A midterm Midwestern Congressional race that is still a year away isn’t normally the stuff that grabs national headlines, but the representative of the First Congressional District of Wisconsin doesn't occupy just any seat. It is held by House Speaker Paul Ryan, who is the most powerful man in the U.S. House of Representatives, and, it has recently been reported, may not be running for reelection.
Up to now, national attention to the race has been limited to a Democrat, steelworker everyman candidate Randy Bryce, gunning for Ryan’s seat. Recently, however, it has been Paul Nehlen, a businessman and declared Republican Ryan rival, whose naked appeals to the white nationalist community, appearances on far-right podcasts and heckling of Jews and other minorities on Twitter, who has been raising eyebrows and drawing attention from America's national media.
Nehlen, who challenged Ryan in the party primary in 2016 and was trounced 84-16, is a protégé and friend of Steve Bannon, the Breitbart News head and former campaign chair and aide to U.S. President Donald Trump. Through candidates like Nehlen, Bannon is taking aim at “establishment Republicans” like Ryan, hoping to unseat them. Nehlen fundraised and campaigned at Bannon’s side in the unsuccessful effort to elect Roy Moore in the recent Alabama special election to the U.S. Senate.
On his Congressional campaign website, Nehlen presents himself with a wholesome smile in front of a cornfield as a gun owner's rights advocate and anti-immigration fighter who will save America from “Muslim jihad.”
Nehlen styles himself as a free speech champion, calling for a federal law that would “prohibit censorship of lawful speech on major social media platforms” because “it is well-known that Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube discriminate against the right-wing.”
In his Trump-style Twitter feed, the Wisconsin politician bends over backwards to strike a humorous tone, calling himself a “happy warrior” whose “only fear is that I’m not working hard enough for my God.” But the increasingly blatant white nationalist appeals by Nehlen over the past week step over the careful line Steve Bannon attempts to draw between his “America First” nationalism and the more distasteful corners of the so-called "alt-right" that finds a home on Breitbart.
Over the past several weeks, Nehlen has jousted aggressively with Jews on Twitter, and on Tuesday, he suggested that lawyer-activist Ari Cohn convert to Christianity to “fill a Jesus-shaped hole” inside of him. In a lengthy thread, Nehlen volunteered to help Cohn get baptized alongside of him.
A day earlier, he had tweeted to Cohn that, “it's okay to be white. It's not okay to pretend to be for purposes of undermining whites. But you knew that.”
It's okay to be white.— Paul Nehlen (@pnehlen) December 18, 2017
It's not okay to pretend to be for purposes of undermining whites. But you knew that. pic.twitter.com/6WBk4IXLGp
The slogan “it’s okay to be white” is a popular white supremacist tagline, and it's the banner for former KKK Grand Wizard David Duke’s Twitter page.
Speaking with Haaretz, Cohn, whose Twitter feed was inundated with Nazi memes following the exchange, called Nehlen’s Twitter thread “a pretty classic case of a complete lack of self-awareness. Deflecting claims that you are a bigot by saying anti-Semitic things is not generally a winning strategy with reasonably intelligent people.”
Several other examples of Nehlen’s increasingly combative rhetoric and quest for “white nationalist street cred” were detailed in a recent HuffPost article. Huffpost reported: “On Dec. 8, Nehlen used Gab, a micro-blogging platform used primarily by white nationalists, to repost a drawing another user had made for him. The drawing showed a puny Ryan, seen as the anti-Trump, next to a buff 'Chad' Nehlen. (Chad is an alt-right term for a fit alpha-male womanizer). In the accompanying text, Nehlen is described as having redpilled on globalism, RR and JQ.”
Redpilled, a reference to the Matrix movie trilogy, is used to describe an awakening to white supremacist teachings. RR stands for race realism, and JQ stands for the Jewish question, the anti-Semitic conspiracy theory that Jews have undue influence over the media, banking and politics.
For its article, HuffPost asked Nehlen three separate times whether he considered himself a white nationalist or a member of the alt-right. All three times, the website reported, Nehlen avoided or refused to answer the question.
In early December, Nehlen locked horns on Twitter with conservative anti-Trump Jewish pundit John Podhoretz, in an exchange that evolved into the politician suggesting that Podhoretz “eat a bullet.”
Nehlen bragged about that altercation on December 8, appearing on the alt-right podcast “Fash the Nation” in which he referred to the “John Podhoretzes of the world, the people who want to throw their parentheses at you.”
The reference to parentheses was a nod to the neo-Nazi practice of putting parentheses around the names of Jews. It peaked on social media during the 2016 presidential campaign. On the show, Nehlen referred to his Twitter suspension as being “shoah’d” for 12 hours.
Nehlen so impressed “Fash the Nation” hosts that they suggested him and his “relentless” Twitter feed as a model for other GOP candidates in the mid-term 2018 elections. In a Wednesday blog post that seemed to ignore Nehlen’s poor showing in 2016 against Paul Ryan, they said “aspiring right-wing politicians can learn from Nehlen” and “with just twenty people or so like Paul Nehlen in Congress, there won’t be enough resources in the anti-White establishment to mount an effective resistance.”
In the Wisconsin Jewish community, Nehlen is viewed as a marginal figure, and Elana Kahn, director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of the Milwaukee Jewish Federation, said he has not set off alarm bells. Nehlen’s extreme views, she said, “have not made big news here and I haven’t heard people talking about this."
Rachel Ida Buff, professor of history and comparative ethnic studies at the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee also admitted that Nehlen “wasn’t on my radar” until she saw the Huffington Post article. “Obviously, this is terrifying,” she said, calling Nehlen’s rhetoric “Real retro white supremacist Nazi stuff.”
Wisconsin, she said, has a deep-rooted history of white supremacy with individuals who tend to “pop up at specific moments of crisis.” In this case, she noted, Nehlen faces the challenge of winning support away from a conservative Republican like Ryan. “Ryan goes low and Nehlen goes lower,” she said. “Obviously, he’s doing what he has to do, which is to be an even more vocal scumbag and go for the street brawling.”
She views Nehlen’s shamelessness as a “useful wake-up call” for Jews who haven’t been highly aware of or sensitive to anti-Semitism “because some of the anti-black, anti-immigrant rhetoric is so explosive” by comparison. “I think we have sometimes forgotten as Jews -- because we have a recently conferred whiteness -- how much white supremacy rests on anti-Semitism. This is a really timely and terrifying but also useful reminder.”
Cohn, Nehlen’s latest target on Twitter, is relatively dismissive of the actual threat he poses. “At the end of the day, I'm not worried about a fringe joker like Paul Nehlen. He and his followers can be as bigoted as they would like. They have every right to do so, but they tend to believe that they have a lot more power and sway than they really do.”
Nonetheless, Nehlen’s supporters on the populist, nationalist right have high hopes, fueled by the prospect that Ryan won’t run for reelection and that their candidate could fill the vacuum. On alt-right discussion boards, supporters heatedly debated that Nehlen was, at too early a stage, being excessively overt and not “crypto” enough when it came to revealing what they called his “power level” (a term referring to “white power”), and that perhaps he should be more cautious as to how he appears to win over more supporters.
“We know he's \ourguy\, he doesn't have to keep signaling to us,” wrote one on Reddit’s “Debate the Alt Right” board.
Another forum member disagreed, saying that while he would “love” to see Nehlen “elected after going full fash/white nationalist." And he continued: "That'd be huge. I just don't think we're quite there yet is all. Wisconsin is a purple state, so I just want him to hold back a little to keep the normie vote, then reveal his full power after/if he's elected.”
Said another: “The more people like him stand up and preach the better. This is only the beginning as more and more people need to go public, to eventually create white ethno-states again.”
At the time of publishing, Paul Nehlen had not responded to a request by Haaretz for comment.
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