In September of 2021, a nonprofit journalism group called Distributed Denial of Secrets published a leaked database from the Oath Keepers, a far-right antigovernment group.
The database was a kind of roster – more than 38,000 names of alleged members of the group. Texas had the most names on the list, with 3,300.
According to a recent analysis by the Anti-Defamation League, some of those members include elected officials, law enforcement, and members of the military.
Sam Jackson, the author of “Oath Keepers: Patriotism and the Edge of Violence in a Right-Wing Antigovernment Group,” and an assistant professor at the University at Albany, spoke to the Texas Standard about the group’s growth and ideology.
This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity:
Texas Standard: First, tell us a few details about the specific ideology of the Oath Keepers. What distinguishes them from other far-right groups?
Sam Jackson: So Oath Keepers is a group that formed in 2009. And since their launch, the primary idea at the center of the organization is this perception that government is tyrannical and is, in fact, the greatest threat faced by everyday Americans, and that those Americans that the group sees as good, patriotic Americans need to be ready to push back against that tyrannical government.
Now, the big thing that separates them from other far-right groups is a lot of far-right groups organize around some sort of perceived racial identity; they think that the white race is threatened by minorities, for example. For Oath Keepers, race is never explicit. For them, it’s not about race, identity or race conflict. It’s really about perceived tyranny from the government.
The Anti-Defamation League says it’s identified eight elected officials in Texas who were named in this Oath Keeper membership leak, as well as 33 members of law enforcement and 10 people in the military. Does that sound about right to you, based on what you know about the organization?
Yeah, those numbers aren’t particularly surprising to me. Oath Keepers, since its launch, has sometimes encouraged its members to get involved in local government, for example. The one piece of caution I would say is that the list is a list of anyone who’s ever been a member of Oath Keepers at any time, not a list of the current membership at any one particular time. So that number, that 3,300 number [of Texas members], that doesn’t mean you’ll have 3,300 active Oath Keepers now.
What is the significance of having Oath Keepers in these kinds of roles? I think that a lot of people would be alarmed about public safety, about the the intersection of ideology and public duty and service.
I think it’s really, really troubling and unsettling. Oath Keepers have a very particular and not necessarily common way of understanding the law, American politics, all of these types of things. And one of the many things that they say over and over again is, for example, sheriffs are the highest legal authority within their jurisdiction and have the ability to tell agents of the FBI, let’s say, that they’re not allowed to execute court orders within their counties. I think it’s really problematic for us to have members of law enforcement, elected officials, who are willing to sort of see American politics that way, in a way that most of us don’t see it, and to really have the force of law behind that vastly different take on American politics.
What about police departments and the military? Are they trying to intervene with members who’ve been identified as Oath Keepers?
I think there’s some variation. I think we see some agencies who are taking action, who see this as a problem. We see other agencies, though, who are leaning into it. So in some places, we’ve seen, let’s say, sheriffs who have been identified really double down and say there’s nothing wrong with this group, I still support this group, those sorts of things.