Nov 30, 2022 - Politics & Policy

How the Oath Keepers were radicalized

Illustration of a long figure falling into a dark void.

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Testimony from both defendants and witnesses during the Oath Keepers trial outlined how several were drawn to an extremist group that would ultimately play an outsized role in storming the Capitol to try to prevent Joe Biden from becoming president.

The big picture: A lack of stability, a desire for belonging and faith in misinformation were recurring themes as members of the Oath Keepers described their descent into radicalization.

Driving the news: The group's founder, Stewart Rhodes, and one associate were found guilty Tuesday of seditious conspiracy. Three other associates were found not guilty of seditious conspiracy.

  • Additional defenders affiliated with the Oath Keepers and another far-right group, the Proud Boys, face trials next month.

Zoom in: Jessica Watkins was among the defendants found not guilty of seditious conspiracy, but guilty of other crimes, including obstruction and conspiracy-related charges.

  • According to court documents, she told the jury during the trial that she is a transgender military veteran who struggled to express her identity to family and in the Army.
  • In a motion earlier this year, her lawyer wrote that Watkins was an Army ranger who served in Afghanistan, only to be forced out because of her sexual orientation.
  • Holding a role providing security for the Oath Keepers felt like a way to reclaim the military career she lost, Watkins said in the trial. “I could still serve in another way," she said.
  • She said she learned about the Oath Keepers through conspiracy theorist Alex Jones' InfoWars. She was indoctrinated by baseless claims such as the U.S. being invaded by the United Nations.

Graydon Young, a witness and the first Oath Keeper to plead guilty to conspiracy to obstruct justice in connection with the Jan. 6 attack, saw joining the group as a way to take action against election fraud — claims of which were in truth baseless.

  • Young described feeling "a sense of desperation and hopelessness" about the 2020 election after listening to Trump’s attorneys and "spending way too much time on YouTube and Facebook."

Jason Dolan, a witness and former Oath Keeper, told the jury he joined the group in 2020 after becoming convinced that the election was stolen.

  • He was spending hours each evening in his garage going through a six pack or a half bottle of vodka and scrolling through news articles on the his phone after quitting his job following a bad hip surgery.
  • The Florida Oath Keepers group, he said, gave him a sense of community and camaraderie with other military veterans and former law enforcement who "felt the same way I did."

John Zimmerman, a witness and former leader of a North Carolina Oath Keepers group, said he joined the group believing its mission was to provide emergency response services and security to Trump supporters at political events.

  • "So I bought in hook, line, and sinker," Zimmerman said, according to court transcripts.

The bottom line: More than 880 people have been charged with crimes related to the attack.

  • Myrieme Churchill, executive director of Parents For Peace, which counsels families whose loved ones have become involved with extremism, told Axios these cases offer clues to stop future indoctrination. "How has society co-created these situations? And how can we prevent it?"
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