Examining Extremism: The Oath Keepers
June 17, 2021
The Oath Keepers are an anti-government, right-wing political organization committed to supporting and defending their interpretation of the U.S. Constitution against all enemies, both foreign and domestic. They are associated with the militia movement, an extremist umbrella organization founded on the belief that the federal government is part of an evil conspiracy intent on stripping Americans of their natural rights and freedoms. They act as a local line of defense against perceived federal tyranny and are inspired by the courage and resolve of the American colonial revolutionist. The name “Oath Keepers” comes from the oath of service taken by the military, law enforcement, and other first responders—and their message is a call to keep that oath, whether you previously served, are currently serving, or never wore the uniform.
The Oath Keepers were founded in 2009 by Stuart Rhodes, an Army veteran who had his military career cut short after a parachuting accident. After leaving the Army, Rhodes spent time as a firearms instructor before attending Yale Law School and working as a legal clerk for an Arizona Supreme Court justice; he became a trial lawyer but was later disbarred in 2015. He began the Oath Keepers in 2008 as a political blog that turned into a platform for planning rallies and subsequently into a self-proclaimed nonpartisan organization focused on Constitutional and natural rights. Recruiting members from military veterans, law enforcement, and first responders, the Oath Keepers have the motto, “Not on our watch.”
The Oath Keepers associate today’s political environment with the British tyranny American colonialists faced before the American Revolution. The symbolism and connection with early patriots are a large part of their foundational philosophy. For example, in a “warning order” published before the 2021 presidential inauguration, Rhodes uses the word “minutemen” to describe the fittest and most mobile first responders. He also references the “Founders’ game plan” when describing strategy and tactics for fighting back against an illegitimate government and orders followers to “keep your [gun]powder dry” and make appropriate battle preparations. Additionally, the Oath Keepers held their first rally at Lexington Green, Massachusetts, on the site and the 234th anniversary of the first shots fired in the American Revolution. On April 19, 2009, together with fellow militia leader and founder of the Three Percenters Mike Vanderboegh, Rhodes led a crowd of new members in reaffirming their service oaths.
Oath Keepers’ ideology centers around the obligations of the service oath—with two caveats. First, they downgrade and at times outright dismiss the commitment to “obey the orders of the President of the United States and the orders of the officers appointed over me,” as stated in the oath of service for enlisted military. Instead, they emphasize the obligation to support and defend only the Constitution of the United States. Notably, military officers’ service oath pledges support only to the Constitution, without qualification. The oaths for law enforcement and first responders vary, but the principle of supporting the Constitution over elected officials and higher authorities applies. The second caveat is that Oath Keepers will only obey commands, regardless of their origin, if they do not violate ten specific types of orders that the organization considers unconstitutional, unlawful, and immoral violations of the natural rights of U.S. citizens. Those 10 orders are outlined in a blog post titled, “Declaration Of Orders We Will Not Obey:”
- We will NOT obey any order to disarm the American people.
- We will NOT obey any order to conduct warrantless searches of the American people, their homes, vehicles, papers, or effects – such as warrantless house-to-house searches for weapons or persons.
- We will NOT obey any order to detain American citizens as “unlawful enemy combatants” or to subject them to trial by military tribunal.
- We will NOT obey orders to impose martial law or a “state of emergency” on a state, or to enter with force into a state, without the express consent and invitation of that state’s legislature and governor.
- We will NOT obey orders to invade and subjugate any state that asserts its sovereignty and declares the national government to be in violation of the compact by which that state entered the Union.
- We will NOT obey any order to blockade American cities, thus turning them into giant concentration camps.
- We will NOT obey any order to force American citizens into any form of detention camps under any pretext.
- We will NOT obey orders to assist or support the use of any foreign troops on U.S. soil against the American people to “keep the peace” or to “maintain control” during any emergency, or under any other pretext. We will consider such use of foreign troops against our people to be an invasion and an act of war.
- We will NOT obey any orders to confiscate the property of the American people, including food and other essential supplies, under any emergency pretext whatsoever.
- We will NOT obey any orders which infringe on the right of the people to free speech, to peaceably assemble, and to petition their government for a redress of grievances.
In an ABC News report from February 2021, correspondent Josh Lederman stated the Oath Keepers see “leftist groups, the deep state and supposed foreign conspirators or global cabals” as the most dangerous threats. Sam Jackson, the author of Oath Keepers: Patriotism and the Edge of Violence in a Right-Wing Antigovernment Group, adds, “The group [also] has some really virulent strains of Islamophobia and nativism and anti-immigrant sentiment.” However, there is also a sense that Rhodes is striving to give the organization broad public appeal by avoiding the word “militia,” rejecting racism and white supremacist ideology, and not making blatant threats of violence, as reported by Mike Giglio in an investigation for The Atlantic. He added that Rhodes has a “talent for giving fringe ideas mainstream appeal.”
The Oath Keepers are structured as a nonprofit and led by a board of directors. Stewart Rhodes serves as the organization’s president alongside a vice president and other elected or appointed national leaders. The Oath Keepers’ headquarters employ functional staff such as an IT administrator, fraud examiner, treasurer, assistant treasurer, secretary, and so forth—as made public following internal embezzlement allegations in 2017. Although the Oath Keepers’ organizational chart is not publicly available, there is enough evidence to assume they replicate the standard leadership and headquarters framework used by most national nonprofit organizations.
At the local chapter level, the Oath Keepers organize around state and county militias. For example, according to social media and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) accounts, Jessica Watkins and Donovan Crowl—who took part in the January 6 assault upon the Capitol—are both members of the Ohio State Regular Militia, one of many dues-paying branches of the Oath Keepers organization.
The action arm of the Oath Keepers is its county-level units, which, according to the aforementioned “warning order,” are “made up of willing patriots in a county, who are from that county, under leadership who are also from that county, elected by the men of that county.” Rhodes makes it clear that the movement’s power comes from communities, not from existing associations: “It’s not about our groups, whether we are Oath Keepers, Three Percenters, or self-organized local or state level militia groups . . . It’s about our communities . . . Form your community up and let the men elect their officers.”
The county unit consists of two divisions. The first is a quick reaction force, a high-speed unit comprised of the fittest and most mobile patriots who project power by their presence. Rhodes calls this group the “County Guard, County Watch, County Defense Unit, or Minutemen.” The other subset is the “Home Guard or Family Safe Unit,” which aims to protect the homes, families, and communities of the expeditionary force. The Home Guard is typically made up of older and injured members or those otherwise not well-suited as first-line defenders.
Tactics and Targets
The Oath Keepers’ charter directs them to respond and support local communities when law and order break down or law enforcement officers overstep their Constitutional bounds—as defined by the organization’s interpretation of the U.S Constitution and individual members’ perception of justice and injustice. In most cases, the Oath Keepers respond to situations at the request of the local community for security and protection or even, in some cases, to contribute to humanitarian disaster relief efforts.
Before their well-documented participation in the January 6 Capitol assault, the Oath Keepers were involved in several confrontations with local and federal authorities, as well as with far-left political protesters and rioters. So far, these confrontations have all been nonviolent, but the Oath Keepers’ heavily armed presence at emotionally charged and sometimes chaotic events remains a significant concern due to the potential for violence stemming from deliberate or miscalculated actions. The Oath Keepers’ operational trends have been to respond to events in tactically sufficient numbers. They arrive on the scene well-armed, wearing body armor and other military-like clothing and equipment, and have displayed a considerable amount of discipline and restraint with their personal firearms. The Oath Keepers leverage their law enforcement and military experience within the organization, as evident by their familiarity and discipline with weapons, deliberate movement through spaces and crowds, and tactical communication methods that have a semblance of organized command control. Undoubtedly, they are capable and willing to engage with lethal force, but it is also clear they understand that any deadly action must be justifiable as a proportionate act of self-defense.
Below is a synopsis of high-profile events involving the Oath Keepers organization:
- 2011, Quartzsite, Arizona—Supported a mayor-led accusation that the local police chief had imposed martial law on the small-town community. This was a misinterpretation of the arrest of a resident for not leaving a town council meeting that was discussing accusations of corruption.
- 2014, Bunkerville, Nevada—Supported ranch owner Cliven Bundy in an armed standoff against the Federal Bureau of Land Management. Bundy had grazed his cattle on public land for more than 20 years in defiance of court orders, ignoring subsequent penalties and fees. The standoff began when Bureau of Land Management agents began impounding the cattle with intent to sell them at auction.
- 2014, Ferguson, Missouri—Responded to defend neighborhoods and local businesses in the wake of protests and riots following the grand jury decision not to indict the police officer who killed Michael Brown.
- 2015, Josephine County, Oregon—Supported gold miners Rick Barclay and George Backes in their dispute with the Bureau of Land Management over construction work at a legally owned gold mine on public land.
- 2015, Lincoln, Montana—Supported two local miners in a dispute with the U.S. Forest Service over the legality of a mining claim.
- 2016, Burns, Oregon—Supported Dwight Hammond and his son Steven, who were sent back to prison after being re-sentenced for several counts of arson for fires set in 2001 and 2006. Nevada activists (family members of Cliven Bundy) escalated the issue into a 40-day armed occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. Stuart Rhodes and the national Oath Keepers leadership denounced this escalation because it was conducted without “the consent of the locals or at their request, without the request of the Hammond family . . .and because it is not in direct defense of anyone.” In this case, the Oath Keepers served as an armed buffer and peacekeeping force, physically positioning themselves between the Nevada activists and the local and federal agents in a deliberate effort to deescalate the situation.
- Operation Sabot 2016—Sought to prevent voter fraud and voter intimidation at polling stations, which then-presidential nominee Donald Trump had warned of.
- 2017–20—Maintained a regular presence at right-wing political events, allegedly providing security for VIPs and confronting protesters at Antifa and Black Lives Matter rallies.
- 2020, Louisville, Kentucky—Responded to defend neighborhoods and local businesses in the wake of protests and riots following the grand jury decision not to indict the police officers who killed Breonna Taylor.
- January 6, 2021, Washington, D.C.—Took part in the assault on the U.S Capitol. At the time of this report, 12 members of the organization face conspiracy charges connected with the insurrection, and one founding member, Jon Ryan Schaffer, has pled guilty in return for a reduced sentence. Schaffer’s cooperation with the FBI will likely lead law enforcement to a more detailed understanding of the organization’s inner workings, which at this time are highly speculative. The Oath Keepers’ involvement and its national organizational leadership’s alleged support for the January 6 assault have caused much discord within the group. There are reports of individual members and local chapters distancing themselves from Stewart Rhodes and the national leadership, in some cases splintering off to form new organizations.
Based on published (and allegedly leaked) membership information, approximately two-thirds of the Oath Keepers are former military or law enforcement, and 10 percent are on active duty in the military or actively employed as law enforcement officers. The actual membership numbers range from an internal claim of approximately 30,000 individuals to the Anti-Defamation League’s estimate of 1,000–3,000 people. Most research settles on about 5,000 members, making it one of the largest groups in the militia movement, and the U.S. Department of Justice describes it as a “large but loosely organized collection of individuals.” However, in the aftermath of the Capitol assault and reported internal dysfunction, the organization may soon go through some organizational restructuring.
Although the Oath Keepers’ force structure is debatable and their organizational unity questionable, they have enough capability and boldness—even in small, isolated numbers—that they continue to pose a potentially significant threat. Most members of the broader patriot militia movement are well-armed, reasonably organized, and present themselves as if they have conducted tactical training or come from a military or law enforcement background. The Oath Keepers likely have a slightly higher percentage of these individuals, but this does not significantly distinguish the organization. What is distinguishable is their strong ideological connection to colonial America and British tyranny, which gives the organization a sense of perceived righteousness and purpose that has some public appeal and helps recruit new members. In addition, the organization’s notable variety of operations—from defending ranches, guarding city businesses, participating in far-right political activism, arbitrating de-escalation, and even conducting humanitarian relief—provides it with a wide-ranging set of narratives to wield. Lastly, the number of Oath Keeper indictments for the January 6 insurrection highlights a worrisome degree of misguided boldness and a craving for action that makes them worth keeping a sharp eye on.
The Oath Keepers have capability and capacity; they also have dysfunction and incompetence. They are well-armed, well-trained, and mostly come from experienced tactical backgrounds. They lack strong organizational unity but are ideologically in sync and well-connected. They may have 30,000 members or only several thousand. They have local chapters in every state and many counties, overlapping with other like-minded organizations and militias. Their operations range from insurrection to humanitarian relief. And the Oath Keepers come in all colors, ages, and backgrounds, united by one common bond: their oath to defend the Constitution.
Eric McQueen was a military fellow with the International Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.