I Applied For a Job With a Right-Wing Fringe Group
I’ve been working a job that I hate, so I’ve spent the last few weeks looking and applying for new jobs.
Applying for new jobs is among the most dehumanizing things the average American spends way too much time doing. Trying to compartmentalize your infinite complexities, qualities, and skills as a human into a single-page history of your recent employment and education is soul crushing. I have not been in a particularly good mood lately.
But the strangest rabbit holes emerge from the most mundane activities.
One morning–it was a Thursday, that bastard of the American work week–I woke up, made a pot of coffee, and once again embarked on a sad, lonely journey through the online job boards of a dying empire. It is bleak out there: marketing jobs for products and services no one really wants, communications jobs at nonprofits hopelessly struggling against the inevitable collapse of society, content writing gigs for blogs that may or may not actually exist, listings calling for police officers, paralegals, bartenders, and social workers. I am not particularly qualified to do anything beyond serving tables, pumping gas, and writing words on the internet, so most of the work is figuring out how to lie to prospective employers about my experience. My cover letters are shameful.
But one morning, something interesting arrived in my feed—something just intriguing enough to distract me from the debasement. It arrived just before my eyes glazed over, on the eleventh page of search results. If it were any further back in feed, I might’ve missed it.
The listing was perfectly innocuous upon first glance: “Project coordinator.” Bland. Vague. It could mean literally anything. Project coordinator could just as well be another term for a construction foreman or some soulless bureaucratic position at the Department of Motor Vehicles.
But it was the company name that drew me in: “Political freedom movement director and social media expert.”
What did it mean? Was that the name of the whole organization? Or was someone simply incompetent at using basic Indeed features? Perhaps it was an honest mistake, but that was chilling too —what was the Political Freedom Movement, and why were they looking for a director and social media expert? And most importantly: Why hadn’t I heard of them?
Naturally, all of this was very curious. So, I applied for the job. Of course I did. What’s the worst that could happen?
Even after I applied, I was hooked–I had to know more. That strange little sleuth switch in my brain, that does nothing but get me in trouble and give me anxiety, suddenly clicked on. The listing was full of buzzwords that I recognized as right-wing dog whistles, like “freedom fighters” and “fighting for our children’s rights.” And they were looking for people to do investigative work? Troubling and fascinating all at once.
I started googling phrases, keywords, sentences, names, dates, locations, zip codes, addresses. More and more questions arose. Before long, I was downloading zip drives of property records from the database of rural Columbia County. It was roughly noon on a Thursday; I had to work at 3:30. By 12:30, a little voice in my head telling me to call out of work had begun to sing its sweet tune. There were clearly much bigger things to explore than a kitchen in the dark bowels of the Moda Center.
I began with a single address, pulled from a different version of the job listing: 105 S. 18th Ave, in the heart of beautiful St. Helens, Oregon, roughly 30 or so miles northwest of Portland on Highway 30. A Google search for that address (and its representative street view images from 2018) brings me to an intersection in St. Helens. The building at that address is currently occupied by the St. Helens Chronicle, the tiny local newspaper for the area. But closer inspection reveals that the building’s address is actually 1899 Columbia Avenue. Curious… until I looked a little closer at the left side of the building, the one facing 18th Avenue.
There they are, numbers signing 105 tacked to the door. I felt confident that was the address. But I found it strange that the same building would have two addresses. That’s not usually how addresses work. So I leapt into the Columbia County website and started digging up property records to see if I could find a distinction. I found nothing for the aforementioned address, but the building itself, with the Columbia Avenue address, is registered to the MARION K CHRISTENSEN TRUST.
Okay! That’s a name! One I can easily plug into the trusty old search engine.
Once again, I was stifled. There’s not a whole lot out there about Marion Kem Christensen or the trust in her name. She’s mentioned in some obituaries for her late husband, Dave Christensen, who was once a prominent cattle rancher in the area. There are records suggesting that she–presumably through her trust–owns considerable property in Columbia County, including the building on Columbia Avenue. But beyond that, all that really exists are records about some racehorses.
But there’s also the names of some sons, Hunter and Chase. What if they’re the ones behind this ad? They would not be the first adult sons to launch an some upstart right-wing political organization in a building their parents own. Living and working rent-free is a very helpful first step in becoming a radical political agent; I imagine it’s easier to work toward dismantling democracy when the overhead is very low.
Nothing there, either. I cross-referenced the names across a myriad of social media sites, antifascist blogs, and property records, but once again, nothing came up that suggests they’re members of some shady right-wing political organization outside of Portland. I sent the names off to Mary, our resident repository of right-wing names and faces, but she didn’t know the names either, though she was equally intrigued by the rabbit hole into which I was plunging myself.
But by then, it was coming close to my call time at work, so I had to put aside the endless searching and puzzle solving and get ready to go sling pizzas. I did my makeup and listened to Pulp’s Different Class.
You can too. Let’s take a little break, work on our eyeliner, and enjoy a song together.
You look amazing! Now, take a deep breath, stretch a little bit, then strap yourself in, because this story gets a whole lot weirder.
I was graciously gifted a bike by a new friend the other day, which has liberated me from the tyranny of waiting for the bus and wondering which MAX train is the one on which I’ll be stabbed for being too attractive for some strange man’s taste. I’ve only been back on wheels for a couple days, but it’s reminded me how much I love riding a bike. It’s one of the few times in my life I feel truly free. Perhaps that’s not a unique feeling, but it doesn’t make it any less special or feel any less good.
But on this specific Thursday, it was cool and dry, ideal bike riding conditions, so I left for work a little earlier than usual and leisurely cruised across southeast Portland, past all the breweries, restaurants, and food trucks that I have yet to explore, the same businesses that didn’t respond to my job applications for reasons I’ll never understand, thereby forcing me to accept a job I didn’t really want to accept.
My head was not as empty as it usually is when I ride.
I couldn’t stop thinking about the Political freedom movement director and social media expert listing. I couldn’t stop the Christensen names from dancing around the inside of my skull. It seemed like they were taunting me, like there was something I was missing, like I just hadn’t researched hard enough to find the obvious link between all these things I had stumbled upon.
It wasn’t long before I started blaming the fact that I had to go to work for my frustration. If I were off today, I could sit at my computer for another few hours, digging deeper and deeper, trying to find the tiny strands that connect all these strange nodes of a potential story. But I had to keep pushing myself forward.
Like it or not, this is adulthood, I told myself. Sometimes you have to pay rent by making overpriced pizza for fans of the Portland Trail Blazers or drunk suburban cowboys from Gresham, Hillsboro, and Beaverton who bravely make the trek into lawless downtown Portland for the privilege of watching the Zac Brown Band from 2000 feet away.
You chose this life.
Work did not go well. I was distant and cold to my coworkers, silently nodding when they asked me to do something. They were having bouncy conversations about music and queerness and Halloween costumes and the shared traumatic experience of simply existing in the year 2022, but I couldn’t engage with any of them. All I wanted to do was leave, to be home, to sit in a bathtub with a bottle of wine trying to expose a bunch of stupid fascists.
So I did.
Everyone hits that point with their jobs eventually. Maybe it takes a few weeks, or maybe it takes twenty years, but there comes a time where every worker just gets fed up and quits. No amount of labor organizing or employee benefit packages can prevent the deep well of resentment that eventually builds up in the American worker. Most people are a little more gracious and offer up a two-week notice or just quietly retire, but sometimes one just has to quit by simply disappearing from work and never coming back. Some jobs are shitty, miserable experiences, and deserve no respect when they finally push a person to their breaking point. That Thursday was my breaking point.
And besides–I was getting paid the next day.
I took my sweet time getting home, riding my bike down quiet neighborhood side streets and admiring the colorful houses and technicolor trees of southeast Portland. For once, I stopped thinking. It was a lovely respite. But soon, I found myself by a bar I recognized, so I drank a beer. And once I drank that beer, my brain kicked into gear again, rejuvenated by the terrifying freedom of unemployment. And of course, it brought me right back to the puzzle I’d been working on all day.
I got right back to it.
The Christensens seemed like a dead-end, plus, there are a whole lot of Christensens in and around the Portland area, which makes it much harder to figure out who is related to who. So I backed up, starting thinking about the problem from a higher up. With some help from Mary and James, I started digging through names and connections of some of the more prominent members of the Columbia County G.O.P.
As you might suspect, the Republican Party of Columbia County is not a tremendously sophisticated organization–their web presence is minor, limited to a sparse website and a Facebook account. All I could find was the name of the party chair, Traci Brumbles, on the state G.O.P.’s website. I began to wonder if this job listing was actually a thinly veiled and poorly worded advertisement for the local Republican party, because they clearly needed a copywriter and a social media expert.
But things began to get interesting once I started drawing the network out from the party chair, Traci Brumbles.
Traci Brumbles appears to be married to Chris Brumbles, who is the Columbia County coordinator of the Oregon Firearms Federation and the Oath Keepers as recently as 2021. That same year, he spearheaded a ballot measure that essentially made it impossible for Columbia County to enforce any state and federal gun laws–with help from the III%ers and the Coos County Watchdogs. Even before this recent court victory of his, Chris Brumbles has been involved in the right-wing and gun rights scenes for several years now. He tried to make his 18-year-old daughter a cause célèbre for 2A groups after a Wal-mart refused to sell her a gun and helped make Columbia County eat crow for kicking Misty Fox out of a county fair for open-carrying a gun. He also frequently makes appearances on right-wing YouTube channels and hosts his own podcasts in which he lays out his right-wing bona fides, occasionally bringing on some notable guests including former Republican gubernatorial candidates Marc Thielman and Paul Romero.
So, that’s a pretty clear connection between potential right-wing extremists and the G.O.P. in one of the party’s rural outposts. But that’s not particularly news–the Republicans in rural counties all over Oregon (and the whole country, really) have lurched farther and farther to the right. It’s troublesome and scary–and therefore important to highlight and expose–but do enough digging on any local Republican Party chair and it will not take long to find their connections to far-right extremists.
And it still doesn’t bring me much closer to an answer to my initial question: Who is recruiting “freedom fighters” for a supposed political freedom movement on a popular job board?
I kept digging, trying to find connections.
The Brumbles, according to what they’ve publicly said, live in Deer Island, Oregon, population 393, further up Highway 30 from St. Helens. The Christensens, the landed family from earlier, were also from Deer Island, according to their property records. And Chris Brumbles, on his podcast, indirectly supported Chris Christensen for Senate earlier this year by allowing the candidate to run an advertisement during his show (in which he interviewed eventual winner Jo Rae Perkins, ironically enough).
Chris Christensen finished a distant fifth in the primary, but a quick search through his own media sources uncovered yet another string to tug. In a candidate interview with Portland TV station KATU, Christensen called his great-grandfather Omer Madison Kem his “hero.” Over on his YouTube channel, there’s a video of Christensen reciting a poem written by this hero of his, adding that Omer Kem was a populist congressman in the 1890s who was an avid proponent of eugenics.
That’s interesting! But it’s the last name–Kem–that pulled me in. I went back to Marion Christensen. Her maiden name? Kem. That family cattle ranch in Deer Island? Managed by Christensen and four members of the Kem clan. The Kems connect to the Christensens who connect to the Brumbles who connect to a sprawling right-wing network that’s spread across the whole state. It’s like playing Six Degrees of Separation, but with right-wing activists.
My head was spinning, so I started writing to sort it all out. I wrote the first half of this story in the bath, typing it out in my phone’s notes. But eventually, I ran out of steam, so I went to bed, skin softened, mind abuzz with all the possibilities I was about to uncover.
I didn’t sleep well. I dreamt of violence.
On a rainy Friday morning, I started feeling like this was all rather deranged behavior. Do you ever feel the same?
Perhaps one could argue that trying to unravel a network of neo-fascists in rural Oregon, trying to piece together how they all know and relate to each other, is a noble cause. I would certainly make that argument. But I didn’t really have anything on anyone except the Brumbles and what they’ve publicly said about themselves and what they believe.
I was suddenly reminded that the actual work of unraveling the network makes me feel like my mind is leaking through my ears and eyes.
It’s maddening, all of this–knowing it exists. Once I learned the signs, once I knew what to look for in the never-ending work of exposing right-wing and fascist networks, the signs started appearing everywhere. Theirs is an entire fringe dialect of English, full of double entendres and in-jokes and sub-ironies impossible to decipher without careful study and cross-referencing. The average person scrolling through those job boards would not be lured down the same rabbit holes as I was–they would just see a poorly formatted job posting in a far-flung part of rural Oregon and keep on moving.
And it’s weirdly unsettling, too. Being able to dig up information on all these people with relative ease, figure out how they relate to one another within just a few hours and a handful of search strings only makes clear that they might find my information just as easily, if they know where to look. It doesn’t matter how careful I am, how careful any of us are with our information–one day, we’ll get found. It’s enough to make me want to throw my laptop in the Willamette and my iPhone into a woodchipper.
But goddamn, it’s thrilling to feel so deranged! It’s intoxicating, isn’t it? This stuff keeps luring me back in because it makes me feel like I’m doing something, anything. These people, given the chance, would make all of our lives a nightmare, and doing whatever I can to make their lives just slightly more difficult just feels good.
That’s why it sticks in my brain, and that’s why it suffocates whatever part of me tries to walk a straight-and-narrow path through life. How could I work a proper job when there are fascists lurking in the misty forests outside of town? How could I cash a paycheck when fighting back feels so good?
What does that say about me, or about any of the people who do this work? I don’t know. But I’m not sure I’m going to like the answer I eventually find.
To distract myself from these worries, I resumed my search for a job. I opened my email and went back to checking the job boards. Waiting for me, right at the top, was this message, from the previous evening:
Additional reporting and sourcing made possible by Mary Bell.
This is a developing story, because you know goddamn well I’m gonna text that number and follow this to whatever absurd conclusion I’m hurtling toward. Stay tuned.
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