When heavily armed militiamen and federal law enforcement had a tense standoff in Nevada in 2014, members of a far-right group called the Oath Keepers showed up, weapons in hand, to lend support to the militiamen. They also showed up — again, heavily armed — in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2015 during protests set off by the one-year anniversary of the killing of Michael Brown on August 9, 2014.
Now, just days before Election Day, the group has issued a “call to action” asking its members to station themselves at polling places across the country to “help prevent criminal vote fraud and attempted criminal voter intimidation on election day.”
The Oath Keepers profess to be a nonpartisan organization, but their warnings about voter fraud directly echo the words of Donald Trump, who has spent weeks asserting — without any evidence — that the election will be rigged.
“I hear these horror shows, and we have to make sure that this election is not stolen from us and is not taken away from us,” Trump said in October to a nearly all-white crowd in northeast Pennsylvania. “And everybody knows what I’m talking about.”
Trump’s incendiary rhetoric has sparked widespread fears that Election Day could be marred by confrontations between Democratic voters and Trump loyalists. And unlike many of the fringe extremist groups that have said they’ll answer Trump’s call, the Oath Keepers — made up mostly of current and former US military, police, and first responders — are actually likely to be out in force, right on the front lines on Election Day.
The group is calling on members and supporters around the country to “form up incognito intelligence gathering and crime spotting teams and go out into public on election day … to look for and document suspected criminal vote fraud or intimidation activities, by any individuals, groups, or parties, and then report those incidents to your local police."
But even though the group’s leaders have explicitly instructed members to be unarmed, obey the law, blend in, and not make any attempt at intimidation, that doesn’t necessarily mean that everyone who hears the call to action will follow those rules.
“The concern is that a lot of Oath Keepers supporters are not the kind of people who are going to sit there and take a picture of illegal activity instead of confronting someone,” explains Sam Jackson, a PhD candidate at Syracuse University who studies the Oath Keepers. “So while what the national leadership is calling for is relatively reasonable, the followers might take that and run with it, and do what they want.”
And that’s scary. Because unlike some other groups that have issued similar calls in recent days, experts believe the Oath Keepers actually have the ability to mobilize supporters in significant numbers. Though the Oath Keepers claim to have tens of thousands of members, the Anti-Defamation League believes their actual numbers to be far smaller, at just a few thousand. That still makes them one of the largest anti‐government extremist groups in the US.
So who are these guys? What do they believe? And what, exactly, are they planning to do at the polls on Election Day?
The Oath Keepers really, really distrust the federal government
The group was founded in 2009 by Stewart Rhodes, a former US Army paratrooper and Yale Law graduate who spent some time working for Ron Paul. They describe themselves as “a non-partisan association” whose members “pledge to fulfill the oath all military and police take to ‘defend the Constitution against all enemies, foreign and domestic.’”
In a rather bizarre series of exchanges, Rhodes declined to be interviewed for this story, because in his words, Vox “is obviously, and clearly biased to a degree that borders on the comical.” He said that if I sent him a draft of the article, he would be happy to “point out the many inaccuracies and false-associations with racists that I am sure will be in there. But that will only really help me make a case for a later lawsuit when you nonetheless libel us.”
However, after I wrote him back assuring him that I only wanted to portray his group fairly and accurately, he finally agreed to a phone interview and gave me his home phone number. When I called, he answered but asked me to call him back in a few hours. He didn’t answer when I called back, and as of time of publication, has not responded to the voice message I left him with my phone number or the multiple emails I sent afterward.
If Rhodes had been willing to be talk, he might have explained the group’s well-publicized history of showing up heavily armed at various anti-government protests and confrontations with law enforcement around the country.
Oath Keepers joined the 2014 standoff at the Cliven Bundy Ranch in Nevada and also traveled to Ferguson in August 2015, ostensibly to protect local residents and businesses from looting and rioting and defend black protesters’ right to bear arms.
More recently, Oath Keepers showed up for the armed takeover of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon by a militia group led by Ammon and Ryan Bundy earlier this year, though the Oath Keepers say they were there merely to “keep the peace” between the occupiers and law enforcement, not to participate in the actual takeover of the wildlife refuge.
Oath Keepers also stood guard at military recruitment centers after the deadly shootings at two such facilities in Chattanooga, Tennessee, in July 2015 that killed four Marines and a Navy sailor and injured two others.
The group has a list of 10 “Orders We Will Not Obey,” which the Southern Poverty Law Center describes as “a compendium of much-feared but entirely imaginary threats from the government.” Many of them track closely with the kinds of conspiracy theories peddled by radio host and Trump supporter Alex Jones and some of the other alt-right groups backing the GOP nominee:
We will NOT obey orders to disarm the American people.
We will NOT obey orders to conduct warrantless searches of the American people
We will NOT obey orders to detain American citizens as “unlawful enemy combatants” or to subject them to military tribunal.
We will NOT obey orders to impose martial law or a “state of emergency” on a state.
We will NOT obey orders to invade and subjugate any state that asserts its sovereignty.
We will NOT obey any order to blockade American cities, thus turning them into giant concentration camps.
We will NOT obey any order to force American citizens into any form of detention camps under any pretext.
We will NOT obey orders to assist or support the use of any foreign troops on US soil against the American people to “keep the peace” or to “maintain control.”
We will NOT obey any orders to confiscate the property of the American people, including food and other essential supplies.
We will NOT obey any orders which infringe on the right of the people to free speech, to peaceably assemble, and to petition their government for a redress of grievances.
To most people, explicitly and formally vowing never to obey orders like these may seem a little, well, unnecessary, as the chances of ever receiving such orders in the first place are essentially nil. To most people, that is — but not to those who believe in one of the longest-running paranoid fantasies of the far right.
The conspiracy theory fueling the rise of the Oath Keepers
The Oath Keepers’ belief system is shaped by the notion that the world has been secretly taken over by a global socialist cabal called the New World Order.
Adherents of the conspiracy theory believe that the leadership of the United States, regardless of political party, is secretly working to bring New World Order rule to America. To prevent this from happening, true American patriots must be ever vigilant for any sign that the takeover is beginning. (The Oath Keepers motto is “Not on our watch!”)
“They believe the United States is the last bastion of freedom in the world, but that our own government is actually collaborating with the New World Order to strip away our rights and freedoms, starting with the right to keep and bear arms,” says Mark Pitcavage of the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism, who has been studying right-wing extremists since the mid-1990s.
“And once we lose that right,’’ he adds, ‘‘we won’t be able to defend ourselves anymore. And once we’re rendered defenseless, the New World Order will sweep in and enslave us like it’s enslaved the rest of the world.”
This central belief is accompanied by a number of “subsidiary” beliefs, including what Pitcavage terms “the unholy trinity of militia conspiracy theories”:
The US government has set up hundreds of concentration camps and at any minute could start rounding up Americans.
The government is going to declare martial law and suspend the Constitution, perhaps using a pretext such as a fabricated terrorist attack or a fabricated pandemic.
The government is going to engage in door-to-door gun confiscation in order to disarm the country and pave the way for the New World Order takeover.
This set of beliefs, which makes up the core of the militia movement’s ideology, helps explain the Oath Keepers’ seemingly bizarre list of 10 “Orders We Will Not Obey.”
Okay, so they’re anti-government. Are they also white supremacists?
The extreme right in the United States today is dominated by two broad movements: the neo-Nazi/white supremacist movement, which includes groups like the Ku Klux Klan and the Aryan Nations, and the anti-government “patriot” or militia movement.
The Oath Keepers are part of the militia movement, not the white supremacist movement. The focus of their fury is the federal government — racial hatred and anti-Semitism are not part of the group’s ideology.
In fact, Rhodes himself is of Hispanic descent, and he speaks with pride about the fact that his family on his mother’s side were Mexican migrant farmworkers. And although the majority of the members are white, the Oath Keepers does have African-American members.
Further, the organization’s bylaws state that “No person who advocates, or has been or is a member, or associated with, any organization, formal or informal, that advocates discrimination, violence, or hatred toward any person based upon their race, nationality, creed, or color, shall be entitled to be a member or associate member.”
However, the group has at times expressed views that are hostile to Islam and Muslims — though it is not always overt. For instance, in one article on the Oath Keepers blog, Rhodes writes, “We of course support the sincere moderate Muslims like Maajid Nawaz, author of Radical: My Journey out of Extreme Islam, that condemn these acts of terror and are attempting to reform Islam from the inside.”
Yet in that same post, Rhodes directs readers to what he calls “an excellent piece” by Matthew Bracken, which discusses the “persistent virulence of Mohammed’s 7th Century plan for global domination” and describes Islam as “a brushfire or ringworm infection: it is dead and barren within the ring, but flares up where it parasitically feeds off the healthy non-Islamic societies around it.”
The Oath Keepers aren't pro-Trump. They're just super anti-Clinton.
The group maintains that it’s nonpartisan, and that its only goal in monitoring the election is “to counter actions of any political party or criminal gang that attempts to disenfranchise the citizens of our nation.”
Yet at the same time, the group has made its anti-Clinton leanings abundantly clear, characterizing her as the presidential candidate of “the globalist establishment” (a term the group uses interchangeably with “New World Order”). Indeed, Rhodes once wrote an article back in 2008 depicting a future dystopia in which “Herr Hitlery” becomes president and, “[d]ressed in her favorite Chairman Mao signature pantsuit,” proceeds to disarm the American people and turn the country into a totalitarian police state.
So how can they claim to be nonpartisan? It comes down to how you define “nonpartisan.” “They are ‘nonpartisan’ in the sense that they’re willing to criticize people from both parties that they consider ‘statists’ or ‘globalists’ or ‘traitors to the Constitution’ — basically anyone who violates what they think of as ‘individual liberty’ or ‘natural rights,’” explains Syracuse’s Jackson.
So it’s not that they love Trump — in fact, they’re not entirely sure they can trust him — it’s that they really, really hate Clinton and want to keep her from winning.
“Rhodes has made it crystal clear that what his interest is is in Democratic voting fraud,” says Mark Potok of the Southern Poverty Law Center. “He’s not interested in or suspicious of Republican voting fraud. This is essentially an anti-Clinton project.”