WASHINGTON — Nearly two decades ago Stewart Rhodes won an award at Yale Law School for his paper arguing that the Bush administration’s use of “enemy combatant” status to detain Americans indefinitely was unconstitutional.
Tolerating such a violation, he asserted, would be like leaving out “a loaded weapon — a perpetual threat to our liberties — to be picked up by the next overzealous, overconfident and willful president.”
But in the weeks after the 2020 election, presidential overreach seemed far from his mind. In an open letter on the website of the Oath Keepers, the far-right militia group he founded in 2009, Rhodes urged then-President Donald Trump to invoke the Insurrection Act, send special forces to seize state elections systems, redo the election, and deploy both the National Guard and a self-armed militia to suppress any rebellion from “domestic enemies” in the way.
“If you fail to do so, we the people will have to fight a bloody revolution/civil war to throw off an illegitimate deep state/Chinese puppet regime,” he wrote.
In the days before the U.S. Capitol riot, he’d put out a call on the group’s website for “all patriots who can be in DC” to travel to the capital for a “security mission” to “stand tall in support of President Trump’s fight.”
At least three people affiliated with the Oath Keepers have been indicted on conspiracy charges stemming from the riot, including one, Thomas Caldwell of Virginia, described in federal court papers as having “a leadership role within the Oath Keepers.”
Rhodes’ shift is not entirely unique. The Oath Keepers was one of a variety of militia groups that coalesced around Trump, many of which had previously been highly skeptical of the federal government.
How Rhodes, 55, went from being a libertarian former Arizona Supreme Court law clerk warning of federal tyranny to calling for the U.S. military to suppress resistance from American citizens offers a window into the evolution of the anti-government groups that embraced Trump as an ally in their existential battle against the government he ran. Some of these groups are heavily armed, and members are being investigated for suspected roles in the Jan. 6 Capitol riot.
For Rhodes and the Oath Keepers, support for Trump — who once claimed his authority was “total” and whom they initially viewed skeptically — followed a conspiratorial arc in which preparing for confrontation with the government eventually gave way to a more nativist focus on perceived threats to American values by leftist groups, the deep state and supposed foreign conspirators or global cabals.
“That process of falling in line behind Trump was in part because Trump’s opponent was Hillary Clinton, and the Clinton name is so anathema to this broader movement,” said Sam Jackson, who wrote the 2020 book “Oath Keepers: Patriotism and the Edge of Violence in a Right-Wing Antigovernment Group” and teaches at the University at Albany. “Another part is the group has some really virulent strains of Islamophobia and nativism and anti-immigrant sentiment.”
Rhodes, who along with Oath Keepers did not respond to several requests for comment, was photographed at the Capitol that chilly Wednesday, although it’s unclear whether he took part in storming the building where he once worked as a staffer for then-Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, a Republican turned libertarian.
Elmer Stewart Rhodes was born in California, public records show, and served as a paratrooper in the U.S. Army until being severely injured in a parachute accident during a nighttime training jump. According to an archived bio from his website, he enrolled at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, and volunteered teaching rape prevention at its women’s center.
It was after college that he moved to Washington to work for Paul in Congress.
As a student at Yale Law School, he overlapped for two years with President Joe Biden’s national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, who did not respond to an inquiry about whether the two had met in New Haven. After a clerkship with Arizona Supreme Court Justice Michael Ryan, Rhodes eventually landed in Montana, where he advertised that year in the journal Montana Lawyer offering “YALE QUALITY research and brief writing … Ivy League quality, without Ivy League expense.”
He was later disbarred after the Montana Supreme Court found he’d abandoned clients in Arizona, a 2015 court order shows.
By then, Rhodes was several years into Oath Keepers, which he formed after volunteering on Paul’s unsuccessful 2008 campaign for the GOP presidential nomination.
“I concluded that if I could not help get a constitutionalist into the White House, the least I can do is to remind those in current service of their obligations to refuse unlawful orders, including unconstitutional orders,” Rhodes said in a 2010 interview with the libertarian website The Daily Bell.
Walter Reddy, a gun rights advocate and tea party activist from Connecticut who said he protested peacefully at the Capitol last month, recalled helping secure the permit for a 2009 rally of militia enthusiasts in Lexington, Massachusetts, where Oath Keepers held its first gathering and Rhodes presented the group’s key tenets: A 10-item list of “unconstitutional” orders that sworn defenders of the Constitution, like law enforcement and the military, must never obey.
“I knew he was pretty bright,” Reddy said in an interview. “Somebody had told me about him and I said, ‘Yeah, fine.’ It was just a blog or something, it sounded OK. I supported our military and police – why not?”
The group took root at the height of the tea party political movement, whose freedom-focused ideology and membership both overlapped to some degree with the Oath Keepers. Chapters were formed in all 50 states. By 2014, Rhodes told a newspaper, the group boasted some 35,000 members, although estimates by watchdog groups are far lower.
That same year, in Nevada, an armed clash over grazing rights on federal lands helped put Oath Keepers on the map as an operational force, with the group gaining prominence for sending members to Cliven Bundy’s ranch in support.
Video posted by the organization on YouTube showed Rhodes at the scene helping to move a fence.
But in the years before Trump was elected, the group’s focus and rhetoric started shifting from perceived threats to the Constitution posed by the government and political elites to threats from “leftists.”
The Oath Keepers inserted itself in hot-button political and social crises, sending armed members to Ferguson, Missouri, in 2015. The Oath Keepers described their presence as protection for local businesses during the sustained protests in response to the the fatal shooting in 2014 of Michael Brown, a Black teen, by a white police officer that helped give birth to the Black Lives Matter movement.
The group offered bodyguards for Kim Davis, the Kentucky county clerk jailed for refusing to grant marriage licenses to same-sex couples. She declined the offer.
Trump’s emergence as the protagonist in the group’s narrative about a fight against tyranny was not preordained. When Trump signaled openness to stricter gun laws in a September 2016 debate against Clinton — “You take the gun away from criminals that shouldn’t be having it” — the Oath Keepers recoiled, calling Trump out on its website for making “unacceptable concessions” and waving “another red flag.”
But, by the time voters cast their ballots two months later, the group had issued a “call to action” to members to position themselves at polling places as both it and Trump ominously warned of massive fraud, voter intimidation, and potential violent unrest if he were elected. And after Trump took office, it began sending members to his re-election rallies to “escort” supporters it claimed faced violence from Black Lives Matter or Antifa supporters.
And as America braced for Election Day in 2020, the Oath Keepers laid out a marker in advance, asserting that if Trump lost the election, it had to have been rigged, echoing the conspiracy theory that Trump himself was pushing.
Freddy Cruz, an analyst who studies Oath Keepers for the Southern Poverty Law Center, said the group’s ultimate acquiescence to Trump was emblematic of the way other purportedly anti-government groups have veered into far-right extremism in recent years amid a deluge of disinformation, much of it online, and appeals to xenophobia about Muslims and immigrants that Trump tapped into regularly.
“At the core of the anti-government movement is conspiracy theories,” he said. “It’s this fear that individuals in power every day are trying to sell away American sovereignty to some foreign entity or erase American identity.”
In an interview in 2009 on MSNBC’s “Hardball with Chris Matthews,” Rhodes disputed the group had partisan leanings or that he was putting his members on a war footing.
“We’re not talking about asking them to go fight, we’re saying simply, ‘don’t fight,’” Rhodes said. “It’s simply saying they’re not going to comply with orders that violate the rights of the American people.”
Yet, speaking soon after that interview to a fringe website, he seemed to foreshadow how the distrust of government underpinning his movement had the potential to culminate, years later, in a deadly assault on the seat of government.
“I sometimes get angry emails from frustrated people asking, ‘When is the military going to march on D.C. and clean out that den of vipers?’” Rhodes said. He said he responds by asking them whom the Constitution designates to suppress insurrections and repel invasions and added: “It is not the standing army. It is the militia. And who are the militia? We, the people.”