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Why are these politicians smiling next to white nationalists?

by Carter Sherman
Aug 15 2017, 6:54pm

After violence erupted Saturday at a white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, a photo started circulating on social media showing Republican Rep. Tom Garrett of Virginia standing next to a smiling Jason Kessler — the man who organized Saturday’s “Unite the Right” rally.

Garrett quickly denounced Kessler, telling Fox News that he had no idea who Kessler was when he met with him. But Garrett isn’t the only politician who’s ended up associating with the white nationalists and supremacists who attended the far-right rally — unwittingly or not. And while very few politicians tend to come into contact with such extremists, that status quo seems likely to be upended, as white nationalists and supremacists intensify their efforts to inject their ideas into mainstream politics.

“That [2016] election campaign unleashed some really bad demons in our society, and it emboldened these people that we saw in Charlottesville to think that they’re part of the system,” Heidi Beirich, who studies hate groups at the Southern Poverty Law Center, told VICE News.

Photo ops like Garrett’s can sometimes just happen — Garrett told Fox News that meeting unsavory constituents of his district, which includes Charlottesville, is an “occupational hazard.” (When asked for comment, Garrett’s team directed VICE News to his Fox News appearance.) Politicians can also get caught up at a public event and fail to properly vet the people they’re standing next to. That’s what Nevada Sen. Dean Heller, a Republican, said happened to him, after a photo began circulating showing him standing next to Peter Cvjetanovic — a college student who confirmed to the Reno Gazette-Journal that he was both a white nationalist and had attended the Saturday march.

This is a pic of him (on the far right) with @SenDeanHeller pic.twitter.com/1HFJPiGBOQ

A spokesperson for Heller did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Then, at the other end of the spectrum, are the politicians who seem to confirm Beirich’s fears and actually court the white nationalist and supremacist vote. Former Virginia Rep. Virgil Goode, who served in Congress from 1997 to 2008, spoke at a March event for Kessler’s organization Unity and Security for America, according to the group’s Facebook page. Goode could not be reached for comment.

Corey Stewart, who is currently running for Tim Kaine’s Senate seat, has repeatedly appeared at events with Kessler, having made the preservation of the state’s Confederate monuments the linchpin of his failed gubernatorial campaign last year. (He very nearly won the Republican nomination, losing by just over one percentage point.) He told the Washington Post Sunday that he hadn’t talked to Kessler recently, saying, “He does his own thing.”

As of Sunday, though, Stewart was the only Virginian politician of either party not to condemn white nationalists. Instead, he blamed “half the violence” on Saturday counterprotesters.

“From my perspective,” he told Breitbart, “there were a lot of left-wing agitators who violently attacked citizens who were trying to espouse their views last night and today.”

A spokesperson for Stewart’s campaign initially told VICE News that the campaign would like to make a comment for this story, but did not respond to additional inquiries.

Noah Kulwin contributed reporting.