Oath Keeper leader’s conviction is just the start of addressing extremism
The conviction of Oath Keepers leader Elmer Stewart Rhodes is a victory for justice and a reminder of the serious threat posed by domestic extremists.
A jury found Rhodes, a former army paratrooper and Yale law school graduate, guilty of conspiring “to oppose by force the execution of the laws governing the transfer of presidential power by Jan. 20, 2021.”
The government presented evidence, including encrypted chats, that Rhodes and others traveled to Washington with weapons prepared to prevent certification of the election by force if necessary.
Rhodes’s affirmative defense was as disturbing as the charges against him. Far from denying that he came to Washington armed to the teeth on Jan. 6, he testified at his trial that he and his followers feared for President Trump’s safety and were prepared to come to his aid if Antifa stormed the White House.
If that happened, “President Trump could use the Insurrection Act, declare this an insurrection, and use myself and other veterans to protect the White House,” Rhodes told jurors.
In December 2020, Rhodes posted online an open letter to Trump urging him to do just that and call out National Guards and self-styled citizens militias like the one he led to prevent what he considered a coup to illegally remove the president from office.
Passed in 1807, the Insurrection Act states that in the face of open rebellion or acts that obstruct law and order, the president “may call into federal service such of the militia of any state, and use such of the armed forces, as he considers necessary to enforce those laws or to suppress the rebellion.”
In the aftermath of the 2020 election, several MAGA leaders, including former security advisor Gen. Michael Flynn (ret.) and White House attorney Sydney Powell urged Trump to use the act to remain in power.
If Rhodes were a lone wolf or the charismatic leader of a small extremist cult, his actions would be disturbing enough. However, he is the head of a large antigovernment organization.
In 2009, Rhodes founded the Oath Keepers, a group dedicated to resisting what it sees as the federal government exceeding its constitutional authority. The Oath Keepers belong to the militia movement, which developed in the 1990s in response to high-profile government actions, especially the 1993 siege of the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas.
The Oath Keepers have aggressively recruited active service military, law enforcement and first responders. In addition to their legal oath to defend the constitution, the Oath Keepers ask their military members to swear an additional oath, avowing not to obey what it considers unconstitutional orders.
The group keeps its membership rolls secret, but the Anti-Defamation League obtained a leaked cache of data from the organization with the names of 38,000 people with possible ties to the Oath Keepers. By comparison, California National Guard, the largest in the country, has approximately 24,000 troops.
The Oath Keepers are worrisome enough by themselves, but they are not alone. The Three Percenters, another anti-government militia who fancy themselves the spiritual descendants of the Minutemen who fought at Lexington and Concord, claim to have 10,000 members.
In its 2021 report, “The Year in Hate,” the Southern Poverty Law Center identified 488 anti-government groups active in all 50 states along with 245 other extremist groups. The groups vary widely in size, and the membership of each remains hard to determine, but when combined with the much larger group of unaffiliated fellow travelers, the number of armed individuals willing to wage war against the U.S. government could easily number more than a hundred thousand.
Contrary to what some commentators hope, the conviction of Rhodes will probably not deter extremists any more than the conviction and execution of Timothy McVeigh for the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing did. Oath Keeper recruitment increased after Jan. 6.
Considerable evidence suggests that far from declining since the insurrection, domestic extremist groups have simply changed. In a report for the Atlantic Council, Jared Holt describes how they have adapted to increased pressure from the authorities.
Large national groups have decentralized. Instead of massing at national gatherings like 2017’s Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Va., they have shown up at city councils and school boards. This strategy allows them to fly below the radar of federal law enforcement.
In some cases, local police have made common cause with the extremists. The “Constitutional Sheriffs” movement erroneously insists that the authority of elected sheriffs supersedes that of state or federal officials. A 2020 survey of 500 county sheriffs across the country found that 200 believed they had more power than legislators or the president, and more than 10 percent supported the Oath Keepers.
During the run-up to the midterms, the Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association, founded by Richard Mack, a former Oath Keeper board member and former sheriff, sought to expand the role of sheriffs in the election. In Yavapai County, Ariz., Oath Keeper Jim Arroyo coordinated with Sheriff David Rhodes to carry out “Operation Dropbox,” a monitoring effort by “preparedness teams” that many feared would become voter intimidation.
The belief that the Rhodes’s conviction will deter domestic extremists is wishful thinking. It may even inspire violence from those who consider him a martyr for the cause, just as the Bureau of Alcohol, Firearms and Tobacco operation in Waco inspired McVeigh to bomb the Murrow Federal building.
Approximately 30 percent of Americans own 393 million firearms, including 20 million assault rifles. Research conducted by Robert Pape, Director of the University of Chicago Project on Security and Threats, indicates “20 million pro-Trump activists support political violence and about 10 million Democrats support political violence for liberal grievances.” That is a lot of angry people living in a country awash in guns.
Even without the Oath Keepers, Three Percenters, Proud Boys and hundreds of other extremist groups, we have a great deal to worry about.
Tom Mockaitis is a professor of history at DePaul University and the author of “Violent Extremists: Understanding the Domestic and International Terrorist Threat.”
Editor’s note: This piece was updated on Dec. 1 at 1:07 p.m. to correct the name of the state with the largest national guard and to correct figures related to armed individuals mentioned in paragraph 14.