If all press is good press, June was a banner month for James Buchal.
The chairman of the Multnomah County Republican Party grabbed attention June 4 when he recruited new members at a far-right "free speech" rally in downtown Portland. Buchal soon began promoting the idea that his party could use militia groups like the Three Percenters and the Oath Keepers as security for future marches and events. And on June 28, the county GOP, under Buchal's leadership, formally authorized bringing in paramilitary organizations as armed guards.
The decision to turn to the Oath Keepers and Three Percenters for security immediately drew backlash on Twitter, Facebook and the county GOP's own website. Some called the decision a move toward martial law.
But Buchal sees it very differently: as a cheap way to keep an outnumbered and reviled party safe in enemy territory.
Only 13 percent of county voters are registered as Republicans. The party's volunteer ranks are even smaller: 179 members. And Portland, never a GOP stronghold, has embraced its fiercest Little Beirut reputation since the November election, with antifascist and anarchist groups marching in the streets to battle self-proclaimed neo-Nazis.
But Buchal claims Republicans are antifa's real target. Since he became chairman in 2015, the county GOP has made jarring changes—embracing rhetoric that echoes the talking points of "alt-right" extremist groups emboldened by the election of President Donald Trump.
Buchal spoke with WW in his Sunnyside neighborhood office, discussing why he's leading his party to the political fringes.
WW: The Oath Keepers? What's wrong with regular security guards?
James Buchal: Because we are an all-volunteer organization with no money. So if we are going to get security services, we are going to get them from volunteers. And people who volunteer to provide security services to Republicans are generally going to be people who share the view that the government has developed an unconstitutional overreach of power, and that it is a reasonable political objective to attempt to rein government in.
These are the same groups that helped seize the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. How are they on the side of the rule of law?
Some reporter told me with respect to the Malheur thing that the Oath Keepers down there were keeping the peace. I don't accept the premise of your question that the groups are inherently lawless. And we're talking about people who are locally based here in Portland. Not people who may have come from Arizona or Idaho or someplace because they like to go from place to place participating in situations of conflict. It's members of the local community.
What threat in Portland is so scary that you need to bring in a paramilitary organization?
It's been a sequence of events. The [volunteers] who were at the street fairs reported incidents that made them feel unsafe. And then we got people threatening to drag us out of the Avenue of Roses Parade, and then there were people threatening on Facebook that they were going to stab us to death if we dared to participate, and so on and so forth. So it's been sort of a continuous escalation. It was at that point that this idea began to take on greater sense, in my mind at least.
Other than the one anonymous letter before a parade in April, what threats has the Multnomah County Republican Party received? Were you really kicked out of a restaurant?
I think when people call you up and they have this screaming demonic tone in their voice, it gives you some concern. Especially if it's more than one of them. We used to hold our quarterly larger meetings at Mekong Bistro. And when we went to get the one organized for June 26, we were told that we were no longer allowed to do that. Because it was political. I heard about it all secondhand. I inferred that they had come under pressure.
Do you acknowledge that hate speech and neo-Nazi activity has gone up in Portland?
It's a question of how you define your terms. [At the June 4 rally,] I saw two people carrying signs that said "Diversity equals white genocide," and then I saw them get kicked out. I haven't personally seen hate speech or neo-Nazi activity at all, unless these two people carrying the signs counted.
Do you think the so-called alt-right groups are racist?
The left and the right may have a somewhat different definition of racism. I have the impression that many on the left would regard any defense of American exceptionalism as inherently racist. I think it is possible to defend Western culture without being a racist.
Do you see a difference between defending Western culture and defending whiteness?
I look at an idea entirely independent of the identity of the person who is advancing the idea. Meritocracy is color-blind. Equality of opportunity should be color-blind.
You've argued that the alt-right isn't racist. Let's say you're right. What ideology do they stand for other than antagonizing and provoking people?
I see them as standing for a restoration of constitutional government. And some of them, like Patriot Prayer, I think also have a Christian component to them, which would say that, in addition to getting the government under control, we need a rise in public morality.
How do you explain the accused MAX train killer who attended alt-right protests, then?
You don't know who is going to show up at your event. If someone shows up wearing swastikas, the answer to that is going to be, "You're not standing anywhere near us, asshole." What I know about Jeremy Christian is that he was registered as a Libertarian. There's a lot of crap out there on the internet. Who knows what influenced him? But I can guarantee you that it wasn't a Republican Party website. The conclusion I draw from the evidence I've seen is that he was mentally ill. And so I guess I sort of resent the notion that we're called upon to distance ourselves from some nut who as far as I know has never been to a Republican Party meeting.
You're giving speeches next to men dressed as Captain America. Why should Portlanders take you any more seriously than a teenager with a mask and a stink bomb?
I should prefer that they do not dress up in superhero costumes. I would say that this goes back to the ideal of judging an idea on its merits. If you're in the group of people who thinks there is such a thing as objective reality, then when someone says something, then you evaluate the objective merits of what he said. Is what he said true? Not "he's a member of a different identity group, so I'm going to discount or ignore what he says."
Decades ago, California's Republican Party started appealing to far-right groups and white nationalists, which partly led to the party's decline. Do you worry this will happen to you?
One is always concerned when working for a political party to not take steps to shoot oneself in the foot. But in Portland, we must look at the long game. We are unlikely to be electing a [Republican] mayor anytime soon. So I would give you the counter-analogy of Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan. Barry Goldwater was successfully demonized as an extremist, a perception that he fueled by saying that extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice, and he lost. But the defense of these ideals ultimately gained traction and led to the election of Ronald Reagan. So I think the pendulum will swing. As people begin to get a lower and lower opinion of the leftists and the results of their disastrously counterproductive policies, a good honest defense of fundamental principles like the rule of law and limited government will eventually gain adherence. Even if it is unfashionable at the moment.