The Oath Keepers trial, in which senior leaders of the right-wing extremist group are accused of plotting violence at the January 6 insurrection, began Monday in federal court in Washington, D.C. Prosecutors played a secret audio recording Tuesday of a meeting held by the Oath Keepers after the 2020 election in which founder Stewart Rhodes discussed plans to bring weapons to the capital to help then-President Trump stay in office. We speak to Arie Perliger, author of “American Zealots,” who says the Trump administration lended extremist groups legitimacy and access to a more mainstream audience. “For them, that was a disastrous situation, losing this kind of access,” says Perliger.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González, as we turn to the seditious conspiracy trial of the Oath Keepers founder Stewart Rhodes and four other members of the far-right group, underway in Washington, D.C.
On Tuesday, prosecutors played for the jury an audio recording of a meeting held by the Oath Keepers after the 2020 election where Rhodes talked about bringing weapons to Washington, D.C., to help Donald Trump stay in power. In the recording, Rhodes is heard saying, “We’re not getting out of this without a fight. There’s going to be a fight.” Rhodes also talked about keeping some members of the group outside the city who could provide backup support. He’s heard saying, quote, “I do want some Oath Keepers to stay on the outside and to stay fully armed and prepared to go in if they have to.”
During opening arguments, Assistant U.S. Attorney Jeffrey Nestler said, quote, “Their goal was to stop, by whatever means necessary, the lawful transfer of presidential power, including by taking up arms against the United States government. They concocted a plan for armed rebellion to shatter a bedrock of American democracy.”
For more, we’re joined by Arie Perliger, a professor and director of Security Studies at the University of Massachusetts Lowell, author of the book American Zealots: Inside Right-Wing Domestic Terrorism.
Welcome to Democracy Now!, Professor. If you can start off by talking about the significance of this seditious conspiracy trial of the Oath Keepers?
ARIE PERLIGER: Good morning, and thank you for inviting me.
So, I think one of the major objectives of this trial is really to expose those militant organizations and groups and movements that are really trying to undermine American democracy. And I think the trials provide in detail a lot of specifics about how they try to mobilize the poor, how they try to gather resources, how they were trying really to engage in actual plans to disrupt the transfer of power. And we’re talking about substantial groups. And one of the more concerning characteristics of those groups is their ability to recruit substantial numbers of military personnel, active-duty, former veterans, and as well as members of law enforcement.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Professor Perliger, I’m wondering if you could talk about how the Oath Keepers are distinct from the other either white supremacist or right-wing nationalist groups that have arisen. Could you tell us a little bit about their history and what makes them distinctive and particularly dangerous?
ARIE PERLIGER: I think what’s really distinguished the Oath Keepers from other movements is their focusing on the recruitment of law enforcement and military personnel. This is — provide them unique advantages. First of all, it provide them more legitimacy in the eyes of the general public. It allows them to present themselves as actual patriotic parts of the American public, and also to gain a lot of legitimacy from the public because they’re basically arguing that they’re representing people who actually sacrificed for the nation, for the country, people who actually risked their lives for the nation. So that’s one element, the fact that that allows them to gain a lot of legitimacy and a lot of public support.
The second advantage that this provides them is the access to operational knowledge, access to individuals who have experience in the exercise of violence, that have experience in military operations. So, it provides them both very strong legitimacy as well as access to a lot of operational and logistical resources that many of the other groups do not have. And this is something that really characterized the Oath Keepers since their foundations in 2008, ’09, when they really focused on the recruitment of individuals from law enforcement and the military.
And I’ll just say that in the initial phases of the organization, they really represented themselves as more as a benevolent, patriotic organization that is mainly focusing on protecting constitutional rights rather than some kind of a conspiratorial, anti-government organization. Throughout the years, and especially after the election of President Trump, we see this ongoing, gradual adoptions of conspiracy theory, of more militant and extremist views and narratives, as well as a more significant collaboration with other organizations and groups on the far right.
AMY GOODMAN: I want to ask you about the leader, Stewart Rhodes, trained at Yale, speaking on conspiracy theorist Alex Jones’ show. This is back November 10th, 2020, just after the election, almost two months before January 6th.
STEWART RHODES: We have been already stationed outside D.C. as a nuclear option. In case they attempt to remove the president illegally, we will step in and stop it. … So, I’ve got good men on the ground already. We’ve been — did a little recon there last week, and we’re sorting out where we’re going to be staging. And we’ll be there. We’ll be inside D.C. We’ll also be on the outside of D.C., armed, prepared to go in, if the president calls us out.
AMY GOODMAN: So, that’s Stewart Rhodes. Arie, if you can tell us more about him, the man who founded the Oath Keepers, where he’s standing in this seditious conspiracy trial? He founded the group. After Biden’s election, he wrote in an encrypted message, “We aren’t getting through this without a civil war.”
ARIE PERLIGER: Yeah, I think it’s really important to understand why it’s so crucial for them, basically, to maintain Trump at the center of the political landscape, why they were so insistent on keeping Trump in power. President Trump provided them access to the mainstream political discourse. Right? A lot of their sentiments, a lot of their ideological views, a lot of their ideas finally were able to penetrate the mainstream political discourse through Trump and his administration. So, in many ways, they saw Trump as a platform, as a tool that allowed them basically to gain access into the government, into the mainstream political discourse, and to enhance their legitimacy. You know, for years, they were basically kept out. But, you know, when Trump was elected, finally they were able really to gain access to a much larger audience, much larger public, and to gain support from some elements within the government.
So, for them, losing this was something that they were not even willing to consider. For them, that was a disastrous situation of losing this kind of access. And for them also, it was very clear that — at least they believe that they have significant support, significant constituency that will support them in their efforts to prevent the certification of the election results.
I will just say that anyone who was listening to the discourse, to the language, to the vocabulary of those groups prior to January 6th knew that this is something that will — is very likely to happen. You know, I think one of the major failures of January 6th is the fact that they talked very openly about their intention to use actual violence and resistance in order to prevent the transition of power. So there was no real surprise, if you just listened to the discourse of those groups.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And could you talk about the relationship between the Oath Keepers, if any, and other right-wing extremist groups, whether that’s skinheads or the KKK or the militias or the Three Percenters or the pro-life extremists? You’ve documented thousands of incidents of actual violence or terrorism over the past few years by these groups in the United States.
ARIE PERLIGER: I think the overlap, we’ve seen much more significantly in the last few years. You know, we can talk about the Unite the Right rally event in Charlottesville in 2017. We can talk about January 6th. I think because of the — because all of those groups really understood the benefits of keeping Trump in power, I think they really coalesced and were willing to collaborate more, at least on the logistical and the organizational level, in engaging in mutual initiatives and mutual event.
There is also — we have to be honest: There is a spillover of a lot of the rhetoric of white supremacy groups into what we define as the anti-government groups, such as the Three Percenters, such as the boogaloo movement, such as the Oath Keepers. So, we definitely see very strong nativist, sometimes racist, definitely this kind of language and vocabulary that penetrate and becoming more and more present in the language of those anti-government groups — that initially were very careful not to be perceived as part of the white supremacy movement. But eventually, and especially in the last few years, we do see this growing overlap. I won’t say that they are the same, but there’s definitely overlap, both in terms of their membership as well as in terms of their language.
AMY GOODMAN: I want to ask you about Oath Keeper Thomas Caldwell, also on trial, retired U.S. Navy intelligence officer from Virginia. When authorities searched his home, they found he kept a death list that included the name of a Georgia election official and their family member. Yet Caldwell has denied any violent intentions. This is Fox News’ Tucker Carlson interviewing Thomas Caldwell.
TUCKER CARLSON: So, this indictment — so, you’re pushing 70 or 100% military disabled. You spent a career in the Navy. This indictment paints you as the leader of a crack commando unit trying to stage a sort of D-Day invasion on the banks of the Potomac with what they describe as heavy weapons. … Were you planning — what kind of heavy weapons do you think that refers to? Were you planning to do that?
THOMAS CALDWELL: I have no idea. And, no, I was not, Tucker. Look, I was a Navy guy. OK? Now —
TUCKER CARLSON: Right.
THOMAS CALDWELL: Navy guys do know about water, but it’s like aircraft carriers. You know, we’re talking about blue water Navy here. So, this other stuff, I don’t know anything about, didn’t have any role in planning any of it. It’s just more hooey.
AMY GOODMAN: So, that’s Thomas Caldwell. He, along with Kenneth Harrelson, Jessica Watkins, Kelly Meggs and Stewart Rhodes, are on trial for seditious conspiracy. If you can respond to what he says, his connection to the military, and other Oath Keepers and how connected to police and military they are?
ARIE PERLIGER: So, it’s difficult to say. We do know that the Oath Keepers had significant penetrations into police organizations, police agencies, law enforcement agencies. It’s very difficult. And now there’s multiple efforts to do more research and to collect more data about this.
I’ll just say, in terms of the specific effort and attempt to engage in assassination of political figures, this is really something which is fairly new and really concerning, if you’re looking at the new tactics adopted by far-right groups. The far right, in general, for most of the time, was not aiming to assassinate or to focus on specific political figures. Killing political leaders was never really part of their arsenal of tactics. But this is something that dramatically changed in the last four or five years. We’ve seen that in the exposure of the plots to kidnap and assassinate Michigan’s governor, Gretchen Whitmer. We see that in some other cases. It seems that the increasing personal nature of our political discourse really drives more and more groups on the far right to focus on specific political figures and try to target them or to try to target political institutions. We’ve seen that even during January 6th. A lot of the language of the protesters, of the rioters, of the insurrectionists was focused on specific figures, such as Nancy Pelosi and others. So, I think this is something that we really need to look into, this growing focus on attacking, targeting specific political leaders. And what we see right now in the case that you just presented to the audience, we see another manifestation of this growing trend of focusing on political figures, rival political figures, and see them as legitimate targets.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: I wanted to ask you — we only have about a minute left. But a lot of this has happened, actually, in the open, which we should be thankful for because it’s easier to trace, whether it’s on social media or their communications through texts and other means. But you’ve expressed concern about these militias and cells and loose networks going underground, which would make it a lot harder to be able to identify them and ferret them out.
ARIE PERLIGER: Yes, I think we have a tendency to focus on the more visible groups — the Oath Keepers, the Three Percenters. But the far right also is composed from dozens, if not hundreds, of local organizations, local associations, that are devoted, that are promoting such ideology, and many of those groups, especially considering the recent developments, can become more frustrated, more angry, more hopeless, and they may resort to more violent campaigns, violent operations.
You know, so, I don’t think we need to see January 6th as a representation of future threats or future scenarios. I actually think that January 6th is something that is actually easy to counter. I think that law enforcement, the intelligence services now are capable to prevent another January 6th, and they’ll be able to do that. The main challenge is looking at all those original local associations that may decide to engage in their own actions and their own activities. And naturally, local law enforcements have less resources, have less — in many cases, have less access to intelligence. And those are the ones who are vulnerable. So, local government institutions, local politicians are my main concern, if I’m trying to sense what are — how the future trends of violence will look like.
AMY GOODMAN: Arie Perliger, we want to thank you very much for being with us, professor and director of Security Studies at the University of Massachusetts Lowell, author of American Zealots: Inside Right-Wing Domestic Terrorism.
And that does it for our show. I’ll be speaking tonight at Penn State Harrisburg at 7:00. Tomorrow, October 6, I’ll be speaking at Brown University at 4:00. You can check our website at democracynow.org for details.
We have two full-time job openings. Check the website. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.