Over the summer, during many of the racial justice demonstrations going on around the country, you may have seen groups of heavily-armed civilians guarding private businesses equipped with protective gear and firearms. But they weren’t the Boogaloo Boys, Proud Boys, or Patriot Prayer — they belonged to something else entirely. In fact, the group — donning its own logo on flags and armor — has been around much longer, and they are known as the Oath Keepers.
The Oath Keepers, who believe themselves to be “the last line of defense against tyranny,” are more aptly described as a conspiracy group, or extremist militia, who have set aside their anti-government stance to support President Donald Trump — convinced that a violent civil war is inevitable.
According to an Atlantic interview earlier this year with the group’s founder, Stewart Rhodes, a hard-line defense of Donald Trump is apparently the solution to impending tyranny. “Let’s not fuck around. We’ve descended into civil war,” Rhodes told the outlet. Leading up to the election, Rhodes put out a call for his followers to protect the country against what he believes to be an “insurrection” and an attempt to undermine Trump. “Our POTUS will not go down without a fight,” reads a recent Oath Keepers email blast. “He WILL NOT concede. This election was stolen from We The People. We will prevail but we need your help! Or we will lose our democracy.”
Over the summer, as civil unrest increased, Rhodes’ prophecies of impending violence grew louder. Members of the group mobilized and traveled across the country to stand armed in plain view of demonstrators and loomed ominously from the edges of rooftops. Often, their threatening presence went unquestioned by law enforcement as they claimed they were there simply to protect people’s property.
In August, when seventeen-year-old Kyle Rittenhouse, a self-described militia member, was charged with shooting and killing two people at a police brutality protest in Kenosha, Wisconsin, Rhodes called him “a Hero, a Patriot” on Twitter. When a Trump supporter was killed later that week in Portland, Oregon, Rhodes wrote, “Civil war is here, right now.” (He was banned from the platform for inciting violence, and the Oath Keepers' official Twitter account and Rhodes’ personal account were suspended in September for inciting violence and predicting “open warfare” with protesters on election night.)
Despite these instances of online activism, the Oath Keepers have managed to galvanize their far right supporters over the years. The group has a history of showing up, heavily armed, during times of unrest. In 2014, when armed militiamen and federal law enforcement were in a tense standoff at the Cliven Bundy Ranch in Nevada, members of the Oath Keepers showed up to lend support to the militia, reports Vox. When protests broke out in Ferguson, Missouri on the one-year anniversary of the killing of Michael Brown, the Oath Keepers made their presence known. More recently, Oath Keepers showed up at the takeover of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon. They didn’t take part in the takeover itself, but claimed their participation was merely to “keep the peace” between occupiers and law enforcement.
So how did the Oath Keepers even come into existence? Founded in 2009 by libertarian lawyer and blogger Stewart Rhodes, the Oath Keepers claim that they are a nonpartisan association of tens of thousands of current and former military, police, and first responders who pledge to defend the Constitution even if it means refusing to obey orders they consider unconstitutional. The self-described revolutionary-in-waiting founded the group as the Great Recession raged on and conservative protesters accused the newly-elected Barack Obama of socialism and tyranny.
“The greatest threats to our liberty do not come from without but from within,” Rhodes wrote on his blog at the time. “Our would-be slave masters are greatly underestimating the resolve and military capability of the people.” To attract an audience, he modeled the Oath Keepers manifesto after the oath soldiers take when they enlist, Rhodes focused on the idea of supporting and defending the Constitution “against all enemies, foreign and domestic.”
The group is fueled by the conspiracy theory known as the New World Order in which adherents believe that the world has been secretly taken over by a worldwide cabal of socialists. It overlaps with many fears Trump supporters have and Trump refuses to assuage. Though this belief sounds almost exactly like QAnon, which has clear ties to antisemitism, Oath Keepers fall more into the camp of simply being extremely anti-government. Neo-Nazism and white supremacy are not part of the group’s ideology.
Ascertaining just how widespread support is for this movement is subject to debate. In a membership list obtained by The Atlantic, there were nearly 25,000 names. Rhodes claimed in 2014 that about 35,000 members paid dues to the organization. The Anti-Defamation League believes their actual numbers are much smaller, perhaps just a few thousand. Still, it is considered “one of the largest radical antigovernment groups in the U.S. today.”
It is difficult to know what they will do next as Trump and his associates run out of ways to contest the election results in the final days of his presidency. For a group founded on anti-government beliefs, the Oath Keepers seem committed to this particular government set up and seem likely to defend it for as long as possible.