- The heads of both the Oath Keepers and the Proud Boys are now remanded on Jan. 6 conspiracy charges.
- Experts who monitor hate groups and militias say both groups continue to fundraise and recruit.
- While the Oath Keepers’ numbers are dwindling, the Proud Boys are on the rise, they say.
It’s been a rough year already for the Proud Boys and the Oath Keepers, America’s two largest far-right extremist groups.
Last month, the Oath Keepers’ eye-patch-wearing founder and leader, Elmer Stewart Rhodes III, was denied bail on January 6 seditious conspiracy charges.
And last week, Proud Boys leader Enrique Tarrio was dragged out of his Miami house in his underwear by federal agents on similar conspiracy charges; on Tuesday, a judge denied him bail, too.
But even with these A-listers of anti-government extremism locked up indefinitely — and with 25 members of the two groups arrested in total since the insurrection — experts who monitor militias and hate groups are not popping the champagne.
In fact, they say, the Proud Boys, the Oath Keepers and extremist groups in general continue to recruit and fundraise around the lie that former President Donald Trump won the 2020 election, along with other hard-right talking points.
These include voting “fraud” conspiracies, critical race theory, the Black Lives Matter movement, antifa, anti-Semitism and the idea that COVID-19 regulations are antithetical to individual “freedom.”
“It’s becoming more common to see people framing things in terms of imminent tyranny and rights being taken away. Seemingly ordinary Americans are speaking this way,” Alex Friedfeld, a researcher with the Anti-Defamation League, told Insider.
“When you take a policy disagreement and refer to it in terms of tyranny, all of a sudden the idea of using violence starts to seem plausible,” said Friedfeld.
As for the Proud Boys and Oath Keepers, “we can’t rule them out yet,” Friedfeld said.
Two very different groups
Often lumped together, the two groups are poles apart, Friedfeld and other experts say. Likewise, the arrests and public backlash that followed the insurrection have had radically different impacts.
Take first the Oath Keepers, a militia-styled vigilante group that recruits current and former members of the military and law enforcement and sees the current US government as illegitimate.
The group’s more mainstream members found the insurrection to be less than a good look, and so fled the group in droves after January 6, says Rachel Carroll Rivas, a senior research analyst for the Southern Poverty Law Center.
“They are elected officials, they are sheriffs, they are police, they are people who are interacting with the public, standing in front of podiums, and who have power in our communities,” Carroll Rivas said of the Oath Keepers’ rank and file.
“They are playing inside the political mainstream. So this crackdown by law enforcement, and the public scrutiny following January 6, has had a negative effect on them,” she said.
The Oath Keepers had 88 chapters at the end of 2020, Carroll Rivas said. One year after the insurrection, the number of chapters has dropped by more than half, to 39.
The arrest of 19 of their members, including their founder, Rhodes, 56, of Granary, Texas, has also been a tremendous blow, experts said. Rhodes is the only leader the 13-year-old group has known, and he has led with a general’s demand for discipline and obedience.
“Losing him is a big deal,” said the ADL’s Friedfeld. “He is a dominant force in the organization, and it creates a power vacuum at the top,” Friedfeld said, adding it is still not clear who is now running the Oath Keepers.
“There will be some organizational chaos as they deal with this,” Friedfeld predicted. “But that doesn’t mean they don’t continue to be a threat. They still engage in the same violent rhetoric about the need to take action” against the US government.
Proud Boys on the rise
In contrast to the Oath Keepers, with their top-down structure, the Proud Boys are a decentralized affiliation of local chapters, designated together by the FBI as an extremist group with ties to white nationalism.
And unlike the Oath Keepers, the Proud Boys’ membership appears to be growing rapidly, with a robust presence on social media and public chat platforms such as Telegram, experts say, despite Tarrio’s arrest and the public backlash against January 6.
Tarrio, in fact, had largely stopped mattering to the group soon after the riot, thanks to a Reuters story that revealed he had been a “prolific” FBI informer in Miami ten years ago.
“I don’t think Tarrio facing these charges will have any impact on the group” and its mission to fight “the left,” which members see as “debasing the United States,” said Cassie Miller, another senior research analyst at the SPLC.
In the year since the insurrection, the number of Proud Boys chapters has grown significantly, from 43 to 72, she said.
“This is a group that is going to be active over the next year, especially as we get toward the midterms,” Miller predicted. “I think they are going to continue to act as the foot soldiers of the far right movement, and they’re going to continue to try to intimidate the people they think of as their political enemies.”
The Proud Boys “are much more dangerous at this point than the Oath Keepers, because of their policy of decentralization, which will allow them to better weather this moment of time,” agreed Friedfeld of the ADL.
“We continue to see the Proud Boys engaging in street violence and attending school board events, and town council meetings,” Friedfeld added. “There’s less of a focus on national optics. They can be engaging in more extreme behavior because they are no longer thinking about what the national organization would think.”
What the future holds
As an FBI agent in the 199os, Michael German infiltrated neo-Nazi and white supremacist groups.
He told Insider that violent, far-right groups have been a continuing presence in the United States since the Jim Crow era — but what’s varied more through the decades is the reaction of law enforcement.
Notoriously, the Ku Klux Klan had law enforcement allies; by the time German was working for the FBI, the most extreme groups kept their swastikas and Nazi flags hidden while looking for recruits, and began attaching themselves to more mainstream movements.
“They would recruit among the more militant members of the anti-abortion, anti-immigration and anti-gun control groups, and then indoctrinate them afterwards,” German told Insider. “Law enforcement would make sure they didn’t cross the line into violence.”
But by the Trump administration, “what I began to call ‘pro-government militias’ again had the cooperation of local police, who allowed them to commit violence at protests, and actually fist-bumped them on the way out,” he said.
German, now a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice, agrees with those who see violent anti-government groups growing.
Aside from the ongoing federal prosecution of January 6 insurrectionists, “the FBI still can’t tell you how many people white supremacists killed last year, because they don’t collect the data,” he said.
Almost all violent anti-government incidents are classified as hate crimes or gang-related crimes, he said, and deferred to state and local law enforcement to handle.
“It’s not going away, and we’re still not seeing law enforcement focusing on it in a way that would push the most violent elements back underground,” he said. “They’re deferred into a black hole.”