Eight years ago, Jason Van Tatenhove jumped into a truck in Kalispell, Montana with men he didn’t know and traveled through the night on Interstate 15 in an effort to document the fallout from the Bundy Ranch showdown.
The truck made just a handful of stops, including to pick up ammunition and food, as it descended the Rockies west toward the southern tip of Nevada.
The men Van Tatenhove was with were members of the Oath Keepers, a nationwide anti-government militia traveling to support the Bundy family as they refused to pay the pasture fees they owed to the United States Bureau of Land Management.
The longtime Colorado resident and former owner of the Fort Collins tattoo shop had moved to Montana less than a year prior and thought joining the Oath Keepers would be an opportunity to do immersive journalism like his idol. , Hunter S. Thompson, who integrated with outlaw motorcycle gangs. for his first non-fiction book. Instead of the Hell’s Angels, he would join the burgeoning militia group as it garnered national attention in a series of confrontations with the federal government and pivoted to conspiracy-fueled extremism.
But a year later, Van Tatenhove was working full-time for the extremist group as a self-proclaimed propagandist. For $1,200 a month, he wrote blog posts for the Oath Keepers website, managed their social media, appeared in videos, and dealt with curious journalists.
“I had these big intentions that I was going to write my bestselling novel, but what happened was I just became a propagandist for them,” he said. “I failed that internal mission quite fantastically.”
He worked for the Oath Keepers for a year and a half between 2015 and 2016 and said he saw the group grow from a loose network of people allegedly concerned about government overreach and constitutional rights to an organized extremist hate group. who spewed – and profited from – conspiracy theories and scare.
The Oath Keepers were founded in 2009 and gained attention and notoriety over the next decade providing armed “security” during clashes with the federal government and protests. Like many anti-government militia groups, one of the group’s main tenets is the conspiracy theory that the federal government is run by a secret organization trying to take away the rights of Americans, according to the Anti-Defamation League. .
The group is part of the wider milieu of extremist militias that have become increasingly prominent over the past decade, although the Oath Keepers differ in that they are specifically aimed at recruiting law enforcement and security forces. military personnel. The Anti-Defamation League estimates there are between 1,000 and 3,000 active Oath Keepers nationwide, though many more tune into their comms and loosely align themselves with the group.
“They frame things in terms of unconstitutionality because that makes them more reasonable,” said Alex Friedfeld, a researcher at the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism. “Their sense of what is and is not constitutional is not grounded in law and is distorted by conspiracy.”
Five years after Van Tatenhove severed ties with the group, its founder and several of its members have been charged with sedition for allegedly plotting to violently overturn the 2020 election results and participating in the January 6 attack on the US Capitol. After he appeared last month in a documentary about the attack, the US House Select Committee investigating Jan. 6 asked Van Tatenhove to tell them about the oath keepers.
In early March, the 47-year-old plans to travel to Washington, DC to speak to the committee and share what he knows. It is part of his penance for promoting the group’s propaganda, he said. Now he must speak out.
“I underestimated things,” he said. “I saw how they spun the optics and made themselves look much bigger than they were. I tended to underestimate them because I thought they would never get anywhere They’ve got this scam and they’ll keep scamming people and eventually they’ll run out of suckers to scam But, man, they’ve taken the Capitol by storm.
So how did an artist, father, and self-proclaimed punk end up as national media director for a far-right organization?
Travel with the Oathkeepers
Van Tatenhove moved to Fort Collins when he was 10 and grew up in the 1990s punk and art scene. He cut his teeth as a writer in underground music magazines.
He got married, had kids, and opened a tattoo shop in Fort Collins. In 2013 he closed the shop and moved his family to Butte, Montana. He and his family wanted to live in a more rural area and learn more about life on the land, he said.
It was then that he first heard of Stewart Rhodes, the founder of the Oath Keepers, speaking on InfoWars, the far-right founded website known for spreading misinformation and amplifying theories. of the plot. He agreed with some of Rhodes’ general ideas: the dangers of overreaching government, the need to question authority. When the Oath Keepers got involved in the Bundy Ranch standoff, it seemed like an opportunity to report back to the field and, like Thompson, to fit in with a fringe group.
After Nevada, he traveled to other hotspots where the Oath Keepers decided to tangle. He went to the Sugar Pine Mine standoff in Oregon and the White Hope Mine dispute in Montana. Van Tatenhove published his reporting on his website, broadcast live video streams, and aired an internet radio show on Revolution Radio.
During the White Hope Mine incident, Rhodes offered Van Tatenhove a writing job for the Oath Keepers. Van Tatenhove agreed.
The job was full time. Van Tatenhove woke up every morning, checked websites like Drudge Report to see what was in the news, and then wrote about the issues from the Oath Keeper perspective.
He also tried to keep his own point of view in his writings, which he said eventually led to friction between him and Rhodes. The first major dispute arose in 2015 when a Kentucky county clerk refused to issue marriage licenses for same-sex couples after the United States Supreme Court ruled that same-sex couples had the right to marry under the Constitution.
Van Tatenhove wrote an article stating that the US Constitution protects the rights of everyone equally, including homosexuals. But Rhodes rejected the job.
Other issues increasingly worried Van Tatenhove as the views of the oath keepers became increasingly extreme. He hated that Rhodes wanted staff and members to keep guns in their cars at all times. He grew concerned when Rhodes began associating with Richard Spencer, a white nationalist and neo-Nazi.
The organization’s leaders had no core beliefs, but rather responded to whatever beliefs would be easiest to fundraise, Van Tatenhove said. Often these were based on conspiracy theories.
“He’s going to take care of where the money is coming from,” Van Tatenhove said of Rhodes. “He knows his base, that’s where they are. It’s where he feeds his ego and has a steak dinner every night at Applebees.
But Van Tatenhove stuck to the job. The oath keepers had moved him and his family to a cabin outside of Eureka, a town of 1,600 people in northwest Montana. There were few other job opportunities there and he had a chronically ill wife and two daughters to care for. He felt trapped.
“So I stayed much longer than I should have,” he said.
The breaking point came in 2016 after Van Tatenhove overheard two of the Oathkeeper members in a delicatessen talking about how the Holocaust was a hoax. He quit and broke off contact with the band.
“He was always saying, ‘We’re not racist, we don’t care if you’re queer,'” Van Tatenhove said of Rhodes. “But what Stewart says and what he really believes are two different things. The man is really driven by money and a sense of power at this point.
Van Tatenhove is doing penance now.
After leaving the Oath Keepers, he worked in search and rescue and as an EMT, including with a fire crew. He moved back to Colorado with his family four years ago after inheriting a home in Estes Park.
“I tried to catch up with the propaganda that I spat out,” he said.
He returned to art, to writing novels, to journalism. After writing for the Estes Park Trail-Gazette, he started the Colorado Switchblade, a website covering Estes Park and Colorado news and culture.
He has written about workers’ struggles to afford housing in the mountain town, women’s rights activists, the need to tackle climate change.
“Look at what I’ve done since then – that’s what I really believe,” he said.
He hopes that by talking about the organization he can help people see that it is a scam and prevent them from joining the Oath Keepers.
“I have these moments of self-realization where I’m like, ‘(Expletive), I helped those guys, I helped spread the message,'” Van Tatenhove said. just with words, but I have to try to do something to try to make up for that in my own life.”
Rhodes, the founder of Oath Keepers, remains incarcerated while his criminal sedition case in connection with the January 6 uprising proceeds through federal court. His lawyers argued that Rhodes cooperated with FBI agents investigating the failed insurgency and that while Rhodes may have used “pompous language”, he had no intention of overthrowing the government, reported the Washington Post.
The Oathkeepers have been less publicly active since the insurgency, although the threat of criminal charges has not tempered their rhetoric, Friedfeld said. Their ability to appeal to a broad spectrum of Americans shows how deep conspiracy and distrust of government has permeated American society, which relies on faith in the democratic process to survive. The Oathkeepers have shown they are willing to use violence, or the threat of violence, to achieve their goals.
“It’s a big threat to society and the way we do things,” Friedfeld said.
The Oath Keepers’ rhetoric is the organization’s most powerful tool, Van Tatenhove said. The organization knows how to say the right thing to connect with people’s fears and worries. Rhetoric then translates into action.
“The world is a bit upside down and on fire right now and desperate people are doing desperate things,” he said. “Their words are like gasoline thrown on the fire. These words are more powerful than the weapons at their disposal.
“They’ve set up these powder kegs that are so ready to explode, we’re lucky to have seen so little bloodshed so far,” he said. “I think we’re out of luck.”