White Makes (Alt) Right

Paul Nehlen’s Twit­ter Army Has Fully Em­braced White Na­tion­al­ism

Forward Magazine - - Foreground - By Sam Kesten­baum and Laura Ad­kins

‘Even if he doesn’t win, he’s spread­ing the doc­trine.’

Af­ter Pres­i­dent Trump’s up­set win in the 2016 elec­tion, the “alt-right” boasted that their en­thu­si­as­tic on­line em­brace pro­pelled the re­al­ity TV star­turned-politi­cian into of­fice. And yet, since Trump’s elec­tion they haven’t en­joyed any sig­nif­i­cant po­lit­i­cal suc­cess, and were es­pe­cially dis­ap­pointed by the de­feat of Roy Moore in Alabama.

Now, as the coun­try looks to­ward the 2018 midterm elec­tions, they say they have found their man in Paul Nehlen, a Repub­li­can vy­ing for the Wis­con­sin con­gres­sional seat cur­rently held by House Speaker Paul Ryan.

“Paul Nehlen Is The Alt-Right Politi­cian That Was Promised,” pro­claimed a head­line on white na­tion­al­ist Richard Spencer’s Al­tright.com web­site. “Give him your en­ergy now.”

One group, at least, is heed­ing Spencer’s words: Nehlen’s 89,600plus fol­low­ers on Twit­ter. A For­ward anal­y­sis has found that this group is very en­er­getic on­line, and pas­sion­ate about some of the sig­na­ture is­sues of the “alt-right,” like the no­tion that Jews are a threat to the white “race.” Such a ded­i­cated fan base could bode well for Nehlen’s po­lit­i­cal prospects, although Ryan did crush him in the 2016 pri­mary.

Yet the For­ward also found that the bulk of Nehlen’s fol­low­ers do not live in his dis­trict, or even in Wis­con­sin. They’re also not very pow­er­ful on the plat­form, and likely won’t trans­late into po­lit­i­cal vic­tory in the short term. But Nehlen, his fel­low trav­el­ers in the “alt-right” and his fol­low­ers are also pur­su­ing the deeper strat­egy of us­ing pol­i­tics and so­cial me­dia to fa­mil­iar­ize Amer­i­cans with their more rad­i­cal no­tions.

A twice-mar­ried busi­ness­man who said he was open to de­port­ing all Mus­lims, Nehlen, 48, ran against Ryan in 2016 and lost. His bid drew na­tional at­ten­tion, though, partly be­cause Nehlen was an early and out­spo­ken Trump sup­porter. Since then, he’s planted him­self at the cen­ter of the “alt-right” in­ter­net, on so­cial me­dia sites like Red­dit, Gab and Twit­ter in par­tic­u­lar.

He tweets on av­er­age 25 times a day, and has so much faith in the plat­form that he even en­listed some of his fol­low­ers in what he said was a bat­tle against the “Jewish me­dia.” “I’m go­ing to dec­i­mate them all and y’all are gonna help me,” he wrote.

Nehlen is us­ing anti-Semitism to make a bid for sup­port from peo­ple like the young white na­tion­al­ists who are mak­ing bold for­ays into cam­pus outreach and groups be­hind the ex­plo­sive rally in Char­lottesville, Vir­ginia.

“There is a co­her­ent ‘alt-right’ Twit­ter net­work where the same peo­ple are post­ing and re­post­ing each other,” said Ge­orge Haw­ley, a pro­fes­sor at the Univer­sity of Alabama and the au­thor of “Mak­ing Sense of the Alt-Right.” “Nehlen fits right within that.”

A re­cent Anti-Defama­tion League re­port shows that of the 34 peo­ple killed at the hands of ex­trem­ists in 2017, the ma­jor­ity of the mur­ders were com­mit­ted by right-wing ex­trem­ists, pri­mar­ily white su­prem­a­cists. Nehlen does not es­pouse vi­o­lence or call for mur­der, but white na­tion­al­ists cham­pion him as one of their own.

While some ma­jor white na­tion­al­ist and “alt-right” fig­ures do fol­low him, most of his fol­low­ers are low-level ac­counts that are in the “alt-right” and pro-Trump or­bit. Though his mes­sage is get­ting re­gur­gi­tated, it’s mostly stay­ing in the same small cir­cle and be­ing shared by peo­ple with lit­tle to no in­flu­ence of their own.

Nehlen’s fol­low­ers love Trump, “al­tright” icon Pepe, Amer­ica and God. His fol­low­ers are seem­ingly al­ways on­line, but not of­ten com­ing up with orig­i­nal con­tent. Retweets, rather than orig­i­nal posts, make up the ma­jor­ity of their time­line.

But even though they tweet of­ten, they’re not among Twit­ter’s most in­flu-

en­tial users. About 80% of them have be­low-level in­flu­ence on the plat­form, ac­cord­ing to Fol­low­er­wonk, mean­ing they get far fewer retweets than the av­er­age user.

Judg­ing by who else they fol­low, they are also con­sum­ing a steady diet of “alt-right” con­tent. Two-thirds of Nehlen’s fol­low­ers also fol­low Bre­it­bart News, known as “the plat­form of the ‘alt-right.’” A third fol­low the young white na­tion­al­ist group Iden­tity Evropa, which tar­gets col­lege cam­puses for re­cruits, and an­other third fol­low Jared Tay­lor, an old-line white na­tion­al­ist with an aca­demic back­ground. A quar­ter fol­low “alt-right” fig­ure­head Richard Spencer, who fa­mously led a room full of sup­port­ers in a cel­e­bra­tory Nazi salute af­ter the elec­tion of Trump.

Nehlen has en­dorsed the hard­core white na­tion­al­ism of these groups — in par­tic­u­lar by ad­vanc­ing the pop­u­lar “alt-right” be­lief that whites are un­der siege in Amer­ica — and the need to ad­vo­cate for their white iden­tity against a ris­ing tide of brown and black peo­ple. Jews are seen as ben­e­fit­ing from — or or­ches­trat­ing — the down­fall of the white race.

He also cham­pi­ons the pop­u­lar #It­sOkToBeWhite hash­tag and other ter­mi­nol­ogy and vi­su­als, like Pepe, the “alt-right” frog fig­ure; “kek,” an­other frog icon of the move­ment, and “cuck,” the short­ened ver­sion of “cuck­ser­va­tive,” a racially and sex­u­ally charged ne­ol­o­gism used to de­ride con­ser­va­tives who sup­pos­edly aban­doned their true val­ues.

Nehlen’s shift into more ex­plicit an­tiSemitism is even risky within the “al­tright.” The move­ment is broad and still loosely or­ga­nized — and plagued by pub­lic spats and de­bates over ide­ol­ogy. The so-called “Jewish ques­tion” is of­ten the source of schisms. In­deed, Nehlen’s for­mer pa­tron Bre­it­bart, still headed at that time by Steve Ban­non, dis­avowed him when Nehlen’s Jew ha­tred be­came too ob­vi­ous. In­ter­net provo­ca­teurs like Milo Yiannopou­los or Gavin McInnes, for ex­am­ple, draw from the move­ment’s sub­ver­sive style and aes­thet­ics but do not call them­selves white na­tion­al­ists. They also re­ject anti-Semitism.

The “alt-right” has yet to pro­duce and cham­pion an­other Trump­ist can­di­date. Un­like con­ven­tional po­lit­i­cal move­ments, the “alt-right” doesn’t seem to have any sort of real-world mech­a­nism for groom­ing can­di­dates, ex­perts say. In­stead, move­ment lead­ers of­fer their on­line me­dia sup­port to can­di­dates they view as sym­pa­thetic.

“The ‘alt-right’’s strong­est or­gan is their me­dia ap­pa­ra­tus,” said Jared Holt, a re­searcher at Right Wing Watch. “That’s the great­est as­set they can of­fer — to hold a can­di­date’s hand and walk them down this path.”

Even a los­ing can­di­date like Nehlen is seen as a win of sorts for the “alt-right,” said Spencer Sun­shine, a re­searcher for Po­lit­i­cal Re­search As­so­ciates.

“Alt-right” lead­ers like Spencer hope that even if Nehlen loses, he will have stretched the bounds of po­lit­i­cally ac­cept­able de­bate — bring­ing the lan­guage of an ex­plic­itly white iden­tity move­ment into main­stream are­nas.

Nehlen is push­ing their rad­i­cal agenda out of Twit­ter and Red­dit en­claves and into the main­stream press, Sun­shine added. “Even if he doesn’t win, he’s spread­ing their doc­trine,” he said. “They’re get­ting press.”

RED, RIGHT AND BLUE: Nehlen speaks to re­porters Mon­day, Aug. 8, 2016, dur­ing a press con­fer­ence in down­town Janesville, Wis­con­sin.

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