This piece appeared in slightly different form in The Nation, April 18, 2018.
“Jews commit a disproportionate number of mass shootings,” Wisconsin Republican congressional candidate Paul Nehlen lied on Facebook recently. Earlier he had tweeted, “Poop, incest, and pedophilia. Why are those common themes repeated so often with Jews?” Another GOP House hopeful, Pennsylvania’s Sean Donahue, recently told me, “The United States was intended to be white. I don’t see why we had to have the Fair Housing Act.”
Welcome to Trump’s America, where a rash of white nationalist candidates is running for office. Between nine and 17 white supremacists and far-right militia leaders are currently candidates for House and Senate, governorships, and state legislatures.
Most have little chance of winning, but as with neo-Nazi Arthur Jones, who recently ran unopposed in the Republican primary for the 3rd Congressional District in the Chicago area and won 20,339 votes, their mere candidacies, along with other Republicans’ growing acceptance of them as legitimate stakeholders in the party, are dangerous. “They are by their very presence shifting the pole of what most Americans find to be acceptable political discourse,” said Erik K. Ward of the Western States Center, a progressive group in seven states where white nationalism has been active.
Heidi Beirich, intelligence project director of the Southern Poverty Law Center, pointed to an August 2017 Washington Post/ABC News poll that shows 9 percent of Americans now find it acceptable to hold neo-Nazi views. (Of strong Trump supporters, 17 percent say they accept neo-Nazi views, and 13 percent say they have no opinion one way or the other.) “This is a Trump phenomenon,” Beirich told me. “In the past, [white-power groups] saw no space for themselves in the public sphere at all. You’d see the Aryan Nations saying, ‘We never really thought politics was worth our time.'” Both Trump and a new rush of racist candidates, she said, have had the effect of “re-engaging white supremacists in the political system. Before, they were basically apolitical.”
In the new Republican universe, a flood of so-called “alt-lite” media organs and activist have become enormously influential. Sites like The Daily Caller, Gateway Pundit, Rebel Media, InfoWars, GotNews, and other “mini Breitbarts” have championed the alt-right, employed white nationalists as editors and writers, and expressed views similar to white nationalism. And through their popularity and ties to Trump staffers, they’ve been able to influence the White House and demonstrate that there is room for overtly racist policies in the US political system. President Trump has read and acted upon at least one article from Chuck Johnson’s GotNews (about a supposed leak by deputy chief of staff Katie Walsh, which Politico says led to Trump firing her). Alt-lite solo media-man Mike Cernovich—who has said “diversity is code for white genocide” and “I like choking a woman until her eyes go almost lifeless”—has demonstrated access to the White House through his scoops about personnel matters and Trump’s bombing of Syria. Both Donald Trump, Jr. and Kellyanne Conway have publicly praised Cernovich, with the president’s son saying he deserves “a Pulitzer.” Cernovich said he’s considering running for Congress this year in California.
Some of these far-right media activists maintain what their own comrades call “plausible deniability” of white supremacism. In this media landscape, the effect of open white nationalists running for office is to push the limits of acceptable public racism even further. Self-declared white nationalists running for office not only give cover to “merely” anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim, anti-Latino, and Trumpist candidates and officials, they also can radically shift the Overton window, a term that describes the range of ideas that the mainstream media deems politically acceptable to discuss.
These new candidates “are not limited by what exists, so they can imagine genocide, they can seriously play around with deporting millions of people,” said Spencer Sunshine, a longtime writer and researcher on the far right. As such notions enter the public discussion through the far-right media, racist violence becomes more likely. Sunshine told me, “White nationalists’ milieu is super-violent, so any rise in their movement,” including mainstream publicity of their candidacies, will be “accompanied by violence.” According to a study by the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism, white supremacists killed 18 people in 2017, more than double the previous year; hate crimes in major cities jumped by 20% the same year, according to data compiled by the Center For The Study Of Hate And Extremism at California State University/San Bernardino. Along with Trump’s election, it is not unreasonable to attribute that to the rise in the alt-right’s popularity and its accompanying online media.
“What’s dangerous is the way Trump has helped institutionalize ethnonationalist currents in a way we haven’t seen since before the civil rights movement,” says Spencer Sunshine, an associate fellow at Political Research Associates, which monitors the far right.
The growing profile of such candidates means they sometimes have a legitimate shot at winning national office. Running for governor in Virginia last year, Prince William County Board of Supervisors chair Corey Stewart campaigned several times with Jason Kessler, the white nationalist who would soon organize the violent Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville. (Kessler has been charged in several federal lawsuits with conspiring to incite violence at the neo-Nazi rally.) Stewart came within one percentage point of winning the Republican nomination by devoting almost his entire campaign to defending Confederate monuments. That is to say, in a purple state he won 43 percent of the GOP vote clutching a huge Confederate flag and holding rallies attended mostly by white nationalists. Soon, he was using the racist, sexist white-nationalist terms “cuck” and “cuckservative,” applying them in a Reddit chat to then-Democratic governor Terry McAuliffe and to his primary opponent, Ed Gillespie. (The label comes from “cuckold porn,” where a white man—the “cuck”—watches, humiliated, as a black man has sex with the cuck’s white wife.) Stewart also palled up to Cernovich, sitting for an interview with him. The day after Charlottesville, Stewart condemned “all the weak Republicans” who “couldn’t apologize fast enough” for the violence at the rally.
This year, he’s running for Senate against Democrat Tim Kaine. Stewart isn’t emphasizing the Confederacy this time, but he continues to speak in language designed to appeal to the alt-right. He falsely claimed on Twitter in January that Michael Moore had “called for the ethnic cleansing of white people in America,” and later that McAuliffe had incited violence in Charlottesville. Above a photo purporting to illustrate the headline “Thousands of pounds of human waste,” Stewart tweeted, “California is full of crap. Stop sanctuary cities!”
So far, Stewart is leading in polls of Republican voters, though Kaine beats all Republican hopefuls in a hypothetical matchup. As Prince William County Board of Supervisors chair, Stewart is most known for rounding up undocumented immigrants, getting county police to turn over 7,500 individuals to ICE, and calling for mass deportations.
It is hard to tell whether Stewart is an opportunist Trumpian flirting with white nationalism for political gain or a true believer, but it may not matter. In fact, in some ways it’s more worrisome if he is a fellow traveler who thinks alt-right affiliations will win him votes. In far-right demonstrations throughout the country, as Sunshine has noted, Trumpists have been sharing bullhorns with virulent white supremacists, anti-Semites, and militia members.
And Stewart’s spokesperson, Noel Fritsch, has even deeper connections to white nationalism. At one point, Fritsch was the main political consultant for Paul Nehlen, serving during a time period when Nehlen appeared on the white-power podcast Fash the Nation, retweeted encomiums to the neo-Nazi march in Charlottesville as “an incredible moment for white people,” and told African American interlocutors on Twitter to “Run along, Tyrone.”
Fritsch also served as a spokesman for former Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore’s campaign, and as a “journalist” for the far-right “news site” Big League Politics, which is owned and operated primarily by alt-right-friendly political consultants and publishes favorable articles about their clients, including Stewart, Nehlen, and Moore.
Dwayne E. Dixon, a lecturer at University of North Carolina/Chapel Hill and an anti-Nazi protester at the Charlottesville rally, wrote on a faculty listserv that on February 7 Fritsch and another man (who turned out to be the founder of Big League Politics, Patrick Howley) had accosted him with a video camera in his office hallway, physically tried to prevent him from leaving, and yelled out questions like, “How do you feel about being responsible for the death of Heather Heyer [the 32-year-old woman whom white-supremacist James Fields murdered by driving his car into a crowd at Charlottesville]?” A source close to Dixon said when he tried to get away from the two men, “Fritsch bodychecked him so he couldn’t get past, trying to pin him so he’d have to fight them.” Fritsch put his foot in Dixon’s office door so that Dixon couldn’t close it, then, when the anthropology professor slipped out and hid under a desk in a nearby office with a colleague and that colleague’s 12-year-old son, Fritsch and Howley “physically surrounded the desk so that none of them could get out.” The men finally left when Dixon called the police. (Fritsch and Stewart both declined to comment for this article.)
Yet Nehlen is even scarier, compiling lists of Jews in the media and reposting articles from The Daily Stormer, a neo-Nazi blog. Now that Paul Ryan has decided not to run for reelection, Nehlen’s only Republican opponent so far is Nick Polce, who has only 536 likes on Facebook compared to Nehlen’s over 41,000. A source familiar with Wisconsin politics told me it’s expected that if Ryan does drop out, he will enlist “someone credible” to run against Nehlen in the primary before the filing date of June 1, but so far Robin Vos, Reince Priebus, and others have declined to run, leading to the frightening possibility that Nehlen could win the nomination. If he does, he will face progressive Democrat Randy Bryce, a former union ironworker.
Though segments of the Republican Party apparatus have condemned Nehlen and candidates like him, other GOP institutions are treating white nationalists as normal or even desirable. A Republican women’s group from South Carolina recently hosted Nehlen as the guest speaker at its Presidents’ Day dinner, and white-supremacist militia groups like the Oath Keepers and Three Percenters have made strong alliances with the GOP apparatus in states like Oregon, Arizona, and Michigan, even being asked to provide security at party events. Longtime Pennsylvania neo-Nazi skinhead Steven Smith, who was convicted of beating a black man with stones and chunks of pavement, is running for his second term as a member of the Republican county committee in Luzerne County. Sunshine told me Smith’s skinhead group, Keystone United, “is totally entrenched in his town,” Pittston City.
But it’s not just aspiring politicians who have embraced white-nationalist groups and supporters. Two Republican Congressmen who are up for reelection—Matt Gaetz of Florida and Dana Rohrabacher of California—have associated themselves with the racist internet-troll Chuck Johnson, whom Gaetz invited to the State of the Union, and Rohrabacher called a “friend.” (Rohrabacher also accepted a $5,400 bitcoin donation from Johnson.) Along with the media site GotNews, Johnson is best known for founding the white-nationalist fundraising site WeSearchr, which has helped neo-Nazi Daily Stormer publisher Andrew Anglin, among others, raise money. Forbes reported that Johnson worked closely with the Trump transition team—especially with executive committee member Peter Thiel—on hiring decisions. Among others, Johnson pushed the hiring of Ajit Pai, who became the FCC head.
Then there are Representative Steve King (R-Iowa) and Joe Arpaio, running for Arizona Senate, who aren’t usually classified as white nationalists, but ought to be on this list because of their extreme and open racism while in public office. In December, King approvingly quoted the authoritarian prime minister of Hungary, Victor Orbán, who had said, “Mixing cultures will not lead to a higher quality of life but a lower one.” Earlier, King had suggested that only white people had made contributions to civilization. Arpaio, of course, was determined to have initiated “a pervasive culture of discriminatory bias against Latinos” while the sheriff of Maricopa County and to have violated Latinos’ constitutional rights. Arpaio is also connected to the white-supremacist paramilitary known as the Oath Keepers, through the anti-federal government Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association that he helped found; as Rolling Stone reported, the CSPOA shares some leaders with the paramilitary group.
And on the local level, Michael Peroutka, a member until 2014 of the neo-Confederate hate group League of the South, is running for reelection after one term as county-council chair in Anne Arundel, Maryland. He is also a Christian Reconstructionist, meaning he wants to enact a theocratic government run by fundamentalist Christians.
Two men of color running for Congress in long-shot races are also making broad appeals to white nationalists. Shiva Ayyadurai, an Indian-American running against Senator Elizabeth Warren in Massachusetts, has made a fast friend of Charlottesville tiki-torch holder Matt Colligan, who’s repeatedly said “Hitler did nothing wrong.” (The candidate appeared on Colligan’s broadcast, called the neo-Nazi “one of our great supporters.”) Ayyadurai has also issued campaign pins featuring Groyper, a cartoon toad that’s become a white-nationalist symbol. His candidacy occurs in an international context in which far-right, anti-Muslim politicos in India have aligned themselves with Nazism. Meanwhile, contemporary white Identitarians in the US, like Richard Spencer, have sometimes sought to include in their organizations “fellow Aryans” from India and Iran.
And Edwin Duterte, a Filipino-American running against Democratic Representative Maxine Waters, has purchased a premium membership on the white-nationalist platform Gab, where he has referred to his opponent as “low-IQ Maxine,” echoing a racist comment made by Trump. Asked about it in a phone interview, Duterte just giggled and said, “It’s a good nickname.” Duterte is also insisting that a debate with his Republican primary opponents include as moderators the neo-Nazi known as Baked Alaska (Tim Gionet) and a Twitter personality named folkloreAmericana, who recently retweeted a warning against “Juden Tricks” and who identifies his own video broadcast as “alt-media for all.” In our interview, Duterte bizarrely called for getting the Crips, the Bloods, and the alt-right together “in a room and see what they all agree on.”
Ayyadurai and Duterte are part of a growing phenomenon in which a handful of fascist sympathizers of color have begun to associate with some white-nationalist groups, who have returned the favor by allowing a few men of color to join.
This year’s CPAC could be thought of in some ways as the political center of the Republican Party. There, Trump addressed white-nationalists like Nick Fuentes, Peter Brimelow, and Marcus Epstein, as well as alt-lite figures now influential in the GOP like Cernovich. Although CPAC has continued to ban Spencer, these other open racists were free to attend. As the line separating Trumpists from white nationalists grows finer, the president’s radical policies—like ending the admission of most refugees, detaining pregnant women in ICE facilities, and seeking to curtail legal immigration—are increasingly being seen as reasonable political decisions. “White-nationalist candidates can make a very hard-right candidate look moderate,” warned Ward of the Western States Center.
The public conversation around immigration in particular has shifted so far to the right that it’s barely recognizable from the mainstream discussions four years ago. Shockingly, a senior fellow at the liberal Brookings Institution, William Galston, recently said on The Brian Lehrer Show that the United States’ five-decade-long policy of family reunification—what Trump calls “chain migration”—had been “a failure” and should be abolished. Trump, of course, recently ordered 4,000 National Guard troops to the Mexico border, despite the fact that undocumented crossings have decreased by 1,300,000 since the year 2000. Trump also issued a memo requiring that immigrants be detained until their court dates, even if those are several years away. Additionally, the director of Trump’s Office of Refugee Resettlement keeps a spreadsheet of detained undocumented teenagers who want abortions, so he can try to prevent them from obtaining the procedure.
Another danger of white-nationalist candidacies is that “we know electoral campaigns are one of the surest ways of increasing one’s base and raising dollars,” Ward said. The more self-declared racists run for office, the more they will develop a political infrastructure that exists outside the internet. Added Ward, “Campaigns create an influx of cash that can be used to run ads and pay salaries that allow white nationalists to organize.”
They also often force the left to spend time preventing the threat of fascism instead of fighting for the things we want: economic, race, gender, and sexual justice, and meaningful work. “If the real issue is the lack of living-wage jobs in a community,” Ward told me, “a white-nationalist candidate can derail that by turning it into a discussion of immigration.”
Ditto with issues like working conditions, addiction, gentrification, and lack of access to healthcare, where white nationalist candidates can turnthe discussion from community needs to the supposed oppressions visited on white people. In the end, one of the most meaningful things we can do to protect this country from the dangers posed by the white-supremacist movement is to strengthen a multiracial,multiregion movement for economic justice iIf we can’t do that, this might be the start of a wave of white nationalists riding Trump’s coattails into office.