But even more fundamentally, Hughes said, the convictions should serve as a reminder that no matter how many criminal convictions the Justice Department secures, the U.S. is not going to prosecute its way out of its extremism crisis.
“It is important that the U.S. government put its finger on the scale and said that the events of Jan. 6 were unacceptable,” said Hughes, “but I’m not sure it stops the growing tide of extremism.”
The following has been edited for clarity and concision.
Ian Ward: Were you surprised by any part of Tuesday’s verdict?
Seamus Hughes: I think it was going to be a hard case to begin with, and we’ve seen sedition charges not come to fruition at the end. But in the past, when [the Department of Justice] has charged someone with seditious conspiracy, the conspiracy didn’t really happen, meaning it never came to fruition. With this one, it actually did, so that made prosecuting the case a little bit easier.
Ward: How will these convictions affect the immediate operations of the Oath Keepers?
Hughes: The Oath Keepers were already on the ropes to begin with. For instance, compare the Oath Keepers to the Proud Boys. The Oath Keepers are much more of a top-down organization run by Rhodes, whereas the Proud Boys after Jan. 6 have regressed to a state-level model. There’s a little resiliency in the system. If Rhodes goes [to prison] — which he is clearly going to — the Oath Keepers don’t have much of a bench.
Ward: How have the Oath Keepers and other right-wing extremist groups reacted to the trial?
Hughes: It’s been all over the map, but there have been some recurring themes. One of the first themes was that [Jan. 6] was a false flag operation — that it was far-left extremists who were riling up the crowd. That narrative has largely fallen by the wayside, and now the overarching theme is that this is government overreach. The U.S. government has prosecuted and charged more than 900 people for crimes related to Jan. 6, and the investigations are still ongoing. In far-right extremism circles, the question is, “Why has the FBI launched the largest investigation in its history — even larger than 9/11? Why do they have 15,000 hours of body cam video? Why are they focusing only on us?”