A recent report found that 1,180 North Carolinians have been members of the Oath Keepers, a far-right group that was involved with the United States Capitol riot on Jan. 6, 2021.
North Carolina ranks No. 8 in the nation for Oath Keepers membership.
The Anti-Defamation League issued the report on Sept. 6, analyzing information published by the non-profit journalist collective Distributed Denial of Secrets last September. The information included the names of 38,000 Oath Keepers.
Three of the 1,180 members from North Carolina were elected officials.
N.C. Rep. Mike Clampitt (R-Haywood, Jackson, Swain) and Rep. Keith Kidwell (R-Beaufort, Craven) were on the list, as well as Jason Cornett, a member of the Watauga County Board of Education, said Alex Friedfeld, an investigative researcher at the ADL’s Center on Extremism.
The ADL's report also found that nine members of law enforcement, nine members of the military and one first responder in North Carolina were on the Oath Keepers' membership list.
Clampitt, Kidwell and Cornett did not respond to The Daily Tar Heel’s requests for comment by the time of publication.
Friedfeld said the cache of data included chats, emails and a database of the 38,000 individuals who signed up for and paid dues to the Oath Keepers between 2009 and 2018.
The presence of a name in the database means that at some point during that time period an individual paid money to the group, not necessarily that they are currently an active member, Friedfeld said.
“That's a goldmine,” he added. “You know, it is very rare to get your hands on an extremist group's membership roles.”
The Oath Keepers and extremism
The Oath Keepers was founded in 2009 by Elmer Stewart Rhodes. Today, it is one of the largest far-right anti-government groups in the United States, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center.
The group is most recently known for its involvement in the insurrection at the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.
Rachel Carroll Rivas, the interim deputy director of research, reporting and analysis for the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Intelligence Project, said the Oath Keepers are a hallmark example of the antigovernment militia movement in the United States.
This movement is characterized by conspiracy theories, animosity toward authority and fear of gun confiscation, Carroll Rivas said.
She added that many groups in the anti-government militia movement seek out members of the military and law enforcement because of their skills and standing in the community.
Carroll Rivas said the Oath Keepers’ attempts to recruit elected officials have been more successful compared to other groups in the movement.
She also said a common misunderstanding is that leaders of the movement are not smart, or that they are outsiders in their community.
Carroll Rivas said that having resided in Montana, where Rhodes lives, she had seen that he was a well-educated, charismatic and eloquent leader who was talented at pulling communities in.
“People needed to pull the veil back, take a little step back from what they were seeing on the face with the presentation that Elmer Stuart Rhodes was giving and read into his both nefarious intentions as well as the really harmful beliefs and activities he was proposing,” she said.
Sam Jackson, an assistant professor in the College of Emergency Preparedness, Homeland Security and Cybersecurity at the University at Albany, said he started researching in 2015 how the Oath Keepers made its goals and actions seem more reasonable by adjusting the way it portrayed itself to the American public.
“Oath Keepers has this challenge, like a lot of other extremist actors, of trying to get more support, of trying to get more buy-in from people who might not be immediately ready to say, 'yes, violence is a legitimate political tool,'” Jackson said.
Carroll Rivas said the Oath Keepers differ from other groups in the anti-government militia movement such as the Proud Boys, who recruit those more likely to accept the "extremist" label.
However, Friedfeld said the Oath Keepers are still seen as an extremist group.
“This is a group that has been extremists since 2009,” Friedfeld said. “They have never tried to hide what they were about and the fact that something within their message resonated with these people is really concerning.”
The Oath Keepers' image was affected by the events of Jan. 6, 2021.
“I will say that the organization wholesale has been nearly decimated by the accountability that they've been held to by the public, the media, law enforcement in Congress for what happened, and that includes in North Carolina,” Carroll Rivas said.
She said that since the Oath Keepers brand and organizing infrastructure has been damaged, it is unlikely they will be able to regroup effectively. Still, she said the militia movement is already changing its tactics, and she thinks it will recover eventually.
The ADL's report has raised questions about the legality of members of extremist anti-government groups serving in elected positions.
In Alaska, Rep. David Eastman (R-Wasilla) is facing a lawsuit. Jackson said the lawsuit is based on a part of the Alaskan State Constitution that prohibits anyone who holds membership in a group that advocates for or commits insurrection or treason from holding office.
Carroll Rivas said communities should be aware if their elected officials are in extremist groups that threaten democracy. She said the best method for communities to show what they want their leaders to represent is to vote.
“There is no silver bullet to dealing with extremism,” Friedfeld said. “It is going to take an all-society approach using lots of different tools at our disposal to do so.”
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