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The Redemption of a Former Oath Keeper
On the anniversary of the Insurrection, a former member of the far-right Oath Keepers, Jason Van Tatenhove, tells Heidi Siegmund Cuda that the US could yet be facing a coming civil war
Wearing his tattoos on his sleeve, Jason Van Tatenhove testified to the United States House Select Committee investigating the January 6, 2021 attack on the Capitol to “quit mincing words and just talk about truths”. The former publicist for the far-right group known as the Oath Keepers, said “they’re a violent militia” and January 6 “could have been the spark that started a new civil war”.
In his upcoming book on the experience, The Perils of Extremism, he warns the threat of civil war is far from over. His candor in sharing his story helps illuminate how easily radicalization can occur.
He said a “healthy distrust of government” and a love of conspiracy theories were his entry points to radicalization. A writer, artist, and former heroin addict, Van Tatenhove secured a reporting assignment to embed with the Oath Keepers at a cattle ranch standoff in Nevada after hearing an interview with the armed paramilitary organization’s founder Stewart Rhodes on the Alex Jones radio show.
Rhodes soon hired Van Tatenhove to do promotions and website content. For Van Tatenhove, it fulfilled an ambition.
“I had been reading a lot of Hunter S. Thompson, and I thought this could be my opportunity to write my own Hell’s Angels,” he said.
And that is how it started.
He and his wife, Shilo, sold their tattoo parlor in Colorado and in 2015, they moved their children to Montana. For the next 18 months, Van Tatenhove worked directly for Rhodes as what amounted to a minister of propaganda.
The Oath Keepers leader, who was convicted in November of seditious conspiracy related to the attack on the Capitol, was acutely aware of optics.
“When I was part of that propaganda team, our job was to go out and read the news aggregates of the day, and see what the big emotional reactions to stories were, and then write new stories based on what was happening,” Van Tatenhove said. “The goal was to capture the outrage and anger and insert the Oath Keepers name into the drama.
“It was straight out of Edward Bernays’ Propaganda. He was Freud's nephew, his techniques have been used by governments around the world, by the ‘mad men’ of New York City advertising firms. There’s an emotional branding formula that works, and the Oath Keepers keyed into it. Stewart was very careful to never call the Oath Keepers a militia. He called it a ‘community preparedness team.’”
Rhodes would create Potemkin villages, fake bases, at the standoff sites with ranchers, “taking the time to set up tents with all the militia guys during dust storms”, said Van Tatenhove.
“But in the end, as soon as we set it up, he drove us all to a casino down the road and got us rooms there,” he said.
Although at the time, Van Tatenhove was impressed with Rhodes, a Yale Law graduate who served as a US Army paratrooper and worked as an aide to Republican congressman Ron Paul, he would later come to see him as an opportunist.
The economics of radicalization offered convenient blinders. Just as an online troll in the Philippines gets paid seven times the wage of the average worker, Van Tatenhove earned a steady income from the Oath Keepers.
“I'm someone who's lived the vast majority of my life since being on my own as an adult under the poverty line,” he said. “I have a wife who's medically disabled and three children, and just surviving from day to day as a creative growing up in the time that I did, it was not easy.
“As a matter of fact, my parents and my grandparents forbade me from following their creative path because they knew how hard it was.”
Visits with his bohemian grandparents in New York, however, made the artist’s life too enticing.
“My grandfather was a forerunner of the abstract expressionist movement,” he said. “He was always hanging out with celebrities. His drinking buddy was an actor on The Honeymooners, and I remember meeting Andy Warhol and his entourage at the Greenwich Village flea market. My grandmother, Virginia, told stories of getting hit on by Dylan Thomas at the White Horse Tavern. She hung out with Beat writers. I thought everyone's grandpa had three art studios built into their house.
“I grew up in this very dynamic culture of creative artists and had my first contemporary art museum show at age 24.”
Despite his talent, art and writing did not pay the bills, but the 18 months he spent working with the Oath Keepers did.
In 2016, he traveled with Rhodes to various publicity-driven standoffs between aggrieved ranchers and the government. He watched the Oath Keepers slide further and further to the right, and he felt himself drifting with them.
“Rhodes was always looking for ways to make money and moving the Oath Keepers to the right would get him more media attention when donations were lagging,” Van Tatenhove said. “Oath Keepers began providing neo-Nazi Richard Spencer with security. I had already drunk the anti-government Kool-Aid. I cut my mohawk, cut my hair short, changed the way I dressed, changed the way I talked. I was starting to lose myself.
“At one point I told Stewart that I was queer and he said, ‘Okay’. We also had a gay couple in Vegas doing some of the merch work for us.”
Van Tatenhove said there was a period in his life when he and his wife were separated and he fell in love with a trans woman, painting a series of portraits that would later be showcased in an exhibit. He said there were times when he felt being a part of the Oath Keepers gave him a sense of community, but he also knew that the price of membership was subverting his true self.
At a funeral for a rancher named LaVoy Finicum, who was involved in a standoff with law enforcement, Van Tatenhove said he saw Finicum’s daughter sobbing, and he realized that could have been his daughter.
What started as an anti-government gonzo book project had become something far more insidious and dangerous. In 2017, Van Tatenhove had the psychic shift necessary to snap him out of the Oath Keepers.
He claims that it was at a Montana grocery store that he overheard some Oath Keepers openly talking about how the Holocaust never happened.
“I grew up in a blended family, and I called them out on it. They started to say the Holocaust was greatly exaggerated, and I just couldn't do it. I went home, called a family meeting, and said, ‘I don't know how we're gonna do this. I don't know how we're gonna find the funds to do this, but I can't continue to work here.’ I left immediately.”
Although he stopped working for the Oath Keepers, when Rhodes got kicked out of his home and showed up on Van Tatenhove’s doorstep, the family took him in. But they also gave him the boot. Rhodes is in line for long term government housing as he may get up to six decades in prison for his role in the Insurrection.
‘January 6 Testimony’
A year ago, Van Tatenhove got a call asking him to testify to the January 6 Committee. He thought of the 1,000 people they interviewed, and asked himself, why him? He told them, “Look, I'm never going to get into a monkey suit for you guys. It would be disingenuous to who I am. If my words are valuable enough for you, then you're gonna have to deal with me with how I am.”
They agreed. He showed up wearing a t-shirt bearing the name of an iconic Southern California punk band, Descendents.
“I knew I had to get back to who I had been. And part of that, for me personally, was wrapping myself in the clothing and the music and the literature that I had originally been so connected with. So for me, it was kind of a reclaiming of my identity.”
He was quickly trashed by the band, who had not yet heard his story.
“Until that day, I wasn’t very public about my past, because there is a stigma to it. And it’s one I’m gonna have to live with. There comes a point where you just have to own it, and just own who you are, and not give a f**k, and that is punk rock.”
He said in order to center himself before he testified in front of the world, he visited the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C.
As he looked at the faces of Nazis in photographs, he realized: “I've seen these faces before, the look in the eyes, that sneer and laugh, these were the faces I was seeing more and more at the rallies. If we don’t remember history, we are doomed to relive it.”
In his testimony, he said: “I really do fear for what might happen if Trump gets back into office… I think in a lot of ways, we've been mincing words. When it comes to the events of January 6th… that was a mob, that was a violent mob, and people died. And we need to just start really calling things as they are.”
In his book, The Perils of Extremism, he writes:
“It wasn’t until I watched the events of January 6, 2021, unfold on my living room couch, just shocked at how far Stewart had taken things in the years since I had walked away, that I realized it was the time to begin speaking out.
I had underestimated Stewart’s reach and influence. He had helped bring our country to the point of violent insurrection and an attempted violent coup… Stewart had always sprinkled the coming civil war into the messaging, but I had always made the mistake of dismissing such rhetoric.
That was a mistake I will no longer make. Now is the time for those of us who do not want to see the futures of our children and grandchildren become dystopian to take real action. Things have gone too far.”
The Perils of Extremism will be published by Skyhorse Publishing on 14 February 2023