Years ago, back in south-central Pennsylvania, I heard one of those friend-of-a-friend stories that seem too good to be true. It was about an older guy, a retired plumber, who still picked up a little work now and then on the side. One day this gentleman got called to the house of what turned out to be one of the biggest deluded Hitler fanboys around. The plumber took one look at the swastikas and Third Reich memorabilia draped all over, and (so the story goes), growled “I didn’t come ashore at Omaha Beach and fight across Germany to work for a goddamn Nazi.” He turned on his heel and walked out.
Now, what could bring that story to mind? Oh, right, there’s goddamn Nazis everywhere:
- Matt Gaetz, a Republican congressman from Florida, gave the notorious troll, racist, and Holocaust denier Charles C. Johnson an invite to attend Pres. Trump’s first State of the Union address last week.
- Paul Nehlen, who unsuccessfully challenged House Speaker Paul Ryan in the 2016 Republican primary, tweeted a list of what he claimed were Jewish opponents of his in the national media. In a couple of cases, Nehlen managed to be both offensive and wrong: Yashar Ali, a writer for New York magazine among other places, pointed out that he’s a practicing Roman Catholic. When the predictable furor erupted over this behavior, Nehlen responded by posting the names, telephone numbers, and email addresses of some of his critics.
- Nehlen’s so reviled that even Steve Bannon’s Breitbart has disavowed him, though no less accomplished a racist than Donald Trump himself praised Nehlen during the primary. Nehlen won’t come anywhere near unseating Ryan, of course, but that doesn’t mean the WisGOP—which appears not to have made any recent statements disavowing Nehlen—will entirely escape a black eye from him. Nehlen drew 15% in his challenge against Ryan, for one thing. For another, in Wisconsin, candidates below the level of president and vice-president are allowed to choose which party they want to associate with. In other words, Nehlen’s a Republican candidate, whether they like it or not.
- So far, the “Nazi” descriptor here has been metaphorical, but in Illinois, there’s an actual goddamn Nazi running for Congress on the Republican ticket. To their credit, the Illinois GOP has disavowed Arthur Jones, former leader of the American Nazi Party, and like Nehlen, he’s not going to get anywhere near elected office: the district he’s running in is heavily Democratic. In fact, according to former Democratic campaign manager Dana Houle, Jones was probably able to slip in precisely because it is such a safe seat for Dems. When no mainstream candidate wants to take on a losing battle, the nutters sometimes win the primary. (As Houle points out, Democrats in Kansas narrowly avoided being saddled with Fred Phelps as their candidate for governor by the same process.)
So there’s Today’s Roundup of Nazis Creeping Into the Mainstream. Pres. Trump has obviously helped usher in this movement, but he can’t be given all the blame. Racial resentment has been simmering for decades in the GOP and mushroomed under Obama, thanks both to white backlash to the first black president and the GOP’s cynical exploitation of that backlash. Along with the racial creepy-crawlies uncovered by turning over that rock come associated religious bigotries, like genetic mutations on a theme: anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, even rejection of Hindus and Sikhs, who are often mistaken for Muslims. It’s not an accident that Robert P. Jones’ book on the 2016 election is titled The End of White Christian America.
It’s worth reiterating at this point that none of this was unavoidable, nor was it a problem with both sides of the political aisle. Republican elected officials chose to play footsie with racists on the fringes of their coalition, with the side-effect of reviving religious hatred as well. It’s great and all that the GOP wants to disassociate itself from Paul Nehlen and Arthur Jones, but maybe if they didn’t want to be in this boat, they should have done the same thing with Sarah Palin, Pamela Gellar, Steve Bannon, and Donald Trump years ago. But no, the only goals that mattered were delegitimizing Democrats and obstructing Barack Obama’s administration. I can’t even pretend there’s another hand to be considered here. By their fruits you shall know them, said Jesus, and Republicans sure have a lot of rotting fruit to be known by.
What’s to be done about it, though? It has been suggested that the proper way to deal with Nazis is to push them back into the shadows, to make it so disreputable and unpleasant to be publicly associated with fascist beliefs that no one dares take it on. Hate we will always have with us, unfortunately, and the best we might be able to do is keep it down under the rocks with the rot and slime molds, where it belongs.
To that end, we might want to take a page from the possibly apocryphal plumber mentioned at the start of this post. RD does not make political endorsements, but if my editors allow it, I will suggest this much: unless you’re a goddamn Nazi, don’t vote for the goddamn Nazis. This country hasn’t struggled across generations for something remotely resembling racial and religious freedom to work for the likes of them.