The GOP’s Nazi Problem Has Deep Roots

The GOP’s Nazi Problem Has Deep Roots

The GOP’s Nazi Problem Has Deep Roots

To build their popular front on the right, Republicans are happy to recruit white nationalists.

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Even as his bid to become the Republican presidential nominee circles the drain, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis can take pride in the fact that he is almost keeping pace with his chief rival in having embarrassing Nazi scandals. Earlier this week, in response to continuing lackluster polling, DeSantis fired 38 staffers. Axios noted that one of those staffers was Nate Hochman, a speechwriter who “secretly created and shared a pro-DeSantis video that featured the candidate at the center of a Sonnenrad, an ancient symbol appropriated by the Nazis and still used by some white supremacists.” Earlier, Hochman and other staffers stirred controversy by sharing a bizarre homophobic and transphobic pro-DeSantis ad (presented as a fan creation, even though evidence points to its being another in-house production). This follows hot on the heels of a June scandal when it turned out that Pedro Gonzalez, a pro-DeSantis influencer whose social media voice was being promoted by the Florida governor’s staff, had a record of anti-Semitic, racist, and fascist private direct messages.

Although he’s trying hard, DeSantis still lags behind front-runner Donald Trump—not just in the polls but also in shameless pandering to white nationalists. Trump of course has the advantage of a head start in this competition. His extensive record (crisply catalogued in a 2017 Slate article) includes his numerous sly uses of alt-right memes, his promotion of extremists like Steve Bannon and Sebastian Gorka, and his infamous “very fine people” response to the 2017 white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Va. More recently, Trump dined last year with Adolf Hitler aficionado and Holocaust denier Nick Fuentes.

But the GOP’s white nationalist problem extends beyond the Trump/DeSantis race. On Wednesday, Media Matters reported that Matteo Cina, a Fox News staffer and former writer for Texas Governor Gregg Abbott, repeatedly posted anti-Semitic messages on TikTok. One Cina post argued that “it is hard to talk about the Holocaust and rising anti semitism [sic] without discussing Jewish presence in banking.” Arizona Representative Paul Gosar has extensive ties to the racist far right. In 2021, he spoke at a white nationalist rally hosted by Fuentes. Earlier this year, Hunter Walker of Talking Points Memo reported that Gosar’s digital director, Wade Searle, can be linked to an “extensive digital trail” on white supremacist websites, including those that support Fuentes.

The mounting evidence that many prominent Republican politicians, including a former president, either have Nazi ties or are courting the Nazi vote is unsettling. Frequently, this fact leads to some form of denial or excuse-making—such as the claim that young Republicans are “too online” or just engaging in the familiar puerile prank of adopting rhetoric designed to shock liberals.

There is a smidgen of truth to this argument. Shock Jock mockery and malicious frat boy bigotry are familiar styles of right-wing comedy—a tradition that runs from The American Spectator to Rush Limbaugh to Donald Trump.

But this cruel comedy isn’t just about lolz; it’s also a political strategy. As centrist pundit Jonathan Chait cogently observed, the DeSantis campaign made a conscious decision “to woo the extreme right.” That’s why it hired Hochman, a rising star on the right, “after it was reported he had participated in a Twitter Spaces with Nick Fuentes.” Chait describes a telling incident in 2022 when “a small band of Nazis menaced Jewish students in Orlando.” While Florida Republicans denounced the incident, DeSantis spokesperson Christine Pushaw claimed that the incident was faked by Democrats. DeSantis himself accused the media of trying to smear him. Chait argues, “The point of this political theater was not merely to display dominance against the media. It was to signal tribal solidarity with right-wing allies, by demonstrating DeSantis would not renounce them.” (Although it’s hard to square Chait’s acute analysis here with his earlier claim that DeSantis deserves liberal good wishes as a “lesser evil” than Trump).

Playing footsy with white nationalists has a long history on the American right, one that scholars have been giving more attention to recently. Next year, Yale University Press will be releasing an illuminating book by historian David Austin Walsh titled Taking Back America: The Conservative Movement and the Far Right, a far-reaching challenge to conventional accounts of the history of the right, including the role played by figures like William F. Buckley Jr., the founder of National Review.

Walsh, currently a postdoctoral associate at the Yale Program for the Study of Antisemitism, is part of a cutting-edge cohort of scholars who reject the traditional view that there is a strong distinction between mainstream conservatism and the far right. Rather, the emerging research on the right documents a long history of porous boundaries, with respectable elected officials and mainstream pundits repeatedly working with figures on fringe, including Nazis.

In his forthcoming book, Walsh notes:

Modern conservatism emerged out of opposition to the New Deal in the 1930s and 1940s, forming a right-wing popular front—a term coined by William F. Buckley, Jr. in his private correspondence—with the openly racist, antisemitic, and pro-fascist far right. This coalition proved to be remarkably durable until the 1960s, when the popular front began to unravel as some conservatives proved to be unwilling to make even modest concessions to the demands of the civil rights movement and jettison explicit racism and antisemitism. These apostate conservatives would form the basis of modern white nationalism—and the boundaries where “responsible” conservatism ended and the far right began were usually blurred. Trump’s statement after the deadly Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia…was not an outlier. Twentieth-century American conservatism did not equal fascism, but it evolved out of a right-wing popular front that included fascist and quasi-fascist elements.

In the nostalgic memory of some liberals, William F. Buckley is fondly recalled as an avatar of a more cerebral and genteel conservatism, one that rejected extremism. In this misty-eyed view of the past, Buckley was the type of conservative liberals could get along with, open to debate and willing to denounce extremist cranks like Robert Welch, founder of the conspiracy-obsessed John Birch Society.

Walsh counters this sentimental myth by noting that

the relationship between the far right and the “respectable” conservatives was far more intertwined than Buckley would later suggest. Not only were Welch and Buckley once friends—Buckley had approached Welch in 1955 for seed funding for the magazine that would become National Review—but many of the men in Buckley’s orbit blurred the boundaries between the respectable and radical right…. The first book review editor for National Review, Revilo Oliver, was a professor of classics at the University of Illinois who believed that communists and Jews were behind the civil rights movement and that the ultimate goal was the genocide of white people. Oliver would eventually become a major figure in the American neo-Nazi movement.

Walsh’s concept of a “right-wing popular front” is extremely clarifying. We can see how this popular front functioned in popularizing Holocaust denial. This subject is described in a superbly researched article, “The Pre-History of American Holocaust Denial,” by John P. Jackson Jr., which appeared in American Jewish History in 2021. Jackson, who teaches at James Madison College at Michigan State University, documents that “Holocaust denial, far from being the sole province of the extreme antisemitic right, was often embraced by the mainstream right wing of American politics.”

In the immediate aftermath of World War II, there were two distinct groups of Americans interested in minimizing Nazi genocide (the scope of which was not yet fully grasped, with usage of the word “Holocaust” only gaining currency in subsequent decades): Nazi apologists, and Old Right isolationists who hated Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal. These two groups often worked together to promote books and articles that downplayed Nazi crimes and blamed FDR for World War II. Major conservative publishers like Regnery, Devin-Adair, and Caxton all published books by fascist sympathizers.

Regnery, founded in 1947 by Henry Regnery, is an especially interesting case, because in the 1950s it made a name for itself as publisher of many of the most distinguished works of the burgeoning conservative movement such as Buckley’s God and Man at Yale (1951) and Russell Kirk’s The Conservative Mind (1953). More recently, the press has moved away from highfalutin theory and been a megaphone for more blunt and abrasive voices like Ann Coulter and Newt Gingrich.

But in the same period that Regnery was publishing Buckley and Kirk, it was also the publisher of books like Montgomery Belgion’s Victor’s Justice (1949), which argued that denazification was “the equivalent of ‘persecution of Jews’ by German National Socialists.” Belgion also offered extenuating justifications for anti-Semitism by claiming that “from 1918 to 1933 certain Jews—many of them immigrants from the East…waxed rich at the expense of the people in general and obtained in the economic life of the nation a preponderance excessive in respect of their number.”

Regnery also published Charles Tansill’s Back Door to War (1952), which, in Jackson’s summary, claims that “Hitler was a peace-loving leader who had been fooled into invading Poland by the demonically clever Roosevelt.”

Henry Regnery admired F.J.P. Veale’s Advance to Barbarism (published by C.C. Nelson in 1953), which alleged that the mistreatment of ethnic Germans in Eastern Europe “was in some ways even more horrible and cruel than…Hitler’s extermination of the Jews.” Veale’s book was praised in National Review in 1955.

Jackson documents that this type of Old Right isolationist pro-Nazi sentiment was withering away by the end of the 1950s, but the cause of minimizing (and sometimes denying) the Holocaust was increasingly taken up by a new cohort of self-styled libertarians. Like the Old Right, the libertarians were motivated by a hatred of Roosevelt and the New Deal, which spilled over into a project of discrediting Roosevelt’s foreign policy, even if that meant supporting Nazi apologias.

Curiously, a leader of this trend was Murray Rothbard, who was himself Jewish but had no compunction about befriending anti-Semites like Willis Carto, head of the Liberty League. In private correspondence, Rothbard upbraided “the kikes” and complained about “bellyaching about the 6 million ad nauseam.”

Rothbard was an early reader and admirer of the privately circulated “long memorandum” written by David Leslie Hoggan in 1966—a foundational text in Holocaust denial. Rothbard praised what he called “6mm revisionism” in a letter in a letter to the historian Harry Elmer Barnes, a complex and major figure whose career illustrates both the use and abuse of historical revisionism.

In the 1920s, Barnes won widespread scholarly and popular acclaim for books such as The Genesis of the World War (1926), where he was an incisive and persuasive critic of simplistic wartime propaganda that pinned blame for the First World War solely on Germany and the Central Powers. As such, he served as a model for the salutary and necessary work of scholarly revisionism willing to challenge conventional narratives, serving as a precursor of figures like A.J.P. Taylor and William Appleman Williams, who brought revisionism to subsequent foreign policy debates. Unfortunately, in the last two decades of his life, Barnes (who died in 1968 at age 79) went beyond his admirable skepticism of mainstream and government-approved narratives. He became a conspiracy theorist who pioneered some of the early arguments of Holocaust denial. It was this later crackpot Barnes who was cherished by right-wing partisans like Rothbard.

In the pages of his journal, New Individualist Review, in 1962, Barnes argued that “there is no unique or special case against Nazi barbarism and horrors unless one assumes that it is far more wicked to exterminate Jews than to massacre Gentiles.” In a 1961 letter to a colleague, Barnes was even more explicit, worrying that “the 6mm will never be debamboozled in my lifetime, and probably not yours. The Khazars [i.e., Jews] have licked Revisionism for a long time…. I fear that only a totalitarian world can ‘contain’ the Khazars.”

Rothbard worked diligently to promote figures like Barnes in libertarian circles. Rothbard’s efforts paid many dividends. In 1976, Reason magazine published a special issue on revisionism. Most of it concerned Cold War revisionism questioning foreign policy hawkishness. But the issue also included versions of Holocaust denial, including an article by Gary North that praised an anonymous book titled The Myth of the Six Million, which was in fact a reworking of Hoggan’s “long memorandum.” North claimed that it “presented a solid case against the Establishment’s favorite horror story.”

Rothbard died in 1995, but his legacy currently looms larger than ever in American politics. As journalist John Ganz has documented, Rothbard was an important precursor of Trump and MAGA. In the last decade of his life, Rothbard revitalized the idea of a right-wing popular front by creating a coalition of paleolibertarians and paleoconservatives that included the white nationalist Samuel T. Francis (who died in 2005) and the Catholic reactionary Pat Buchanan. This group was united by an opposition to what they regarded as a compromised conservative establishment. They took inspiration from the rise of figures like former Klansman David Duke, believing that his career marked a new, more openly race-conscious, reactionary politics.

Prior to his fiasco as a DeSantis speechwriter, Nate Hochman had been an emerging intellectual star on the right. His writing, including a 2022 essay in The New York Times that makes note of the rising influence of Francis’s ideas, shows that Hochman (who is also Jewish) very self-consciously sees himself as an heir to the paleoconservative project.

The right-wing popular front, which frayed in the 1960s, has returned with a vengeance. The urgent task for liberals and leftists is to organize our own alliance in the mold of the original popular front, which the right has merely mimicked and travestied.

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