Targeting Oath Keepers
An instinct for duty, honor, law and order, liberty, a government loyal to its citizens; like the Tea Party, Oath Keepers is a White thing. Thus the suspicious and hostile reaction from the usual anti-White suspects, projecting their own sneaky, malevolent tactics and motives onto their “wingnut” boogeymen.
This Mother Jones hitpiece, this series of cynical articles, is all about manufacturing fear and aiming it at their self-proclaimed adversaries. They want to wake up their “progressive” fellow travellers and right-thinking useful idiots. The “liberal” mask slips as they ridicule, insinuate, and fret about the motives and intentions of a growing movement of mostly confused Whites who cling as desperately to their deracinated, pro-Civil Rights, anti-Nazi liberalism as they cling to their guns and religion.
The fear MoJo stokes is that Oath Keeper rhetoric about Rosa Parks and the Warsaw Ghetto is insincere. MoJo sees through it. Likewise all that nonsense about opposing tyranny. Why? Because their own “liberal”, anti-racist rhetoric is insincere. They don’t trust White people. They don’t share our beliefs or values. They don’t like us. When Oath Keepers talk about upholding their oath to oppose threats to the republic and its constitution, MoJo and friends realize, “hey, that means us!”
Oath Keepers, which recruits soldiers and police to resist federal “tyranny,” has become a hub in the sprawling anti-Obama movement.
For our March/April 2010 issue, reporter Justine Sharrock got up close and personal with Oath Keepers, a fast-growing “patriot” group that recruits active-duty soldiers, police, and veterans to resist what its members consider an increasingly tyrannical government. Members reaffirm their service oath to uphold the Constitution and further vow to disobey any orders they deem illegal or unconstitutional. Unveiled last April, the group has already established itself as a hub within the larger anti-Obama movement, attracting a wide range of followers from politicians to Tea Partiers to militia enthusiasts—not to mention alienated soldiers like Private 1st Class Lee Pray, above. The group has also drawn praise from a who’s who of right-wing cable hosts including Glenn Beck.
Wing nuts no longer: Right-wing celebs are helping anti-Obama militias go mainstream.
— By Monika Bauerlein and Clara Jeffery
IN THE FALL of 1964, not long after Barry Goldwater had clinched the Republican nomination for president, historian Richard Hofstadter penned penned an essay for Harper’s called “The Paranoid Style in American Politics.” It was an instant classic—not because it was so elegantly written, but because in just a few pages it described with deadly accuracy one of the major strains of our national dialogue.
“The paranoid spokesman,” Hofstadter wrote, “is always manning the barricades of civilization…Like religious millennialists he expresses the anxiety of those who are living through the last days and he is sometimes disposed to set a date for the apocalypse…He does not see social conflict as something to be mediated and compromised…Since what is at stake is always a conflict between absolute good and absolute evil, what is necessary is not compromise but the will to fight things out to a finish.”
Oath Keepers, the group featured in our cover story, would seem the classic case in point. Its members are cops, sheriffs, and military men and women determined to resist the tyrannical orders they believe are imminent from the Obama administration. The fantasies they spin—a “globalist” leadership intent on declaring martial law, putting God-fearing Americans in detention camps, and asking UN blue helmets to keep order while it imposes health care reform and who knows what else—replicate almost exactly the fears far-right cranks have peddled for generations. Replace “socialism” with “communism” and you are pretty much back to 1964 (or 1934 or 1884, for that matter).
But what was true then is true now: Dismissing one’s adversaries as wing nuts is myopic, both intellectually and politically. Like it or not, the Oath Keepers, and the myriad other “patriot” groups now emerging around the edges of the Tea Party movement, are tapping into a real strain of popular anger. And who wouldn’t be angry? Unemployment for millions, bailouts and bonuses for a few. A health care reform plan supremely undersold by a Democratic establishment unconcerned with the battle for hearts and minds (see: Martha Coakley). A GOP controlled by pro-corporate nihilists.
But righteous anger is one thing. Manufacturing fear, dare we say terror, is another—and over the past year, we have seen cynical politicians and talk-show demagogues increasingly willing to traffic in it. It’s no longer just handfuls of militia types trading overheated conspiracy theories; it’s America’s most popular cable news network giving gobs of airtime to people who all but advocate armed insurrection.
When people in positions of great power play footsie with those who advocate treason—or claim that the elected commander in chief is a bastard foreigner with no claim to the office—they are not just engaging in a lively debate. They are actively negating a fundamental principle of American politics: that the government, no matter how much you might disagree with its representatives, is of, by, and for the people.
Glenn Beck loves them. Tea Partiers court them. Congressmen listen to them. Meet the fast-growing “patriot” group that’s recruiting soldiers to resist the Obama administration.
— By Justine Sharrock
His belief that that day [when the US government declares martial law] is imminent has led [Pvt. 1st Class Lee] Pray to a group called Oath Keepers, one of the fastest-growing “patriot” organizations on the right. Founded last April by Yale-educated lawyer and ex-Ron Paul aide Stewart Rhodes, the group has established itself as a hub in the sprawling anti-Obama movement that includes Tea Partiers, Birthers, and 912ers. Glenn Beck, Lou Dobbs, and Pat Buchanan have all sung its praises, and in December, a grassroots summit it helped organize drew such prominent guests as representatives Phil Gingrey and Paul Broun, both Georgia Republicans.
There are scores of patriot groups, but what makes Oath Keepers unique is that its core membership consists of men and women in uniform, including soldiers, police, and veterans. At regular ceremonies in every state, members reaffirm their official oaths of service, pledging to protect the Constitution—but then they go a step further, vowing to disobey “unconstitutional” orders from what they view as an increasingly tyrannical government.
Most of the men’s gripes revolve around policies that began under President Bush but didn’t scare them so much at the time. “Too many conservatives relied on Bush’s character and didn’t pay attention,” founder Rhodes told me. “Only now, with Obama, do they worry and see what has been done. Maybe you said, I trusted Bush to only go after the terrorists.* But what do you think can happen down the road when they say, ‘I think you are a threat to the nation?'”
In Pray’s estimate, it might not be long (months, perhaps a year) before President Obama finds some pretext—a pandemic, a natural disaster, a terror attack—to impose martial law, ban interstate travel, and begin detaining citizens en masse. One of his fellow Oath Keepers, a former infantryman, advised me to prepare a “bug out” bag with 39 items including gas masks, ammo, and water purification tablets, so that I’d be ready to go “when the shit hits the fan.”
When it does, Pray and his buddies plan to go AWOL and make their way to their “fortified bunker”—the home of one comrade’s parents in rural Idaho—where they’ve stocked survival gear, generators, food, and weapons. If it becomes necessary, they say, they will turn those guns against their fellow soldiers.
Rhodes stood on the common that day before a crowd of about 400 die-hard patriot types. He spoke their language. “You need to be alert and aware to the reality of how close we are to having our constitutional republic destroyed,” he said. “Every dictatorship in the history of mankind, whether it is fascist, communist, or whatever, has always set aside normal procedures of due process under times of emergency…We can’t let that happen here. We need to wake up!”
He laid out 10 orders an Oath Keeper should not obey, including conducting warrantless searches, holding American citizens as enemy combatants or subjecting them to military tribunals (a true Oath Keeper would have refused to hold José Padilla in a military brig), imposing martial law, blockading US cities, forcing citizens into detention camps (“tyrannical governments eventually and invariably put people in camps”), and cooperating with foreign troops should the government ask them to intervene on US soil. In Rhodes’ view, each individual Oath Keeper must determine where to draw the line.
The crowd was full of familiar faces from patriot rallies and town hall meetings, with an impressive showing by luminaries of the rising patriot movement. There was Richard Mack, a former Arizona sheriff who had refused to enforce the Brady Law in the mid-’90s. Also present was Mike Vanderboegh, whose Three Percenter movement styles itself after the legendary 3 percent of American colonists who took up arms against the British. Rhodes singled out Marine Charles Dyer, a.k.a. July4Patriot—whose YouTube videos advocate armed resistance—as a “man of like minds.” When Rhodes finished, Captain Larry Bailey, a retired Navy SEAL, Swift Boater, and founder of the anti-antiwar group Gathering of Eagles, asked the crowd to raise their right hands and retake their oath—not to the president, but to the Constitution.
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.
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.
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.
Oath Keepers is officially nonpartisan, in part to make it easier for active-duty soldiers to participate, but its rightward bent is undeniable, and liberals are viewed with suspicion. At lunch, when I questioned my tablemates about the Obama-Hitler comparisons I’d heard at the conference, I got a step-by-step tutorial on how the president’s socialized medicine agenda would beget a Nazi-style regime.
From the podium, ex-sheriff Mack told the crowd that he wished he’d been the officer ordered to escort Rosa Parks off the bus, because not only would he have refused, he would have helped her home and stood guard there. These days, he said, it’s not African Americans who are under attack, but Christians, constitutionalists, and people who uphold family values: This time “it’s going to be Rosa Parks the gun owner, Rosa Parks the tax evader, or Rosa Parks the home-schooler.”
After an Oath Keeper who is also a member of Iraq Veterans Against the War touted IVAW repeatedly on Oath Keepers’ Web forum, Rhodes deleted the guy’s online testimonial. “The IVAW have their own totalitarian mindset,” he told me. “I don’t like communists any more than I like Nazis.”
There may also be serious downsides for a soldier who follows through on his Oath Keepers pledge. Disobeying orders can mean discharge or imprisonment. “You have every right to disobey an order if you think it is illegal,” says Army spokesman Nathan Banks. “But you will face court-martial, and so help you God if you are wrong. Saying something isn’t constitutional isn’t going to fly.”
A soldier like Charles Dyer, who in his July4Patriot persona advocated armed resistance against the government, could risk charges of treason. As a Marine sergeant based out of Camp Pendleton, Dyer posted videos to YouTube last year, his face half-covered with a skull bandana. “With the DHS blatantly calling patriots, veterans, and constitutionalists a threat, all that I have to say is, you’re damn right we’re a threat,” he said in one. “We’re a threat to anyone that endangers our rights and the Constitution of this republic…We’re gathering in defense of our way of life.” For a while, he ran a training compound in San Diego, teaching civilians his Marine combat skills.
Dyer, who with Rhodes’ blessing represented Oath Keepers at an Oklahoma Tea Party rally on July 4, was charged under the Uniform Code of Military Justice with uttering “disloyal” statements. He ultimately beat the charge, left the Marines, and reappeared unmasked on YouTube encouraging viewers to join him at his makeshift training area in Duncan, Oklahoma—”I’m sure the DHS will call it a terrorist training camp.” In January, Dyer was arrested on charges of raping a seven-year-old girl. When sheriff’s deputies raided his home, they found a Colt M-203 grenade launcher believed to have been stolen from a California military base. He now faces federal weapons charges and is being hailed by fringe militia groups like the American Resistance Movement as “the first POW of the second American Revolution.”
Shortly after I asked Rhodes about Dyer—before his arrest hit the news—his testimonial vanished from the group’s website. Rhodes once endorsed Dyer in glowing terms, but now claims he was never a member because he hasn’t paid dues. Yet Dyer publicly referred to himself as an Oath Keeper, and Rhodes had previously insisted—to Lou Dobbs and anyone else who would listen—that you didn’t need to pay dues to be a member.
In an interview prior to Dyer’s arrest, Andrew Sexton, another uniformed YouTube star who argues the need for armed resistance, criticized Dyer for making himself a target. Sexton, an Army reservist who served in Afghanistan with US Special Operations Command, also keeps his Oath Keepers ties under the radar. Most soldiers, he told me, don’t talk openly about such things, but it’s easy enough to tell which ones have been woken up. The Department of Defense, Sexton added, will be shocked by the number of service members willing to turn against their commanders when the time comes. “It’s an absolute reality,” he says. He views last April’s DHS report on right-wing extremists as a “preemptive attack because they know it’s coming.”
Rhodes isn’t calling for violence—indeed, he insists that his group is about laying down arms rather than turning them on citizens. Yet when he writes that “the oath is like kryptonite to tyrants, as the Founders intended. The time has come for us to use it to its full effect,” some followers take that as a call for drastic action.
Chip Berlet, of the watchdog group Political Research Associates, who has studied right-wing populist movements for 25 years, equates Rhodes’ rhetoric to yelling fire in a crowded theater. “Promoting these conspiracy theories is very dangerous right now because there are people who will assume that a hero will stop at nothing.” What will happen, he adds, “is not just disobeying orders but harming and killing.”
LEE PRAY thinks Rhodes downplays the threat Oath Keepers represents to a rogue administration. “They have to be careful because otherwise they will be labeled as terrorists,” he says. “You have to read between the lines, but I wish they were more up-front with their members.”
It’s not hard to see the appeal of Oath Keepers for guys like Pray and Brandon, frustrated young men nervous about their future prospects. They signed up to defend the greatest country in the world, only to be cast aside. Even their injuries were suffered ingloriously. Brandon can’t sit for long after being flung from a pickup truck; Pray now walks with a cane, possibly for good. The men sincerely believe their country is headed for disaster, but as broken warriors they are powerless to do anything about it. They have tried writing to Congress, signing petitions, and voting, all to no avail. Oath Keepers offers a new sense of pride and comradeship—of being part of something momentous.
And when the time comes, Pray insists he is battle ready. “If the government continues to ignore us, and forces us to engage,” Pray says, “I’m willing to fight to the death.” Brandon, for his part, is resigned about their odds fighting the US military. “If we take up arms, realistically we would lose, and they would label us as terrorists,” he says. Pray nods sadly in agreement. But they’ll take their chances. They consider it their duty.
MoJo talks about treason. Consider who and what MoJo thinks Oath Keepers are betraying.
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