Convictions test convictions: Oath Keepers, Proud Boys, and the Republican Party (1)

Seditious conspiracy is a heavy criminal charge in the United States, hard to prove, rarely used, and harshly punished. But this week a jury convicted four members of the Proud Boys–a far right group–of the charge, along with a range of other crimes. They were the third set of defendants convicted of seditious conspiracy as a result of the attempted insurrection of January 6, 2021, all liable for decades in prison.

It’s a big deal.

Over the past few years, the Department of Justice has processed hundreds of criminal charges against people involved in storming the Capitol and trying to stop Congress from certifying the electoral defeat of Donald Trump.

The first set of actions were plea deals, where protesters pled guilty to charges like vandalism or trespass. The sentences varied, depending upon the provable actions of the defendant, and ranged from probation to several years in prison.

Those who chose not to take plea deals then faced trials, and somewhat harsher sentences. Defendants claimed they were confused or misled or doing their Constitutional duty. More than a few blamed Donald Trump, then president of the United States (ulp!) for inviting the insurrection. Attorneys went further, blaming Trump for intentionally misleading and exploiting confused and troubled individuals.

From early on, it was clear that while some of the Capitol invaders were people who had come to protest peacefully and just got caught up in the moments. But others were part of organized groups that came with access to arms and allies, and saw themselves as executing a coordinated strategy. They planned their actions and left an electronic trail of communications. They also left frustrated allies who cooperated with the Department of Justice and testified against their former colleagues.

Several Oath Keepers were convicted of seditious conspiracy–and other felony charges, in November, and then another group was convicted in January. They await sentencing. Stewart Rhodes, among the convicted, founded the group as a mission and a business in 2009, and has led it since. Absent Rhodes, resources, or direction, its prospects of continuing seem bleak.

The Proud Boys, convicted just this week, may be another matter. Founded in 2016, the group has already been through several leadership changes, and maintains a more decentralized structure, with local groups plotting out their own efforts. Since January 6, local Proud Boys groups have staged actions against LGBT events and drag queen story hours, starting fights and getting attention. The locals can continue even without their national leaders, people who are likely to be in federal prisons for a long time.

The criminal convictions are a challenge to the groups, and a bigger challenge to their allies operating more or less in the mainstream of the Republican Party. Most national Republicans have been silent on the legal processing of the January 6 defendants. But a few far right performers, including members of Congress Matt Gaetz (Florida) and Marjorie Taylor Greene (Georgia) have valorized the insurgents, visiting them in prison and complaining about the conditions of incarceration.

Trump has gone further, kicking off his third campaign for the presidency in Waco Texas, with a song of sorts, featuring the “J6 choir” singing the national anthem while the candidate recited the Pledge of Allegiance. Trump promised pardons for the insurgents, a promise he could only deliver on if elected.

Democratic governance works by separating belief from conduct, allowing debate of contentious ideas, and making policy through established institutions. Everyone’s supposed to follow the same rules, and enjoy equality under the law.

Fascism works another way, by identifying worthy individuals and groups and giving them wide berth in advancing their interests at the expense of anyone else.

You can tell the difference.


About David S. Meyer

Author and professor of Sociology and Political Science at the University of California, Irvine
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