Yale Law School graduate Stewart Rhodes in 2009 founded the far-right Oath Keepers, a fiercely antigovernment, militaristic group that improbably claims more than 30,000 law enforcement officers, soldiers and military veterans as members. The core idea of the group is that its members vow to forever support the oaths they took on joining law enforcement or the military to defend the Constitution. But just as central is the group’s list of 10 “Orders We Will Not Obey,” a compendium of much-feared but entirely imaginary threats from the government — orders, for instance, to force Americans into concentration camps, confiscate their guns, or cooperate with foreign troops in the United States. These supposed threats are, in fact, part of the central conspiracy theory advocated by the antigovernment “Patriot” movement of which the Oath Keepers is a part — the baseless claim that the federal government plans to impose martial law, seize Americans’ weapons, force those who resist into concentration camps, and, ultimately, push the country into a one-world socialistic government known as the “New World Order.” In 2013, the group took on a more aggressive stance, announcing the planned formation of “Citizen Preservation” militias meant to defend Americans against the New World Order.
In His Own Words
“Imagine that Herr Hitlery [Hillary Clinton] is sworn in as president in 2009. After a conveniently timed ‘domestic terrorism’ incident (just a coincidence, of course) … she promptly crams a United Nations mandated total ban on the private possession of firearms. … But Hitlery goes further, proclaiming a national emergency and declaring the entire militia movement (and anyone else Morris Dees labels ‘extremists’) to be ‘enemy combatants.’ … Hitlery declares that such citizens are subject to secret military detention without jury trial, ‘enhanced’ interrogation techniques, and trial before a military tribunal hand-picked by the dominatrix-in-chief herself. Hitlery then orders police, National Guard troops and active military to go house-to-house to disarm the American people and ‘black-bag’ those on a list of ‘known terrorists,’ with orders to shoot all resisters.”
—“Enemy at the Gates” column in S.W.A.T Magazine, April 2008
“We need to accept the reality that an economic collapse is coming. … When the Federal Reserve created fiat money system collapses, when the ship sinks, they will then ‘rescue us’ by sweeping us all onboard the U.N.N. Global Leviathan — their ‘final solution’ of a world-wide version of the ‘Fed’ along with ‘world governance.’ That has been their plan all along.”
—Post on the Oath Keepers’ Operation Sleeping Giant website, April 17, 2011
“The Republic is on the verge of destruction precisely because Republicans have chosen the lesser of two evils (the lesser of two oath breakers) in each election. … When you take a slightly reduced dose of poison, say 80% poison instead of 100%, you are still poisoning yourself, and you will still die. This Republic has been subjected to a reduced dose of poison over and over, for decades, and is now about to die.”
—Post on Rhodes’ blog, Nov. 6, 2012
“It is the height of Orwellian perversion of language and logic to say that disarming you of the most effective arms for combat that you still have is somehow not really disarming you, because you still have hunting rifles and shotguns. And you can bet that if you let them take away your military semi-autos, next on their list will be bolt action rifles, which they will call ‘sniper rifles’ (and By God, that is certainly what they are good for!).”
—“My Personal Pledge of Resistance Against Any Attempt to Disarm Us by Means of an ‘Assault Weapons Ban,’” on the Oath Keepers website, Dec. 19, 2012
Stewart Rhodes grew up in the Southwest and joined the Army after finishing high school. He became a paratrooper, receiving an honorable discharge due to an injury in a night parachuting accident. Then Rhodes attended college at University of Nevada, Las Vegas, graduating in 1998. Rhodes has said that he taught street crime survival and rape prevention at the college women’s center and also worked as a certified Nevada concealed-carry firearms instructor.
After college, his first politically oriented job was supervising interns in Washington, D.C., for libertarian Ron Paul, then a Republican congressman from Texas. Rhodes subsequently attended Yale Law School, graduating in 2004, and clerked for Arizona Supreme Court Justice Michael D. Ryan. A trial lawyer and libertarian, he later volunteered on Paul’s 2008 presidential campaign.
Rhodes’ experience with the Paul campaign prompted one of his first documented diatribes in the political arena. Appearing on his blog in January 2008, the post blasts political opponents’ charges that Paul was linked to hate groups and racists. (The congressman’s Ron Paul Report, in fact, did contain many racist statements over the years, but Paul has claimed that he did not write or read them). Using the fevered language that would become his trademark, Rhodes railed against the “full-blown smear campaign.” Calling it a “lame attempt at guilt by association” and “stupid,” he added, “This only tells me that Ron Paul is a real threat to the political establishment, and they are pulling out all the stops in an attempt to stop the Ron Paul Revolution.” Then Rhodes pulled out his own ethnic card, disclosing that ancestors on his mother’s side were Hispanic and “American-Indian.” Being of minority ancestry himself and working with Paul, Rhodes said he saw no indication of racism—and that alone proved the racism claims were phony.
Also in 2008, Rhodes had what he described as a pivotal epiphany, described in a long profile published by Mother Jones magazine in March/April 2010. Rhodes had been writing a weapons-oriented column called “Enemy at the Gates” for S.W.A.T. Magazine, a monthly firearms publication that focuses on police SWAT teams. Rhodes said he received a wake-up call response to one of his columns from a retired colonel arguing that the Bill of Rights and Constitution were in peril and that soldiers, veterans and police “is where they will be saved, if they are saved at all!” (Rhodes has described himself as intrigued at the thought that if German soldiers and police officers had defied the government, Hitler’s regime would have collapsed.) After hearing from the retired colonel, Rhodes posted a now-notorious article on his blog, referring to Presidential candidate Hilary Clinton as “Hitlery” and spelling out how he thought she might impose a dictatorship.
Rhodes then took a hard-right turn away from electoral politics, putting up the Oath Keepers blog and beginning grassroots organizing among military officers, veterans and police officers. Soon, he had assistance from Tea Party and Ron Paul strategists. At a rally in Lexington, Mass., organized by a pro-militia group on April 19, 2009, Rhodes officially set forth the 10 “orders” Oath Keepers must not obey and officially launched the group before an audience of several hundred. It didn’t stay just an idea for long. On July 4, 2009, Rhodes dispatched speakers to more than 30 Tea Party rallies around the U.S., administering the new group’s “oath.” He also began to organize rallies of his own and aggressively recruit new members at the Oath Keepers web site.
Within a year, the group had drawn members from every state, Rhodes said, and by 2014 the Oath Keepers was claiming to have more than 30,000 people on its membership rolls, although that is an unverifiable and highly unlikely number.
In 2010, Rhodes left his Nevada legal practice and moved to Montana, joining a growing Patriot movement presence in the Big Sky state, where antigovernment extremists envision a coming “last stand” confrontation against globalist tyrants expected to steamroll across the U.S., crushing our freedoms.
Rhodes’ fervent call to resistance has been amplified with frequent media appearances on platforms offered by megaphone-wielding demagogues such as radio conspiracy-monger Alex Jones, and through alliances with other right-wing groups, including extreme Tea Party factions and the John Birch Society. He’s known to be a facile talker who tries to sound eminently reasonable.
Rhodes and his followers have launched some laughable “operations” in the last few years, but other actions they’ve taken vividly reveal the danger of their conspiracy-inflamed convictions.
On the comic opera side, Oath Keepers stormed into Quartzsite, a small Arizona town, to defend local residents who were ejected after refusing to leave a 2010 Town Council meeting on alleged government corruption. Led by Rhodes, the Oath Keepers marched into town and the group’s website called Quartzsite a pivot point for Americans to finally see the looming danger of the “New World Order.” The upshot: The Oath Keepers left town rapidly, and the State Bar of Arizona later censured Rhodes for practicing law without a state license because he wrote letters threatening a lawsuit on behalf of the ejected residents. He was fined $600.
In a far more serious episode, Daniel Knight Hayden, an Oklahoma man self-identified as an Oath Keeper, was indicted by a federal grand jury after posting Twitter messages threatening to unleash a violent attack on Oklahoma state government officials on April 15, tax day. Hayden was sentenced to eight months in prison in 2010. Another troubling example: Matthew Fairfield, a suburban Cleveland man described by prosecutors as the president of a local Oath Keepers chapter, was sentenced to 20 years in prison for storing bombs at his and a friend’s home and for obstructing justice. After Fairfield’s 2011 sentencing, a county prosecutor said it would be fair to call the Oath Keepers officer a potential terrorist.
And, in a widely publicized case, another Oath Keeper was sentenced to 30 years in prison for raping his own 7-year-old daughter. After failing to appear for trial in 2010, Charles Dyer, an ex-Marine, led police on a multi-state chase and began issuing threats against law enforcement, warning that they’d better not catch up to him. Although Dyer had spoken on behalf of the Oath Keepers and online videos identified him as the group’s liaison to the Marines, Rhodes claimed he really wasn’t part of the group.
Rhodes has continued to appear at Patriot-themed organizing rallies, joining forces with antigovernment extremist groups such as the Tenth Amendment Center and the Northwest Patriots. He’s contended that states have the right to disregard federal laws — a falsehood, as a trained lawyer should know — and that any form of gun control is a noxious attack on freedom that should trigger resistance. When gun control efforts ratcheted up in early 2013, shortly after the Newtown, Conn., school massacre, Rhodes announced Oath Keeper rallies at statehouses across the nation to send lawmakers the message that “they will be held accountable if they choose to dishonor” their Constitutional oaths. He’s appeared on shows like “Coast to Coast AM,” the most listened to overnight radio program in North America, and the radio show of Alex Jones, an über-conspiracy theorist, that is livestreamed online five days a week and carried by more than 60 radio stations.
An announcement made by Rhodes in the fall of 2013 is seen by some analysts as particularly frightening. In it, Rhodes said he planned to create local militia units, organized along the lines of U.S. Special Forces teams and filled with Oath Keepers, to provide security “during crisis” and also help train local militias. “They can fight, of course,” said the E-mail announcement in October. “But they are most dangerous as a force-multiplier by helping an entire community to fight.” It was the first time Rhodes had ventured beyond words into practical preparations for dealing with the government-created apocalypse he fears so deeply.