A far-right extremism expert on the conviction of Oath Keepers founder Stewart Rhodes
ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
One of the most high-profile prosecutions connected to the January 6 insurrection ended in a win for the government and a blow to the Oath Keepers. They're the far-right extremist group that helped organize the attack on Congress. The militia's founder, Stewart Rhodes, was convicted of seditious conspiracy. So was the head of the Oath Keepers' Florida chapter. Other members of the group were convicted of lesser charges.
University of Albany professor Sam Jackson studies far-right extremism in the U.S., and he's here to explain what this verdict means for the group and others like it. Thanks for joining us.
SAM JACKSON: Thanks for having me.
SHAPIRO: This is the most serious crime anybody has been convicted of in the January 6 cases - seditious conspiracy. Stewart Rhodes might spend years behind bars. What is the group likely to do if it no longer has him as a leader?
JACKSON: I think that the group is in some ways in a period of transition and has been since shortly after the insurrection in part because so many members of the group were facing criminal charges and also just because of the massive amount of public as well as law enforcement attention on the group. We saw different members of the group step up to be the so-called interim president in place of Rhodes for a while before his trial actually started. So I think the group is going to have to do some work to figure out who's going to run the day-to-day operations. And that's assuming that the group even continues. I think it's very possible that the group might decide that there's too much baggage associated with its name and with its brand now and that it just makes more sense to fold and move on to other organizations.
SHAPIRO: OK. If we imagine that that happens, that the Oath Keepers as a group sort of dissolves, do other groups pick up the slack? I mean, it's an imperfect analogy, but I'm thinking of when the U.S. focused on fighting al-Qaida, suddenly a group calling itself the Islamic State took over huge swaths of territory. Is there a risk that the violence and anti-democratic belief people channeled into the Oath Keepers just goes into another group?
JACKSON: That's actually a dynamic that we've seen over the past couple of years and even decade plus. Oath Keepers is only one organization in this broader movement that I refer to as the patriot/militia movement. But there are so many different groups in this space that individuals can choose to associate with. And honestly, there's not even a huge difference between some of these groups. So even if Oath Keepers collapses tomorrow, I'm not convinced that that changes the landscape of anti-government extremism in the U.S.
SHAPIRO: You've said that the Oath Keepers - and this is a quote - "weaponized patriotism in an effort to subvert American democracy" and that that didn't start or end with the insurrection. So with Trump out of office, what has that effort looked like more recently?
JACKSON: I think, especially if we zoom out not just to Oath Keepers but also other organizations, we've seen a lot of a continued narrative about electoral illegitimacy or alleged electoral fraud. We saw that around the 2020 presidential election. We saw some of it around the 2022 midterms. I think that's been a real area of focus for anti-government extremists in America for the past few years.
SHAPIRO: Is there any risk that prosecutions like this one become a recruitment tool; that all of the attention these groups are getting not only from the media but also from federal prosecutors ends up providing them oxygen?
JACKSON: There is certainly a risk of that, although I think with Oath Keepers, they in particular have had so much public attention over the past few years that the increase in that due to these prosecutions is probably pretty marginal. And I guess I also hope that the message sent by getting a conviction on a seditious conspiracy charge might actually discourage some would-be supporters. I don't think it will necessarily do anything to people who already know about Oath Keepers and already consider themselves to be like-minded, but someone who's maybe never heard of the organization before and maybe might have been persuadable by the Oath Keepers rhetoric about patriotism and about being pro-constitution, well, now they have to compete with this alternative narrative that the group is actually engaged in sedition, has been engaged in sedition. So perhaps that could be some degree of discouragement for potential supporters.
SHAPIRO: Sam Jackson of the University of Albany is the author of "Oath Keepers: Patriotism And The Edge Of Violence In A Right-Wing Antigovernment Group." Thank you for talking with us today.
JACKSON: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.