This essay addresses current trends in rhetoric within the American patriot movement. It describes the Oath Keepers, a rightwing organization whose avowed purpose, based on a fundamentalist interpretation of the United States Constitution, is to prevent supposed further violation of Americans’ individual liberties. The group’s presence and message has led The Southern Poverty Law Center to label its leader, Elmer Stewart Rhodes, an extremist. The Anti-Defamation League has described the movement as anti-government and conspiratorial— characteristics common to far-right, non-racist militia groups. Their rhetoric, however misguided, must be understood. I here seek to diagnose the group’s style and offer a possible way forward for diffusing such inflammatory commentary before it reaches an uncontrollable level. The majority in America cannot afford simply to brush off the Oath Keepers as crazy paranoiacs. Instead, I argue that citizens should seek to understand the roots of anti-government extremism in the United States and press our governments, at all levels, to address their causes without adding to the hysteria and paranoia that already characterizes these groups’ apocalyptic messages.
The Oath Keepers
In 2010, Justine Sharrock, writing for Mother Jones, published a penetrating article describing the Oath Keepers movement. Her analysis provided an in depth, first-hand look at the budding organization, particularly the character of its membership. The group is comprised of former United States uniformed service members. In order to be a full member of the organization one must have served in the military, or police, or as a firefighter or emergency services first responder. The Keepers’ by-laws stipulate that to be considered for membership, one can never have been formally or informally associated with any racist or hate-group. Sharrock found that a disproportionate share of the group were white working class males who had been marginalized in some way and perceived that outcome as symptomatic of a government that no longer represented them. Oath Keepers rhetoric regularly paints the United States government as a malevolent force bent on complete abolition of individual civil liberties in service to a New World Order. The New World order is common symbol and claim in militarist conspiracy theories and refers to the alleged emergence of a global totalitarian government run by a secret elite. The two Oath Keeper members Sharrock interviewed for her article embraced this sort of rhetoric, which has been typical of rightwing conspiracy theories within militia movements.
Elmer Stewart Rhodes, a Yale University Law School graduate and practicing lawyer founded the Oath Keepers on April 19, 2009 on Lexington Green in Massachusetts. The entity’s stated purpose was to reach out to men and women in uniform and remind them of their duty to protect and uphold the Constitution of the United States. Rhodes serves as the group’s founder and president regularly repeats his view that the government of the United States no longer represents the interests of its people by routinely violating the Constitution in service to an agenda of totalitarian control. Although the Oath Keepers are officially non-partisan, progressives are nonetheless treated with suspicion and demonized. For example, in a column for SWAT magazine, Rhodes constructed a caricature of former Senator and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton— “Hitlery”— who, he warned, would institute a police state upon election to the presidency and disarm the populace to prepare it for further domination as dominatrix-in-chief. Rhodes worked on the Ron Paul campaign in 2008 and became disillusioned with establishment politics after Barack Obama won that national presidential election—he argued that grassroots organizing was the only true way to avoid the poisonous environment of the political elite. His inflammatory remarks and the rhetoric of other leaders and members of the Oath Keepers is characteristically paranoid in the style first identified by political scientist Richard Hofstadter in The Paranoid Style in American Politics (1964).
Paranoia as a Style
Hofstadter’s book provides an analytic framework for diagnosing what he called, “the paranoid style” of the American ideological right. His work provides an excellent entry for understanding the links between status and interest politics. It is vital to understand that Hofstadter was not psychologizing the adherents of particular ideologies, but was instead highlighting an orientation inherent in their beliefs and orientation. The paranoid style is characterized by: “The central image…of a vast and sinister conspiracy, a gigantic and yet subtle machinery of influence set in motion to undermine and destroy a way of life (Hofstadter 1964, 2008, p.29).” Adherents of this perspective, “regard a ‘vast’ or ‘gigantic’ conspiracy as the motive force in historical events (Hofstadter 1964, 2008, p.29).” In this view, “History is a conspiracy, set in motion by demonic forces of almost transcendent power, and what is felt to be needed to defeat it is not the usual methods of political give-and-take, but an all-out crusade (Hofstadter 1964, 2008, p.29).” There is never a middle ground for those influenced by this outlook and their leaders are typically militants operating outside the confines of the political establishment (Hofstadter 1964, 2008, p.30-1).
Another distinguishing characteristic of the paranoid style is its pedantry, “One of the impressive things about paranoid literature is precisely the elaborate concern with demonstration it almost invariably shows (Hofstadter 1964, 2008, p.35).” The paranoid style marshals as much evidence as its proselytizers can to support the logical leaps it must make in its message. Hofstadter contended that what distinguishes this outlook, “is not, then, the absence of verifiable facts, but rather the curious leap in imagination that is always made at some critical point in their recital of events (Hofstadter 1964, 2008, p.37).” Oath Keeper leaders regularly display this odd turn in their rhetoric. For example, the organization’s chaplain Chuck Baldwin, argued after the recent terror attacks in Paris that ISIL poses an existential threat to Western democracy, but he also went further to contend that the tragic murders for which it was responsible were the direct result of a vast conspiracy, Make no mistake about it: the wars in the Middle East are Washington’s wars. The refugee crisis is the direct result of Washington’s wars. G.W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan and the continued violent attacks by the Obama administration throughout the Middle East.” He then suggested without any evidence (for which, in truth, there is none), “not to mention, the direct intervention of, and supervision by, the CIA, British intelligence, the Israeli Mossad, and the governments of Turkey and Saudi Arabia.”
Investigators have thus far found no evidence to support the idea that refugees committed the Paris attacks. The acts were the product and responsibility of homegrown terrorists. Baldwin recognized this fact, “The attacks in Paris were NOT committed by refugees,” but he nevertheless attributed them to Western governments and their allies, “they were committed by CIA-backed, Saudi-backed, Mossad-backed, Turkey-backed, MI6-backed ISIS terrorists.” His supposed “evidence” for these claims was a chauvinistic appeal to his audience,
In addition, how did those terrorists successfully pull off these coordinated attacks? How did they get fully-automatic rifles and bombs into Paris? These sand people are NOT that sophisticated. They do NOT have those kinds of connections. Do you think you could successfully get a group of people together and smuggle dozens of automatic weapons and explosives into a European country–and then successfully coordinate a large-scale attack in a high-security major downtown city? The only people capable of such a thing are Special Ops military personnel. In other words, ISIS had help, folks–a LOT of help.
It is simply unfathomable to him that ISIL acted alone or that Europe’s freedom of travel between nations and a weak Eastern border contributed to ISIL’s ability to carry out its attacks, as the Economist has argued.
The obvious question is, why would Western states terrorize their own people? Baldwin contended they do so because, “The refugee crisis is a tool of globalists to destabilize the West and help usher in a global Police State. Again, the goal is a global economic system…The only thing that globalists can do to circumvent this inevitable collapse is create global panic, global war, and a global Police State.” His logical leap is the attribution of an act of terrorism to an international plot by an elite bent on global domination. Baldwin’s comments illustrate the circular logic and witch-hunting characteristic of the paranoid style. He supports his interpretation of events with a conspiratorial theory and underpins his view with that same claim. Those who subscribe to such ideology act, as Hofstadter remarked, like transmitters and not as receivers of information, “His effort to amass it has rather the quality of a defensive act which shuts off his receptive apparatuses and protects him from having to attend to disturbing considerations that do not fortify his ideas (Hofstadter 1964, 2008, p.38).” Placing this contention into the context of the Oath Keepers, Baldwin sees enemies everywhere, but especially in Washington, and the world’s ills are explained as the product of a massive secretive conspiracy at working creating them each day.
How can we, as a democratic society, understand the paranoid style sufficiently so that we may take steps not to silence its purveyors, but to neutralize the potential effects of their wild rhetoric? Hofstadter was also illuminating on this point,
At the time we were struck by a salient fact: the literature of the American right was a literature not of those who felt themselves to be in possession but those who felt dispossessed – a literature of resentment, profoundly anti-establishment in its purposes (Hofstadter 1964, 2008, p.82).
Dispossession refers to individuals and groups who once perceived themselves as part of the core culture, but now believe they have suffered a loss of status within it. Status politics is inherently emotional and concerns identity. As such, one must first understand what is motivating these individuals so as to be able to provide them information and arguments that might help them refuse to adopt the sort of Manichean mentality Baldwin’s formulations concerning the Paris attacks evidenced.
Burt has extended Hofstadter’s work in American Hysteria: The Untold Story of Mass Political Extremism in the United States (2015), and offered a strategy to reduce hysterical moments, such as the Oath Keepers reflect in American politics. His strategy to ameliorate and prevent such extremism involves three major elements, “In times of hysteria, we much accept, affirm, and attack (Burt 2015, p. 183).” Acceptance means, “irrational as the movement might seem, there is an intrinsic power to political hysteria, built upon a deep appeal during times of profound change in America’s national identity (Burt 2015, p. 183).” In short, society and the broader population may not brush off the Oath Keepers simply as lunatics. Their group demographic is conspicuously blue-collar and that portion of the population has, in fact, suffered disproportionately with globalization generally and during several recent economic downturns, specifically. The Oath Keepers believe themselves marginalized and unsupported by the government they once pledged to serve. We must dignify their position not for the messages its representatives express, but out of recognition that they have suffered injury as a group and have sought to explain those wounds by aligning with the simple “answer” provided by the Oath Keepers.
Burt’s proposed second step is affirmation:
we must realize that political hysteria arises from insecurities in American national identity, and as such, affirming an inclusive version of our national identity–both before such movement arise, and in the midst of each episode–can serve to lessen their sway (Burt 2015, p. 184).
Our nation’s recent veterans present an example of one group prone to social insecurity amidst change. A recent report by the Department of Veterans Affairs, for example, suggested that poverty among returning Gulf War II veterans is on the rise. Demographically, veterans in this 18-34 age group are at the highest risk of poverty and their immiseration represents a growing trend. We must do more for our veterans in order to boost democratic enfranchisement and to ensure that they do not fall into a cycle of poverty and marginality.
Finally, individually, we must attack, “the assertions made by each such movement’s adherents, exposing their wild theories for what they are: unjustifiable demonizations and wildly exaggerated readings of the facts at hand (Burt 2015, p. 184).” Tactically speaking, each paranoiac assertion contains some small measure of truth and some connection to reality. We must dance a fine line when confronting people who have adopted this orientation because we cannot afford to alienate them further by dismissing their assertions full-stop. Such disregard would shut down communication entirely and there would be little chance for constructive dialogue thereafter. The object, then, should be to highlight the truthful parts of their stories while contradicting and challenging their more fanciful assertions in open and non-violent discussion. The paranoid style marshals facts selectively and marries these to sweeping unfounded claims to create an echo chamber surrounding its adherents. The broader society’s counter strategy must be to extend an olive branch of understanding while also creating a cultural context of inclusivity. Those challenging the fear-filled groups on the Right, including the Oath Keepers, must help members of those organizations develop a spirit of realistic criticality in place of their paranoid style. Above all, we must avoid a confrontation based on obedience to authority. Adherents of the paranoid style suffer from, “a disorder in relation to authority, characterized by an inability to find other modes for human relationship than those of more or less complete domination or submission (Hofstadter 1964, 2008, p.58).” Put more broadly, to put Burt’s guidance into practice, lawmakers and citizens alike should do all in their power not to demonize those who are otherwise actively involved in demonizing them.
“Antigovernment Movement.” Southern Poverty Law Center. Accessed November 29, 2015. https://www.splcenter.org/fighting-hate/extremist-files/ideology/antigovernment.
Baldwin, Chuck. “Oath Keepers Chaplain On Paris Attacks – Oath Keepers.” Oath Keepers. November 20, 2015. Accessed November 29, 2015. https://www.oathkeepers.org/oath-keepers-chaplain-on-paris-attacks/.
Burt, Andrew. American Hysteria: The Untold Story of Mass Political Extremism in the United States. Rowman and Littlefield, 2015.
“By Laws – Oath Keepers.” Oath Keepers. Accessed November 29, 2015. https://www.oathkeepers.org/bylaws/.
“Elmer Stewart Rhodes.” Southern Poverty Law Center. Accessed November 29, 2015. https://www.splcenter.org/fighting-hate/extremist-files/individual/elmer-stewart-rhodes-0.
Hofstadter, Richard. The Paranoid Style in American Politics, and Other Essays. New York: Vintage Books, 2008.
“How to Fight Back.” The Economist. November 21, 2015. Accessed November 29, 2015. http://www.economist.com/news/leaders/21678785-battle-against-islamic-state-must-be-waged-every-front-how-fight-back?frsc=dg|d.
Krieger, Michael. “College Protesters Demand Journalists Swear Loyalty Oath Before Reporting on Them – Oath Keepers.” Oath Keepers. November 25, 2015. Accessed November 29, 2015. https://www.oathkeepers.org/college-protesters-demand-journalists-swear-loyalty-oath-before-reporting-on-them/.
“Paris Under Attack.” The Economist. November 21, 2015. Accessed November 29, 2015. http://www.economist.com/news/briefing/21678860-first-four-articles-about-islamic-state-murders-paris-and-their-aftermath-we?frsc=dg|d.
“Rage Grows in America: Anti-Government Conspiracies.” ADL Special Reports: Rage Grows in America: Anti-Government Conspiracies. Accessed November 29, 2015. http://archive.adl.org/special_reports/rage-grows-in-america/oath-keepers.html.
Rhodes, Stewart. “Stewart Rhodes’ Sixth Anniversary Essay – Oath Keepers.” Oath Keepers. April 20, 2015. Accessed November 29, 2015. https://www.oathkeepers.org/stewart-rhodes-sixth-anniversary-essay/
Sharrock, Justine. “Oath Keepers and the Age of Treason.” Mother Jones. April 1, 2010. Accessed November 29, 2015. http://www.motherjones.com/politics/2010/03/oath-keepers.
“Veteran Poverty Trends.” U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. May 1, 2015. Accessed November 29, 2015, http://www.va.gov/vetdata/docs/SpecialReports/Veteran_Poverty_Trends.pdf.
Alex Stubberfield is a PhD student in the ASPECT program at Virginia Tech. He studies political and social theory and has an abiding an interest in American politics. Alex earned a Master of Arts in Philosophy and another Master’s in Public and International Affairs with a certificate in Nonprofit and Nongovernmental Organization Management at Virginia Tech. He completed his Bachelors of Science in philosophy at the SUNY College at Brockport.