He called on President Trump to declare the current unrest a “nationwide insurrection” and to federalize the entire National Guard to oppose it, adding, “Civil war is here, right now” and that the “street assassination of a Trump supporter in Portland” was the “first shot.” He contended that this man was murdered in cold blood by “a member of an international terrorist organization — Antifa.”
The Oath Keepers Twitter account also described the young man who killed two protesters in Kenosha as “a Hero, a Patriot” who acted in self-defense, and retweeted an account alleging that those killed “were scum of the earth” who had felony records — a tweet that Twitter removed for violating its guidelines.
Rhodes’s call for violence against the left has historical echoes — and potentially serious consequences.
Echoes of the 1960s
These tweets repeat a pattern from the 1960s, when opponents of the civil rights movement — and even the FBI — accused activists (including the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.) of being communists. A billboard placed on the route of the 1965 Selma to Montgomery marches in Alabama showed a picture of King with the caption “Martin Luther King at Communist Training School.” The picture actually shows King at the Highlander Folk School in Tennessee, a center for social justice activists.
At the time, with the ongoing U.S. war in Vietnam framed as a fight against communism, these accusations were meant to depict the civil rights movement as un-American, part of a global conflict between the United States and the communist Soviet Union. Rather than depicting activists as belonging to an American tradition of expressing dissent and working to correct injustice, opponents depicted them as an internal threat to the nation.
In the 1960s and again today, Americans who describe themselves as patriots accuse other Americans of treason. Now as then, this rhetoric has the potential to increase tensions and lead to more violence.
Online and offline significance
Stewart Rhodes is not just another disgruntled person with no audience. The Oath Keepers’ Twitter account has more than 30,000 followers. Until Facebook took it down this month, the group’s main Facebook page had more than 500,000. The group is active offline, too. In 2014, armed members of the group traveled to Nevada to participate in Cliven Bundy’s armed standoff against the government and helped to prevent the government from enforcing a court order to confiscate some of Bundy’s cattle in lieu of more than $1 million of fees and penalties that the rancher refused to pay.
Changing priorities: from anti-government to anti-left
As I argue in my book about the group, since it was formed in 2009, Oath Keepers has urged its members and supporters to arm themselves and get ready for war. Until 2016, the enemy in that war was the federal government: Tyranny was right around the corner, and preserving the American republic required constant vigilance. As Rhodes said in a blog post announcing the group’s launch in 2009, “The principle [sic] mission of Oath Keepers is to prevent the destruction of American liberty by preventing a full-blown totalitarian dictatorship from coming to power.”
Things changed when Donald Trump became the Republican nominee for president. At first the group was wary of Trump’s comments about gun control, but that soon changed. The Oath Keepers website ran articles predicting that the Democratic Party would engage in wide-scale voter fraud, and the group organized its members (particularly “our retired police officers, our military intelligence veterans, and our Special Warfare veterans”) to monitor polling places.
By January, the group anticipated that violent leftists would try to prevent Trump from taking office. Rhodes and others traveled to Washington for the inauguration, saying that they would informally supplement the government’s security operation. The group claimed credit for preventing an antifa attack against the Deploraball, an inauguration party associated with the alt-right.
In early 2017, this reorientation was complete. In April and May, Oath Keepers brawled against antifa alongside right-wing groups in Boston and Berkeley, Calif. Though it denounced the alt-right and has long condemned racism, the group insisted that it would fight “radical leftists” to protect white supremacists’ First Amendment rights. To my knowledge, the Oath Keepers has never offered to protect the rights of leftists.
Preparation for violence
This reorientation is deeper than just a pivot to worrying about opponents of the current administration. Until 2016, the group regularly condemned police militarization. The group is now revealing new priorities. It no longer worries much about police militarization, about Americans being killed by law enforcement, or about Americans prevented from voicing dissent. Instead, it is worried about communists.
Rhodes also said that if Trump doesn’t mobilize the National Guard to suppress the “Communist insurrection,” his group will do the job. The group has turned out heavily armed to protests before. In Ferguson, Mo., the group first announced that its armed members would help ensure that protesters could voice dissent without fear of police violence. But once there, they instead provided “security” to three local businesses and to employees of Infowars, the “alternative” media outlet run by the conspiracy theorist Alex Jones. (Oath Keepers probably would deny this characterization of its actions.)
This time, Rhodes is directly calling for the violence that his group and others like it have fantasized about for years. Some individuals have acted on these fantasies. In 2016, four men affiliated with the Three Percenters (a right-wing umbrella movement whose groups have sometimes allied with Oath Keepers, such as during the 2016 occupation of the Malheur Refuge in Oregon) planned to bomb a Kansas apartment complex where many Somali refugees lived. Two individuals who participated in the Bundy Ranch standoff in 2014 killed several people in Las Vegas a few weeks later — an attempt to jump-start the civil war that the movement anticipated. Now, the group itself is calling for its members and supporters to prepare for violence.
Sam Jackson (@sjacks26) is an assistant professor in the College of Emergency Preparedness, Homeland Security and Cybersecurity at the University at Albany and author of “Oath Keepers: Patriotism and the Edge of Violence in a Right-Wing anti-government Group” (Columbia University Press, 2020).