December was shaping up to be a big month for Paul Nehlen, the Republican gadfly who is for a second straight cycle running to unseat House speaker Paul Ryan in Wisconsin’s first congressional district. As the month went on, Nehlen appeared on political talk shows, made waves with a book recommendation, and instigated feuds with the so-called fake-news media. But despite his best efforts, Breitbart, whose doting coverage over the previous 18 months was instrumental in his emergence on the national scene, gave him the cold shoulder.
Maybe that’s because one of his talk-show appearances happened to be on a show called “Fash the Nation.” Maybe it’s because the book he recommended was Kevin MacDonald’s The Culture of Critique, in which MacDonald lays out a pseudo-Darwinian argument that Ashkenazi Jews prosper because, as a genomic group, they have evolved to outcompete other ethnicities for resources and influence. Maybe it’s because rather than calling Ari Cohn a liar, he accused Cohn — who happens to be one of those troublesome Ashkenazis — of “pretending” to be white “for the purposes of undermining whites.”
Or maybe Breitbart, which had made Nehlen a national figure with its coverage, cut him loose for giving it sweaty palms at a time when its once-firm grip on political influence is suddenly slipping away.
Cynical? Perhaps. But Nehlen’s fascination with the racial worldview of National Socialism is not new. It became a matter of public record during the aforementioned 18-month period when he received unfailingly fawning coverage from the site’s foremost propagandists, and was an active contributor himself. On December 9, 2016, Nehlen said of The Culture of Critique during a question-and-answer session on Reddit’s AltRight subforum: “I’ve marked it down as a must-get.” He also warned about “multiculturalism turning into white genocide,” declared he “wasn’t abandoning his culture,” and encouraged the movement to maintain “morality, stamina, and focus.” “Shifting to an alt-light,” Nehlen wrote, “isn’t going to help.” Days later, he appeared on “Fash the Nation,” the very same podcast Breitbart cited last month in explaining its decision to cut him loose.
The simplest explanation is that Breitbart was not secretly infatuated with Nehlen’s racism so much as it believed he was the next Dave Brat, and ran with him despite his views. During the lead-up to Nehlen’s 68-point loss to Ryan back in August, Breitbart was joined by political opportunists such as Laura Ingraham and Sarah Palin in endorsing Nehlen. Back then, Nehlen had yet to “come out” as an alt-right bigot. He was merely an enthusiastic critic of “globalists.”
If Breitbart’s support for Nehlen was entirely opportunistic, so is its decision to cast him off, which comes after star contributor Milo Yiannoupolos left the site in February; chairman Steve Bannon left the White House in August; benefactor Robert Mercer sold his stake in the company to his daughters in November; and candidate-of-choice Roy Moore lost the Alabama Senate election in December despite energetic support from Breitbart writers. Leaving Nehlen behind is not necessarily a sign that Breitbart is panicking, but it suggests that the site is rethinking its brash, scorched-earth defenses of right-wing populism’s ugly fringe.
The “alt-right” was once a poorly understood animal. Commentators (myself included) struggled to parse the continuum between outright white supremacists such as MacDonald on one hand and self-interested careerists such as Mike Cernovich and Gavin McInnes on the other. The former styles himself as a khaki-and-polo Sturmabteilungsman; the latter embraced the term “alt-right” primarily for the frisson of countercultural transgression it offered them. The true believers could assure horrified observers they were just fellow travelers, and distinctions among the wings of the incipient movement were hard to make.
But as the movement gained disciples, infighting ensued, and the differences between its factions came into sharper relief. Some who once courted the approval of white supremacists and snickered over their ironic white-pride gestures now crave respectability; they have been swift to clarify that, hey, they were only kidding. Others have been swift to reaffirm that they meant just what they said. Paul Nehlen falls into the latter category, and he can now join MacDonald where both belong: in the sort of depressing hotel conference room where fans of Mein Kampf seek solace for their marginality at what amounts to a racialized cosplay convention.
As for Breitbart, well, its one-time support for a man like that is now proving embarrassing. Before, the amorphous nature of the alt-right — along with Milo’s devoted fans, Bannon’s position in the president’s inner circle, and the Mercer family’s deep pockets — allowed the site room to appeal to its readers’ basest impulses without consequence. Now, however, public pressure has forced it to declare Nehlen beyond the pale and cut ties with him. Coming from a website that vows not to be cowed by the mainstream media, that’s a significant concession.