Paul Nehlen is not an important political figure. According to his LinkedIn account, he’s had a successful career working in equipment manufacturing. He ran against Paul Ryan in the Wisconsin Republican primary in 2016 and got trounced; the speaker of the House won nearly 85 percent of the vote. And now, having declared for a second time his intention to unseat Ryan, Nehlen has become a caricature of an anti-Semitic Twitter troll.
The catalog of his absurd comments is too long to detail in full. Better to visit his feed and Ctrl+F search for “Jew” or “JQ”—an abbreviation for “Jewish Question,” a phrase that white supremacists and neo-Nazis use to refer to their paranoid analyses of Jews’ control over society.
But here’s a taste. After BuzzFeed published an article documenting Nehlen’s mobilization of online followers against the “Jewish media,” he tweeted out pictures of top media executives at CNN, NBC, and The New York Times with little stars of David superimposed on their faces. “Do the people pictured seem to have anything in common?” he wrote, before apparently deleting the tweet.
He claims that his views align with Christianity. “Jesus is the Messiah. He is One with the Father and the Holy Ghost,” he tweeted. “Jews (and others) who do not acknowledge this fact will burn in hell.”
And he loves making odd generalizations about what Jews are like. “Poop, incest, and pedophilia. Why are those common themes repeated so often with Jews?” he tweeted. One of Nehlen’s 89,000 followers declared that “@pnehlen is one of the few American Christians courageous and honest enough to defend the Faith against Islamists and Talmudic Pharisees alike even when it’s unpopular. God bless you, Paul!” Nehlen hit retweet.
And that’s just what’s happened in the last few days. There’s a lot more. These examples, which are representative of how Nehlen conducts himself online, also represent the well-worn tropes of anti-Semitism: conspiracy theories about Jews controlling the media; using Christianity to target and direct suspicion toward Jews; rewriting history to put distance between Judaism and Christianity. His comments are so over-the-top, so clichéd and ham-fisted, that they almost seem like a joke—a not-particularly-creative parody of Jew-hating, rather than shocking comments from a man who won more than 10,000 Republican votes for Congress in 2016.
All of this is worth noting not because Nehlen seems primed to win office; if anything, whatever influence he once had seems to be slipping. When he ran for office in 2016, he won endorsements from such conservative stars as Sarah Palin and Ann Coulter. He showed up at Roy Moore’s last rally in Alabama and was apparently favored by the former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon. Yet Breitbart News, where Nehlen was formerly a contributor, recently dumped him after he tweeted a string of anti-Semitic messages in December. By all appearances, he remains a fringe figure with a diffuse online following that probably won’t boost his chances in Wisconsin.
But Nehlen does represent two troubling, pernicious political trends. The first is the appropriation of Christianity to justify white-supremacist views. Nehlen says he is not a white supremacist; he is just “pro-white.” Whatever meaningless semantic distinctions he wants to make, the behavior is the same: He repeatedly uses his purported faith as a rallying cry against Jews—a group, he implicitly claims, that is not white. I reached out to Nehlen for an interview about his views on Christianity. He did not respond.
“Save your breath little man,” he tweeted at Ben Shapiro, the editor in chief of the conservative outlet The Daily Wire, who has been the target of extreme anti-Semitism online. “Christians have nothing to learn about Christ from Jews.” While it is not unusual for conservative politicians to tweet their support for Second Amendment rights, it is unusual to “urge Christians to concealed carry,” and then, when asked why he specifically called out Christians, reply that “I’ll advocate for whomever I want, and that will be my Christian brothers and sisters. If you want to advocate for Jews, who’s stopping you?”
Fellow conservatives hate Nehlen’s fashioning of Christianity. He got into a fight over the relationship between Jews and Christians with the blogger Allie Beth Stuckey, who accused him of anti-Semitism that “comes from both a lack of sincerity in your faith & a lack of understanding.” His views are also out of step with the stated theological orientation of the church he says he attends, which is part of a loose association of churches called the Evangelical Free Church of America. Here’s what Greg Strand, the EFCA’s executive director of theology and credentialing, wrote in a blog post in 2012:
… there are also times in human history when people of faith cannot in good conscience opt out of the political process. Wilberforce was a leader in Parliament and worked tirelessly to pass legislation that ended the British slave trade. Christians living in 1930s Germany were concerned about many issues other than anti-Semitism, but Bonhoeffer knew that following Jesus required taking a stand against that intrinsic evil. Martin Luther King, Jr. lobbied both Congress and the president to enact civil rights legislation. Today we face a similar moment with respect to the sanctity of life, traditional marriage, and religious freedom.
Nehlen’s rendering of Christianity as a racialized, civilizational religion is, however, in keeping with the thinking of figures on the alt-right who have argued that Christendom has to be at the core of any revival of Western civilization. In one of his recent Twitter spats, Nehlen linked to a website called the Biblicism Institute, an anonymous blog with few social-media followers that runs long posts explaining that “Jesus Was Not a Jew” and “How the Ashkenazi Jews Conquered the West.” (Simple: They “applied a simple two-step process: 1) morph themselves into God’s Chosen People; 2) take over the issuance of money.”) This overtly civilizational frame for Christianity appears to be fairly marginal within the contemporary United States. But it’s insidious nonetheless, glorifying a twisted version of the faith that’s largely intended to exclude and potentially harm people who are not white or Christian.
But what’s even more infuriating about the phenomenon of Paul Nehlen is that he has succeeded in getting people to pay attention to his shtick. Famous journalists take his bait and fight with him on Twitter. He’s gotten write-ups in publications including The Huffington Post, BuzzFeed, The Washington Post, and Vox in recent weeks; he is a constant source of fascination for outlets that serve largely Jewish audiences, such as Haaretz and The Forward; and now, he’s landed an article in The Atlantic. Those 89,000-plus Twitter followers almost certainly include people along for the spectacle, waiting for the next insane thing Nehlen is going to say. And nearly all of this happens within the world of Twitter, largely detached from the real-world of Wisconsin politics. Those reacting in horror and cheering him on appear to have little to do with the voters he’s ostensibly trying to persuade.
Nehlen’s tweets are the vaudeville theater of bigotry: over-exaggerated, outrageous, and designed to entertain. He does not seem like a regular politician because he is not one; his purpose is to flaunt and mock the norms of democratic discourse, not participate in them. Mocking Nehlen is about as useful as lecturing a circus monkey on manners: His purpose was never to fit into the mainstream in the first place, and he’s better at tricks, anyways.
In this divisive era of American politics, it’s tempting to focus on the fringes. The neo-Nazis and white supremacists and chauvinists who lurk among the alt-right genuinely appear to have leveraged social media and marginalized rage into a movement with the power to make people’s lives miserable and influence mainstream politics. And their ideology, their hate, and their violence are legitimately concerning.
But it’s a mistake to think these figures represent a mass resurgence of outright bigotry akin to the 1920s Ku Klux Klan or Nazi Germany. People like Nehlen need to troll hard in order to get a second glance; his profile, audience, and momentum are all built on his ridiculous performance, not any actual influence on public policy. He means to be hated. In fact, he apparently loves being hated. The real and difficult work of politics lies in combatting the racism and anti-Semitism embedded in everyday interactions, subtly written into laws, and perpetuated by widespread cultural stereotypes.
And yet, Nehlen presents an impossible dilemma. To ignore his hate is to risk letting it spread and fester; to loudly denounce it is to risk allowing him to co-opt the outrage for his own ends. Once made, the phenomenon exists; once fed, the troll grows. It becomes impossible not to talk about him—and impossible not to hate doing so.