Oath Keepers Founder Stewart RhodesBY MIKE GIGLI
For years, Stewart Rhodes used a faded leather briefcase to hold his keepsake photos and papers. He left it with his wife and children in Montana when he moved to Texas in early 2020, the year of covid lockdowns, social unrest, and election lies that would lead Rhodes, the longtime head of the militant, right-wing Oath Keepers, to his conviction for seditious conspiracy last week. In October, as his trial began in a federal courtroom in Washington, D.C., I visited Eureka, a remote Montana town near the Canadian border, not far from where he’d lived rough with Tasha Adams, his estranged wife, and their family, amid the pines and logging roads. Adams gave me the briefcase, and I leafed through baby photos, a dog-eared calendar tracking the first months of his eldest child, and the essays he’d written to get into Yale Law School in 2001, when he was a thirty-six-year-old, disabled Army veteran. Rhodes’s essays recounted how his father had abandoned him when he was three; he grew up with his mother and her family of Mexican American migrant laborers, he wrote, “watching my grandparents and uncles work in the fields.” After enrolling in community college in his late twenties, he transferred to the University of Nevada at Las Vegas, sitting in “rapt fascination,” he recalled, through classes on history, and political and legal theory: “I believe that I have an obligation to take part in the intellectual, political, and legal life of my nation and the world.”
I also found an old copy of the magazine Soldier of Fortune, a reminder of the lifelong fixation on guns and militancy that would eventually overcome Rhodes. After founding the Oath Keepers, in 2009, Rhodes eventually abandoned his legal career. He dedicated himself to his organization, drawing in thousands of members, while helping to shape the wider militant movement for which he emerged as a key figure. He took traditional militia concepts, such as gun-rights absolutism and the potential necessity of resisting the government, and packaged them with an originalist reading of the U.S. Constitution. He co-opted the oath that soldiers swear to defend the Constitution—“against all enemies, foreign and domestic,” he often emphasized—to persuade military and law-enforcement veterans to become Oath Keepers.
Last month, Rhodes addressed a jury as a defendant, not as a lawyer, when he testified in his own defense. At his sentencing, expected in April, he’ll face a maximum of sixty years in prison for seditious conspiracy and the two other charges on which he was convicted: obstructing an official proceeding and destroying evidence. The jury found that Rhodes had conspired to stop the transfer of Presidential power; after declaring the 2020 election illegitimate, he had called on then President Donald Trump to invoke the Insurrection Act and hold a new election. On January 6th, he and other Oath Keepers stockpiled weapons in a northern Virginia hotel, and Rhodes stood outside the Capitol as some members of the group stormed the building with other rioters. In encrypted messages later cited by prosecutors, Rhodes compared the crowd with patriots from the seventeen-hundreds, declaring, “Next comes our ‘Lexington.’ ” When we met in Eureka, Adams recalled how, even when Rhodes seemed headed toward a promising legal career, he could become preoccupied with fears of tyranny and civil war, and a sense that the government was after him. “He literally created his own reality,” she told me.
Rhodes is the first person convicted of seditious conspiracy since the nineteen-nineties. His conviction may also influence future January 6th cases. And it raises the question of what comes next for the Oath Keepers and other right-wing militant groups. Will Rhodes’s conviction derail the movement he spent more than a decade helping to guide?
When he testified, Rhodes leaned into the parallel world he’d created as the leader of the Oath Keepers, pitching the group to jurors as something completely different from what prosecutors claimed. It was charitable in nature, he said, dedicated to disaster relief, and to educating members of the police and the military about the protections in the Constitution. His early mantra was “reach, teach, and inspire.” When the Oath Keepers surfaced at flash points—guarding businesses during racial-justice protests in Ferguson and Louisville, or patrolling at Trump rallies—it was to protect people, he testified. He said that one of the Oath Keepers’ missions on January 6th was to guard speakers, and the other, for which they’d gathered their weapons, was to assist Trump if he invoked the Insurrection Act. But that never came to pass.
The arguments at trial largely differed not on facts but on how to interpret them. The government never showed a plan by the Oath Keepers to enter the Capitol. Even two members of the group who had accepted plea deals and testified for the prosecution described their decision to storm the building as spontaneous. One said that Rhodes had called it “stupid” when he found out. Instead, prosecutors argued, the conspiracy was in Rhodes’s fevered talk in public and private about civil war, and in the idea he gave his members that they needed to do something to stop the transfer of power. Members had “seized the opportunity,” prosecutors said, when the Capitol was breached. Rhodes’s lawyers believed that they could convince the jury that, despite his rhetoric, the actions of the Oath Keepers leader had been innocuous. In a closing argument, Lee Bright, one of Rhodes’s attorneys, asked the jury, “Do you use your eyes to see good—or evil?”
Sitting in the courtroom, as Rhodes watched impassively in a gray suit, I thought that his appeals to patriotism and civic duty, and the legal justifications he’d built around the Oath Keepers and their actions, underscored a key element of his history. He’d always geared his messaging toward two audiences at once: one that might embrace his more polished version of the Oath Keepers, and one that would intuitively understand the baser appeals the group was making. It’s not clear now how the organization and militant movement will evolve without him.
This fall, I met an organizer in the Patriot movement—the broad banner under which the Oath Keepers and other like-minded armed groups coalesce—who had been deeply involved in arranging well-attended meetings and training in his state. That all had significantly dissipated after January 6th, he told me, and gone quiet after what he called “an F.B.I. witch hunt” throughout his region and across the country. The organizer, who asked not to be named, knew Rhodes but had not gone to Washington on January 6th, he said. After the assault on the Capitol, he believed that he had been tailed on multiple occasions, and then F.B.I. agents contacted him for a meeting. The tone and tactics of the agents made the meeting seem to the organizer, a U.S. military veteran, “like a negotiation that would happen overseas with a tribal leader.” He took comments they made as a threat that he’d be arrested if he continued organizing. He stopped doing so on a large scale, he said, adding that the other groups he knew had done the same. “I still have a responsibility to protect my community,” he said. He called the federal response to January 6th “a targeted attack on political opposition” and said that, for now, it was best to stay quiet and keep a low profile.
His description tracked with the findings of a monitoring organization called the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project, a nonprofit that compiles statistics on political violence worldwide. It has found that, since January 6th, there has been a significant decline over all in protests, rallies, and other events tied to traditional militia-style groups like the Oath Keepers. This decline has come even as instances of armed far-right protesters showing up at demonstrations—often tied to the Proud Boys and related to culture-war issues such as L.G.B.T.Q. rights—have increased.
Tom O’Connor, a former F.B.I. agent who studied the Oath Keepers and their counterparts in the militant movement extensively, said that the January 6th prosecutions have ended the sense of impunity that the groups felt under Trump. “They may flourish when nobody is investigating. But they pushed the envelope over the top,” he told me. Four co-defendants were convicted of various offenses alongside Rhodes last week, four more Oath Keepers began their own trial for seditious conspiracy on Tuesday, and still more have pleaded guilty in deals with prosecutors. Members of another prominent militant group, the Three Percenters, have also been targeted in January 6th investigations. “There has been a reënergizing of focus on domestic extremism,” O’Connor said, of the F.B.I.’s efforts. “There’s going to be portions of the movement that are enraged by it. And there will be others who say, ‘I’m out of this. I’m not going to jail.’ ” He doubted that another Rhodes-style leader would soon emerge: “Nobody wants to be that figurehead.”
During Rhodes’s trial, I visited a church complex outside Prescott, Arizona, for the bimonthly meeting of a local Oath Keepers chapter. About a hundred and fifty people sat in chairs in a banquet hall on the Saturday after the midterm elections. Jim Arroyo, sixty-two, a gunsmith and former Army Ranger who leads the chapter, stood before them, wearing a black-and-gold Oath Keepers sweatshirt, a matching hat, and a white beard. Arroyo, who says that he has split from the national Oath Keepers organization and has been critical of Rhodes for his role on January 6th, warned of continued division. “Civil wars don’t start on a schedule,” he said. “They are a progression.” Armed men in tactical gear patrolled the parking lot outside. Arroyo acknowledged the pressure that the Oath Keepers were under, saying any F.B.I. agents among the crowd were welcome, while also insisting that the group was not a militia, conscious that this has become a buzzword. At the same time, he said, “I wear my colors all the time. So don’t be ashamed to be an Oath Keeper.”
Strikingly, most people in the crowd looked to be at least in their sixties, with many much older. (The Prescott area is a magnet for retirees.) As I sat at the back of a sea of white and gray hair, one person scraped by with a walker, while an older man sold shortbreads to fund-raise for anti-evolution research at a table beside me. “We will not go quietly into the night,” one speaker said. I also saw signs of how the militant movement might regenerate. Behind Arroyo was a banner for the Yavapai County Preparedness Team, another name for the group intended to show that the Oath Keepers are really about disaster preparedness. Among the things the group discusses and prepares for are social unrest, riots, and civil war.
Arroyo also sits on the board of a political arm of the Oath Keepers, which participated in an Arizona effort to monitor ballot boxes before the midterms. Mark Finchem, an outgoing state representative who has described himself as an Oath Keeper, ran for secretary of state, an office that would have given him power to oversee elections in Arizona. After receiving Trump’s endorsement, Finchem won the Republican primary but narrowly lost the general election to a Democrat last month. At least three other incumbent state lawmakers have ties to the Oath Keepers. One reason Arroyo is confident that conflict is coming, he told me, is that Paul Gosar, his right-wing representative in the U.S. Congress, said the nation was already in a cold civil war when he spoke at a local Oath Keepers meeting. (A spokesman for Gosar said he spoke not about war but political division.) Trump, meanwhile, has made support for January 6th central to his 2024 Presidential campaign, calling the attack on the Capitol patriotic and promising “full pardons with apologies to many.” During Rhodes’s trial, his defense lawyers were reportedly paid by a foundation run by Sidney Powell, one of Trump’s former attorneys.
The top Republican on the House Judiciary Committee, Jim Jordan, has also vowed to investigate both the F.B.I. and the Justice Department after his party takes control of the House in January. Jordan and other prominent conservatives accuse the bureau of political bias in its January 6th investigations. O’Connor said that partisan congressional investigations of the F.B.I. could hamper its efforts to counter right-wing militancy and “pour gasoline on the flame of anti-government sentiment.”
When I asked Adams, Rhodes’s estranged wife, what she thought had driven his transformation from budding lawyer to militant leader, she landed on fear: fear for the family’s security, fear about where the country was headed, maybe even fear of a typical, nine-to-five life. “It was, like, after he created the Oath Keepers, he could say his true thoughts,’ she told me, and it struck me that fear, above all, might be what drew many people to Rhodes’s vision. Fear, to me, is now the dominant mood among conservatives—and perhaps among many Americans. The history of the militant movement, meanwhile, shows that it can be adept at revitalizing itself. Travis McAdam, a researcher for the Montana Human Rights Network who has tracked the Oath Keepers founder for years, told me that Rhodes’s skill as a leader was in establishing the organization as a natural heir to earlier militant groups while simultaneously positioning them “as something new and good.” Rhodes’s military experience and Yale degree helped immeasurably in this effort, McAdam said. The movement’s previous wave had surged in the nineteen-nineties, only to dissipate amid federal pressure and fears of extremism after the Oklahoma City bombing killed a hundred and sixty-eight people. Rhodes was new to the movement when it resurfaced after Barack Obama’s election, but, McAdam said, many of its members and ideas were the same: “The people that leave these groups don’t leave their ideas and political education behind.”