Editor’s Note: After this story was sent to press for the November issue of The Atlantic, President Donald Trump was asked in the September 29 debate whether he would “condemn white supremacists and militia groups and say that they need to stand down.” The president said “Sure,” and then said that the Proud Boys, a militant nativist group, should “stand back and stand by” as the election approaches.
Stewart rhodes was living his vision of the future. On television, American cities were burning, while on the internet, rumors warned that antifa bands were coming to terrorize the suburbs. Rhodes was driving around South Texas, getting ready for them. He answered his phone. “Let’s not fuck around,” he said. “We’ve descended into civil war.”
It was a Friday evening in June. Rhodes, 55, is a stocky man with a gray buzz cut, a wardrobe of tactical-casual attire, and a black eye patch. With him in his pickup were a pistol and a dusty black hat with the gold logo of the Oath Keepers, a militant group that has drawn in thousands of people from the military and law-enforcement communities.
Rhodes had been talking about civil war since he founded the Oath Keepers, in 2009. But now more people were listening. And whereas Rhodes had once cast himself as a revolutionary in waiting, he now saw his role as defending the president. He had put out a call for his followers to protect the country against what he was calling an “insurrection.” The unrest, he told me, was the latest attempt to undermine Donald Trump.
Over the summer, Rhodes’s warnings of conflict only grew louder. In August, when a teenager was charged with shooting and killing two people at protests over police brutality in Kenosha, Wisconsin, Rhodes called him “a Hero, a Patriot” on Twitter. And when a Trump supporter was killed later that week in Portland, Oregon, Rhodes declared that there was no going back. “Civil war is here, right now,” he wrote, before being banned from the platform for inciting violence.
By then, I’d spent months interviewing current and former Oath Keepers, attempting to determine whether they would really take part in violence. Many of their worst fears had been realized in quick succession: government lockdowns, riots, a movement to abolish police, and leftist groups arming themselves and seizing part of a city. They saw all of it as a precursor to the 2020 election.
As Trump spent the year warning about voter fraud, the Oath Keepers were listening. What would happen, I wondered, if Trump lost, said the election had been stolen, and refused to concede? Or the flip side: What if he won and his opponents poured into the streets in protest? The U.S. was already seeing a surge in political violence, and in August the FBI put out a bulletin that warned of a possible escalation heading into the election. How much worse would things get if trained professionals took up arms?
I’d been asking a version of these questions since 2017, when I met a researcher from the Southern Poverty Law Center who told me about Rhodes and the Oath Keepers. She’d received a leaked database with information about the group, and she said it might contain some answers.
Rhodes was a little-known libertarian blogger when he launched the Oath Keepers in early 2009. It was a moment of anxiety on the American right: As the Great Recession raged, protesters met the new president with accusations of socialism and tyranny. “The greatest threats to our liberty do not come from without,” Rhodes wrote online, “but from within.” Republicans had spent eight years amassing power in an executive branch now occupied by Barack Obama. The time for politics was ending. “Our would-be slave masters are greatly underestimating the resolve and military capability of the people,” Rhodes wrote.