Former Oath Keeper Jason Van Tatenhove has spent the past few years speaking out about his tenure with the militia and his concerns about how such groups threaten democracy.
He testified before the House Select Committee in a July 2022 public hearing investigating the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol. During his interview and televised testimony, he gave insight into his role as national media director of the Oath Keepers, the far-right paramilitary movement, and potential political violence in the future. He also confirmed that, despite how the group portrays itself, it is a violent militia.
Van Tatenhove was introduced to the Oath Keepers when he traveled to Nevada as an independent journalist to cover the Bundy Ranch standoff. After traveling to cover two more confrontations with the federal government – Sugar Pine Mine and White Hope Mine – Stewart Rhodes, founder of the Oath Keepers, offered Van Tatenhove a position as national media director.
Van Tatenhove insists that his association with the Oath Keepers was as an employee, never a member. However, he does acknowledge a close relationship with Rhodes, whom he housed for eight months after the leader’s family asked him to leave.
Van Tatenhove also admits to becoming radicalized by the ideology of the Oath Keepers and participating in training exercises. He became disillusioned with the group when he became aware that Rhodes was associating with known white nationalists and pushing conspiracy propaganda, such as the “great replacement” theory.
Since leaving the group in 2018, Van Tatenhove has publicly shared his reflections on the antigovernment movement, misinformation spread by antigovernment extremists, and the perils to American democracy.
Hatewatch spoke with Van Tatenhove, who provided insight into his radicalization and experiences with the Oath Keepers, as well as the potential dangers of militias, including the Oath Keepers and the Florida State Guard. His comments and viewpoints are his alone.
Hatewatch: How have you reckoned with your time in the Oath Keepers?
Van Tatenhove: I really just cut ties with every aspect of that life and tried to rebuild a new one. I just had a “come to God” moment. Not that I’m religious, but I’ll use the terminology. I was just like: “What am I doing? Who have I become?” My involvement with the Oath Keepers started off as something very different for me internally; then I definitely got sucked in and radicalized in ways that I didn’t even see at the time.
In today’s day and age, you may want to put your head in the sand and say, “Oh, I was never a part of this.” You can’t do that. You just have to own all of it. And, I think right now, that message may be something that connects to a lot of people, because let’s face it, there’s a lot of radicalization happening across the country and in the world right now. People need to know that there are ways to step back from those things and rebuild different lives.
HW: When you were associated with the Oath Keepers, you believed and helped spread misinformation about the legality of unorganized militias supposedly being outlined in the U.S. Constitution. Have your views changed since leaving the group?
JVT: Yes. It wasn’t until I became friends with Mary McCord at the Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection (ICAP) that I really understood. She is one of the top scholars on First and Second Amendment issues, and hearing her presentations and her breakdown of the Constitution helped. I’m just a layperson, but if you hear it three or four times, it starts to sink in more.
I describe it as kind of a war of mythologies – cultural mythologies – that we are informed by the media that we consume, which really are just stories. If you don’t have someone like Mary McCord, that’s telling you: “No, that’s not how it is at all. It’s actually completely illegal. And, even back in the day when the country was first being formed, they always came under the purview of the governor and then became the regular militia.”
But you have the spin and the optics of an Ammon Bundy or someone with the Constitution in their pocket but haven’t actually read from it ever. They’re just always tapping it with their fingers. People don’t understand the real truth of it historically or legally. I think that’s something that really needs to be addressed.
HW: How does the actual ideology of the Oath Keepers differ from the picture they attempt to paint of a community preparedness organization?
JVT: Stewart Rhodes’s legacy is going to be creating a blueprint for others to create these kinds of autonomous militia groups based around his community preparedness and team programs, which is really a way for him to avoid the ‘M word’ or the militia, which is a forbidden word. He was very aware of optics. But these [trainings] are indoctrination opportunities.
You can see it in what Richard Mack and the new leadership of the Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association (CSPOA) are doing with their post-certification trainings. These are indoctrination opportunities where people who may be on the fence get a sense of legitimacy. And authority really has an empowering effect.
HW: How does the Oath Keepers claim to be an emergency preparedness group contradict the actual training you experienced?
JVT: We’re talking about a group that is better funded than some state militias and actually upstage the state militias. There were times I was flying into work on a Huey (helicopter). We did trainings rappelling off UAVs.
Stewart was very good at optics. He was very aware of messaging. The trainings were always packaged in medical care – like a response to natural disaster. But 99% of the actual training was small team tactics and things like hasty ambushes. This was down-and-dirty warfighting taught by actual warfighters that had done it. As part of my job as the media director, I went to every one of these trainings all over the country. And that was part of the appeal for me.
Part of the appeal is that kind of Fight Club cultural myth. We want to go train with actual warfighters, and, in the moment, you don’t think about what happens if one of these people is mentally unstable and deteriorates and then goes off and uses these skills to kill a bunch of people. That’s not something you’re thinking about in the moment. Now, obviously, I’ve had a lot of time to consider my poor life decisions.
HW: What was the turning point that made you leave the group?
JVT: As one of the mile markers of our nation, I think the rise of the term “alt-right” was a turning point. Before that word became part of our national lexicon, they [Oath Keepers] were better at policing themselves.
When anti-Muslim people would come and try to participate at an Oath Keepers event, they would kick them out. But once Richard Spencer first coined the term “alt-right,” and that momentum started moving into the mainstream media, things evolved pretty quickly. That’s right during the period where I got out, because I saw the embracing of actual racist ideology. And that was just my line too far.
When I started walking into conversations about Holocaust denial, I just couldn’t do it, and that's when I left and began speaking out, anonymously at first. But then I realized I'm always going to be that Oath Keepers guy, so I might as well just own it and speak out more dramatically, more powerfully.
HW: You had left the Oath Keepers when the attack on the U.S. Capitol occurred. What was it like watching that?
JVT: Sitting on my couch with my daughters and watching Jan. 6 unfold in real-time, and in high definition, was a real gut punch. I felt physically ill. I knew that I had, in some way, played a part in that. The work I was doing, in its own way, contributed to where we came to as a country.
Now, as we’re seeing this explosion of gun violence with the same sort of weapons that I trained with regularly, again, is a gut punch-type situation. I know the level of training some of these people have gotten. Some of these people have had more competent training than a lot of rural law enforcement agencies. So, we’re looking at a scary future, in my opinion. The world my daughters are going to grow up in is going to be a radically different one than the one I grew up in.
HW: Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis recently reinstated the Florida State Guard. There have been complaints about the training provided to volunteers and concerns about the command structure. Given your experience with the Oath Keepers, do you find anything concerning about the Florida state militia?
JVT: The budget of the Florida State Guard is in excess of $100 million; that’s an unthinkable amount of money. Creating a legitimate security force is concerning for a number of reasons. We've seen just how divisive U.S. politics have been in Florida. DeSantis is going after the same people that we’re seeing actual Nazis go after – whether it’s drag shows or book-banning or taking over of school boards.
When the governor sanctions it, it suddenly becomes a very murky area legally. Mary (McCord) and the ICAP folks have demonstrated that militias as we know them are not constitutional and are not legal. But this becomes a gray area because it’s the governor.
And when you have a radicalized governor, who is pushing an agenda that I feel is very un-American, then it’s a major problem, because how do you really fight back against that?
Much like we’ve seen, you know, people take Stewart’s blueprint for the community preparedness team and use it elsewhere in different organizations, the Florida State Guard is going to become the blueprint for states that are going the same direction.
Look at [Gov. Greg] Abbott in Texas and his messaging. We’ve seen them normalize doing things outside of their state with the busing and jetting of immigrant groups to other parts of the country. This is all about normalizing what these people in positions of power can get away with. These are all formulas. They are normalizing this so that they can get away with it. This is fracturing behavior.
HW: In your testimony before the Jan. 6 House Select Committee, you said that you fear this next election cycle. Gov. Ron DeSantis now has the authority to deploy the Florida State Guard out of state. Do you see any potential dangers if there are accusations of a stolen election in 2024?
JVT: It almost feels like we are no longer in the reality we once were. That we’ve entered into this dystopian novel situation – to think that he could send it across state lines. Let’s face it. Right now, we’re seeing an era of politicians emboldened by the actions of [former President Donald] Trump to stay in power. The floodgates are now open. It’s almost like we had these moral dams that kept people in power from just trying to grasp authoritarianism and just force their will upon the country. But those dams have been broken now.
Trump is providing a blueprint for these other politicians, because he was successful with it to a certain extent. It’s a very real possibility now that he could get elected again. Then I think he’s absolutely taking all of the guard rails and safety nets of democracy as we know it.
If we do not come together as a country and adamantly say no to this, we may lose democracy as we know it in this upcoming election and subsequent administration.
It’s a crazy thing to think that the next time around someone, like DeSantis, who is looking to gain favor with Trump could send up a state guard unit, which let’s call it what it is – a professional, private paramilitary organization that is extremely well funded. This sounds like something we’ve seen in authoritarian regimes out of South Africa or South America. It really feels like we’ve jumped to an alternative universe, and we’re now living in some sort of bizarro crazy world. And unfortunately, I helped to normalize that.
HW: Is there anything else you think is important for our readers to know?
JVT: We have small opportunities to reach out and make human connections across cultural divides. I want to encourage people who have a family member who's going down these rabbit holes.
It’s easy to push them away and just say, “I don’t want to deal with crazy Uncle Bob.” But, if they're in your inner circle, we’ve got to reach out. We’ve got to talk about critical thinking skills and how to distinguish misinformation.