Donald Trump has lowered the bar for political candidates in 2016. But Paul Nehlen, the political newcomer who's challenging Speaker of the House Paul Ryan in his Wisconsin congressional primary next week, is also challenging the reality TV star for the title of most extreme political candidate in the country.
Nehlen's long-shot primary campaign was vaulted into the national spotlight this week after Trump refused to endorse Ryan in his own primary, an almost unheard-of snub from a presidential nominee to a Speaker of the House from his own party. Now, it seems like Nehlen's strategy is in selling himself as a mini-Trump who's not afraid to be just as offensive and wacky.
So far, he's run one of the most Islamophobic campaigns in any high-profile election in recent memory. This week, he suggested on a Chicago radio show that the U.S. have a "discussion" about deporting all Muslim-Americans. "The question is, why do we have Muslims in the country?" he wondered aloud.
In the same interview, Nehlen also stated, “Islam is the only major religion that encourages lying,” and said he would approve of a loyalty test for Muslims in the country. And he attacked Ryan for daring to object to Trump's criticism of the family of slain U.S. soldier Humayun Khan.
Yesterday, he went on a 39-tweet rant, accusing Ryan of selling out veterans for undocumented immigrants and railing against "globalists," a conspiracy theorist codeword popularized by radio host Alex Jones:
Nehlen's national media appearances have taxed fact-checkers almost more than Trump's speeches. "We wouldn't even have borders if it was for Paul Ryan," he said in a recent CNN segment. The anchors interviewing him—whose facial expressions throughout the segment are priceless—had to note that he was wrong on almost ever other statement Nehlen made. "I'm pretty sure he's never said we should abolish borders, that would be a pretty extraordinary position to take," anchor John Berman said.
In addition to immigration and trade, he's also objected to any movement on criminal justice reform, accusing Ryan of supporting "the jail-break crime legislation that will release tens of thousands of people out of prison and make life difficult for all of us."
Nehlen's campaign so far has had some bumps on the road. During his first press conference in front of the national news media, his team apparently forgot a podium, leaving an aide to hold his speech in front of him.
Like Trump, Nehlen has tried to create a tough-guy image for himself. One campaign ad shows him riding around on a motorcycle in a sleeveless shirt and sunglasses to a hard rock soundtrack. At one point, he turns to the camera and shows off a large tattoo of a Game of Thrones-style knight's helmet on his shoulder. "Debate me, man to man, face to face, on the realities of TPP," Nehlen challenges Ryan, "and if you don't want to debate me, maybe we can arm-wrestle."
Nehlen's candidacy is one of the best examples of the "trickle-down racism" (as Mitt Romney put it) that Trump is causing in American politics. If Trump wasn't the Republican nominee and hadn't obliquely supported Nehlen's campaign (by not supporting Ryan's), he would likely never have made national news. But now, he's getting a much broader stage to air his Islamophobic rhetoric.
So far, Nehlen has attracted the endorsement of right-wing personalities like Sarah Palin, Ann Coulter, and Phyllis Schlafly. Meanwhile, Wisconsin's top Republican leaders aren't pleased with Trump over his awkward half-embrace of Nehlen. None will be attending a Trump rally in Green Bay today:
Still, it seems highly unlikely that Nehlen will unseat Ryan, who's represented this district since 1999 and is up by 66 points in the most recent independent poll released. One thing going for him, at least: he's got his hand motion game down.
Casey Tolan is a National News Reporter for Fusion based in New York City.