RHODES' TIMING WAS impeccable. Twelve days earlier, the Department of Homeland Security had issued a report warning that a black president, weak economy, and high unemployment rate had created a "fertile recruiting environment" for right-wing extremists—"disgruntled" vets from Iraq and Afghanistan, the report noted, could bring combat know-how to domestic terrorist groups. Predictably, veterans groups went ballistic, and the report itself became a potent Oath Keepers recruiting tool. "The No. 1 focus of DHS is not Islamic terrorists—it is me and you," Rhodes told followers. "They will unleash the government against you, silence you and suppress you!"
Lee Pray and his pal Brandon were left behind with injuries when their unit shipped off to Iraq. They spend their idle hours preparing for the day the government goes too far.Oath Keepers collaborates regularly with like-minded citizens groups; last Fourth of July, Rhodes dispatched speakers to administer the oath at more than 30 Tea Party rallies across America. At last fall's 9/12 march on Washington, he led a contingent of Oath Keepers from the Capitol steps down to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Afterward, Oath Keepers cohosted a banquet with the hawkish Gathering of Eagles. This February, a member of the group organized a Florida Freedom Rally featuring Joe the Plumber and conservative singer Lloyd Marcus. (Sample lyrics: Mr. President! Your stimulus is sure to bust / it's just a socialistic scheme / The only thing it will do / is kill the American Dream.)
Rhodes has become a darling of right-wing pundits. In a column last October, Pat Buchanan predicted that "Brother Rhodes is headed for cable stardom." Glenn Beck has cited the group as a "phenomenal" example of the "patriot revival movement," while Lou Dobbs declared that its platform "should give solace and comfort to the left in this country." Conspiracy-radio king Alex Jones even put an Oath Keepers segment, including footage of the Lexington speech, on his hit DVD Fall of the Republic. "I can't stress enough how much your organization is scaring the globalists," he told Rhodes on his show.
All this attention has put Oath Keepers on the radar of anti-hate groups. Last year, the Anti-Defamation League and the Southern Poverty Law Center both name-checked the group in their reports on rising anti-government extremism. "They think the word 'patriot' is a smear," Rhodes countered during his Dobbs segment. SPLC's Mark Potok "wants to lump us in with white supremacists and neo-Nazis, and of course make the insinuation that we're the next McVeigh." But such attacks have only raised Oath Keepers' profile. After a combative Hardball interview in October—host Chris Matthews asked Rhodes whether Oath Keepers had the "firepower to stand up against the federal government"—the group says it gained 2,000 members in three days.
As of mid-January, according to Rhodes, Oath Keepers had at least one chapter in every state and was adding dozens of members daily. Some 14,000 people had signed up as members on the Oath Keepers website while more than 15,000, including dozens of military recruiters, had done so on Facebook. And that doesn't include those who, fearing reprisal, do their networking offline. Volunteers are in the process of sending out some 1,000 "constitutional care packages" complete with Oath Keepers patches to soldiers serving overseas.
IT IS EASY ENOUGH to dismiss the Oath Keepers as (in the words of Britain's Independent) "right-wing crackpots" or "extremist nimrods" (Huffington Post). CNN stressed the group's conspiracy theories in its series on militias. But beyond the predictable stereotypes, "the reality is a lot of them are fairly intelligent, well-educated people who have complex worldviews that are thoroughly thought out," says author David Neiwert, who has been following the patriot movement closely since the '90s.
Rhodes' vision is simple—"It's the Constitution, stupid." He views the founding blueprint the way fundamentalist Christians view the Bible. In Rhodes' America, sovereign states—"like little labs of freedom"—would have their own militias and zero gun restrictions. He would limit federal power to what's stated explicitly in the Constitution and Bill of Rights; any new federal law affecting the states would require a constitutional amendment. "If your state goes retarded," he says, "you can move to another state and vote with your feet." The president would be stripped of emergency powers that allow him to seize property, restrict travel, institute martial law, and otherwise (as the Congressional Research Service has put it) "control the lives of United States citizens." The Constitution, Rhodes explains, "was created to check us in times of emergency when we are freaking out."
Much of this is familiar rhetoric, part of a continuous strain in American politics that reemerged most recently during the 1990s. Back then, a similar combination of recession and Democratic rule led to the rise of citizen militias, the Posse Comitatus movement, and Oath Keepers-type groups like Police & Military Against the New World Order. But those groups had little reach. Nowadays, through the power of YouTube and social networking, and with a boost from the cable punditry, Oath Keepers can reach millions and make its message part of the national conversation—furthering the notion that citizens can simply disregard a government they loathe. "The underlying sentiment is an attack on government dating back to the New Deal and before," says author Neiwert. "Ron Paul has been a significant conduit in recent years, but nothing like Glenn Beck and Michele Bachmann and Sarah Palin—all of whom share that innate animus."
Oath Keepers' strength derives from what Rhodes calls "a very powerful common bond" (the vow of service) as well as the uniform—"a powerful source of credibility and respect" that allows members to "throw their weight into any movement...and tip any election." Rhodes is wary of "old-party asshole RINOs" (Republicans in name only)—he mentions Dick Armey, the former House majority leader turned Tea Party sponsor—who in his view are merely out to hijack the grassroots.
Most Oath Keepers may intend to disobey their commanders only in the instances the group highlights. But the group's ideas also appeal to extremists like Daniel Knight Hayden, whose inflammatory tweets last April ("START THE KILLING NOW!") signaled his intent to wreak havoc at a Tax Day protest. On the morning of April 15 he sent out a tweet touting Oath Keepers, followed by "Locked AND loaded for the Oklahoma State Capitol. Let's see what happens." (The FBI arrested him at home a few hours later; he was eventually convicted for transmitting interstate threats.) Rhodes vigorously denounced Hayden, but the episode hinted at the power of the group's language. Rhetoric like Rhodes' ("Do you want them to kick down your door in body armor?") can have "an unhinging effect" on people inclined toward violent action, Neiwert explains. "It puts them in a state of mind of fearfulness and paranoia, creating so much anger and hatred that eventually that stuff boils over."
In the months I've spent getting to know the Oath Keepers, I've toggled between viewing them either as potentially dangerous conspiracy theorists or as crafty intellectuals with the savvy to rally politicians to their side. The answer, I came to realize, is that they cover the whole spectrum.
ON A CLEAR September evening, I found myself in suite 610 at the Texas Station casino in North Las Vegas mingling with two dozen Oath Keepers state leaders, directors, and hardcore devotees. It was past midnight, but the place—down to the American flag wallpaper in the bathroom—was awake with the sense of a movement primed to burst into the national consciousness. Mississippi director Chris Evans, who sports a long beard and cowboy hat, declared in his pronounced drawl that this gathering was so important to him that for the first time since 9/11 he'd succumbed to the "invasive breach of privacy" required to fly here. Rand Cardwell, who organized multiple chapters in Tennessee, only woke up, he told me, when the government began bailing out big companies and left ordinary people in the cold: "Pain causes action," he said. For others here, the aha moment came with the Patriot Act or when federal troops and contractors confiscated weapons in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
As techies swarmed around laptops discussing website tweaks, two shy Midwesterners who hoped to become state directors told me they were eager to learn recruiting tips. An energetic young veteran griped that hate-crime bills aim to police people's thoughts, and that the "Don't Tread on Me" bumper stickers popular with constitutionalists raise enough suspicion these days to get a person pulled over by the authorities. Over bottled water and microbrews, they swapped tips on how to involve members in state militias, spread viral YouTube videos of soldiers reaffirming their oaths, and reach out to other patriots. They boasted of recruiting at gun shows, approaching politicians and cops, and stuffing leaflets into magazines in veterans hospital waiting rooms.
The three-day conference was called posthaste after Rhodes realized that his group was growing beyond his control. On the first night, over a casino buffet of barbecue, goopy Chinese food, and key lime pie, core members scrutinized printouts of potential organizational structures before heading upstairs to sign legal documents, pick a board of directors, and start nominating state representatives.
Rhodes caught wind of my presence during the introductory meet and greet. Taking me aside, he told me he'd decided reporters weren't welcome. After I protested that the Oath Keepers website had described the conference as open to the public, he offered to refund my $300 entrance fee. Then I told him I'd read his Yale paper and shared many of his concerns about executive power; I really wanted to hear what Oath Keepers had to say. In the end, he agreed to let me stay and eventually invited me to hang out with the inner circle.
The next morning, in a casino ballroom, a hundred or so Oath Keepers exchanged business cards and schmoozed in between speeches about constitutional law, American Revolutionary history, and a soldier's obligation to disobey illegal orders—Nuremberg references on full display. Clad in suits, or slacks with button-downs, most of them could have been attending an insurance convention. One Oath Keeper handed out Gadsden-flag bumper stickers, while others sold T-shirts, baseball caps, and polo shirts featuring the group's minuteman logo and motto: "Not on our watch." There was a raffle, and James Sugra, one of the masterminds behind Ron Paul's fundraising "money bombs," scored a huge framed replica of the Constitution. To enthusiastic applause, a driver in the Lucas Oil Late Model Dirt Series (a hot new cross between NASCAR and monster truck rallies) announced that the Oath Keepers would get free ad space on his car. Their logo would be seen on television sets across America. During the talks, I sat between a libertarian who had biked across America, stopping at police stations to hand out recruiting materials, and a first-generation Chinese American stay-at-home dad from San Francisco who invited me to my local chapter's winter survivalist training and rifle practice—extracurriculars, he assured me.