How Oath Keepers Leader Stewart Rhodes Became a ‘Brownshirt for Trump’

Gun Rights

Tasha Adams’ husband called her in a panic. It was December 1998, just six months after they moved from Las Vegas to outside the D.C. Beltway so that her husband could take a job answering donor mail for Rep. Ron Paul, the libertarian Republican from Texas.

Adams says her husband told her he needed “to delete his porn history before the IT guy came in.”

He snuck Adams into Paul’s congressional office as she held their 1-year-old son, “waddling because I was eight months pregnant.” She deleted his porn history, “line by line, hundreds of sites”—even though server logs would have retained a record of any X-rated surfing. Shortly after the cleanup operation, Adams’ husband left his job with no explanation. “It was so quick,” she says.

It was shocking, chaotic, self-destructive behavior—and an episode emblematic of life with her now ex-husband, Elmer Stewart Rhodes, the founder and leader of the Oath Keepers militia.

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Rhodes is currently on trial on charges of seditious conspiracy related to the Jan. 6 Capitol insurrection. Facing a potential 20-year sentence, he is accused by the government of being a ringleader in the attempt to stop the legal transfer of power to President Joe Biden.

James Lee Bright, a lawyer for Rhodes, told the Associated Press the defense will be centered on Trump. They will argue Rhodes’ actions on Jan. 6 were fully legal, amounting to “actually lobbying and preparation for the President to utilize” the Insurrection Act.

Adams, however, claims Rhodes’ alleged attempt to overthrow the government was motivated by hopes of being pardoned by Trump for his past misdeeds as head of the Oath Keepers.

In response to allegations made by Adams, Bright responded by email, “We have no comment on the salacious comments that she made.”

Adams is not surprised Rhodes is in the dock. Speaking to The Daily Beast by video from her Montana home, Adams says Rhodes is “brilliant”—a graduate of Yale Law School—but also “a master manipulator, a cult leader like Donald Trump.” And, she adds, he’s “prone to conspiracism and delusions that he would do great and important things.”

These qualities made Rhodes a conservative star after founding the Oath Keepers in 2009. Even as hundreds of extremist groups and militias hatched from the white backlash to President Barack Obama, the Oath Keepers had uniquely broad appeal.

Photo Illustrations by Luis G. Rendon/The Daily Beast/Reuters

Rhodes was savvy. He branded the group as non-partisan, not a militia, and claimed their oath was in defense of the Constitution—which paid off when the group inducted new members at more than 30 Tea Party rallies on July 4, 2009. A former army paratrooper who was discharged in 1986 after breaking his back in a night parachuting accident, Rhodes gave the Oath Keepers an air of exclusivity and gravitas by limiting full membership to active and retired police, military, and firefighters. And he found a friend and powerful amplifier in the conspiracy peddler Alex Jones, making dozens of appearances on Infowars.

Rhodes, who is part Mexican, made a show of being opposed to racism. This was unusual in the Patriot and militia movements as they are ideological descendants of Posse Comitatus, one of the most violent, white nationalist outfits in the last 50 years.

The same qualities led to Rhodes’ downfall. Under his leadership, the Oath Keepers became a heavily armed militia that consorted with white nationalists and sought to overthrow the constitutional order in service to Donald Trump.

In essence, Rhodes became everything he claimed to hate, devastated the people closest to him, and may have destroyed his own life in a mania of grandiose narcissism.

“King of the Apocalypse”

Adams says the mind games Rhodes played on her were similar to how he manipulated individual Oath Keepers.

“He uses people to get to his place in life,” says Adams.

From the time they started dating in 1991, when Adams was an 18-year-old ballroom dance instructor in Las Vegas, she was an easy mark for Rhodes. “I felt guilty about having a warm, loving childhood. Stewart was very intelligent and very assertive. I was looking for those things. But he also had control issues, jealousy issues. I thought I could fix him.”

Rhodes treated her like an ATM. Adams says he pressured her to turn over her college fund of $4,600 so he could buy a 1967 red Camaro convertible after totalling his own car. He pressured Adams to work as a cocktail waitress, where the uniforms “were G-strings and fishnet tights and everyone slaps you on the ass.” He later pushed her to become a topless stripper, and would grab money out of her hand when he picked her up. “I thought, ‘He’s acting like a pimp.’”

During the 1990s, Rhodes worked as a valet driver, an artist, and earned a bachelor’s degree in political science from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, graduating summa cum laude.

Under his leadership, the Oath Keepers became a heavily armed militia that consorted with white nationalists and sought to overthrow the constitutional order in service to Donald Trump.

He also mainlined right-wing paranoia. Rhodes believed “he was on a government list because he was a member of the NRA,” Adams says, adding that he also spoke of FEMA camps and the “New World Order.” He said the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing was “a government operation” and watched TV shows about “black helicopters” supposedly surveilling the Patriot movement as a prelude to rounding them up and interning them in camps.

Rhodes was hired by Paul’s office after writing “a long, impassioned letter of how Paul inspired him,” despite not knowing who he was until he googled him, says Adams.

While in D.C., Rhodes fell further down the rabbit hole. He met Gary North—a writer on free market economics and Christian Reconstructionism—in Paul’s office. North warned him about the coming Y2K disaster, predicting the global economy would crash at the stroke of midnight of the year 2000, as computers couldn’t process the date change. Once he was back in Vegas, Rhodes spent the rest of 1999 preparing for the end of the world by buying a trailer and stuffing it with “tons of food, clothing, weapons, fuel.”

When the world didn’t end, Rhodes moved the date. “Oh, the real Y2K is in two weeks,” Adams recalls her husband saying. “Then it’s ‘Y2K will be next year.’ It’s like QAnon. ‘The Storm’ will be in two weeks.” Adams says their children nicknamed him “King of the Apocalypse.”

Rhodes’ end-of-the-world visions led him to stockpile weapons, presaging his Jan. 6 siege mentality, according to Adams. (The government tallies about $40,000 Rhodes spent for guns, scopes, magazines, ammo, and accessories around the insurrection.)

But Rhodes’ defining moment of end-times paranoia came at Yale.

Benefiting from excellent grades at UNLV and an unorthodox background as a child of farmworkers, a disabled Army veteran, and older parent, he was accepted at both Harvard and Yale law schools, says Adams.

Photo Illustrations by Luis G. Rendon/The Daily Beast/Reuters

In 2004, he wrote an award-winning paper, “Solving the Puzzle of Enemy Combatant Status,” in which Rhodes argued the president’s ability “to designate any person on the planet an enemy combatant” was “a perpetual threat to our liberties” and national “suicide.” Adams claims Rhodes was writing about himself. “He didn’t want to be declared an enemy combatant.” From then on, she says, “Any weakness or emergency he was going to try something. He wanted to create violence and chaos.”

After graduating from Yale, Rhodes clerked for a judge on the Arizona Supreme Court, but he reportedly antagonized his boss by ranting against the Patriot Act and calling then-Vice President Dick Cheney a fascist.

His employment once again ended abruptly in 2005, a few months before its scheduled end, and Rhodes was adrift once more.

Addicted to Attention

Still searching for political purpose, Rhodes did unpaid legal work and sign-painting for Ron Paul’s 2008 presidential bid, says Adams. But after Paul’s quixotic bid didn’t pan out, Rhodes pivoted to the Oath Keepers as Plan B.

It was initially touted as an “ACLU for libertarians,” says Adams.

Rhodes credits an article he wrote in 2008 for inspiring the Oath Keepers. He imagined President “Herr Hitlery” Clinton declaring militias enemy combatants and sending the military “house to house to disarm the American people and ‘black-bag’ those on a list of ‘known terrorists,’ with orders to shoot all resisters.”

After the election of President Obama, Rhodes’ article went viral and was enthusiastically received by the new Tea Party movement. He held the first muster on April 19, 2009, with a mass swearing-in for the Oath Keepers at Lexington, Massachusetts, where the first shot was fired in the American Revolution exactly 234 years earlier. Their flamboyance, warning of a “looming second revolutionary war,” drew media attention.

Soon, Oath Keepers’ dues were rolling in, directly to Rhodes, says Adams, who “spent freely on custom weapons, expensive clothing, over a hundred pairs of shoes, hundred-dollar steak dinners at the Denver airport.” Adams also claims Rhodes dropped dues money “on hookers” and about $65,000 to sponsor Jeffrey Earnhardt in NASCAR races. Meanwhile, she and her six children ate “dehydrated apple slices and canned oatmeal.”

Not long after the Oath Keepers was launched, Chris Matthews said to Rhodes on-air that “people think you’re crazy.” But Rhodes was “addicted to the media attention,” from the likes of FOX News, MSNBC, and CNN, according to Adams. And yet, he was also “unhappy that he didn’t get enough attention or the coverage wasn’t to his liking.”

To get his fix, Rhodes gravitated further toward far-right extremism. He talked of the Oath Keepers becoming “one of the most significant militias in the country,” predicted “civil war,” and called on active-duty soldiers to revolt.

His journey raises the question: Why do so many self-professed libertarians turn Alt-Right (or Alt-Right adjacent)—such as Gavin McInnes, founder of the neo-facsist street gang known as the Proud Boys, Alt-Right founder Richard Spencer, “the crying Nazi” Christopher Cantwell, and the white nationalists Augustus Sol Invictus and Tim “Baked Alaska” Gionet?

It’s not incidental that the libertarian hero Ron Paul approved rudely racist newsletters in the 1990s published under his name. A former employee of Paul’s businesses told The Washington Post that “Paul and his associates decided in the late 1980s to try to increase sales by making the newsletters more provocative.” But, even if true, Paul also backed racist positions at odds with libertarianism such as opposition to the 1964 Civil Rights Act and demonizing undocumented immigrants.

His journey raises the question: Why do so many self-professed libertarians turn Alt-Right (or alt-right adjacent)…

Being deliberately provocative garners attention, but it puts you on the fringes with extremists. On the far left that means pro-authoritarian communist tankies and insurrectionary anarchists. On the far right, it means white nationalists and neo-Nazis.

Things Fall Apart

A confrontation in 2014 between Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy and federal officials was the beginning of Rhodes’ and the Oath Keepers’ downward spiral.

In April 2014, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) seized Bundy’s cattle after he racked up $1.2 million in unpaid grazing fees. In response, Bundy called for a “range war.” Among those answering the call were the Oath Keepers, led by Rhodes. After being surrounded by armed militiamen, BLM agents tucked tail and ran, emboldening far-right extremists.

But Rhodes became a laughing stock among his own far-right militia cohorts after he spread rumors that the feds were going to launch a drone strike on the Bundy ranch, leading to a tense standoff (with guns drawn) between Rhodes (and his fleeing Oath Keepers) and other militia members—who said the Oath Keepers should be shot in the back as deserters.

Photo Illustrations by Luis G. Rendon/The Daily Beast/Getty

Rhodes was devastated by the Bundy standoff. Adams says, “He couldn’t handle criticism from his own side. Stewart stopped bathing, stopped brushing his teeth, and would sleep for days at a time.” She adds that in 2011, “A survivalist dentist in Las Vegas gave him six huge bottles of hydrocodone. It could have been thousands of pills.” After the Bundy ranch, “He went through them in a year or two.”

Violence at home escalated after the Bundy standoff, which Adams told to Magistrate Judge Kimberly C. Priest Johnson this January after contacting her to petition against releasing Rhodes from pre-trial detention. She said Rhodes would “brandish firearms in the family home to control her behavior and…physically abuse his children under the guise of participating in ‘martial arts practice.’” Adams said he choked their daughter, Sequoia, and “her greatest fear” was that Rhodes “would murder Ms. Adams and the children before committing suicide.” The court denied Rhodes bail.

A Brownshirt for Trump

Trump’s election “thrilled” Rhodes because he believed the risk of prosecution over the Bundy standoff had diminished, says Adams.

However, Rhodes had little affection for Trump himself. In fact, he called him “a fascist.” Adams claims that when other Oath Keepers said, “We gotta support our president,” Stewart responded, “I’m not gonna turn into some Brownshirt for Trump.”

But the lure of attention in Trumpworld was too enticing. Rhodes joined Alt Right-led rumbles in Berkeley in 2017, outfitted in body armor, rallying besides white nationalists, and saying he would enjoy hitting anti-fascists.

Adams says the Oath Keepers’ board (a mostly powerless entity) voted against attending the protest, but Rhodes went anyway. “He wanted the attention. He was terribly jealous of Gavin McInnes. He wanted to be wherever the Proud Boys were.”

The “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville in August 2017 was “the beginning of the end for the Oath Keepers,” says Adams.

Members wanted to go, and Stewart endorsed the group’s participation, but later backed out because so many avowed white nationalists were planning to attend. “He put out a notice saying we will not be attending this event, don’t show up in Oath Keepers gear.” Some showed up in gear anyway.

Their presence at a riot where a neo-Nazi murdered Heather Heyer gave the Oath Keepers a reputation as “private police for white supremacists.”

It was “devastating to Stewart,” Adams says. “A huge part of his identity was running around claiming he was the greatest threat to white supremacy, and now his organization has contributed to this and he’s lumped in with them.”

Rhodes’ lawyers say, “We would agree that Mr. Rhodes was devastated by being lumped in with white nationalists in Charlottesville. He abhors racists.”

Adams and her children have had little contact with Rhodes since they left him in 2018. They had no idea of his involvement in the insurrection, but when Adams saw a stack of militia in camouflage penetrating the Capitol building she thought, “That’s Stewart.”

Adams says, “I don’t think Stewart saw the insurrection as a risk, but more as a path to glory and safety from arrest.” She believes Rhodes was banking on a pardon from Trump if he helped stop the transfer of power.

“He said he didn’t want to be a Brownshirt for Trump. In the end that’s exactly what he tried to do on Jan. 6, be a Brownshirt for Trump.”

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