[Stewart] Rhodes was a little-known libertarian blogger when he launched the Oath Keepers in early 2009. It was a moment of anxiety on the American right: As the Great Recession raged, protesters met the new president with accusations of socialism and tyranny. “The greatest threats to our liberty do not come from without,” Rhodes wrote online, “but from within.” Republicans had spent eight years amassing power in an executive branch now occupied by Barack Obama. The time for politics was ending. “Our would-be slave masters are greatly underestimating the resolve and military capability of the people,” Rhodes wrote.
Rhodes had joined the military just out of high school, hoping to become a Green Beret, but his career was cut short when he fractured his spine during a parachute training jump. After his discharge, he worked as a firearms instructor and parked cars as a valet. In 1993, he dropped a loaded handgun and it shot him in the face, blinding him in his left eye. The brush with death inspired him, at 28, to enroll in community college. He went on to the University of Nevada at Las Vegas, where he graduated summa cum laude, and then to Yale Law School, where he won a prize for a paper arguing that the Bush administration’s enemy-combatant doctrine violated the Constitution.
He married a fellow libertarian, started a family, and hung out a shingle as a lawyer in Montana—“Ivy League quality … without Ivy League expense,” read a classified ad in 2008. He volunteered for Ron Paul’s presidential campaign that year. But after the election, he veered from politics toward something darker.
His blog post was both a manifesto and a recruiting pitch. He based it on the oath that soldiers take when they enlist—minimizing the vow to obey the president and focusing on the one that comes before it, to “support and defend the Constitution against all enemies, foreign and domestic.” Law-enforcement officers swear a similar oath, and Rhodes wrote that both groups could refuse orders, including those related to gun control, that would enable tyranny. And, if necessary, they could fight.
Responses poured in, and Rhodes published them on his blog:
“Your message is spreading and I will make sure it gets to more Marines.”
“Not only will I refuse any unlawful order that violates the Constitution I will fight the tyrants that give the orders. Rest assured that me and my brothers in Law Enforcement talk about this subject on a regular basis.”
“I fully support you and what you stand for and I do talk about these things with some of my subordinates,” an Air Force officer wrote. “Those who I trust that is.”
Rhodes kept the nature of the Oath Keepers ambiguous—the group was officially nonpartisan and was not, as a later post on the blog put it, a militia “per se.” Even so, he cautioned that its members would be painted as extremists and said they could remain anonymous. “We don’t ask current-serving law enforcement and military to sign up on any kind of membership list,” he said in a radio interview. “We think that’d be foolish.”
But eventually he did create such a list. It collected members’ names, home and email addresses, phone numbers, and service histories, along with answers to a question about how they could help the Oath Keepers. Last year, the Southern Poverty Law Center passed the entries for nearly 25,000 people along to me.