The Oath Keepers and Their Role in the January 6 Insurrection.

AuthorKriner, Matthew

On January 6, 2021, 21 members of the Oath Keepers are alleged to have played a critical role in a wide-ranging conspiracy to storm the U.S. Capitol and disrupt the certification of the 2020 general election. Since its inception in 2009, the group has used a warped sense of patriotism, loose enforcement of laws surrounding paramilitary activity, and America's founding revolutionary spirit to justify anti-government mobilization. It consistently walked the edge of political violence before taking part in the January 6 insurrection. While the group claims to be "guardians of the republic," its principal target is the government itself--particularly entities representing perceived federal government overreach and vectors for tyrannical forces to suppress Americans' natural rights. Following the 2016 U.S. presidential election, a subtle but significant shift occurred in the group's ideological focus, which saw left-wing political ideologies and social justice movements assume equal footing as targets for the group's ire. Over the next four years, the group consistently mobilized armed responses, often posing as "security operations" to perceived threats, and increasingly expressed the belief that the United States was on the brink of or already in a state of civil war.

On January 6, 2021, 21 members of the Oath Keepers are alleged to have played a critical role in a wide-ranging conspiracy to storm the U.S. Capitol and disrupt the certification of the 2020 general election. (1) (a) The alleged role of Oath Keepers in the events of January 6 best exemplifies how the group's activities have varied and evolved from quasi-law enforcement operations to violent insurrection/domestic terrorism (b) while cloaking its activities in a patriotic veneer that supposedly seeks to guard the republic from unseen malign forces. The evidence set forth by the government alleges that Oath Keepers engaged in a well-organized conspiracy to physically prevent the certification of what they perceived to be a fraudulent election and a harbinger of America's demise as a democratic country. (2) Ironically, the very conspiracy Oath Keepers are accused of perpetrating targeted the heart of the American democratic process they claimed to have been acting to protect.

This article proceeds in four parts. Part one provides an overview of the Oath Keepers' origins, ideology, organizational structure, and membership. Part two looks at the Oath Keepers' journey toward political violence by examining the individual criminal and violent actions of its members, its online extremism and threats, the group's real-world operational activity, as well as the group's links and ideological overlaps with more overtly violent and/or extreme far-right extremist entities. Part three outlines the role the group played in the January 6 insurrection, and the group's embrace of violence against the state. Part four examines the post-January 6 trajectory of the group.

This article is derived from a variety of sources, including court documents, interviews with scholar Sam Jackson (who is the foremost authority on the Oath Keepers organization), leaked group chats, and open-source content such as Oath Keepers' social media and websites. Through these diverse research materials, this article advances the understanding of the Oath Keepers and how their warped patriotic worldview and offline mobilizations in the streets of America foreshadowed their alleged involvement in the January 6 insurrection--which sought to disrupt the lawful confirmation of the 2020 presidential election results.

Part One: Who Are the Oath Keepers?


On April 19, 2009, the first Oath Keepers muster was conducted on the historic Lexington Common outside Boston, Massachusetts. (c) Just a month after the group was founded, the event focused heavily on former military individuals speaking passionately about a looming second revolutionary war, globalism's threat to American sovereignty, and the need to resist supposedly tyrannical governance that would subvert Americans' natural rights. (3) The group's founder and leader, Stewart Rhodes, presented his foundational vision for the Oath Keepers that day, read aloud the group's "Declaration of Orders We Will Not Obey," and conducted a mass oath-swearing ceremony with those gathered.

The Oath Keepers' leader--Elmer Stewart Rhodes, (4) better known as Stewart--is a former Army paratrooper, Yale Law graduate, Montana lawyer, (d) and staffer for Congressman Ron Paul (retired). (5) Based out of Montana, his home state, Rhodes is a polarizing figure for much of the militia movement, even within the Oath Keepers. He has faced accusations of being the leader of a massive paramilitary organization, a federal informant, a grifter, or just simply out of touch. (6) Today, Rhodes is the most visible member of Oath Keepers (by his own design) and touts the additional title of "Person One" in federal prosecution filings and Congressional subpoena related to his and the Oath Keepers' alleged involvement in the January 6 insurrection. (7)


In the years between its founding and the January 6 insurrection, the Oath Keepers and their leader walked the edge of political violence and espoused beliefs that, under certain conditions, removing the government by force is justified. Much like its militia and patriot movement predecessors, (e) the Oath Keepers has built a myth around itself as defending everyday Americans from the abuse of an ever-encroaching federal government that is stripping Americans of their natural rights. Yet, in recent years, the mission of the Oath Keepers has evolved into one predicated on a profoundly hostile stance toward the political status quo in the United States.

Oath Keepers rhetoric is deeply conspiratorial and promotes the need for a violent replacement of tyrannical forces in the United States due to an alleged imminent conflict with the federal government. Oath Keepers' "calls to action" in response to such conflict have led to armed standoffs with the federal government, (8) armed intimidation of protestors, (9) implicit threats of violence if their demands are not met, (10) and individual acts of criminality and violence. (11) The events of 2020, including the embrace by Rhodes and the Oath Keepers' rank-and-file of the conspiracy of a stolen election, (f) placed the Oath Keepers on a collision course they had long desired with representatives of the federal government.

The Oath Keepers group is an anti-government, anti-authority right-wing extremist organization (12) that paradoxically portrays itself as "guardians of the republic" dedicated to preserving Americans' natural rights from abstract tyrannical forces. (13) Derived from oaths that military and law enforcement members take, the group's name evokes a sense of inherent patriotism and duty to the U.S. Constitution. In its founding creed, "Declarations of Orders we will not Obey," the Oath Keepers outline their stated purpose:

Recognizing that we each swore and [sic] oath to support and defend the Constitution against all enemies, foreign and domestic, and affirming that we are guardians of the Republic, of the principles in our Declaration of Independence, and of the rights of our people, we affirm and declare the following... (14)

The Oath Keepers are ideologically and operationally best characterized by their preoccupation with preparation for a seemingly inevitable direct conflict against the government, which Rhodes and Oath Keepers view as an imminent tyrannical threat to "control the population." (15) Tyranny's form rotates in the Oath Keepers outlook, allowing macro-level perceived threats (e.g., the United Nations and Marxism) to occupy equal purchase in the minds of the group's members as the supposedly tyrannical actions of executive branch agencies such as the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) at specific localized state and federal flashpoints. Since 2016, the rise of movements like Black Lives Matter (g) and anti-fascist organizing have assumed a prominent role in the pantheon of Oath Keepers' perceived threats, largely stemming from the organization's long embrace of conspiracy theories that fixate on global institutions supposedly forcing Marxism or Socialism onto American citizens via the United Nations. (h) As the scholar Sam Jackson has noted, the group is "not organized around the defense of imagined racial identity," (16) and its bylaws explicitly reject racism. However, while racism is not a key feature of the group, (i) racist and nativist views can readily be found in Oath Keepers' ranks, narratives, content, and sources. (17)

Organizational Structure and Membership

The Oath Keepers are a hierarchical organization with a national leadership council, state and county chapters, and local branches. (18) The Oath Keepers have an extensive set of by-laws that outline the organizational structure, conduct, (19) and expectations of members. (20) Operationally, most activity is undertaken by individual chapters or branches, allowing for a degree of autonomy on local mobilization. According to scholar Sam Jackson, organizational dynamics of Oath Keepers put local chapters and branches and state-level leadership on the hook for arranging "meetings, demonstrations, and training exercises." (21) National leadership, which consists of a board of directors that is led by Rhodes, oversees the Oath Keepers' brand and reputation, and maintains its own social media and web presence separate from the state and local activity--though national leadership will feature state and local content, as well as boost calls to action based on activity that state and local branches initiate. (j)

However, the group answers entirely to Rhodes. Except for individual acts, it seems there is virtually no Oath Keepers activity that Rhodes is not aware of or not involved in planning to some extent. (22) Rhodes, by design, is the fulcrum around which the organization...

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