US activists confront Republican Party over white nationalism

With midterm elections approaching, Trump and Republicans are blasted for white nationalists in party ranks.

Pittsburgh shooting
People protesting against US President Donald Trump wait near the Tree of Life Congregation in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania [Brendan Smialowski/AFP]

When Iowa State University student Kaleb Van Fosson confronted Congressman Steve King about his friendly ties to white nationalist groups and anti-Semites, the Republican legislator clapped back in a fury.

At a town hall event on Thursday night, Van Fosson, a member of Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement, likened King’s views to those of Robert Bowers, who has been charged with shooting dead 11 Jewish worshipers in a Pennsylvania synagogue. 

That attack, which took place at the Tree of Life synagogue, has been described as one of the deadliest anti-Semitic incidents in US history. 

“You and the shooter share an ideology that is anti-immigration,” Van Fosson said.


But King interrupted him. “Do not associate me with the shooter whatsoever,” barked the Republican representative, who is currently in a neck-and-neck race for re-election in Iowa’s 4th Congressional District during the November 6 midterm elections.

“I knew you were an ambusher when you walked in the room. There’s no basis for that and you get no questions.”

Van Fosson pushed back, asking King why he recently met white nationalists and far-right groups in Austria. But King had the student activist removed from the press conference.

A day before the Pittsburgh attack, authorities arrested Cesar Sayoc, a Trump supporter they believe mailed more than a dozen pipe bombs several of the president’s critics. Authorities intercepted the packages before they could harm anyone.

And just two days before Sayoc’s arrest, a white man shot and killed two elderly African American patrons at a supermarket in Kentucky.

Like King, Trump and other Republicans have dismissed allegations that their party has any connections to white nationalism or anti-Semitism. 

But with midterm elections slated for Tuesday, activists across the United States are confronting the Republican Party over a slew of openly white nationalist and anti-Semitic politicians within its ranks. 

‘Clearly embraces white nationalism’

On Friday morning, dozens of Jewish and Muslim activists gathered outside Republican State Senator Marty Golden’s New York City office and called on him to denounce white nationalism.

Held by the Jewish Vote, Yalla Brooklyn and the Muslim Democratic Club of New York, the protest demanded Golden sack Ian Reilly, a staffer with ties to a violent far-right group.

“If someone who holds public office can’t denounce and distance themselves from someone who so clearly embraces white nationalist ideology, he doesn’t deserve that office, and we’re going to vote him out on Tuesday,” said Keren Soffer Sharon, an organiser with the Jewish Vote activist group.

Reilly, the chairperson of the Metropolitan Republican Club, invited Proud Boys leader Gavin McInnes to speak to the club on October 12.

Founded by McInnes, the Proud Boys are an ultra-nationalist, pro-Trump men’s club known for violent confrontations during protests.

During the October 12 event, McInnes’s followers attacked a group of anti-fascist protesters outside, punching and kicking them as they screamed homophobic slurs. Police later arrested several Proud Boys members.

In response, Golden rebuked the demands and refused to fire Reilly, according to local media outlets.

Golden’s spokesman, Michael Tobman, told the Brooklyn Eagle that the politician had no intention of firing Reilly, adding the campaign manager “has capably and professionally [served that role] for months”. 

Soffer Sharon said that “in light of the shooting that happened at Tree of Life this past Saturday, we draw the connections … between all white nationalist violence and the rhetoric espoused by the president himself and by the Republican Party”.

Golden denounced the Pittsburgh shooting on Twitter, saying “it highlights how much hate and violence are trying to become part of our daily lives.” 

During that shooting, the suspect reportedly screamed, “All Jews must die!”

On Gab, a social media network, he had recycled anti-Semitic conspiracy theories that claim Jews are behind immigration as part of a supposed plot to replace white people. 

“The idea of white genocide has been around for quite some time, and it’s usually tied to immigrants in the sense that Latinos and others are coming to replace white people,” said Heidi Beirich, head of the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Intelligence Project.

“What’s really scary lately is connecting anti-Semitic conspiracy theories with anti-immigrant hate mongering, and that’s a pretty potent mix, as we saw in the synagogue this past weekend.”

Mourners visit the memorial outside the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania [Jeff Swensen/Getty Images/AFP]
Mourners visit the memorial outside the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania [Jeff Swensen/Getty Images/AFP]

Earlier this week, protesters rallied in Pittsburgh as Trump arrived amid funerals for the victims. Many political opponents and critics accused the president of inciting violence with his increasingly nativist rhetoric.

The White House rejected the claims, however. “The president is not responsible for these acts,” Press Secretary Sarah Sanders said after the synagogue attack and spate of pipe bombs.

“I think it’s irresponsible to blame the president and members of his administration for those heinous acts.”

Anti-Semitism on the rise

But at a time when anti-Semitism is on the rise and far-right violence rampant, a worrying number of white nationalists are running for local, state and federal office – and the vast majority of them are Republicans.

The Republican Party has disavowed many of the candidates, such as Illinois House hopeful Arthur Jones, who has a long history of Holocaust denial and formerly headed a neo-Nazi group.

In North Carolina’s 48th District, Republican state House candidate Russell Walker has claimed that Jews “are descended from Satan” and that “God is racist and a white supremacist”.

In Missouri, Steve West, a Republican candidate for the state House of Representatives, has made a slew of anti-Semitic, racist and homophobic comments on his radio show and website.

In January 2017, West said on his Monday morning radio programme, “Looking back in history, unfortunately, Hitler was right about what was taking place in Germany. And who was behind it.”

Speaking to the daily Kansas City Star, West’s daughter and son urged voters not to cast a ballot for their father. “I can’t imagine him being in any level of government,” his daughter Emily West told the newspaper.

Andy West, her brother, told the paper, “My dad’s a fanatic. He must be stopped.”

For his part, Trump has escalated his anti-immigrant rhetoric, describing a US-bound caravan of Central American refugees and migrants as an “invasion”.

When a reporter asked Trump if he believed Jewish philanthropist and billionaire George Soros was bankrolling the caravan of desperate people fleeing war and economic devastation, the president declined to rule it out.

“I don’t know who, but I wouldn’t be surprised,” he replied. “A lot of people say ‘yes’.”

With baseless claims about Soros popping up time and again throughout the midterm campaign season, expert Kathleen Belew explains that the rhetoric harkens back to past conspiracy theories claiming Jews controlled the US government.

“The way they speak about Soros is almost identical to how they talked about ‘Zionist-occupied government’ decades ago,” Belew, author of Bring the War Home, told Al Jazeera. 

Source: Al Jazeera