Photo: Attackers storm the capitol on Jan. 6. Credit: TapTheForwardAssist/Wikimedia Commons
The trial of Stewart Rhodes, the leader of the far right “Oath Keepers” paramilitary group, and four other senior members of the organization began today in Washington, D.C. They are faced with a litany of charges related to the Jan. 6 assault on the Capitol, the most serious being seditious conspiracy. This is the most high-profile prosecution yet related to the attack.
The Oath Keepers are an ultra-reactionary group of former and active duty members of the armed forces and police agencies. Rooted in far-right conspiracy theories about plots to infringe on “personal liberty,” the organization’s name is a reference to the oath taken by security forces to defend the constitution — the implication being that remaining faithful to this oath may mean waging war on the government. They are heavily armed and fanatical supporters of Donald Trump.
Prosecutors began to lay out a case today based in large part on the Oath Keepers’ internal communications showing how they made meticulous preparations for a decisive showdown on Jan. 6 that would involve Donald Trump seizing power and canceling the results of the 2020 election. They coordinated their actions as they entered the Capitol by force, hunting for top lawmakers. And they were prepared for a much more deadly confrontation — Oath Keepers assembled a cache of weapons and ammunition just across the border in Virginia that could be rushed to the scene if a firefight broke out.
Without a doubt, Rhodes and the Oath Keepers are avowed enemies of workers and oppressed people who clearly broke the law. But it would be a travesty of justice if this is the climactic moment of the inquiry into the Jan. 6 attack, an event that allows prosecutors to declare “mission accomplished” and end efforts to hold perpetrators to account.
The Oath Keepers were not able to breach all by themselves one of the most high-profile centers of the U.S. government at a time when hundreds of the most powerful members of the political elite were gathered, even as part of a much larger mob. What proved decisive on Jan. 6 was that the Capitol was so lightly guarded. The right wingers planned their attack in the open, clearly declaring online that they intended to use violence. And yet repeated and increasingly frantic requests to deploy the National Guard were refused by Trump’s newly-installed acting Secretary of Defense. At some points around the Capitol, police officers seemed uninterested in putting up serious resistance to the mob. And there were many reports of right-wing members of Congress giving “reconnaissance tours” of the building ahead of the attack.
A full and aggressive investigation into the military and police hierarchy to get to the bottom of this has yet to take place. But there is no mystery as to who was at the top of the political command of the assault. Donald Trump and a close circle of ruling-class political allies devised and implemented a strategy to falsely claim that the election was stolen, convince a large section of the population that this was true and leverage this pressure to overturn the vote. This grouping was actively exploring the possibility of declaring martial law so that Trump could remain in power.
In fact, this will reportedly form the basis of the Oath Keepers’ defense in court. The defense plans to argue that preparations made for armed combat were legal because they were only to be used in the event that Trump invoked the Insurrection Act — a law that would allow him to mobilize state militias to put down an effort to overthrow the government, which in this case would be the fictional “vote rigging” the right wingers say took place in the 2020 election. Their other activities, the Oath Keepers argue, were in essence constitutionally protected efforts to lobby Trump to use the powers they say the Insurrection Act grants him.
This approach was chosen after the judge in the case prohibited defense lawyers from making a much broader “public authority” argument in which they would contend that the Oath Keepers’ entire operation was done at the direction of Donald Trump using his lawful authority as president.
But up until now, Trump and his top accomplices have enjoyed immunity from the capitalist state. Because authorities have waited now for nearly two years rather than taking decisive action in the immediate aftermath of the assault, they have made it much easier for the figures involved to portray themselves as victims of persecution at the hands of a politicized justice system. Ultimately, it will remain up to the masses of working-class people who reject the ultra reactionary agenda of the far right to mobilize and put a stop to this menace.