Sheriff Jeff Lyde, of Clay County Texas, prefers a thin-blue-line gaiter instead of a covid mask. And he shares right-wing memes on Facebook that express contempt for the federal government. In October he posted, “LET’S GO BRANDON!” — the right’s G-rated code for “fuck Joe Biden.” He posted meme in April likening Kamala Harris and Nancy Pelosi to Jim Carrey and Jeff Daniels from Dumb and Dumber. On the 4th of July, Lyde posted a graphic that read: “REMEMBER WHAT YOU’RE CELEBRATING: AN ARMED POPULATION REFUSED TO GIVE UP THEIR GUNS AND PAY THEIR TAXES.”
Is this just a little edgelord entertainment by an elected law enforcement official in North Texas? Or something darker? Consider that Lyde also appears in the leaked membership rolls of the Oath Keepers — the antigovernment militia infamous for armed vigilantism and for the role its members played in the insurrection of Jan. 6 that sought to block Joe Biden from becoming president.
The purported Oath Keeper membership rolls were obtained by a hacker, and handed over to a transparency group called Denial of Distributed Secrets, which made them available to the media. The records have served as the basis for reporting by a broad array of new outlets including the New York Times, ProPublica, NPR and Rolling Stone, turning up dozens of public officials, many of whom have confirmed an affiliation with the militia.
The Oath Keepers actively recruit from law enforcement. And the group has taken a keen interest in sheriffs, who are often the most powerful law enforcement officials in their county jurisdictions. Sheriffs are subject to few checks-and-balances, apart from having to run for reelection. And in rural areas without city police forces, the sheriff can be the first, and last, word on what’s lawful.
“These sheriffs, we’ve given them a gun, we’ve given them a badge. We expect them to keep everyone within a community safe,” says Alex Friedfeld, a researcher at the Center for Extremism, housed at the Anti-Defamation League. “That’s a lot of power. And their affiliation [with the Oath Keepers] puts their ability to use that power in question.” The danger of a sheriff making decisions based off the militia’s extremist ideology is acute, he says: “There may be laws that pass through the proper channels, are determined to be constitutional, and these guys can just decide, ‘No.’”
Texas Sheriffs take an oath to “preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution and laws of the United States and of this State, so help me God.” The Oath Keepers asks its members to take a separate 10-part oath, promising to disobey a series of hypothetical “unconstitutional orders” that read like something out of a right-wing fever dream. (E.g. “3. We will NOT obey any order to detain American citizens as ‘unlawful enemy combatants.’”)
“The Oath Keepers subscribe to conspiracy theories that frame the American government as an entity out to destroy American liberties,” says Jared Dmello, a professor of criminology who will be teaching at Sam Houston State University in Huntsville, Texas. “It is highly problematic from a criminal justice perspective when law enforcement, especially those in leadership positions, like Sheriffs, are involved with these forms of far right activity,” he says. “Vigilantism and the concept of ‘taking justice into your own hands’ run counter to the concept of a rule of law.”
To investigate the reach of Oath Keepers into the ranks of sheriffs, Rolling Stone looked at the state with the most counties in the country — Texas. We cross-referenced a directory of 254 sheriffs published by the Association of Texas Sheriffs, against the purported Oath Keepers membership rolls. Rolling Stone’s review turned up two Texas sheriffs who appear to have Oath Keeper roots.
Lyde is the sheriff of Clay County, a rural area a couple hours northwest of Dallas, where the town of Henrietta is the county seat. The sheriff did not respond to interview requests or questions from Rolling Stone seeking context for his appearance in the leaked membership rolls. (The entry under Lyde’s name is not dated, but is associated with a residential address in Seguin, Texas, where Lyde formerly served as a sergeant in the state’s Department of Public Safety. An email address in the enrollment now appears in a Clay County Chamber of Commerce directory, connected to a consulting business owned by Lyde.)
A second Texas sheriff, John Chris Hooper of Nueces County, on the southern Gulf Coast, also appears on the Oath Keeper membership rolls. The county seat is the city of Corpus Christi. Hooper signed up with a “Liberty Tree” sustaining monthly membership. The name for that membership level appears to be a reference to the Thomas Jefferson quote: “The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants.”
Cooper’s affiliation was independently reported by the Corpus Christi Caller Times, and BuzzFeed included him in a round up of Oath Keepers in elected office. Hooper refused an interview request from Rolling Stone. But he has alternately praised the ideals of the Oath Keepers, while distancing himself from the militia’s more extreme actions. He told the Caller Times that he joined the Oath Keepers because he thought the group represented a “beautiful concept,” and he added that “any elected official, at any level of government, who doesn’t keep their oath… is a bigger concern than some group that has now been labeled as domestic terrorists.” However, Hooper insisted he’s no longer affiliated with the Oath Keepers. He told BuzzFeed he came to view the organization as “hijacked” after militia members joined an armed standoff in Nevada against the federal government over the fate of the Bundy Ranch in 2014.
Hooper was appointed to sheriff in 2018, and elected in 2020. He has made a habit of denying assistance to the federal government. Earlier this year he refused to deploy county busses to help transfer undocumented immigrants from the border region into Nueces county — about two hours away. Cooper accused the the federal government of “completing the human trafficking process by relocating [the migrants].”
In October, Hooper wrote on Facebook that he wouldn’t aid a federal campaign to protect school board members from a nationwide wave of threats and harassment, insisting he had “no intention of assisting or cooperating with the United States Department of Justice or the Federal Bureau of Investigation with their planned overreach into the operations of local school board meetings.”
When not posturing against the Biden administration, Hooper has been embroiled in controversy about overcrowded conditions at the notorious county jail he oversees. A review of records at the Texas Commission on Jail Standards finds the state body put the Nueces County lockup on its list of “non-compliant jails” in June for failing to meet the state’s “minimum jail standards.” Hooper’s jail was cited for detaining inmates in holding cells for longer than 48 hours as well as for failing to provide inmates with required exercise hours and required time out of individual cells. (Hooper has blamed pandemic-related delays in the judicial branch for the over-crowding at his facility.)
Back in Clay County, Lyde posts regular video updates to the community on Facebook. He films the videos from his office, with a backdrop that includes three rifles mounted on the wall, and a coat tree where he hangs a pistol and white cowboy hat. A bookshelf in Lyde’s office displays a cutout map of America painted with the thin-blue-line flag. The mythology that law enforcement is the only thing defending civilization from chaos appears to hold sway with Lyde. The header image on his Facebook page is a picture of an engraved wooden sign that reads: “I AM SOCIETY’S FIRST LINE OF DEFENSE. I AM THE THIN BLUE LINE.”
Despite his professed disdain for the current president, vice president and speaker of the House, it should be noted that Lyde is not uniformly antigovernment. In 2017, he took to Twitter with a message of loyalty for then president @realdonaldtrump: “If you walked on water, CNN would headline: Trump can’t swim!” Lyde wrote. “Keep on doing what you do. We’re still with you!!!”
More recently, Lyde has endorsed Texas political scion George P. Bush, who is running for Texas Attorney General — the state’s top law enforcement post. “Far too many states have stood by idly while their security and freedoms erode,” Lyde says in a quote posted to Bush’s website. “Our Attorney General’s Office needs a clear leader who backs the blue.”