How We (Mis)Understand the Oath Keepers

How We (Mis)Understand the Oath Keepers

One of the challenges that has emerged in both scholarship and journalism on the far-right is the confusing self-understanding both far-right organizations and the social movements that contain them have. There is often a break between stated ideologies and internal ones, political proposals and practical action. This has become especially muddled as the election of Donald Trump and rise of the alt-right has pushed the Overton Window to the political right, while also normalizing conspiracism, national populism, and the kind of antagonistic political celebrity that used to be resigned to AM talk radio.

One of the most important organizations of this right-wing resurgence in the past ten years has been the Oath Keepers, a sort of “post-militia'' organization known for its anti-government and nativist themes. While there has been a lot of coverage on the kinds of events in which the Oath Keepers have been present, such as the various stand-offs orchestrated by Ammon Bundy and company, there has been little analysis of what actually drives them and how they view the world. This could be, in part, because a certain snobbery exists in our refraction: they seem silly and incoherent, so surely their ideas must be as well. Sam Jackson, who works at the College of Emergency Preparedness, Homeland Security and Cybersecurity at the University of Albany takes a different approach: if we want to understand what the potential threat of the Oath Keepers, we have to understand their ideological operating system and why they have had the vast appeal they have had. To accomplish this Jackson focuses on their literature and public output rather than focusing on individuals, or even events, and to that end he provides some useful insights while also missing some key opportunities.

Jackson’s new book Oath Keepers: Patriotism and the Edge of Violence in a Right-Wing Antigovernment Group unpacks the rhetorical structure the organization has been built on and, through its alignment, fuels the surrounding far-right movements. What is often called the “Patriot” subculture, or less accurately the “militia movement,” is made up of an interlocking series of organizations and networks that push a radical right-wing vision of the United States. It is ostensibly libertarian and conservative, focused on pushing back on alleged federal overreach, and deeply invested in issues like protecting gun rights. Jackson attempts to define various “extremist” movements and understand their constituent parts. This is done with admirable fluidity and the reader will appreciate the clarity he brings to this since this level of nuance and distinction is rarely available when discussing the “Patriot” subculture, which cannot simply be collapsed into broad categories like “white supremacist.” He focuses on how the Oath Keepers see themselves, primarily through their own literature and public commentaries. This centers on their founder, Stuart Rhodes, a (disbarred) attorney who graduated from Yale and has made a name for himself jumping from one conspiracy theory to another. The Oath Keepers are then allegedly made up of people such as police, former military, and first responders who will “keep the oath,” so to speak, to the constitution, and refuse to obey orders they believe are in violation of this country’s founding documents.

While not professing open white nationalist ideas, the Oath Keepers have often allied themselves with those elements, such as providing protection for Islamophobic rallies held by ACT for America or in support of the alt-right rally at Charlottesville in 2017. While this is an important component of their ideological infrastructure, and Jackson does talk about the confusing overlap of what he calls extremist groups from the worlds of anti-government, nativist, and racist radicalism. Jackson accomplishes a few things in the text, yet relies on proving that the Oath Keepers’ has had three distinct purposes since its 2009 founding:

  1. Framing contemporary issues by comparing them to historical events that have emotional resonance.
  2. Telling stories of American heroism as a model for how people can respond to threats.
  3. Gain support from the public by comparing themselves to heroes who confronted historical threats. (111)

Part of the problems with Jackson’s conceptual framework begins to emerge here: how do we accurately qualify the “extremism” of the Oath Keepers. Jackson uses concentric circles to outline White Supremacy, Nativism, and Anti-Government as the three overlapping extremisms, and, while Jackson admits relevant crossover, it is debatable whether these designations are autonomously static enough to stand in this formulation. The key problem is the designation of Anti-Government, which is hopelessly vague yet often used as a definitional crutch in literature associated with the Countering Violent Extremism sector, who itself has been the target of extensive criticism for how it handles political radicalism. The Oath Keepers are labeled as Anti-Government, yet they hold little ideological crossover with left-wing movements that would likewise be labeled as “anti-government,” nor does it seem fully accurate when looking at the dual lives of the Oath Keepers’ membership. The organization claims to hold thousands of police officers and military personnel (they claim their membership to be in the tens of thousands when it is likely closer to 5,000) all of which use romanticized themes of American liberty to suggest they will act as the stopgap between freedom and encroaching federal tyranny. The problem is right there in the designation: it is essentially a group claiming legitimacy by its association with public employeeship and the institutionalized mechanisms of state violence (i.e. the tyranny it professes to regulate). Recent reports have confirmed that the Oath Keepers, in states such as Oregon (which are discussed in the book around the 2015 Sugar Pine Mine incident), hold a large portion of dues-paying members among law enforcement. In major cities from New York to Los Angeles (Chicago had the most), police are allegedly dual-carding membership with the Oath Keepers (the Fraternal Order of the Police is their other organizational affiliation). While there is a certain critique of the government leveled by the Oath Keepers, and others in the “Patriot” orbit, the question is if it is “anti-government” so much as defined along other axes, such as the authority of the state in regards to gun control or social issues. This calls in the entire framework built at the beginning of Jackson’s book, not to mention the rest of the CVE world, whose designation of “Anti-Government” as self-evident requires some revision.

More than this, their association with the previous President of the United States, and their tacit allegiance to him, has also called into question the complete legitimacy of the "Anti-Government" designation. In the January 6th Hearings that are currently underway, it has been argued that the Oath Keepers actually played an active role in facilitating the wishes of Donald Trump by meeting his call for action on the election.

The book itself focuses on the literature of the Oath Keepers rather than their membership, meaning that no member of the organization was actually interviewed while researching the book. While the approach Jackson takes is valid, this seems like more than a missed opportunity since there is a limit from what we can learn from published statements, articles, and speeches, and since public interviews are still cited as primary text, the justification for limiting the research feels lacking. The text itself is just over 120 pages and feels rather thin, both in scope and analysis. The focus is on proving how the Oath Keepers use American mythologies, particularly the resistance to the British in the U.S. founding, as well as key set pieces of government misbehavior, such as the 1993 Waco standoff and the treatment of New Orleans residents during Hurricane Katrina. The role of Waco in the rural right-wing imagination has already been well traveled in research literature on the subject, and the racialization of Katrina’s residents by other far-right organizations seems missing from Jackson’s appraisal of how the Oath Keepers’ manipulated of events. We also get little in the way of the history of the organization, so the utility of this book is incredibly limited.

While some key insights about how the Oath Keepers’ fear mongering has shifted from the state to fellow citizens in the form of “Antifa” conspiracy theories, the text never spends any time on this despite setting this up early on as a key structural shift in the organization’s self-perception. Books like David Neiwart’s Alt-America have done a good job of weaving some of this type of analysis into a larger narrative about the history of these movements, expanding outward to better situation them in the larger constellation of the American far-right, and subsequently are able to set up a more dependable conceptual framework while enhancing readability. Jackson’s approach is laser focused, which does produce some of its more potent insights about the organization’s worldview, but this remains boxed into a very narrow framework.

We shouldn’t assess Jackson’s book simply by what it does not accomplish, but it is hard to ignore some of the roads untaken given the importance of this subject. With that being said, Oath Keepers is not a failure because it presents some deep insights into why the Oath Keepers, and organizations like it, continue to have such a powerful recruiting base. Jackson’s ideas about how the Oath Keepers are evolving have a great deal of utility, and his concise opening terminology ensures that the reader knows exactly what will be accomplished in the text. Jackson’s history at the college of Emergency Preparedness, Homeland Security and Cybersecurity is relevant here, and we get the sense that this text plays a role in effective counter-insurgency models that developed a collaborative framework between CVE NGOs and law enforcement. This has within it a critique of its own, one leveled on the effectiveness of these sorts of partnerships and analytical frameworks that fail to contend with structuralized inequalities in these systems, but that is a step beyond where the text is willing to go. The reader should appreciate that Jackson knows exactly what his strengths are as he leans into the kind of analysis he does so well, and so this book promises to have a life in research work looking to understand the operative ideologies of this movement.

Because Jackson focuses in the conclusion on the prevention of violence, suggesting this is the reason that scholarship and intervention are necessary, we again have to question the underlying structure of the book. There is a gap between action/behavior and ideology, particularly in the case of the Oath Keepers. The rhetoric and literature of organizations in the “Patriot” network are often much less radical than their behavior, this is particularly true of organizations like the Proud Boys who the Oath Keepers often collaborate with. What we can learn from ideological literature is incredibly limited, particularly since it is how their act on those ideologies that matter. When the Oath Keepers show up at a rally with semi-automatic weapons or attack counter-demonstrators, the degree of violence present is not reflected back in the literature that is officially designated. So if the purpose of this analysis is to prevent violence and the pathway to understanding the organization should be routed to actual member behavior rather than just the voice of its official publications. There is a role for what Jackson has put together, but it is questionable how definitive its conclusions are and whether or not they provide an adequate enough picture to be useful.