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. Continue reading “Election 2018: Off to the Racists”