Last week’s shooting of Rep. Steve Scalise of Louisiana, the House majority whip, has focused some media attention on the relatively unfamiliar phenomenon of left-wing extremism. But other recent developments make it clear that that right-wing radicals are actually far closer to achieving real political power than their leftist rivals.
Perhaps the best indicator of this trend is the fact that in Virginia, a day before the Alexandria shooting, Republicans nearly nominated a gubernatorial candidate named Corey Stewart, whose signature campaign issue was standing up for the Confederacy.
That position was somewhat of a reversal for Stewart, who less than a year ago hailed the renaming of a local middle school to honor a black veteran instead of a white politician who fought against racial integration. Stewart is originally from Minnesota and can claim little or no Southern heritage.
But none of that really mattered after Stewart decided to challenge Ed Gillespie, a former chair of the Republican National Committee, for the GOP's gubernatorial nomination. Virginia elects its governors in odd-numbered years, outside the usual cycle of presidential or congressional elections. That often means these elections have low turnout in general and low Democratic turnout in particular.
Stewart last year served as the chair of Donald Trump's Virginia campaign — at least until he was fired over his angry protests to Republican Party officials that they weren't supporting Trump eagerly enough. When he decided to run for governor, he took up the torch of the defeated Confederacy, assuming that its most loyal defenders would be dedicated enough to show up and vote in the Republican primary. Soon enough, he began comparing those who advocate removing Confederate monuments to members of the terrorist group ISIS.
“If we allow them to destroy our history, to try to rewrite history, to sanitize history, we are losing part of our identity here in Virginia,” Stewart said at a rally last month, in his slight but noticeable Midwestern accent.
Old-school “Lost Cause” racists weren’t the only ones who noticed Stewart’s efforts, however. He also captured the attention of the high-tech white supremacist activists who consider themselves part of the “alt-right.”
Stewart never explicitly identified himself with the alt-right but was clearly happy to have its support. He actively courted racist activists, using the alt-right’s favorite insult “cuckservative” to describe Gillespie during an ask-me-anything session on Reddit’s home for Trump supporters. (The portmanteau blend of “cuckold” and "conservative" is commonly used in far-right circles to deride Republicans who are insufficiently supportive of anti-immigrant policies or other ideas favored by white nationalists.)
During Stewart's campaign, alt-right advocates often spoke supportively of him. Some attended rallies that he held in front of Confederate monuments. Many more organized their own events, most prominently in New Orleans but also in Charlottesville, Virginia, a largely liberal college area which is one of the state's larger cities.
While his fellow Virginia Republicans condemned the Charlottesville gathering, Stewart did not. Instead, he denounced the city’s black vice mayor for wanting to remove a statue of Civil War general Robert E. Lee. In February Stewart even spoke at a rally hosted by a group started by alt-right bloggers. At the time that Stewart joined them, the organization’s website promoted the alt-right’s cartoon mascot, Pepe the Frog.
Less than a week before the June 13 primary election, Stewart denounced the racist activists he had spent months courting. In a June 9 press conference, he accused his former allies of trying to inject racism into a debate about the Confederacy.
“I completely condemn the Klan and all those racist groups," Stewart said. "I want no association with them because they’re trying to hijack this issue.” He added,“They're trying to make it about race. This issue has nothing to do with race. It has everything to do with preserving our history and preserving our historical monuments.”
While Stewart’s chances were consistently downgraded by Virginia political observers, he almost defeated Gillespie on Election Day. Stewart came within 1 percentage point and about 4,300 votes of becoming the GOP's official nominee for governor.
For the most part, the alt-right seems to have missed Stewart’s last-minute denunciation or simply decided to ignore it. In any case, activists don’t seem to have held it against him. In a retrospective headlined “Alt-Right Candidate Corey Stewart Almost Wins Virginia GOP Primary,” a writer for the popular Daily Stormer blog portrayed the campaign as an illustration of how his movement is gradually gaining power within the Republican Party:
“Stewart’s struggle didn’t pan out as we had hoped, but this was a learning experience and a message to all the detestable cuckolds out there,” a pseudonymous writer named Eric Striker wrote. “It shows that an underdog can help his chances by working with us ‘untouchables,’ while a well-funded hack condemning us like Gillespie crawls to the finish line wheezing.”
For his part, Stewart is vowing to continue the struggle and not become a GOP team player.
“This fight will continue, and I’ll continue to fight as long as you’ll fight with me,” he said at a rally after his loss.“There’s one word you’ll never hear from me, and that’s unity.”
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While Stewart is thus far the most high-profile Republican with active connections in the alt-right world, he is not the first. As Salon reported last year, Paul Nehlen — a firebrand conservative who was heavily promoted by Breitbart News and several national talk radio hosts in his 2016 primary challenge to House Speaker Paul Ryan — has also courted extremists on the far right.
In December several months after he was decisively defeated, Nehlen appeared in a Reddit open question session for the forum site's popular (and now banned) alt-right community.
In the session, Nehlen argued that the “alt-lite,” an extreme right faction somewhere between hard-core conservatives like Texas Rep. Louie Gohmert and the openly racist alt-right, was too moderate to stop “white genocide,” the belief that Western governments are deliberately replacing citizens of European descent with people of other ancestries.
“Shifting to an alt-light is not going to help, shooting each other from the side and back will not help,” Nehlen wrote. “I may not agree with everything you say, but I don’t have to beat you over the head with your own words.”
A few days later, Nehlen appeared on a highly popular far-right podcast called “Fash the Nation” where he spent an hour being interviewed by the hosts. He also used the word "cuck" to describe Republicans who opposed the mass deportation of undocumented immigrants.
While Nehlen was unsuccessful in his campaign against Ryan, like Corey Stewart he has vowed to continue the fight. On June 16, he announced he would once again challenge the speaker in the 2018 Republican primary.
“Millions of Americans voted for President Trump, and they expect Paul Ryan to work to repeal Obamacare, end bad, job-killing trade deals, close the border and back the President’s strong, America-first agenda. But that hasn’t happened,” Nehlen wrote in a news release.
Shortly after the announcement, one of the “Fash the Nation” co-hosts tweeted out a link to Breitbart News’ story about it, telling his followers to “#FireRyan.”
Many young Republicans want to do just that. As Mediaite reported yesterday, an intern for Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., recently blasted Ryan as a "cuck" and proudly called himself a "bigot" against Muslims. That intern is far from alone. As the anti-abortion blog LifeSiteNews recently wrote, "the religious right is being replaced with the alt right."
That hasn't quite happened yet, but given that "alt-lite" sites like Infowars and the Gateway Pundit already attract more traffic than mainstream conservative and libertarian sites like National Review, Townhall and the Weekly Standard (according to industry tracker SimilarWeb), it's only a matter of time before a Republican politician aligned with the alt-right manages to win the GOP nomination for some significant office.
Once that happens, there's no telling how quickly the American right's spiral into asymptotic nihilism will accelerate — or where it will end up.