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The “Oath Keepers” Are Today’s Blackshirts

In the Obama era, they resisted “presidential tyranny.” Now they want to help Trump crack American skulls in the streets.

Scott Olson/Getty Images
John Karriman, a volunteer from Oath Keepers, stands guard on the rooftop of a business on November 26, 2014, in Ferguson, Missouri.

Hours after the body of Donald Trump supporter Aaron Danielson began growing cold on the streets of Portland, Oregon, the latest casualty in the ongoing domestic unrest of the Trump era, frothing far-right backers immediately jumped to a single conclusion. Unlike all of the other deaths of the Trump eraof Heather Heyer in Charlottesville, Virginia, at the hands of a neo-Nazi Trump supporter, or of Chuck Davis in Washington state at the hands of a Trump-backing conspiracy theoristthe death of Danielson was apparently a watershed. 

Little matter that the circumstances of the death of Danielson remain mired in confusion. Little matter that Danielson was apparently part of a pro-Trump caravan flooding Portland in order to assault protesters with paintballs and pepper spray, or that he was a backer of the brownshirt-adjacent “Patriot Prayer” group. Little matter that, if Danielson’s death is connected to violence from so-called antifa protesters, it would be the first body ever attached to explicitly far-left protesters in the United States in yearsmagnitudes fewer than the number of fatalities connected to far-right violence, which has only continued to climb over the past four years. 

All that matters, apparently, is that Danielson now lies dead, the newest victim of a surge of domestic turbulence that the U.S. hasn’t seen in decades. For the militant far right, there’s only one logical conclusion, or one logical outcome, to follow: civil war. A war that these forces have thirsted for for years, ever since America’s future demographic trajectory became clearever since 1865, really. “The first shot has been fired brother,” Stewart Rhodes, the head of the Oath Keepers, America’s largest militia, tweeted early Sunday morning. “Civil war is here, right now. We’ll give Trump one last chance to declare this a Marxist insurrection & suppress it as his duty demands. If he fails to do HIS duty, we will do OURS.”

It’s unclear why Rhodes believes peaceful demonstratorsthose leading the greatest protest movement the country has ever seenare “Marxists,” or why he believes the insane notion that they represent an “insurrection.” It’s also unclear what Rhodes views as the Oath Keepers’ “duty,” though it’s not difficult to imagine a range of devastating possibilities. But when I asked Rhodes for clarification about what he thinks Trump should do, he was direct.  

“[Trump] should declare a nationwide insurrection to be in effect and call all of the National Guard units into federal service, under his command, and use them to suppress the insurrection in the streets,” Rhodes told me. And when I asked Rhodes whether such orders should be limited to Portlandmy hometown, where my family and friends and loved ones aplenty still liveor whether Trump should consider directing such forces elsewhere, Rhodes was clear: “Nationwide.”

This stance unsurprisingly reeks of outright hypocrisy. When Rhodes launched the Oath Keepers in 2009, he positioned the group as a disinterested platoon of law enforcement officers, military members, and other assorted volunteers looking simply to uphold their oaths to “support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic.” Their fear was that an unscrupulous, overreaching president might order cops and service members to violate the rights of their own countrymen. 

This had nothing to do with the fact that America had just elected its first Black president, Rhodes and his supporters insisted. Instead, they claimed, the Oath Keepers were a simple response to a nascent security state, a post-9/11 miasma of rights restrictions and militarized federal forces, no matter the occupant of the White House. “Too many conservatives relied on Bush’s character and didn’t pay attention,” Rhodes said in 2010. “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?’”

The past four years, though, have demonstrated definitively that these Tea Party–era groups were part of a broader upswell of white revanchism, one that launched Trump to the presidency. Now, with a fellow traveler in the White House, the Oath Keepers and their ilk are little more than Blackshirts in the fascistic, authoritarian swell buoying Trump’s tenure: Once given to lofty defenses of “freedom from federal tyranny,” they are now openly interested in little more than maintaining an America where whites are first among equals.

Rhodes’s recent comments didn’t come in a vacuum: These militias have been tacking Trumpward for years. Look at Charlottesville: Despite the rampant violence wrought there by white supremacists, the assembled militia members largely formed ranks to protect the neo-Nazis and “alt-right” brawlers threatening peaceful protesters. They became, in effect, a private security force for the worst America had to offer. 

Or look to last fall, when Trumpthe first president to pressure foreign governments for “dirt” on a political rival, and the first to be impeached on national security groundsfaced potential removal. Despite the clear constitutional underpinnings of the bipartisan impeachment conviction vote, Rhodes nonetheless threatened a public show of force if the Senate elected to remove Trump. It would be a “warning to the Republican senators,” he told me. “The voters, the supporters of Trump, will not accept it.” (As he tweeted during impeachment, “We ARE on the verge of a HOT civil war. Like in 1859. That’s where we are.”) Around the same time, the Oath Keepers announced they would begin organizing “capable patriots” to provide “security” for pro-Trump rallies.

Trump remains the most authoritarian president the U.S. has seen in decades, maybe ever. The first to threaten not to recognize election results, the first to claim the vote will be “rigged,” the first to threaten to delay the election, and the first in generations to act as an accelerant of America’s domestic violence and the potential horrors looming. 

As has become clear, none of that means anything to America’s militia movement. All that matters is keeping Trump in the White House and maintaining a racial order centuries in the making, no matter how many bodies may pile up.  

Rhodes’s comments are hardly a surprise. But they are explicit confirmation that America’s militia movement is a vehicle for far-right forces to coalesce and coordinate armed pushback against protesters of anti-democratic policies in the U.S. They confirm that these armed, conspiratorially minded men’s “support and defend the Constitution” rhetoric was empty air, vacuous word salad meant to paper over the violence these men thirst for. They confirm that, in the end, America’s militia movement is little more than the heir to the white vigilantes that preceded it—the white rifle clubs and night-riders terrorizing Black Americans, the settler-colonial vigilante groups leading America’s ethnic cleansing campaigns across the American West. These supposed “oath keepers” are now Fascisti for a would-be American Duce, Blackshirt shock troops in the campaign to maintain the nation’s racial hierarchy, no matter how much bloodshed that goal requires.