What the Oregon State Senate Standoff Tells Us About the GOP and the Far Right

The Oregon GOP standoff over a milquetoast climate bill was merely the most recent escalation of a far-right strategy that has been with us for a long time.
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Photovoltaic solar panels on the west wing roof of the Oregon State Capitol, pictured on November 14th, 2005, in Salem, Oregon.

Photovoltaic solar panels on the west wing roof of the Oregon State Capitol, pictured on November 14th, 2005, in Salem, Oregon.

Last month, Oregon GOP state senators walked out of the Capitol and fled the state to deny the State Senate a quorum and thereby avoid a vote on a cap-and-trade bill. The walkout set off a truly bizarre series of events. One particularly aggrieved senator, Brian Boquist, threatened to kill any policeman sent to bring him back to the capitol. In solidarity with the Republican senators, and with Boquist's threat against the police, a right-wing terrorist group vowed to provide transportation and security for the senators. They also threatened the State Capitol Building, which led officials to close the building for the day, since police deemed the threat credible.

Then—and this is arguably the worst part—Senate President Peter Courtney, a Democrat, for no apparent reason, announced that the bill was dead. "There's no strategy for what I'm about to say," Courtney said. "House Bill 2020 does not have the votes on the Senate floor." Though local environmental groups rejected Courtney's claim, the climate bill that had been poised to pass was suddenly dead in the water.

Republican senators running away to avoid a vote sounds absurd, but it's actually the tamest part of this ordeal. Just in May, Oregon Republicans staged a four-day walkout that received little press coverage over an education bill. In Wisconsin and Texas, Democrats have walked out over an anti-union bill and gerrymandering, respectively. It's not the most elegant strategy, but it has been done.

Even the threats made by Boquist, who now has to give notice when he's going to enter the Capitol so the police can up its presence when he's there, were unsurprising to anyone who's been following his career. Late last year, Boquist was communicating so aggressively with colleagues and their staff that Courtney issued Boquist a cease-and-desist letter. Boquist responded by filing a resolution to remove Courtney from office.

The kicker here is that the Oregon Democrats' actions were business as usual for them too. It's unclear why Courtney decided to kill the cap-and-trade bill while the Republicans were AWOL, but it wasn't a particularly surprising move. As Ben Mathis-Lilley wrote last year for Slate, "the Democratic leadership class is reflexively timid on issues of policy, strategy, and style." Like a parent giving in to a child's tantrum, Democrats in Oregon submitted to the whims not only of the recalcitrant Republican senators but also of the right-wing domestic terrorists who were protecting them.

And in rolling over and giving up the climate bill, Oregon Democrats essentially legitimized the GOP's entire stunt. Can lawmakers run away to avoid the passage of a bill they don't like? Apparently, yes. Can they threaten to murder law enforcement officers sent to retrieve them? Yes, say the Democrats. And is it an acceptable strategy for armed domestic terrorists to threaten to take the legislative building hostage to further political goals? The Republicans that they were siding with decisively got their way, so, apparently, it is. As we've seen, Oregon Democrats don't negotiate with terrorists—they just give the terrorists exactly what they want, for nothing in return.

Part of the problem here is that, according to Alexander Reid Ross, author of Against the Fascist Creep and instructor at Portland State University, "there's a culture of impunity" for right-wing extremists in Oregon. And concerningly, according to Ross, the situation seems to be getting worse.

"What we're seeing increasingly is the Oregon Republicans openly moving past the stages of flirting with the far right and actually leading it and defending it," Ross says. He points to the recent news that the head of the GOP in Multnomah County, the most populous county in Oregon, plans to represent a far-right figure, Joey Gibson, in a lawsuit. Gibson founded the insurgent group Patriot Prayer, which, along with the Proud Boys, regularly organizes the often violent far-right rallies that continue to make national headlines.

That Republicans, the minority in Oregon's senate, killed the climate bill this way is indeed, as Earther's Brian Kahn put it, a "perversion of democracy." What's worse is that it's also likely to further embolden the far right, which has been steadily pushing the boundaries of what's acceptable for years. Online, members of the far right celebrate an alleged rapist who enables white supremacy; in real life, one of their members killed Heather Heyer in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017; others on the far right have been responsible for the majority of murders and mass shootings since 2009.

And through all that, the paranoias of the far right—that white people are being persecuted by people of color—retain their credibility among politicians and members of the media: These talking points have broken into the mainstream to the point that supposedly trustworthy channels of information present racist ideas as legitimate, as CNN did when correspondent Sara Sidner interviewed the white supremacist Richard Spencer about the president's racist tweets attacking four congresswomen of color. Meanwhile, Republican party figureheads have shied away from condemning white supremacists (see: Iowa Representative Steven King and President Donald Trump). As a result, the far right is emboldened to keep pursuing the next radical thing.

What happened in Oregon isn't really a surprise, then, but rather a continuation of what's been brewing on the right for a long time. Agents of the far right insert themselves into the legislative process by threatening violence because that's just what happens now. Elected Republicans accepting help from these terrorists, and even openly siding with them, is what happens now. And by legitimizing these terrorists' threats, Oregon Democrats have only further encouraged the far right. As these creepy stunts continue, Ross says, they will "encourage groups like Atomwaffen"—a neo-Nazi terrorist group—"to commit acts of violence."

All these threats and violent postures, by the way, were inspired by a relatively milquetoast cap-and-trade policy (a policy that Republicans used to favor!). Boquist called himself a "political prisoner" because the bill was going to pass, while on Reddit, one of the Oregon Republican's far-right supporters called the democratic process a "dictatorship." It's frightening to imagine what would happen if these GOP state senators were forced to vote on truly robust climate policies that completely overhaul the energy system and are rooted in justice and equality. It's already frightening enough now.

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