The role of extremist white nationalists in the GOP may be approaching an inflection point.
The backlash against former President Donald Trump’s meeting with Nick Fuentes, an avowed racist, anti-Semite, and Christian nationalist, has compelled more Republican officeholders than at any point since the Charlottesville riot in 2017 to publicly condemn those extremist views.
Yet few GOP officials have criticized the former president personally—much less declared that Trump’s meeting with Fuentes and Ye, the rapper (formerly known as Kanye West) who has become a geyser of anti-Semitic bile, renders him unfit to serve as president again.
Even this distancing from Fuentes (if not Trump) comes as House GOP Leader Kevin McCarthy, the putative next speaker, is poised to restore prominent committee assignments for Representatives Marjorie Taylor Greene and Paul Gosar, two House Republicans who have publicly associated with Fuentes. It also comes as Republican officials, including McCarthy and Governor Ron DeSantis of Florida, are locking arms in support of Elon Musk’s push to allow extremist voices more access to Twitter.
Although it took days to develop, some believe the widespread Republican criticism of Trump’s meeting could signal a new determination to restore the barriers between mainstream conservatism and far-right Christian and white nationalism that eroded during the Trump era.
Elizabeth Neumann, a former assistant secretary at the Department of Homeland Security under Trump who focused on domestic extremism, told me she believes the backlash—however belated—combined with the GOP’s disappointing performance in last month’s midterm elections, could mark a turning point. “I think we are going to be playing footsie with fascism and authoritarianism and extremism for a while,” because it helped Trump win the presidency in 2016 and sustain his support thereafter, she said. But, she added, after several years of feeling “very pessimistic” about the prospect of weakening those movements, “this is the first time I’ve felt there might be some light at the end of the tunnel.”
Yet others remain unconvinced that the GOP is ready to fundamentally break with Trump or ostracize the coalition’s overtly racist, homophobic, and anti-Semitic white supremacists and Christian nationalists. “I think what we are looking at is the entrenchment of extremism, and that’s what is so worrisome,” Jonathan Greenblatt, the CEO of the Anti-Defamation League, told me.
If anything, extremist groups could gain momentum in the coming months. Musk’s proposed mass amnesty for banned Twitter accounts would provide “a tremendous amount of oxygen to extremists on the radical right” and allow those groups to push back much harder against any Republican elected officials resisting their presence in the party, Michael Edison Hayden of the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Intelligence Project told me. If Musk opens the door to extremist organizing on Twitter, Hayden said, the white-nationalist presence in the GOP coalition will become “potentially irreversible in the short term.”
Trump famously declared that there were “very fine people on both sides” of the neo-Nazi riot against the removal of confederate monuments in Charlottesville, Virginia, during his first year in office. Asked to denounce the extremist Proud Boys during one 2020 presidential debate, Trump instead told them to “stand back and stand by.” After the January 6 insurrection, in which white-supremacist groups played a central role, the overwhelming majority of House and Senate Republicans voted against impeaching or convicting Trump for spurring the violence. More recently, hardly any Republicans have raised objections to Trump repeatedly floating the possibility of providing mass pardons (and even government apologies) to the insurrectionists if he wins the presidency again in 2024.
Other officials inside the GOP coalition have pushed through the boundaries Trump has weakened. Gosar and Greene both appeared at Fuentes’s America First Political Action Conference. So did Republican Arizona State Senator Wendy Rogers, who called the audience at one of the events “patriot,” and declared, “We need to build more gallows. If we try some of these high-level criminals, convict them, and use a newly built set of gallows, it’ll make an example of these traitors who have betrayed our country.”
The Republican-controlled Arizona State Senate censured Rogers this year for threatening her colleagues, but she was nevertheless fulsomely embraced by Kari Lake, the Republican nominee for Arizona governor this year. Other prominent GOP candidates, including Doug Mastriano in Pennsylvania, also associated with white and Christian nationalists or directly echoed themes from those movements this year.
In a similar vein, in the days before the election, McCarthy made clear that he would restore committee assignments to Greene and Gosar, whom the Democratic majority had stripped of such roles for their association with extremists and embrace of violent imagery. McCarthy also promised Greene and other hardline conservatives that he would authorize an investigation into the government’s prosecution and treatment of the January 6 insurrectionists, many of whom are extremists tied to white and Christian nationalism.
“After Trump’s rise, these barriers became softer and softer, and they really broke down in the aftermath of January 6 altogether,” Hayden said. “And now you have this kind of opening between the fringe world and the mainstream world in a way that is very difficult to separate.”
Musk has quickly become a major new factor in further razing those barriers between the far right and the conservative mainstream, restoring the Twitter accounts of figures banned for misinformation, promotion of violence, or intimidation—including Trump and Greene. Hayden said the Southern Poverty Law Center’s research shows that some previously banned white nationalists have already been restored to the site.
In a torrent of combative posts, Musk wrapped himself in the mantle of “free speech” to justify restoring accounts previously banned for violating the site’s standards. And he’s accused individuals and institutions that argue for drawing a line against extremist rhetoric of threatening the core American value of free expression. In Musk’s formulation, even the most noxious forms of hate speech can be justified as free speech, and any effort to combat divisive rhetoric is an un-American attempt at censorship or intimidation by the “woke” mob. “This is a battle for the future of civilization,” Musk insisted in one tweet. “If free speech is lost even in America, tyranny is all that lies ahead.” That’s quite a minuet: According to Musk’s logic, it’s a form of “tyranny” to oppose his amplification of authoritarian, racist, and neo-Nazi views antithetical to democracy.
The rush of GOP leaders such as McCarthy, DeSantis, and incoming House Judiciary Chairman Jim Jordan to support Musk as he works to restore more banned accounts shows how hard it will be for the GOP to completely divorce itself from white and Christian nationalism. So does McCarthy’s pledge to restore committee assignments to Greene and Gosar, as well as the reluctance of almost all GOP officials to directly criticize Trump.
Polling by the Associated Press and the National Opinion Research Center has found that only about one in 11 Republicans express directly favorable views of white-nationalist groups such as the Proud Boys and Oath Keepers (whose leader, Stewart Rhodes, was convicted this week of seditious conspiracy for his role in the January 6 attack).
But a much larger slice of Republican partisans express views that might be called white-nationalist adjacent. In various polls, preponderant majorities of GOP voters have said that discrimination against white people is now as big a problem as bias against minorities, that Christianity in the U.S. is under assault, and that the growing number of immigrants threatens American values and traditions. About half of Republicans have expressed agreement in other polls with tenets of white nationalism, including the racist “replacement theory” that elites are importing immigrants to undermine the political power of native-born white people, the core Christian-nationalist belief that “God intended America to be a new promised land,” and the assertion that “the traditional American way of life is disappearing so fast that we may have to use force to save it.”
Only a minuscule percentage of those Republican partisans might contemplate violence or join extremist organizations, Neumann and other experts point out. But the receptivity of so many Republican voters to arguments, even if less virulent, that overlap with those championed by white- and Christian-nationalist organizations may be a crucial reason for party leaders’ reluctance to confront Trump and others, like Greene, who have associated with such groups. Given the extent of such views inside the GOP coalition, Neumann said, Republicans feel no political incentive to reject the far right “other than out of the goodness of their heart and moral clarity. And apparently that wasn’t enough.”
Neumann, now the chief strategy officer of Moonshot, a company that combats online extremism, worries that organized far-right violence could still erupt if Trump ever faces a trial as a result of the various investigations targeting him. But she sees the possibility that the visibility and influence of the extreme right inside the GOP peaked with this fall’s converging events, especially the party’s disappointing election results. “I really do think this is, like, a 10-, 20-year process,” she told me, but “I have a slight hope that this sticks and that we move past it.”
Robert P. Jones, the president and founder of the nonpartisan Public Religion Research Institute and the author of White Too Long, a history of Christian nationalism, is less optimistic. He believes Christian-nationalist beliefs are spreading more widely among Trump’s followers because they believe “they are at a kind of ‘last stand’ moment” for their vision of a white-Christian-dominated America. “The unwillingness of party leaders, time and time again, to denounce Trump for giving these voices support and cover has allowed them to move into the center of the GOP today,” Jones wrote to me in an email. “I would be surprised if we didn’t see increasing numbers of GOP party leaders openly associating with these voices in the future, particularly leading up to the 2024 presidential election.”
Greenblatt is also less sanguine. The Anti-Defamation League tracked more than 2,700 anti-Semitic incidents in 2021—the highest annual total it has ever recorded and triple the number of incidents it documented as recently as 2015, the last year before Trump emerged as the GOP’s leading man. Furthermore, Greenblatt is unconvinced that the current Republican distancing from Trump will last any longer than it did in earlier episodes, such as Charlottesville. And he worries that Musk is on course to radically increase the volume of racist and anti-Semitic hate speech on Twitter, which was already a problem before Musk bought the company.
On all of these fronts, Greenblatt sees what he calls “the normalization of extremism” hardening in ways that would have been unimaginable only a few years ago. “Society itself is at risk if we don’t finally move the extremists … out of the mainstream, back to the margins where they belong,” he told me. “I think we don’t realize the peril that we run, the risk that’s upon us, if we don’t get this right.”