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After the death of George Floyd following an encounter with Minneapolis police, Allendale United Methodist Church in St. Petersburg changed its sign to protest racial inequality. Photo credit: © Tampa Bay Times via ZUMA Wire

As Republicans are increasingly comfortable with echoing the ideas and talking points of white nationalists, Democrats see an opportunity.

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What do you do when your political opponents are increasingly embracing white supremacist talking points and you believe that this will hurt them with moderates and independents? That is the situation Democrats are finding themselves in. And their solution is simple: Keep bringing up the issue and make GOP lawmakers take a stand. 

By putting their Republican colleagues on the spot, Democrats are trying to capitalize on recent election results and trends that show this lurch toward extremism does not play well with voters… even moderate Republicans

“There are other Republicans I’m sure who are not happy with the direction the party has taken. That’s true within some of the leadership but also among rank and file Republican voters,” said Matthew Lyons, an author and researcher who has been writing on the American far-right movement for over 20 years. “Some of those folks may have become independents or even gone over to the Democrats.” 

One recent example in which Democrats sought to highlight the GOP’s refusal to condemn white supremacist ideologies was a letter Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-MD), the ranking member of the House Oversight Committee, circulated among his colleagues on the panel. It called on committee members to “denounce white nationalism and white supremacy in all its forms, including the ‘Great Replacement’ conspiracy theory.” None of the 26 Republican committee members signed the statement.

The Great Replacement refers to a far-right conspiracy theory alleging there is a deliberate plot to “replace” white populations and culture through non-white immigration and diversity advocacy. The theory has been referenced by the perpetrators of numerous mass shootings and acts of terrorism.  

“The Great Replacement is now considered a main GOP talking point, so for Republicans to denounce it risks alienating the MAGA base, which is not a good look in the lead-up to 2024,” said Ben Lorber, a researcher of white supremacy and antisemitism at Political Research Associates, a think tank specializing in research on the far right. 

“The organized white nationalist movement is still a vibrant threat … but it has decreased in momentum. At the same time its ideas have moved to the centerpiece of GOP discourse.” — Ben Lorber. 

Recent polling suggests that a majority of Republican voters subscribe to the ideology behind the Great Replacement theory, which was not the case several years ago, Lorber pointed out.   

“The kind of dividing line that there has traditionally been between mainstream politics and the far right has, while not completely gone, become much more permeable,” Lyons said, citing the January 6 attack on the Capitol and the Stop the Steal movement. 

“[Republican Committee Members] may not necessarily believe in [white supremacist ideology] but they are comfortable with it to the degree that they are happy to take support from people who are committed to that point of view,” Lyons said, adding that refusing to sign the letter “is a political calculation by these leaders that this is going to help them maintain power within the party and through the party.”

While Republicans have reasons not to condemn white supremacy, raising the issue is a political tool for Democrats. 

“On the Democrats’ side, presenting a letter and calling on Republicans to sign it was also about trying to play to the Democratic party base, and they want to frame the political conflict in Washington as a struggle between democracy and authoritarianism, between inclusivity and hate; it’s a very simplified picture they want to present,” Lyons said. 

Raskin’s decision to circulate the letter was motivated by comments made at a hearing on the border crisis. During that hearing, according to Raskin, “Several Committee Republicans invoked dangerous and conspiratorial rhetoric echoing the racist and nativist tropes peddled by white supremacists and right-wing extremists.”

For example, Rep. Lauren Boebert (R-CO) said that “there is an invasion happening at our southern border,” going on to claim that “this is intentional” on the part of President Joe Biden and Democratic lawmakers. Similarly, Rep. Paul Gosar (R-AZ) stated that Biden planned to “deliberately open our borders and cede power to the cartels,” then suggested that the aim of the current administration’s border policy was “changing our culture.”

A spokesperson for the Oversight Committee Republicans called Raskin’s letter “shameful” in a statement to Newsweek, going on to say that “Democrats are trying to distract from President Biden’s border crisis and their failure to conduct oversight of it for two years.”

Republican committee members further downplayed threats posed by white supremacist and far right extremism in general. 

“We don’t have a white supremacy problem, we have an illegal immigration problem,” said a spokesperson for Rep. Anna Paulina Luna (R-FL).

Please Donate to WhoWhatWhyEvidence, however, contradicts that statement. According to the Anti-Defamation League’s (ADL) H.E.A.T. Map, which tracks incidents of hate-based extremism/terrorism in the United States, there has been a dramatic rise in hate-based extremism incidents, with an increase from 3,055 incidents in 2019 to a peak of 6,011 incidents in 2022. Furthermore, a new report by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) found that domestic terrorism-related cases increased more than 350 percent between 2013 and 2021. Three-quarters of extremism-related murders in the past 10 years were also found to be committed by right-wing extremists, according to new ADL data.

Raskin’s letter is not the only recent instance of Democrats proposing to take steps against white supremacy and Republicans resisting these efforts.Texas Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D) introduced the Leading Against White Supremacy Act of 2023 (LAWS) in January, which seeks  to “prevent and prosecute white supremacy-inspired hate crime.” Figures across the political right have met Jackson Lee’s efforts with aggressive pushback.

The LAWS Act has triggered a harsh backlash from leading conservative figures, spurring others across the political right to follow suit. Popular right-wing political commentator and Fox News host Tucker Carlson dedicated an entire segment of his show to attacking the bill, where he accused Jackson Lee of “leveling a racial attack” and “a blood libel” against “an entire group of Americans.” 

Carlson’s objections were also echoed by Boebert, who tweeted that Democrats are “making a mockery of the First Amendment.” Boebert could not be reached for comment. 

Open white supremacists have also made their position against the LAWS Act known, taking to social media to express their anger against Jackson Lee and her proposed legislation. 

The Aryan Freedom Network, a neo-Nazi group with chapters across the country, posted the addresses of Jackson Lee’s offices, urging followers to “let her know your thoughts.” A number of other white supremacist networks have also railed against the LAWS Act, claiming it is part of a broader conspiracy to replace white identity, a central tenet of the Great Replacement theory.

“The organized white nationalist movement is still a vibrant threat … but it has decreased in momentum,” Lorber said. “At the same time its ideas have moved to the centerpiece of GOP discourse.”

This is a problem of their own making for Republicans. The far-right candidates backed by former President Donald Trump generally have done well in primaries, but they have underperformed in general elections, as the 2022 midterms have shown. It stands to reason that Democrats will increasingly seek to exploit this vulnerability leading up to next year’s presidential election.


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