Until early Wednesday morning, Paul Nehlen was little more than a racist, anti-Semitic sideshow in Wisconsin politics. Unless you happen to be a white supremacist, chances are you’ve never heard of him. His political résumé consists of one failed 2016 bid to capture the Republican nomination for a congressional race in Wisconsin, and a favorable shoutout from fellow white supremacist Donald Trump on Twitter.
Paul Nehlen was not to be taken seriously, until suddenly he became the Republican front-runner to defend the congressional seat currently held by the most powerful Republican in the House of Representatives.
On Wednesday, reports began circulating that House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) would not seek reelection in the November midterms. Pundits have long suspected Ryan might call it quits sometime this year, facing the prospect of a difficult re-election and a Democratic wave that could push him out of his Speaker’s chair. But most figured the 48-year-old congressman would at least campaign for re-election.
Instead, Ryan says he plans to retire when his term ends, leaving Wisconsin Republicans scrambling to find someone to run against likely Democratic candidate Randy Bryce. Which means for now, Nehlen is the most likely GOP nominee in a district Donald Trump won by 10 points in 2016.
Nehlen’s first primary challenge against Ryan was unremarkable. He made a few headlines by endorsing Trump’s campaign early, something Ryan himself was reluctant to do. Sarah Palin publicly supported Nehlen’s insurgent campaign, but it ultimately did no good: Ryan captured his party’s nomination with almost 85 percent of the vote.
But after Donald Trump’s inauguration, Nehlen — like so many other virulent white supremacists and neo-Nazis — was emboldened. He began openly embracing classic anti-Semitic rhetoric, sharing deeply offensive memes on Twitter and the online white supremacist clearinghouse Gab. Whatever hesitation he had to publicly share his racist views melted away as well.
His online behavior finally got him banned from Twitter in February, when he attacked actress Meghan Markle for her biracial genealogy.
He isn’t without his supporters, though. As he alienated more and more normal Americans, he gained notoriety among the drudgery of the internet. During a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville last year in which a peaceful protester was murdered, Nehlen tweeted messages of support for the rally’s organizers, saying “Incredible moment for white people who’ve had it up to here & aren’t going to take it anymore.” After a white supremacist participant was revealed to be the murderer, Nehlen echoed Donald Trump’s response, blaming bad actors on both sides for the incident.
Nehlen’s comments earned him favorable coverage by white supremacist media outlets like the podcasts of former KKK Grand Wizard David Duke and crying Nazi Christopher Cantwell, as well as Breitbart, which tried — unsuccessfully — to scrub their fawning coverage of Nehlen.
So toxic is Nehlen’s rhetoric that he’s even been banned from Gab.ai, an alternative social media platform established primarily for the benefit white supremacists and others who have been kicked off of Twitter for violating the terms of service. Nehlen was responsible for doxxing a pro-Trump online troll known as Ricky Vaughn, purportedly because Vaughn (real name Douglass Mackey) lobbied against events like the one in Charlottesville in favor of sticking to online manipulation.
For its part, the Republican Party of Wisconsin has disavowed their new frontrunner. “Nehlen and his ideas have no place in the Republican Party,” said party spokesman Alec Zimmerman in February. Nehlen, who is still running as a Republican in August’s primary, disagrees.
“I am a member of the Republican Party regardless of what their traitorous, spineless apparatchiks believe,” Nehlen told the Wisconsin State Journal. “Not only does my America First agenda have a place in the Republican Party, it ought to be the centerpiece of the Republican Party.”