How a ‘False Flag’ Cry Has Divided Republicans in Oregon

An image in red and yellow of the U.S. Capitol and the Republican 'elephant'
Wikimedia / The Atlantic

In the view of the Oregon Republican Party, what transpired on January 6 was not an insurrection and the rioters who stormed the U.S. Capitol were not supporters of Donald Trump. Rather, the uprising that the world witnessed that day was a “false flag.” Its aim, according to the party, was to discredit Trump and “advance the Democrat goal of seizing total power, in a frightening parallel to the February 1933 burning of the German Reichstag.”

This conspiracy theory has been thoroughly debunked. But these are the words of a resolution that the Oregon GOP’s executive committee passed on the evening of January 18 by a vote of 12–2. Convening over Zoom for its monthly meeting, the party had taken up the two-page measure principally to condemn the “betrayal” of the 10 GOP House members who voted for Trump’s impeachment. It mattered little that none of those lawmakers represents Oregon or that the state’s lone Republican congressman had stood behind the soon-to-be former president.

The vote went fairly quickly, Tracy Honl, the vice chair of the Oregon GOP, told me. “There wasn’t a lot of debate.” The only substantive change the members made to the text, she said, was to strengthen it, replacing the word denounce with condemn. Honl voted for the resolution. Within a few hours, however, she began to have misgivings. By the next day, after being inundated with calls and emails, she regretted her vote. “It was almost, in a way, a kind of lightbulb that went, Oh no, what did you just do?” Honl said.

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Her regret over voting for the resolution isn’t really about its substance, she said, or about Trump. “I support President Trump,” she said, adding that she believes those who voted for his impeachment were wrong. Honl isn’t sure about the false-flag claim, which she barely paid attention to ahead of the vote. “I probably should have looked at the resolution as a whole instead of focusing on one section,” she said. When I asked if she believed that the people who stormed the Capitol were Trump supporters or leftists who had infiltrated the rally, she thought about it for several seconds. “I believe it was probably both,” she said.

Elected Republicans in Oregon were aghast that the state party’s leadership would formally embrace an obvious falsehood about the Capitol riot and liken it to the Nazi takeover of Germany. Days later, Christine Drazan, the Republican leader in the state House of Representatives, secured the support of her entire caucus for a statement repudiating the resolution.

At the heart of Oregon’s intraparty feud is a deepening divide over Trump and whether the former president should remain the de facto leader of the GOP. That fight is playing out in states across the country. To the frustration of those Republicans who want to steer a new course, state-party committees have become the strongest redoubts of Trumpism. State parties frequently attract the most passionate partisans, and unlike legislators, mayors, or governors, their leaders don’t have to govern in partnership with the other party. “We just have very different responsibilities,” Drazan told me. “I have a unique opportunity where my beliefs are expressed with my votes. I don’t have to be a bumper-sticker person or a sound-bite person.” State and local committees may not be directly accountable to voters, but they do the legwork of campaigning—registering voters, recruiting candidates, and, above all, raising money—and those crucial, if unsexy, activities often end up shaping the future of a party as much as, if not more than, its elected officials do.

Trump moved more aggressively than his predecessors to take control of state GOP affiliates across the country, installing allies as party leaders soon after winning the presidency in part to ensure that his renomination for a second term would not be challenged. That effort has paid off in the past three months, as state parties have rushed to demonstrate their fealty to the former president and punish his critics.

Representative Liz Cheney of Wyoming cast a high-profile vote for Trump’s impeachment. Less well known, the chairman of Wyoming’s state party, W. Frank Eathorne, traveled 1,600 miles to hear Trump’s speech on January 6. On Saturday, the state party voted overwhelmingly to censure Cheney. Nebraska Republicans are moving to censure Senator Ben Sasse merely for considering a vote to convict Trump. In Arizona, which saw Democrats flip a U.S. Senate seat and where Joe Biden became the first Democratic presidential candidate to carry the state in 24 years, the state Republican Party recently punished internal critics of Trump. The GOP chairman in Georgia sided with Trump as the president assailed the state’s Republican governor, Brian Kemp, and its secretary of state, Brad Raffensperger, for not trying to overturn Biden’s victory there.

In no state has the GOP fallen further over the past decade than in Oregon, which as recently as 2004 was a battleground in presidential contests. Republicans don’t hold any statewide offices and have just a single seat in Congress, while Democrats have won supermajorities in both chambers of the state legislature. A population boom fueled by the tech industry has pushed Portland and its suburbs to the left, and pockets of Central Oregon around the city of Bend have drawn an influx of liberals attracted to the area’s outdoor lifestyle, says Jim Moore, a political scientist at Oregon’s Pacific University. Moore’s voting district, outside Portland, illustrates the leftward shift: A decade ago, a precinct in his neighborhood backed the Democratic gubernatorial candidate by less than 1 percent; last year, Biden defeated Trump in the same precinct, 65 percent to 35 percent.

The Republican base in Oregon has also moved to the right. During the 1980s and ’90s, environmentally liberal Republicans won statewide office, but the party no longer supports such candidates. GOP lawmakers told me that the state party has done little to help them regain power, preferring to focus on national politics and ill-fated efforts to recall Governor Kate Brown. “In the course of a year, I have zero conversation with the Oregon Republican Party,” Lynn Findley, a newly elected GOP state senator, said.

The current state-GOP chairman, Bill Currier, didn’t return requests for comment, nor did Solomon Yue, the state’s national committeeman, who, according to Honl, spearheaded the “false flag” resolution. When I reached Currier’s predecessor, State Senator Art Robinson, he told me, “I don’t want to be quoted on it, because I know they do some screwy things.”

The jostling among Oregon Republicans is likely to come to a head later this month, when a group of GOP legislators will try to wrest control of the state party in elections for leadership posts. The fight is so sensitive that few wanted to discuss it openly or predict which side would win. “Do we latch on to the past administration and make that our flag in the ground? Or do we move forward?” asked Ron Noble, a Republican state representative who called the party’s resolution “completely wrong.”

Members of the party leadership are grappling with this question as well. Honl has decided not to run for another term. She said she wants the party to focus on registering voters and winning local races. Others in leadership, she said, believe that the party’s primary role is to elect delegates to the Republican National Committee and “participate on the national stage.”

Honl, however, remains far more concerned about the brutal reality of where Republicans stand in Oregon at the moment. In November, nearly 90 percent of registered Republicans voted. “That’s phenomenal,” Honl said. But, she added, “we still lost. We don’t have enough Republicans.” She has come, belatedly, to a realization that other Republicans, stung by the party’s presidential defeat in 2020, have also confronted in the months since the election. “We have to reach out to these others, to find our common ground to win them over,” Honl said. “But this resolution—unfortunately, this turns those very people off.”