“America right now needs some exit ramps,” Jason Van Tatenhove said as we discussed his former role as national media director for the Oath Keepers, a group known for its far-right anti-government militia. While Jason would ultimately decide to leave the group in 2016 due to increasing racism and Holocaust denial within their membership, the Oath Keepers would go on to participate in the United States Capitol January 6th attack, led by followers of Donald Trump. Jason eventually testified before a U.S. House Select Committee about his position in media propaganda for the organization. He described their attempts at paramilitary tactics, plans for insurrection, and his relationship with Stewart Rhodes, founder of the Oath Keepers, convicted of seditious conspiracy and evidence tampering.  

Jason publicly speaks about his concerns for continued paramilitary training groups and recruitment tactics in future election cycles, including the 2024 presidential race. His book, The Perils of Extremism: How I Left the Oath Keepers and Why We Should Be Concerned about a Future Civil War, discusses the unsettled state surrounding extremism in America today and provides an insider view into the tactics used to recruit, train, and further radicalize persons with former military backgrounds, first-responders, and individuals who may otherwise feel disenfranchised by United States Democracy at this time.  

As a writer, artist, and father of daughters with concerns about the future of his country, Jason often finds himself asking what stories we are telling, noting which stories pull us in and how propaganda has historically been used to persuade. Jason’s involvement with the Oath Keepers began with his interest and participation in the Bundy standoff of 2014, an armed confrontation between cattle rancher Cliven Bundy and law enforcement. He now admits that the story pulled him in and came under influences like Infowars, Rush Limbaugh, and other right-wing media, as well as people who he was communicating with daily. He connects his longing for camaraderie in the group with a desire to reconnect with an estranged father and noted that he was also struggling with finances during a time of caring for his ailing wife. 

I noted that this is a typical story in cult recruitment, experiencing a challenging transition time and having that vulnerability used to influence new members into further involvement. We discussed my Influence Continuum and how such moments can lead to undue influence and recruitment. Jason would eventually be offered a paying job within the Oath Keepers, where he stated that, for the first time, he didn’t have to choose between medicines for his wife and presents for his children. He also noted that while he’d previously worked standard journalism jobs, he found a lack of legitimate media employment was a driving factor in his decision.  

Jason is now concerned by the continued influence and propaganda of modern storytellers like Alex Jones. He stressed the need for storytellers on the side of sanity, empathy, and human connection and wondered about places for sitting around the fire to talk on that side of America. In his 2022 testimony, he noted the possibility of future violent extremism in America under the influence of far-right paramilitary groups.  

We talked about Jason’s question of how to build in “exit ramps” for people who got “sucked in” and topics of Cult Deprogramming. I shared my experiences with the Moonies cult and how, at this time, one son of the deceased cult leader is still active in the Rod of Iron Ministries, a gun cult, while the other is a gun manufacturer. I noted that it’s essential to realize that anyone is vulnerable to cults and undue influence, and we discussed the challenges to exiting.  

I spoke about the importance of not denigrating the leader of a friend or family member’s cult or doctrine, as this would be rejected right away. Instead, techniques such as reminding a person of who they were before the cult and reminding them of their earliest memories of the cult or leader before they were sucked in is helpful. Assisting individuals in tracking back their memories to illustrate how specific thoughts were implanted can sometimes jog earlier memories. Jason and I agreed that cutting them out of social circles or making fun of them is not helpful to the individual. In my experience, warmth, respect, kindness, compassion, and acts of listening go a long way toward opening further dialogue, and in future dialogue, there are opportunities for change.  

Newsworthy: March 24th 2024: Oath Keepers’ son emerges from traumatic childhood to tell his own story in a long shot election bid

Resources:  

Van Tatenhove, J. (2023). The Perils of Extremism: How I Left the Oath Keepers and Why We Should Be Concerned about a Future Civil War. Skyhorse Publishing. 

I Love Losers – by Jason Van Tatenhove (coloradoswitchblade.com) 

Perils of Extremism: Coloradan Jason Van Tatenhove on his former life with Oath Keepers | KUNC 

Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection | Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection | Georgetown Law 

Influence Continuum – Freedom of Mind Resource Center