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A big honking mea culpa
Looking back at my far-too-credulous interview with Stewart Rhodes
Earlier this week, Oath Keepers founder Stewart Rhodes was convicted of seditious conspiracy for his role in planning and helping to incite the January 6th riots/insurrection. The evidence against him was pretty overwhelming.
In 2011, while I was with Reason magazine, I published a long interview with Rhodes. I’ve mentioned this a couple times on Twitter in recent years, but I’ve never addressed it at length, so now is probably as good a time as any. At the time, progressive outlets like Mother Jones and the Southern Poverty Law Center had been attacking the group. I was dismissive of those attacks, and specifically of writers at Mother Jones who suggested Rhodes and his organization were treasonous.
They of course were right! I was wrong. I don’t know if my interview with Rhodes in Reason had any effect on his movement, but if it lent any legitimacy to him, I do regret giving him a platform — and my fairly credulous treatment of him.
At least initially, my interest in Oath Keepers stemmed from the fact that I’m a libertarian who covers police abuse. The organization’s main premise is that its members — who tend to be current and former members of the military and law enforcement — take a vow to refuse any order that would violate the U.S. Constitution. Implicit in that oath is a similar promise to intervene if a colleague attempts to violate someone’s rights.
On the face of it we need a hell of a lot more of that. In most jurisdictions today, the rare police officer who tries to prevent colleagues from violating someone’s rights is more likely to be punished — formally and informally — than praised or rewarded. It’s nice to at least imagine a police culture in which instead of idly standing around, Derek Chauvin’s colleagues might have pried his knee from George Floyd’s neck. Or one in which cops who report misconduct are promoted instead of, say, forcibly committed to a psychiatric ward.
I suppose this desire to see something as admirable (if naive) as reverence for the Constitution take root and grow amidst the excesses of police culture made me inclined to view Rhodes and his group more charitably than was warranted. It probably didn’t hurt that as a libertarian, their support for gun rights didn’t raise red flags for me the way it did for Rhodes’s progressive critics.
I was also encouraged that the Oath Keeper promise to refuse unconstitutional orders had attracted criticism from law-and-order pundits like Michelle Malkin and Bill O’Reilly. There’s a bit of a facile, knee-jerk tendency among libertarians to assume anyone rejected by both conservatives and progressives must be doing something right. I’m sure that was a factor too.
Looking back at my interview with Rhodes, he certainly played to my blind spots. He was critical of Maricopa County, Arizona sheriff Joe Arpaio, and relayed an anecdote about Oath Keepers co-founder Dave Freeman standing up to police racism and refusing to arrest a black homeless man when he was a rookie cop in Las Vegas. He cited the abuses of New Orleans black residents after Hurricane Katrina as a major motivating event for starting Oath Keepers, and went out of his way to criticize what he said were the threats to civil liberties posed by the Bush administration.
Perhaps most surprisingly, he said he believed the Fourteenth Amendment compelled the federal government to intervene when state and local governments fail to protect the rights of their residents. You don’t often hear such a vigorous a defense of the Fourteenth Amendment from far-right figures.
Rhodes also insisted that he and his group only advocated nonviolent resistance.
Reason: Oath Keepers has been described has a militia group, a hate group, even as an organization that promotes treason. Do you advocate violence or overthrow of the government?
Rhodes: Absolutely not.
Reason: Is there any scenario under which you would encourage your members to respond to a government policy with violence?
Rhodes: No. That's the strange thing about the criticism we get. The entire point of Oath Keepers is to advocate nonviolence. We're telling police and soldiers that if they're asked to do something unconstitutional, or asked to violate the rights of Americans, that they put down their guns. We just saw this with the Tunisian military, by the way, when it refused orders to fire on protesters.
But there were also plenty of warning signs in our interview. At the time, some Oath Keepers members had posted conspiracy theories about Barack Obama’s birth certificate. Some were 9/11 truthers. Rhodes refused to disavow either. He didn’t endorse them. But he refused to disavow them so as not to offend his members.
But more generally, Rhodes seemed far more concerned about Infowars-fueled paranoia like Obama setting up FEMA concentration camps than routine abuses like no-knock raids, police abuse, or stop and frisk. I did push back on several of these questions. But I was still more credulous than I should have been.
It’s at least possible that Rhodes wasn’t completely bullshitting me, and only became radicalized at some point after our interview. But if that’s the case, it happened pretty quickly.
Just a few years after the interview, for example, armed Oath Keepers members showed up at the protests in Ferguson, Missouri. Rhodes had told me in our interview that he was worried about increasing police militarization. But the Oath Keepers didn’t show up in Ferguson to protect protesters from the heavily militarized local police, or to encourage law enforcement to respect the rights of the protesters. They were angry that the cops hadn’t cracked down harder. As the head of the Missouri Oath Keepers put it, they were there "because the government promised to guard our people and they didn't.”
While Rhodes went out of his way to assure me that his primary interests were keeping government power in check regardless of political party, in the years after our interview he and Oath Keepers leadership became both increasingly militant and increasingly enmeshed in right-wing culture wars. Rhodes’s rhetoric against Black Lives Matter and other social justice groups grew more intense, casting them as Marxist threats to American democracy. He became more rabidly anti-immigration, and at one point called for John McCain to be hanged. Rhodes also offered private security for Kim Davis, the Kentucky clerk who refused to certify gay marriages.
Rhodes also threatened a civil war after the killing of “Patriot Prayer” member Aaron Danielson (who was not killed by anyone working for the government), and then again after the Cliven Bundy standoff. But he had little to say about unjustified police killings of people like Philando Castile, Elijah McClain, or any number of others over the last 10 years. Oddly, one of the few Oath Keepers who did speak up about at least one unjustified police killing was Ray Epps. The organization would later turn on Epps after far-right conspiracy theorists accused him of participating in a FBI false flag operation on January 6th.
During the George Floyd demonstrations of 2020, Oath Keepers members again began showing up at protests with weapons. Here again, their purpose wasn’t to protect the protesters from the violence and abuse wrought by police. It was because Oath Keepers believed the police weren’t cracking enough skulls. In response to some criticism on this point, Rhodes posted a laughably unpersuasive response to the Oath Keepers Facebook page:
“I see some of you conflicted about how to handle what’s going on in the streets of this country, I too was conflicted but let me say this. Maybe you better read that Oath again it said protect the constitution from all enemies foreign and or here’s the part you better read slowly . . . Domestic . . . Once these thugs turned to burning, killing and looting, they became domestic enemies.”
For Rhodes, the real threat to the Constitution wasn’t cops kettling protesters, launching unprovoked attacks on demonstrators, or forcibly removing peaceful people out of a public space with gas and batons so the president could pose with a Bible for a photo-op. The real threat to liberty weren’t the powers with drones, APCs, tear gas, and guns. The real threat was the looters and rioters, whom Rhodes was happy to conflate with the overwhelming majority of peaceful protesters.
By the end of 2020, the guy who told me in 2011 that the biggest threat to democracy was the federal government’s power to impose martial law . . . was calling for the federal government to impose martial law. The guy who said he feared a president may one day assume dictatorial powers was calling on the president to unilaterally invalidate an election and deploy the military to silence anyone who dared to object. The guy who insisted to me that violence is never an appropriate response to government overreach was stockpiling weapons and planning a violent overthrow of the government.
There are of course times when violence is an appropriate response to government oppression. Few of us would question the morality of the Warsaw uprising or slave rebellions for example, or the overthrow of dictators like Pol Pot, Stroessner, or Ceaușescu. Most Americans still celebrate the American Revolution. There are also causes worth going to prison for.
But this is what’s most pathetic about Rhodes. It isn’t that he’s a liar, a fraud, or a seditionist. It isn’t even his politics, which somehow manage to be both dangerous and tedious. One of those may be the worst thing about him, but not the most pathetic.
The most pathetic thing about Rhodes is that his worst offenses were in service of probably the least serious, most cartoonishly buffoonish figure in American public life. Imagine spending a decade talking up your reverence for Big Ideas like the vision of the founders, civil liberties and the Constitution, then ultimately going to prison because you tried to overthrow democracy to install a petulant, vindictive, uncurious grifter in power — a guy who claims to have won awards that don’t exist, boasts about charitable donations he never made, and believes windmills cause cancer. If Rhodes were a musician, he’d be the guy who harangues about artistic integrity, has one minor hit, then quickly sells the rights to a commercial for hemorrhoid cream or Truck Nutz.
For all the lofty rhetoric about individual freedom and critical thinking, Rhodes will be remembered as a toady who risked everything out of slavish devotion to the hate-fueled personality cult of a failed businessman whose ultimate aspiration was to become a kleptocrat, but was too dumb and vain for even that. That’s Rhodes’s legacy.
Unfortunately, back in 2011 I was gullible enough to take him seriously.