CHARLOTTESVILLE — After defending Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee and calling for the ouster of an African-American official who had posted offensive tweets about women and white people, Republican gubernatorial candidate Corey Stewart sat and listened Thursday as his newfound allies explained their belief that America should welcome immigrants from Western countries but keep out people from the Middle East.
Stewart’s host for the event in downtown Charlottesville was Unity & Security for America, a newly formed right-wing group that describes its mission as “defending Western Civilization including its history, culture and peoples while utterly dismantling Cultural Marxism.”
Next to that credo on the group’s website is an image of a frog and the phrase “Kek is with us,” a reference to a frog-headed Egyptian deity of chaos and darkness that’s become a satirical godhead for devotees of the alt-right, the loosely defined far-right movement linked to white nationalism and the idea that white identity is under attack by liberals and multiculturalism.
For Jason Kessler, the 33-year-old writer and journalist behind the group, the chief liberal offender in Charlottesville is Wes Bellamy, the city’s black vice mayor who has pushed for the removal of a Confederate statute from a prominent city park.
Last year, Kessler, who denies the alt-right label, revealed on his blog that Bellamy had posted a litany of misogynistic and homophobic slurs and anti-white comments on Twitter before being elected to the Charlottesville City Council in 2015. In one tweet, Bellamy called white women “the devil.” In another, he retweeted a different user who said “if she moan it aint rape” while describing a sexual act on a sleeping woman.
Though Bellamy apologized, the scandal cost him his post on the Virginia Board of Education and his teaching job at Albemarle High School.
Stewart, chairman of the Prince William Board of County Supervisors and known for his tough stance against illegal immigration, has put the racially charged controversy in Charlottesville at the forefront of his campaign.
After the City Council voted to remove a statue of Lee from a prominent city park, Stewart — President Donald Trump’s former Virginia campaign chairman — went to the city last weekend to rally in support of the monument and was thronged by protesters who attempted to shout him down. He plans to go back next week for another rally, this time on the steps of City Hall.
As he tries to climb the polls in the Republican primary against former Republican National Committee Chairman Ed Gillespie; state Sen. Frank W. Wagner, R-Virginia Beach; and distillery owner Denver Riggleman, Stewart has tried several attention-grabbing tactics, including giving away an assault rifle to a supporter in a Christmas raffle.
But by getting involved so eagerly with the Charlottesville unrest, Stewart runs the risk, much like Trump did in his populist campaign, of associating himself with ideas well outside the Republican mainstream.
With Stewart by his side, Kessler delivered petition signatures Thursday to the local courthouse in an attempt to have a judge kick Bellamy off the City Council.
“He and his ilk have targeted all the Founding Fathers, philosophers, artists and other leaders of our glorious Western civilization for abuse and smears,” Kessler said of Bellamy. The Lee statue, he said, is a cultural artifact of “ethnic significance to Southern white people.”
A few days after Nazi salutes were raised last November at a D.C. conference hosted by the National Policy Institute, a group led by prominent alt-right figure Richard Spencer, Kessler suggested on Twitter that whites had adopted the Nazi label as a “term of endearment.”
In an interview, Kessler said he doesn’t support white nationalism. The frog images, he said, are an allusion to “youth culture” that can be appropriated by anyone, not just the alt-right. Strong borders, patriotism and nationalism, he said, increase diversity by creating “distinct peoples” and countries with “unique ethnic character.”
“I do think that the Democrats are explicitly trying to flood white countries with nonwhite people,” Kessler said.
Charlottesville City Council member Kristin Szakos, a Democrat who voted to remove the statue, said Kessler’s online writings are “very clearly aligned with the white nationalist movement.”
“I think it’s a mistake for a gubernatorial candidate who would want to be elected to represent the entire state to side with that political organization,” Szakos said. She said she finds it “a little bizarre” that a candidate for governor would spend so much time on a local matter to begin with.
At Thursday’s news conference, Stewart distanced himself from Kessler’s group’s views on immigration, saying he was only there to endorse removing Bellamy and keeping the Lee statue. In an interview, Stewart said he’s not sure what the term alt-right means, but said he won’t refuse support from people who hold views he disagrees with.
“I don’t expect that all my supporters are going to agree with everything that I believe. And I don’t think that my supporters expect that I’m going to support everything that they believe,” Stewart said. “That’s just the way it is. If you want a candidate who believes in everything you do, you’ve got to run for office yourself.”
As he spoke to Kessler and his supporters, Stewart praised the group for what he called a courageous stand against “real racism.”
“We’re going to get this guy, this lunatic out of office,” Stewart said. “We’re going to take our state back.”
Bellamy did not respond to a request for comment.
When a man in the crowd called out to Stewart to ask if he’d undo Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s decision to stop issuing specialty license plates with the Confederate flag for Sons of Confederate Veterans members, Stewart said he would.
“If somebody wants to put the Confederate flag on their license plate, so be it. That’s their First Amendment freedom,” Stewart said. “I don’t see it as a symbol of hate at all. I think it’s a symbol of our heritage.”