The Oath Keepers, founded in 2009, is a right-wing militant group that now has some 25,000 members. Founder Steven Rhodes told journalist Mike Giglio, who reported for The Atlantic in November of 2020, that the group “supports and defends the Constitution against all enemies.” Giglio’s report was based on interviews with Rhodes and other Oath Keepers, conducted over a period of several months, and information from a leaked membership database.
In 2009, Rhodes launched the Oath Keepers with a blog post that Giglio described as “both a manifesto and a recruiting pitch.” Responses “poured in,” Giglio reported, and Rhodes published them on his blog. Today, about two-thirds of the Oath Keepers come from military or law enforcement backgrounds, according to a leaked database compiled by several of Rhodes’ deputies. Members included a “grunt” from Afghanistan, two individuals working in the FBI, and a Secret Service special agent. Members tagged their cars with the Oath Keepers logo, which occasioned conversations with others about the group, one of the tactics employed to recruit new members. To avoid having the group seen as a threat, Rhodes refused to call it a militia; instead he registered the Oath Keepers as a nonprofit organization.
Giglio paraphrased part of Rhodes’ message to a gathering of Oath Keepers: “It’s the people themselves, not any one group, who are the real militia.” Rhodes suggested to members that they organize locally and he “urged them to build a militia for their community,” Giglio reported. “Don’t call yourselves Oath Keepers or Three Percenters,” Rhodes told one gathering in Tennessee. “Call yourselves the militia of Rutherford County.” His vision is for the Oath Keepers to serve, like the military’s Special Forces, as a “force multiplier.”
Images of Oath Keepers standing on rooftops in Ferguson, Missouri, armed with semi-automatic rifles after the police killing of Michael Brown became “symbols of an America beginning to turn on itself,” Giglio wrote. When President Trump faced impeachment in 2019, Rhodes threatened “a public show of force if the Senate elected to remove Trump,” as Rhodes told Casey Michel, for Michel’s August 2020 article in The New Republic. During this time the Oath Keepers also declared that they would organize “capable patriots” to provide security at rallies to support Donald Trump.
More attention has focused on the Oath Keepers since pro-Trump supporters occupied the Capitol Building in Washington, D.C., on January 6, 2020. Before then, however, corporate news coverage of the Oath Keepers has been limited. In November 2020, the New York Times published a video report focused on how “police officers gave the benefit of the doubt to armed far-right groups and individuals” in policing racial justice protests across the US since the killing of George Floyd in May 2020. The Times’ video report included a recorded statement by Steven Rhodes in a segment about how Oath Keepers in Louisville, Kentucky, worked to recruit new members and “coordinated closely” with local law enforcement.
Mike Giglio, “A Pro-Trump Militant Group Has Recruited Thousands of Police, Soldiers, and Veterans,” The Atlantic, November 2020, https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2020/11/right-wing-militias-civil-war/616473/.
Casey Michel, The “Oath Keepers” Are Today’s Blackshirts, The New Republic, August 31, 2020, https://newrepublic.com/article/159174/oath-keepers-militias-trump-fascism .
Student Researcher: Sierra Wisman (Sonoma State University)
Faculty Evaluator: Diana Grant (Sonoma State University)