“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 nationalists are running for office. Depending on your definition, anywhere from nine and 17 white supremacists and far-right militia leaders are currently running for House and Senate seats, governorships, and state legislatures.
Most have little chance of winning, but as with the neo-Nazi Arthur Jones, who recently ran unopposed in the Republican primary for the Third Congressional District in the Chicago area and garnered 20,458 votes, their mere candidacies, along with their growing acceptance by other Republicans as legitimate stakeholders in the party, are a dangerous development. “They are, by their very presence, shifting the pole of what most Americans find to be acceptable political discourse,” said Eric K. Ward of the Western States Center, a progressive organization that works in seven states where white-nationalist groups have been active.
Heidi Beirich, director of the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Intelligence Project, pointed to an August 2017 Washington Post/ABC News poll indicating that 9 percent of Americans now find it acceptable to hold neo-Nazi views. (Among 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 clutch of racist candidates, she added, have had the effect of “reengaging 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 activists have become enormously influential. Sites like The Daily Caller, The Gateway Pundit, The 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 their ties to Trump staffers, they’ve been able to influence the White House and demonstrate that there is room for the advocacy of openly racist policies in the US political system. President Trump has read and reacted to at least one article from GotNews, which is run by the racist Internet troll Chuck Johnson. (The piece was about a supposed leak by deputy chief of staff Katie Walsh, with Politico reporting that she left the White House shortly after.) 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 almost go lifeless”—has demonstrated access to the White House through his scoops on personnel matters and Trump’s strike on Syria last April. Both Donald Trump Jr. and Kellyanne Conway have publicly praised Cernovich, with the president’s son saying he deserves “a Pulitzer.” Cernovich has announced he’s considering running for Congress in California this year.
Many of these far-right media activists maintain what their own comrades call “plausible deniability” with regard to white supremacy. In this media landscape, the effect of having avowed white nationalists running for office is to push the limits of acceptable public racism even further. It not only provides cover for the “merely” anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim, and anti-Latino candidates and officials; it can also radically shift the Overton window, a term that describes the range of ideas that the mainstream media deem politically acceptable.
These new candidates are not limited by existing norms, “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 via the far-right media, racist violence becomes more likely. “White nationalists’ milieu is super-violent,” Sunshine said, “so any rise in their movement,” including mainstream publicity for their candidacies, will be “accompanied by violence.” With Trump’s election and the rise of alt-right media, we’re already seeing a spike in racist attacks. According to a study by the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism, white supremacists killed 18 people in 2017, around double the number from the previous year; meanwhile, hate crimes in major cities jumped 20 percent in the same year, according to the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino.
The growing profile of such candidates means they sometimes have a legitimate shot at winning office. When he was running for governor in Virginia last year, Corey Stewart, chairman of the Prince William Board of County Supervisors, made several appearances with Jason Kessler, the white nationalist who would soon organize the violent “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville. (Kessler has been charged in state and 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 virtually his entire campaign to defending Confederate monuments. That is to say, he won 43 percent of the GOP vote in a purple state clutching a huge Confederate flag and holding events attended by white nationalists. Stewart also palled up to Cernovich, sitting with him for an interview, and used the racist, sexist, white-nationalist terms “cuck” and “cuckservative,” applying them in a Reddit chat to his primary opponent, Ed Gillespie, and to then–Democratic Governor Terry McAuliffe. (The terms come from so-called cuckold porn, in which a white man—the “cuck”—watches, humiliated, as a black man has sex with the cuck’s white wife.)
This year, Stewart is running for Senate against Democrat Tim Kaine. He isn’t emphasizing the Confederacy this time, but he continues to speak in language designed to appeal to the alt-right. In January, he falsely claimed on Twitter that Michael Moore had “call[ed] for the ethnic cleansing of white people in America,” and later that McAuliffe had incited the violence in Charlottesville. Commenting on an article from an Orange County newspaper with 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 every Republican hopeful in a hypothetical matchup. As the Board of Supervisors chair in Prince William County, Stewart is best known for rounding up undocumented immigrants, getting county police to turn over 7,500 individuals to Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and calling for mass deportations. It’s hard to tell whether he’s a Trumpian opportunist flirting with white nationalism for political gain or a die-hard true believer, but in the end it might not matter. As Sunshine has noted, in far-right demonstrations throughout the country, Trumpists have been sharing bullhorns with virulent white supremacists, anti-Semites, and militia members.
And Stewart’s spokesman, Noel Fritsch, has even deeper connections to white nationalism. At one point, Fritsch was the main political consultant for Paul Nehlen, the white supremacist who challenged House Speaker Paul Ryan in the 2016 GOP primaries (and who will attempt to win the Republican nod for Ryan’s seat in the 2018 midterms). Fritsch worked for Nehlen during a period when he appeared on the racist podcast Fash the Nation, retweeted encomiums to the neo-Nazi march in Charlottesville as “an incredible moment for white people,” and told his 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 is heavily involved in the far-right “news site” Big League Politics, which, according to a Daily Beast investigation, is owned and primarily operated by alt-right-friendly political consultants and publishes favorable articles about their clients, including Stewart, Nehlen, and Moore.
Dwayne E. Dixon, a lecturer at the 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 Patrick Howley, the founder of Big League Politics) accosted him with a video camera in the hallway to his office, physically tried to prevent him from leaving, and interrogated him with questions like “Are you responsible for the death of Heather Heyer?” (Heyer was the 32-year-old woman killed when James Fields, a self-proclaimed white supremacist, allegedly rammed his car deliberately into a crowd of counterprotesters in Charlottesville.) A source close to Dixon said that when he tried to get away from the two, “Fritsch bodychecked him so he couldn’t get past, trying to pin him so he’d have to fight them.” When Dixon slipped out and hid under a desk in a nearby office with a colleague and the 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 after 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. With Ryan’s announcement that he will not seek reelection, Nehlen’s only opponent in the August 14 Republican primary is Nick Polce, who boasts a mere 609 “likes” on Facebook (as opposed to Nehlen’s 41,000-plus). A source familiar with Wisconsin politics told me it’s expected that “credible” Republicans will jump into the race before the June 1 filing date, but so far State Assembly speaker Robin Vos, ex-White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus, and others have declined to run, leading to the frightening possibility that Nehlen could win the nomination.
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 has said repeatedly that “Hitler did nothing wrong.” (The candidate appeared on a live video broadcast with Colligan, calling 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, 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 in California, has purchased a premium membership on Gab, a platform popular with white supremacists, where he’s 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.” He 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.”
Though segments of the Republican Party have condemned these candidates, other GOP institutions are treating white nationalists as normal or even desirable. A Republican women’s group from South Carolina hosted Nehlen as the guest speaker at its Presidents’ Day dinner, and militia groups with ties to white supremacists, such as the Oath Keepers and Three Percenters, have forged strong alliances with the GOP establishment in states like Oregon, Arizona, and Michigan, and have even been asked to provide security at party events.
Sitting politicians are also embracing white-nationalist supporters and groups. Two Republican congressmen up for reelection—Matt Gaetz of Florida and Dana Rohrabacher of California—have associated themselves with GotNews’s Chuck Johnson, whom Gaetz invited to Trump’s first State of the Union address and from whom Rohrabacher accepted a bitcoin donation worth $5,400. Along with GotNews, Johnson is best known for creating the white-nationalist fund-raising site WeSearchr, which has helped underwrite The Daily Stormer. Forbes has reported that Johnson worked with the Trump transition team—especially executive-committee member Peter Thiel—on hiring decisions. Among others, Johnson pushed for the hiring of Ajit Pai, who became head of the Federal Communications Commission.
Then there are Representative Steve King (R-IA) and former Maricopa County sheriff Joe Arpaio, now running for the US Senate seat from Arizona, who aren’t usually classified as white nationalists but deserve a place on this list because of their racism while in office. In December, King approvingly quoted the authoritarian prime minister of Hungary, Viktor Orbán, who had said, “Mixing cultures will not lead to a higher quality of life but a lower one.” Earlier, King suggested that only white people had contributed to civilization. Arpaio, of course, was found by the Justice Department to have initiated “a pervasive culture of discriminatory bias against Latinos” and to have violated their constitutional rights as sheriff. Arpaio is also connected to the Oath Keepers through the Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association, an anti-federal-government organization that he helped found; as reported in Rolling Stone, the CSPOA shares 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 County, Maryland. He is also a Christian Reconstructionist, meaning that he wants to enact a theocratic government run by fundamentalist Christians.
This year’s conservative political action Conference was in many ways 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—such as 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 the Western States Center’s Eric Ward.
The public conversation around immigration in particular has shifted so far to the right that it’s almost unrecognizable from the mainstream discussions four years ago. Shockingly, a senior fellow at the prestigious Brookings Institution, William Galston, recently said on WNYC’s 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 Mexican border, despite the fact that arrests for undocumented border crossings have decreased by 1.4 million since the year 2000. Trump also issued a memo requiring that immigrants be detained until their court dates, even if those dates 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 noted. The more that racists run for office, the more they will develop a political infrastructure. “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 catastrophically racist policies from being enacted instead of fighting for the things they want. “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 health care, where white-nationalist candidates can transform the discussion from community needs to the supposed oppressions visited on white people. In the end, one of the most meaningful ways to protect this country from the dangers posed by the white-supremacist movement is to strengthen a multiracial, multiregion movement for economic justice. If the left can’t do that, this year could be the start of a wave of white nationalists riding Trump’s coattails into office.
Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this article claimed that Joe Arpaio is running for the Arizona Senate. He is, in fact, running for the US Senate seat from Arizona. The Nation regrets the error.