Analysis & Opinions - The Atlantic

The Prospect of Prison Time Spoils Far-Right Fantasies

| Dec. 02, 2022

Making extremist leaders answer for their actions will deter future violence.

Stewart Rhodes, the leader of the far-right Oath Keepers, faces a prison sentence for doing something on January 6, 2021, that he didn't specifically plan on doing. Along with a co-defendant, Kelly Meggs, Rhodes was found guilty this week of seditious conspiracy for the Oath Keepers' efforts to stop the peaceful transfer of power and keep President Donald Trump in the White House. Rhodes, who founded the Oath Keepers in 2009 and gained national prominence during the Trump presidency, was also acquitted of planning in advance to disrupt the certification of the election that day. These seemingly contradictory verdicts show something important: Insurrectionist leaders don't need to plot out acts of violence in minute detail to be held legally responsible for them, and the rioters who busted into the Capitol must not be the only people to incur criminal penalties.

This outcome is a victory for democratic norms. It upholds the idea that leaders of extremist groups should be held accountable for rousing their armed followers to violence—even when those leaders try to preserve a shred of plausible deniability.

Rhodes was present on the Capitol grounds, but he did not physically enter the building. His defense team contended that although the Oath Keepers leader wanted to keep Joe Biden from being declared the next president, the violence was largely spontaneous. Rhodes took the stand and testified that he hadn't ordered the attack. In an apparent effort to beat the conspiracy charge, a defense lawyer contended in his closing argument that "venting is not a meeting of the minds" and downplayed the Oath Keepers' activities as "horribly heated rhetoric and bombast."

The jury understood that Rhodes had every intention of disrupting the election certification even if the specifics were left somewhat to chance. He cannot claim innocence. When violence breaks out after your followers don military gear and carry weapons to the Capitol with the specific goal of keeping Trump in office, you can't avoid responsibility by pretending you didn't mean what you said.

Rhodes's fevered talk of keeping Trump in office via a "bloody civil war" means he wasn't an innocent bystander, even if he let his frenzied followers—many of whom now face criminal charges for rioting inside the Capitol—do the heavy lifting....

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Kayyem, Juliette.“The Prospect of Prison Time Spoils Far-Right Fantasies.” The Atlantic, December 2, 2022.

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