The Republican Party marked an inauspicious milestone this week when for the first time a full-on Nazi and Holocaust denier, Arthur Jones, became the GOP nominee for a House seat after winning an uncontested primary for Illinois’ 3rd Congressional District. This happened as Paul Nehlen, a Republican contender for the Wisconsin seat belonging to House Speaker Paul Ryan, wages an unprecedented racist and anti-Semitic campaign.
The Republican Party isn’t new to dealing with white supremacists and anti-Semites who aspire to elected office. Alongside the dog whistles and innuendos, white nationalist candidates have stood for local office in the past and very occasionally won. The most memorable example was when a young ex-grand wizard in the Ku Klux Klan, David Duke, got himself elected to the Louisiana State Legislature in 1989 after changing his affiliation from Democrat to Republican.
Racists’ improved position in the GOP over the last half-century didn’t happen by accident. It’s the legacy of the “southern strategy” – the party’s effort in the 1960s and ‘70s to win support in southern states by appealing to a backlash against the civil rights movement.
But something has changed. In the past, candidates like Duke bent over backwards to tone down their rhetoric and downplay or hide their affinity for groups like the Nazi party or the KKK. The Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism, which tracks anti-Semitic and racist activity, has expressed concerns as overt white supremacists and anti-Semites, with their high-profile campaigns, gain their views a wider platform and measure of respectability.
“Fringe candidates today feel much more emboldened and empowered to feel open about their views than they used to. They can completely express racist and anti-Semitic views without being called out for it,” said Marilyn Mayo, a senior research fellow at the Center on Extremism. She says that in the current climate, “people are rejecting what they call political correctness, which makes people feel they can say anything.”
Fire-breathing right-wing media outlets, in particular social media, have played a huge role in increasing the presence of racist rhetoric in political campaigns.
In the Jones race for Illinois’ 3rd Congressional District, 20,339 registered Republicans in Chicago and its suburbs pulled the lever for a 70-year-old man who has spent decades preaching hate and devoted a section of his campaign website to Holocaust denial, calling it the “blackest lie in history” and an “extortion racket.” He also once headed the American Nazi Party and ran for mayor of Milwaukee as a member of the National Socialist White People’s Party in 1976 and told CNN that “the Jews basically control the country, the Congress, the economy, the media.”
Still, the party seems to have decided to downplay it, not fight it.
Locally, there were denunciations. Tim Schneider, chairman of the Illinois Republican Party, said in a statement that the “Illinois Republican Party and our country have no place for Nazis like Arthur Jones. We strongly oppose his racist views and his candidacy for any public office.” The executive director of the Illinois Republican Party, Drew Collins, declared that “Nazis have no place in our nation’s democracy, and to that end, we will continue to vehemently oppose everything Mr. Jones stands for.”
The officials said the party would support an independent candidate in the general election or encourage a write-in campaign – strategies that, like last-minute robo-calls before the primary telling Republicans not to vote for Jones, won't prevent thousands of Americans for voting for a Nazi.
It was a lack of vigilance on the part of these state GOP officials that led to Jones becoming an official Republican contender. Like most fringe candidates, this wasn’t Jones’ first time at bat. Like David Duke and others before him, he is a perennial candidate, running to keep his name in the headlines and hoping that persistence and clever tactics will catch the party off guard.
And it worked. The party believed that because it had disqualified Jones in the past for failing to meet the threshold of signatures – after finding that many signatures on his election petition were invalid – he would make the same mistake twice. But he fooled them – he submitted his petition on the last possible day, preventing the party from finding another contender and pulling together the right number of signatures.
No clear denunciation
The Republican officials lamented that nobody but Jones was willing to stand for office in the heavily Democratic district, where a Republican stood little chance of winning in the general election. Still, their defense of party members who voted for Jones was weak; party officials said the voters didn’t know what they were doing and voted for Jones as they would for any Republican candidate.
Given the amount of publicity Jones’ background received, that excuse seems dubious.
Much more troubling than the local failure is the lack of a clear and loud denunciation on a national level. The near silence of the national Republican Party and the White House on the hate speech infecting their party’s ranks and the problematic candidates seeking office has been deafening. The condemnation of GOP leadership has been perfunctory and happened only when sought out by the press, not in emphatic public statements.
President Donald Trump’s utter silence on these congressional races shows the same reluctance to alienate core supporters he showed after the infamous far-right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, last August. He hasn’t even seen bothered to devote a tweet to distancing himself from candidates like Jones or Nehlen.
An opposing voice, however, came from Republican Jewish Council Chairman Norman Coleman, who declared that “Arthur Jones is a Nazi, not a Republican. It is a disgrace that he has won the Republican nomination .... Jones does not represent Republican values, and he doesn’t deserve to have an ‘R’ after his name on the ballot.”
None of these candidates is ultimately destined for electoral victory, says Mayo of the ADL. “When these kinds of extremists run in general elections, they lose,” she says. “Most people in this country are not going to vote for these candidates.”
But their presence in party primary races year after year, using campaigns to spread messages of hate, marry their deeply disturbing views to the GOP brand.
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