The sentencing today of Oath Keepers founder Stewart Rhodes to 18 years in prison for seditious conspiracy for the Jan. 6 attack prompted me to dig into the TPM archives. We’ve been covering Rhodes and the Oath Keepers for a long time. But I couldn’t remember exactly how long. On closer look, I was pleasantly surprised to see that it was from virtually the beginning of his emergence on the national stage. But rummaging through our past coverage also helped me to re-familiarize myself with the context in which Rhodes founded the Oath Keepers.
Rhodes incorporated the Oath Keepers in 2009 (gee, who became president that year?), and you can’t divorce its creation from the then-emerging Tea Party movement.
The first mention of the Oath Keepers at TPM came in January 2010 in a story by Zachary Roth headlined: “Former Marine With Ties To Right-Wing Movements Charged With Child Rape, Possessing Grenade Launcher.” A lot going on there, no? Here’s an excerpt:
It’s not clear what Dyer might want with a grenade launcher. But he has declared himself a proud member of Oath Keepers, an organization that aims to enlist ex-military and law enforcement personnel, and has stoked fears that the federal government may try to seize Americans’ guns and round people up into concentration camps.
In this video, Dyer appears at a Tea Party event to promote the Oath Keepers and to rail against what the group — perhaps uniquely — sees as the federal government’s overzealous response to Hurricane Katrina.
A month later, in February 2010, Stewart Rhodes made his first appearance at TPM in a story by Eric Kleefeld about a Tea Party candidate for Texas governor in the GOP primary against incumbent Gov. Rick Perry and Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison:
Debra Medina, the Tea Party activist and candidate in the Texas Republican gubernatorial primary who has attracted attention for her favorable comments about 9/11 Truthers and Birthers, is also involved with another extreme ideological movement: The Oath Keepers.
Will Bunch at the Philadelphia Daily News points out that Medina will appear this Sunday at an event in San Antonio, called “Taking Back Texas.” The other two top-billed speakers are Stewart Rhodes, founder of the Oath Keepers movement, and Oather activist Richard Mack, a former sheriff of Graham County, Arizona.
You can see in each of those initial stories the adjacency, to put it charitably, of the Oath Keepers and the Tea Party, with a little birtherism and 9/11 trutherism thrown in for good measure. I’m not suggesting TPM was alone at the time in covering the flourishing of right-wing extremism, but to this day I don’t think it’s as widely understood as it should be that the cauldron of racial grievance, white resentment, transgressive extra-constitutionalism, and conspiracizing in 2009-10 was a precursor to the Trump presidency and ultimately to Jan. 6.
Our first closer look at Rhodes himself came a few days later in a story by Jillian Rayfield – “Too Extreme For O’Reilly? The Man Behind The Right-Wing Group ‘Oath Keepers’” – that pivoted off an appearance by Rhodes on Fox News’ The O’Reilly Factor.* Keep in mind here that less than a year after founding the Oath Keepers, Rhodes is being elevated into a primetime appearance on Fox News’ most popular show:
The Oath Keepers have some connections to the Tea Party movement, which itself has gained a lot of traction within the conservative movement. For one thing, Oath Keepers is part of the Friends for Liberty coalition, an umbrella group for such Tea Party-friendly movements as Glenn Beck’s 9/12 Project and the John Birch Society. Rhodes is even on the planning committee for the 2010 9/12 Project. …
Also, notably, Oath Keepers has a booth at the ongoing CPAC conference in Washington, D.C., where they are handing out a DVD called “For Liberty: How the Ron Paul Revolution Watered the Withered Tree of Liberty” (the ties between the group and Ron Paul don’t stop there – Rhodes himself is a former member of Paul’s D.C. staff, according to his Oath Keeper’s bio page).
CPAC. Glenn Beck. The John Birch Society. Ron Paul. The point isn’t that all the ingredients were there for what became seditious conspiracy. It’s not as simple as a pinch of Ron Paul and a dollop of Birchers and a cup of Tea Party and presto you have a coup. Rather, the point is that conservatism in America, or what passed for it in its various manifestations, went off the rails more than a decade before the events of Jan. 6. Barack Obama’s election was, we all know, a catalyzing event. But it didn’t start there, and it certainly didn’t start in 2016 with the election of Donald Trump.
There’s another little echo of that time in the archive. In the screenshot above from the O’Reilly-Rhodes interview, see the partial chyron? “CRASHED A SMALL PLANE INTO A TX OFFICE BUILDING.” That’s a reference to the suicide attack by 53-year-old Andrew Joseph Stack III, who had just flown his plane into an IRS office in Austin, killing an IRS employee and injuring several others. Coming less than a decade after 9/11, the attack sparked more of a nationwide reaction than you would expect now.
An angry, middle-aged white man with a grudge against the federal government turning violent and acting out his grievances. It’s a familiar tableau now, but there’s a certain naivete about right-wing extremism in the NYT report on the incident that persists to this day:
But in place of the typical portrait of a terrorist driven by ideology, Mr. Stack was described as generally easygoing, a talented amateur musician with marital troubles and a maddening grudge against the tax authorities. …
Within hours of the crash, before the death or even the identity of the pilot had been confirmed, officials ruled out any connection to terrorist groups or causes.
“The main thing I want to put out there is that this is an isolated incident here; there is no cause for alarm,” said the Austin police chief, Art Acevedo, in a televised news conference at midday. Asked how he could be sure, Mr. Acevedo said, “You have to take my word at it, don’t you?”
Now I should mention that in the Obama years, there was a strenuous effort to downplay, minimize and recast attacks like this one as not terrorism, a collective effort of law enforcement and politicians in the years after 9/11 to avoid the repercussions of something happening on their watch. But to put it bluntly, we collectively still don’t see these kinds of attacks as “driven by ideology.” A “maddening grudge,” as the NYT put it, is what exactly? If the attackers aren’t dark-skinned religious fundamentalists we put them in a different bucket. Stack was simply a man broken by the IRS, in the words of his wife’s stepfather:
“I knew Joe had a hang-up with the I.R.S. on account of them breaking him, taking his savings away,” said Jack Cook, the stepfather of Mr. Stack’s wife, in a telephone interview from his home in Oklahoma. “And that’s undoubtedly the reason he flew the airplane against that building. Not to kill people, but just to damage the I.R.S.”
In sentencing Rhodes today in a federal courtroom in DC across the street from the Capitol, U.S. District Judge Amit Mehta denounced Rhodes in words rarely if ever heard here in America: “I dare say Mr. Rhodes, and I have never said this to anyone I have sentenced: You, sir, present an ongoing threat and a peril to this country, the republic and the very fabric of democracy.”
*If you’re interested, here’s our clip at the time from that Bill O’Reilly interview with Rhodes: