As of mid-January, according to Rhodes, Oath Keepers had at least one chapter in every state and was adding dozens of members daily. Some 14,000 people had signed up as members on the Oath Keepers website while more than 15,000, including dozens of military recruiters, had done so on Facebook. And that doesn't include those who, fearing reprisal, do their networking offline. Volunteers are in the process of sending out some 1,000 "constitutional care packages" complete with Oath Keepers patches to soldiers serving overseas.
IT IS EASY ENOUGH to dismiss the Oath Keepers as (in the words of Britain's Independent ) "right-wing crackpots" or "extremist nimrods" ( Huffington Post ). CNN stressed the group's conspiracy theories in its series on militias. But beyond the predictable stereotypes, "the reality is a lot of them are fairly intelligent, well-educated people who have complex worldviews that are thoroughly thought out," says author David Neiwert, who has been following the patriot movement closely since the '90s.
Rhodes' vision is simple—"It's the Constitution, stupid." He views the founding blueprint the way fundamentalist Christians view the Bible. In Rhodes' America, sovereign states—"like little labs of freedom"—would have their own militias and zero gun restrictions. He would limit federal power to what's stated explicitly in the Constitution and Bill of Rights; any new federal law affecting the states would require a constitutional amendment. "If your state goes retarded," he says, "you can move to another state and vote with your feet." The president would be stripped of emergency powers that allow him to seize property, restrict travel, institute martial law, and otherwise (as the Congressional Research Service has put it) "control the lives of United States citizens." The Constitution, Rhodes explains, "was created to check us in times of emergency when we are freaking out."
Much of this is familiar rhetoric, part of a continuous strain in American politics that reemerged most recently during the 1990s. Back then, a similar combination of recession and Democratic rule led to the rise of citizen militias, the Posse Comitatus movement, and Oath Keepers-type groups like Police & Military Against the New World Order. But those groups had little reach. Nowadays, through the power of YouTube and social networking, and with a boost from the cable punditry, Oath Keepers can reach millions and make its message part of the national conversation—furthering the notion that citizens can simply disregard a government they loathe. "The underlying sentiment is an attack on government dating back to the New Deal and before," says author Neiwert. "Ron Paul has been a significant conduit in recent years, but nothing like Glenn Beck and Michele Bachmann and Sarah Palin—all of whom share that innate animus."
Oath Keepers' strength derives from what Rhodes calls "a very powerful common bond" (the vow of service) as well as the uniform—"a powerful source of credibility and respect" that allows members to "throw their weight into any movement...and tip any election." Rhodes is wary of "old-party asshole RINOs" (Republicans in name only)—he mentions Dick Armey, the former House majority leader turned Tea Party sponsor—who in his view are merely out to hijack the grassroots.
Most Oath Keepers may intend to disobey their commanders only in the instances the group highlights. But the group's ideas also appeal to extremists like Daniel Knight Hayden, whose inflammatory tweets  last April ("START THE KILLING NOW!") signaled his intent to wreak havoc at a Tax Day protest. On the morning of April 15 he sent out a tweet touting Oath Keepers, followed by "Locked AND loaded for the Oklahoma State Capitol. Let's see what happens." (The FBI arrested him at home a few hours later; he was eventually convicted for transmitting interstate threats.) Rhodes vigorously denounced Hayden, but the episode hinted at the power of the group's language. Rhetoric like Rhodes' ("Do you want them to kick down your door in body armor?") can have "an unhinging effect" on people inclined toward violent action, Neiwert explains. "It puts them in a state of mind of fearfulness and paranoia, creating so much anger and hatred that eventually that stuff boils over."