Editor’s Note: This is the second of an ongoing series of social movement profiles by Dr. Jeremy Holland, who teaches sociology at Horry Georgetown Technical College. In this series, he introduces contemporary American social movement groups focused on economic redistribution, identity equality, and public safety.
By Dr. Jeremy Holland
On January 6th a pro-Trump mob descended upon the U.S. Capitol aiming to halt a joint session of Congress from certifying President Jo Biden’s electoral victory. In the midst of the chaos, it took four hours to secure the building so Congress could certify the will of the people and ensure that democracy in America would continue unabated.
Nine months later, the Justice Department has charged over 600 people for their alleged role in the attack. Sixteen of these insurrectionists are members of an active, far-right paramilitary group known as the Oath Keepers. Their charges include conspiracy, obstruction of an official proceeding, and entering a restricted building. Four Oath Keepers have already plead guilty to various charges, including remaining in a restricted building with a deadly weapon.
Since 2009, the Oath Keepers organization has been actively recruiting currently serving and veteran military soldiers, police officers, and first responders, because they want them to keep the oath they swore “to defend the Constitution against all enemies foreign or domestic.” Today, the group consists of a national leadership along with state, county, and local chapters in all fifty states. They claim upwards of 35,000 dues paying members, but researchers are convinced the group actually has around 5,000 nationwide.
Based on recent public messages from their Twitter account, the Oath Keepers are preparing for a Second Civil War, an idea that is not exclusive to just extreme right wing social movements. A recent poll shows that 40 percent of Republican voters think the country is likely to experience this war within the next five years.
Oath Keepers contend that politics is corrupted by agents of an enemy elite intent on destroying the American way of life. The nefarious group presenting this threat to the American people is often ambiguous, being variously referred to as communists, socialists, progressives, collectivists, or globalists.
To stave off this coming disaster, they believe the only solution is for heroic, real Americans to restore a proper constitutional government and save the nation by struggling together in the name of liberty. This is why they often refer to themselves as “Guardians of the Republic” and endorse the slogan “Not on Our Watch.”
Those involved in the militia movement, both activists and sympathizers, believe the government of the United States has become completely corrupted. They believe the goals and purposes of the American experiment, like rights and freedom of the individual, the sacredness of property rights, and the non-intrusion of the federal government on the private lives of ordinary citizens, hangs in the balance.
Harkening back to the conspiracy theories prevalent during the Cold War, many in the movement today still argue there is a globalist conspiracy (i.e. New World Order or The Deep State) to erode American sovereignty and end individual liberty. These conspiracy theories manifest in opposition to policies around gun control, environmental regulations, public health initiatives, affirmative action, police militarization, and immigration.
In the mind of the militia, perhaps no other policy exemplifies federal government abuse of authority better than gun control. They see any attempt at gun control as an attempt by a powerful elite to cripple potential resistance to that elite’s authority. They argue that gun control proposals are not actually about reducing gun violence or crime, but really are attempts to consolidate governmental power and make it harder for Americans to defend themselves and their rights against tyranny and abuse.
The conspiracy theory asserting that the federal government is actively preparing to confiscate privately owned firearms runs rampant through militia groups. Those who fear imminent firearms confiscation believe the government secretly intends to use policies like gun owner registration to pinpoint from whom it must confiscate guns in the future (i.e. Form 4473).
Preparing Citizens to Arm Themselves
The group’s most consistent and ongoing solution to rebuff impending tyranny is to “reach, teach, and inspire.” This consists of reaching out to both currently serving and retired military members, police officers, and first responders to remind them of their oaths, to teach them more about the Constitution they swore to defend, and to inspire them to defend it.
The Oath Keepers also point to more recent events, like the tragic Waco siege of 1993 or the government’s failed response to the devastation of New Orleans left by Hurricane Katrina in 1995, to demonstrate that the government is willing to violate the rights of Americans and use violence in the process. The group anticipates that the events of Waco and Katrina are likely to repeat themselves. Yet, it does not intend to allow the Bureau of Alcohol, Tabacco, and Firearms or the Federal Bureau of Investigation to repeat their aggressive actions unchallenged.
Oath Keepers pledge that the government will not be able to get away with “murdering” Americans again and that there will be there will be “no more free Wacos.” The group wants to make clear to the government that any such violent action taken up against American citizens will lead to another American revolution, where citizens will be forced to take up arms.
Preserving Fundamental Rights
In general, the policy proposals supported by the Oath Keepers are in no way novel. Instead, they intend to preserve the laws as they stood at the founding of the country. Any change to these fundamental laws is considered an affront to liberty minded citizens.
So, the Oath Keepers ideology is not about introducing new legislation to change the political landscape, but is about protecting the laws already on the books that preserve individual liberty. This can be clearly seen in the group’s main orientational document, the “Declaration of Orders We Will Not Obey.”
There are certain orders that Oath Keepers will not obey if handed down by their superiors because they consider them unconstitutional and immoral violations of the natural rights of the American people. These orders, if implemented, would be considered acts of war against the people by their own government.
A few of the orders that should not be obeyed include disarming the American people, conducting warrantless searches, detaining citizens as enemy combatants, imposing marshal law, and federal subjugation of any state government.
One more recent piece of legislation endorsed by the Oath Keepers is the McClure-Volkmer Firearm Owners Protection Act (1986). This law protects citizens from prosecution for transporting firearms across jurisdictional lines, secures the lawful interstate sale of rifles and shotguns, and prohibits the government from instituting any gun-registration scheme.
Organizing Against Tyranny
Over the past decade and a half, Oath Keepers have been involving themselves in land disputes, urban protests, and border infractions.
In 2014, the group put its worldview to the test when they rallied in support of a rancher Cliven Bundy, who was in the midst of a standoff with the Bureau of Land Management. This showdown with federal agents over grazing fees for Bundy’s cattle was a success for the Oath Keepers as the cattle were eventually released. This event is consistently referred to by the group as a case study of how American patriots can defeat a tyrannical federal government.
In 2015, many Oath Keepers traveled to Sugar Pine Mine in Southwest Oregon and organized round-the-clock security so the federal government would not interfere with the mine. Later that year, they organized as armed security guards for military recruiting centers in what was called “Operation Protect the Protectors,” because military recruiters are legally required to remain unarmed, and four recruiters had been killed in Tennessee that year.
During 2017, the group maintained a regular presence at right-wing political events, confronting protesters at left-wing rallies. While professing not to be racist, the group did act as de facto security for the so-called “alt-right,” the younger generation’s attempt at organizing around White supremacy.
In 2019, the group encouraged President Trump to declare a national emergency to fund his proposed border wall and organized a security operation on the border of Texas. At the same time, they consistently called for volunteers to act as security at Trump campaign rallies. They placed volunteer security escorts on the ground at rallies in many American cities, purportedly to stand guard and prevent extreme-left violence perpetrated by Antifascist protesters.
The Oath Keepers’ involvement and its national organizational leadership’s alleged support for the January 6th, 2021 assault have caused much discord within the group. There are reports of individual members and chapters distancing themselves from the national leadership, in some cases starting new organizations.
Despite these setbacks, for now the Oath Keepers will continue seeking to draw active and former military and police personnel into their cause to protect American citizens from what they perceive as an out-of-control, tyrannical government and the extreme leftist groups that intend to empower it.