally and who was the first major-party presidential candidate to be widely embraced by the militia movement.
Oath Keepers raised more than $350,000 in crowdfunding campaigns to cover their travel and other expenses to attend the pro-Trump rally outside the White House on Jan. 6, 2021, according to researchers at the nonpartisan Canadian Association for Security and Intelligence Studies. The group booked a block of hotel rooms and, Rhodes has said, positioned so-called “quick-reaction forces” nearby in case emergency backup was needed.
But Rhodes has maintained that there was never any intention to enter the Capitol and that the group’s role was mainly to provide security on a day when Trump supporters, at the president’s urging, were protesting the congressional certification of the 2020 presidential election. Members who went inside the Capitol, Rhodes has said, “went totally off-mission.”
As the months ticked by with no charges against him, many in the anti-government movement turned on Rhodes, excoriating him for letting his followers take the heat. His reputation was shredded in right-wing forums, where he was accused of being an FBI informant, the only way many militants could rationalize his not being charged.
The idea that Rhodes might again escape consequence while his foot soldiers languished in jail was the final straw for members who had long complained that Rhodes misused the group’s funds for such personal expenses as fancy steak dinners and hair dye.
Some Oath Keepers chapters, which already had only a loose affiliation with Rhodes, declared their independence completely.
Hampton Stall, an extremism researcher who monitors self-styled militia groups, said any future iteration of the Oath Keepers is likely to come from “an insurgency” that’s trying now to regroup into a movement that can endure beyond Rhodes.
“If there’s any sort of accountability that ever comes to him, it will have been after years of him basically telling people to take up arms and shoot people,” Stall said. “His role within the Oath Keepers environment is less about coordinating specifics and more about creating the fertile ideological soil for violence.”