In the months I've spent getting to know the Oath Keepers, I've toggled between viewing them either as potentially dangerous conspiracy theorists or as crafty intellectuals with the savvy to rally politicians to their side. The answer, I came to realize, is that they cover the whole spectrum.
ON A CLEAR September evening, I found myself in suite 610 at the Texas Station casino in North Las Vegas mingling with two dozen Oath Keepers state leaders, directors, and hardcore devotees. It was past midnight, but the place—down to the American flag wallpaper in the bathroom—was awake with the sense of a movement primed to burst into the national consciousness. Mississippi director Chris Evans, who sports a long beard and cowboy hat, declared in his pronounced drawl that this gathering was so important to him that for the first time since 9/11 he'd succumbed to the "invasive breach of privacy" required to fly here. Rand Cardwell, who organized multiple chapters in Tennessee, only woke up, he told me, when the government began bailing out big companies and left ordinary people in the cold: "Pain causes action," he said. For others here, the aha moment came with the Patriot Act or when federal troops and contractors confiscated weapons in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
As techies swarmed around laptops discussing website tweaks, two shy Midwesterners who hoped to become state directors told me they were eager to learn recruiting tips. An energetic young veteran griped that hate-crime bills aim to police people's thoughts, and that the "Don't Tread on Me" bumper stickers popular with constitutionalists raise enough suspicion these days to get a person pulled over by the authorities. Over bottled water and microbrews, they swapped tips on how to involve members in state militias, spread viral YouTube videos of soldiers reaffirming their oaths, and reach out to other patriots. They boasted of recruiting at gun shows, approaching politicians and cops, and stuffing leaflets into magazines in veterans hospital waiting rooms.
The three-day conference was called posthaste after Rhodes realized that his group was growing beyond his control. On the first night, over a casino buffet of barbecue, goopy Chinese food, and key lime pie, core members scrutinized printouts of potential organizational structures before heading upstairs to sign legal documents, pick a board of directors, and start nominating state representatives.
Rhodes caught wind of my presence during the introductory meet and greet. Taking me aside, he told me he'd decided reporters weren't welcome. After I protested that the Oath Keepers website had described the conference as open to the public, he offered to refund my $300 entrance fee. Then I told him I'd read his Yale paper and shared many of his concerns about executive power; I really wanted to hear what Oath Keepers had to say. In the end, he agreed to let me stay and eventually invited me to hang out with the inner circle.
The next morning, in a casino ballroom, a hundred or so Oath Keepers exchanged business cards and schmoozed in between speeches about constitutional law, American Revolutionary history, and a soldier's obligation to disobey illegal orders—Nuremberg references on full display. Clad in suits, or slacks with button-downs, most of them could have been attending an insurance convention. One Oath Keeper handed out Gadsden-flag bumper stickers, while others sold T-shirts, baseball caps, and polo shirts featuring the group's minuteman logo and motto: "Not on our watch." There was a raffle, and James Sugra, one of the masterminds behind Ron Paul's fundraising "money bombs," scored a huge framed replica of the Constitution. To enthusiastic applause, a driver in the Lucas Oil Late Model Dirt Series (a hot new cross between NASCAR and monster truck rallies) announced that the Oath Keepers would get free ad space on his car. Their logo would be seen on television sets across America. During the talks, I sat between a libertarian who had biked across America, stopping at police stations to hand out recruiting materials, and a first-generation Chinese American stay-at-home dad from San Francisco who invited me to my local chapter's winter survivalist training and rifle practice—extracurriculars, he assured me.