In the days before his arrest, Stewart Rhodes could feel the authorities circling. He met me on a chilly Dallas evening in January in a room I’d booked at a chain hotel not far from where he lived, the neon lights of office parks and strip malls glowing outside. He wore dark jeans and a flannel shirt patterned in yellow and black, the colors of the Oath Keepers, one of the largest militant groups in the country, which Rhodes, 56, created in 2009 and has led since. He looked at me steadily with his right eye through a pair of glasses; his left eye, shot out in a handgun accident three decades before, was covered with a black patch. The Yale Law graduate normally relished the chance to spar with an interviewer, but on this night, he seemed a bit hollowed out. I asked if the prospect of prison was weighing on him. “I’m not going to give them the satisfaction of feeling like they’re getting to me,” he said.
The one-year anniversary of January 6 was approaching. That was the day Rhodes, spurred by Donald Trump’s claims of a stolen election, had led his members to the U.S. Capitol, warning of the potential for civil war and hoping that the then-president would act to stop the transfer of power. Perhaps he’d even call for assistance from Rhodes himself, along with other members of the wider militant movement that Rhodes had spent so many years helping to grow, shape, and drive closer to the new conservative mainstream. Instead, Trump had given a speech to propel the “Stop the Steal” masses toward the Capitol, then returned to the White House to watch events unfold on TV, while Rhodes had stood amid the crowd outside the Capitol in a black cowboy hat as two columns of his members pushed in with the rioters. Seventeen people with alleged links to the Oath Keepers had since been arrested, and Rhodes had spent the year as “Person One” in the sprawling FBI investigation into what happened that day.
“On January 6, [Trump] told all his followers, you know, now we are going to march on the Capitol, and I’ll be with you. And he just ghosted. Didn’t show up at his own party.”
Rhodes maintained that he’d given no order for his members to enter the Capitol. FBI agents had interviewed him and seized his phone; they’d even seized the phone of the Oath Keepers’ chief counsel, wielding a search warrant that said they were investigating sedition. The Oath Keepers had been de-platformed by tech companies and cut loose by credit card processors such as PayPal and Stripe, leaving Rhodes to post a note on the group’s website asking members to send their dues by check and listing a mailing address. He said he took no comfort from the fact that he was still free, adding that he’d heard FBI agents were out interviewing Oath Keepers around the country. He noted that around three dozen January 6 suspects were being held without bail and referred to news reports that said some were being kept in 23-hour isolation: “Just imagine they whisk you away tomorrow, come and get you in a midnight raid. They accuse you of being an insurgent, and they just toss you in jail for nine months with no bail.” I asked if he’d been imagining that fate for himself. “I signed on for this, and this is part of the ride,” he replied. “This is what it means to be a political dissident in modern America.”
It struck me that the more aggressively Rhodes was targeted in an effort to hold accountable those who sought to overturn the 2020 election, the more it reinforced, for him, the alternate reality in which he already resided. The same might apply to many of the protesters who’d descended on the Capitol and to other Americans who supported their cause. In that parallel reality, the movement that crystallized on January 6 is fighting for freedom against an encroaching tyranny. They are the ones challenging the real authority in this country, while liberals and their allies man the imperial gates. And Rhodes, rather than being an agent of entrenched power, is a potential revolutionary. His view is rooted in his reading of American history and idolization of the founding generation; one difference between Rhodes and many conservatives who’ve lately adopted this mindset is that he’s had it for a very long time. Since well before he became famous as a militant leader, his writing has been populated by specters of the gulag, of political arrests and secret police. These are extreme visions, but a stolen election would be a step down that path.
Sitting in the hotel room, Rhodes spoke of Trump’s betrayal: “On January 6, he told all his followers, you know, now we are going to march on the Capitol, and I’ll be with you. And he just ghosted. Didn’t show up at his own party.” Trump, he continued, had then left his supporters to face the investigation on their own, offering no financial or legal support to the people it targeted: “It’s like we don’t exist.” To Trump and the other big players in the “Stop the Steal” movement, he said, the Oath Keepers were “nothing. Cannon fodder.”
Yet Rhodes remained as convinced as ever by the lie Trump had spread about the stolen election — so convinced, in fact, that he could only interpret the other side’s insistence on calling it a lie as more proof of what he was up against, the deafening power of the establishment machine that had been mobilized. He refused to entertain the possibility that he could be wrong about this central fact. I thought of this when Rhodes was arrested a week later, charged with seditious conspiracy, and I saw the courtroom sketch of him standing before a judge, shackled, in prison greens and a surgical mask, entering his plea of not guilty. It would be this alternate reality itself, one inhabited by millions of Americans, that went on trial. And I wondered if anything, even the convictions of Rhodes and the other January 6 defendants, could shake people from it. The authorities, Rhodes had told me, “can browbeat people all they want, and label people terrorists, or whatever they’re going to do. They can lock a bunch of us up. It’s not going to help their credibility. It’s going to keep eroding it.”
Before the election, Rhodes told me a story. It was the summer of 2020, and I’d spent the previous few days traveling with him through the South as he spoke at militant meetings and encouraged people to get ready for resistance. He saw the enemy advancing on myriad fronts in those fevered months: the antifa insurgency, deep-state liberals for whom pandemic restrictions were just cover for a power grab, the propagandist organs of the mainstream media, and, behind it all, the conspirators plotting to rig the upcoming vote. If you asked him or the people in his orbit to sum up the threat, though, there was always one word: tyranny.
We were at a main street pub in a town in the Virginia range of the Appalachians. It had taken months to convince him to meet me; he’s wary of journalists and was especially so in my case, partly because I’d told him that I was writing a story based on a leaked database of his members. He also noted that I’d covered the Islamic State overseas and seemed worried that I’d portray the Oath Keepers as a domestic equivalent. In fact, my reporting on the Oath Keepers was driven by the same goal that had animated my work in Syria, Iraq, and Ukraine: I wanted to understand what was pushing people toward violence and what, if anything, could be done to reverse it.
At the pub, after Rhodes put in for his standard paleo order and a glass of wine, he relaxed a bit. He was going through a divorce and dealing with the stress from running his organization, and eventually he’d gotten into meditation. He was chasing the Zen mindset, and one day he decided to attend a Buddhist retreat at a sangha in Montana. He felt out of place at first, he admitted, sitting there with all those liberals, and perhaps he felt branded by the “We the People” tattoo on his forearm or his eyepatch. But everyone was told to leave their identities at the door — to remain on a first-name basis and avoid all talk of work or family.
Near the end of the retreat, after a lesson on the need to love everyone, even one’s enemies, a woman spoke up, saying she couldn’t find love for Trump. Think of him as a child, the retreat leader replied. Think of what his father must have been like. Find empathy for little Trump. Build from there. “Then he said something else,” Rhodes continued. “He’s like, ‘And something else to think about is that everything you see on TV is fake.’”
I raised my eyebrows. Rhodes kept going, explaining how the teacher had implored his students to tune out the false world of division behind their screens. “He said the real world is you, your family, your neighbors,” Rhodes said. “And he’s right.”
Look, I said, eventually. No matter what happens in November, Trump, if he loses, will say the election was stolen. What are you going to do? He paused for a bit. Then he said, sounding sincere, and maybe even worried: “I don’t know.”
After the election, Rhodes posted a pair of open letters on the Oath Keepers website, laying out a plan. In the first, published in mid-December 2020, he seemed at once enraged, believing Trump’s claims about the steal, and unsure why the president wasn’t doing more about it. He called on Trump to invoke the Insurrection Act, overturn the vote, and federalize the National Guard. Trump should also declassify the nation’s secrets, Rhodes added, so the traitors in positions of power could be identified. And he should call up irregulars like the Oath Keepers as “the militia” to help put down the unrest these moves were bound to spark.
The second letter, published ahead of the January 6 “Stop the Steal” rally, repeated those calls and painted Congress’s vote to certify the Electoral College results as Trump’s last chance to act. Rhodes called on Trump to deploy the National Guard to administer a new election using only paper ballots cast in person by citizens with government-issued IDs. Teams of Oath Keepers, Rhodes wrote, would be at the rally on a dual mission: to work protection details for keynote speakers while standing ready to help the president if called upon. “We will also have well-armed and equipped [quick reaction force] teams on standby, outside DC,” he wrote in a follow-up post, “in the event of a worst-case scenario, where the President calls us up as part of the militia to assist him inside DC.” When I read all this at the time, something beneath the inflammatory rhetoric struck me: Rhodes, who received his law degree in 2004, was asking the president for legal cover.
According to the Department of Justice indictment that was unsealed after his arrest, the Oath Keepers made significant preparations for the plans Rhodes had spelled out: arranging trainings in paramilitary tactics, coordinating travel to Washington, D.C., and stashing arsenals in nearby Virginia for potential use by the “quick reaction” teams. One member allegedly tried to secure boats that could get the teams and weapons across the Potomac River more quickly. Rhodes, meanwhile, bought more than $20,000 worth of guns, ammunition, and equipment such as a scope, a bipod, and night-vision devices, the indictment claims, while sharing advice from a purported Serbian activist explaining how, after that country’s former president stole an election in 2000, pro-democracy protesters descended on its capital, stormed its parliament, and brought down the regime.
During the protest on January 6, Rhodes was photographed standing with his fellow Oath Keepers outside the Capitol wearing a black scarf and his black cowboy hat. The indictment doesn’t accuse his members of bringing firearms to the Capitol; instead, it alleges, they brought knives, batons, body armor, and other tactical gear, along with an 82-pound German shepherd named Warrior. Videos shot during the riot show two columns of Oath Keepers pushing their way into the Capitol via different entrances; according to the indictment, members of one of these columns tried to help the rioters break into the Senate chamber until they were repelled by chemical spray, then embarked on an unsuccessful hunt for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Rhodes spoke by phone with the leader of this column shortly before those Oath Keepers entered the building, according to the indictment, which provides no details about what Rhodes said. Last week, the leader of the second column, 34-year-old Army veteran Joshua James, pleaded guilty to seditious conspiracy and agreed to “cooperate fully” with the investigation; he said he’d entered the Capitol to disrupt certification of the Electoral College vote and had taken part in a plan “developed by Rhodes … to stop the lawful transfer of presidential power.” James added that after he’d left the Capitol, Rhodes told him that he was “glad James and others had gone inside.”
Prosecutors have not provided evidence that Rhodes gave an order to enter the building. Instead, the indictment against him contains more general messages that he allegedly sent his members during the unrest, calling rioters “pissed off patriots” and noting that “the founding generation stormed the governor’s mansion in MA and tarred and feathered his tax collectors. And they seized and dumped tea in the water. They didn’t fire on them, but they street fought. Next comes our ‘Lexington.’ It’s coming.”
In the days that followed, the indictment alleges, Rhodes went on another buying spree: $6,000 for gun sights, mounts, and various supplies on January 10; $1,500 for scopes, magazines, and other items on January 11; $7,000 for ammunition, duffel bags, a gun light, and more on January 12; $1,000 for firearms parts on January 13; and $2,000 for ammo and equipment, including holsters and gun mounts, between January 14 and 19.
Not long afterward, in February 2021, I traveled to Dallas and called Rhodes over an encrypted app. After some argument, he agreed to let me join him for dinner at a crowded steakhouse. He insisted that our conversation be off the record, the only time over more than a dozen interviews that he made that request. He said some things, however, that he repeated on the record later, including a denial that he’d taken part in a conspiracy. In the end, he said, the Oath Keepers’ mission on January 6 hadn’t extended beyond serving as protective details for Trump ally Roger Stone and other “Stop the Steal” VIPs. Going into the Capitol, he added, had not been part of the plan; those who did so had gotten carried away in the riot. In subsequent meetings, he would paint the FBI investigation as political persecution and claim that it would uncover no evidence that he’d planned or directed the incursion. He’d also predict that prosecutors would coerce Oath Keepers into providing false testimony and “cook up” charges against him.
Rhodes is the central figure in the modern militant movement, for which the Oath Keepers have served as an ideological vanguard and grassroots recruiting machine, their reach extending from rank-and-file conservatives to serving soldiers and police. He once worked for Ron Paul, the libertarian former congressman, and has long challenged the traditional Republican establishment; in 2013, the Oath Keepers took out a billboard at the Pentagon subway station that praised the whistleblower Edward Snowden. The move was controversial among members, however, and the group’s proximity to the tea party, along with its focus on recruiting people with law enforcement and military backgrounds, have always suggested that rather than being opposed to the excesses of state power, as they claimed, the Oath Keepers might be an extension of it. The starting point for what Rhodes preaches is in the organization’s name: that members of the police and military swear oaths to defend the Constitution against all enemies and any patriotic American can do the same. The Oath Keepers, in Rhodes’s portrayal, could encourage active members of the security services to refuse unconstitutional orders; if necessary, they could also fight. The salient question, then, becomes who gets to determine the enemy. For Rhodes, a hard-line suspicion of gun control — blocking access to weapons is essential, he says, to any authoritarian push — flows into a more general demonization of liberals. He has championed the idea of a conservative “warrior class” uniting gun owners with members of the military and law enforcement communities; a belief that armed force is a valid option in American politics; and a view of politics as a struggle beyond democracy, between freedom and tyranny.
Rhodes is the central figure in the modern militant movement, for which the Oath Keepers have served as an ideological vanguard and grassroots recruiting machine.
Despite his profile, however, Rhodes could never have mustered so large a crowd even of his own members in Washington, let alone the hundreds of others who stormed the Capitol. The draw was Trump and his stolen election claims. At the steakhouse, I began to notice in Rhodes a sense of disillusionment with Trump, whom the militant crowd had treated as a standard-bearer — a president who embraced and fed their worldview and made them feel for the first time that they had a true ally in the Oval Office. Some of the Oath Keepers who’d been arrested so far were being represented by public defenders, while the former president was off giving speeches and fundraising, not for them, but for himself. Trump, Rhodes would note later, had failed to even issue pardons for January 6 suspects on his way out of office.
Yet I also thought that Rhodes couldn’t feel entirely out of place in the glare of the FBI investigation. He’d suspected since the 1990s that the government was out to get Americans of his mindset and in the subsequent “war on terror” had observed the development of the tools and narratives that he believed the government might one day employ against people like him. Now his political opponents were calling him a terrorist as former security officials with mainstream media contracts shared their counterinsurgency insights on TV. Federal agents had taken his men from their houses. And one day the knock might come at last to his own door.
Tasha Adams met Rhodes in 1991 in a working-class suburb of Las Vegas. She was an 18-year-old ballroom dance instructor and he was a 25-year-old Army veteran working as a valet. Rhodes was taking lessons at her studio, which was in a strip mall; on their first date, he took her to see the Hoover Dam. When she visited his apartment, she told me recently, he showed her his Steyr Aug automatic rifle, which she thought looked like a space gun. They both saw themselves as outsiders. For Adams, this was rooted in her devout and insular Mormon upbringing. Rhodes’s father was a white Marine veteran, Adams recalled, adding that Rhodes had been raised mainly by his mother, who came from a family of Mexican migrant laborers. He would visit these relatives during summers as a kid; he later wrote, in a 2008 blog post, that he was “quite proud” of his Hispanic heritage. He touted family lore that his maternal grandfather had fought alongside the Mexican Revolution hero Pancho Villa.
Rhodes joined the Army right after high school. His military career was cut short after three years, however; while training as a paratrooper, as Rhodes tells it, his chute got tangled in a cluster of tall trees during a risky night jump, and he fell to the ground, fracturing his spine. He was medically retired. Adams recalls Rhodes as a young man determined to find his place, with a budding libertarian worldview informed by gun shops and Ayn Rand and a passion for politics and history that made her dream he might be a teacher one day.
Adams and Rhodes married in 1994 and went on to have six children together. She filed for divorce in 2018. In a petition for an order of protection submitted days later, she alleged threatening behavior and accused Rhodes of once grabbing their teenage daughter by the neck. The petition wasn’t granted, and Rhodes has denied the allegations.
“He saw himself as a figure in history.”
Even early in their relationship, Adams told me, there was another side to Rhodes, which became more pronounced after he lost his eye and almost his life by dropping a loaded handgun, causing it to accidentally discharge. On the one hand, he was making his way through school, starting with classes at a community college, then moving on to the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, where he graduated summa cum laude, and ultimately landing at Yale. A talented sculptor, he once created statues inspired by “Liberty Leading the People,” the Eugene Delacroix painting commemorating the second French Revolution. On the other hand, his self-perception as an outsider seemed to have contributed to a chip on his shoulder while inflaming his paranoia. When he was just a student with a part-time job at a gun store and a National Rifle Association membership, Adams told me, Rhodes suspected that he might be on government watchlists. Such fears eventually became intertwined with his politics. A Constitutional “originalist,” he thought that the country had drifted dangerously far from the Founding Fathers’ vision and that America risked passing a point of no return into tyranny. Rhodes, Adams said, believed that there would be another revolution one day and that he’d be a part of it: “He saw himself as a figure in history.”
The 1993 massacre in Waco, Texas, which began with a siege by federal authorities in February of that year, was foundational to his worldview. In it, Rhodes, like many in his section of the political right, saw his vision of a tyrannical government coming to life. On one side were the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, the FBI, and a newly inaugurated Democratic administration. On the other, barricaded in their compound, were members of a hard-line Christian sect called the Branch Davidians and their guns. It started with a tip from an ATF informant about an arms cache. It ended, two months later, in a thundering fire ignited during an FBI-ATF raid. The Branch Davidians were burned so badly that the exact number of dead is unsettled; more than 70 people were killed, including children. Many pro-gun conservatives with a fixation on early American history found it hard not to dwell on the date: April 19. It was the 218-year anniversary of the battles of Lexington and Concord, when the first shot of the Revolutionary War was fired as British redcoats marched into the stronghold of the colonial militias on an order to seize their weapons.
Two years later, on April 19, 1995, Gulf War veteran Timothy McVeigh detonated a truck bomb at the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City as an act of vengeance over Waco, killing 168 people. McVeigh was a racist who’d once sold copies of “The Turner Diaries,” a white supremacist manifesto disguised as a novel, and had ties to white supremacist paramilitaries. He’d also reportedly attended a meeting of a more mainstream militia in the self-styled “Patriot” movement that was surging at the time, and in the years after his attack, membership in these militias dipped as they faced increased scrutiny. In “Up in Arms,” a history of right-wing militancy in the U.S., journalist John Temple argues that the 200-plus militia groups of the time shared a belief that “Americans were losing control over their own government to globalist forces” but diverged on the issue of race. “A stubborn element of bigotry was embedded in some Patriot organizations, while other groups and leaders specifically renounced racism and anti-Semitism,” Temple writes. McVeigh showed that even when militia members tried to distance themselves from the movement’s racist element, they couldn’t escape it.
When Rhodes created the Oath Keepers, he wrote bylaws prohibiting racial and religious discrimination. “It’s a reaction to what I know is out there. I know there are actual racists that would like to worm their way in,” he once told me. “Bubba the fucking KKK guy, I wouldn’t be OK with him. He can go fuck off.” The Oath Keepers have attracted nonwhite members while still remaining disproportionately white; their grievances have overlapped at times with those of racists, even as members profess disdain for white supremacy. These same dynamics would eventually play out within Trumpism.
Rhodes portrayed Waco as a pivotal moment when the establishment’s true nature was unmasked and an indelible sign that his segment of the right existed outside the country’s true power structure. In the mid-2000s, in a post in an obscure online forum where he was a regular, Rhodes noted that some of Waco’s victims were Hispanic and Black. “But they were political and religious undesirables who dared to own guns and quote the Constitution (the audacity!) and that was enough for the Clinton regime, who thus treated them like sub-humans and unleashed the Goose-stepping American Gestapo on them,” he wrote. “When the state turns on political enemies or political and/or religious sub-groups it feels ‘safe’ to attack, the State is truly colorblind.” He added, sticking to his libertarian credo of the time: “A lefty regime will tyrannize anyone of any color that does not toe the line, just like a Right(schtag!) regime will.”
After September 11, the war on terror intensified these fears. At Yale, as a 38-year-old law student, Rhodes won a prize for a paper criticizing the George W. Bush administration’s “unlawful enemy combatant” doctrine, which allowed the suspension of habeas corpus rights for terrorism suspects, even if they were U.S. citizens. He did not see the broad war-making, surveillance, and detention powers that the government was acquiring as the exclusive province of conservatives; he thought they were just as likely to be embraced by liberals one day and turned against people like him.
In a blog post announcing the formation of the Oath Keepers in early 2009, he said that conservatives had spent the last eight years “expanding the de facto power of the Executive branch to obscene and absurd levels. Those powers are now in the hands of President Barack Obama.” He added, in a subsequent post, that the idea of treating right-wing militias as “the equivalent of foreign enemies in wartime” had been proposed after the Oklahoma City bombing by legal scholars, who argued that all suspected terrorists should be tried by military tribunals. The enemy combatant doctrine, Rhodes continued, had since established that the laws of war could apply to U.S. citizens. “Once that line was crossed,” he wrote, “nothing but raw politics stops that power from being used on you.”
As the Oath Keepers gained steam online, Rhodes began to plan an in-person event to mark its official founding. On April 19, 2009, he appeared before a crowd of newly minted members on Lexington Green in Massachusetts. Standing at a microphone in a baggy suit and tie, he led them in a recitation of the oath that soldiers and police officers swear: “I will support and defend the Constitution against all enemies, foreign and domestic.”
I next saw Rhodes in June 2021, six months after the attack on the U.S. Capitol. On a sunny afternoon, he drove north on a Texas highway in a white SUV. The Oath Keepers had started as a viral sensation on his old blog and then in the social media age racked up hundreds of thousands of followers across various Facebook pages and on Twitter. All of that was gone, deleted when those platforms banned the Oath Keepers and other militant groups before the 2020 election. He could still bring his message out himself, though, as long as he was free. “Since January 6, I’ve been preoccupied with all of our guys getting arrested,” he told me. “I miss this. This is what I do — go out and do events and talk to people.”
For all the internet buzz around the Oath Keepers over the years and all the headlines Rhodes had generated, he considered the grassroots element of his outreach essential. Watching him speak at rallies and meetings, then linger long after they were done, I’d noticed that he had a retail politician’s compulsion to make every last connection and an ideologue’s drive to make a convert in every conversation. He’d spent the last 13 years working the crowds at militant gatherings large and small, giving speeches on the self-styled “patriot” and “liberty” circuits, manning tables at tea party rallies, and encouraging his members to do the same. His push to grow the Oath Keepers had an obvious financial element — being a member required little to no vetting or participation, just signing up and paying what is now a $50 annual fee — and disgruntled former associates had complained for years about the way Rhodes lived off the organization. There was also a part of him that seemed to care not at all who signed up for the Oath Keepers and who didn’t so long as his ideas reached them. “My primary function is to advise people,” he said as he drove. “Hey, here’s what you should be doing in your local community. Here’s how you can become stronger. Here’s what you can do to unite the warrior class of America.”
That evening’s gathering had been arranged by an Oath Keeper who hoped to start a new chapter in Wichita Falls, a city of about 100,000 near the Texas border with Oklahoma. He was a veteran with good connections in the community and with the local Republican Party. One person like this was worth more than a mass of online followers — you only had to give him the ideas and some guidance, Rhodes explained, and leave him to his own momentum.
When Rhodes entered the Army, he’d hoped to join the Special Forces, one of the most revered units in the U.S. military. These elite troops are considered a “force multiplier” when they operate among the rank and file and also venture out on high-value missions. In Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, and beyond, meanwhile, they’ve embedded with U.S.-aligned local forces, arming and training them and often fighting alongside them. The Oath Keepers, Rhodes told me as we sat in the SUV, have “a Special Forces mission.” I recalled that the Oath Keepers had pushed through the masses at the Capitol in a tactical formation called a “stack,” hands on one another’s shoulders. Though this isn’t a very sophisticated technique, prosecutors alleged that it helped them maneuver through the crowd and some media accounts suggested that it made them more effective than other rioters.
“You no longer have a representative form of government. The election in November was stolen.”
This aspect of the Oath Keepers, however, will also factor into Rhodes’s defense. During a bail hearing in January, one of his attorneys, Phillip Linder, got an FBI agent to acknowledge that the Oath Keepers had brought no illegal firearms into the Capitol and that the FBI had no information to suggest that any of Rhodes’s firearms purchases had been unlawful. In a subsequent filing, Linder and a co-counsel argued that the Oath Keepers who’d entered the Capitol did so after learning that people were hurt and needed help. They used the stack formation, the attorneys wrote, because they “were composed of ex-military, law enforcement and EMS personnel. Their training teaches them the best ways to enter an unknown and/or hostile situation.” Members of one stack, the lawyers continued, referencing unreleased photo and video, then “provided security and escort to overwhelmed Capitol police officers.” Some Oath Keepers and police officers, the attorneys wrote, “were interacting in a cordial and social manner.”
Rhodes was ultimately denied bail and is set to stand trial in July; if convicted, he could be sentenced to more than two decades in prison. (A trial for Oath Keepers charged with lesser offenses was initially scheduled to begin, incredibly, on April 19.) In an interview, Linder told me that a key element of Rhodes’s defense will be “to educate the public in general about who the Oath Keepers really are,” saying the defense would emphasize that “a large part of their work over the years has been charitable in nature.” He mentioned the group’s relief efforts after disasters such as Hurricane Harvey and cast its protection of conservative VIPs and rallygoers in a similar light. He added, of Rhodes’s preparations with the quick reaction teams: “He was waiting to see if the president was going to call them up, and the president never did, so he left. Plain and simple.”
The Special Forces also focus on another aspect of unconventional warfare: the so-called battle for hearts and minds. Whatever the truth of his involvement on January 6, Rhodes has worked for years to bring the ideas of right-wing militancy closer to the center of American conservatism by making that militancy more accessible and helping it reach a wider audience. He contributed to lowering the barrier for entry at a time when the Republican Party, beginning with the tea party, was already shifting toward an embrace of the far right. In the past, joining a militant group typically meant linking up with a specific outfit in a specific place, going to meetings and trainings. With the Oath Keepers, you could do all that if you wanted to, but you could also be a passive member, browsing the forums, paying your low annual dues, and receiving the mailings. Or you didn’t have to join at all. You could just pick up pieces of the ideology — maybe you caught Rhodes in one of his old Facebook posts, or one of his dozens of appearances on InfoWars with Alex Jones, or at a speech he gave at one of those small events with names like “Liberty on Tap,” or at an anti-lockdown rally.
In Wichita Falls, Rhodes pulled into the parking lot of a Walmart and walked inside to buy a whiteboard. An hour later, he was standing in a conference room inside a glistening Harley-Davidson dealership, addressing a few dozen people. Some were skeptical at first. As he spoke, though, they listened intently, at times nodding in unison in their folding chairs. His goal, he said, wasn’t to get them to join the Oath Keepers: “My actual goal is to share what I know about how to organize and strengthen your community.” He drew a pyramid on the whiteboard and started asking questions. What are the fundamental building blocks of a community? Family first — he wrote it at the base of the pyramid — and on top of that come your neighbors, along with their families. He kept asking questions, scribbling as he went. Next come the people in your church, the people in your town, the people in your county. The line for nation seemed very far from those immediate connections, tucked into the pyramid’s peak. It reminded me of the message Rhodes had heard from the retreat leader at the sangha: The people around you were most important. What he was telling these people to do for their community was to arm themselves and organize. This, he said, was part of the genius of what the Founding Fathers had envisioned: “When all of you in the town and the county are the militia, how could anyone violate your rights?”
“We’re walking the same path that they did,” he said, speaking again of the founding generation. “You no longer have a representative form of government. The election in November was stolen.”
One of the most notorious speeches Rhodes ever gave was in May 2015, a month before Trump launched his presidential campaign. At a small event in a pub in Arizona, Rhodes said that John McCain should be “hung from the neck until dead.” He was talking, he likes to note, with a twinkle of mischief in his eye, about forcing the late senator to face his own machine. The context of his remark was McCain’s support for the expansion of the security state throughout the war on terror. (Rhodes had also not forgiven McCain for defeating his political hero, Ron Paul, in the 2008 contest for the Republican presidential nomination.) The longer quote from Rhodes’s speech, which refers to the unlawful enemy combatant doctrine he’d written about at Yale, is that McCain “would deny you the right to trial [by] jury, but we will give him a trial [by] jury, and then after we convict him, he should be hung by the neck until dead.”
While Rhodes may have opposed the constitutional overreach of the war on terror, however, he embraced other aspects of it. He trafficked in overhyped fears about Islamist terrorism in the United States. He warned of a supposed creep of Shariah law into American cities and of the alleged threat of infiltration across the southern border, organizing Oath Keeper patrols to search for undocumented migrants. He sent teams to patrol social justice demonstrations in Ferguson, Missouri, warning of looting and rioting. And he tied these fears into an overarching vision of a subversive left inherently opposed to the pro-soldier, pro-cop brand of patriotism he was promoting. These views previewed Trumpism and then became part of it — a marriage captured in photos of Rhodes sitting in the front row at a 2019 Trump rally wearing a black-and-gold Oath Keepers baseball cap. Eventually, like Trump and many Republicans, Rhodes was painting Black Lives Matter activists as Marxists, an enemy domestic and foreign at once. In the summer of 2020, he called antifascist and left-wing protesters insurgents and potential terrorists and declared, as many influential conservatives did, that the Trump administration should deploy troops to stop them.
The January 6 movement may have failed to overturn the election, but it is growing, and perhaps in ways its originators never could have imagined.
Each side of America’s political and cultural divide, in the end, retains a significant grasp on the levers of power and is rushing to deploy whatever power it can against the other. It feels impossible to separate this dynamic from the perpetual enmity and moral and legal unmooring that the post-9/11 era has wrought. In his book “Reign of Terror,” the journalist Spencer Ackerman describes the war on terror as “an early red pill” for American society, “releasing an omnidirectional, violent nihilism that viewed itself as the only rational, sophisticated, honorable, and even civilized option.” It engendered a culture, he writes, “of manufactured outrage,” and power worship in disguise: “obedience to authority that convinced itself it was transgressive.”
The January 6 movement is not a challenge to authority; it’s a competing version of it. And although it may have failed to overturn the election, it is growing, and perhaps in ways its originators never imagined. One recent poll found that 47 million Americans believe Joe Biden is an illegitimate president and 21 million support the idea of removing him from office by force. Several Republicans in Congress have echoed the language of revolution and political violence, and in a resolution last month, the Republican National Committee deemed the House investigation into what happened on January 6 a “persecution of ordinary citizens engaged in legitimate political discourse.” Trump has recently signaled that if he runs in 2024, support for the January 6 movement will be central to his campaign, while also floating the idea of pardons for those who’ve been arrested. The Republican Party is replacing or marginalizing officials across the country who resisted Trump’s efforts to invalidate the vote, and Republican legislatures have advanced laws giving themselves more power to throw out ballots and even to appoint their own electors.
During my visit in June, I put it to Rhodes that if he’d gotten his wish on January 6, he would have become his own worst fear: not a defender against a tyrannical government, but its agent. The kinds of things he had been asking for — calling up irregular forces, canceling elections and organizing new ones — were things that happened in authoritarian regimes, I said.
“Well, that’s what we just had!” he shot back, saying that America was under an authoritarian regime now and had been since the election. “They stole it!”
I reminded him of the message from the sangha. What if Trump was lying about the election? What if that was part of the fake?
He glanced toward the ceiling, as if he were considering this. Then he looked at me again and smiled. “No,” he said. “You’re not pulling the wool over my eyes, man. I’m sorry. Not happening.”
Photos: Christopher Lee
The night before the one-year anniversary of January 6, I met Rhodes and the Oath Keepers’ chief counsel, a former assistant district attorney named Kellye SoRelle, at a barbecue restaurant outside Dallas. The meal was tense as the pair debated how Rhodes should respond to a congressional subpoena and he fielded calls from lieutenants anxious to know his next move. (Eventually, from jail, Rhodes testified for several hours before the House January 6 committee.) To Rhodes, the would-be revolutionary, his opponents were showing themselves as the enemy he’d always wanted them to be. He saw Big Tech, Wall Street, and even pharmaceutical companies, thanks to Covid-19 vaccines, working in concert with liberals and federal authorities. Many of the war on terror’s Republican standard-bearers — Liz Cheney, the Bush family — had joined them.
At the same time, he admitted that the Oath Keepers had been weakened by the crackdowns. The organization risked withering under the FBI investigation, with its social media presence erased and its fundraising restricted. Rhodes had hoped that January 6 would mark the start of a new struggle in America, and perhaps it had, but for him, it may have also been an ending. It seemed unlikely, meanwhile, that he or anyone else could say for sure where the movement was going. He vowed never again to support Trump and seemed comforted that the former president had recently been booed at one of his own events, thanks to his backing for vaccines. It wasn’t just Trump who’d abandoned Rhodes, though: The Oath Keepers had received no help from any major players on the right, he’d told me earlier in the trip, not even the VIPs they’d been guarding on January 6 and at prior “Stop the Steal” rallies. “What I would tell the guys, if I could go back in time, is that they don’t give a shit about you,” he said. “So let’s not put ourselves at risk.”
As the dinner wore on, he became more distracted by his phone calls and eventually left the table. Thirty minutes later, SoRelle and I stepped outside and found him sitting in his truck under the console light with his phone on speaker, isolated in the blackness of the parking lot. Maybe the revolution didn’t need him anymore, I thought. Maybe it didn’t need anyone at all.