Throughout ideological contradictions and changing perception of events on the ground, the Oath Keepers’ messaging remained consistent around one key element: the existence of a deep-state plot against US President Trump.
By mid-April 2020, protests against government-imposed lockdowns began springing up across the United States. At their center was a pronounced distrust of the government and push-back against perceived intrusion of personal freedoms. However, as these anti-government protesters spoke out against federal and state level interventions, they simultaneously elevated the actions of the individual at the center: President Donald Trump. In this blog I explore the peculiar intersection between anti-government ideology and support for President Trump over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic. Specifically, I map the changing responses of the Oath Keepers to government intervention against their consistent narrative of deep-state actors utilizing COVID-19 to undermine Trump.
Initial stages of the COVID-19 crisis: Anti-Government for increased intervention?
Although classified as an anti-government group, the beginning of the COVID-19 crisis paradoxically saw Oath Keepers calling for increased government intervention at the state and federal levels. Indeed, Oath Keeper leadership supported shelter-in-place efforts as well as a complete shut-down of commercial air traffic (domestic and international), mass transportation, the closing of schools, and the suspending of public events. Further, they viewed lack of intervention as detrimental to US citizens, chastising Trump for not taking such actions as pre-emptively suspending air travel.
Not only did the Oath Keepers implore their members to self-quarantine, but they also called upon state governors to make these regulations official–declaring pandemics and requesting assistance from both state and national sources, including the US military. This latter step is particularly interesting for a group suspicious of federal government intervention. However, Oath Keeper leaders noted that participation by the military would allow Trump to be guided in pandemic decision-making by military personnel as opposed to “career bureaucrats”—global elites viewed with deep suspicion by the Oath Keepers–perhaps explaining their military support.
The government’s lack of response early on was cast as a malicious project of concealment by those in power. Specifically, Oath Keepers argued that it was part of a deep-state plot to undermine Trump. Although Trump was the actor publicly downplaying COVID-19, the Oath Keepers did not place the blame on him personally. Rather, they suggested Trump was ignoring the severity of the crisis due to the “terrible advice” he was receiving from deep state forces including the CDC and other globalists.
Early statements from the Oath Keepers’ leadership on their official website and Twitter feeds suggested that COVID-19 was a dangerous virus whose severity was beyond that which was being shared with the general public. Leaders supported medical professionals in their assessment of the crisis and called for government intervention at the state and federal level. Furthermore, they cited Trump’s inaction as proof of a deep state conspiracy in which the globalist elites were misleading Trump into downplaying the severity of the virus.
Mid-Way through: The Reality of COVID-19 Sets in
By the end of March/beginning of April, Oath Keepers spokespersons shifted from a call for increasing intervention to blasting the overreach of government officials. They viewed the globalist elites as opportunists, using the crisis to encroach upon the 2nd amendment right to bear arms and 1st amendment freedom of assembly. Although spokespersons had called for a ban on large assemblies in previous articles, the act of prolonged government intervention appeared to spark intense backlash.
Additionally, Oath Keepers leaders were suspicious of elites’ economic aims: suggesting required vaccinations and the disparagement of hydroxychloroquine for treating COVID-19 were ways in which the globalists could make money in the treatment of COVID-19.Oath Keeper spokespersons noted a seeming prioritization of “globalist” aims over national freedoms in intervention efforts—pointing to an early hesitation to close international air traffic but a speedy move towards domestic lock-down.At the onset of COVID-19, the perceived conspiracy revolved around deep-state officials downplaying the virus, encouraging Trump not to take direct action. Over time, however, the conspiracy evolved into profound overreach, accusing globalists of using the virus as a means to strip individuals of their liberty. Interestingly, Trump was not blamed directly for this overreach; rather, Oath Keeper officials queried why Trump was allowing the globalists to continue to surround him especially when his own base was against it.Overall, Oath Keeper leadership’s understanding of the COVID-19 crisis morphed from a purposeful inaction by elites to their capitalization on the crisis by taking away personal liberties, gun rights, painting Trump in a negative light, and benefitting economically.
Past the peak: Where do we go from here?
By mid-April public messaging by the Oath Keepers became a call for followers to fight back against perceived government intrusion. Although spokespersons were not arguing that the virus did not exist, they repeated Trump’s statement about the cure being worse than the virus; viewing the situation as the deep state making inroads in taking over individual liberty.
They praised local government officials who disagreed with federal and state mandates regarding social distancing, advertised for lockdown protests, and spoke out against social media figures censoring lockdown protest events.
Moreover, they disparaged local actors who implemented lockdown orders as puppets for globalist elites.While this is in line with anti-government ideology overall, it is curiously pro-Trump. That is, when Trump did not act strongly enough in the face of COVID-19, this was perceived not as his inadequacy but rather as a complot by deep-state actors feeding him bad information about the virus’s banality. Similarly, when Trump supported increased government regulation (maligned by Oath Keepers) this was again not due to Trump’s mal intent but rather yet another deep-state plot to strip individuals of personal freedoms.
Although Trump is not blamed per se there are calls for him to intercede on behalf of citizens by removing the “deep-state elites” and changing the regulations he “let happen”—a passive framing as opposed to was actively seen as creating.
In the face of changing “facts”, the narrative remains consistent
In sum, throughout ideological contradictions and changing perception of events on the ground, the consistent thread within Oath Keepers messaging is that Trump’s positive actions – i.e. those consistent with the ideology of Oath Keepers – are a result of his personal attitudes and behaviors, while his negative actions are the consequence of deep-state plots to undermine him. Overall, Trump is praised as being the only US president not to take advantage of a crisis to centralize power but rather to de-regulate and de-centralize as response. While the future of COVID-19 remains uncertain, an Oath Keeper re-tweet from the end of April summarizes one individual’s views:Ms Jaclyn Fox is a Doctoral Fellow at CARR and a Doctoral candidate in School of International Service, American University. See her profile here.
© Jaclyn Fox. Views expressed on this website are individual contributors and do not necessarily reflect that of the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right (CARR). We are pleased to share previously unpublished materials with the community under creative commons license 4.0 (Attribution-NoDerivatives).