The Oathkeepers will not escape justice. On Tuesday, November 29, in a closely watched trial, a jury found Oath Keepers founder Stewart Rhodes and another member, Kelly Meggs, guilty of seditious conspiracy charges against them for their role on Capitol Hill. January 6, 2021. riot. While three others were found not guilty on the most serious charge of seditious conspiracy, all five defendants were found guilty obstruction of official proceedings and aid and abetment.
This months-long effort put a lot of hope in the prosecution. It seemed like an opportunity both to hold the January 6 protesters accountable and to deal a critical blow to the far right as a movement. But despite Tuesday’s verdict, Americans — prosecutors and citizens alike — need to be realistic about the limitations of a trial like this. Formal organizations like the Oath Keepers no longer define the landscape of the American right. These increasingly decentralized moves can pose problems for prosecutors who are forced to play a costly and time-consuming game of extremism hits the mole.
Despite Tuesday’s verdict, Americans (prosecutors and citizens) need to be realistic about the limitations of a trial like this.
The prosecution claimed Rhodes tried to pressure President Donald Trump into taking action to stop the election of Joe Biden, but he ultimately took matters into his own hands, along with hundreds of unaffiliated activists. Rhodes and his four co-defendants disputed this in pre-trial filings, of course. «My client did not do anything illegal that day, even though he seems arsonical,» said Phillip Linder, Rhodes’ attorney. in his opening remarks. They argued that their organization had no criminal intent, but was waiting for Trump to invoke the Insurrection Act.
If Biden’s election was illegitimate, the Oath Keepers were ready to defend Trump’s legitimate one.
“[Rhodes] «I believed the President would issue an order invoking the Insurrection Act, I was prepared to follow it,» Rhodes’ attorney wrote, calling Rhodes’ behavior «loyalty to an oath sworn in defense of country,» and suggesting that this belief provides a semblance of of legality.
The summoning never came, of course, which didn’t stop Rhodes from rallying his supporters in an inevitable “bloody and desperate fight.” That quote came from encrypted messages sent by Rhodes to his followers. And indeed, the trial has revealed the effrontery of the Oath Keepers, as well as some profound changes taking place on the American right.
The evidence of a seditious conspiracy presented at the Oath Keeper trial was damning, but obvious. this is an organization whose stated goal it is to confront a federal government that it sees as illegitimate, openly using the rhetoric of the revolution.
The case against him also hinged on the fact that the Oath Keepers were influential, radicalizing the MAGA movement to the point of seditious violence. But while their organizational structure makes them a potential target for prosecution, most activists, whether left or right, are no longer members of formal organizations (the number of formal hate groups decreased in 2021.) Instead, “Stop the Steal,” Covid anti-mask, and “Back the Blue” rallies across the country are packed with people going online through horizontal social networks, Facebook groups or alternative social media sites like Parler. “Far-right organizing is increasingly taking place in online spaces where spread is easier and faster,” said Alexander Reid Ross, a geographer who researches far-right social movements. “The mobilizations on the ground become more ad hoc, [populated] by loosely affiliated networks, moving the center of power away from formal organizations and onto the streets. As a result, formal organizations are being pushed aside in favor of a more spontaneous militancy.»
Leaving formal organizations is not a new idea; white nationalists have been defending it since the 1970s.
Leaving formal organizations is not a new idea; white nationalists have been advocating it since the 1970s. In 1992, Louis Beam, an organizer of the Ku Klux Klan instrumental in mobilizing the white fishermen of Galveston Bay against their Vietnamese neighbors, published a manifesto titled «Leaderless Resistance.» In it, Beam pointed out a key vulnerability for organizations like the Klan. The federal government, he said, could too easily infiltrate, extract membership lists, and then prosecute those members, even using organized crime statutes like RICOs.
The response to this, Beam argued, was to disperse into more informal networks and affinity groups. going even further, Neo-Nazi Alex Curtis Promoted “Lone Wolf” Attackswith militants completely separated from formal organizations.
And it’s not just the hard-core white nationalist fringe that is changing in this way. The attack on the Capitol is a prime example. While they clearly took some direction and influence from the Oath Keepers and Proud Boys members among themselves, many rioters operated more impulsively, especially once the violence began.
This is not to undermine the importance of this trial. Successfully processing Oath Keepers is undoubtedly a net benefit. Prosecutions can drive some key organizers off the street and disrupt an influential organization. But law enforcement seems ill-prepared to deal with a movement that is constantly changing tactics, identity and even beliefs. Rigid prosecution methods only work when anchored to an immobile target, one that can display organizational pedigree and ideological motivations.
At the same time, conspiracy theories, nativism, and a penchant for revolutionary language are now becoming standard throughout the Republican Party, particularly among MAGA-aligned figures like Rep. Paul Gosar, Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, and State Sen. by Arizona Wendy Rogers. Greene has committed to numerous conspiracy theories centering on secret cabals in government, such as the QAnon theory, and said in a 2020 video that freedom must be “earned with the price of blood.” Wendy Rogers, a member of the Oath Keepersstill argues that the presidential election was stolen, that the insurrection was not actually perpetrated by MAGA faithful, and that non-white people are being used to “replace” white Americansan antisemitic and white supremacist conspiracy theory known as the great replacement theory.
Meanwhile, movements like the “National Conservatives,” a loose collection of nationalist Republican politicians and activists, boast members with impressive college degrees, but propose policies and make arguments that overlap with the Oath Keepers’ worldview. For example, unsuccessful Arizona Senate candidate Blake Masters based his entire campaign on a potentially violent battle for the soul of America. While certainly more polished, some of Masters’ talking points wouldn’t be out of place at an Oath Keepers gathering.
Unfortunately, even if the most extreme players are removed, the consequences of their ideas could remain. For those concerned about the threat from the far right, both from seemingly impulsive violence and from policies that spell disaster for immigrants, the LGBTQ+ community, and reproductive health, a string of successful prosecutions simply won’t be enough to defend women. marginalized communities. While it would be comforting to assume that a strong legal system will be able to identify and quarantine those who seek to subvert liberal democracy, the reality is less black and white.
Instead, it will require a “all hands on deck” approach of activists, community groups, religious organizations, non-profits and more. This means organizing large coalitions that have the ability to put pressure on venues hosting far-right events and tech companies hosting conspiracy accounts. These coalitions need to build a mass movement that can counterorganize and protest on the scale necessary to disrupt the far right’s ability to function and build community.
These are the methods that have proven to work in recent years, demoralizing, distorting and disturbing far-right activists. While legal methods such as lawsuits have proven effective and prosecutions have dismantled some of the most dangerous far-right terrorist groups, the effort to completely overthrow the rise of white nationalism only come from a massive wave of organized resistance that seeks to make the environment inhospitable for the racist scapegoat.