May 26, 2023 | Reading Time: 3 minutes

He received mercy from a system he sought to destroy

Stewart Rhodes’ lawyers seemed shocked by his sentence.

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Elmer Stewart Rhodes III received mercy from the system he sought to destroy. The former leader of the Oath Keepers’ paramilitary was sentenced Thursday to 18 years in federal prison for seditious conspiracy with a terrorism enhancement. Rhodes was convicted of orchestrating an assault on the US Capitol on January 6. 

Prosecutors had asked for a sentence of 25 years and nothing about Rhodes’ record or conduct seemed to point to leniency. The main mitigating factor his lawyers could come up with was that Rhodes got other people to do the fighting for him while he called the shots from the rear. Nevertheless, Rhodes was the undisputed ringleader of the Oath Keepers’ assault on the Capitol. He recruited minions from across the country and stashed heavy weapons in a Virginia hotel room in anticipation of a bloody civil war to deny Joe Biden the presidency. 

J6 was not an isolated event. It was the culmination of years of rightwing lawlessness. Rhodes and his ilk were allowed to repeatedly attack the federal government with impunity. We can’t afford to repeat this cycle.

Rhodes’ sentence is the harshest to be handed down to any J6 defendant so far and the first to carry a terrorism enhancement. Rhodes’ own lawyers seemed shocked that their client got such a light sentence, given how forcefully the judge denounced him during the sentencing. 

“You, sir,” the judge said to Rhodes, “present an ongoing threat and a peril to this country, to the Republic and the very fabric of our democracy.”

The sentence is the culmination of a long career of anti-government activity marked by a trademark mix of belligerence and buffoonery. Rhodes is a veteran but he wears an eyepatch because he dropped a loaded gun and shot his own eye out. He founded the Oath Keepers in 2009 to capitalize off rage at the election of the country’s first Black president. And things only went downhill from there. 

Rhodes and his men joined the armed standoff at the Bundy Ranch in Bunkerville, Nevada in 2014. The feds had a court order to seize Cliven Bundy’s cattle because he’d run up a million-dollar tab grazing his cows on public land, and refused to pay the bill. The Oath Keepers and fellow heavily armed extremists raced to help Bundy cheat taxpayers and flout the law. The government was so worried that the siege would end in a bloodbath that they stood down. In the end, all charges were dropped against Bundy and his sons. The lesson for the far-right was clear: There are no consequences for intimidating federal agents at gunpoint, but it’s a great way to juice recruiting and fundraising.  

Two years later, Rhodes and the Oath Keepers took part in another weekslong armed standoff at the Malheur Wildlife Refuge in Oregon. Rightwing extremists were outraged that a father-son team of arsonists had been charged with setting fires on public land. Rhodes became convinced that then-attorney general Eric Holder was about to murder him with a drone and fled. Despite Rhodes’ personal disgrace, the standoff became further proof that the federal government would not stand up to rightwing extremists. In 2018, Donald Trump pardoned the arsonists. 

Perhaps the tide is turning. 

As Rhodes’ ex-wife remarked upon his conviction, “this is the first time he’s ever faced consequences ― ever. Really, it’s the first time he’s ever been held accountable for anything he’s ever done.”

It remains to be seen whether those consequences will stick. Trump has all but promised to pardon the J6 insurrectionists if he returns to office. We’ve seen time and time again how impunity begets rightwing terrorism. 

J6 was not an isolated event. It was the culmination of years of rightwing lawlessness. Rhodes and his ilk were allowed to repeatedly attack the federal government with impunity. We can’t afford to repeat this cycle. 

Lindsay Beyerstein covers legal affairs, health care and politics for the Editorial Board. An award-winning documentary filmmaker, she’s a judge for the Sidney Hillman Foundation. Find her @beyerstein.

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