Violent right-wing extremism again came to America’s attention in the Capitol insurrection, including organized militia groups and white supremacists. How did these movements build support, radicalize, and evolve out of the alt-right? Sam Jackson tracks the growth of the militia movement and its involvement in right-wing politics, helping to explain the involvement of former military and law enforcement in the Capitol riot. George Hawley finds that online white nationalists were effectively hobbled by law enforcement after Charlottesville, but that their imagery and tactics live on in some of the right-wing extremism that followed. They both see the capitol insurrection as an amalgam of right-wing supporters with different motives.
Studies: Oath Keepers; The Alt-Right: What Everyone Needs to Know
Guests: Sam Jackson, University at Albany; George Hawley, University of Alabama
Matt Grossmann: Right-wing extremism and the Capitol insurrection, this week on the Science of Politics. From the Niskanen Center, I’m Matt Grossmann. The January 6th, storming of the Capitol drew attention to violent right-wing extremism, including organized militia groups, conspiracy theorists, and white supremacists. How did these movements build support, radicalize, including evolving out of the alt-right? Will they be tamed by law enforcement or encouraged by Right-wing leaders?
This week, I talk with Sam Jackson of the University of Albany about his new Columbia book, Oath Keepers. He tracks the growth of the militia movement and its involvement in right-wing politics, helping to explain the involvement of former military and law enforcement in the Capitol riot and their radicalization. I also talk with George Hawley of the University of Alabama, about his Oxford book, The Alt-right: What Everyone Needs To Know. He says that online white nationalists were effectively hobbled by law enforcement after Charlottesville, but that their imagery and tactics live on in some of the right-wing extremism that followed. They both see the Capitol insurrection as an amalgam of right-wing supporters with different motives. Jackson says right-wing groups and rank-and-file Trump supporters joined forces.
Sam Jackson: Specifically thinking about the insurrection back on January 6th, I’ve tended to think of it as being this weird case where you have a coalition of different parts of right-leaning America present. You had all of the different groups that you mentioned. There were anti-government groups, militias, there were QAnon, conspiracy theorists, white supremacists, proud boys, and rank-and-file Trump supporters. What it seems to me from the reporting that’s come out about the insurrection is that there were some people who showed up that day and who were ready for some provocative, aggressive, and even criminal or perhaps even violent activity, right? The people who were wearing plate carrier, bulletproof vests, or who were carrying flex cuffs, things like that. Those people were clearly ready for some direct action.
I think the larger group of people who were in images and video that I saw at least were rank-and-file Trump supporters, the visual difference for me is that those who are ready for some aggressive action, were those dressed in the muted colors, the browns, the tans, the blacks, the tactical vests, all that sort of thing. Then the rank-and-file Trump’s supporters were wearing bright colorful clothing, often saying Trump or Q or something else like that, prominently and drawing attention to themselves in that way.
I think the majority of those people who were wearing that much more colorful and attention grabbing clothing, weren’t planning to engage in criminal behavior or an insurrection before they showed up. I think they were perhaps there for a Trump rally, just like maybe many of them had gone to in other contexts. Then they joined in with the interaction and the criminal behavior once it got started. Just to be clear, I’m not trying to absolve those people of blame by any means. They participated in the insurrection that’s undeniable, and I don’t want to refute that, but I think it’s interesting to think about the fact that there seemed to be this small minority of people who were ready for aggressive action and a larger group who went along with it.
Getting back to your question about how organized this is, is there a coordinated right-wing? I think this pattern that I noticed, assuming that it is accurate, suggest that there’s not a lot of coordination necessarily. There might be some groups that are coordinating with each other. There were certainly, I’m sure there were caravans of people who traveled together. I think there have been some reports of planes full of Trump supporters that flew into D.C. to participate in the rally and ended up participating in the insurrection. But I don’t think that the events that we saw in D.C. on that Wednesday indicate that there is some huge armed paramilitary right-wing that is highly coordinated and well-organized working together. I think that is perhaps in a sense it’s giving them too much credit.
Matt Grossmann: Hawley says the Capitol riots only included some continuing figures from the alt-right.
George Hawley: Of the people there that you might consider remnants of the alt-right, probably the most notable figure is a young guy named Nick Fuentes, who had also been at Charlottesville, but at subsequently, although I wouldn’t say he changed his ideology, he kind of changed his brand. So to speak that as he no longer was identified with open white nationalism and instead was pushing a more aggressive nativist anti-immigration version of the Trumpian America First, and so a lot of his followers were clearly there.
But there were also plenty of people who you could describe as ordinary Republicans who had bought into this bogus narrative of the election being stolen. So they weren’t really there for any other ideological reason beyond their affinity for Trump, and perhaps there might be some overlap with the Tea Party movement, but that’s also an emotionally defunct movement at this point. As for the militia groups, that’s a group that I am not as familiar with as your previous guest is, that is a movement that often has a racial element to it, but it is not necessarily motivated by racial concerns. That has also been a movement that has had ups and downs based on who’s suing them or not.
Matt Grossmann: But they both see lessons from the groups they’ve studied. Hawley says the alt-right didn’t last, but its motivations and tactics did.
George Hawley: As a movement, it is now, I would argue, mostly defunct, that is, not many people describe themselves as alt-right anymore. There’s not really any significant organizations using the term, and a lot of the people who were affiliated with that movement are no longer, especially significant on the political scene today. That said, we can learn some lessons from the alt-right and I think apply some of them to recent events because I think that the alt-right experience over the last several years can give us some indications of where things might be going with some of the other radical right-wing movements that we’re seeing in the U.S. today.
Matt Grossmann: Jackson says the Oath Keepers revolutionary imagery serves as a key backdrop.
Sam Jackson: The book is really an investigation of a group called Oath Keepers, which is one of the most prominent groups within the anti-government extremist category over the past decade or two. The book really tries to explore how the group talks about moments of conflict in crisis from American history in order to provide its members with models, for how to interpret the current political moment, and also provide them with models for appropriate behavior, for them to respond to the threats that they perceive.
In the book, I particularly focus on how the group talks about the revolutionary war and in particular, how the group draws parallels between contemporary America and life in the American colonies in the late 18th century and even more specifically, how the group talks about the actions taken by those who resisted in the British as models for how American Patriots today should resist governmental tyranny.
Matt Grossmann: Oath Keepers did play some direct role in the Capitol riot.
Sam Jackson: We know that there were some Oath Keepers present. Stewart Rhodes was in Northern Virginia. He appeared on, I believe, a state politicians live stream on YouTube the night before. So he was probably there in D.C. during the insurrection, we saw a handful of people with Oath Keeper’s clothing or other gear that identified them as Oath Keepers, most prominently perhaps, there was a video of a line of men with each man with his hand on the back of the man in front of him and they were all wearing tactical style clothing, lots of muted grays and browns and blacks and tactical vests and things like that. We saw this line of men walking up the steps of the Capitol, the video that I saw ended before the men were in the Capitol. So I don’t actually know if any Oath Keepers went inside the building, but they were definitely present there.
Matt Grossmann: But anti-government extremism has gotten less attention than white supremacy.
Sam Jackson: I realized that there was really a gap in our knowledge about one particular part of the far right in the U.S. and that is anti-government extremism. There’s a pretty good amount of scholarship about white supremacist extremism and more broadly racist extremism, if we want to think of white supremacy as a subset of racist extremism, but there’s this category that includes Oath Keepers and some others like the Three Percenters movement whose members adamantly reject the label of being white supremacist or being racist. Stewart Rhodes, every time he’s asked that question, his response is, “I’m a quarter Mexican, how could I possibly be a white supremacist?
Of course, we don’t necessarily want to take them at face value when they reject accusations of racism. But I think it’s important to recognize that there are some people on the far right, some groups and some actors who aren’t organized explicitly around a racial identity and around threats to that perceived racial identity, instead for groups like Oath Keepers, the identity that they organize around is an American one, and that understanding of an American identity is colorblind. As those of us who have studied or just are generally aware of the role of race in America, no colorblind approaches serve to reinforce racial and ethnic inequality and broader systems and structures of white supremacy.
So of course it’s important to interrogate how anti-government extremism that rejects racial identity still contributes to systemic racial injustice and inequality. But I also think it’s really important to recognize that these people are not organized around a perception that African-Americans, for example, are a threat to the “real Americans” who are white people. So this study of Oath Keepers is my biggest foray into, I guess, a set of empirical investigations of different forms of anti-government extremism. I’ve also written about conspiracy theories in the Patriot militia movement. I wrote an article about this really interesting, at least to me, rhetorical use of phrases that are most commonly associated with the civil rights movement to defend anti-government extremist ideas and goals in America today.
Matt Grossmann: Hawley says the de platforming of the alt-right did work and it might need to work again.
George Hawley: One thing that I think that we can learn from Charlottesville is that, de platforming is an extraordinarily effective for especially predominantly online movement. After the so-called Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, there was a major push against the individuals and groups that were associated with that event. So, people were kicked off of Twitter, which had been really the primary means by which people were able to access a larger audience, and the attempts to move on to other platforms, most notably Gab, proved to be ineffective. There were back in, an insular community and no longer able to project their message outward.
Then of course there was the removal of the ability to raise money as you started to see companies like PayPal stopped to do business, and then even banks stopping to do business with people. You even had rather extraordinary development, one of the major alt-right websites being essentially driven off the internet entirely for a period. Although it has essentially, it has subsequently, I should say, managed to get back online, but the end result of all of this was to completely deflate whatever momentum, whatever success the alt-right was having, all of that came to a halt at that point, and it never really was able to regroup.
Subsequent to that, it’s been just never ending series of infighting within that movement problems related to doxing, that is people who would rather be anonymous being uncovered, and then dealing with social fallout as a result of that. There’s just has not been any way to overcome all of those difficulties. I think that that is something we’re going to see happen again in the coming weeks as fallout for the attack on the Capitol, which as you mentioned, I wouldn’t call it an … there’s some overlap with the alt-right, some figures that is, who were associated with the alt-right were also involved with these most recent riots, but it is much less ideologically coherent than the earlier alt-right was, that is, there were a lot of different groups with a lot of different messages, not always aligned with each other, that were all there in Washington over this past couple of weeks.
Matt Grossmann: So let’s review some of how we got here, the history for each movement. Hawley’s prior work drew from right-wing intellectual alternatives to conservatism.
George Hawley: That prompted me to write a book called Right-Wing Critics of American Conservatism, which I hoped would fill in some of the gaps that were left by scholars like George Nash, who focused on really the winners of the various debates within conservatism. I thought it might be useful to expand the story by talking about the losers in the history of conservatism, that is, who were those groups that wanted conservatism to fundamentally be different from what it ended up being. Because an argument I’ve made for many years now is that, the conservative movement that we see today, it was not inevitable. That is, we might call its ideological constraints were you could say, path dependent and based on decisions made at critical moments or were the end result of the social and political attributes of America at the time they were formulated. So, American conservatism was very much a product of the 1950s and 1960s, Cold War era.
At the end of that book, I argued that as American conservatism became increasingly anachronistic, one or more of these various alternative right-wing ideologies might rise up and try to overthrow it as being hegemonic on the American right, and perhaps become the new dominant ideological framework for the Republican party. Now, at the time I was writing that book, that was back in 2014, I didn’t have any inclination that a white nationalism or explicit white identity politics would be about to have a resurgence, but I did include a chapter on it. So, after that book came out, came out right around the time that Donald Trump announced his candidacy and right around the time that the alt-right was exploding in at least its visibility, if not necessarily its popularity, it seemed like a natural transition.
So I think of the book making sense of the alt-right, which came out in 2017 as being an extended addendum to right-wing critics. In my mind, they’re the same project.
Matt Grossmann: Then Trump brought white nationalism into electoral politics.
George Hawley: I consider the alt-right to be within the same ideological family as what you could call American white nationalism. So, the idea that the United States should be a nation of and for white people alone, so this was a movement that for several decades really did not have much interest in partisan politics. If you go back historically and look at some of the groups that you could think of as being the intellectual or movement antecedents to the alt-right, they were never interested in save Bob Dole as a candidate or George W. Bush or John McCain or Mitt Romney, but with Donald Trump’s candidacy, for the first time in many decades, there was a Republican candidate who genuinely got the racial rights excited.
It looked like there was a chance that the conservative movement that this element of the right had always despised might actually be knocked from its throne as the leading faction of the Republican party, and perhaps a harder edged more radical right might finally have a chance to really be in the driver’s seat when it comes to policy. So they were all in on the Trump candidacy and hoped to, after his victory, hoped that they would be a significant faction in the White House and in directing policy.
Matt Grossmann: The effect of use of online and social media was pioneered by the alt-right.
George Hawley: I would definitely say the alt-right was a pioneer when it comes to use of the internet for these radical right-wing purposes. But I shouldn’t overstate that either, because the extreme has had a presence on the internet since the internet is very first days, and there’s always been … because this element of right-wing thought has been generally marginalized when it comes to mainstream exposure and getting into mainstream popular magazines, television, et cetera, they were early adopters of the internet as a way to get around gatekeepers. But what made the alt-right different from these earlier manifestations was that, it had finally managed to escape from, I guess, you’d call digital quarantine, that is, up until a few years ago, if you weren’t going out of your way looking for extreme right, racist right, whatever material, you could generally go about your day without really knowing it existed.
So what the alt-right did that was quite effective for period was making itself extremely visible on social media, especially getting itself in front of journalists and other people who would sometimes inadvertently amplify its message and make it more visible to a wider swath of the population than had been the case even just a few years earlier. So, yes, the use of youthful meme culture and the use of trolling, as you mentioned, all of these things gave them a useful propaganda technique that was quite effective up until the major de platforming that started after the election, and then really ramped up after a Charlottesville in 2017.
Matt Grossmann: But Trumpism did not end up developing into a coherent cause.
George Hawley: By the end the Trump administration, Trumpism had really become just Trump. As you suggested, kind of a cult of personality around Trump, as opposed to any set of coherent ideological perspectives that we could call Trumpism. I mean, we think about Trump from 2016 versus 2020, there’s not a high degree of specific ideological coherence over that period. We think about what the 2020 campaign was about. Donald Trump did not really focus on immigration, which had been a signature issue before, but he was very proud of the fact that he had pushed for a criminal justice reform in previous years.
Despite not maintaining any ideological consistency, at least what I would consider ideological consistency, his followers continued to follow him and to really believe in him as a person and as a leader, seemingly no matter what he did, which is why I think that it is unlikely that we’re going to see an heir to Trump or Trumpism, because if the attraction is to Trump the person and the cult is built around himself, that’s not something you can really pass on, and you certainly, I don’t think you’re going to see it passed on to somebody like say Josh Hawley or Ted Cruz.
So, I think that Trumpism is likely to fade away as his platform is taken away from him. So, inadvertently as shocking as the events of the Capitol were, because Trump has been de platformed, I think this will have the effect of making Trump a less significant figure on the American political scene faster than would have otherwise been the case. By removing his platform on Twitter, I think that we are going to see him diminish quite rapidly as a significant figure.
Matt Grossmann: Hawley says the right wing did not succeed in policy, and so it might retreat from party politics.
George Hawley: There’s going to be a fair amount of time spent with people trying to figure out what the last four years meant, because in terms of actual substance, what did the far right actually get over out of the Trump years? I mean, I guess they saw some renewed energy, and then there’s probably, you could say, a degree of normalization that occurred, but in terms of what the U.S. federal government looks like today, as opposed to what it would’ve looked like, if say a Ted Cruz or a Jeb Bush had one, I’m not so sure that it is all that different. So, I think that there’s going to be some time spent by a lot of these different groups figuring out what caused things to not work out better for them.
I also think that we’ll see a retreat from partisan politics. We already saw this with the alt-right after much of it lost his enthusiasm for Trump. It was still propagandizing, it was still engaged in online activity to the extent that it still existed, but it wasn’t as attached to partisan politics in the way that it had been in say 2016. So I think we might see a decoupling of some of these movements from more mainstream political activity.
Matt Grossmann: Backlash to diversity is predictable, but the form it took here wasn’t preordained.
George Hawley: I think that’s right. This is something that should have been expected. I don’t really like the language of inevitability because that seems to deny agency to political actors and elites. Certainly, as we look at demographic change across the world, we don’t see the exact same trends playing out in every country. So obviously it’s not as though, well, after immigration hits a certain level, then suddenly this type of politics will happen. But I think it was predictable, there’s certainly enough social science suggesting it that as racial and ethnic religious diversity increases, you are going to see an element of the once dominant demographic groups express resentment, and look for political means to push back against that. Unfortunately, sometimes nonpolitical means, but I think it is something that it was predictable, but I don’t want to say inevitable.
Matt Grossmann: Oath Keepers also draw on a longer history of backlash. Jackson says they grew out of the militia movement in the 1990s, which fractured.
Sam Jackson: So I think of this all as being part of the Patriot militia movement that really did emerge in the early to mid 90s as you say, in the aftermath of these really tragic and violent interactions between Americans and law enforcement in Ruby Ridge, in Idaho and in Waco, Texas at the Branch Davidian compound. So the first wave of the Patriot militia movement emerged in 1993, 1994, my historian friends would hate me because I’m terrible with dates, and had some attention and some life, they received varying amounts of attention over the next few years, but by 2001 or so, the first wave was really more or less dormant. Part of that is because of a number of failed attempts at organization.
There were some big egos in the movement that drove some fracturing and the movement also engaged in some conspiracy theory, forecasting sorts of things or prophecies that ended up not coming true. Notably, a number of predictions around Y2K, where there was this sense that the American economy, or maybe the global economy was going to crash on January 1st, 2000 because of a computer bug and pervasive through a lot of code. In combination with all of those things, of course we had the attacks on September 11th, and in the aftermath of those attacks, a lot of attention among Americans shifted overseas.
We started thinking increasingly that the main threat facing everyday Americans was international terrorism and especially jihadi terrorism or terrorism associated with Al-Qaeda. The Patriot militia movement is really organized around this perception that the federal government is the primary threat to American Life and Liberty. So as broader American attention shifted towards these foreign threats to security, that led to a decrease in attention paid to the main concerns for the Patriot militia movement, which led to a decrease in the size of these groups.
Fast forward to 2008, and we see a strong and sudden resurgence of this type of right-wing extremism, particularly with the candidacy of Barack Obama, and then once Obama became the president, this movement really took off once again. In the second wave of the movement, we saw some of the same actors from the first movement, a notable one being Mike Vanderboegh, who is the main guy behind the Three Percenters movement. In the 1990s he had been part of a couple of different militia groups if I remember correctly, and he had also been involved in some of these “border security operations” that we’ve seen paramilitary groups do over the past several decades.
But with this second wave of the movement, we also saw new faces, for example, Stewart Rhodes in the Oath Keepers. We also saw the development of a bunch of new and quite small groups throughout the country, kind of all over the place. I’ve started to wonder if it makes sense to think of a third wave of the Patriot militia movement as starting in 2016. My book really focuses on Oath Keepers from their founding in 2009, up until 2016, when they’re organized around this perception that the federal government is the primary threat. As Trump took office though, they shifted their orientation. Instead of focusing on the federal government as a threat, they started to see left-leaning Americans who oppose the Trump administration as the threat that they needed to oppose. This was true for others within the anti-government extremist movement as well.
So I’ve started to toy with this idea of a third wave, but I think the next couple of years will really tell us whether that was, or is a new wave or was just a temporary aberration.
Matt Grossmann: They formed in the Obama administration and grew quickly, including members with military experience.
Sam Jackson: The group was formed in early 2009. It had its first public event on April 21st on the Lexington Green, outside of Boston and the founder, a guy named Stewart Rhodes said he specifically chose that location and that date for the first public event to call back to the revolutionary war. He said something to the effect of, “We’re gathered here in this spot today to remind ourselves of where we’ve been in the past and to remind ourselves of what we might need to do today.” So the group started back in 2009, and a couple of years after that, when reporters started noticing Oath Keepers at different events and they would ask Stewart Rhodes, the groups president, how many members of the group had, Rhodes regularly claimed that he had about 30,000 dues paying members.
Watchdog organizations like the Anti-Defamation League and the Southern Poverty Law Center estimate that the real number is probably more like three to 5,000 dues paying members at its peak. A few months ago, a piece came out in the Atlantic about the Oath Keepers that was in large part based on leaked membership, a leaked membership list, and that membership list I believe had about 25,000 names on it. But the author whose name is totally alluding me right now, pointed out that that list contained everyone who’s ever been a dues paying member of Oath Keepers, not a list of the members at any one particular point in time.
Some other important things about membership, the group in particular tries to recruit current and former law enforcement and military. Stewart Rhodes is a former army paratrooper, and some of his friends who helped him form the organization were current or former law enforcement. The name of the group really refers to this idea that these people that have law enforcement or military experience, they all took an oath among other things that oath says to support and defend the constitution against all enemies, foreign and domestic, and the Oath Keepers want everyone who’s taken that oath to honor it. They say there’s no expiration date on that oath, whether you’re still in the position for which you took the oath or not, you are still obligated to protect and defend the constitution against all enemies foreign and domestic. Their focus is really on the domestic enemies more so than the foreign enemies.
Matt Grossmann: The militia movement is an important sector of the broader right-wing.
Sam Jackson: I argue that there are three categories of right-wing extremism in the U.S. and a piece that I wrote for the International Center for Counter-Terrorism at the Hague, there is racist right-wing extremism, which is the most commonly considered form. There is nativist right-wing extremism, which consists of people, for example, who are anti-immigrant or anti-Muslim and where that identity is not necessarily race-based, even if there’s some strong racial overlaps. Then the third category that I described is anti-government extremism. Just to quickly note, I do recognize substantial overlap between those different groups, and in that piece, I argue that it’s important analytically to distinguish them even if in practice, there is substantial overlap between the categories.
So then, anti-government extremism within that category, there are two main sub categories. There is what I call the Patriot militia movement. Lots of other people would refer to it as just the militia movement. The other sub category of anti-government extremism is the Sovereign citizen movement. Again, substantial overlap there, but important analytical distinctions. Then within anti-government extremism, I argued that there are two main factions, I guess you would call them sub-groupings or something sub-categories within anti-government extremism in its most recent incarnations since about 2008, that is Oath Keepers, which is this formal group. It has a national leadership, it has national organization, it has state chapters and local chapters and the more amorphous Three Percenters movement.
So, unlike Oath Keepers, which is this group with clear organization and clear leadership structures, Three Percenters is not an organization, instead it’s a bunch of independent groups and some franchised groups that do have more formal relationships, but also lots of independent groups that have somehow adopted the rhetoric and the idea and the label and the symbols of Three Percenters.
Matt Grossmann: Jackson has found membership quite opaque.
Sam Jackson: So, Oath Keepers in particular specifically tries or says that they try to recruit current and former law enforcement and military. I know that some of its members are current and former. I also know that some of its members have no such experience in joining the group anyway, the oath Keepers is a little bit weird and an extremist group. They actually filed articles of incorporation with the state of Nevada, a number of years ago. Their bylaws say that full membership is reserved for those who have military or law enforcement experience. Those without that experience can join as associate members. Although I can’t find anything that actually suggests that there’s a meaningful difference between full members and associate members.
Now, trying to figure out who’s actually in Oath Keepers is difficult, and to be frank, I don’t even know how to do it. There is a membership list as the presence of that article in the Atlantic demonstrates, but the only way to gain access to it would be to convince someone within oath Keepers to give it to you or to somehow get a leaked copy or something like that. Early on as I was thinking about this project, I was thinking about doing much more of an ethnographic project, and I reached out to Stewart Rhodes to see if he would be willing to facilitate getting me access and doing interviews. He made it quite clear that he had no interest in helping me do that, which means that I have no access inside of the group and don’t actually know who joins.
I don’t know whether it’s majority people with law enforcement and military experience or whether those are minority. I also don’t know things like racial and gender or even age breakdown of those who are in the group.
Matt Grossmann: Oath Keepers gained attention with the Bundy ranch standoff.
Sam Jackson: They formed in 2009, and they got a little bit of attention for their initial rally, and they appeared at several Tea Party events throughout the country, where they tried to recruit and that sort of thing. For the next couple of years, they didn’t do a whole lot that was publicly visible. They were involved in a few smaller scale events, especially in the Southwest, but nothing that really captured public attention or got them, like journalists coverage or anything like that, that changed with the Bundy ranch standoff, of course, which was this huge, iconic and visually rather stunning moment where Americans saw media coverage of other heavily armed Americans standing off against law enforcement and trying to prevent them from carrying out a court order.
There were a lot of people present at the Bundy ranch, a lot of different factions and groups and actors and individuals, including several Oath Keepers. Interestingly, Oath Keepers actually had a falling out with some other people who were president at Bundy ranch because Oath Keepers believed they had received credible threat that Eric Holder, who was then the attorney general had authorized a drone strike against Bundy and his supporters, which is, it would be comical if it wasn’t depressing, I guess, to think that the attorney general has the authority to authorize a drone strike in the U.S. anyway, that’s a total divergent tangent, there we go.
So, Oath Keepers were present at the Bundy ranch and they gained some attention there, and they also gained connections to other like-minded people throughout the country who had traveled to the Bundy ranch to participate in that standoff. That standoff was widely seen as a victory for the movement for several years, because the federal law enforcement who were present at the ranch decided to stop their action, because they were concerned about the safety of the people who were present, which allowed Bundy to continue to defy court orders and laws related to his cattle and his views on the federal government more broadly.
So, Oath Keepers carried forward the sense that the Bundy ranch standoff was a success, and they tried to replicate it a few times over the coming years.
Matt Grossmann: They were motivated to oppose Clinton and made their way to Trump.
Sam Jackson: Throughout the 2008 to 2016 period, again, the group was really focused on the federal government as the primary threat to American Life and Liberty. But the 2016 election saw Clinton, someone with a last name, Clinton, running for president again. Eventually of course, we know that it became a Clinton versus Trump competition, and in the end, Trump won the electoral college vote. Initially Oath Keepers as an organization were not on team Trump. They were concerned among other things that Trump was too accommodating in terms of gun control legislation. They issued a statement condemning something that he said after one of the debates, in fact.
But for anti-government extremists more broadly, the Clinton family is a Supreme enemy, they will always be opposed to anyone with the name Clinton. This is because of those events that drove the first wave of the Patriot militia movement, the Ruby Ridge and Waco events, also because of gun control efforts that were passed at the federal level during the Clinton administration. Finally, certainly not least, Hillary Clinton was the secretary of state under the Obama administration. And of course, that goes back to conspiracy theories about Benghazi and all of the complaints that the federal government did not take appropriate action in that situation.
So, even if they weren’t necessarily on team Trump initially, when it became clear that it was a competition of Clinton versus Trump, I don’t think there was any doubt about who Oath Keepers would support at least implicitly, and among the rank-and-file of the group, they were all on team Trump from the get go.
Matt Grossmann: Online activity is a big part of the movement and its ties to other right-wing groups.
Sam Jackson: The book is primarily an investigation of what we might call their public communications strategy based on the things that they post to their website. They had a blog, before they had a website. Stewart Rhodes had a blog before he started the organization, and they also posted a number of videos to YouTube. So the book is really investigating in fact, their online activity. They also had robust comment sections on their website. They had various forums for members over time, and they were present on social media as well. Many people have observed this possibility that large parts of the movement are keyboard warriors. It’s a phrase that gets used sometimes, these would be people who, for example, join a Facebook group for Oath Keepers, or like an Oath Keepers page on Facebook, or watch YouTube videos put out by the group. Things like that.
It’s also clear though, that there were people who were involved offline, who would show up to rallies, who would engage in FTXs, field training exercises, Oath Keepers also encouraged its members to form what they called community preparedness teams programs. They had a community preparedness team program, there we go, which was essentially an armed neighborhood watch, but they modeled the program around special forces teams. So for these CPT, each CPT team would have some people who were expert marksman and some who were experts in demolition and some who are experts in combat medicine or communications or logistics or whatever else they might have deemed necessary for this combat style team.
We also saw them engage in different types of political activism, although by and large, they rejected the electoral politics. Stewart Rhodes was known to say from time to time that it doesn’t matter who wins a presidential election, because Oath Keepers are opposed to tyrants boot, whether it’s a left boot or a right boot, they were much more interested in electoral politics. When it came to things like County sheriff elections, they were part of this movement that encouraged County sheriffs to engage in local nullification or radical localism. Those are two terms that scholars have used to investigate this phenomenon that basically argues that County sheriffs are the Supreme political entity within their jurisdiction and have the political authority to prevent any other law enforcement official or any other government official for that matter, from carrying out any activity that they believe violates the constitution.
Matt Grossmann: They were publicly negative about the alt-right, but still tied to their events.
Sam Jackson: Oath Keepers explicitly rejected the alt-right and condemned the alt-right, saying that they were not racist and did not support racism. Now, the interesting thing is there were several instances in the 2016 time period, maybe like 2015 to 2018, where Oath Keepers and other similar groups acted as defacto security for the alt-right. They would show up at alt-right events where they knew that antifa or other left-leaning actors who oppose the alt-right would show up and they would say, “We’re going to come. We’re going to be heavily armed because we want to protect the first amendment rights of the alt-right. We don’t support their beliefs but we support their right to say these heinous things.”
Interestingly, or maybe not so interestingly, they never once acted as defacto security for left-leaning Americans and never once said anything like we want to defend their free speech rights.
Matt Grossmann: Jackson says, it’s unclear if the militia movement conspiracy theorist or Trump will get the blame for the Capitol insurrection.
Sam Jackson: A lot of the commentary that I have seen so far about the insurrection hasn’t focused on the militia movement per se, or Oath Keepers per se, although that might change in the coming days. I think largely the commentary has been much more focused on the broader participation from people who can more generally be described as Trump supporters without necessarily belonging to a militia organization or movement, and also to QAnon supporters. There’s some overlap between two non-supporters and militia groups like the Oath Keepers, and there’s also overlap between these groups and rank-and-file Trump supporters. But just from what I’ve seen, I haven’t seen a whole lot of focus on the anti-government extremists or the organized anti-government extremist anyway, who were present in D.C.
Matt Grossmann: De platforming has started and maybe accelerating.
Sam Jackson: A lot of these groups, like plenty of other groups who aren’t ideologically similar to them whatsoever, like everyday Americans, use social media platforms for a lot of organization, especially now in a pandemic when we’re all locked down and we’re spending so much time at home, Facebook and YouTube and Reddit and other social media platforms become really important spaces for them to connect with people who might not necessarily be seeking them out proactively. What we’ve seen over the past several months, let’s say six months or so is social media platforms are increasingly cracking down on groups like Oath Keepers for violating terms of service.
In October, Stewart Rhodes and the official Oath Keepers account were both permanently banned from Twitter. The landscape on Facebook is more complicated. There were dozens probably perhaps more than dozens of small Oath Keepers groups on Facebook. The larger ones were shut down, although some of the smaller ones avoided some of this moderation activity. So, some of these places where Oath Keepers would be able to recruit people who aren’t necessarily seeking out a group like Oath Keepers, these channels have been shut off to them. I think that’s really important. It’s not to say that this is a silver bullet that’s going to lead to the collapse of groups like Oath Keepers, it certainly isn’t. There are plenty of other places where they can communicate, but it does make it harder for them to send their preferred telling of events like the insurrection out into the public and to get coverage from the media about that sort of thing.
Matt Grossmann: Hawley agrees that the crackdown is coming and might work.
George Hawley: I think that what we’re going to see is a real crackdown on online conspiracy theorizing. I think we’re going to see that the full extent of the law, is going to be brought down upon the people involved in these riots, whether they were state legislatures elsewhere or not. I think this is something that the federal government is going to take extraordinarily seriously. I mean, I think that QAnon had been indulged because people viewed it as largely harmless. I don’t think that that’s the case anymore. So I think that the amount of pressure there’s going to be put on these different groups is going to be effective.
I hope I am correct on this, but I find it implausible that this is going to grow into something more significant going forward. That’s not to say that, of course, I’m dismissing threats of violence, obviously that is something that is very serious and must be taken very seriously, but I consider it unlikely that Capitol riot is something that’s going to be, say, repeated again and again, or that is going to start happening at, say, the state level over and over. So I’d put a low probability on that.
Matt Grossmann: He still sees problems for conservatism, which got onboard with Trump and now has a problem separating itself from extremists.
George Hawley: The mainstream conservative movement, it’s in a bit of a tough spot. When we think about the flagship conservative journals and intellectuals and journalists from 2016, a lot of them did go out of their way to try to maintain some distance between Trump and this movement. We can think about, say, national review, famously having that against Trump cover story in which they argued Republican voters must not vote for Donald Trump in the primaries, but then as the Trump administration wore on, or really after Trump secured the nomination and defeated Hillary, the mainstream conservative movement mostly made peace with Trump, in part because he mostly gave them what they wanted. Right? If we think about the main policy achievements of the Trump administration, it was a tax cut and justices, this things that the conservative movement wanted.
So as the Trump administration wore on, a lot of mainstream conservatives, they still had their complaints about Trump, but they had mostly gotten on board and supported the president by the time 2020 rolled around. That creates a bit of a problem because at this point, I think they would like to create as much distance between themself and Trump and Trump’s mess as possible. I do think that we’re going to see conservatives try to promote a narrative in the next couple of years in which they insist that they were always distinct from Trump and Trumpism from the beginning, and were consistently so. Now that won’t be entirely true, but I think that’s the myth that will be promoted as conservatives try to move forward in the years ahead and formulate a new strategy and path to power.
Matt Grossmann: Hawley’s next looking at conservatism and its longer relationship to identity politics.
George Hawley: So I have a book manuscript under review right now with the working title of Conservatism and Identity, in which I look at the relationship between the conservative movement and so-called identity politics from the 1950s until today. So, looking about how conservatives have formulated their arguments against what’s called identity politics, and of course, noting the ways in which this has been inconsistent and often have a critical, very different, depending on which type of identity group you’re talking about, but talking about the evolution of that in relation to things like civil rights, things like feminism and things like immigration and the meaning of the American national identity.
George Hawley: So that’s my current big project, which, if the review process goes well, hopefully that will be coming out within the next year.
Matt Grossmann: There’s a lot more to learn. The Science of Politics is available biweekly from the Niskanen Center. I’m your host, Matt Grossmann. Thanks to Sam Jackson and George Hawley for joining me. Please check out the Oath Keepers and The Alt-Right: What Everyone Needs to Know. Then listen in next time.
Elvert Barnes, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons