On Tuesday night, conservative provocateur Corey Stewart — a man who got fired from the Trump campaign in 2016 because he protested the Republican National Committee (RNC) for not supporting Trump enough — won the GOP nomination to face Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) in November. Immediately, liberals started calling Stewart — and the GOP in general — white supremacist.
“A cruder imitation of Donald Trump who stokes white supremacy and brags about being ‘ruthless and vicious,’ Corey Stewart would be an embarrassment for Virginia in the U.S. Senate,” Kaine’s communications director, Ian Sams, said in a statement Tuesday night.
The Intercept columnist Shaun King called Stewart a “flagrant white supremacist.”
Corey Stewart is an open bigot.
He is a flagrant white supremacist and has demonstrated this over and over again.
When Trump publicly supports such a man it sends clear signals to bigots everywhere that Trump has their back.
I see them saying this on message boards everywhere. https://t.co/YZE1fqZ8Fy
— Shaun King (@shaunking) June 13, 2018
Liberal social media guru Erick Fernandez described Stewart as “the guy from Minnesota who ran a strictly on a white supremacist ‘Confederate Statues’ campaign.” Fernandez said the election proved that “the GOP is a white supremacist party.”
The Washington Post‘s Jonathan Capehart joined in.
— Jonathan Capehart (@CapehartJ) June 13, 2018
Conservative Republicans in Virginia denounced Stewart, with many proclaiming they would never vote for him.
“I am a Virginia Republican. I’ve been a conservative all of my life. Let me be clear: I will never vote for Corey Stewart,” Autumn Price tweeted. “He is not a conservative.”
I am a Virginia Republican. I’ve been a conservative all of my life.
Let me be clear: I will never vote for Corey Stewart. He is not a conservative. He does not embody what it means to be a Virginia Republican.
And because of all of this, Tim Kaine will win again in November.
— Autumn Johnson (@AutumnDPJohnson) June 13, 2018
Bill Bolling, former lieutenant governor of Virginia, tweeted that Tuesday’s election proved “this is clearly not the Republican Party I once knew, loved and proudly served.”
I am extremely disappointed that a candidate like Corey Stewart could win the Republican nomination for U.S. Senate. This is clearly not the Republican Party I once knew, loved and proudly served. Every time I think things can’t get worse they do, and there is no end in sight.
— Bill Bolling (@lgbillbolling) June 13, 2018
Akash Chougule, director of policy at Americans for Prosperity (a conservative group that backed Stewart’s opponent Nick Freitas), exploded the idea that Stewart is the “MAGA candidate,” and warned that “there is only one reason anyone would vote for him, and it isn’t a good one.”
So many commentators have lobbed the charge that the Republican nominee for Senate in Virginia is a racist or white supremacist, but is it actually true? There are reasons to suspect it may be.
1. The way he defended Confederate symbols.
“Folks, this is a symbol of heritage. It is not a symbol of racism, it is not a symbol of slavery. I’m proud to be here with this flag,” Corey Stewart said as allies unrolled the Battle Flag of the Army of Northern Virginia at a rally during his 2017 race for Virginia governor.
The candidate took an uncompromisingly positive position about symbols of the Confederacy during last year’s campaign. Confederate symbols became a key issue in 2015, after a white supremacist killed nine people at a historically black church. The terrorist posed with the battle flag often referred to as the “Confederate flag.”
Following this terror attack, South Carolina removed the Confederate flag from its State House.
The movement against Confederate monuments picked up steam last August, as activists removed statues by force. President Donald Trump warned that the logic of striking down these monuments could lead to a slippery slope, with activists moving on from General Robert E. Lee to attacking Presidents George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. Indeed, events have borne that out.
It is one thing to oppose removing all the monuments. Corey Stewart went a good deal further, however.
“Nothing is worse than a Yankee telling a Southerner that his monuments don’t matter,” Stewart infamously tweeted. This seemed particularly ironic, given the fact he was born in Minnesota.
Nothing is worse than a Yankee telling a Southerner that his monuments don't matter.
— Corey Stewart (@CoreyStewartVA) April 25, 2017
Stewart got worse, however. When New Orleans removed the Battle of Liberty Place monument — a marker that once literally hailed “white supremacy” by name — he compared the city’s leadership to the Islamic State (ISIS).
“It appears ISIS has won. They are tearing down historical monuments in New Orleans now too. It must end. Despicable!” the candidate tweeted.
It appears ISIS has won. They are tearing down historical monuments in New Orleans now too. It must end. Despicable!https://t.co/hrO0cLozos
— Corey Stewart (@CoreyStewartVA) April 24, 2017
While ISIS did indeed strike down historic sites — barbarically destroying Iraq’s ancient heritage — the candidate chose this comparison at the worst possible time. He chose to lament the removal of a statue that praised “white supremacy” by name.
History is complicated, and there were true heroes who fought on the side of the Confederacy. That said, a dangerous movement seeks to valorize the Confederacy as a “Lost Cause” on par with America’s fight for independence from Britain. This movement overlooks and denies the clear facts that southern states withdrew from the Union to defend slavery, that Abraham Lincoln fought the expansion of slavery into the territories, and that the South left the Union only after it became clear its slavery expansionism would be checked.
It is one thing to defend historical monuments, but it is utterly something else to hail the Confederacy as a grand cause to be celebrated. Stewart arguably crossed that line.
2. “Unite the Right” connections…
Before the violent white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Stewart associated with the activists who would become notorious for organizing the rally.
When running for governor last year, Stewart hosted rallies in front of Confederate flags. At many of these rallies, activist Jason Kessler spoke. Kessler later became infamous as an organizer of the “Unite the Right” rally which sparked the white nationalist violence in Charlottesville.
Corey Stewart won his primary in Virginia to face off against Sen. Tim Kaine, eh?
Here's one of several photos of him with Jason Kessler, the white supremacist organizer of the "Unite the Right" rally in Charlottesville.
Folks are going to have fun with this one.
Lots of fun. pic.twitter.com/CRt9TBLsfc
— Daryle Lamont Jenkins (@DLamontJenkins) June 13, 2018
In Charlottesville, Kessler’s rally broke out into a tiki torch parade, with marchers chanting disgusting slogans like, “Jews will not replace us!” The next day, a white nationalist killed counter-protester Heather Heyer in a vehicular attack.
After Heyer’s death, Kessler tweeted, “Heather Heyer was a fat, disgusting Communist. Communists have killed 94 million. Looks like it was payback time.” His tweet also included a link to the notorious white supremacist website the Daily Stormer.
Kessler originally claimed his Twitter account had been hacked, but he later seemed to admit that he had sent the message himself in a haze of alcohol and prescription drugs. Even white nationalist leader Richard Spencer condemned Kessler’s tweet.
Stewart repudiated Kessler — earlier this month. “I don’t want his support,” Stewart told The Weekly Standard‘s John McCormack. “I didn’t know who he was when I met with him. And I only met with him twice. At that point I realized, this guy is bad news.”
How much did Stewart know about Kessler before Charlottesville? In February 2017, Kessler had defended statues of Robert E. Lee as having particular “ethnic significance to Southern white people.” In November 2016, he suggested whites adopted the Nazi label as a “term of endearment.” He warned that “Democrats are explicitly trying to flood white countries with nonwhite people.”
3. Paul Nehlen.
Also during his campaign for governor, Stewart paid Paul Nehlen $759 to rent his email list for fundraising. Video later surfaced showing Stewart praising Nehlen as one of his “personal heroes” and declaring that he was “inspired” by Nehlen’s challenge to House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wisc.).
Nehlen got himself banned from Twitter in February for using anti-Semitic language and for posting a photoshopped image of biracial actress Meghan Markle (now wife of Prince Harry). The tweet superimposed the face of Cheddar Man, a dark-skinned Mesolithic man believed to be one of the earliest humans in Britain, on Markle’s face. “Honey does this tie make my face look pale?” Nehlen disgustingly tweeted, with the image.
Paul Nehlen was banned from Twitter for putting a prehistoric dark-skinned face on Meghan Markle.
Corey Stewart called Nehlen his personal hero.
These are the people who represent the new GOP.
— Nick Jack Pappas (@Pappiness) June 13, 2018
While Steve Bannon once supported Nehlen, even Breitbart cut ties with him in December of last year following Nehlen’s anti-Semitic tweets.
Nehlen has also made disgusting comments about Muslims and immigration. While radical Islamic terrorism is indeed a threat, Nehlen went far overboard in calling for America to consider deporting all Muslims in the United States — in 2016, long before Stewart praised him. In February 2017, Nehlen even retweeted an image of a plane crashing into the World Trade Center with the caption, “9/11 would’ve been a Wonderful #DayWithoutImmigrants.”
Gov. Scott Walker (R-Wisc.) has attacked Nehlen’s rhetoric as “racist,” with good reason. Alec Zimmerman, spokesman for the Wisconsin Republican Party, said Nehlen “is not a member of the Republican Party of Wisconsin” and that “his ideas have no place in the Republican Party.”
Stewart recently deleted a tweet showing him and Nehlen together and declaring himself “so honored to have his support.”
And here's a now-deleted tweet where Corey Stewart is partying happily with Paul Nehlen, the white supremacist from Wisconsin. pic.twitter.com/bdGRMYXMgM
— Seth Cotlar (@SethCotlar) June 13, 2018
Shortly before the primary, Stewart told The Washington Post that he no longer considers Nehlen a hero. “That was before he went nuts and started spewing a bunch of stupid stuff,” Stewart said. “When he started saying all that crazy stuff, I wanted nothing to do with him after that.”
All the same, his previous association with Nehlen should give Republicans pause.
So, is he a white supremacist?
Ultimately, Corey Stewart is probably not actually a white supremacist. Henry Wiggins, the chairman of the Democratic Party in Prince William County, Va., got to the heart of the matter in an interview with POLITICO.
“I don’t believe Corey is a racist,” Wiggins said. “But he’ll do anything to get a vote.”
Stewart adopted a masculine, anti-establishment approach as Donald Trump rose in 2016. He doubled down on this approach during the 2017 governor’s race, attacking his opponent Ed Gillespie as a “cuckservative.”
To some degree, this may predate Trump’s success. Stewart bragged that he “was similar to Trump well before I joined his campaign. I’ve always been very bold, some would say brash. I’ve always said very edgy, controversial statements. And it’s part of the campaign strategy to attract media attention. I’ve done that forever.”
Stewart may not actually be a racist or a white supremacist, but he has used associations with disgusting people to draw attention to his campaign, and that populist style — championed by the likes of Steve Bannon — did indeed play a role in Trump’s election.
Stewart represents the crass opportunism of populist politics. He has proven himself willing to associate with racists, anti-Semites, and the “lost cause” myth to get ahead, and these are dangerous temptations for the Republican Party.
The backlash against Stewart did suggest, however, that this kind of brash populism flirting with white supremacy is still utterly anathema to a broad swath of Virginia Republicans. Strangely, Stewart’s success came from Northern Virginia — a heavily Democratic area. Virginia holds open primaries, and Tim Kaine ran unopposed, which means that Democrats had an incentive to cross party lines and choose the least palatable Republican to face Kaine in the general election.
Stewart won with 44.9 percent of the vote, quite a bit less than a majority. He received just over 5,000 votes more than Nick Freitas, the candidate endorsed by Sens. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and Mike Lee (R-Utah), FreedomWorks, AFP, and many others. Stewart may have won, but he does not represent all Virginia Republicans.
Republicans in Virginia will have to decide whether a slight chance at defeating Tim Kaine is worth voting for Corey Stewart. In all likelihood, Stewart will alienate so many Republicans that Kaine will win in an even larger landslide than he has before. Stewart will fight hard to disassociate himself from white supremacy, but it may be too late.
Democrats will continue to brand Republicans with the specter of Charlottesville until it is no longer effective. Stewart’s victory — and Trump’s endorsement of him — tragically opened up those arguments once again.
Last year, Democrats attacked Ed Gillespie’s governor campaign as “the most racist campaign in Virginia history.” As is so often the case with Democrats, they were crying wolf. Gillespie beat Stewart last year, but now Stewart represents what the Democrats so feared. Now, only Republicans can have the credibility to attack Stewart as beyond the pale.