Politics

Where Far-Right Militias Trained for Jan. 6

A man with a yellow Don't Tread On Me snake flag draped on his back and Jason van Tatenhove during the January 6 hearings.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Matt Mills McKnight/Getty Images and Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images.

Tuesday’s Jan. 6 hearing focused on the link between the Trump White House and the far-right militia groups that participated in the Capitol riot, so it makes sense that a former member of one of those militias would testify.

Jason van Tatenhove, a former spokesman for the Oath Keepers—a group of self-appointed vigilantes who were instrumental in storming the Capitol—told the House committee that the actions of the group on Jan. 6 provided “a glimpse” of their vision. The group had actively hoped for (and trained for) the chance to participate in a violent insurrection like the kind staged in the waning days of Donald Trump’s presidency.

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Though van Tatenhove ended his affiliation with the group in 2018, his testimony this week was meant to underscore the serious threat that groups like the Oath Keepers pose for the U.S., as well as their capacity for violence in the next election cycle, especially if Trump is re-elected.

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But van Tatenhove’s testimony made another thing very clear: Far-right militia groups have, for years, used the Western United States as a testing ground for extremist violence, staging stand-offs on public land to amass followers and experiment with what they could get away with.

Van Tatenhove would know. Sitting before Congress in a Descendents T-shirt and jean jacket adorned with punk pins, the former Oath Keeper told the committee that his association with the group began back in 2014, when he arrived as an “independent journalist” at the Bundy Ranch standoff in the Nevada desert.* He was quickly sucked into the cause.

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The 2014 standoff was started by the rancher Cliven Bundy, a man who considered himself a member of the 1970s anti-federal lands Sagebrush Rebellion, and who had been vocal since the 1970s about his disdain for federal ownership of land.

For 20 years, Bundy had refused to pay the required fees to the federal Bureau of Land Management (BLM) that he owed for grazing his cattle on public land. So, in April 2014, the BLM attempted to round up Bundy’s cattle as a penalty for non-payment. It was a repossession: Bundy hadn’t paid his bills, and the government came to collect.

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But Bundy twisted the affair into something else entirely: taking to a right-wing YouTube livestreamer’s channel (someone who also positioned himself as an independent journalist), Bundy told a story of a rural family being attacked by a tyrannical government. He called for “We the People” to take a stand, and many people answered Bundy’s call. Supporters arrived from around the country — New Hampshire, Utah, Idaho, Montana, Arizona — and eventually outnumbered the federal officers. These supporters included the Oath Keepers founder Stewart Rhodes and members from chapters around the West, who seized the Bundy affair as an opportunity to promote their anti-government worldview. The feds found themselves surrounded: militiamen pointed sniper rifles at the small group of officers from overpasses. Eventually, the BLM let Bundy’s cattle go, and fled.

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It wasn’t just that standoff that attracted Oath Keepers and other far-right militia groups.

Far-right militias also showed up at Oregon’s Sugar Pine Mine and Montana’s White Hope Mine in 2015, and at the 41-day Malheur National Wildlife Refuge standoff helmed by Bundy’s sons in 2016. Van Tatenhove testified that these conflicts owed a lot to far-right propaganda; he himself was a propagandist who had called on “patriots” to fight tyranny at these standoffs.

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And for the most part, the anti-government movement got away with all of it: the trial over the affair at Bundy Ranch was tossed out by a federal judge over Brady violations committed by government prosecutors. In Oregon, the trial over the 41-day standoff at Oregon’s Malheur National Wildlife Refuge resulted in acquittals for Bundy’s sons and most of the main players. These resolutions emboldened the far-right — it had victories. In the past few years, Ammon Bundy — who was the main voice of the Malheur affair — founded a multi-state coalition out of Idaho called the People’s Rights Movement. It staged large-scale protests at hospitals and health board meetings over COVID restrictions across the west. Now he’s running for governor of Idaho.

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On Tuesday, Van Tatenhove gave a sobering warning. From his time within the organization, he said he knew first hand that the Oath Keepers want “to get their way through lies, through deceit, through intimidation, and through the perpetration of violence, the swaying of people who may not know better through lies and rhetoric and propaganda.”

He said that at all those western conflicts, “the potential for bloodshed … was always there.” It had only been luck that had kept more blood from being spilled.

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There was a time when van Tatenhove had been the one helping spread disinformation, and drum up fear. But on Tuesday, he struck a new tone: “I do fear for this next election cycle, because who knows what that might bring?” he said. If Trump was willing to align with groups that flirted with bloodshed so many times before, he said, “what else is he going to do if he gets elected again?”

“All bets are off at that point,” van Tatenhove said, “and that’s a scary notion.”

Correction, July 25, 2022: This piece originally misidentified the band the Descendents as the Descendants.

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