This Coloradan was a propagandist for the Oath Keepers. Now hes speaking out against the extremist militia tied to Jan. 6. – The Denver Post

Posted By on March 5, 2022

Eight years ago, Jason Van Tatenhove hopped in a truck in Kalispell, Montana, with men he didnt know and traveled all night down Interstate 15 on a quest to document the fallout from the Bundy Ranch standoff.

The truck made only a handful of stops, including to pick up ammunition and food, as it sliced its way down the Rocky Mountain west toward the southern tip of Nevada.

The men Van Tatenhove was with were members of the Oath Keepers, a nationwide anti-government militia organization traveling to support the Bundy family as it refused to pay grazing fees it owed the U.S. Bureau of Land Management.

The longtime Colorado resident and former Fort Collins tattoo shop owner had moved to Montana less than a year prior and thought embedding with the Oath Keepers would be an opportunity to do immersive journalism like his idol, Hunter S. Thompson, who embedded with outlaw motorcycle gangs for his first nonfiction book. Instead of the Hells Angels, he would embed with the burgeoning militia group as it gained national attention in a series of standoffs with the federal governmentand pivoted toward conspiracy-fueled extremism.

But a year later, Van Tatenhove was working full time for the extremist group as a self-described propagandist. For $1,200 a month, he wrote blog posts for the Oath Keepers website, ran their social media networks, appeared in videos and dealt with inquiring reporters.

I had these grand intentions that I was going to write my break-out novel, but what wound up happening is I just became a propagandist for them, he said. I failed that internal mission pretty fantastically.

He worked for the Oath Keepers for a year and a half between 2015 and 2016 and said he watched the group pivot from a loose network of people allegedly concerned about government overreach and constitutional rights to an organized and hateful extremist group that spewed and profited from conspiracy theories and fear.

The Oath Keepers were founded in 2009 and gained attention and notoriety over the next decade by providing armed security at confrontations with the federal government and protests. Like many anti-government militia groups, one of the groups main tenets is the conspiracy theory that the federal government is being run by a secret organization attempting to take away Americans rights, according to the Anti-Defamation League.

The group is part of the larger milieu of extremist militia groups that have become increasingly prominent over the last decade, though the Oath Keepers differs in that it specifically aims to recruit law enforcement and military personnel. The Anti-Defamation League estimates there are between 1,000 and 3,000 active Oath Keepers nationwide, though many more tune into their communications and loosely align with the group.

They frame things in terms of unconstitutionality because it makes them seem more reasonable, said Alex Friedfeld, investigative researcher at the Anti-Defamation Leagues Center on Extremism. Their sense of what is and isnt constitutional isnt based in law and is warped by conspiracy.

Five years after Van Tatenhove severed ties with the group, its founder and several of its members were indicted on sedition charges for allegedly plotting to violently overturn the 2020 election results and participating in the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol. After he appeared last month in a documentary about the attack, the U.S. House Select Committee investigating Jan. 6 asked Van Tatenhove to speak to them about the Oath Keepers.

In early March, the 47-year-old plans to travel to Washington, D.C., to talk to the committee and share what he knows.Its part of his penance for furthering the groups propaganda, he said. Now, he has to speak out.

I underestimated things, he said. I saw how they spun the optics and made themselves look much bigger than they were. I tended to underestimate them because I thought they were never going to pull anything off. They have this scam going and theyll keep scamming people and, eventually, theyll run out of suckers to scam. But, man, they stormed the Capitol.

So how did an artist, father and self-described punk end up the national media director of a far-right extremist organization?

Van Tatenhove moved to Fort Collins when he was 10 years old and grew up in the 1990s art and punk music scene. He cut his teeth as a writer at underground music magazines.

He got married, had kids and opened a Fort Collins tattoo shop. In 2013, he closed the shop and moved his family to Butte, Montana. He and his family wanted to live in a more rural area and learn more about living off the land, he said.

Thats when he first heard of Stewart Rhodes, the founder of the Oath Keepers, talking on InfoWars, the far-right website founded known for spewing misinformation and amplifying conspiracy theories.He agreed with some of Rhodes broad ideas: the dangers of government overreach, the need to question authority. When the Oath Keepers involved themselves in the Bundy Ranch standoff, it sounded like an opportunity to report on the ground and, like Thompson, embed himself with a fringe group.

After Nevada, he traveled to other hot spots where the Oath Keepers decided to enmesh themselves. He went to the Sugar Pine Mine standoff in Oregon and the White Hope Mine conflict in Montana. Van Tatenhove published his reporting on his website, broadcasted video livestreams and ran an internet radio show on Revolution Radio.

During the White Hope Mine incident, Rhodes offered Van Tatenhove a job writing for the Oath Keepers. Van Tatenhove accepted.

The work was full-time. Van Tatenhove woke up every morning, checked websites like the Drudge Report to see what was in the news and then wrote posts about the issues from the Oath Keeper point of view.

He also tried to keep his own point of view in his writing, which, he said, eventually led to friction between him and Rhodes. The first major conflict arose in 2015 when a Kentucky county clerk refused to issue marriage licenses for same-sex couples after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled same-sex couples have the right to marriage under the Constitution.

Van Tatenhove wrote a post stating that the U.S. Constitution protects everyones rights equally including gay people. But Rhodes rejected the post.

Other problems increasingly worried Van Tatenhove as the Oath Keepers viewpoints became increasingly extreme. He hated that Rhodes wanted staff and members to keep rifles in their cars at all times. He worried when Rhodes started associating with Richard Spencer, a white nationalist and neo-Nazi.

The organizations leaders did not have core beliefs, but instead catered to whatever beliefs would be easiest to fundraise off of, Van Tatenhove said. Often, those were based on conspiracy theories.

Hes going to cater to wherever the money is coming in from, Van Tatenhove said of Rhodes. He knows his base, thats where theyre at. Thats where he gets his ego fed and where he gets his steak dinners at Applebees every night.

But Van Tatenhove stuck with the job. The Oath Keepers had moved him and his family out to a cabin outside Eureka, a town of 1,600 in the upper northwest reaches of Montana. There were few other job options there and he had a chronically ill wife and two daughters to care for. He felt trapped.

So I stuck around a lot longer than I should have, he said.

The breaking point came in 2016 after Van Tatenhove overheard two of the Oathkeeper members in a grocery store deli talking about how the Holocaust was a hoax. He quit and severed contact with the group.

He was always claiming, Were not racist, we dont care if youre queer, Van Tatenhove said of Rhodes. But what Stewart says and what he truly believes are two different things. The man is really just driven by money and a sense of power at this point.

AAron Ontiveroz, The Denver Post

Van Tatenhove is doing penance now.

After leaving the Oath Keepers, he worked in search and rescue and as an EMT, including with a wildland fire crew. He moved back to Colorado with his family four years ago after inheriting a home in Estes Park.

I have been trying to make up for the propaganda that I spewed, he said.

Hes returned to art, to writing novels, to journalism. After a time writing for the Estes Park Trail-Gazette, he launched the Colorado Switchblade, a website covering Estes Park and Colorado news and culture.

Hes written about working peoples struggles to afford housing in the mountain town, womens rights activists, the need to address climate change.

Look at what Ive been doing since then thats what I really believe, he said.

He hopes by speaking about the organization he can help people see that it is a scam and help walk people back from joining the Oath Keepers.

I have these self-realization moments where Im like, (Expletive), I helped these guys out, I helped spread the message, Van Tatenhove said. And yeah, it was just with words, but Ive got to try to do something to try and make up for that in my own life.

Rhodes, the Oath Keepers founder, remains incarcerated while his criminal sedition case in connection with the Jan. 6 insurrection winds through federal court. His attorneys have argued that Rhodes cooperated with FBI agents investigating the failed insurrection and that while Rhodes may have used bombastic language, he did not intend to actually overthrow the government, The Washington Post reported.

The Oath Keepers have been less publicly active since the insurrection, though the threat of criminal charges has not tempered their rhetoric, Friedfeld said. Their ability to appeal to a wide swath of Americans shows how far conspiracy and deep distrust of government has permeated American society, which relies on trust in the democratic process to survive. The Oath Keepers have shown they are willing to use violence, or the threat of violence, to further their aims.

Thats a great threat to society and how we do things, Friedfeld said.

The Oath Keepers rhetoric is the organizations most powerful tool, Van Tatenhove said. The organization knows how to say the right thing to connect to peoples fears and worries. The rhetoric then manifests into actions.

The worlds a bit upside down and on fire right now and desperate people do desperate things, he said. Their words are like gasoline thrown on fire. Those words are more powerful than the guns that they have.

Theyve set up these powder kegs that are so ready to explode, were lucky to have seen so little bloodshed so far, he said. I think were running out of luck.

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This Coloradan was a propagandist for the Oath Keepers. Now hes speaking out against the extremist militia tied to Jan. 6. - The Denver Post

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