Paul Ryan’s Wisconsin district is up for the taking — and the Republican race to replace him has already been a “circus.”
A perennial Paul Ryan primary challenger, Paul Nehlen, a self-described “pro-White Christian American candidate,” was already running for the Republican nomination.
“I called it a circus because of the Randy Bryce-Paul Nehlen nonsense,” Mark Graul, a Wisconsin Republican strategist, said. “They have both tried to cash in that they are running against Paul Ryan. In Nehlen’s case, it has been to neo-Nazis, and in Bryce’s case it has been to celebrities in California.”
Republicans will undoubtedly search for a more suitable replacement for Ryan ahead of the August 14 primary, where they will face either Randy Bryce or Cathy Myers. Already names like state Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, state Sen. David Craig, and known Republican business executive Bryan Steil have been floated. After all, the only other option besides Nehlen so far is Nick Polce, an Army Green Beret and first-time candidate who hasn’t raised much money.
Nevertheless, Nehlen has emerged as a political avatar for alt-right internet trolls in the Trump era and previously had the support of some in Trump’s orbit. Nehlen’s far-right views even went off the “deep end” by Breitbart News’s standards; the outlet “cut ties” with Nehlen in late December.
Nehlen, a small-business owner from the same hometown as Gov. Scott Walker, has never been shy about his racism, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, or xenophobia. Here are a few of his most notable moments:
- He was banned from Twitter after posting a photo of Prince Harry a the photoshopped photo of Harry’s fiancé, biracial actress Meghan Markle, as the Cheddar Man — the dark-skinned man believed to be the first modern Briton — with the caption, “Honey, does this tie make my face look pale?”
- Nehlen published a list of critics of his campaign, including their phone numbers and email addresses, and claimed that most of the people who criticized his campaign were Jewish.
- He started an “it’s okay to be white” campaign on social media and has regularly defended white supremacist messaging.
- He said, “Islam is the only major religion that encourages lying,” adding that America should have a “discussion” about having “Muslims in the country” at all.
“He is not the frontrunner,” said Brandon Scholz, a Republican lobbyist and former head of the state GOP. “He is an idiot.”
Nehlen is a white supremacist that even Breitbart isn’t interested in anymore
Nehlen arrived on the national platform in 2016, when a failed primary challenge to Paul Ryan gained him the attention of those in Trump’s sphere. At the time, Trump, then the Republican presidential nominee, spoke kindly of Nehlen. Prominent Trump supporters like Laura Ingraham, Sean Hannity, and Sarah Palin have expressed their support for Nehlen. Ann Coulter even went to Nehlen’s campaign rallies in Janesville and Kenosha, Wisconsin.
Nehlen describes himself as a “Wisconsin executive, entrepreneur, and inventor”; he’s the vice president of operations for a water filtration and disinfection technology company and owns a small business. He has a couple of water filtration patents, which he goes into great detail about on his campaign website.
He’s shed a lot of the Trump-circle support, but he still shows up here and there. He campaigned with Steve Bannon for Roy Moore, the Alabama Republican Senate candidate accused of child molestation, and had Noel Fritsch, a former aide to Mississippi Senate candidate Chris McDaniel close to the Bannon circle, consulting his campaign.
And his campaign argument this year has been pretty similar to 2016: Paul Ryan is a Washington insider whose policies are closer to Hillary Clinton than those of Trump. He is a Harley-Davidson-riding, Trump-supporting outsider who likes to escalate the president’s rhetoric on immigration, trade, and race. He’s unabashedly “pro-White” and has made waves with anti-Semitic social media posts — so much so that in December, even Breitbart, which is just as comfortable dog-whistling anti-Semitic and white nationalist talking points, had to cut ties with Nehlen, claiming his white supremacy was “something he had not done before” (even though he had).
Nehlen, who ran against Ryan last cycle on the economic nationalist agenda of renegotiating trade deals, has recently publicly come out making several white supremacist comments — something he had not done before. Nehlen has announced his plans to run against Ryan again this cycle, and while Breitbart News did cover his race in depth in 2016 — something that was highlighted by everyone from now President Donald Trump via Twitter to CNN and many others — this news outlet has cut all ties with Nehlen after he made a number of clearly anti-Semitic and white nationalist comments via his Twitter account these past couple weeks. Breitbart News pulled down his contributor page earlier this week, and allies of Bannon have made clear publicly for more than a week that Bannon does not support Nehlen and cut ties as soon as he found out about these comments.
Nehlen’s strain of both alt-right race baiting and populist messaging is a clear outgrowth of Trumpism, even if it might not be enough to propel Nehlen to the nomination.
Nehlen is an extreme outgrowth of Trump’s influence on right-wing politics
Among other things, Nehlen is anti-free trade. He thinks the United States should be much more restrictive with its immigration policies, arguing that there are too many student, H-1B, and H-2B visas. He believes education should be governed on the local level and that ”government is ultimately force, not your friend.” He wants to “Make Budgets About Accountability Again.”
In 2016, Nehlen and a group of four mothers who had “lost children at the hands of illegal immigrants” showed up at Ryan’s Janesville home to make the case for stronger borders. Nehlen’s campaign said Ryan ignored the mothers.
If any of this sounds like Trump, it’s because their platforms are essentially the same. Just picture Trump as a Midwestern, tattooed Harley-Davidson enthusiast whose business passion is water filtration technology rather than real estate.
But Nehlen takes Trump’s dog whistling to anti-Semites and white supremacists to a new level. Instead of declaring a First Amendment war against political correctness and the left, he uses neo-Nazi language and describes himself as “pro-White.”
In 2016, even with a national spotlight, Nehlen lost to Ryan by 68 points. It’s not that surprising that a district that heavily supported Ted Cruz in the 2016 primaries isn’t interested in Nehlen’s Trump-esque brand of politics.
Still, Nehlen remains a character in today’s political climate. Trump has inspired a crop of mini Trumps — and Nehlen is certainly showing up for the audition.