Updated, 4:23 p.m.: Adds details about Steve Bannon’s break with Paul Nehlen.
Paul Nehlen, a business executive running for Congress, spent the morning after Christmas being anti-Semitic on Twitter. He went too far even for one-time ally Steve Bannon, who’s famous for putting President Donald Trump in the White House and for turning Breitbart into a “platform for the ‘alt-right.’”
I know you are but what am I, Nehlen taunted a Trump supporter who spoke out against him, before accusing his critic of being in the pay of the Jews:
He checked the English spelling of “shekels” and then rejoined the battle against another staunch conservative:
A Republican vying for the Wisconsin congressional seat that may be vacated by House Speaker Paul Ryan in 2018, Nehlen has in recent weeks begun to flaunt the language, symbols and themes of white nationalists. His ascent is raising questions for Jewish and anti-extremist activists, but Bannon and Breitbart announced on Tuesday that they had pulled the plug. The website had supported Nehlen’s 2016 bid to unseat Ryan, but Joel Pollak, a senior editor at Breitbart, tweeted late Tuesday night that the site “doesn’t support him,” because Nehlen had “disqualified himself.”
No. We don’t support him. Haven’t covered him in months. I had no real idea of his recent antisemitic statements when we spoke, Jamie, but I’ve since looked into it (and responded). He’s disqualified himself. https://t.co/22JyunCbr1— Joel B. Pollak (@joelpollak) December 27, 2017
The condemnation could hurt the campaign of someone who is still relatively unknown and lacking local support: Nehlen lost that 2016 race 84% to 16%, with only 10,000 voters choosing him, even with Breitbart’s help. But Ryan might retire from Congress, which would open the race in Wisconsin’s 1st congressional district. No one but Nehlen can know whether his use of anti-Semitic and other bigoted tropes is sincerely felt or politically expedient, and he refused to comment for this story. The tactic has definitely raised his profile online, but it seems to have backfired in costing him the support of Bannon and his juggernaut website.
“We were not concerned about his candidacy because he was not on the radar,” said Elana Kahn, director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of the Milwaukee Jewish Federation. “Hate needs to be called out, but on the other hand, do we want add oxygen to a small flame?”
Nehlen joined Twitter in March of 2016 and already has 87,000 Twitter followers. He’s worked for them — he tweets on average 21 times a day.
Just before embarking on his post-Christmas anti-Semitic rant, Nehlen tweeted a sign stating, “It’s okay to be white” posted on a giant cross on a mountain. He’s also compared himself to Luther and “It’s okay to be white,” to the 95 Theses that triggered the Protestant Reformation.
Such rhetoric and images correspond with a theme white nationalists have been trying to advance - the claim that white Americans are under siege. It came after weeks of social media battles that positioned Nehlen squarely on the side of the “alt-right,” in terms of his rhetoric, which ranges from Pepe the Frog to the triple parentheses “echo” sign meant to mark Jews.
“Oh look,” conservative columnist John Podhoretz observed after Nehlen entered a Twitter battle with a Jewish critic earlier in December, “Nehlen literally comes out of the Nazi closet.”
Breitbart hasn’t denounced Nehlen explicitly on the site, but it has removed his author page. According to The Guardian, Nehlen became intolerable to Bannon after he appeared on a white supremacist podcast, Fash the Nation, earlier in December.
Nehlen was indeed under the radar for most activists in the field. The rabbi at the only synagogue in Kenosha, the district’s largest city, said she “didn’t know much about him.” The Anti-Defamation League, through a spokesperson, stated that Nehlen “has on numerous occasions in recent months demonstrated associations or affiliations with white supremacist concepts and entities.” But the community is yet to sound all its alarm bells, still cautious about giving free publicity to a marginal figure in American politics.
A local Wisconsin businessman and investor, Nehlen was a supporter of Donald Trump and an ally of Steve Bannon long before it was considered politically smart to do so. He was one of few Republicans to run an explicitly pro-Trump campaign in 2016, adopting Trump’s rhetoric and ideology. Nehlen spoke favorably about surveilling Muslims and attacked Ryan for not showing sufficient support for the party’s presidential candidate. But the telegenic Speaker of the House and a former vice presidential candidate was a long shot to start with. Nehlen drew zero traction and little attention.
He is married to Gabriela Nehlen and has two adult sons from a previous marriage.
With political fortunes now changing, and with the growing acceptance of views previously seen as beyond the pale, Nehlen has recently taken to the extreme. A Twitter showdown earlier this month with First Amendment attorney Ari Cohn, who is Jewish, put these views on display.
Nehlen used the “echo” around Cohn’s name and suggested that Cohn convert to Christianity. Since then, Cohn has been inundated with Nazi and Holocaust-related messages and tweets.
“I’m getting like 200 Twitter notifications every 20 minutes, including those saying gas chambers didn’t exist,” Cohn told the Forward. Nehlen, he added, “seems to be awfully cozy with that crowd.” Cohn is unsure of how people should treat the up-and-coming Wisconsin politician. “He got trounced by Paul Ryan at the primary, but at the same time, we’re all better off knowing who the creeps among us are.”
Nehlen has demonstrated a mix of sympathies and associations that have raised red flags among those following and monitoring hate groups in America. His frequent use of white nationalist memes and slogans, and his refusal to repudiate these groups, indicate affinity for their beliefs.
When not waving the banner of what he sees as a suppressed white class, Nehlen campaigns on textbook nationalist-conservative issues, from fierce opposition to the Trans-Pacific Partnership, to strict enforcement of immigration laws. He contributed “$50,000 worth of AR-15 rifles, body armor, night vision, drones, etc. to two Texas border county sheriff’s departments,” according to his website.
It is too early to get a good read on Nehlen’s chances in the 2018 midterms. If Ryan decides to run for another term, Nehlen’s challenge will be a long shot. But if the seat opens, he will show up to the race with the backing of the Bannon wing of the Republican Party, and an already-functioning campaign. According to the latest available campaign filings, Nehlen raised $127,000 in 2017, most of it in small individual donations.
Among the list of his donors, one name stands out: A Jewish New York mortgage broker named Michael Moskowitz, a longtime Republican donor who gave Nehlen the maximum contribution of $2,700 in the past year.
Moskowitz could not be reached for comment.
But Nehlen’s own words could also point to a more opportunistic approach, viewing the alt-right as a rising power in Republican politics that could carry him to Washington. “There’s a lot of followers out there, there’s a lot of people out there, that look up to me and I take that seriously,” Nehlen said in a recent Breitbart interview.
Nathan Guttman, staff writer, was the Forward’s Washington bureau chief. He joined the staff in 2006 after serving for five years as Washington correspondent for the Israeli dailies Haaretz and The Jerusalem Post. In Israel, he was the features editor for Ha’aretz and chief editor of Channel 1 TV evening news. He was born in Canada and grew up in Israel. He is a graduate of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.