When President Donald Trump lobbed the threat of civil war on Twitter late last month, he became the first sitting president to ever hint at potential fratricide if he’s removed via impeachment – an implication as deafening as it was disgusting.
Stewart Rhodes, though, had a different take. For those unfamiliar, Rhodes is the gruff head of the Oath Keepers – a militia made up largely of current and former law enforcement officials and military veterans, perhaps best known for the all-white contingent it sent to provide “security” for a rally in Ferguson in 2015. Now, the Oath Keepers are calling for volunteers to protect Trump supporters—including at the president’s rally Thursday evening in Minnesota.
Rhodes has maintained a relatively low profile recently, as has the broader militia movement, which saw an unprecedented spike under the Obama administration. But that doesn’t mean America’s militia movement has gone dormant since its groups maintained an outsized presence at the deadly 2017 neo-Nazi rally in Charlottesville, claiming they were simply there to try and keep the peace.
While many militias have attempted since then to distance themselves from the overtly fascist movements populating the extreme right, they are looking at, and talking about, a civil war. “The thing that’s concerning to me right now is… this discussion of civil war,” Daryl Johnson, a former Department of Homeland Security official focused on monitoring the far-right, said last year.
“I am saying – and I guess you can call this a warning to the Republican senators – that you can’t go along with this crap,” Rhodes told me about impeachment last week on the phone, as he sat outside a Starbucks in rural Montana. “If you do, you’re going to open up this hornet’s nest. Because the voters, the supporters of Trump, will not accept it. They just won’t.”
To Rhodes, there’s a clear precedent for the current political moment: the eve of the lone Civil War the U.S. has yet known. On Twitter, Rhodes blared the comparison to his followers and detractors alike, writing, “We ARE on the verge of a HOT civil war. Like in 1859. That’s where we are.”
Thursday, he’ll be with the Oath Keepers in Minneapolis, where "We're only there to keep people from being assaulted," he told the Star Tribune. "We're not there to interrupt anyone's protest. We believe in free speech for everyone."
He demurred, though, when asked if group members would be armed, after the Minneapolis police chief asked demonstrators not to bring guns: "One thing we're not going to do is send a message… that we're unarmed."
Talking on the phone with me about Republicans and impeachment, he said that “I think a lot of them feel like they have no real recourse through government, and they would just not accept it, and march on DC.” He dismissed Mike Pence, who would become president should Trump leave before the end of his term, as “definitely a globalist.”
“There’s no better way to create a National Socialist or supposed right-wing dictatorship than to relentlessly attack and demonize half the country, and then make them feel like they have no choice but to crack down on you,” he said. “And that’s where we’re going.”
The group’s disinterest in the charges against Trump is a far cry from their posture just four years ago, when the “Oath Keepers were amongst those who were regularly accusing Obama of serious misconduct, and according to their telling, there was plenty of evidence out there, despite the fact that mainstream sources would regularly say that there’s no compelling evidence, or that this stuff is tenuous, or that it’s more complicated than [what the Oath Keepers were] depicting,” Sam Jackson, an assistant professor at the University of Albany and author of a forthcoming book on the Oath Keepers, told me.
But with Trump, it’s a completely different reality. There’s an “increasingly large pile of evidence that suggests [Trump’s] misconduct on any number of different things, and yet Rhodes seems to say that there’s no evidence that Trump has done anything wrong, that Democrats or the left or whatever language he used in that particular case are just inventing these charges because they want to undo this democratic decision of 2016,” Jackson added. “And it’s just astounding to me to see the conversation flip almost on its head from what it was under the Obama administration.”
Jackson, who’s followed and analyzed the Oath Keepers for years, noted that Rhodes’ comments reminded him of another recent statement from a separate militia figure: Bill Keebler, who pleaded guilty in 2016 to an attempted bombing of a federal building. As Keebler told OPB earlier this year, in the case of impeachment, “All bets are off.”
“It’s obvious what that means,” Jackson said. Rhodes, said Jackson, may be talking about “‘Oh, we’re going to march on Washington.’ But marching on Washington is probably going to have limited effect in a situation where the Senate actually votes to remove a president from office. So what does that mean? Are they going to stop there? Probably not.”