Republican Candidate for Congress Openly Embraces White Supremacist Memes on Social Media

Paul Nehlen is a Republican who apparently wants to be a member of Congress, He is, after all, running to replace House Speaker Paul Ryan, a fellow Republican from Wisconsin. Thus, it might seem odd to a casual observer that on Monday Nehlen went “flat-out alt-right” on social media, as one observer put it, publicly embracing white supremacist and anti-Semitic memes.

Nehlen went off on Twitter while responding to criticism about his political leanings, writing, “It’s Okay to Be White,” which is a regurgitation of a white supremacist meme that was initially promoted by the likes of David Duke, the former Ku Klux Klan leader. On the same day, Nehlen also used the triple parenthesis technique—colloquially referred to by online anti-Semites as the derogatory "echo"—to mark by his faith Ari Cohn, a Jewish lawyer who works for a rights group.

“Just admit you are a (((bigot))) Ari Cohn, and I'll pretend you didn't pretend you were white for the purposes of starting a race war [with] me,” Nehlen later wrote on Twitter, responding after Cohn criticized him over allegations of bigotry. 

Newsweek reached out to Nehlen and to the Republican Party of Wisconsin for a comment about Nehlen’s behavior on social media but didn’t receive a response by the time of publication.

Democrat Randy Bryce, an iron worker and military veteran, is also aiming to take Ryan's seat. He has focused the bulk of his criticism on Ryan so far. "Both Pauls are far out of touch with Wisconsin's 1st congressional district," David Keith, his campaign manager, told Newsweek. "One just gave tax cuts to the richest out there, and the other pontificates about aged, racist ideology."

Hoping to benefit from the “drain the swamp” energy stirred by Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, Nehlen ran against Ryan in the district in 2016. Despite gaining only about 15 percent of the vote, he’s now running again for Ryan’s seat, and he has been touted heavily by white supremacists on social media. He’s also been a guest on white supremacist podcasts, and The Huffington Post recently reported that he declined to say whether he is a white nationalist when asked to do so three separate times.

The social media backlash to Nehlen’s posts came quickly. Jonathan Weisman, an editor for The New York Times, wrote on Twitter that “the guy challenging [Paul Ryan] in the Republican primary goes flat-out Alt-Right.” John Podhoretz, the editor of Commentary, a conservative publication, wrote on Twitter, “Oh look. Nehlen literally comes out of the Nazi closet.” Christopher Mathias, the Huffington Post writer who interviewed Nehlen and asked whether he was a white nationalist, wrote that the politician wasn’t “even trying to hide it anymore.”

A spokesperson with the Anti-Defamation League, one of the nation’s leading rights groups, told Newsweek that Nehlen “has on numerous occasions in recent months demonstrated associations or affiliations with white supremacist concepts and entities, including appearing on a white supremacist podcast, ‘Fash the Nation’; sharing racist and anti-Semitic graphics on social media; and following a number of white supremacists on Twitter.”

Cohn, who works for Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, a rights group that supports civil liberties on college campuses, told Newsweek he was bombarded on Twitter with memes celebrating Hitler and concentration camps after Nehlen drew attention to his faith with the tweet. The deluge of hate messages came on the same day that Twitter started a so-called purge of users associated with abuse and hateful conduct.

The purge removed some accounts associated with white supremacy—including that of Jared Taylor, editor of white supremacist magazine American Renaissance—but did not touch many others, including alt-right leader Richard Spencer. Several anonymous neo-Nazi accounts quickly floated Nehlen as a potential presidential candidate after he attacked Cohn on Monday.

Cohn called Nehlen’s social media posts attacking him a “pretty stunning display of racism and anti-Semitism.” He said Nehlen “portrays himself as a man of the people. But he’s only the man for some specific people.” 

Nehlen stumped for Senate candidate Roy Moore of Alabama before his election loss earlier this month. In addition to being dogged by allegations of sexual misconduct with teens, Moore was accused of bigotry against the LGBTQ population and immigrants.

Nehlen also has an active account on Gab, a “free speech” social media site with a large base of far-right users, including many vocal white supremacists. There, he recently reposted memes that ridicule Arab and Latin people. The memes were first published on the account of Jared Wyand, an anti-Semite who was banned from Twitter in 2016 for repeatedly tweeting hate speech directed at Jews.

The respect between Wyand and Nehlen is mutual, apparently, because Wyand wrote on Gab: “I hope everyone appreciates what Nehlen is doing. He knows someone running for office has to go first. He knows the threat it brings to his family. He's doing it for all of you and he needs full support and protection in return.” 

It should be noted that Nehlen is not the first candidate to openly embrace white supremacy as an ideology in recent decades. Duke ran several political campaigns as both a Democrat and a Republican, including his famous 1991 bid to become governor of Louisiana. Despite performing impressively among whites, he fell short.