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Oath Keepers and the GOP
When democracy is in crisis, extremists gain influence and political capital
Welcome back to Lucid. I am unlocking this article on the GOP’s relationship with Oath Keepers and other extremists, which originally appeared in October and has been updated. A reminder that during the month of December you can become a paying subscriber at a 25% discount for one year, giving you access to bonus content and weekly Q&As:
Right-wing extremists are in the news in America because the leader of the Oath Keepers, Stewart Rhodes, was recently convicted of seditious conspiracy in connection with the use of force on Jan. 6 to assist Donald Trump's coup attempt and prevent Joe Biden from taking office.
When democracy is in crisis, the political capital of extremists and their access to power often rise. That's because strongmen cultivate extremists (or come from extremist environments themselves, like the original Fascists Benito Mussolini and Adolf Hitler) and use them to create climates of violence and lawlessness that assist their power grabs.
The enhanced roles the Oath Keepers, Proud Boys and other extremist groups took on during the Trump years, and their service to him on Jan. 6, set the stage for the GOP's absorption of such extremist operatives and platforms into its party structure. While local and state GOP politicians have long had ties with extremist groups, now these ties have become normalized, with Oath Keepers and other extremists becoming GOP politicians.
The trial of the Oath Keepers matters as an action meant to hold up the rule of law and as an occasion to inform the public about the threats extremists pose to our democracy.
Every country has its own extremist traditions, but in general extremists view violence as a way of moving history forward and bringing about change in society.
Extremist movements have more influence in countries with a history of the use of gangs or paramilitary formations in times of civil war or sectarian strife. They also flourish in countries with a history of authoritarianism, where leaders may create civilian militias who work alongside radicalized law enforcement. This was the case in the Philippines during Rodrigo Duterte's "war on drugs."
Extremists may operate as an informal paramilitary loyal to the leader. They may be institutionalized into a militia. Il Duce did this with his squadrists, keeping them under his personal control and separate from the armed forces commanded by the King. Or extremists act as an armed wing of the ruling party. Vladimir Putin also uses the Wagner Group, a private army of mercenaries.
in Iran, the Revolutionary Guards Corps are a branch of the Iranian Armed Forces, whereas the Guidance Patrol, or morality police, that enforces hijab rules is a law enforcement paramilitary. Their killing of Mahsa Amini in September for hijab violations has sparked a protest movement among women in Iran.
Regardless of how they are organized, such militias and paramilitaries attract extremists because they have license to engage in actions unbound by humanitarian beliefs or conventional military codes. They are paid to be brutal enforcers and transgressors who will commit atrocities without a second thought and have protections for extrajudicial actions.
The Revolutionary Guards who operated in Muammar Gaddafi's Libya are a ghoulish example. They infiltrated state institutions and business, eventually controlled the media, and had their own courts to enforce revolutionary law. They were the people who knocked on your door and took you to prison --or hung your dead body, if you were a dissident student, on the gates of your university "as an example."
They populated the Libyan diplomatic corps, working in Libyan embassies around the world to have easy access to exiles they targeted (killing or poisoning being the despot's idea of "diplomatic action" in foreign countries). In 1984 one of them shot from the Libyan Embassy in London into a crowd of Libyan protesters, killing a British police officer. The Revolutionary Guards also supplied Gaddafi with women for his sex dungeons, scouting women at markets and schools and kidnapping them for the leader’s pleasure.
Whether it is sexual slavery or drug trafficking, extremist paramilitaries are a conduit of practices of corruption and violence that benefit the leader and his cronies and become normalized in state institutions. That is why collaboration of sitting lawmakers and extremists in a democracy is always a red flag.
The United States is unusual in that it has long tolerated numerous expressions of anti-government and violent White extremism and allowed it to penetrate the military and security forces of the country. State institutions like Customs and Border Patrol and Immigration and Customs Enforcement also have paramilitary-style cultures and operations that tolerate and perpetuate corruption and human rights abuses.
The Oath Keepers, founded in 2009, has recruited from current and former military, law enforcement, and Republican politicians. An Anti-Defamation League analysis of 38,000 names on a list leaked to the AP produced close to 400 individuals who work in those vital areas and hundreds more from the military sphere. Some of those say they paid dues but never attended meetings, or have had no contact for years. Yet their positive response to the organization means something.
These ties have become normalized as the GOP adopts authoritarian tactics and extremists become the party officials. A 2022 study counted 1 in 5 GOP state and local officials affiliated with groups such as the Oath Keepers. For state lawmakers like Mark Finchem (R-AZ) publicizing membership in the Oath Keepers is a point of prestige: Trump appeared with Finchem at a rally in January, and Fichem was the GOP candidate for Arizona secretary of state.
Through Roger Stone and other liaisons, the Oath Keepers gained a foothold early on among the Republican elite and in Trump's inner circle. In Colorado, Oregon, and other states, GOP officials used members of militia groups and Oath Keepers as security for public events. So did Trump, on the campaign trail in Texas, Minnesota and elsewhere between 2016 and 2020.
This history of service to Trump meant that the Oath Keepers jumped right into organizing for armed struggle following Trump's November 2020 loss, which his Big Lie depicted as a plot by corrupt forces to deprive him of what was rightfully his. And the Oath Keepers’ plans to provide security on Jan. 6 for Stone, Michael Flynn, and other organizers of the coup attempt simply continued their use by Trump insiders as a private paramilitary.
More information on the political reach of these extremists is emerging during this trial, such as the contacts Rhodes and a Secret Service agent had in late 2020, when the plan for the coup was taking its final shape. We still do not know the extent of the Secret Service's involvement in the coup attempt. That agency's coverup of its operations on that day continues.
As Rhodes and his fellow extremists are brought to justice, a fuller picture of the range of figures and institutions involved in Trump's authoritarian action will come to light.
For the moment, how ironic that Rhodes referenced the idea of overthrowing Serbian dictator Slobodan Milosevic in 2000 by storming the Parliament and setting it on fire as an example to follow. There, a tyrant was defeated (without the need for such actions) so that democracy could be established. Here, the aim was to overthrow a democratic government --the dream of the Oath Keepers since the start of the movement-- and bring Trump to power as an authoritarian leader.
Whether or not Trump remains the chosen one, that extremist aim remains alive —all the more so now that some of those extremists have become part of the political establishment. The more anti-government activists enter the government, the greater the threat to our democracy will be.