Wisconsin candidate's embrace of white nationalism seeks to further racist ideas in political mainstream

Despite a failed bid to unseat Paul Ryan in 2016, businessman Paul Nehlen is running again — and hoping that the alt-right can help elect him. 

When Paul Nehlen announced his candidacy this summer to challenge House Speaker Paul Ryan in the fall midterm elections, his campaign seemed like a political Hail Mary. It was his second bid for the seat; his first ended with Ryan routing him by almost 70 points.

But all that was before Trump’s election opened the door for white nationalism to come raging into the mainstream of American politics, and, with it, an opportunity for Nehlen to boldly embrace racist ideas that would have damned his campaign just a few years ago.

In recent months, though, Nehlen has become a defiant mouthpiece for the racist “alt-right,” whose members see in the Wisconsin businessman a chance to further a foothold in culture and politics. 

On Twitter, and to a larger degree on the alt-right’s preferred social media platform Gab, Nehlen has spent months curating an image of a sometimes ironic, but most certainly sincere, white nationalist willing to say things intended to push populist nationalism into the discourse. His campaign, so far, has exhibited all the characteristics of an alt-right troll, including using many of the movement's terms and themes.  

“If pro-White is White supremacy, what is pro-Jewish?” Nehlen wrote in a text message exchange with a reporter from The Washington Post last week. “I reject being called a White Supremacist, because clearly being Pro-White isn’t White Supremacy unless Pro-Jewish is Jewish supremacy.”

Despite Nehlen’s rhetorical twists to avoid the label, his ideological leanings are clear. He has appeared twice on the racist podcast "Fash the Nation," most recently last month. When confronted by The Huffington Post afterward, he twice declined to answer whether he was a white nationalist, then simply refused to answer the question.

“[A]ttempts to paint me as anything but a successful businessman reflect on the media’s identity politics not my Christian faith. Besides — it’s true that it’s okay to be white — it’s pretty awesome in fact,” Nehlen wrote.

That month, Nehlen also tweeted that he was reading The Culture of Critique: An Evolutionary Analysis of Jewish Involvement in Twentieth-Century Intellectual and Political Movements by Kevin MacDonald. The book is part of a trilogy that blames Jews for introducing evil social vices and other perversions into Nordic society and portrayed them as degenerates preying on unsuspecting, wholesome Aryans. MacDonald's basic premise is that Jews engage in a "group evolutionary strategy" that serves to enhance their ability to out-compete non-Jews for resources.

Nehlen’s open embrace of anti-Semitism and white nationalism is hardly new in American politics, both historically and more recently as ideas long relegated to the fringe of American culture see a comfortable reception alongside the rise of the alt-right and the election of President Trump. But in a climate where Breitbart executive chairman Steve Bannon, a former White House chief strategist, helped push nationalism into the heart of the GOP, Nehlen has been held up as just the rogue candidate the boys at Breitbart are pushing — even if it has proven costly.

Last month, Nehlen was a guest on a Breibart Radio show, Whatever It Takes with Curt Schilling. The interview was posted on Breitbart’s SoundCloud account, but was later — and very quietly — removed, ThinkProgress reported. Schilling offered Nehlen another chance to come on the show as the New Year approached.

“Let’s have you on the show Wednesday, some things I think people want to hear and some questions I think you need to answer,” Schilling Tweeted on Dec. 29, though he deleted the comment days later when he disinvited Nehlen.

Like Shilling, Breitbart also deleted Nehlen’s interviews and articles when his full-throated anti-Semitism became too much of a liability for the publication.

On Twitter last week, Joel Pollak, Breitbart Senior Editor-at-Large said the site was no longer interested in Nehlen. “He’s gone off the deep end,” Pollak wrote. “We don’t support him. Haven’t covered him in months.”

In months? While Breitbart may be working hard to hide the coverage afford Nehlen, in December a reporter for The Guardian tweeted that he had seen Bannon and Nehlen together at a campaign event for Roy Moore, who lost to Democrat Doug Jones in a special election.

Given his political failures in the past, it is unknown if Nehlen is simply gaslighting the political establishment, or if he hopes to tap into the energy of the alt-right — an energy already elevated by the election of President Trump — and ride that wave toward political fortune. Nevertheless, for many on the alt-right Nehlen’s candidacy offers a path forward.

“Whether you’re running for school board, sheriff, or Senate, consider the Nehlen way,” writers at Fash the Nation said in December. “Roll up your sleeves, be bold and uncompromising in public and compassionate face-to-face, and have fun while we Make America Great Again.”