WASHINGTON (AFP) — Arthur Jones is an avowed Nazi. John Fitzgerald says the Holocaust is a myth. Rick Tyler wants to “make America white again.”
Their fringe ideas are reminiscent of another age, but the unapologetic men who espouse them are all on US election ballots in 2018.
Extremism and bigotry, even outright white supremacy and anti-Semitism, have found new lives in 21st century US politics and the era of President Donald Trump, beyond just the toxic rhetoric of a few little-known cranks.
They have received more exposure this year on the national stage than at any time in recent memory. And the mainly conservative proponents of hate running for office are proving to be a major embarrassment for the Republican Party.
In Illinois, Jones, who called the Holocaust “the biggest, blackest lie in history” and once ran a newspaper ad with a large swastika in the middle, is the Republican candidate for Congress, after he won the party primary by running unopposed in a largely Democratic district.
Russell Walker, running for a seat in North Carolina’s state house, proclaims “there is nothing wrong with being a racist” and that Jews are “descendants of Satan.”
In Wisconsin, Paul Nehlen, the leading Republican running to fill the seat in Congress currently held by retiring Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, has emerged as a leader of the alt-right movement, someone who critics warn wants to provide white nationalists and anti-Semites a stronger foothold in US culture and politics.
And the campaign website for Tyler, a Trump supporter running for Congress in Tennessee, depicts the Confederate flag flying atop the White House. One of his campaign billboards read: “Make America White Again.”
Experts say there is an unprecedented number of openly bigoted candidates this year, and that their chief enabler may well be the president of the United States himself.
“Trump’s unorthodox use of racism-related and anti-Muslim stuff — all of that bigoted language — has opened a door in politics that wasn’t there before,” Heidi Beirich, who as an expert at the Southern Poverty Law Center has been tracking hate groups since 1999, told AFP.
“We’ve always had a smattering of neo-Nazis… but this is ratcheting the situation up much higher than it was before.”
No more ‘taboos’?
Overt bigotry by a candidate would spell his or her “death knell” up until recently, Beirich said. But in today’s hyper partisan political environment, such rhetoric may no longer be a deal breaker.
“By blowing through those taboos, and winning the presidency, Trump has shown a path to electoral success that people assumed wouldn’t work,” she said.
This bigotry has spread into public life. Several incidents caught on video showing white people calling the police on African-Americans going about their business have gone viral.
One, which showed two young men dragged out of a Starbucks coffee shop in handcuffs, helped spark a national dialogue about race.
The racial and ethnic divides are on clear political display in places like Virginia, where the Republican Senate nominee, the anti-immigration county supervisor Corey Stewart, is under fire for his provocative associations.
Stewart has praised Nehlen as “one of my personal heroes,” and has appeared with Jason Kessler, the man who organized a deadly white supremacist rally in Charlottesville last August.
However Stewart has since disavowed both men, and the move may have swayed some voters. On June 20 he won the Republican Senate primary.
Last week he found himself on the debate stage with Democratic Senator Tim Kaine — Hillary Clinton’s 2016 vice presidential nominee — where Stewart insisted “there’s not a racist bone in my body.”
But he maintained he is a vigorous defender of Virginia “heritage,” and strongly opposes the removal of any Confederate monuments.
Extremist candidates tend to flourish when they and their supporters feel unrepresented and ignored by the mainstream US parties, either the GOP or Democrats.
In 2016 Trump appealed to millions of such blue collar voters, unemployed coal miners or factory workers or farmers whom Trump labeled the “forgotten man.”
They felt betrayed by globalization and US trade agreements, worried about illegal immigration, and mindful that their communities were changing.
Stewart says Democrats had the chance to reach those voters. But their failure to do so helped contribute to a scenario where far-right candidates can thrive.
Democrats “abandoned the working guy,” Stewart told CNN. “They slammed the door in their face, and now it’s president Trump and the new Republican Party that is supporting working Americans.”
The GOP has disavowed several extremist candidates, including Jones and Nehlen.
But the SPLC’s Beirich says Trump’s embrace of controversial Republicans like former Arizona sheriff Joe Arpaio, who ran jails for undocumented immigrants derided as akin to concentration camps, and is now running for Senate after being pardoned by Trump, is dog-whistle messaging to his party’s fringe elements that there is space for them in political discourse.