This article originally appeared on my Newsmax column.
This August, Paul Ryan will once again face an unorthodox challenger in his Congressional primary in Wisconsin — eccentric businessman Paul Nehlen. The two men have met in a primary once before: in 2016, Ryan trounced Nehlen by nearly 70 points. Despite this loss, Nehlen is at it again, and though his chance of victory is no better, he’s making headlines for his outspoken, radical views.
Nehlen is not a politician; he’s an equipment manufacturer who has never held any public office. Normally, a run like Nehlen’s would not be significant enough to garner national coverage. However, Nehlen got some media attention during his last run because of praise from the president, and he’s challenging the most powerful member of Congress. What’s more, it’s rumored that Ryan might be retiring from the House.
The main explanation for Nehlen’s unlikely place in the public eye is the nationalist, anti-Semitic propaganda that he spews. In recent weeks, he has taken to Twitter and launched vicious attacks toward minorities, especially Jews. Nehlen once observed, “Poop, incest, and pedophilia. Why are those common themes repeated so often with Jews?” He recently tweeted that lawyer Ari Cohn should “fill a Jesus-shaped hole” in his heart, and frequently declares “it’s okay to be white” a popular white supremacist tagline. Nehlen was once a tool of Steve Bannon, but Bannon has since denounced Nehlen’s comments.
Unfortunately, these types of comments from alt-right politicians are not uncommon. It’s concerning that we have almost come to expect this discrimination from members of an increasingly popular political sect. Although most of America sees these views for what they are, backwards, vulgar, and despicable, the media can’t get enough of the alt-right circus. Nehlen, though he is not a serious threat to the seat in any way, has had articles written about him in major publications such as HuffPost, Buzzfeed, The Washington Post, and Vox.
It’s important to remember that Nehlen and his cohorts, though all over the news, are only at the political fringe. To denounce them is the right thing to do, but we can’t allow the media to be consumed with their stories. Nationwide coverage only adds fuel to their fire, whether it is coverage condemning them or not.
More likely than not, it’s the media attention that is behind Nehlen acting out. Though he probably does believe in the comments he’s making, to some degree, he no doubt also sees radicalism as a winning political strategy. Nehlen refuses to call himself a white supremacist or a nationalist, perhaps because he doesn’t fully embrace those views. But he would not be getting any attention at all were it not for his outrageous rants. It’s disturbing that some politicians have come to think of demeaning others as a path to victory, and it should not be acceptable by any account.
It’s especially crucial for the Republican Party to remind Americans that it does not embrace these radicals, and that the views they espouse are not Republican views. Candidates like Nehlen see an opening — the GOP is vulnerable to radical attack because it has failed to unite its voters. These candidates aren’t Republican, they’re power hungry and need a major political party to get them in the door.
Nehlen is getting no love from his so-called party, but neither, really, is Ryan. When denouncing Nehlen, and other reprobates like him, Republicans need to flip the script to focus on party positives. In Nehlen’s case, Republicans should be praising Ryan, and rallying around the leadership he has shown and the party values he represents. Criticizing the alt-right isn’t enough; the GOP needs to show that not only are the Nehlens of America not Republicans, but that being Republican means something admirable and worth believing in.
Though Nehlen and the alt-right should not be garnering so much media attention, the GOP needs to use this coverage to its advantage, rather than letting it hurt the party’s reputation. There is media interest in the Republican Party, but right now it’s that people like Nehlen are representing it. If the Republicans can respond to every news story about a nationalist radical with a story about a Republican triumph, they will have a much better chance in 2018 and beyond.
Special thanks to Katherine Pickle, My chief law clerk who is a second year law student at Emory, for helping me research, write, and edit this article.
Photo courtesy of Flickr user Gage Skidmore.