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White Nationalist Fringe Moves Closer to Center of GOP

“Today, the United States finds itself at a crossroads. To the left, lies multiracial democracy; to the right a 'white Christian nation' or Herrenvolk 'democracy.'” It’s clear which path the Republican party has chosen. 

“White nationalist, white supremacist, Western civilization—how did that language become offensive? Why did I sit in classes teaching me about the merits of our history and our civilization?” It was this statement that finally got Steve King, the former Iowa Republican,  stripped of his committee assignments in the House of Representatives. This wasn’t the first time he’d signaled sympathy for the far right—after all, he’d had a long history of racist, bigoted remarks about immigrants and he’d even retweeted Nazi-sympathizers

But while racism and the odd white supremacist retweet could be overlooked by the GOP due to his strong following in the midwest, it was King’s full-throated promotion of white supremacy and white nationalism as a virtue that finally proved too much even for the GOP. And so, in 2019, Republicans unanimously voted to remove him from his committee assignments (though he wasn’t removed from the “G.O.P. House conference itself, so he [could] still attend its party meetings”). 

Since then, the GOP has been radicalized even further, and at a pace that’s left even some of the most critical political commentators stunned. Three years later, in 2022, and another member of congress, Georgia Republican Marjorie Taylor Greene, stood proudly next to a white supremacist and Nazi-sympathizer, Nick Fuentes, at his America First Political Action Conference (AFPAC), where he later praised Putin and Hitler. 

Greene, initially laughed off as part of the lunatic fringe of the GOP, has become a part of its mainstream. Even Republicans admit that her endorsement carries a great deal of weight. In fact, four “Republican operatives” told The Daily Beast that only one endorsement is better than hers. “If you can’t get Donald Trump, you are going to want to have MTG in your back pocket,” said one. 

Greene was stripped of her committee assignments as well—only this time, just a couple of years later, the vote did not include the majority of Republicans. Despite her remarks minimizing the Holocaust, questioning 9/11 and school shootings, and calling for violence against Nancy Pelosi and other Democrats, only eleven House Republicans broke ranks and voted with Democrats to relieve Greene of her committees. For those keeping count, 199 Republicans voted against the resolution. Kevin McCarthy, minority leader of the House, blamed the Democrats, calling the vote a “partisan power grab.”

The Gen-Z voice of racism

Before joining his colleague at this year’s AFPAC (via recorded video message), Congressman Paul Gosar of Arizona posted an anime video of himself killing his Democratic colleague Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and attacking Joe Biden with two swords. That was in November 2021. No real consequences from McCarthy and the GOP followed. Gosar was eventually censured and stripped of his committee assignments, with only two Republicans siding with the Democrats. 

This wasn’t Gosar’s first experience with AFPAC—he’d participated in person in the past. In total, four elected Republican officials participated in this year’s AFPAC, with Idaho Lt. Governor Janice McGeachin and Arizona state senator Wendy Rogers joining Gosar and Greene. Also speaking at this year’s AFPAC: Steve King.

And while the GOP’s radicalization process has sped up considerably over the past few years, this year’s AFPAC, hosted by Fuentes as a rival event to CPAC, marked another escalation of what—and who—is tolerated in the Republican Party. In fact, as researcher Ben Lorber’s* popular Twitter thread on AFPAC demonstrates, this is a feedback loop: as Fuentes’ groyper movement hastens the radicalization of the GOP, the GOP helps further normalize white nationalism, which may well have a seat at the table going forward.

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Video from the conference shows Fuentes complaining that Putin was being compared to Hitler—“as if that isn’t a good thing”—to laughter and cheers from the audience. While many mainstream Republicans have responded to the invasion of Ukraine—including deadly Russian attacks on civilians and press—by employing the Tucker Carlson tactic of “anti-anti-Putin” rhetoric, the attendees of AFPAC didn’t even bother to mask their admiration for the Russian dictator. Shouts of “Putin, Putin, Putin!” could be heard from the crowd during Fuentes’ speech, a sentiment he affirmed. 

It’s important to note that he’s not just any right-wing extremist—but the openly-racist, Gen Z voice of the movement, stating, “we want children to be happy and not on drugs, and that’s why we opposed mixed [race] marriages.” In addition, he openly called for the killing of legislators before Jan 6: “What can you and I do to a state legislator, besides kill them? … Although we should not do that. I am not advising that, but I mean, what else can you do, right?” 

Daniel Harper, an expert on neo-Nazi subcultures in the US and co-host of the “I Don’t Speak German” podcast describes the dangerous character of Fuentes’ brand like this: 

“Fuentes’s America First brand depends to a large extent [on] avoiding direct linkage to specific neo-Nazi culture (including that derived from the now-waning ‘alt-right’) while nonetheless engaging in that sort of politics in practice. Fuentes very rarely speaks openly about ‘The Jews’ as an ethnicity/race, often coding his antisemitism within the more ‘respectable’ confines of a hard-right Christian religious bigotry.” 

Times are changing, fast

Arizona state senator Wendy Rogers, who spoke at AFPAC via pre-recorded video-message, has publicly stated her admiration for Fuentes on previous occasions. She’s also a member of the far-right “Oath Keepers,” a militia present at the January 6 attack on the Capitol. And just like Fuentes, Rogers has called for political violence—the difference being that she’s an elected Republican official. She’s stated that there were “more gallows needed” for the Right’s political enemies and has called for “more rope and less inflation” on the right-wing site Gab. 

And speaking of Gab—another escalation, even by AFPAC standards, was the speech by Gab-founder Andrew Torba. His rant, filled with the language of “spiritual warfare” and extreme religious rhetoric, managed to stand out due to his signaling of “Christian Identity,” a white power theology with a Nazi Jesus who seeks a race war. Now, the dog whistles Torba used might not even have registered for the majority who have no familiarity with this hateful fringe sect—but to those who’ve watched the scene for some time, it was clear

The use of dog whistles fits into Fuentes’ brand of white nationalism that serves as a bridge between right-wingers and even more fringe factions. According to Harper:

“The phrases that Torba used in his speech are all biblical, of course, but point much more explicitly to the fundamental problems the America First movement rails against being caused by ‘The Jews.’ ‘Synagogue of Satan’ is a relatively obscure passage from Revelation among most American Christians, but it has strong resonance within the Christian Identity movement, as a marker of the origins of the people who currently call themselves Jews as being the ‘spawn of Satan.’” 

“It is a call to a specific species of theology that has little to do with mainline or even hard-right traditional Christianity, one that is explicitly racialized and with antisemitism at its core.” 

Torba’s rhetoric doesn’t necessarily signal a resurgence of “Christian Identity,” which remains fringe even in these hard-right circles. But its prominent display at AFPAC is, according to Harper, cause for concern: 

“Christian Identity as a faith practice is fringe even within white nationalist communities today, but the language and the ideas have been adopted by several prominent thought leaders in the current far-right, and the fact that these lines are being spoken openly to wild applause speaks volumes about the real opinions of the America First movement as a whole, regardless of their Young Republicans Club aesthetic. That Torba was that open about this language is an escalation in the sense of what they believe they can get away with in public[…].”

Lorber agrees, noting that two of the “leading grandfathers of the white nationalist movement” were present, and that, “A year ago, GOP elected officials wouldn’t dare be caught in the same room as folks like this, much less headlining the conference. Times are changing, fast.”

The far right: it’s where the action is

While Rogers has been censured by the Arizona GOP in response to the public outrage over her appearance at AFPAC, no other consequences have followed. It took Idaho GOP officials three days before they could muster even vague criticism of McGeachin, though they did so without actually naming her—and even then, rather than worry about the harm caused by such toxic ideas, their concern was any potential “guilt by association.” 

Thomas Zimmer, historian and visiting professor at Georgetown University who specializes in the right-wing assault on American democracy, explains that the Arizona GOP’s actions fit into a larger pattern of public Republican responses to its most extreme members: 

“It is true that the most egregious assaults on democratic political culture, the most blatant embrace of political violence, leads to some measure of symbolic distancing—but the party never breaks with its Christian nationalist extremist members. That’s because GOP leadership is aware that most of the energy and activism is precisely on the far-right wing—but also because this sort of radicalism is widely seen as justified on the Right and within the Republican Party.” 

Indeed, while a recent article in the New York Times claims that “neither Ms. Greene nor Mr. Gosar is a party leader,” this is true only in the most technical sense of the term—as demonstrated by the toothless response of major GOP figures. And while Rogers may present herself differently than other Republicans, who go for a more “respectable” brand, ideologically, the two are aligned, says Zimmer: 

“Sure, the exact language Rogers uses might be slightly crasser than what some conservatives are comfortable with, and some Republicans might disagree with some aspects of the public image she projects. But it’s obviously not enough for them to break with her. What Rogers is saying, and the underlying worldview that manifests in her statements, is well in line with the GOP’s central political project of preventing multiracial pluralistic democracy. Rogers, the GOP, the Right more broadly: They are united in the quest to entrench white reactionary rule.”

It’s therefore not surprising that Greene hasn’t suffered any meaningful consequences for her appearance at the conference of a neo-Nazi sympathizer, apart from a stern talking-to by McCarthy (or at least the appearance of it). Instead, she used the criticism leveled against her as an opportunity to present herself as a defender of freedom of speech—in line with her greeting of Fuentes’ AFPAC crowd as “canceled Americans.” 

In a statement, she not only defended her appearance at AFPAC, claiming not to know about Fuentes’ extremist beliefs, but she also lashed out at the party secure in the understanding that as long as she has the support of the base she isn’t likely to face any serious repercussions: “The Pharisees in the Republican Party may attack me for being willing to break barriers and speak to a lost generation of young people who are desperate for love and leadership. I won’t cancel others in the conservative movement,” Greene added, “even if I find some of their statements tasteless, misguided or even repulsive at times.” 

White Supremacists can also wear khakis

The “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville was seen by many experts as an important milestone in the radicalization of the white nationalist movement. During the rally, which Fuentes attended, a right-wing extremist killed counter-protester Heather Heyer with his car. Beforehand, neo-Nazis and white nationalists had marched through the streets of Charlottesville carrying the now-infamous Tiki torches while chanting “Jews will not replace us.” 

And while many commentators condemned the violence and images of the rally, most missed what the marchers meant by “Jews will not replace us.” It was a direct nod to the conspiracy theory of “White Genocide,” in which shadowy Jewish elites plan to “replace” the country’s white population with immigrants of color to destabilize and eventually take control. Just like in Charlottesville, many of the dog whistles at AFPAC, like those used by Torba, have flown under the radar of most political commentators.  

It’s not the first time that blatant mainstreaming of white supremacism has been connected to Christian nationalism in US history. While the first Klan of the Reconstruction-era was mainly conducting terror attacks on Black people, the second Klan of the 1920s combined Protestantism and racism so effectively that it reached an all-time peak in membership. The strong emphasis on religion, while fusing it with a white, national identity, helped the Klan to reach the white middle class: teachers and pastors, as well as housewives. 

Historian Kelly J. Baker, who specializes in the Klan, points out a common misconception about white supremacists: That people often imagine them all to have swastika tattoos or other visible markers. Instead, the opposite is often the case: “White Supremacists can also wear khakis,” she told me during the research for my latest book.   

Baker has been warning about the mainstreaming of white supremacy and white Christian nationalism for years now: “I’ve been telling people for years that we live in the Klan’s America. It’s not because the order is still influential, because it isn’t. But rather, their ideas about white supremacy, Christian nationalism, and how to tell the story of America are mainstream.” 

The data are clear in the relation between racism and white Christian nationalism as well, as sociologists Andrew Whitehead and Samuel Perry have shown

“[…] Christian nationalism influences white Americans’ defense of racial boundaries, and in this case their discomfort with interracial marriage, above and beyond the effects of political conservatism and religious exclusivity separately.”

Yale sociology professor Philip Gorski has shown the roots of white Christian nationalism in American history going back to the Puritans, while emphasizing the role that narratives of blood, blood sacrifice, and conquest have played within it. As soon as themes of blood, purity, and soil are mixed, the appeal of these narratives to white supremacists like Fuentes and his supporters are obvious. 

The long and racist history of slavery-affirming theology, and especially white evangelical racism (see Anthea Butler’s work), also makes it clear that this isn’t something that “outsiders” brought to the movement. It was a feature, not a bug of white Christian nationalism.

The consequences for the future of American democracy are potentially devastating. Zimmer warns: “Every ‘Western’ society harbors far-right extremists like Rogers who dream of committing acts of fascistic violence. But it’s the fact that the Republican Party embraces and elevates her, and others like her, that constitutes an acute danger to democracy.”

Gorski puts it like this: “Today, the United States finds itself at a crossroads. To the left, lies multiracial democracy; to the right a “white Christian nation” or Herrenvolk “democracy.” It’s clear which path the Republican party has chosen. 

Annika Brockschmidt is a freelance journalist, author, a podcast-producer who currently writes for the Tagesspiegel, ZEIT Online and elsewhere. Her second non-fiction book America's Holy Warriors: How the Religious Right endangers Democracy was published in German in October 2021 and was an immediate bestseller. She co-hosts the podcast "Kreuz und Flagge" ("Cross and Flag") with visiting professor at Georgetown University, Thomas Zimmer, which explores the history of the Religious Right.

Ben Lorber is a research analyst for RD’s parent organization, Political Research Associates.

Religion Dispatches: your secular, independent, award-winning source for the best writing on critical and timely issues at the intersection of religion, politics and culture.