Ex-Oath Keepers spokesperson warns right-wing 'propaganda' is 'more dangerous than bullets'

Jason Van Tatenhove is in the ABC News doc "Homegrown: Standoff to Rebellion."

Showing off his latest paintings celebrating Pride Month -- what he calls "a whole body of work using only trans models" -- Colorado artist Jason Van Tatenhove looks and talks nothing like he did five years ago, when he was a national spokesperson and, as he put it, "propagandist" for the Oath Keepers militia.

Homegrown: Standoff to Rebellion
Homegrown: Standoff to Rebellion
A look at the days, events and conversations leading up to Jan. 6, 2021, from the eyes of anti-government groups, extremism experts and several ABC News correspondents who were at the Capitol that day.
Stream On Hulu

At the time, wearing a camouflage jacket in Oath Keepers videos posted online, Van Tatenhove regularly warned "good Americans" that the federal government was trying to "take more of your liberties away," and urged "fellow patriots" to "take a stand."

It's "a battle between good and evil," he declared in a December 2015 video.

But now he rejects such rhetoric as "absolutely dangerous" propaganda, pushed by militia leaders and their right-wing media allies for personal and financial gain.

"I was wrong," said the 47-year-old, whose sand-colored mohawk sits atop tattoos that reach across his forehead. "I've grown, I've evolved, and I feel like now I have a wider view of what this is."

Van Tatenhove is featured in the new ABC News documentary "Homegrown: Standoff to Rebellion," now on Hulu.

In an interview with ABC News, he said he's speaking out now -- a year after the attack on the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021 -- to "try to atone" for his time with the Oath Keepers, and to warn Americans of what could come next if the political discourse in this country doesn't change.

"I fear the next election cycle," he said. "We've got to start talking to one another. Not with guns, and not with body armor [or] standoffs, but just talking."

According to an ABC News count, more than 20 people charged in the federal investigation of the Jan. 6 riots have alleged ties to the Oath Keepers. Scores more have alleged ties to other militia groups.

'Range war starts tomorrow'

By Van Tatenhove's description, he's always been a "consummate rebel with a very healthy distrust of the government."

Growing up in Ft. Collins, Colorado, he spent a lot of time watching documentaries. The stories of Ruby Ridge, where federal agents launched a deadly assault on an Idaho family's home in 1992, and Waco, where a federal raid on a cult compound in Texas the next year led to a fire that killed 25 children and more than 50 others, "really affected" him, Van Tatenhove told ABC News.

Then in 2014 -- at a time when he "was pretty lost" and struggling as an "independent journalist" -- he heard about Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy and his family's property in Bunkerville, Nevada.

The Bundy family issued a public call for help from battle-ready Americans after federal agents seized their cattle over unpaid grazing fees.

"I don't recognize the federal government as even existing," Cliven Bundy said at the time. "Range war starts tomorrow," he warned in an online message.

"I knew that at that point I had to get there," Van Tatenhove told Cliven Bundy's son, Ammon, in an Oath Keepers video in 2015, a year after the standoff ended. "I was not going to allow another Waco or another massacre to happen if I could do anything to stop it. And I wasn't alone, there were hundreds of other people that went."

Van Tatenhove went to the Bundy ranch as an independent journalist to "cover it," he told ABC News. But many who came were armed militia men, including members of the Oath Keepers. Even Stewart Rhodes, the group's founder, was there.

That's how Van Tatenhove met Rhodes for the first time.

The standoff came to a head on April 12, 2014, when several of the Bundy family's supporters took sniper-like positions on an overpass overlooking the area, aiming their rifles toward federal agents. Fearing a bloodbath, the federal government backed down and released the cattle.

It was a victory and a rallying cry for the nation's militia movement, Van Tatenhove said.

Rhodes liked van Tatenhove's coverage of the standoff and subsequent events so much -- Van Tatenhove said he found it "fair" -- that within a few months he asked Van Tatenhove to start working for him, Van Tatenhove recalled.

'Not without a fight'

Rhodes, a former lawyer and artist himself, founded the Oath Keepers in 2009, shortly after Barack Obama became president. It was a time of revival for the militia movement, which had lost momentum after the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995.

Looking to recruit ex-military personnel and former law enforcement officers -- who as he saw it were willing to uphold their oath "to defend the Constitution" -- Rhodes announced early on that the Oath Keepers mission was "to prevent the destruction of American liberty."

"The American people will not go down without a fight, and our would-be slave masters are greatly underestimating the resolve and military capability of the people," Rhodes posted on the Oath Keepers website at its founding.

The Oath Keepers were largely unknown before the Bundy standoff in 2014, but they got a big boost from the clash and touted it in subsequent videos posted online.

"It was the first time in our country's recent history that good Americans stood up and said, 'You know what, we're not going to let this happen on our watch,'" Van Tatenhove said in a video he made for the Oath Keepers in October 2015. "We won that battle. But it's really not over. ... We're seeing our rights infringed upon more and more."

Speaking to ABC News recently, he said, "I have to just own that I kind of got swept up in it."

Over the next couple of years, Van Tatenhove published stories and posted videos online that promoted claims of federal government overreach and highlighted Oath Keepers' efforts to intervene in politically-charged matters around the country.

In August 2015, when several media outlets questioned why armed members of the Oath Keepers were in Ferguson, Missouri, for the one-year anniversary of the police killing of unarmed Black man Michael Brown, Van Tatenhove posted a video online defending the operation and accusing others of "really trying to demonize" the Oath Keepers.

In January 2016, when Ammon Bundy and armed supporters took over a federal wildlife refuge in Oregon to protest arson-related prison sentences for two Oregon ranchers, Van Tatenhove posted a video from the refuge calling the takeover "an important part of the liberty movement."

In his recent interview with ABC News, Van Tatenhove said Rhodes and other anti-government figures like him "look for these hot-button topics and try to find their spin."

"And that's part of the gig," he said. "I became a propagandist for what they were doing. I feel awful about that now."

'I had to walk away'

Looking back on his time with the Oath Keepers, Van Tatenhove said there were some "red flags" even early on -- but that he just ignored them.

According to Van Tatenhove, in late 2015 -- hardly more than a year after he joined the Oath Keepers -- he "had problems" with how Rhodes and other members of the group publicly embraced Kentucky clerk Kim Davis, who had been jailed for refusing to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples, in defiance of a judge's order and a recent Supreme Court ruling.

"There are a lot of queer folk in my family," Van Tatenhove said.

At the time, Rhodes issued a statement saying the "imperial judiciary" was trying to "swallow up our Bill of Rights." And when Davis was released from jail, the Oath Keepers announced that they were heading to Kentucky to help ensure she "will not be illegally detained again," news reports said.

Van Tatenhove found that when he'd submit stories about the matter to Oath Keepers leadership, they were either "very heavily edited" or "not published at all," he said.

He now wishes he would have walked away then, but he had a sick wife and three children to support, and he was barely making a writer's salary -- "so unfortunately ... I had to think about that before just cutting ties," he said.

But Van Tatenhove said he couldn't take it anymore when the Oath Keepers "took a very hard right turn" and began associating with people like white nationalist Richard Spencer, who helped bring white supremacists and militia members together at the deadly "Unite the Right" rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017.

Around the same time, Van Tatenhove recalled, he walked in on a "casual conversation" among several Oath Keepers that included "a denial of the Holocaust."

"And that to me was absolutely the last straw," he said. "I had to just turn and walk away."

By 2018, he had resigned from the Oath Keepers.

Rhodes did not respond to multiple requests from ABC News seeking comment for this story.

Trying to make amends

In Van Tatenhove's assessment, Rhodes doesn't even believe much of what he spreads -- he just wants to boost paying memberships to his organization.

"He knows that he can tap into this and make money off of it, and continue to [build] his own personal army" by "weaving these narratives and telling these stories and planting these seeds," he said.

"[They're] selling the revolution," Van Tatenhove said. And in the end, it's vulnerable people who fall prey to their propaganda.

"These are human beings," Van Tatenhove emphasized, and the patriot movement is filled with "good people." But living in rural communities, many of them feel like they've been victimized by politicians in Washington and that they "don't matter to the powers that be," he said.

So capitalizing on that frustration, "words and emotions and notions are much more powerful weapons in the long run," he said.

"[They're] more dangerous than bullets and assault rifles and tactical armor" because they can create the confrontations that then turn violent, Van Tatenhove said. "And I think we saw the culmination of that come Jan. 6, when the Capitol riots happened."

Rhodes, however, has insisted over the years that his organization is nonpartisan and that it only seeks to help people ensure their rights are protected.

Driving through the remote mountains of Colorado, where he now lives with his family, Van Tatenhove recently described the landscape around him as his "Zen."

"I try to capture as much Zen as I can these days," he said. "Writing every day and making art. Trying to raise my kids as best I can in a world that's turned upside down."

He said he's also trying "make amends" for his past.

"And maybe it won't do a lick of good," he said. "But you know, I'm going to try."

ABC News' Josh Margolin, Jenny Wagnon Courts and Alex Manalo-Hosenball contributed to this report.