The Far Right Is Splintering

In his trial, the Oath Keepers leader Stewart Rhodes turned against other extremists.

Stewart Rhodes
Collin County Sheriff's Office / AP

As Judge Amit Mehta sentenced Stewart Rhodes yesterday to 18 years in prison—the longest yet for a defendant involved in the January 6 insurrection—he explained why the leader of the far-right group the Oath Keepers needed to be behind bars for a long time. “You pose an ongoing threat and peril to our democracy and the fabric of this country,” Mehta told Rhodes.

Mehta was right about that. At his sentencing, Rhodes was unrepentant. In a 20-minute speech before the court, he portrayed himself alternately as a character in Kafka’s The Trial; as an “American Solzhenitsyn,” after the Soviet dissident writer who was sent to the gulag; and as a misunderstood advocate for peace. This monologue was standard fare for Rhodes, a Yale Law School graduate who likes to align himself with literary heavyweights and historical leaders.

And yet Rhodes also unwittingly revealed deepening fissures in the far-right movement that, two years ago, resorted to violence to keep Donald Trump in the White House. The defendant used some of his time to distance himself from the Proud Boys, another extremist organization, with whom he had met in the days before the insurrection. “Unlike other groups like the Proud Boys, who seek conflict and seek to street-fight,” Rhodes explained, “we deter.” I’ve been misunderstood, he was telling the court; the Proud Boys are the ones you want.

Rhodes, it seems, is not entirely in sync with his radical brethren. A unified extremist front is a threat to our democracy—but the story is different when extremists start pointing fingers at one another in the criminal-justice system.

The rift between the Proud Boys and the Oath Keepers has been simmering for years, and it hasn’t kept them from collaborating in the past. In 2019, the two groups arrived in Portland, Oregon, to support far-right protests. Rhodes pulled his group, he later claimed, after learning that white nationalists were involved in the demonstrations. Enrique Tarrio, the leader of the Proud Boys, was outraged. Tarrio—who has also been found guilty of seditious conspiracy for January 6—and Rhodes remained at odds even as they coordinated efforts for the insurrection, including at a secret meeting in a parking garage the night before.

Both testified before the congressional committee investigating January 6 and spoke at length of the division between them. “I didn’t like Stewart Rhodes. I still don’t like Stewart Rhodes,” Tarrio told the panel. The Oath Keepers, Rhodes insisted, are “quiet professionals” who believe that Trump won a second term. The Proud Boys believe the same about Trump, Rhodes said, but are “sloppy” and have been infiltrated by racists.

Whether such distinctions are real matters less than the fact that the rift appears to be deepening. On January 6, a variety of groups put aside their differences, but solidarity is difficult to sustain. As prosecutions continue and participants in the insurrection try to save themselves, divisions within the far right over ideology and strategy—as well as conflicts driven by pure ego—are reasserting themselves.

Over time, mismanagement and general pettiness distract many extremist groups from their cause. Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State similarly devolved into catfights as they lost on battlefields. Rhodes, who imagines himself an intellectual, appears to feel tarnished by alliances with mere racists. That he would defend himself in court by complaining about the Proud Boys signals to would-be followers that he’s self-absorbed, not that he’s sacrificing himself for noble cause. An effective way to combat right-wing extremism is to put its leaders’ selfishness on display.

Violence, of course, clearly remains a threat to our democracy. The day before Rhodes was sentenced, the Department of Homeland Security warned of a “heightened threat environment” in the run-up to the 2024 presidential election. This week, a man carrying a Nazi flag and praising Hitler rammed his U-Haul into a security barrier protecting the White House.

Violent, noxious ideologies do not just vanish with a tough sentence. Success against them can’t be measured by whether bad people see the light, but whether they are able to expand their ranks. Raising money and organizing large-scale collective actions become more difficult if seemingly like-minded groups are at war with each other. Far-right groups make noise about left-wing conspiracies, but they are under attack from within their own cause.

Rhodes will have 18 years to contemplate the violence and stew in his resentment of the Proud Boys. In the meantime, let the infighting continue.