Oath Keepers Founder Betrayed Mission, Former Members Say - 2021-03-04
In a recent indictment of nine people who stormed the Capitol on Jan. 6, federal prosecutors went to great lengths to describe the magnitude of the day's events, the alarming threat to democracy their actions posed, and the powerful influence that one charismatic leader had in shaping their beliefs. They took care, however, not to refer to that man by name. Instead, they refer to him as "Person One." Elmer Stewart Rhodes III — a one-time Army paratrooper, disbarred Yale lawyer, constitutionalist, gun enthusiast, and far-right media star — founded the group called the Oath Keepers in 2009. Since then, he has ridden crosscurrents of American anger and strife that ran from scrubby Western deserts to angry urban protests right into the Capitol rotunda. The Jan. 6 insurgency was by far the most incendiary that the Oath Keepers have been involved in, and brought the group more attention, welcome and unwelcome, than it had ever before received. But an examination by BuzzFeed News of the group's activities over its twelve years of existence reveals an unmistakable pattern. Rhodes summons his heavily armed followers into the heart of a roiling crisis. Sometimes, as in the devastation left by Hurricane Harvey in Houston or Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico, the Oath Keepers provide much-needed aid. On other occasions, as at the Bundy ranch in southern Nevada or the Black Lives Matter protests in Ferguson, Missouri, the group's presence amplifies the conflict.
As a lawyer, Rhodes abandoned multiple clients and lost his license. Numerous people who heeded his calls to action as the leader of the Oath Keepers say he abandoned them as well, summoning them to dangerous confrontations and leaving them to suffer the criminal consequences. But though Rhodes received tremendous publicity from these events, he has so far managed to avoid any consequences himself. That pattern has cost him some of his earliest and most devoted adherents. Several former members of the group's board and leaders of local chapters told BuzzFeed News that Rhodes' attraction to conflict drove them away from the organization whose ideals they once shared. But that attraction, many said, is key to the Oath Keepers' business model: More conflict brings more publicity, which in turn brings more revenue from donations, merchandise sales, and $50-a-year membership dues. "Like a moth to the flame," said Joseph Rice, who led an Oath Keeper chapter in southern Oregon before breaking from the group several years ago. "He flies in, throws up a PayPal, and then disappears." Rhodes, who is 55 and goes by Stewart or "Stewie," can most easily be found these days streaming on Infowars, where he gives interviews to Alex Jones from behind the wheel of a pickup, pulled over in a location he does not disclose. Rhodes has said that the Oath Keepers — with a membership that the group claims has at times exceeded 35,000 — are simply patriots, "a non-partisan association of current and formerly serving military, police and first responders who pledge to fulfill the oath all military and police take to defend the Constitution." The Department of Justice, which alleges that members of the Oath Keepers played a key role in the insurrection, sees things differently. It calls the group "a large but loosely organized collection of militia who believe that the federal government has been co-opted by a shadowy conspiracy that is trying to strip American citizens of their rights." Rhodes did not respond to multiple requests for comment for this article.