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The Oath Keepers: A Look At The Anti-Government Group Born In The Mountain West

Oath Keepers patrol Emancipation Park for the Charlottesville "Unite the Right" rally in 2017.
Anthony Crider
Oath Keepers patrol Emancipation Park for the Charlottesville "Unite the Right" rally in 2017.

Three known members of anti-government group the Oath Keepers were the first to be charged with conspiring to commit violence after the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6. 

But this group didn't start in Washington, D.C. or somewhere else on the East Coast. Rather, Elmer Stewart Rhodes created the Oath Keepers in Montana in 2009. 

"The group was really organized around this perception that the federal government is increasingly tyrannical, and that federal government posed the greatest threat to everyday Americans," said Sam Jackson, who researches political conflict and wrote a book about the organization

The Oath Keepers formed as the patriotism of 9/11 was wearing off and groups like the Tea Party sprung up to take on the status quo, Jackson says. The anti-government group’s name is based on the oath that members of the military and police swear to, specifically the part about supporting and defending the Constitution. 

"And of course, Rhodes and his friends had very specific understandings of what it means to keep that oath and what sorts of enemies to the Constitution there were that people needed to worry about," Jackson said.

The group rallies around conspiracies about the "deep state" and government officials. Hillary Clinton has been a frequent target. 

Today, COVID-19 and voter fraud are major talking points. Right-wing media organizations that thrive on conspiracy theories and false narratives – such as Alex Jones's InfoWars – have helped drive the outrage.

Jones recently had Rhodes on his show. Rhodes talked about his own, alternate reality where President Joe Biden was a pawn for Chinese communists. Then he alluded to a message he’d sent his followers: that is, they need to prepare for Chinese Communists, working with Biden, to sever all lines of communication in the U.S.

"What patriots should be doing is in their own towns and counties, coming together, squaring around their coms, getting CB radios, ham radios," Rhodes said.

The Montana Human Rights Network is a nonprofit that tracks and counters disinformation from militias, white supremacists and other extremist groups. Rachel Carroll Rivas is co-director there, and says the Oath Keepers are dangerous specifically because they're influencing members of the military, veterans and the police.

"(The Oath keepers) quite frankly, have taken that legitimacy that law enforcement offers, and they've manipulated it to give credit to a movement that is otherwise, you know, counter – completely – to what it means to be leaders in a nation, in a county, in a city, in a state," Carroll Rivas said.

She's hopeful the U.S. can push these ideologies back to the fringe, but believes the Capitol insurrection will have an effect. 

"Some folks will be emboldened, but other folks will be shocked and potentially deterred because it's one thing to fantasize about doing it, it's another to actually go to jail," she said.

But Carroll Rivas emphasizes that just one person following this ideology can still pose a threat. She points to the 80s, when law enforcement started cracking down on militia groups, and there were successful lawsuits against white nationalists. One of those suits took aim at a guy named Louis Beam, Jr., who then came up with another tactic.

"He started advocating for the leaderless resistance – the cell strategy and the lone wolf strategy," she said.

Basically, splitting up to avoid getting caught. 

And lone wolves have a history of producing more casualties. That includes the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995. Timothy McVeigh, a decorated Iraq war veteran and anti-government extremist, killed 168 people, including 19 children.

To prevent these acts of terrorism, Carroll Rivas says, we need to help people gradually discern fact from the abundance of misinformation. 

"I don't think that you can kind of unravel the whole thing at all at once, but you can poke holes, right?,” she said. “Like you can poke a hole in that water balloon. It begins to leak.”

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Copyright 2021 Boise State Public Radio News. To see more, visit Boise State Public Radio News.

Madelyn Beck
Madelyn Beck is Boise State Public Radio's regional reporter with the Mountain West News Bureau. She's from Montana but has reported everywhere from North Dakota to Alaska to Washington, D.C. Her last few positions included covering energy resources in Wyoming and reporting on agriculture/rural life issues in Illinois.
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