The Prospect of Prison Time Spoils Far-Right Fantasies

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

Members of the Oath Keepers, some in tactical gear, on January 6, 2021
Mark Peterson / Redux

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.

If leaders have to answer for the violence they inspire, they will have a harder time gaining traction in the future. Since the beginning of the Trump era, far-right groups have recruited new members with fantasies of armed conflict; adherents are convinced that they can be on the winning side of history. Rhodes, a Yale Law School graduate, floundered for years until the Oath Keepers found kinship with the Trump movement and with Trump himself, who flirted with extremist groups before fully embracing them after his election loss. This week’s verdict further dispels the idea that the Oath Keepers are winners in any way. Every criminal conviction of figures implicated in the January 6 attack at any level—even on the misdemeanor charges facing some rank-and file rioters—helps discourage would-be recruits from seeing militia groups as a path to glory.

Although the jury likely did not debate the intricacies of how violence works, Rhodes’s conviction is a condemnation of stochastic terrorism—a technique the Oath Keepers share with the Islamic State. Leaders of such groups incite their followers in ways that make bloodshed all but inevitable, even if the specifics of how the violence will play out are unknowable beforehand.

In recent weeks, right-wing commentators have criticized the very notion of stochastic terrorism, treating it as just another broad accusation that Trump’s political opponents level against the former president and his supporters. Yet Rhodes’s trial points to a highly specific way in which some groups incite and normalize violence. They have used tools of intimidation, such as wearing military costumes and brandishing weapons, to achieve political goals—while also acting like what they’re doing is no big deal. Casual threats of civil war, when coupled with the means to wage it, are no longer casual. The standard for criminal conviction for promoting violence is justifiably high, but some leaders of some groups act egregiously enough to reach it.

Rhodes’s jury made a statement for the future. Although a single criminal case will not deter all hate and violence, a series of similar verdicts could significantly hamper violent groups’ ability to organize. Fomenting a bloody riot isn’t a game, and it isn’t mere protest. Criminal prosecution will find you.